Saturday, October 30, 2004

My sole U.S. Election related blog piece.

I think Kerry will win. By at least 300 EVs.

UPDATE: I was so wrong. As went Ohio, so did the United States. Bush now has 4 more years in power. My prediction skills need serious tinkering.

I'm not happy with the result. When Howard won the Aussie election, I was content with the fact that he was competent.

I'm going to give politics a break for now. There's doesn't look like there's going to be any important elections in the near future...

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Kipling Revisited

George Orwell on Rudyard Kipling:

And yet the ‘Fascist’ charge has to be answered, because the first clue to any understanding of Kipling, morally or politically, is the fact that he was not a Fascist. He was further from being one than the most humane or the most ‘progressive’ person is able to be nowadays. An interesting instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the line from ‘Recessional’, ‘Lesser breeds without the Law’. This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the ‘lesser breeds’ are ‘natives’, and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase ‘lesser breeds’ refers almost certainly to the Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are ‘without the Law’ in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German...

...No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘Law’, there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in. Kipling’s outlook is prefascist. He still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish hubris. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and the secret police, or their psychological results.

With that said, the following poem appears less a parody of Kipling that a fair paraphrase of his views for the 2000s. The best (i.e., least timely) stanzas are:

Take up the Wrong Man’s burden—
Bear up under the curse
Of recognizing danger
And having made it worse.
Don’t let a guilty conscience,
Or pesky truths or facts,
Persuade ye of the error
Of misplaced counter-attacks.

(From The Yankee Pot Roast, via Crooked Timber.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Good games never die - they just get ported to another system.

Some readers may remember the old PC game "Lemmings". You have tens of little not-so-bright goblins, and you need to lead them to the promised land. By themselves, they'll just keep walking in the same direction - whether off cliff faces or into pools lava. Fortunately, you can choose some of them to build bridges or act as blockers. It's not really a shoot-em up game, although sometimes things get violent. You could choose one to be an "exploder" and self-detonate...

Well, someone has decided to remake it as DHTML. That's right: as HTML plus a little bit of Javascript to get the little critters going. Not only that, but he's recreated the 40 levels I remember from visiting other folk's houses. Did someone have access to the original source code (which is presumably in C), or did he try to recreate the game from scratch? If the former, then I'm impressed; if the latter, then I'm really impressed. The look-and-feel is absolutely spot on. And one reason that I haven't been blogging lately is that I'm temporarily hooked: 33 levels down and 7 to go to date.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

English snafus from those who should know better.

Rixstep have a banner add from AOL. To cut to the chase, it reads: "Know who's calling you when your online" Can you spot the mistake?

The same boo-boo was made by one of the local brauhauses while advertising for "English Teacher's Night Happy Hour". The sentence that stuck in my head was "Your all invited." Good: a quick way of annoying your target demographic. Or was it a teacher who organized the function? "A disgrace to the profession!", I thought at the time. The reality was not much better: a manager of New Zealand origin. I'm easy on foreigners who make grammar mistakes, but condenscending of the native speakers who do the same.

Just so we understand: "your" is a possesive pronoun, used in sentences like "This is your pen." "You're" is a contraction of "You are", and should have been used in the AOL banner.

No, I never went to the happy hour. Glasses of beer were being targeted at the extra low-low price of "15,000 VNĐ". Good, except that you can get longnecks of beer at many restaurants for 7,000. I always thought the idea of a happy hour is that you can get your beer cheaper than elsewhere..."

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Election News: Howard Trumps In

There were grim faces among most of my Australian work mates: John Howard gets his fourth election victory. Most, I said. "S", a woman close to my mother's age was quite happy about it, but as she admits, she's from rural W.A. Most of the others tend to be younger and loathe Howard instinctively. But the real reason that Howard won was economics, rather than "values" or "mores": a nice economic climate makes you stick with The Devil You Know. Iraq got hardly a mention. Instead, the punters think that Howard (and by extension, the Liberals) are better economic managers than the Latham Labor crowd.

But are they right? Troppo Armadillo thinks not:

The irony is that Howard's reputation as a good economic manager is at the very least dubious and extremely vulnerable to attack.

Apart from the GST and initial "first wave" IR policies, Howard has tackled little in the way of meaningful economic reform during his 8 years in power, contenting himself with piggybacking on the economic reform hard yards previously gained by Hawke and Keating. He's allowed dangerously high private debt levels and a distorting housing "price bubble" to develop; done nothing to prevent manufacturing industry from stagnating; and failed to foster education, training, industry R & D or capital investment, or productive public infrastructure (except the Darwin-Alice Springs railway). Meanwhile, Howard spent up big during the election campaign on an orgy of cynical, wasteful, economically stupid pork-barrelling promises.

The problem is that people with mortgages can live with high debt levels if the interest rates are low. Interest rates go up, and the credit cards are going to be seriously burnt. As John Quiggin points out:

As for the Liberals, they'll have an interesting time of it, I think. They've made expensive promises, which will be hard to keep and costly to repudiate. And their credibility is now completely tied to low interest rates, something over which they have no real control.

I expect a backlash against the Coalition if this happens. Then again, I expected a slight Labor victory, so what would I know?

I heard that George W. Bush rang Howard to support him. I guess that Howard will return the favour and ring Dubya. However, I wonder if Howard is secretly praying for a John Kerry victory. If Bush wins again, expect large increases in government deficit and private debt over the next four years to bite the U.S on the ass. We would probably see a nasty recession flowing from the U.S. to Australia - Howard's greatest fear. Kerry may not do better than Bush, but he cannot do worse.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

What I'm using: NVU

For a variety of reasons (including flexibility) I like to write my blogs in HTML. Moreover, I like to write my pieces outside the Blogger interface. One reason is that it can be very slow to get a respose from the site, and since I'm often revising my pieces, the lag time can be almost unbearable. So I found myself looking for a new HTML editor. And I've found one: NVU (pronounced "N-view" for "new view"). It bills itself as "A complete Web Authoring System for Linux Desktop users as well as Microsoft Windows users to rival programs like FrontPage and Dreamweaver." Using NVU, I can write pieces on my machine (as I am doing with this one). If I am not satisfied, or if the network is down, I can save it. When I'm finally satisfied, I paste them, and a new blog post is born.

I should say how I discovered NVU. In the last year, I've eschewed all of the Microsoft "Internet" programs - Internet Explorer and Outlook Whtever - in favour of Mozilla products. Or to be exact, the separate downloads of Firefox and Thurderbird, rather the the whole Mozilla suite (all 11 MB of it). There are many reason for this: Firefox and Thunderbird are far more secure than their IE equivalents, and in my opinion better designed. Popup-blocking and tabbed browsing also make Firefox far easier to use. However, I didn't feel like downloading the whole Mozilla suite: I just wanted the products that I would use. The disadvantage is that I missed out on "Mozilla Composer": a HTML editor that comes with the suite.

A little bit of Googling found that MC isn't being maintained. Some more revealed that Linspire decided to play with the code base of MC, and try to make a standalone usable editor out of it. That editor became NVU. Possibly the Linspire chaps will eventually roll the source back into the Mozilla Composer tree. Few things are unpredictable, especially when open-source code is invaolved.

Do I like it? Yes, I do: at version .41 it is already easy to use. While a little buggy at times (see below), it has never crashed. It is a WYSIWYG ("What-you-see-is-what-you-get") editor, so it is easy to enter the simple stuff: bold, italic, bullets, and so on. But it also doesn't overcomplicate the markup like FrontPage and Dreamweaver can do: introduce ugly bloated HTML that works only on one browser and OS. Yes, you can turn this off (and I have done that with FrontPage), but you have to know what you are looking for. Most users aren't even aware. The thing about NVU is that the defaults are towards producing simple and elegant HTML. I like my HTML simple and elegant. I don't even need to worry about styles or fonts. That's what Blogger tenplates are for.

One thing that won me over is how the product seamlessly handles entering Unicode text - the modern standard for entering multi-lingual text. Type in Vietnamese? No worries. I can even insert Chinese. The whole Unicode thing is what soured me on the last HTML editor I used: HTML-Kit. Apart from a little hard to use "Enter UTF-8" interface, it had virtually no support for Unicode. Nor does there seem to be any move in that direction - the last build was in 2002. Sorry, but that isn't good enough for my needs. HTML (and Blogger) handles it; why can't it?

NVU doesn't directly connect to Blogger: you need to copy the HTML source and paste it by hand. I am content with that. If you choose to do the same, just remember - only paste the source inside (but not including) the <BODY>...</BODY> tags. Forget this admonition, and you may get into a World of Hurt. Be careful.

Is it perfect? By no means. There are some problems with the WYSIWYG interface.

  1. The first is that it seems to want to include "<br>" tags just before every closing tag. It introduces too much space between paragraphs, making the post look ungainly. I like to group paragraphs by <p>...</p> tags, so I don't need these <br>s cluttering the code. Providing an option to turn off this feature would be appreciated. There is a "markup cleaner" tool which should remove them all, but apparently doesn't.
  2. One more serious problem is that if you delete stuff, occasionally you get empty tags like "<>" and "</>". These things are illegitimate HTML. They should never be in your source. This is an bug that needs to be fixed.

But if I deduct 2 points for the aforementioned bugs, I would give it 8 out of 10. That's enough to use it for the time being. Doubtlessly new bugs will arise, and will be corrected. Over time, the version will move closer and closer to 1.0. That's all that I want from software: to do what I want without getting in the way. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Engrish and its reverse

Everybody is familiar with the phenomenon of "Engrish", even if they aren't familiar with the word itself. "Engrish" is just English - albeit with "obvious" mistakes in grammar, and the odd misspelled word. People encounter them in instruction manuals, or in video games or (if you travel abroad) even in signs or pamphlets by government or commercial companies. 

Witness the scare quotes around "obvious"? Well, they may be "obvious" to native English speakers, and (less commonly) to other Indo-European speakers. But these mistakes aren't bloody obvious to others on this globe - many of whom live in Asia. Trust me: I'm an English teacher. It's hard enough to get students to use the right verb structure depending on whether the subject is singular or plural. We're talking about "I was..." versus "they were". When they've got this rule in their head, then they're confronted with the apparent counter-case of "everybody was". And articles - the grief that students go through to understand these strange beasts of "a/an" and "the".

In most circumstances, I can tolerate Engrish. As a teacher, I encounter it everyday. I do try and correct it (that's part of my job), but I always anticipate it. However, seeing the same thing from companies is a bit of a worry.

I am in a relationship with a director of a graphic design company over here. Many of her clients want their brochures, paraphernalia, business cards and other sundry materials printed in English as well as Vietnamese. Foreign clients are always appreciated. However, it is always distressing to see how many elementary translation mistakes there are. That's why I asked - nay, insisted - that any English writing she lays out is run past  me for a look-see. Generally, the small start-ups can't afford a translator, so they ask an employee or a mate who "knows" English, but isn't exactly fluent in it. The result can be a disaster. For example, adjectives go after the noun in Vietnamese, and the translator sometimes carries this into his English. Generally, my role is to look over their attempt, and try to clean up their mistakes in grammar, spelling, and (all too often), punctuation. Usually, the client understands this. And if they balk, and decide to go with their problematic original attempt - well, it's their ass. But most want to do their best, and good luck to them.

The phenomenon of "Engrish" - like many other trends - started in Japan, as can be seen on Since Japan is so much richer than Việt Nam, and correspondingly more able to handle translation expenses, there must be other reasons that Engrish is so widespread there. According to its FAQ

Most of the Engrish found on is not an attempt to communicate - English is used as a design element in Japanese products and advertising to give them a modern look and feel (or just to "look cool"). There is often no attempt to try to get it right, nor do the vast majority of the Japanese population (= consumers) ever attempt to read the English design element in question (the girl wearing the “Spread Beaver” shirt for example, had no idea what it said until a foreigner pointed it out to her). There is therefore less emphasis on spell checking and grammatical accuracy...

Aah, yes: pretension. That's an reason I understand very well, if not that sympathetic to. There's definitely a "cool factor" with English among the Vietnamese youth, albeit reduced - both languages share the same Latin alphabet. But pretension is certainly widespread among Westerners. So could you foresee the reverse thing happening among the would-be trend setter of an English-speaking persuasion? Think carefully. There's a reason I split the quoted paragraph in two:

...(note: the same can be said for the addition of Japanese or Chinese characters to hats, shirts and tattoos found in the US or Europe).

If you answered "yes", two thumbs up for understanding your fellow humans. This brings me to the fine site of hanzi smatter : 一知半解: "Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Han Zi; or 汉字) in Western culture." Grammar mistakes are common, but  the pathetic thing is that the ideograms are often upside-down, reversed, or missing a few strokes. That's one quantum leap beyond your simple spelling mistake! Examples are given from T-shirt, techno, and even tattoos. Even those who should know better are guilty, as can be seen from the front-cover for the Lonely Planet Guide Book for China. Then there's the sad case of some hefty Aussie lad walking around with the ideograms for Dishonour before Death on his arm. I think that wasn't his attention.

My father told me about this a few years ago. He used to work at a large Japanese computing firm, and even went to the trouble of learning Japanese. (Japanese shares quite a few ideograms with Chinese.) Because of this, he knew that some of the ideographic tattoos visible at the local gym weren't what they purported to be. He pointed this out once to one cockuped-tattoo-bearing woman bearing the Chinese for "Dream" or "Peace" or "Smile" or similar sentiment. She was extremely unappreciative. Could it be because she was indifferent to this, could it be because she knew she had been conned, or could it be because she thought she was insulted?

I don't know. Dad isn't an insulting guy. But it's a little disturbing how little thought people put into adding something "New Agey" permanently to your skin, and making a mess of it. A little bit of pre-checking would have saved a lot of (literal) pain - but like a lot of the New Age, illusion - or pretension - trumps reality. Being me, I'm less tolerant to this kind of mistake than the Engrish produced by the companies and administrations of Việt Nam. At least the later are trying to put food on their dinner table, and I'm not going to begrudge them for their mistakes in the sometimes difficult grammar of English.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Going to Vote At the Consulate

An (my girlfriend) has been having a bit of hassle with hospitals of late. She's been asked to have an operation, and yet keeps getting turned away because her health isn't good enough  for the procedure. Talk about a catch-22 situation. This left us with three hours to kill on Monday morning. Since voting started that day, I decided to take her down to the Australian consulate and show how my electoral system works.

Getting off at the 5th floor of the Tôn Đức Thắng building, I noticed security was tight. Normally there are a few government guys in green with automatic rifles patrolling outside the consulate, or quietly observing at the end of the corridor. (The consulate is a series of office apartments inside the building itself, rather than a self-contained enclosure like the American consulate.) You don't bother the Men in Green, and they don't bother you. This time, they were hand-held metal detecting anyone who turned up on the floor. Understandable, given the  Jakarta bombing that happened earlier in that month. I was swept, I had to remove my wallet and key rings, and then I was swept again. Found clean, we went on my way to the voting room.

To my surprise, there were quite a few people in there. There was the odd backpacker. There were a few long term expats like myself. But there were also a lot of Vietnamese as well - locals who had got Australian citizenship, and with that, a place on the roll. To them, one official - the lady who was handing out pre-poll envelopes and ballot papers -  was patiently explaining how voting works, and without indicating who they should vote for. On the House of Representatives ballot paper: "You pick your favourite candidate, and number them 1, You then number everyone else. You have to number every box. No ticks or crosses are allowed." On the Senate, she recommended they choose one candidate above the line, and tick that.

It's a hard job to do: explain the ballot process clearly and concisely to people whose first language isn't English - and at the same time be politically neutral. But the lady (presumably from the AEC) was doing it all the time, and hats off to her. She had a lot of pride in what she was doing, and so she should. Joking with her (while no-one was around), I stated "It's not like you can say 'You want to put Pauline Hanson last.'" Getting the joke, she replied cheerfully "No, I can't say that". Utterly professional and at the same time with a sense of humour - we had here the cream of the Australian Public Service.

The first thing I needed to do was fill in the pre-poll envelope - put my Australian address on the back. Having done that, I showed it to the woman, and she gave me the ballot papers. I asked An to come along to the polling booth, and show her how I voted.

So how did I vote? I have my little algorithm. First, I decide who to vote last. Next, I decide who to vote first. Finally, I fill in the remainder. For the House of Representatives, I relegated the Loony Lyndon LaRouche-influenced Citizen's Electoral Council to number 6, followed by the Fundamentalist Family First Fist Fuckers at number 5. Step 1 sorted. Step 2 had the Greens at  number 1, Democrats at  number 2 and the ALP at number 3. That left the Liberals at number 4. Ballot paper 1 was finished in a minute.

Now the house of representatives ballot was small: about 8 centimetres by 15. Easy to fill in. The Senate ballot paper was something else again: about 20 cm tall by (get this) 60 or 80 cm wide. (These are approximations going on memory, so don't trust what I say about this too much. But you did have to fold out the Senate paper to use it.) The explanation for this size was the fact that there were 50 candidates for the Queensland senate, each organized in party lists. Now I prefer to vote under the line and number every individual Senate candidate, rather than vote above the line and go with the party preferences. The advantage is that I got to vote Pauline Hanson last. The disadvantage is that ballot paper 2 took a little bit longer at 7 minutes. Since you don't want a blow-by-blow of every candidate, let's just say that my senate preferences resembled what I did on the House of Representatives: the centre-left Greens and Democrats first, and the right-wing nutcases last. I did go out of the way to give an extra low vote to George Brandis of the Liberals since he's been going out of the way to call the Greens "Fascists". Prat. 

Once I was satisfied with my vote (making sure I numbered every box), I put both the ballot papers in the pre-poll envelope. I popped that in the ballot box. Sorted.

To finish up, I want to note one other difference about overseas voting. When you go to vote in Australia, thousands (okay, five or six) of Partei People are waving their "How-To-Vote" papers in your face. There were none of them around the consulate. I doubt the security people would have let them in. However, there were "How-to-vote" booklets left on a table from the Liberal Party. Pretty hefty ones: 40 cm by 30 cm, and about 40 pages thick. They were in a pile on a little table off from the main corridor, on the way to the toilets. They gave the way to vote for every Senate and House of Representatives election in Australia. None of the other parties had their material present.

Now the leaflets were located outside of the Consulate itself, and certainly outside of the voting room before. But their presence was strange. It costs a lot to mail or carry leaflets into Việt Nam - unless you are going by diplomatic pouch. The leaflets could have been printed locally, and that would have been cheaper, but I saw no evidence of that. The Liberals are spending a bit of money to win this election.