Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry XMAS to All

Because it needs to be said. Good night.

A not-so-short review of Dan Brown's "Digital Fortress"

Sometimes, certain authors produce books which are interchangeable. Occasionally, they go one step further, where the reviews of their books are almost interchangeable. Here's Language Log on Dan Brown's The Davinci Code:

Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad. In some passages scarcely a word or phrase seems to have been carefully selected or compared with alternatives. I slogged through 454 pages of this syntactic swill, and it never gets much better. Why did I keep reading?

And here's me on his Digital Fortress: "Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggering, clumsily, thoughtlessly... etc.," and so on to the question: "Why did I keep reading?" At this point, Language Log and myself diverge.

LL was on a trip to London from San Francisco, with only banal flight magazines as the reading alternative. It's an maddening experience, I know, but at 15 hours top, relatively fleeting. But in Sài Gòn, good English fiction is rare. - and after a couple of months, you feel the lack.

You can ship your books over here, but that costs money. You can borrow it from the generous, but it helps if they have good taste in reading as well. You can buy it from the photocopied booksellers, but I think Ben Elton and Michael Moore are better scriptwriters than authors. Finally, you can read the books left behind by visitors. There are the second hand bookshops for the detritus of unsatisfied backpackers, and departing teachers sometimes leave their books behind as well. There are gems in castoffs: that's how I got my hands on some Ian Rankin novels. But more likely than not, books are left behind because people decide they aren't worth carrying back, such as Dan Brown's "Digital Fortress".

Yes, the style is bad - unnervingly bad. It provides a good example of the "No-Style style" decried in the Washington Post piece Plotting Along: "Flat. Straightforward. Prose drained of all primp, prance and poetry. Sometimes the authors write in long, plodding paragraphs. More often, they use short-spurt grafs. Sometimes in choppy sentence fragments. Other times with no verbs. Or maybe. Single. Words." But also (as is common with most of the "no-style style" authors) the characterization is appalling. You have your good people, and your bad people and occasionally your bad people masquerading as good people. The heroine is an überwomen (with a 170 IQ and "good legs"), but surprisingly unmemorable. Cliches like the "pizza-eating geek" are common (without any implication that cheese and keyboards don't mix). The most interesting thing I remember is that the assasin is a death mute, and needs to be text-messaged his assignments.

I haven't even mentioned the plot, so here goes. A Japanese cryptographer (a character who gets killed in the prologue - another staple of Dan Brown's work) is reputed to create an unbreakable cryptogram. Since he left the NSA on unfriendly terms, that organization tries to break it. But it turns out to be a virus, and starts infecting all the NSA computers. One sub-plot involves the heroine's fiancee going to Spain to search for the cryptographer's ring, which contains the key. Among other things, the book pretends that Spain is the sort of impoverished country where a stabbing is always fatal. (Which must make it poorer than Việt Nam, I guess.)

In reading this plot, we learn that the knowledge Dan Brown has about security can be fit in a small lighter without draining out the fluid. Folks, a virus is one type of program that runs when it isn't supposed to. Reading a file (which is what the NSA would be doing in cracking the cryptogram) is not the same as executing it. Reading a file is safe. A good operating system would have the ability to distinguish between these. Smart people (such as those working at the NSA) would also know the difference. This is the firm that produced the Security-Enhanced Linux patch. Dan Brown doesn't know the difference. In the story, files loaded on the NSA superprocessor have to be passed through some sort of virus-checker. One of the baddies (masquerading as a goodie) bypasses this and loads the file, and in doing so, infects the system. One thinks that Dan Brown imagines a 2 million processor version of MS-DOS 3.1.

Verdict: 3/10.

Monday, December 20, 2004

I love space pictures!

The atmosphere of Titan:



TrueFresco does throw up some odd things. Want to know what automated blogging looks like? I present bs - acne action home. So prolific. And so crap. Huh. Wonder if it will catch on.

Global Warming

Look at a map of Việt Nam. Notice how the low-elevation bits are in two places. At the top, you have the Red River delta around Hà Nội - the home of Vietnamese civilization. In the southern quarter of the country, you have not just Sài Gòn, but also the extremely fertile and extremely well populated Mê Công delta - the breadbasket (ricebasket?) of the country. Now - ask yourselves - what effect would global warming have on this country?

You're probably thinking of rising sea levels. But according to Global Warming and Vietnam:

By the year 2100, global-mean sea level may stand between 32 and 64cm above the present-day level, with a rise of 45cm the most likely estimate. (In considering the regional implications of this change, it is necessary to take account of local tectonic and anthropogenic factors.)

We're not talking tens of metres, or even metres. However, the study was written in 1993. Eleven years is a long time, especially here - Việt Nam gone through a lot of development and industrialization since then. Even if the 45 cm figure stands, that's not a good thing. Not here.

And there are other effects. Temperature will probably increase by 1 or 2 degrees centigrade. Some parts of the country will increase their rainfall; others will decrease. No one's really sure. I see global warming as a risk - but a managable risk - something may happen, and if possible you take steps to prevent. That's why I'm broadly in favour of things like the the Kyoto accord in spirit. I just don't think it goes far enough, especially in penalizing those (such as some European countries) that don't keep their side of the bargain.

Of course, there are people who are certain - certain that global warming does not exist. They generally pass as public relations officers, consultants and lobbyist for various industrial concerns. On other words, they are the literary prostitutes of our ages. Or, to keep it short and simple: liars. Like many of those against evolution, often they use soliphisms like "Global Warming is a theory". (So is gravity, love.) Or they look for the newest and prettiest argument attempting to debunk this Global Warming Hokum.

Tim Lambert has been doing a solitary and heroic job debunking these so-called debunkers, and you can find this on his blog. Like me, he is pretty confident that global warming exists, but I don't think that's his primary motivation. I think he just hates dishonesty as much as he hates methological shoddiness - and those two things often walk hand in hand. Even if you aren't a science buff, I think it's essential that you read about the Worst argument against global warming, ever.:

Lavoisier group member Louis Hissink has a response to my post and John Quiggin’s on the Lavoisier group. A summary cannot do it justice, so I will quote extensively:

As far as the earth is concerned, and from a geological perspective, 99% of the earth’s mass is hotter than 1000 degrees Celsius, and 1% of the earth’s mass cooler than 100 degrees celsius - statistics here. The temperature of space is about 2.7 degrees Kelvin, or expressed in the Celsius scale, approximately -269 degrees Celsius. Therefore the net heat loss from the earth to space is enormous, from which space could be thought as an almost infinite heat sink. And fluctuations of this heat source will overwhelm anything that humanity thinks it could contribute.

This is bullshit.

Scientists have extensively measured the flow of heat from inside the earth—it amounts to 0.075 Watts per square metre, while incoming solar radiation is 342 Watts per square metre, about 5000 times as much. Hissink is correct that heat from the earth is not included in climate models—but that is because it is negligible.

Oh, and there's some bizarre guff from Hissink about Joshua asking God to stop the earth. Very odd, but very entertaining.

More Việt Nam Blogs

One good thing about Simon World's Asia Blog Awards 2004 is that you can find the blogs considered important to somebody. Accordingly, I've found three more blogs to add to the ever-hungry blogroll:

  • Royby.Com. Loaded with pictures, and of personal interest - he used to work at my old company RMIT Vietnam.
  • toi la nguoi. The author is Việt Kiếu (overseas born or based Vietnamese), and is yet another blogger to write without capitals - place names excepted*.
  • No Star Where. The only of the three blogs using Blogger.

All three are far more prolific than I.

*It's a style not so easy for myself to emulate. After 12 years of using computers at university and work, reflex drives my pinkies over to the Shift keys without thinking. Making myself stop - aah, that's the hard part. The blog name comes from "Tôi là người" - the Vietnamese for "I am a person."

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Propaganda Offensive

This is frightening, in a way. This bit of propaganda (courtesy of the Islamic Jihad Army) was so good that I wanted to see it again. They didn't even bother with stylized poses and scenes popular with with other information offensives throughout the ages. They were content with bumpy shots and odd angles - confident that the British modulated voice and the orchestral backing (and the editing) would grab the viewer's attention. They were right. And it comes from a group whom I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw them.

I haven't seen agitprop this good in a long time - not while living in Việt Nam, nor donkey's years before.

(Link via Steve Gilliard.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Outsource Janet's job

Janet Albrectsen, one of The Australian's more controversial columnists, speaks out on outsourcing:

We should give developing countries what they really want and need – jobs. Our jobs. The best way to do that is by offshoring or outsourcing jobs or whatever bogy word is used these days. 

Tim Dunlop takes her at her word:

Can I please suggest you take up Ms Albrechtsen's suggestion and give her job to a nice Indian person?

I beg to differ. My Vietnamese teacher's English is excellent, he's a nice bloke, and he's got a wife and baby to support. Give him Janet's job. Perhaps that's a clear conflict of interest. But let me tell you about "conflicts of interest" after my thoughts of outsourcing.

My feelings are mixed on outsourcing. The idea, simply put, is "Why pay $75000 for someone in the developed world when you can get the same skills for $20000 in the developing world?" It follows that this process creates jobs in the developing world. That by itself is a good thing.

Take Việt Nam. The country has been booming , especially in the last 2 years. You can see this in the infrastructure. Internet cafés have moved from the 5-computers-on-a-28.8k-modem to full ADSL connectivity. They're fast, too, or were so a couple of months ago. And the software development market is also healthy. A friend has an uncle managing part of an IT company, and he's stated it's really taking off, especially with outsourced work Now my examples all involve IT, but could be extended to engineering, call centres, construction, etc. I wish the locals luck.

On the other hand, there are disadvantages to outsourcing. (Let's just slip by the problem of not understanding the accent of call centre operators.) Firstly, the obvious problem is that it costs jobs. Moreover, the looming danger of outsourcing creates morale problems in existing employees. (And as one commentator on Surfdom reported, it's tackless to call for this around XMAS.) Furthermore, it is not always clear that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Taking IT as an example (again!), you may be getting more programmers at a cheaper price, but how superb are they? Yes, they can dot their semicolons, and code without syntax errors. But sometimes they need a lot more supervision in understanding specifications and coding what the user actually wants:

Poor communication and low morale resulted in a large amount of software with code-writing errors that required "rework" by the team of 60 developers back in California. Training alone didn't seem to solve the problem. "Even after two years of getting the rework rate down in India, it wasn't [low] enough," recalls Dickey. While domestically the rework rate was about 30 percent, "when we first started [in India], we experienced error rates of about 70 to 80 percent."

(I also notice that the MBA's and CEO's never think of outsourcing their jobs, despite the obvious efficiency incentives. As bad as absentee landlords in Georgian England, they are. And one never knows how this whole outsourcing business could work out. Perhaps a more-or-less developed Việt Nam in 2035 goes through another round of it, and starts transferring jobs to Ethiopia or the Ivory Coast.)

Now, I should report my second conflict of interest. Back in Australia, I was a computer programmer. In Việt Nam, I'm an English teacher. Now, I eventually want to return to Australia, but I would like to be employed. Especially as I may be getting married soon and may have a child or two on the way. I would like to return to IT eventually, and I would rather have a job in this sector. So outsourcing jobs makes me uncomfortable, especially in this area.

However, outsourcing Janet Albrechtsen's job in The Australian is a win-win for everybody. Hmm... how do you explain her to a foreign audience? Well, to call her conservative would be an insult to true conservatives everywhere - such as the good folk at Antiwar. True conservatives I respect, even if I don't agree with them. I don't respect Janet. Now with her, we're getting the impartialibity and fairness of Rightwing crank radio grafted onto 3 column inches of writing. In other words - pick a suitable target of the Left - Muslim immigrants, unions, "femocrats" (her bit of jargon), and "Whole Language" learning, to name a few.

But what you don't get with her is a revelation of her conflicts of interest. For example, I always wondered how she got a job at The Oz, considering her training was as a lawyer. She never brings anything new to the conversation, so it's not her repartee. There's some revenue in her "outrageousness", but if you're that way inclined, you'd read The Daily Telegraph or some other tabloid. You can't even say she's a good journo, considering she's been caught out misattributing people in attacking Muslim immigrants. So how did Janet get her job?

What makes it interesting is that her hubby is one John O'Sullivan, senior partner of Freehills, a legal firm. And according to Crikey:

Mr O'Sullivan "acted for Air New Zealand in its two-stage acquisition of Ansett Airlines in 1996 and 2000." This cost "the Kiwis more than $1 billion."

Ansett eventually went bust, while Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp (the owner of The Australian) made a tidy profit:

"...sell Air New Zealand the biggest pup going around and book a $340 million profit on the sale, he's still going to collect on his profit share deal to be also paid 10.5 per cent of the market value of Air New Zealand measured at some point between June 2002 and June 2004." 

And when you're attacking people like Greg Combet (ACTU secretary) for Ansett going bust, and not disclose your husband's involvement in the matter - that's a conflict of interest.

Outsource Janet Albrechsen's job. Outsource it now.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Laundry Run

You have to clean your clothes. You don't have a washing machine. So it's time to pick up clothes from the laundry. Now the clothes come out nice and pressed, and smelling of soap. But transportation - that's a tricky procedure when you're driving a motorbike. Oh, you could take a taxi and pay an extra 20,000 VNĐ...

Now it helps if you've got someone with you to hold the clothes. But when you're got a big load, the only thing you can do is fold it between your legs, hug them with your knees, and at the same time manipulate the gears and the brake pads. It can be done. But if you have to come to a complete stop, you drop one of your feet to the ground. The pressure is off the bag - and on you. Because you don't want the bag to fall on the dirty road and spill all your clean laundry everywhere...

Fortunately, stops are fairly rare on the way home. There are points where you slow down, but there's enough gyroscopic stability from the wheels to keep you going forward. The only place where stopping becomes really necessary is when it's time to cross a little bridge across a canal. It's about two metres and a bit wide - enough for two single crowded files of motorcycles to pass each other in opposite directions. You follow the motorbike before you, and try to overtake any glacially-moving bicycles or trolleys you encounter. The base is basically wooden slats with steel for structural support. They've become disjointed and seperated with age - giving the trip a bumpy ride. And the sides - just a metal grid. The spaces aren't wide enough for my motorbike to go though, but they would allow my laundry to pass with ease. This is not what I want to happen. Because my clean laundry would then fall into a noxious creek of sewerage, excrement and polluted water that they call here a canal. And I concentrate on keeping that laundry between my legs.

Fortunately, the big fall hasn't happened yet.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Terror Weather Kills Colonel

One good thing about Blogger is that it gives you a lot of freedom to customize the look and feel of your Blogger. One bad things is that you sometimes have to use this freedom. For example, the native commenting system forces you to create an ID with Blogger. Stuff that. That's why I went with HaloScan.

99% of the changes are made by adding or modifying the template. Today, I decided to move away from the boring black-and-white colour scheme. The heading is now in Red and Yellow - chosen because it meshes with the flag. By modifying the template, you can add lots of - well, add-ons.

I'm loathe to add too many of these things; it forces the reader's computer to load content from 10 different servers around the globe. But some things are indispensible. So now I'm proud to announce the latest addition to the Down and Out in Sài Gòn stable: our own personal Weather Pixie. Want to know the weather in this city? Check out the goth on the right. I decided to choose a goth in memory of the fine men and women I remember wearing pancake makeup in 35 Centigrade temperatures outdoors at sunny outdoor Brisbane festivals like the BDO and Livid.

(Link via She Sells Sanctuary.)

Soccer related causalties

You always know when there's a soccer game going down of the type "Việt Nam versus whatever". Every roadside stall in site has the accessories for patriotic fans. They sell the flag, which comes in red and yellow. (You can tie it around your motorbike, or use it as a bandana.) They also sell ribbons, which also come in red and yellow. They probably sell a lot of other red and yellow things - the stalls literally become a blaze of colour. Possibly even makeup. A lot of women like to paint the flag on their cheeks.

The reason for all this small business activity is The Tiger Cup: the ASEAN football competition held every two years. This year, both Malaysia and Việt Nam host matches. Having a very patriotic and very Vietnamese fiancee, I guess I've got to support the home team. (Mind you, I have a soft spot for East Timor - the perennial underdog. And one reason why Australia and New Zealand haven't been invited to ASEAN yet is that they'd kick everyone's asses. But I digress.)

Having games here is good. It lets people shout and cheer and feel good about themselves. They don't get many other opportunities to do these things. It's when they hit motorcycles afterwards that I feel uneasy. You see, Việt Nam still uses the motorcycle as the main means of transport. And when the Vietnamese win a game, many of them want to jump on their beasts, wave flags around, do victory laps around the city and hoon. And when you've got a million or two in Hồ Chí Minh City doing this in one night, people get killed. They don't wear helmets here, even when they're driving fast. On the other hand, the resulting congestion doesn't allow you to go very fast.

And I've seen it before. Last year, at the Sea Games, a sort of mini-olympics for (you guessed it) ASEAN. Last year, my fiancee and I took a taxi home - on the same night that VN beat the pants out of Malaysia on the field. The driver did a wrong turn and ended up on Tôn Đức Tháng street. A very, very wide street, where we found lots and lots of spectators on either side of the street and the center divide as well. And we found ourselves in the middle of an impromptu bike race at 90 km/h. We're coasting along at 20, while adrenaline hyped men and women zoomed past while playing at victors. I recall we nearly got hit twice by racers. I think 19 people died that night over the whole country. Or it could have been 30. Rumours, rumours.

Of course, you could have too much of a good thing. Tonight, Việt Nam won against Cambodia - thrashed them, in fact. Nine to One. I actually saw the last two goals outside a Lotteria (a fast food place). The Cambodians were so demoralized that they didn't even react at the last goal. Utter humiliation. Even if you don't feel sorry for them, you'd concede the game was NO FUN anymore. That's why the drive home felt fairly safe. As safe as traffic is in this part of the world.

Grid Iron

That's the name of a nice game - nice, because the look and feel is cheezy and anachronistic. And thus endearing. One thinks of a English construction site, circa 1950s - with vaguely jazzy horn music mixed in. Then they've got some robot in there - which is not quite in the spirit of Attlee-era Britain. Still, when you've got Grid Iron, do you need another Tetris ripoff?

Monday, December 06, 2004

9/11 - unwatched

I haven't seen the Michael Moore flick 9/11. I only bought the DVD a week ago. Maybe I'll get around to watching it this year - but honestly, I don't feel any real urgency in popping it in the laptop. The film can be seen as Moore's big attempt to affect the election - a nearly but not quite successful attempt. Now that November is gone, watching the film would seem untimely. Or even obsolete? Is Moore even relevant any more?

Oh, yes. Firstly, the connoisoirs of cut-price DVDs in this town (who I call my co-employees) had a lot to good things to say about the film. Hyperbole aside, I did enjoy Bowling for Columbine. But the best thing is that he's still frightening people. In this case, it's the Democrats:

You know, let's let Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival fawn all over Michael Moore. We ought to make it pretty clear that he sure doesn't speak for us when it comes to standing up for our country. — Will Marshall, President of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think-tank of the DLC

I liked Matt Taibbi at the eXile, and I'm glad I can still read his stuff at NY Press every week or so. Apart from being honest (especially with himself), he finds things out. In this case, he finds out that this Will Marshall is mixed in with the "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq" and hangs around the Project for a New American Century crew. In other words, unsuccessful hegemonists, with a bit of corporate stooge mixed in. Now he's using these skills in promoting a disastrous Iraq venture into pushing Moore away from the Democrat party. "With friends like these...", one thinks - but maybe there is method in all this:

For one thing, people like Al From, Donna Brazile and DLC president Bruce Reed—event speakers who are all high-level political heavyweights whose instinct for spontaneity died with their souls 100 years ago, and would never say anything without first calculating its potential impact—would seem to gain very little by mentioning Moore's name at all in the conference.

To say openly in front of a roomful of reporters that the party has to disavow Michael Moore is to remind a roomful of reporters that the Democratic party is still currently linked to Michael Moore. This would be like George Bush Sr. using the word "wimp" in public, or John Kerry using the word "effete" or "snob." No alert political operative would recommend it, under normal circumstances....

But as the election is now well and truly over:

I also noticed that unless something is done about it, this unelected bund of corporate pawns is once again going to end up writing the party platform and arranging things to make sure that no antiwar candidate is allowed to compete for votes in the primaries. It will push one of its own—probably Harold Ickes, or Brazile—in next year's election for the chairman of the Democratic Party. And when that person wins, the tens of millions of Democrats who opposed the war will have to get used to people like Will Marshall referring to them as "we" in front of roomfuls of reporters—Marshall, who this year wrote, in Blueprint, an article entitled "Stay and Win in Iraq" that offered the following view of the progress of the war:

"Coalition forces still face daily attacks but the body count tilts massively in their favor."

I see people like these as my enemies. It's not the damage they do to the Democrat party that bothers me much. It bothers me a little, but ultimately, it's not my business. The problem is that they want America to be a hegenom - a good hegemon, but a hegemon none the less. I don't want any hegemon. And if Michael Moore raises their ire, good for him.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

International AIDS day

Okay, my next post has nothing to do with entering Vietnamese. Instead, it's about something more important: International AIDS day. (Thanks to Crooked Timber for reminding me.) In the 3rd world, HIV is a heterosexual disease, as can be seen in neighbouring Cambodia:

The finger in Cambodia was pointed at straying husbands spreading AIDS among women and girls, now the most vulnerable group and the theme of this year's AIDS Day.

"I would like to send a message to those unfaithful husbands not to bring AIDS home to kill your innocent wife," Dr Tia Phalla, head of the national AIDS authority, told a meeting in Phnom Penh.

Wonderful. You cheat on your partner, and then you infect them. But then things are a lot worse in sub-Saharan Africa:

The research found that the ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful and use Condoms) strategy - which is a cornerstone of HIV/Aids prevention efforts in many countries - does not protect girls and women.

It has failed because they have not been allowed by men to practise this strategy.

Things seem to be better in Việt Nam, where the numbers is a relative low 85,000 numbers, according to the CNN link above. But that's one figure. According to Utopia Asia:

Vietnam has recorded more than 81,000 HIV-positive cases, according to the Ministry of Health. Health officials, however, believe the number of HIV-infected people is closer to 200,000.

Unlike Africa, where the disease has jumped to the wider community, HIV is still relatively restricted to the sex-worker and/or IV-using demographics. That still makes commercial sex a dodgy proposition here. "Don't do it" is my advice.

Việt Nam Blogs - a new batch

The blogroll is updated - and now I've added four new blogs on Việt Nam. They're all expats, too. I have not yet encountered many blogs from Vietnamese - a big shame. Let's introduce them in some kind of order.

  • There's Long Xuyen (Vietnam through my eyes): a young Memmonite works at an university around the Mê Kông river delta. Good for him - that's doing it a lot tougher than this jaded city slicker likes to do. My only gripe is that the whole blog seems to have been written without the use of capital letters. the sentences start like this. and this. finally, this. It's his choice, but I find the "e.e. cummings" style painful to read.  
  • Then closer to home, we have I love the smell of coffee in the morning...  A fairly simple layout, but lots of perty pictures. However, the site seems to have been put on hiatus since mid-September.
  • Over in Hà Nôi, we have two. The first is Our Man in Hanoi - a "Geordie in Vietnam". Lot's more colour, a little bit up to date than the last.
  • The other - and probably the best laid out - is Noodle Pie. If you like food blogs, then this seem the best for you. Nicely maintained and up to date.

What can I say about them, apart from "They're here, they're blogging, and hats off to them!" They look more colorful or polished than my Black-on-White coloured blog. On the other hand, none of them spell Vietnamese names with the right diactritics - but then again, neither do 99% of expats, especially when the keyboard is the only means of entry.

That's a shame, but a perfectly understandable shame - most don't know how to do it. That's the reason why I wrote How to enter Vietnamese inside Blogger (or anywhere else) - it's the first information of this sort as I know available in English. For that reason I've put that on permanent display in the blogrolling sidebar.

Perhaps I should add a little bit of explanation on why I perservere in spelling names as the locals do. But that will be the subject of my next post.