Thursday, May 26, 2005

John Howard is Not Cool

To pretend John Howard is cool is like pretending the Titanic didn't sick. John Howard is not cool. In fact, his lack of coolness is one of his strengths. Personally, I think he's an utterly ruthless, cunning, bastard. But he hides it well under his cover of your particularly dweebish suburban solicitor - the original Man of Conveyance.

John Howard is not cool. This has helped him to a fourth successful victory, while "cooler" people (thinks Paul Keating) have gone down in flames.

John Howard is so uncool that he's about to get a government majority in the Senate. You can imagine him dragging a beat-up caravan behind his car at 40 km/h while driving down to Bateman's Bay. You can envisage kilometres of frustrated drivers behind him. You could even picture him wearing socks with his sandals at the beach. All of this is so unthreatening enough to the Australian electorate that they voted for him in droves.

I don't even believe we are having this debate. There was this video of him they showed in The Late Show some years back, when our Johnnie was visiting this farm. They brought out this Merino ram to show him. And for some reason, Johnnie started clapping it, with this pensive little grin on his face, and his brow furrowed in nervousness. No-one else was clapping - only him. It was just ridiculous on his face. Look, he's clapping a bloody sheep. And of course the punters laughed.

I also recall when the Spice Girls (you may remember them?) were doing a promotional tour of Australia. Kim Beazley - then as now, Leader of the Opposition - was teasing our P.M. because he refused to meet them. Little Johnnie was not down with the kids, or some such nonsense. But John Howard refused, and I think he was perfectly entitled to do so. His reasons were probably different than mine ("flash-in-the-pan manufactured band, although with a few catchy songs in there"). He doesn't sound like a man into musical introspection. He just thought they weren't worth the bother.

(The only person who came out of that incident with extra kudos was then leader of the Nationals, Tim Fischer. As a man who runs model trains as a hobby, he is really not cool. But he pointed out the obvious on JJJ: there were better, local, Aussie bands worthy of support, like Regurgitator and Silverchair. More worthy than those false prophets of "Girl Power". Good on ya, Tim. I'd rather have commonsense than cool.)

But in case you are not convinced, let me point to an incident two years ago. I was doing my CELTA with 17 other people in this town. It was a mixed group that came to the campus cafeteria - British, Australians, and Americans. Some had just flown in for the course, and others were long term expats. But none was as long term as Rich. He'd actually been in the U.S. Peace Corps in the seventies, helping villagers in the Highlands with agriculture and medicine. While he had to run for his life in '75, he ended up returning to Việt Nam later. One of those ex-hippies that are actually a credit to his breed. He even spoke the local lingo, which few foreigners do. But he's also mischievious. And looking at me - Caucasian, spectacles, and with receding hair - he decided to have a little fun.   

"Hey, everybody. Doesn't he look like John Howard?", while pointing to me. Everyone starting giggling. 

"I mean really, doesn't HE look like John Howard?" Now, everyone was laughing out loud, with the Australians laughing harder than everyone else.

Sometimes, there is no comeback. All I could offer was "Fuck. You. Rich. Fuck You." And that set off everyone else even harder. Game, set and match: Rich. What a bastard. 

John Howard is not cool. If he was, do you think my classmates would have been cackling themselves to death? They were laughing at me, but they were also laughing at the man I was unwittingly impersonating. Q.E.D. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

On Treason

91      We passed beyond, where frozen water wraps
92      a rugged covering still other sinners,
93      who were not bent, but flat upon their backs.
94      Their very weeping there won't let them weep,
95      and grief that finds a barrier in their eyes
96      turns inward to increase their agony;
97      because their first tears freeze into a cluster,
98      and, like a crystal visor, fill up all
99      the hollow that is underneath the eyebrow.
100      And though, because of cold, my every sense
101      had left its dwelling in my face, just as
102      a callus has no feeling, nonetheless,

As for their demand that Jonathan Pollard be freed from US prison, where he is serving a life sentence for delivering mountains of classified information to Israel (and thence to the Soviet Union), it is monstrous. Pollard inflicted incalculable damage on the United States and is one of its most dastardly traitors. High-ranking US officers with an intimate knowledge of the case told Seymour Hersh that there is no doubt that documents he provided to the Israelis ended up in the hands of the Soviets. This happened either because Israeli intelligence peddled them to Moscow or because Israeli intelligence itself was penetrated by the KGB. By sending highly classified material out of the United States (for tens of thousands of dollars in a private account), Pollard initiated its transfer to Moscow as surely as if he had just dropped it off at the Soviet embassy. Pollard should never be released, and anyone who demands his release is no friend of the United States. Giving the signal that it is all right to spy intensively on the United States would be the worst possible move in these parlous times.

I do not agree with Dante on a lot of things. To begin I do not agree that eternal damnation is a good thing. I do not agree with the anti-semetism of naming the innermost circle of hell "Judecca". Most importantly, I disagree with him classifying "treason to masters" as more heinous a crime than "treason to their kindred". In reality, it is often the masters that betray first. I would put Stalin's crimes above that of a Pollard. He signed many papers that betrayed estwhile comrades to the NKVD. Worse still, despite many warnings, he denied that the Nazi government had hostile intentions towards the Soviet Union. This incompetence cost his countrymen more than 20 million lives. In this instance, I would evacuate Judas Iscariot from the mouth of the devil, and put Uncle Joe in his place.

But I do understand and emphasize with Dante when he classifies treason as the worse crime possible. And his depiction of this part of hell is fitting, in a way. Betrayal may freeze the man inside, even if the extremity is breathing. And in hell, wracked with guilt and shame, the traitors try to shed the tears they were not willing to do so when alive. But they cannot: the cold freezes the teardrops to their eyes.

Jonathan Pollard may be a better man than Aldrich Ames or Kim Philby. But that isn't saying much. A life sentence is justice enough. 

(More on this from Steve Gilliard. Justin Raimondo also brings up the disgusting spectacle of Larry Franklin, "a Jonathan Pollard for our Times".)

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Do Playstations feel like Freedom?

I like B3TA. It's a forum that's allows people to show what they've been doing with Photoshop this week. Like making weird optical illusions. Or giggle-worthy animated gifs about Indiana Jones. It's generally finnier than FARK, which offers the same thing, but with extra fratboy feel.

Every Friday, B3TA offers new Photoshop Challenges to the members. When it works, it works very well: see 18-Certificate films released for Children. But the latest one is a stinker: the Sony PlayStation Freedom Challenge.

What is freedom? Oooh - B3ta and Sony PlayStation have teamed-up and want you to design an image which best describes your idea of freedom - including their Freedom logo. Best image will win a PS2, and there's runners up prizes too. Good luck.

It fails on so many levels. Pasting a logo onto existing pictures is uncreative, and that's what the compo requires. It's unworthy of the skills of the membership. Then there's the cries of "sell out" - although I personally think B3TA were far more unwise than mercenary. But the real blame goes to Sony. How can you choose  the word "Freedom" to sell the sedentary activity of playing a PlayStation? This picture says it better that I can.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Sith in Sài Gòn

There's chatter aplenty about the new Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith. Most people agree that it's better than the last two flicks in that series, but not as good as The Empire Strikes Back. That's nice enough for me. So when do I get to see it?

  1. If I was able to clear 1.44 GB of files off my PC, maybe I could see it tonight. The film has already been leaked to BitTorrent - a method of exchanging large amounts of data quickly. (It actually happened before its official release.) If you desire, you could look up various files for the thing in MyBitTorrent. I am not that much of a fanatic to do so.
  2. So I could wait a few weeks, where I know it will be available on pirate DVD. Warezpeople - the competent ones - also know about BitTorrent. Wait a few weeks longer, and I'll be able to pick up a better print. The first wave of a DVD release is often the worse: you'll see the film through a HandyCam inside a theater screen, and both the light and sound will be uneven.
  3. As for seeing it at the cinemas.... well, never? This is my preferred method: a big screen, with the associated LucasFilm technology for the hisses of light sabers and spacecraft. But to get it on the cinemas, you need a local film distributor interested in the flick. Then they need to get approval from the local equivalent of Australia's OFLC

Now here's the problem. Films get delayed on their way to Việt Nam. For example, Alfie was just released here last weekend - a couple of months after its Western release. I can't anticipate anything objectionable about Revenge of the Sith, ideologically speaking - lots of violence, but minimal sex or nudity. For Việt Nam, as for other Asian countries, that's perfect. But I expect the timeservers at Censor Central will be mulling over the film - looking for the smallest suspicious thing to take objection to. Then they retreat to their desks or their meeting rooms to write, read and distribute various documents, files, decrees and circulars to and from other sundry departments. A couple of months later, you may receive reluctant approval from the Ministry of Culture and Information. Or not. 

(But honestly, I have no idea of how the system works. I've never been invited to one of  their "Open Days".)

There's always option 4, which is "wait until I get to another country with a not-so-broken censorship system". That's how I saw Return of the King. It was available on DVD, but never for theatre release, and so I first viewed it in neighboring Malaysia. But you need a passport for this tactic. The locals (who generally cannot afford passports nor plane tickets) may choose option 3 if  "Sith" is available in the next month. Otherwise, they'll go for 2, just as they always have done since DVDs have been available. Visiting the theatre is a good thing for meeting friends or a date. But a good DVD, even if illegal, can last you a lifetime of repeated viewing. 

Friday, May 20, 2005

How to enter IPA inside Blogger (or anywhere else)

I use the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA) to teach English. It is required, as English has extremely erratic pronunciation. Take how "gh" in "through" is said as opposed to "gh" in "though" as compared to "gh" in "ghoul". Then you have the two "th"s as displayed in "this" and "then" - they're different in utterance. You can say them, but learners may not be able to hear the difference. So us teachers supplement this by using IPA as a transcription scheme for sounds. IPA has the underlying maxim of "one sound - one symbol". For example, "cat" is represented as "/kæt/" in IPA, "yes" is "/jes/", and "you" is "ju:".1  That helps English learners: they should be able to "read off" the pronunciation of a word from its phonemic transcription. Actually articulating the words is not always so easy, but learners should now have an idea of what the words sounds like. In theory, IPA to represent almost any sound in any human language, with roughly a hundred symbols for that purpose. In practice, English speakers use about a fifth of them.

So what's the best way of  typing IPA on your computer, such as for a nice Word or HTML handout printed for the students? The user requirements are quite different from Vietnamese, where it makes sense to memorize all the keystrokes for diacritics. Native Vietnamese may be using the program all the time. IPA users are different; they will want to use the program occasionally for handouts and submissions, but not in a letter to mum. So you make it easy for them: make them able to select the characters from a grid and copy them. In fact, you want something like Charmap, Windows's own character map. However, teachers don't want to wade through Cyrillic and Greek to find the symbols. So you cut down the list of available characters interface so that only the IPA ones are available. Even better, you restrict it to the IPA for English. And there are three things I've seen that do this...

For beginners, you could try PhonMap, a free and simple tool from Jan Mulder. It's a simple dialog that presents all the IPA for English on one dialog. You click on the symbols to copy them, and then you paste them somewhere else like Word (using a Paste button for that purpose). It's small, uses little memory, and it is free. For my fellow teachers (who are computer literate, but not overly so), it's a godsend. 

I wish I could like it, but I don't, really. First, PhonMap only uses its own, specialized font. Now that's understandable. The program is a couple of years old, dating from the time when IPA fonts cost money. Jan was pissed off, and made his own. That took a lot of work to do, and he deserves the highest praise for doing it gratis. But now PhonMap's font is unnecessary, with Lucinda Sans Unicode available on pretty much all Windows machines, and others such as SILDoulosUnicodeIPA downloadable for free. I would let users select their own. 

Worse still, PhonMap's font does not do the right thing by Unicode. Basically,Unicode is a convention where each character has a number, and only that number. In making his fonts, Jan Mulder has assigned characters to the wrong numbers. To see how it is a problem, let's consider a teacher at my school. She's made some nice handouts using PhonMap in Word. They look lovely. They contain IPA for phrases such as "These cats" (/ði:z kætz/). The kids are happy. Then she's got a mate in another school who wants a little bit of help in her school. So she sends it over. The problem is that PhonMap is not installed over there. Word tries to do the right thing, and use another font in place, with better conformance to the Unicode standard. The result is that it comes out looking like "¶iÉz k¾ts". Ugly. 

Both the teacher and her mate are intelligent people, with a Bachelor's degree at a minimum. However, they aren't technically minded, and have no idea about Unicode and code points. They see the computer as a tool, not a toy. They know there is a problem, but they may not have time or the knowledge to to fix it. 

(Needless to say, you cannot use PhonMap with Blogger. Web developers should make limited assumptions about their readers, such as use the commonest fonts available. PhonMap would only be used by English teachers, which would make a small readership indeed.) 

The other two applications are web-pages. They show the full IPA - not just the English proportion. You click on it, and by the magic of JavaScript, the characters appear at the bottom or the top in a text box. You have to paste them somewhere else to make use of them. But they are free as well, and both conform to the Unicode convention, and thus can be used with Blogger. There are two that I've seen:

  • First, there's the IPA keyboard. It's amazing. It loads the whole IPA chart. It's beautiful. Unfortunately, giant picture files take time to load. You may have to reload it a few times for it to work
  • Finally, there's IPACLICK, which uses little buttons instead of pictures. That takes less bandwidth. Unfortunately, it is using some sort of broken, Internet Explorer-only JavaScript. So the characters come out looking as crap. You have to manually set the character set to "utf-8" every time. I don't know why, but it happens. And since the actual application is loaded in a pop up window, it is impossible to set the character set. The menu isn't there, as happens with pop ups. However, if you load the actual IPACLICK application directly, and then set "utf-8", it works. I actually like it, but my fellow teachers would run screaming.

There is no perfect solution. You can use PhonMap as long as you share it only with fellow PhonMap users. You can use the Linguiste IPA keyboard if you've got high bandwidth, but that's not always the case. Or you can use IPACLICK as long as you remember to reset the character set. But none of these are ideal.

What would be great is if Jan Mulder made PhonMap open source. I guess he's too busy to change it, or uninterested at the moment. So why not give it out to the "community"? Personally, I've got the skills in C and C++ to toy around with it, and it seems a simple matter to correct the Unicode character numbers. His font would have to go: it's done its duty, but now it is redundant. I'd add an field so that the author can select the right font suitable for his or her use.

I think Jan's concern is that he wants the application to remain free. He doesn't want someone else to grab the source and then make money off it. I understand. I sympathize. But wouldn't putting an open source license in there prevent this? (I'll email him about this.) As it stands, PhonMap is close to, but not quite, perfect tool for English teacher. It's just not good enough for my use.

1 Not "/yes/". The IPA is international, and "j" is used as a "y"-sound consonant in such languages as German and Finnish. IPA uses "y" instead for the close rounded front vowel, such as the  "ü" in German.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bullshit About Bullshit

The brothers Upwright probably didn't believe in angels. But they believed in bullshit, and were the type to admire it when it was delivered with panache. There's a kind of big outdoor sort of man who's got no patience at all with prevaricators and fibbers, but will applaud any man who can tell an outrageous whopper with a gleam in his eye.

Terry Pratchett - Going Postal

Frankfurt's enterprise involves talking about language without thinking about how it's used. If that seems a little bizarre, it is. But whole departments of highly-paid academic philosophers trained in the British common-sense tradition maintain this strange tradition because their lives, incomes and emotional well-being depend on it.

This willed ignorance extends to every possible field of knowledge. One of its most comical aspects is its implicit psychological theory, which is the most puerile, unimaginative idea of human psychology. According to Frankfurt, we are all sensible tweedy Anglos who would never lie just for the sake of lying: "'[L]iars' and 'real lies' are both rare and extraordinary. Everyone lies from time to time, but there are very few people to whom it would often (or even ever) occur to lie exclusively from a love of falsity or of deception."

He really thinks people don't lie out of love of the game itself? Jesus, where do these people spend their lives? The world is full of people who lie for the fun of it. Every folk-tale tradition celebrates a great liar; that's the trait for which Odysseus was most admired by the Greeks, for God's sake! But here again, I'm breaking the rules by mentioning actual times and places. Open the door like that and the whole house of cards might blow down.

Now that's the sort of bullshit I like, like the old line "I caught a fish THIS BIG" [spread hands wide]. Creative lying can be fun. For example, there was a game my sister and I liked to play when mum was in earshot. Completely deadpan, we would discuss what we'd been doing, and then conclude with some variant of the line "By the way, did you get any heroin?" It would shock our dear mother. She couldn't help herself - she'd let out an aghast "oaah", even though she knew we had never touched that stuff. Then me and my sister would start laughing. And it worked over and over again through our early twenties.

But there's another meaning of "bullshit", and it's not as nice: the bureaucratic jargon, the corporate speak, the buzzwords, the phrases like "core values", "mission statements", and that nasty little verb "prioritize". (Well, I don't like it.) For more, you can knock yourself out with a non-resume via Steve Gilliard, which contains little phrases like "Strategic Partner Alliances Creator". This sort of bullshit is insidious, and (can I just say) evil. As Gracchus says about the non-resume author on the comments thread:   

I'll tell you why, mets: it's because the wounds are still bloody raw. Maybe you didn't see legitimate companies started by hard-working founders and employees ruined by snake oil salesmen like this, or maybe 5 years is enough for you to forgive and forget. But it's not for me, nor for a lot of us.

Understand: new-age con artists like this caused people to lose money, time, marriages, homes, whole lives. Yeah, there were a lot of bogus companies, shoddy business models and unrealistic expectations. But if you want a model of the hippy-dippy "irrational exhuberance" that undergirded the whole structure, re-read this CV.

I just got thinking about the whole subject, after reading on Crooked Timber:

After featuring on 60 minutes last night, On Bullshit climbed from #21 (when I checked at the start of the segment) in the Amazon charts to #3 (when I checked 5 minutes ago). I have no idea what this means in terms of numbers, but the commissioning editor must be feeling pretty smug. As must [author] Harry Frankfurt, I’d guess.

But I don't know if I will like the book. No, I think I can guess. There's a version of the essay available at the Wayback Machine. I read it. It's not good. It's quite shocking, from a brief skim I did. I can't think of it as really academic (there are no footnotes whatsoever, and external references are minimal), not does it seem to be engaged with reality. There is no mention of campfire whoppers (fun bullshit!), nor the MBA-speak (not-so-fun bullshit). It doesn't even refer to earlier works such as On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, which also bears a chapter "On Bullshit". (And that was about the over excessive spit and polish of the British Army in WWI, and how the petty authoritarianism behind it cost a couple of hundreds of thousands of lives then and there. That would be worth mentioning, at least)  Instead, the author engaged in a long, meandering, monotonous, dreary conversation with himself, and ends up with this grumpy conclusion. A spoiler warning: these are the last three paragraphs:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

So who are the real kings of bullshit? If I can understand correctly, they are... whut? God knows. You would think that there would be so many worthy targets for an essay entitled "On Bullshit" - politicians, corporations, dodgy journos, REMFs (for those in the military). And the author instead gives us some vague entity: part democracy activist, part feel-good hippie, part postmodern philosopher, part self-help book reader, part blogger, ready to be placed into the "Moral Relativism" basket. Sounds like anyone we know, personally? Not really. (Maybe this caricature is based on a competitor for tenure at Frankfurt's university.) I know it's not meant to be a polemic, but academic prose - but I state it isn't academic either. No footnotes, remember? It's a missed opportunity.

I should finish with a pun about bullshit, but I won't. Read the essay if you want, but read John Dolan's review anyway. It's more sincere, more correct, and more fun as well. 

Monday, May 16, 2005

Carry on Condorcet

Who cannot criticize an election when only 36% of the vote wins an election? After all, that is what happened to British Labour in the UK 2005 general elections. So John Quiggin calls for electoral reform, and a scrapping of the First Past the Post (FPP) system used in that election. Not only would it be good for British democracy, he argues it would also be good for Labour. Under a preferential system, he assumes:

On the plausible assumption that Labour would get 70 per cent of Lib Dem and Welsh/Scottish nationalist preferences, and the Tories would get 70 per cent of the rest, I estimate a two-party preferred Labour vote of about 57 per cent.

Unfortunately, the comments got thread jacked by one "Benno", claiming (and at times aggressively so) that the Condorcet system should be the way to go. To quote him (perhaps out of context):

I will roll anybody who claims that PV is superior to Condorcet.

Hardly a debating argument. But is he right? Let us compare and contrast with single member elections - elections where only one candidate can win. 

"First past the post" is the simplest electoral system. The voters put just one tick (or cross, or whatever) next to their favorite candidate. The electoral office count up the votes for all of the candidates. Whoever gets the most wins the election. That's the status quo in Britain, and we see it didn't work very well.

It's sole advantage is its simplicity. That can be an advantage if the electorate has a low level of literacy, as is happening now in Ethiopia. One common tactic is for the ballot papers to provide both the candidate's name, and a picture or icon representing the party. But for electorates with high levels of literacy (such as Britain), you can expect the voters to be able to read the candidate's names, and be able to write beyond one.

And therein lies the disadvantage of FPP - the old "tactical voting". You really like A, you think B is so-so (but more electable), and C are complete and utter bastards. Since you don't want C to win, you have to choose between A and B. But a vote for A deprives B of enough votes to win, so C romps in. Thus you hold your nose and vote for B. A is effectively a "wasted" vote. This sucks. I think we can do better than that.

The alternative is to let the voters rank the candidate one after another. Your favorite candidate gets "1", the second gets "2", and so on. These are known as preferential systems. In this system, you can vote A, then B, then C... and you've done your best for A to win, and C to lose. (This will probably end up with the compromise of B winning, but at least there's now a chance that A will romp in.) There are several ways to do this,  but we'll look at two: IRV and Condorcet. Which one is it going to be?

IRV (Instant running voting) is a the system used in lower house Australian elections - although everyone there knows it as "preferential voting". The votes number every box in their chosen sequence. The electoral office counts everyone's vote, and stacks them by first preference. Who has the smallest pile - the least number of first preferences - drops out. Now their preferences are distributed to other piles going by their second preferences. Then the next smallest pile is eliminated, and are split up to other piles by the highest remaining preferences. This goes on until you have two piles left - with one hopefully larger than the other. There is your winner. 

Condorcet counting is a stranger beast altogether. I'll quote the Wikipedia article:

Ballots are counted by considering all possible sets of two-candidate elections from all available candidates. That is, each candidate is considered against each and every other candidate. A candidate is considered to "win" against another on a single ballot if they are ranked higher than their opponent. All the votes for candidate Alice over candidate Bob are counted, as are all of the votes for Bob over Alice. Whoever has the most votes in each one-on-one election wins.

But the next paragraph shows a problem with the system:

If a candidate is preferred over all other candidates, that candidate is the Condorcet winner. However, a Condorcet winner may not exist, due to a fundamental paradox: It is possible for the electorate to prefer A over B, B over C, and C over A simultaneously. This is called a majority rule cycle, and it must be resolved by some other mechanism.

So you choose one of the various paradox-resolving methods - there are about 6 or 7 mentioned in the article. But as "Benno" says, you only need one count to decide the winner. But is that really an advantage?

In an election, you want transparency, and transparency is not only assumed by honest electoral officers, by also by scrutineers – supplied by the political teams running for the election – to look at the papers as they are being counted. You can use optical character recognition or what ever fancy technique you want... but if you can't produce ballots to be counted, it ain't worth shit. (Even open source electoral systems could have bugs, and as for those who aren't, think Diebold.)

As an ex-scrutineer, I can assume you that IRV is quite easy to scrutineer. You observe (but don't touch) the electoral staff stacking ballots in separate piles by their first preference. You can almost go on autopilot. But if you see a 1 go into the wrong pile, or a 2 into another, you could request (not order) the electoral officer to have a look at it. Once preferences are redistributed, you look for 2's on the ballots. And so on. It is slow, and sometimes monotonous, but it is sure., and it doesn't take too much mental strain to do. You look at one ballot paper at a time, and there is only one piece of information important at each stage.

God knows how you would scrutineer a Condorcet election. Let us say you have n candidates on a ballot paper. You have to consider their ranking against the (n - 1) candidates. Split the multiple by two (if candidate A is ranked against B, you don't need to rank B against A). For each ballot paper, you have to check that the electoral officer did the right thing with n(n-1)/2 pieces of information. Now assume you have a couple of hundred of other ballot papers... you would go mad. And we haven't encountered a Condorcet paradox yet. Now imagine your average scrutineers (which are generally normal men and women, even if a little high on the party hack-o-meter) deal with jargon like "Smith set" and "Schwarz set" and "Minimax". It is going to strain the scrutineers. They're going to need the metaphorical cigarette break every five minutes. You don't want that. I've dealt with honest electoral staff - in Australia. That's the exceptiom, not the norm. 

And as you can see, Condorcet is harder to understand than IRV. That's not a sneer; a lot of things in life are hard to understand. But it is a big hurdle when you are dealing with an electoral system used by everyone. Systems should not only be fair - they should be seen to be fair. And the jargon of Condorcet has a danger of frightening people. It may not happen (although it sounds like perfect scare-campaign material), but you have the ever-present possibility of sending the voters back to FPP territory.     

Another big hurdle for IRV detractors (as say, from the Condorcet camp) is that it has been empirically tested. For example, Australia has over 100 years with the system, beginning with Queensland in 1893, and extended to federal elections in 1918. My rough estimate of the ballots cast under the system in that time span would be in the order of a 100 million, at least. And only for Federal elections for the House of Representatives. You'd double that for State Elections. IRV has been shown to work  Condorcet has also be implemented for such institutions as the Debian and UserLinux project. But these are small institutions, and the electorate has been pretty limited in number. It hasn't had the mass-market exposure of IRV. 

I admit I am biased towards IRV; it has been the electoral system I have lived with, scrutineered, and even worked with (as an electoral officer in an University election). I find it intuitive to understand. However, I don't have anything against Condorcet. It may be a more mathematically thought-out electoral system, in that it satisfies more electoral "criteria" than IRV. But I feel at this time that such criteria are really irrelevant to the punters.

This brings us back to British Electoral reform, which would probably be kicked off by a Royal Commision. Submissions would be requested. Recommendations would be presented back to Parliament. Hopefully, the recommendations would include a British wide-referendum on replacing FPP by some preferential or proportional alternative. Even better, Parliament acts upon it, and passes an Act for this purpose. Best of all, the "Benno"s of this world shut up, or at least learn how to be polite. It doesn't matter if they support IRV or Condorcet. The rudeness he displayed on JQ's thread would go down badly with a confused electorate. With enemies like him - the first past the post  system doesn't need friends.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Political Correctness in the Vietnamese Workplace

At one of my schools, they have a handout they give to new teachers. There's lots of information - opening times, addresses, emergency phone numbers... and also a list of prohibited topics of conversation:

  1. No Politics
  2. No Sex
  3. No Religion

Not that I'm going to talk about these things at work... but thank you anyway for telling me.

Still. the note may save some hassle with the younger, callow expatriate teachers who walk through the door. I don't think the management cares that much about foreigners talking amongst themselves about the merits of Howard versus Latham, or how that ex-Cardinal Ratzinger is such a prick. The unspoken point is not to bring these things up with the local Vietnamese you may be working with. You allude to how Benedict XVI has been pissweak on the paedophile priest side of things. Now you learn your coworker is (a) Catholic (there's a lot of them in the South) and (b) now deeply offended.

Of course, Topic #1 is very dangerous here. Topic #2 is quite dangerous if you're dealing with a co-worker of the opposite sex. They don't appreciate it. They may even file a sexual harassment complaint with the Department of Labor. But Topic #2 is dangerous in workplaces everywhere. Don't do it.

I was reminded of this when I learnt the other day that one of my students (at another school) was a member of some sort of Communist Youth group. If you're going to be hush about such things among your teachers, you should be hush-hush with your students. But maybe you can't. Your textbooks are designed by the freedom-loving peoples of Britain or America. They contain open-ended questions like "If you could run your country, how would you do things differently?" You can brush by them, but the students know they're there.

Just remember, you're there to teach English, not politics. You want them to get them speaking, so ask the questions, and leave them with the answers. It's not a conversation, and it shouldn't be: you shouldn't be supplying your ideas. Let them yap on, and you keep mum. Correct their grammar if they keep doing the same mistakes all the time. Help with the odd word of vocabulary. You'll be safe enough. The students aren't there to sniff out heresy; they're just there to learn another language. And I think they appreciate being asked questions in the first place. It's a refreshing change from the "listen and repeat" drill of their conventional state school, where pedagogy and pedanticism walk hand in hand.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Do androids dream of electric mice?

Via BARISTA and B3TA comes this Quick Time advertisement for robot cats. You buy them, and take them home. They miaow, and they move their heads and ears and paws and tails jerkily around. But unlike a real cat, they don't run around chasing your shoelaces or jump on your lap. And they seems to be giving everyone the willies. Not me, though. I find them cute and pathetic, as in the fake cat's heads bobbing on the dashboard of a taxi pathetic. (Oh, and a little nostalgic for my real pet cat, Nym, safe and happy with my parents in Brisbane.)

And really, are they as disturbing as these electronic kittens? You be the judge. (Macormedia Flash required).

Monday, May 09, 2005

Rain! Woo! Yay!

The rainy season has begun. There's been a few false starts. We had a thunderstorm a week ago. Skies have been overcast the last few days. Then yesterday (Sunday), it broke. It rained and rained. Thunder was heard - not only from the sky, but from the raindrops hitting the corrugated roofs of the houses behind. There were even a few screams on the air - the sort of screams you get when people run out to rescue the washing from the deluge. It was good to hear.

Not that I'm looking forward to flooded streets, which are a recurrent problem in places such as the backpacker ghetto of  Phạm Ngũ Lão, and a chronic problem in District 6. Nor am I looking forward to wearing raincoats. You can wear one and drive a motorbike, but you have to watch for water trickling down your trouser legs. Needless to say, you also have to watch out for aquaplaning and skidding. But with the rain, we can now say good bye to the nasty, humid, overboiling temperatures of March and April. There's been some scorchers already, I hear. Forty degrees Celsius in Sài Gòn, and I heard they had forty-two in Thanh Hoá province. But now the big Hot is behind us for another year, and it isn't even June.

That's one of the little beauties of Sài Gòn for  you. According to Weatherbase, the average temperature doesn't change that much during the year: it varies from 26 to 30 °C. The average highs for each month are around 31, and the average lows are around 23. It doesn't look that different. But statistics are nothing if not manipulatable, and one tweak the site owners threw in was "Average Number of Days Above 95F/35C". Now the real difference comes to the surface. March has four, April has ten, and May has seven. The rest of the year - once or nil. That's a good stat to add, because those days above 35 are the days you notice. The joys of your freshly ironed shirt already wet from sweat in the back. You lie semi-naked under the fan on the floor, because it is cooler than the bed. And if you are very unlucky, you start having heatstroke in the house.

That's why everyone was happy to see the rains. The rains kills the heat. Unlike the flatlined precipitation rates of the start of the year, we'll be getting a centimetre of rain a day on average until October. By then, summer is gone, so when the rain drops off, the temperature does too. But for now, the thunderstorms are keeping it down by raining it down. Thank god for the rain.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Give me those school rolls in Vietnamese

Last year, I wrote a post on how you can write Vietnamese in Blogger. You can find other information on the net (such as the Unikey website), but they're in ... ahem, Vietnamese. They're not much for second language learners. So after a little bit of testing and reverse engineering, I wrote it up. Check it out if you are interested.

Now this post is on why I write Vietnamese in Blogger. To be precise, I write English, but I preserve the accents and tone markers in Vietnamese names. Not the language, but the names. For example, I write: "I live in Sài Gòn", not "I live in Sai Gon", nor "I live in Saigon". And as an English teacher, I reckon it is not only more informative (because you get a noggin' of how to pronounce the name), but is also perfectly decent English. But as you will see, not everybody agrees...

At the moment, work is pretty slow in the English-teaching business. It's the fallow period between Tết (the Lunar new year) and summer. The kids are doing their exams at their state-educated schools - the ones that let them go up from grade x to grade x + 1. Or university. They're cramming their maths and science and literature, and English can go hang. So the hours are tight, and so is the money. At my current school, I'm down to substitution work. I like the school, and I like the teachers, but I'm not too happy with the way that schedules have wound down for most. Neither are a lot of other teachers, I hear.

Hopefully, the trickle will turn into a deluge during summer school - June to August. It's school holidays (as far as the government is concerned) and kids have a lot more time on their hands. Why not send them to some accelerated courses in English? It gets them out of the parents' hair, and the teachers roll in the money, and the kids spend less time wasting their pocket money at Diamond Plaza. But that's in a month's time, and funds are low. So I've been chasing up ads, and even got myself work at a second school.  

I come in to prepare for my lesson. I chat with one of my managers. She shows me where everything is: computers, markers, and most importantly, the class folder. There's a schedule in there, and a class roll.  I do some preparation, and then come back to the roll. There's something funny about it.... hmm... aaa... no diacritics in the student names. No diacritics at all. Normal Vietnamese names like "Nguyễn Đức Diễm" (a made up example) would be listed as "Nguyen Duc Diem". It's common in this town, but a pain in the arse if it interferes with your job. So I go back to the manager.

"Excuse me. I've just looked at the roll. It didn't have any tone marks. Is is possible to find out what the original Vietnamese names are? Are they on computer somewhere? It would help."

"Oh. I've never thought about that. Maybe we could." Being Việt Kiều, I think she was quite sympathetic to the idea.

"That would be good. It just helps me pronounce the student's names correctly." Which I think is common courtesy to attempt, even if you don't always succeed in the attempt. The manager asked someone from the administrative side of things (a local) over for the discussion. The administrator looked a little bit confused. "Well, it is an English school, so the names are in 'English'", she said... with the unspoken assumption that do so, you have to remove all those unsightly tildes and accents and breves and whatnot. "Nguyen" is English, but "Nguyễn" is not English... even though they are really different forms of a good, honorable Vietnamese name.

"Yes, but we can have diacritics for English words. For example, naïve is sometimes written with two dots over the i. You also have accents in other words such as fiancée and fiancé."

The admin argued: "Well, if you wrote the roll in Vietnamese, it would make it harder for the teacher."

"But it happens at my other school" (which is perfectly true) "and there are no complaints." (None that I know about...) "A lot of the teachers don't know Vietnamese either, but it's pretty easy for them to ignore the diacritics. On the other hand, those that DO know the language find it quite useful to pronounce the names properly." I also mentioned another class I had a few months ago at the other school. It had two students named "Thành Nam" and a "Thanh Nam". Almost identical, but with a drop tone only on the first. Bit of a tough one to tell them apart without it. The result of all this was that the manager asked the administrator to look into writing student names with tones preserved. In the meantime, I just asked each student individually for the correct spelling of their name. They were a little bit confused: "This is English class, isn't it?" But it went down well. And I taught it in English.

The admin had that very common perception (or misperception) that you must - not can, or be able to, but must -  remove every diacritic you can from Vietnamese names. A lot of people have it, because that's those are the rules that are set in their government English textbooks. But where does the government get this "philosophy"? I guess it is because it is the way it's always been done.

It's just the convention based on what happened during the war or before... when journos came over here and were often too lazy to learn the language, and often couldn't get the local names right, and neither the Selectric typewriter nor the telex machine could allow you to write those "e"s with a tilde on top. The only technology that allowed you to write Vietnamese would be the pen, the brush, or the printing press. And since the readers didn't really care how you'd pronounce "Saigon", you might as well drop the diacritics. It's cheaper than buying special lead type for the purpose. So people would know that "Hanoi" had been bombed... unaware that it is actually spelt "Hà Nội". 

But such technical limitations are a thing of the past. Nowadays, printing uses computers, and special lead type is unnecessary; it's just a matter of buying the right fonts. And fonts (such as Arial and Time New Roman) will be able to supply the characters necessary for English, French, German, Malay, Navajo or Vietnamese. Each of these are variants of Latin, (according to the Unicode standard), and their various character are shared between different language. Accordingly, you might as well make one font handle all of the languages together. It's cheaper that way. So now it's easier for laypeople to write Vietnamese.

But I go one step further. Keeping the name as-is shows more respect for the person or object behind it. If I know someone's family name is "Nguyễn", I'm going to pronounce it as "Nguyễn", and I'm going to write it as Nguyễn, even if the surrounding language is English, French, German, Malay or Navajo. Because all of these languages - like Vietnamese - use Latin lettering. Their characters of these alphabets play well together. And that's why I write my Vietnamese characters as-is. Don't dumb it down, because no-one will thank you; preserve it, and you may get their attention. Because when you're transferring from "Diễm" to "Diem", you're just losing information, and it doesn't make it look any better. 

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Where I live

Where I live

The picture shows Sài Gòn as the grey blob in the bottom left corner. The dirty yellow triangle in the middle is Tân Sơn Nhất airport. East of it is the Sài Gòn river, and then the semi-urbanized but heavily industrialized area of Districts 2, 9 and Thủ Đức. Moving east and north, you encounter the Đồng Nai river, and beyond it the satellite city of Biên Hoà. While the latter is an separate administered city, it could be judged as part of the greater Sài Gòn Metropolitan area. So I put it in.

As a layman in satellite photography (plus the experience of living here), I'm guessing that white means urban or industrial areas, green means fields, and blue means water. The image is 62.5 km by 62.5 km. The coordinates at the centre are 10.6159144° N and 106.602345° E.

The original image is 500 by 500 pixels; it has been compressed to fit on to this blog. To see the full-size image, click on it - or you can look at the original Terra Server page that presented it. You can even move,  zoom, and pan through other parts of the picture. (Terra Server has lots of other satellite pictures for you to examine.)

(Picture © 2005 GlobeExplorer, Earth Satellite Corporation.)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Pejoratives for Foreigners

I like to read Sascha Matuszak's columns from Antiwar. They're generally about expatriate life in China - the other country with a "Socialist Market Economy", or whatever the latest buzzword is for Communist states allowing capitalism. And since China is about a decade ahead of Việt Nam, the columns give a picture of what could happen here in a decade here. I have no idea why they ended up in Antiwar - a site whose general fare is what latest screwup happened in the war in Iraq. But I am not complaining. As always, his latest, Laowai and Zibenren, is worth a squizz:

Laowai is a colloquial term for foreigner in China – lao means old and wai means outside. In Chinese, the word lao denotes respect (e.g., laoshi = teacher, laoban = boss) and is a polite way to address older relatives, big brothers, etc.

For most Chinese, laowai is a noun like any other. For most foreigners living in China, laowai is the equivalent of "n*gger." Most countries have words such as laowai for outsiders: gaijin in Japan, le blanc in Cameroon, guilao in Hong Kong, falang in Thailand… no matter who says it or why, the words never sound right to the outsider and always carry a little more meaning than simply "foreigner."

Now, "guilao" means devil, and as stated in the article, white people did act like devils. I think "devils" sounds too cute a term; perhaps the appropriate translation should be "demons" or (even better) "hellfiends". After, a lot of white people acted abominably in China until the 1940s, with opium trading, and gun running, and splitting the country into various spheres of influence exercised by Germany, France, Russia, Britain and the United States. But you also have to mention the Japanese, who acted more appallingly in China than the rest of them put together, and accordingly they get another pejorative reserved just for them:

On the other hand, Zibenren is very clear. Ziben is colloquial for Riben (Japan). Ziben is a curse. It always has been. Most likely always will be. Chinese use it quite often. They've been using it frequently here in Chengdu while hurling stones at the local Ito Yokado and spitting venom after the local Chengdu Shang Bao (Business Daily) reported another "doctored" schoolbook made it past the Japanese censors.

This is a site about Việt Nam. You suspect this is leading up to what insulting terms the locals have for the expats. Well, for me, the biggest surprise is there isn't any such word at all. The Vietnamese have never coined a term like "Gaijin" or "Gweilo", which are now internationally famous loan-words. Or not even like "falang/farang" - as used by the foreigners in Thailand. I've lived here for 2 years, but have heard nothing. And after such time, I would have heard whiff of it. If such a word existed, at least one expatriate would have used it ironically in their email or circular.

Vietnamese does have a word for foreigner: "người nước ngoài". Broken down, the parts mean "Person-Country-Outside" - adjectives come after nouns in the language - but literally, it means "foreigner". It's as concrete a noun as "concrete", and used in all official documents and correspondences. It's not rude at all.

There have been words used in past to describe the French and the Americans, such as "ác độc" (cruel, brutal) and "ác tâm" (malicious, maelevolent). But these are adjectives, not rude nouns... and they were used when [parts of] Việt Nam were at war with these chaps. They're not used now.

So why this absence? Most countries have bad words for damned foreigners. To take my own country as an example, Australia starts with "reffo", and it gets worse from there. Hell, Australians troops in the 60s over here had their own not-so-nice term for the locals: "nigel". (Fortunately, most of these terms are verboten nowadays.) Why not the Saigonese? I dunno.

But I could be wrong. If you know of any naughty words for the expats, tell me. That's what the comments box is for. I'm just unsurprised at the Vietnamese are more polite than the Chinese. Several expatriates of my acquaintance have found the country a pleasant change after living in China or Taiwan.