Friday, June 30, 2006

How not to get English spoken at School

English schools want students to practice English at school. But how do you direct students to do this? At a bare minimum, it is the teacher's job to make the students speak English in the classroom. Better schools try to encourage students to speak English outside of the classroom - in the computer lab, in the corridors, and even in the lift. There are various mechanisms to do this. Management start with a policy ("get students to speak English") and implement it in certain ways. You can start simple if you like. Photocopy A4 paper stating "Please speak English at [Insert School Here]", and stick them around the place.  

Other schools go even further. They deter the practice of other languages, like Vietnamese. They want the whole institution to be an English-only zone. They tend to be places affiliated with English-language colleges and universities elsewhere - be it the US, Australia or Singapore. They expect the students to have a basic level of competence, and have the vocabulary to communicate. These places not only encourage English, they discourage - firmly if not always politely - anything else.

I have some sympathy with these measures. These institutions exist to give enough language to study in a foreign college or university. They are often, literally, the last stop before flying out to Melbourne, London or New York. The students are going to find it hard enough overseas. They'll be away from their family, their friends and their culture, but just as importantly... their language. They'll be taken out of their comfort zone where all the things they've taken for granted - bus timetables, supermarket labels, noticeboards, TV and radio - are in their own tongue. Overseas, these things will be transformed beyond recognition. If they're really unlucky, the only time they'll hear their own language is inside their own heads. Making these schools "English-only" should advance the students' abilities, but just as importantly, it will give some psychological preparation before they are thrown in the deep end. 

Having some sympathy does not mean I like it. Such moves smell of authoritarianism, and treating your adult students as grown up children. (To be fair, my adult students often act like teenagers - nice teenagers, but with maturity levels far less than students of similar ages in Australia.) I'm also used to more "free speech" environments. At the Australian institution I attended, it did not matter if I spoke German, Zulu or otherwise - no penalty would have been implemented. You spoke English because you needed to, and not because of any rules or regulations from the University Senate. I even remember one campaign for the student union elections. One left-leaning candidate had the bright idea of writing her advertising in Chinese. That netted her an extra 100 votes, and won her the position of Overseas Student Rep. I recall that some of the right-leaning parties complained about this tactic. It didn't get them very far. The pamphlet was endorsed by the electoral office, with some legal advice and translation beforehand. So the next year, the right tried the same tactic and won. Hypocrites.

So when does an English-only policy go too far? I think one of the places I'm working now fits the bill. I think their policy is both restrictive and ineffective. I'm not going to name names, so the institution involved will be hereby referred to as The Institution. I quote from their "Instructor's Handbook", a document neither marked "private" nor "confidential". The policy statement is simple enough:

Policy Statement

Speaking Vietnamese is prohibited at The Institution and its branches with the exception of students’ parents and The Institution’s clients.


Reasons for Policy

A Target Language Community (TLC) is one where the inhabitants speak the language, which the student is learning; for students of English, an English-speaking country would be a TLC. The students would need to learn English to survive in the community. For this reason, The Institution finds it necessary to create a learning environment in which English is the only language used to instruct and communicate, and students’ nonstop improvement on English is a must...

So far, so good, but it's the penalties that infuriate me. Read below. "B", "C", "D", etc., represent the numerical codes for the courses. "F" is for non-ESL courses taught at the same institution.


Where an act of speaking Vietnamese is determined, the following penalties shall be imposed:

(1)    Students

-    Each time a student is caught in the act on the campus, 2% will be deducted from the total 100% of each ESL course taken by the student in the semester – e.g. Student A, who takes Reading B, Speaking C, Listening D, and Writing E, is caught once, so 2% will be deducted from the total 100% of Reading B, Speaking C, Listening D, and Writing E. That is to say, he/she has only 98% left in each course. If this student is caught again, another 2% will be deducted from 98% of each course, and so on.

-    In the case that a student has successfully completed the ESL program and is taking F courses, the same penalties shall be imposed on F courses. That is to say, each time the student is caught in the act, 2% will be deducted from the total 100% of each F course taken by the student in the semester.

(2)    Staff, English Instructors and IT Instructors

Each time they are caught in the act, a penalty of 5,000 VND will be imposed.

Note: - All the money will be collected in the Accounting Office for charity.

  - Violation will also affect the violator’s future promotion at The Institution.

I'm not so bothered about penalties on the teachers, except that they are disproportionately light in comparison. 5000 đồng is a pennyweight slap on the wrist for the foreigners, and even for the locals, that's less than one third of their hourly wage. One less cup of coffee to buy - boo hoo! One less xe ôm ride home; well, I guess you have to walk. It's the penalties on the students that bother me. 

First, these penalties affect all courses a student is studying, regardless of how well or poorly they do in them. The policy is inflexible. The teachers have no freedom to narrow the scope of them. Let's say that one recalcitrant student is yabbering on in my grammar class in Vietnamese. I'd like to penalize him 2% for that course, but only for that course (and in practice, after a warning or two). Unfortunately, the policies do not give me the lassitude to do this. I'd be blackmarking them with a Texta pen. So I'm less likely to use this measure.

Secondly, these penalties apply to all students - not just the advanced ones. I've been teaching at this institution for a few weeks. Many are weak. My classes, I judge, are at Beginner or pre-Intermediate level, the latter roughly at the level of my Vietnamese. It's still hard for me to express myself in that language 100% of the time; why would it be any different for them? It makes it harder for them to understand new concepts, because they lack the axillary language in English to put them together. A few times, I've done the quick-but-dirty tactic of pulling out my Vietnamese-English dictionary. I should not do that, but I should not need to do that either. I would have less problem with disciplining more advanced students. They have the fluency to think and speak in English 24/7, and even have new concepts explained to them in that tongue. 

(Related to that - is there any check on whether the students actually understand this policy? Including the "2% on all course" bit? That would be a case where a Vietnamese translation would be useful.) 

Thirdly, it's hard enough to get some of these students to speak at all, let alone English. They do not enjoy speaking. I can understand why. The textbooks are inappropriate. They were designed for multicultural ESL classes in the States - not monolingual students in Việt Nam. So they contain the language for such intriguing issues as "Insuring your Property", "Counseling" and "Divorce" - a hell of a way to interest 18 year old boys. So the kids find them boring, and bored students are less likely to speak, or even mutter. Plus the speed of the material does not encourage fluency. In my speaking classes, I am expected to cover 10 to 15 pages in two and an half hour classes. The norm in English teaching is about one or two pages per hour. I find it harder to warm up students to a topic. By the time they are interested - if they are interested - we have to switch to something else. 

(At least teachers have the freedom to drop material. That's good, but if we are dropping three quarters of it, why were we given those books in the first place?) 

I think it all comes down to the quality of the management. They're quick at rushing the rules out, but not so good at listening to staff, or working out whether the rules work in practice, or having the creativity to think up new approaches to the problem. More carrots through better material would be nice. So would less stick, or at least sticks of various shapes and size. Giving trainers the freedom to warn would be lovely. But that would tax the imagination of the crew running the joint. Judging by the emails I received, they seem to be paranoid about anyone speaking Vietnamese in the various schools and branches. The whole attitude is of distrust - distrust of the students to do the right thing. 

In a way, it's a very Vietnamese place, where rulers make rules, and have others ignore them when convenient. The attitude of my fellow staff belie this - not so much cynical, but more conspiratorial and resigned. This outlook has aided me in building up a rapport with fellow staff members against an insular and isolated administration. It also helps with cementing a relationship with the students. I tell them about the email, warn them to "watch out", but show I don't take the whole policy that seriously. They seem to appreciate this. I will insist on English spoken in classroom, and they know they should do that, but I am not going to throw the book at them if the odd "Trời ơi!" slips out. But personally, I'd prefer to work somewhere else, and will do so after my contract expired.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Oh, Bugger.

Italy 1 - Australia 0. Fucking 'ell. Australia, good on ya.

The Road to Surfdom sez:

…my completely subjective, non-expert opinion is that it was a dud call. Didn’t look like a foul to me. However, Italy really were the better team on the day. Our attacks on goal never looked particularly dangerous whereas theirs sure did, and their defence, especially after they went a man down, was extraordinary. They looked fitter and more skillful throughout. Still, we held them and as I say, that was no foul, and you never want to lose because of dodgy calls, whatever the cosmic balance may require. Argggh.

Still, there's 2010 to consider. It should be easier to enter the World Cup, now that Australia is part of the Asian Football Federation, rather than Oceania.

Monday, June 26, 2006

These Three Go

I should mention the resignations of the following men:

They are, or were, all important men, but not to the same degree. The Presidency is mostly a "ceremonial" duty, and the National Assembly had a reputation as a "rubber stamp" sort of place - a reputation I think is a little out of date. Mr. Khải, by contrast, was head of government, head of cabinet, and had the powers to approve and remove ministers. Accordingly, most international attention has been paid to his departure. Let the Daily Terror tell the story:

Mr Khai, a Soviet-trained economist from southern Vietnam who grew up during the French and American wars, pushed forward doi moi (renewal) market reforms and last July became Vietnam's first post-war premier to visit Washington. His likely successor, long-time deputy Nguyen Tan Dung, will reap the benefits achieved on Mr Khai's watch when Vietnam, now Southeast Asia's fastest growing economy, likely joins the World Trade Organisation this year.

Mr Khai was the man in charge as the government came under increasing fire from a usually pliant press and national assembly in recent months for failing to tackle corruption and fix infrastructure and other pressing problems. Observers say, however, that Mr Khai will be best remembered for pushing economic reform, earning him praise from the foreign investment community but attacks from the party's ideological old guard. One of the driving forces behind key US trade deals reached in 2000 and earlier this year, Mr Khai visited the United States in July 2005, when he also met Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"Khai put Vietnam back into the world in terms of the economy, and that's quite an achievement," said Jonathan Pincus, chief economist of the UN Development Programme in Vietnam. "I do sincerely believe that he wanted to go faster than he actually did but he had to really resolve the internal political resistance to reintegration with the world economy."

A party veteran, Mr Khai has played by the rules of a system that stresses political control over all aspects of society and tolerates little dissent, while portraying unity and avoiding personality politics. "He does these dry stand-up speeches when you see him on TV that are not terribly inspiring," said one Western observer. "But I think, one-on-one, he has a vision of where he wants the country to go."

"Not terribly inspiring" is an understatement. I have heard him speak. It was last year: April 30th, 2005, I believe. That date was the 30th anniversary of "liberation", and he was giving a televised speech with an English translator. As I remember, he was talking about the festivities that night - about the acts and songs before... and that there was going to be a "laser show" later that night. But I listened in vain for any words about "vision". What did that fateful day, 31 years (now) mean for Việt Nam? What did it signify? What sand goes through the hourglass of the days of our lives? Let's just say that he makes my PM quite the life of the party in comparison. Or as I remarked to a cousin-in-law that night: quan liêu (bureaucratic). He agreed with a smile.

On the other hand, I cannot think of a time where Việt Nam's economy has been healthier. Can you? Let's look at the facts: no war at the moment, 7% annual growth, a fairly stable đồng against the U.S. dollar these days (unlike the hyperinflatory 80s), poverty reduced dramatically, and no sign of a return to the imbecilic collectivization policies of the Lê Duẩn period. Or you can listen to long-term expats. One running thread in conversation is how Việt Nam" has changed in the last 10 years. A decade ago there were cyclos and bicycles, but now there are lots more motorbikes, and even a few private cars. My intuition is telling me that much of this change is due to Mr. Khải's "back room" efforts to free up the economy. Well, good on him, and I tip my hat to him.

It's not all wine and roses. Corruption is way up; I suspect that this is the main reason why Mr. Khải is stepping down. Fortunately, the powers-that-be are allowing journalists to do their jobs and report corruption scandals. (Check the link; it's not one article, but the results of searching for "corruption" at the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Niên. There's more than 200 results coming back.) Industrial strikes are up, "over 90 percent of them caused by employers violating laws and fanned by the authorities’ poor management". Pollution is up, and traffic is revolting, if not down to Bangkok substandards. Yes, this place could be better. but in some ways, Việt Nam looks a lot better when compared to the other "Free Market Socialist Economy", China, up next door. Here, you don't have armies of thugs to evict villagers in land disputes, yet. You don't have thousands of students rioting and vandalizing over the status of their diploma, yet. Industrial strikes, yes - but mass riots, a lot less in this place. Growth here is indeed slower, but income inequality is still a lot less, and in metrics such as literacy and infant mortality, Việt Nam surpasses its northern neighbour. There may be less to blog about here, but it makes for a more peaceful stay.

It's not a complete political shakeup. That would have happened if Nông Đức Mạnh had resigned as well. He's the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Việt Nam. That's the same position once held by Lê Duẩn and Hồ Chí Minh himself. But since he was reappointed for a second 5 year term in 2006, I suppose he's staying for now.

And how will the 80 million people living here react to the departure of Misters Khải, Lương and An? Going by my wife, I'd say mass indifference.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Enter the final 16

Australia - Croatia: 2 - 2. Both my wife and I stayed up for the game. The big questions on the lips of everybody who is interested:

  • In what circus did they recruit referee Graham Poll? Ok, some of the Croats were being assholes, and I even saw one of their players push the ref around. That's appalling. However, three yellow cards for the same player?
  • Why was Mark Schwarzer on the sidelines for the match? I'm  trying to be fair to Željko Kalac, but fumbles with the most innocuous of balls did not make my wife nor I happy. We actually got nervous any time the Croatian strikers came near the Australian goal. "Oh, nooo. Oh, fuck. Oh, etc."
  • Australia, please set up the goals currectly before shooting. There were a lot of wasted shots. Crossing needs to be improved as well. The score could have been 3-2 or 4-2 in Australia's favour.

At the end of the day, we made it to the final 16. It would have been nice if we had entered with a win rather than a draw, but we're in. Now it's off to play against the Italians. Win or lose - I'm content.

For completeness, I should mention Australia's other match against Brazil on this blog. Yes, they beat us: 2 to 0.

But you probably know that already.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

This is a test of Flock

I decided to try a new way of blogging, so I downloaded Flock. It's a form of Firefox with extra features for blogging. The idea is that one can blog directly from the browser window. You set up the connection settings with your blog, which in practice is the user name and password. It brings up a dialog with two tabs. The "Editor" tab is the easy to use-bit which allows one to bold, italicise or do other things with your post. The "Source" tab is where you can see the corresponding HTML if you choose. I always choose.

Flock Blogger screen shot

My observations so far:

  • The blog post window wants to stay in front of other Flock windows, such as the main window, and the "Accounts and Services" dialog. This is distracting and irritating. It's bad user interface design. Change this feature immediately.
  • Can Flock handle Vietnamese, or for that matter, Unicode in general? "Thỉnh thoảng tôi muốn viết Tiếng Việt." It seems to be able to do this from the interface, but will it garble the text when sent to the Blogger website? The only way to find this out is try and see.
  • There is a lack of features. I sometimes like subscripts and superscripts, but they aren't provided. A "CODE" tag or similar is absolutely essential if you want your text to look monospaced, but it's not there.
  • You can add pictures by the old "CTRL-V" command; that seems to be an undocumented feature. That's how the screen shot above was shown. However, it garbles the resulting HTML, and writes a link to one's hard drive. This is another feature that needs to change immediately.
  • The spelling feature works, up to a point, but still flags words like "blog", "blogger" and "blogging" as spelling errors. It's biased towards U.S.-style English, and does not like the word "italicise". (Actually, that's a general criticism, and not limited to Flock; I'd like a spell check dictionary that finds both British and U.S. variants acceptable.)
  • It would be nice to have a "clean-up" option of unused HTML tags. At the end of this post is a lot of redundant tags like the following:

<p><br />

  • (And I tried to enter the "code" tag on the preceding HTML snippet, by editing it into the "Source" tag. Flock didn't like that. Flock closed the tag as <CODE /> before it. I dislike applications who think they know what the users wants, and gets it wrong.)
  • The final problem is that there is no way to upload previous posts, and edit them. Here's the scenario. You make a blog post. Someone makes an important contribution in the comments section. Being the nice person you are, you want to mention this contribution, so you alter your post accordingly. Nope, you can't do this, unlike stand-alone products like w.bloggar. That's a serious limitation.

My comments. I would give it 8 out of 10 for the casual user, who does not want to worry about HTML. It is easy to use, and pleasant to look at. On the other hand, I would reduce it down to 6 out of 10 for more HTML-savvy people like me. It's a toy. It's a nice, functional toy, but it does not give me the features of NVU. However, I should say that Flock is only at version 0.7, and not a full version. so more features may be added later.

There's one last test, which need to be undertaken. Will this post publish? Let's find out.

UPDATE: (5 minutes later): the screenshot came out shite. It was too big, and invaded the sidebar. Flock does allow you to add pictures to your Photobucket site. That's nice. However, it does not allow you to resize pictures. That's not nice.

And no, you can't update previous posts. What you can do is choose another post to overwrite. That's nice if you've got one or two posts. If you've got over 100, then it appears it will try to load all of them into a drop down menu. "It appears", I say. When I saw it was doing, I decided to cancel quick smart; there's a fair chance Windows would break. So I'm going to enter this post a second time, but this time by Blogger's normal web interface, and with a little extra editing in NVU, to add the "code" tag. In other words, I am not going to use Flock to add this post, because the interface does not allow me to edit old posts easily. As I judge this sort of missing functionality critical for a good blogging tool, I will change my ratings to 6 and 4 out of 10, respectively.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Gates gives it away

Comment-is-Free blogger Jeff Jarvis notices that Bill Gates resigns from day-to-day involvement in Microsoft, and asks "What is his legacy?" The best answer is given by commeter "xyzzy":

Gates' victory was in convincing people that computers are unreliable, and therefore failure is something to be accepted. That's now knocked on into other consumer durables, and audio equipment that needs to be rebooted once in a while, or need firmware updates in order to fix crucial bugs, is now a commonplace. The idea that a computer should work, flawlessly, unless and until the hardware fails, at which point the machine gracefully degrades, has been replaced by a knife-edge in which the man in the street risks the obliteration of his wedding photographs at any moment without the voodoo incantations of the elect.

I recently spent an hour resurrecting the PC of a neighbour [NTLDR and NTDETECT had gone walkies, geek fans]. Without skilled intervention, he would have been reduced to reinstallation and the loss of a lot of work. Gates' legacy is the sense of helplessness that intelligent man felt. It's a legacy we could do without.

And it's assholes to the rest of us, now that the unreliability of the software is now being matched by the unreliability of the hardware. (More grinding noises, again, which is why the Dell is "resting" under my desk as we speak.)

On the topic, I really, really, really can wait until my machine gracefully degrades; I'm content with Windows XP service pack 2, if not perfectly happy. I really do not want to face the burden of buying a new operating system in 2007 or 2008. Windows Vista sounds like utter bloatware, and the Macs these days are so shoddily built that they are staining after three weeks. And they overheat as well. I might be forced to Linux, despite its lack of user-friendiness; at least it's cheaper.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Power Cuts

.. are not unusual in this country, but power cuts during the 83rd minute of the England - Trinidad and Tobago match are unusually annoying. The game was starting to get interesting, with 1 goal already by the Poms. I have no information how many people were affected, but most would have been as pissed off as my wife. Afterwards, there was a two hour wait for the breeze to build up. No fans, you see. Cooling fans, I should say - not the ones who sing "Vindaloo." The air wasn't that humid, but it was very hot and still. I couldn't get to sleep for two hours.

Related link: Thanh Nien, Football fans promised, 'no power cuts!'. That promise was made only to Hà Nội (I think), and not to HCMC. On the other hand, the people in the provinces are really getting it hard, so I shouldn't complain so much.

Power supply will be prioritized for crowded cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City where total population is around ten million, he added.

That doesn't say much by itself, but if you connect the dots with Peak time power cuts to be scheduled in Vietnam, you're getting an idea of how much stress the World Cup is placing on Việt Nam's electricity grid.

In related news, Ha Manh Te, deputy director of the Electricity Plant 1 in charge of the northern area, said power consumption skyrocketed by 20 percent per day since early this month over last, reaching 42 million kWh. To cope with the situation, his plant would implement power cut schedules on a large-scale covering 15 Northern provinces and cities to ensure regional electricity, Te said. Under the scheme, the affected provinces and cities would face power cuts 21 times a week.

Vietnam’s electricity shortage could run into 180-200 million kW this year, propelled by the limited transmission capacity and insufficient fuel to run gas-operated power plants.

This is not the most developed country in the world, after all. I shouldn't bit too much. Still, I want to give a little bit advice for the local Electricity Board: if you need to shut down the generators and turbines for an England game, do it when Wayne Rooney isn't playing. Without him, the English were hopeless.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Comment Rage

Chase Me Ladies, I'm in the Calvary says this about this, so I reply with this. Now I'm wondering if I went a little bit overboard in replying these few hours later. I'm still fine with the content, but it's the tone, man - the tone! I know those words will never be unwritten, and I feel kind of better about it.

As for the anecdote about the man with the Pith helmet - it's a true story. It happened some years at a place called Allez Vous in the backpacker ghetto of Phạm Ngũ Lão. Locals would know about it. To understand the venue, imagine a bar which handles lots of visitors, but in most cases just once or twice. It's not one of the numerous Vietnamese cafés and restaurants, nor was it one of the standard expat watering holes. It was designed for the backpacker crowd - who are willing to try anything once with attractive furnishings. That the service was not enough to encourage many repeat customers doesn't matter - they're probably going to take the next bus to Phnom Penh tomorrow, never to return. So the customer experience is likely to rise to a certain level, but not beyond that. There's frankly no incentive.

The staff were friendly enough, but weak. I don't mean physically weak; one of the bar-workers talked to me about his National Service, and other males probably had the same experience; they could have taken down a Western prat no problem. But without direction from management, they were unwilling to deal with the hassle of a foreigner draining his glass into a pool table pocket. I had to point it out to them at great length, and with some reluctance, they gently moved the man away from the table. In other places (including pool halls in this country), an asshole like that would have been immediately ejected from the bar with force inverse to the liability law strength for that place.

It was the same weakness that made me leave Allez Vous for good. The staff were nice, but one day someone hired their asshole cousin, who immediately appointed himself as the pool table master. Write your name on the chalkboard, and when you win, you play the winner of the last match. Since he was generally the winner, he generally played every game... until I beat him in pool one night.

He just lost it. He didn't hit me or anything, but his body language was definitely aggro. He wanted to challenge me to another game. I refused. I pointed out that there were other people waiting, and it was their turn. So I started setting up the table, but he was still asking me to play him, and he was loud about it - so much that the legitimate challenger (i.e., one with his name in chalk) just decided it was "not worth it". Understandably.

Still, I had been coming to Allez Vous for a couple of months. So I reminded the bar staff of that, and also asked them to do something about their errant workmate, or I was never coming back. They looked back with horror. Maybe with a little bit of fear. I was a little scared too. Fortunately, some acquaintances were visiting another bar somewhere, and I had been invited along, so just then I walked outside straight into the interior of their waiting taxi-cab. I wasn't coming back.

And three years on, I never came back to Allez Vous. Nor did I need to - there are far better places in this town for both Vietnamese, and expats alike. And oh god, it feels good to share the story.

Monday, June 12, 2006

On the Australia versus Japanese match

That will be on at 8 p.m., my time. And there's no shortage of simulcasts to watch - including two in Vietnamese. There's VTV in Hà Nội Vietnamese, and HTV for my wife's preference of local, Sài Gòn-style Vietnamese. I haven't even mentioned English programming; one of the cable channels is "Sports 3" from South Africa, and does a very good job of telecasting the game. (Better than the ABC channel in the States, whose commentary, editing, and synching has generally been judged as shithouse.)

The Road to Surfdom has a nice roundup of Group F, the teams that Australia has to come second in to progress.

I think that it’s pretty obvious that Brazil will win Group F. Without meaning to disparage any of the other teams in the group, this is the second World Cup in a row that Brazil has been placed in a group that will all but assure them of qualifying for the next round. Last time it was Turkey, Costa Rica and China. This time it’s Australia, Croatia and Japan.

So, the real challenge here is finding out who is joining Brazil in this group into the next round. Japan has a pretty good midfield, but their attack doesn’t impress me and I don’t think their defenders match up well against the attackers from the other teams in Group F... So the choice is then narrowed down to Croatia or Australia (although with the number of players on Australia’s team of Croatian ancestry, it’s somewhat hard to tell who’s Croatian and who’s Australian)...

I should mention our quick visit to Mũi Né over the weekend. I got photos too. We caught the first few games, including the one that started it off: Costa Rice versus Germany. Good job, Costa Rica, for trying your best, and good job, Germany for not resting on your laurels. According to the taxi-driver back from the bus, the city turned into a ghost town when the games were on. Almost everyone went home (theirs or a friend) or hit the nearest cafe. The problem is that the motorbike hoons are using the absent street as an excuse to speed like Speed Racer himself. Last night, we encountered some utterly stupid driving during the Holland game.

Good luck, Australia.

UPDATE: Lots of "Oh shit oh shit oh shit" was coming from the mouth of yours truly after the 28th minute (when sloppy playing by Schwarzer let a goal in). That would be 58 minutes of "Oh shit oh shit oh shit", while I was praying and beseeching for at least an equalizer. This was delivered at minute 83, with another goal six minutes later, and then one more at the 92nd - one minute before closing time. Those were the first three goals for Australia in a World Cup final ever - all in the space of nine minutes. The first two were due to the efforts of Tim Cahill, and "Well done" I say to him.

Australia 3 - Japan 1. For a "blow-by-blow" account, check the recap from The Guardian, and do ignore the pathetic jokes about soap operas.

Congratulations, Australia.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Lousy lukewarm Liechtenstein linkup

It took a nation of millions to hold them back. Australia 3; Liechtenstein 1. The "1" was an own goal. It's a disappointing score for the last of the "friendlies" before the World Cup. Australia: lift your game. Or Japan are really going to wipe you out next monday.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Fanatic forces fatuous football fatwa

Muqtada Al-Sadr

This is Muqtada Al-Sadr. Don't ask him about David Beckham.

Iraq sounds like it's going to be one of the nastiest messes in the 21st century... and we're only 6 years in. 3 or more factions from the Shi'ites, tens of guerilla groups from the Sunnis, and there's the everpresent threat of the Kurds seceding. Which would even make more of a mess of the country, as Turkey would now intervene to prevent an independent Kurdish state. I have no idea of the death toll: probably 100,000 dead by violence, plus another 100,000 or so deceased from preventable illnesses - preventable pre-2003 - due to the collapse of the health system. It's screwed. 

So by now, I thought I'd be inured to shock. When I heard about Haditha, well... I think it's a bad thing, but I wasn't really surprised. Soldiers lose their heads in the field and start shooting at civilians; it's not like I haven't heard of that before. But that damned conflict still has the capacity to shock. Muqdada Al-Sadr - the man with the bad teeth above, and one of the big powers in Iraq - has decided to issue a fatwa - a religious proclamation - on football. He thinks it is blasphemous and his fatwa prohibits the game. Let River of Baghdad Burning tell the tale:

...It was up for nearly two whole days before the problems began. The first hint of a problem came through G.’s neighbor. He stopped by the shop and told G. that a black-turbaned young cleric had been walking past the shop window, when the flag attracted his attention. According to the neighbor Abu Rossul, the young cleric stopped, gazed at the flag, took note of the shops name and location and went on his way. G. shrugged it off with the words, “Well maybe he’s a fan of Brazil too…” Abu Rossul wasn’t so sure, “He looked more like the ‘Viva Sadr!’ type to me…”.

A day later, G. had a visit at noon. A young black-clad cleric walked into the shop, and had a brief look around. G. tried to interest him in some lovely headscarves and abbayas, but he was not to be deterred from his apparent mission. He claimed to be a ‘representative’ from the Sadr press bureau which was a few streets away and he had a message for G.: the people at the abovementioned bureau were not happy with G.’s display. Where was his sense of national pride? Where was his sense of religion? Instead of the face of a heathen player, there were pictures of the first Sadr, or better yet, Muqtada! Why did he have a foreign flag plastered obscenely on his display window? Should he feel the need for a flag, there was the Iraqi flag to put up. Should he feel the necessity for a green flag, like the one in the display, there was the green flag of “Al il Bayt”… Democracy, after all, is all about having options...

As it turns out, Muqtada [Al-Sadr] has a fatwa against football (soccer). I downloaded it and this is a translation of what he says when someone asks him for a fatwa on football and the World Cup:

“In reality, my father's position on this topic isn't deficient... Not only my father but Sharia also prohibits such activities which keep the followers too occupied for worshiping, keep people from remembering [to worship]. Habeebi, the West created things that keep us from completing ourselves (perfection). What did they make us do? Run after a ball, habeebi… What does that mean? A man, this large and this tall, Muslim- running after a ball? Habeebi, this ‘goal’ as it is called… if you want to run, run for a noble goal. Follow the noble goals which complete you and not the ones that demean you. Run after a goal, put it in your mind and everyone follows their own path to the goal to satisfy God. That is one thing. The second thing, which is more important, we find that the West and especially Israel, habeebi the Jews, did you see them playing soccer? Did you see them playing games like Arabs play? They let us keep busy with soccer and other things and they've left it. Have you heard that the Israeli team, curse them, got the World Cup? Or even America? Only other games... They've kept us occuppied with them- singing, and soccer, and smoking, stuff like that, satellites used for things which are blasphemous while they occuppy themselves with science etc. Why habeebi? Are they better than us- no we're better than them.”

Important note: Islamic Sharia does not prohibit soccer/football or sports- it’s only prohibited by the version of Sharia in Muqtada’s dark little head. I wonder what he thinks of tennis, swimming and yoga…

I listened to the fatwa, with him getting emotional about playing football, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Foreign occupation and being a part of a puppet government- those things are ok. Football, however, will be the end of civilization as we know it, according to Muqtada. It’s amusing- they look nothing alike- yet he reminds me so much of Bush. He can barely string two sentences together properly and yet, millions of people consider his word law. So when Bush raves about the new ‘fledgling Iraqi government’ ‘freely elected’ into power, you can take a look at Muqtada and see one of the fledglings. He is currently one of the most powerful men in the country for his followers...

... It’s darkly funny to see what we’ve turned into, and it is also anguishing. Muqtada Al-Sadr is a measure of how much we’ve regressed these last three years. Even during the Iran-Iraq war and the sanctions, people turned to sports to keep their mind off of day-to-day living. After the occupation, we won a football match against someone or another and we’d console ourselves with “Well we lose wars- but we win football!” From a country that once celebrated sports- football (soccer) especially- to a country that worries if the male football players are wearing long enough shorts or whether all sports fans will face eternal damnation… That’s what we’ve become.

Well, I may be a layman on Islam, but I know one thing: saying Sharia (or Islamic law) prohibits football is a heap of utter bollocks. If you don't believe me - look at the teams in the World Cup - both Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran are in the line up. I don't think Sadr will get many adherents from his fellow Shi'ites. I doubt Sadr even has the religious weight to issue fatwas, unlike (say) Ayatollah Al-Sistani - a man yet to release a fatwa on the subject. I wonder also what would happen if the Muqtadaists tried that shit with the SCIRI rank-and-file. There would be a lot of Iran fans in that mob, and I suspect they would have little patience with Sadr's "protective" antics.  

Even the most restrictive powers know not to mess around with sport. If religion is the opium of the masses, then sport is the speed - a big buzz in the bloodstream that will distract you from your cares for a while. Take away the porn, take away the drugs, take away the nasty music... but don't you dare take away the footie. It's good, clean, fun that develops healthy cannon-fodder for the state, and it's a great way to get nationalistic fevour on the cheap. This fatwa by Sadr is as sure a sign as any that he has "lost it", and I think this will cost him in the long run. 

Or in the short run if the U.S and Iran end up in another match for the Cup. It is an extreme long-shot, I know, but possible; it happened eight years ago. (It would probably also be the most politically charged sport meet-up since the USSR-Hungary water polo match at the 1956 Olympic Games, where I hear the water was thick with blood.) Guess who the Iraqis are going to going to barrack for? Your guess is as good as mine, but the point is that the Iraqis would want to barrack. Hopefully, a quiet counter-fatwa by Sistani (why has a lot more scriptural weight) would neutralize the threat of bloodshed. And Iraqi can move the tellie back into the living room, like real men everywhere. Better that than soccer balls containing IEDs. Even if they are kicked in Al-Sadr's direction.  

(Picture taken from Komiteen for et Frit Irak - The Committee for a Free Iraq, Denmark.)

Monday, June 05, 2006

Go Australia!

Of course I'm rooting for Australia in the World Cup. I'm not one of those fairweather fans who go for Brazil just because they're the strongest team. I know Australia is nowhere in the latter's league, but it makes no difference to me. 

Let's be honest: it's not going to be easy for us. It's been estimated we have only a 30% chance of getting out of our group. Group F, that is. Apart from Brazil (yes, we're playing against them, and good luck to us) we have Japan and Croatia to contend with. I'd be utterly ecstatic if we beat Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and sundry in the field, but there's little chance of that happening. But beating one or both of the others - difficult but doable. That should be enough to get us into the second round.

At the moment, we're in the middle of the friendlies - the matches before the Matches. And things aren't looking too bad. We beat Greece eleven days ago. Now we just got a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands. The Dutch are good, so not losing is almost as good as winning. There's just one more match before the World Cup begins: against Liechtenstein. Let's hope Australia gives that tax-havening relic from the Holy Roman Empire a good walloping on Wednesday. It's probably wouldn't mean anything; little Liechtenstein is better known for skiing than football. It would be a nice morale booster anyway.

Go Australia.