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Wednesday 26th March 2014 12:26 AM [General]

I was in Burma the other month and...

Well, the first problem with talking about Burma is what do you call it? It was renamed as the Union of Myanmar in '89, but some people refuse to use that name since it would confer some legitimacy to the military government. On the other hand, some people are unhappy using the name Burma, since that's what the colonial British called it. You can't win, so I'll call it Burma, since I'm old school [1] :roll:

Anyhow, I was in Burma the other month, and very excited to finally make it. I had planned to go in 2008, but Cyclone Nargis hit, which put a kibosh on that trip. It affected only a small part of the country, but IIRC, the government was so intent on controlling the message that was getting out, and stopping journalists from running around and reporting on stuff, that they made it very difficult to get in.

Nowadays, it's a completely different story. The government has opened things up for tourism, and while there are still parts of the country foreigners are not allowed to go, it's much easier to get in and travel around, and tourist numbers have been nearly doubling annually for the past few years.

Of course, there's a lot of debate about whether or not people should visit the country, since a lot of your tourist dollars end up in the hands of the government, but many feel (as I do), that small-scale tourism can be very beneficial to people on the street, not only financially but also in terms of bringing in outside knowledge and experiences and influences.

Mrauk-U and Sittwe

Mrauk-U is the old capital of the Arakanese kingdom, with many temples scattered around the town. It's definitely not on the main tourist trail and the area was recently closed off to foreigners due to fighting. Everyone was telling me that road travel was forbidden and you had to fly, but I'd heard word of some people that had made it through by bus, so I decided to give it a shot. Like many things in Burma, there are rules upon rules, but no-one really cares about enforcing them, and I managed to make it all the way by bus. It was a brutal 36-hour trip :bigshock:, including several checkpoints where I slid down in my seat and pulled my cap down over my eyes. Being Asian surely helped a bit there :)

I was surprised at how developed Sittwe was, with paved roads, small supermarkets and internet cafes. If you squinted just right, it could just be another small town in country Thailand. No buffalo wandering the main road here. There is some tension between the various ethnic groups, and Buddhists and Muslims, and unlike most of the other places I visited, it was clearly visible, with parts of the town blocked off as Muslim-only areas, armed guards blocking entry.

But while checking out temples is fine, I always much prefer just walking around and getting out of town. People were lovely all over Burma, and noticeably honest. There weren't the blatant rip-offs and scams that infest Thailand, and I was happy ordering meals without checking the price first, and letting people pick their change out of my wallet.

And the kids were delightful... :)

I also love visiting markets. They're noisy and crowded and chaotic and Sittwe's Central Market was all of that, and then some. Sittwe is on the western side of Burma, near India and Bangladesh, and there were an amazing number of different ethnic groups there. I haven't seen a market like this since the souks in the Middle East! Check out those fish!

Yangon (Rangoon)

Yangon was, until recently, the capital of Burma, when the government decided to pick everything up and move it all to Naypyidaw, although it's still the largest and busiest city in Burma.

The extraordinary rate at which things are changing is most apparent here. Most people have mobile phones, and smartphones at that; I saw only a handful of Nokia's during the entire trip. The roads are clogged with modern cars (motorbikes are banned [2] :shock:), and Western-style hotels and cafes and malls are going up all over the place.

I stayed in the downtown area, which is completely overrun with street markets. Cool! :)


The name Mandalay conjures up so many images but in reality, it's a dusty, polluted, crowded city :(

However, there was a huge market near where I was staying and I was there in the late afternoon, when the nuns were making their rounds.

Outside the city, on the other hand, is beautiful. U-Bein bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world and while the guidebook painted a picture of monks daintly crossing it at the break of dawn, the reality was that it was mostly joggers and other people doing aerobics and tai-chi, so the bridge was constantly bouncing up and down. Still very pretty, though... :)


Bagan is one of the tourist hotspots, with hundreds of temples dotted around the countryside. Many of them are still in active use and easily accessible on the small electric bikes that foreigners are allowed to ride. It's just as impressive as Angkor Wat, but there are hardly any people there!



As luck would have it, on my last night I saw a post from Ethan Zuckerman about a talk he had recently given in Yangon. Bugger, if I'd've known, I would've gone down. I've been following his work for quite a few years, and his blog is one of those that I recommend to new users of Awasu after they install it.

It was a great post, but I did find one thing that he wrote a bit odd:

... but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to people’s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where it’s possible for everyone to express their opinions.

I would've thought the more interesting question would be how the internet allows individuals to effect change. One can only assume that during the Arab Spring and other similar events, people weren't using the internet to discuss ideas or vote on new legislation :roll: It's about people connecting with each other, spreading news and information and new ideas, without middlemen, with their agendas and spin, and this is one of the big reasons why I favor small-scale tourism in places like this. The government is slowly opening access to the internet and allowing foreigners in, but I suspect they'll find that once they let the genie out of the bottle, it will be difficult to keep it on a leash :)

[1] Yes, I also can't get my head around Ho Chi Min City and still call it Saigon.
[2] The rumor is that a general's son was killed by a motorbike.

Wednesday 17th December 2008 6:56 AM [General]

It's been a long time since my last non-Awasu post but my head's been in another place for a while. But now that the 2.4 release is baking, some thoughts on an article from Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker that really caught my attention.

There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

I've written a few times before on my long interest in how people learn and our efforts to teach them [1] so this was definitely an article I was going to find interesting (despite the long ramblings about American football :roll: ).

One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is "value added" analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher's classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year.
It's only a crude measure, of course. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test. Nonetheless, if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are. What's more — and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world — the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast.

This last paragraph kinda sums up what's wrong with what happens in our schools. First, the discrepancy between what we think we're trying to teach, compared to what we are trying to teach, compared to what we should be trying to teach, is large. We think we're teaching our kids to be intelligent, creative thinkers, to be smart, to be independent, but nothing could be further from the truth. We make them wear uniforms, we make them sit in neat rows in the classroom, same as kids have had to do for the past few centuries. We urge them to be keen and enthusiastic and excited about whatever subject they happen to be studying at any given moment, until the bell rings at the top of the hour and they have to immediately drop everything they're doing, rush off to another room and instantly be keen and enthusiastic and excited about the next subject. And God forbid anyone should dare question (a critical component of being intelligent and creative) the status quo or any authority figure, dare do anything outside what has explicitly been deemed permissible by Those In Charge.

Instead, what we're really teaching them is how to pass tests. Tests are the raison d'être of our schooling system [2] since they're what we use to decide who gets to go to college, who goes to trade school, who gets what job. And yes, there's not much of real value that can be captured on a standardized test. Trigonometry and conjugating verbs is just memory work, learning how to do processes [3]. Where is the school curriculum that includes the things that are really important (and strategies for determining how well they are being learned): doing your best, generosity, curiosity, courage, determination, passion?

And can it really be true that the educational world has been "galvanized" by the notion that some teachers are significantly better than others? Good grief, isn't that the case of just about any activity you care to name?! The idea of the "rock-star programmer" [4], someone who is 10x as productive as a "normal" programmer (whatever that might mean), has been doing the rounds in the IT world for a few years now, to little controversy since it's generally accepted that such people really do exist. But teachers and schools have always been resistant to the idea of performance testing and rankings, partly, I suspect, due to the ambiguity of what it is they're supposed to be doing, and even if that were completely clear, the difficulty in measuring something as squidgy as education. That, and the Lake Woebegone effect: pretty much every teacher would grade themselves as average or above but by definition, 50% of them are going to be wrong and nobody wants to be told that :roll:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that youd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

No comment on this bit, I just thought it was an intriguing analysis and worth highlighting :-)

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States.
After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.

Um, isn't this freaking obvious? Obviously not :wall:

This is the same kind of thinking that leads companies to think that CMM is the be-all and end-all, the road to success. If you're in manufacturing then sure, having a well-defined, repeatable process is a Good Thing but it relies on a key assumption that the people carrying out the work are interchangeable [5]. While that may be the case for a peon on the assembly line, for anything that requires the slightest amount of intelligence or decision-making, there's absolutely no substitute for having people who know what they're doing and are good at it. These kinds of people are most definitely not fungible.

Picture a young preschool teacher, sitting on a classroom floor surrounded by seven children. She is holding an alphabet book, and working through the letters with the children, one by one: "A is for apple. . . . C is for cow."
[W]hat distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She's not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back.

[The University of Virginia's Curry School of Education] team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is "regard for student perspective"; that is, a teacher's knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom.

This touches on one of my (many) pet peeves: adults talking down to children. "Regard for student perspective," "allowing students some flexibility" are all about showing the kids some respect instead of taking a shut-up-and-do-as-you're-told approach. Sure, the teacher is still the boss but in an office, the boss would be expected to treat his staff with some respect and so similarly, a teacher should relate to the students as people, even if they are only little ones :-)

Pianta pointed out how the teacher managed to personalize the material. "'C' is for cow" turned into a short discussion of which of the kids had ever visited a farm. "Almost every time a child says something, she responds to it, which is what we describe as teacher sensitivity," Hamre said.

Same thing: respect. The teacher is talking with the children, not at them. I'm just gob-smacked that they have a special term for a teacher who responds to a child speaking to them :blink:

I've long held the belief that the language you speak influences the way you think [6]. For example, Asian languages often use different pronouns depending on the relative social status of who you're talking to (or about), so you're constantly thinking about where everyone fits into the social hierarchy so that you can speak with the correct amount of respect. In English, "teach" is often seen as a transitive verb i.e. something you do to something else e.g. I teach them. So we think of teaching as something that people (teachers) do to someone else (students). But really, the important thing is not that teachers are teaching but that students are learning, and "learn" is intransitive, it's something you do by yourself. The teacher is not the star of the show, the student is and a teacher should be there to guide and assist, not "teach".

Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers — that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you've watched Pianta's tapes, and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar.

This is a tough one. Clearly, simply being good at a subject doesn't necessarily mean that you will be good at teaching it. Lots of students struggle with maths because their teachers don't really understand it well enough themselves (!). Sure, they can do it well enough, but they don't have a deep enough understanding of it to be able to explain how it all works in such a way that the students "get it." And regardless of what you think our schools are trying to achieve, there's no escaping the fact that the people we hire to get our kids through school are the ones who didn't do particularly well at it themselves :roll: The top students certainly don't queue up to become teachers, nor do most of the second-tier students, so the people who become teachers are usually those who were, at best, average students themselves. And we wonder why things aren't going too well in our schools :wall:

But even academic success doesn't help identify potentially good teachers. Quite apart from the importance of non-academic skills (such as empathy and patience), our entire school system is based on the fallacy that if a student does well on a test, it means they understand the material [7]. But this is simply not true. I know from personal experience :-D that it is quite possible to do well on tests and not have a clue what's going on. I'm lucky to have a good memory and realized early on that I could get away with just regurgitating what my teachers wanted to hear :roll: Real learning requires a deep understanding and we don't have a good way to test for that.

[A teaching certification or a master's degree] are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications — as much as they appear related to teaching prowess — turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

I used to work with a guy who swore blind that formal training (i.e. a degree) was an essential requirement to be a good teacher (although IIRC, his wife was a teacher so he may have been a bit biased :roll: ) but funnily enough, he agreed with me that a Computer Science degree has almost no bearing on whether somebody will be a good programmer or not.

For my money, the most important requirement is motivation. You have to care enough to want to do a good job, you have to care enough to want to learn and practice to get better. Pair that with a willingness to work hard, hard enough to pick up the necessary skills, and as long as you're not a drooling moron, that should be enough for you to become at least reasonably good at whatever you might try [8].

Gladwell finishes up with this outrageous proposal:

In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn't be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don't track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree — and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander's training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you'd probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can't be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance. An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half's material in one year, we're going to have to pay them a lot — both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.

Food for thought, indeed. But he hits on the crux of the problem, even as it stands now: we don't value what our teachers do. We say we do, but we don't, not really. Jennifer Lopez gets mega-bucks and our love and adulation for some lousy acting (and even worse singing), teachers get stuck with class sizes of 30 or 40 or 50 and having to pay for photocopies out of their own pockets :wall: Parents with money give some of it to private schools who use some of it to attract better teachers but the underlying problem remains; we don't really care about what's happening in our schools, not as much as we do the next J-Lo record :|

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?


To finish on a completely unrelated note, the first thing I thought of when I saw the cartoon at the top of the article was the movie La Cité des Enfants Perdus (The City Of Lost Children) which features a pair of conjoined twins as one (two?) of its characters. I looked it up on IMDB and was surprised to find that the director (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) also did Alien: Resurrection so I dug it out and watched it again. La Cité is visually amazing and you can see a lot of the same style in the Alien movie. I certainly saw it in a different light (instead of in the context of the dreadful Alien 3). Check 'em out, they're great films :cool:

[1] The two are often diametrically opposed :|
[2] And don't get me started on No Child Left Behind, a marvelous example of the incredible distortion an over-emphasis on test results can have on what happens inside the classroom.
[3] For students learning maths, I call it the "sausage machine" approach. When they're looking at how to solve a particular type of problem, they simply have to remember how carry out each step of the process. Then they just feed the numbers in, turn the handle and out pops the answer. Note that they don't necessarily have to understand what they're doing, they just have to be able to turn the handle.
[4] Can't stand the term myself :|
[5] McDonald's are CMM 5. 'Nuff said :|
[6] In programming as well as in the real world. A Java programmer tends to approach a problem in a much different way to someone used to thinking in Prolog or assembly language.
[7] Consider the case where if A is true, then B is also true. It does not therefore follow that if B is true, then A must be true i.e. from "If an animal is a dog, then it has four legs", you can't turn it around and say "If an animal has four legs, then it is a dog." But we do this all the time in schools; we take "If a student understands the material, they will do well on the test" and conclude "If they do well on the test, they understand the material."
[8] Gladwell has a new book, "Outliers", out now whose main premise is that success is as much a result of hard work and other factors (say, dumb luck :roll: ) as it is raw talent. "Blink" and "The Tipping Point" were thought-provoking, even if you didn't necessarily agree with his ideas, but with "Outliers", he's definitely preaching to the choir here.

Wednesday 14th May 2008 1:53 PM [General]

I've written quite a few times before about my travels in Asia and if there's one thing old Asia hands learn fairly quickly, it's that if you're not sure what it is you're eating, then don't ask. They might tell you :eek:

I love bread but good bread is really hard to find in Asia, except in Indochina where it's fantastic (score one for the French). You can buy wonderfully fresh and crunchy baguettes from the street vendors, packed with salad and a pate made from something that I really didn't want to ask about :roll: The Vietnamese call them Bánh Mì Xiu Mai and Phil Lees talks a bit about them here.

And in my last trip to the Philippines, I was introduced to balut which is basically a crunchy boiled egg. Now, if you think about it, there are only two ways you can have a crunchy boiled egg and no, it's not because you eat the shell :bah: If you really want to know, Wikipedia has an explanation here, along with some totally gross photos. Guys cruise the streets on bicycles late at night shouting "Balut! Balut!" and the eggs they're selling often have numbers written on them indicating how, um, crunchy they are :blink:

I guess they go out late at night because after a big night at the pub is probably the only time you would ever want to eat one. The waitress at one bar I hung out at kept telling me how yummy they were and that I should try one and I eventually broke down and ordered a round (yes, I had had more than a few beers). All I can say is that I'm glad I saw the Wikipedia photos after I'd done it since I probably wouldn't have tried one otherwise :-|

Also from Vietnam is snake wine. This is from when I was there in '98.

Hoi An is something of an anomaly in Vietnam, a small town full of genuinely friendly, cheerful people, with none of the hassles that one has to put up with just about everywhere else in the country. Lying on the bank of a peaceful, meandering river, Hoi An was once an important port and old wooden trading houses and Chinese temples are tucked away in every backstreet, simply oozing nostalgic charm. The main part of town barely fills one square kilometre and the visitors almost outnumber the locals, yet it rarely feels overcrowded, there is such a good vibe in the air as you wander around the narrow lanes. The town has gone to great lengths to preserve its character and heritage, and also to ensure that everything runs smoothly for its guests. The payoff for the town is apparent and Hoi An is everyone's favourite place in Vietnam. In a country where the average wage is less than a dollar a day, people are clearly doing well for themselves.

After hours, the place to be was Treat's Same Same Cafe & Bar, run by a genial young man with a big smile and his Mom in the backroom, frying up plates of chips for us all. A few years ago the place had been a restaurant but Treat had decided that in a town overflowing with fabulous food, it was probably better to be doing something else. It was a dimly-lit place, not much brighter than the dark of the night outside, with an open-air courtyard and a few beaten-up musical instruments hanging on the walls. The requisite pool table sat at the far end of the bar, surrounded by an array of electric fans strategically positioned to give the players some relief from the muggy Vietnamese nights. Dripping sweat onto the pool table was considered to be somewhat less than dignified.

People came mostly for the music and behind the bar was what could possibly be the coolest drawer in all Vietnam, filled with a jumbled pile of cassettes that people had sent Treat from around the world with some of the funkiest, rockingest, hippest music that you could ever want to hear. Frustratingly, most of the tapes and their cases had long gone their separate ways and those that hadn't were obscurely labelled in a dozen languages, so most of time we had little idea of who or what we were listening to. Still, we had a good time bopping along as we waited our turn on the pool table.

On top of the bar sat a huge jar of snake wine, vodka, actually, but the jar had been filled to the brim with a variety of dead snakes and topped off with an evil-looking bird, feathers and all. It looked like something out of every schoolboy scientist's wet dream. Apparently, snake wine is supposed to be good for one's virility and the bird is a crucial ingredient. No right-thinking Vietnamese would ever dream of drinking this stuff without one. Of course, no right-thinking person would ever dream of drinking this stuff, period, and we spent several nights sitting at the bar clutching our reassuringly ordinary beers, warily eyeing this imposing bottle of pickled wildlife.

The pickled wildlife just eyed us back as if daring us to partake of their juices and so, naturally enough, on our last night in town when we were all rolling drunk, we decided that we had to at least try a little of the old snake wine. Shot glasses were lined up and Treat poured each of us our share. Salt and slices of lemon were provided for those who wanted it, although personally I felt that that was getting perhaps just a little too weird for words. We toasted the memory of those animals that had died so that we may drink, and knocked back our glasses.

It's difficult to find the words to describe how it tasted, like dead snake, I guess, with a gut-wrenching after-taste of dead bird. Being Guys, we manfully stood our ground but after we had all finished boasting about how virile and studly we had suddenly become, I was horrified to hear Treat say that he was going to shout us a "going-away" round. I could hardly refuse and so had to bravely down another glass of this whiskey most foul. The second shot was a killer and I was forced to invent a bus that had to be caught oh so early the next morning and staggered off home, ruefully wondering why I keep letting myself get talked into doing these things. If this be the price of virility, then point me to the nearest monastery, please!

Sunday 23rd April 2006 3:04 AM [General]

I've been watching Michael Palin's Sahara series and people, I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, it's giving me seriously itchy feet! :-(. I've been in and out of the Middle East quite a few times over the years and seeing all the African mud architecture and Arabs yelling at each other brought back strong memories of when I was last there.

As I did when travelling through S.E.Asia, I did a lot of writing and so for your Sunday afternoon reading pleasure, I've dug up some old stuff I wrote when I was in Yemen at the end of 1998...

Yes, I had to look it up as well. Located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen must be one of the world's most isolated countries, cut off from the rest of us by the impenetrable bulk of Saudi Arabia. Djibouti in East Africa is actually not all that far away, a short 50-mile hop across the mouth of the Red Sea although, of course, one has to get to Djibouti in the first place. And to the east, there is a land border with Oman - this was by far the most intriguing: it lies in the Ar-Ruba' al-Khali (or "Empty Quarter"), the largest sand desert in the world. There are no roads, no public transport and I was determined to cross it even if I had to buy my own camel and navigate by the stars to do it.

Believe it or not, Yemen was once one of the world's great super-powers, albeit some three thousand years ago. It was an important stopping point on many of the major trade routes between Egypt, India and across Arabia and was also a major producer of frankincense and myrrh. However, the rise of Christianity around the Mediterranean led to the abandonment of such pagan ritual fragrances and as the Greeks and Romans learnt how to use the monsoon winds on their voyages to India, the once great kingdoms of Arabia began to fall into decline.

In more recent times, the importance of Yemen's seaports reasserted itself, the south of the country being occupied first by the Portuguese and then by the British. It was only until the late 60's that the last of the colonialists were forced to leave and even then, the country was left divided, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south going to war with each other at regular intervals. In the mid-80's, the discovery of Yemen's first (and only) oil field straddling both sides of the border between the two did much to help the reunification of the country and despite a few lapses, the country is once again whole. Nevertheless, marked differences remain between the north and south, towns in the south being noticeably more European, better maintained and with a higher standard of living than those farther north.

The Yemeni

There are two things that make the Yemeni unique amongst Arabs: weapons and qat. There are an estimated 45 million guns in the country, not bad at all for a population of less than 20 million. Men and boys are armed to the teeth with one or more automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, supplemented with a full complement of pistols, ammo belts and jambiya, the traditional Arabian curved dagger.

The other Yemeni passion is chewing qat, the leaves of a small bush that gives a slight narcotic high. The chewed-up paste is not swallowed but pushed to one side of the mouth, forming a bulge inside the cheek (giving rise to the common Yemeni question: "Are you a lefty or a righty?" - most people seem to be lefties and dangle cigarettes out of the right side of their mouth, the nicotine giving a real kick to the hit). Chewing qat is very much a post-prandial activity and most of Yemen closes down after lunch as people crash out for the afternoon, chewing qat and smoking water-pipes. As a result, the Yemeni are some of the fastest eaters on the planet, lunch being a purely functional affair as the food is shovelled down so that they can hurry off and get onto the real business of getting high.

Qat parties take place anywhere and everywhere, on the floor in a shop, out on the street, in moving cars. It can sometimes be a bit of a shock to walk into a room and find a dozen guys slumped up against the walls, discarded qat leaves and branches strewn all over the floor, cigarette ash everywhere, goats poking around for scraps to eat although if you're taking part, you don't really notice it too much - pretty much like college parties, I suppose (even the bit with the goats - I'm told that we had some great parties back then).

Another thing about the Yemeni is their long tradition of kidnapping each other. Yemen is still very much a tribal society with tribes banding together to form loose alliances and disputes are often settled by one side taking key members hostage from the other. In these modern times, the practice has been to extended to foreigners being kidnapped, especially by the poorer Bedouin, in an attempt to force the government to provide basic services to the less fortunate parts of the country. There have been some one hundred or so cases over the past few years and while no incident has lasted more than a few days and no-one harmed to date, it was still something to keep in mind while travelling around the country. Shortly before I arrived, a group of European tourists had been captured and held for an unusually long time. It was a bit frustrating trying to keep an eye on the situation when the English-language newspapers only came out once a week but it didn't seem to be too serious and no-one really expected any harm to come to them.

More tomorrow...

Monday 27th February 2006 10:16 AM [Awasu News]

It's been mighty quiet here on the Awasu weblog of late and as long-time users know, this doesn't mean that we've gone on an extended cruise holiday but are instead toiling away in the dungeons working on the next release :whip:

One of the great benefits of a company blogging like this is the relationship that it helps build with your customers. You know more about me as a person than as a developer :-), that I do Aikido, play a lot of music and have spent a lot of time in Asia.

To continue on with this process, we've set up a new feed. The Awasu DevLog will post details of each new feature and bug fix as soon as they are submitted into the source code repository! So, if you've asked for something to be added to Awasu, you'll know the minute it's been done :-) and for the rest of you, it'll be a bit of teaser as to what to look forward to in the next release.

And, of course, it'll demonstrate that we really are working hard, even when the main weblog goes quiet, not sunning ourselves on the deck in the Caribbean.

Although in these days of global connectivity, you can never really be sure... :cool:

Tuesday 15th November 2005 4:29 PM [General], of course, through his stomach. Definitely true, at least in my case :oops:

I've often said that the real reason I spend so much time travelling, especially in S.E.Asia, is so that I can find new things to eat :-). And now I can get it via RSS!

Good grief. It's bad enough I get distracted by all the tech news flowing in from Awasu, I have to get megabytes of pictures of the most amazingly delicious-looking food as well?! :mad: It's kinda ironic though, that the biggest thing that stops me from working on Awasu is, erm, Awasu :roll:

I wonder what it must be like working at Valve... :?

Saturday 8th January 2005 12:42 PM [General]

I can't believe it's over.

Somehow, I made it through the festival without passing out from alcohol poisoning exhaustion, driving my motorbike off a cliff, or otherwise dying and/or embarrassing myself. I wasn't going to blog about it but I had such an amazing time, I find myself wanting to sit down and think about what just happened and if I'm going to do that, I might as well share it with y'all as I go.

We had 11 gigs in 10 days and while the other guys in the band thought that sounded not too bad, I knew it was going to be tough. And tough it was, running around the island to the different venues, jamming with the other musicians (some 400 (!) of us altogether, I believe), dealing with weird rooms, crappy equipment, variable sound, petulant superstars and all the other usual hazards of the trade.

I must've joined the world's only blues band where no-one drinks; our lead singer has recently given up booze and the others only drink a tiny amount. Which suits me fine since I'm more than happy to pick up the slack and take care of the band's allotment of free drinks at each gig :evil:. Of course, that meant that I was getting fairly loaded each night and since we were getting up (relatively) early in the morning (the buffet breakfast at the resort was excellent :-)), I was only getting a few hours of sleep each night and the odd cat-nap during the day when I wasn't running around like a headless chook (usually trying to get online to do Awasu support :roll:). And the other guys in the band were moaning about being tired :mad:.

One of the highlights of the festival for me was being able to see both Tewan with his regular band and Khun Inn. Tewan is something of a fixture in the Thai music scene and has been around for years, playing saxophone and an assortment of other instruments. I had seen him before playing jazz but this was the first time I had been able to see him in the Thai-jazz fusion setting that he is known for.

It was stunning. So many bands try to pass themselves off as traditional-local-music-meets-contemporary-pop fusion outfits by playing whatever they normally play and chucking in a few traditional instruments and a wind chime. But these guys were highly skilled in both contemporary jazz and rock as well as traditional Thai music and to hear classic Thai folk tunes weaving in and out of all these different styles in the course of a song was a treat. Khun Inn was equally amazing, playing Thai xylophone backed by a small army of percussionists all dressed in black. Wow!

After gigs, one of the smaller bars became the place to be if you wanted to jam, and jam we did. The quality of musicians was astounding, not only the overseas "stars" but also the local talent and guys down from the Big Mango. Of course, a lot of us were pretty, um, "happy" by that time of the night but the music was still of an amazingly high quality.

It was, by far, the best thing about the festival. For the punters, it's great to be able to see such a wide variety of different bands but for the musos, it's all about getting the chance to play with a bunch of new people and seeing what we can come up with. The punters knew that as well and the bar was packed every night with people up dancing and cheering us on. It was wild. Thailand has a 1am closing time that they have, in recent years, started enforcing but the cops were generally fairly tolerant of us and gave us a lot of latitude for the festival and we usually didn't finish up until 5 or 6 in the morning.

Another buzz for me was being able to jam with Leena. I had caught one of her shows earlier in the festival and loved it but wasn't able to get to see any more since I was busy gigging myself. I have to admit to being a total sucker for female musicians who are even a little bit good at what they do. We make it so easy for women to get by on their looks and batting their eyelashes that when I see someone who's actually good at something, it's a real turn on :-)

And not only is she a great performer, but she's stunningly pretty as well. Thais refer to people with Thai-Western heritage as look kreung (literally "half child") and while twenty years ago it was something of an insult, once these kids started to grow up and everyone realized how amazingly attractive their mixed blood made them, it's now a very desirable thing to be. They are today's generation of pop stars and actors and it's almost getting to be you can't get a break in the entertainment industry unless you have a mixed heritage.

Sigh... Pretty and a good musician. I never stood a chance :-(. She had me at G/G/C7/G :-)

Another thing that blew me away was running into so many people I knew from earlier sojourns in S.E.Asia. I used to play with Flynn Adams (a big black dude on a 7-string bass) 6 or 7 years ago when I was in Hong Kong and I also bumped into an old student of mine and her S.O. who I also knew from that time. We had lost touch with each other and I was gob-smacked when they popped up in front of me during a gig - I totally messed up my solo :-). Then I ran into a bunch of guys working in one of the bars that I knew 12 years ago when I was living in Chiang Mai. And then there were all the people I knew when I was living in Samui myself 7 or 8 years ago, who were still on the island. I guess I get around a bit... Good grief :-|

Of course, there was the spectre of the tsunami that hung over everything during the festival. The island was full of people who had either come over from the other side or had changed their holiday plans and everyone knew someone who had been affected by it. The festival organizers pledged to donate a large percentage of the revenue to the Andaman Aid fund - I believe they ended up raising quite a large chunk of money - and there's talk of a benefit concert being put on in the very near future. After everyone recovers, I guess :-). I'm certainly going to do my best to be there.

The next festival is rumoured to be in September this year but this time with some major big-name acts (in case Zakiya Hooker and ex-Curtis Mayfield guys weren't big enough). So if you're thinking about taking a holiday around that time, keep your eyes open for The 2nd Koh Samui Blues & World Music Festival. It might be fun :-)

Monday 27th December 2004 8:21 AM [General]

I was getting all excited about flying out to Koh Samui today since I'm performing at the Koh Samui International Blues and World Music Festival.

Except of course a bloody great big earthquake has hit SE Asia. I wonder if any of the venues I'm supposed to be playing at are still standing? I'm taking my laptop down so I s'pose I'll be able to work on updating the help for 2.1 :roll: Samui is on the other side of the mainland from the epicentre so it's protected from the tsunamis but can anyone spell "aftershock"...?

Sigh... :-(

BTW, the Red Cross are taking donations here.

Monday 9th August 2004 12:49 PM [General]

As you may have gathered, I have a strong interest in South-East Asia. I've spent many years travelling around and living there and one of the things I always do is to take a notebook with me and scribble down thoughts and some sketches. At the risk of turning this into a literary blog :roll:, I thought that I might put up a block quote from myself for a change. This was written when I was in Cambodia in 1998:

Phnom Penh certainly isn't what I expected it to be: a sleepy little town, lots of old colonial buildings, bullet holes. Well, sleepy this place ain't! There is as much noise and traffic here as anywhere else in Asia, plus some of the most insane driving that I have ever seen. In addition to that, my previous long-standing record in the category of "Most Number Of People And/Or Farmyard Animals Seen On A Motorbike At One Time" was easily broken here. I've seen motorbikes so overloaded with ducks and chickens that they look like some kind of giant feathered mutant, farting noxious black smoke and being jockeyed by a wild maniac in sunglasses and a cap. Mind you, the animals seem to take it all quite calmly, trussed up and dangling upside-down from the handlebars. They must have quite an interesting view every time they go into town.

Phnom Penh was once a beautiful place, I think, but it has taken something of a beating in recent times. The Khmer Rouge destroyed so much of the old town and a lot of the damage has yet to be repaired. The prettiest area is along the river where many of the old mansions still stand, earning their keep today as bars and restaurants. There are an amazing number of places around town, with pool tables, good food and even better beer (Victoria Bitter, no less). It's just a shame that it's not necessarily safe to go out after dark. The Royal Palace is also situated on the waterfront, although it is closed to the public now that Prince Sihanouk has returned. Major roads have been repaired and are teeming with traffic and some of the boulevards actually look quite magnificent in places although the state of most of the back roads still justify having a 4WD to get around town.

But my favourite thing about this place (apart from the disoriented chooks) is the motorbike taxi drivers, especially the ones that can speak a bit of English and hang around the guesthouses. Walk out the front door and I'm swamped by a dozen guys all wanting to be my best friend: "konichiwa- ohio- gozaimasu- g'day- mate- howzit- goin'- you- want- lady- fuck- i- take- you- no- problem- go- killing- fields- cheap- price- go- shoot- a- gun- go- etc- etc..." Local laws require drivers to wear seriously cool shades and a baseball cap for identification purposes and while most drivers will tell you their name ("Hi! My name's Ng and I'll be the cause of your death today..."), everyone will ask you to remember them by their cap: Nike, USMC, deformed eagle, Bananas In Pajamas, etc...

Cambodian girlsBut while life seems normal enough (for Asia) on the surface, I think that there's a storm of lawlessness underneath. Somebody gets pissed at you and lobs a grenade through your front door, there's probably not a whole lot you could do about it (assuming you survive, of course). After dark, gangs of one-legged men and other misfortunates roam the streets, collecting donations for their retirement funds from generous shopkeepers and passerbys. One of the first things everyone is told after arriving here is to be careful about taking motorbike taxis after dark, since it's not unheard of for them to take you straight to your local bandits. The guy who explained all of this to me also mentioned that he himself had been robbed at gunpoint "only twice" in the last year. Hmmm...

Another disturbing thing is the flogging off of a horrific and not-so-distant past as a tourist attraction. Moto drivers will approach you with: "Killing Fields, Killing Fields! You go only $2 cheap price!" or "I take you Tuol Sleng [the infamous Khmer Rouge interrogation centre] show you around no problem!" A similar thing happens in Vietnam, but at least the war there was something that the "foreigners" were "responsible" for. The Pol Pot era is a horror that most countries would closet away as a national shame.

And then towards the end of my visit:

Cambodia is a wonderful place to be a modern-day cowboy, where NGO employees can cruise around in luxurious 4WD's and brush up on their AK-47 skills before taking that long weekend upcountry. You can have all the perks of living in a formerly colonised Asian country, and just a hint of danger without the risks associated with being in, say, Sarajevo (or New York). The American dollar is still mighty powerful here - better restaurants and bars invariably list prices in dollars - while at Angkor it is not uncommon to see overweight, middle-aged European tourists being followed by an entourage of five or six Cambodians carrying fans, water and parasols. A sad sight indeed.

It has been several years since the last UN soldier left but the situation remains volatile, even as the Khmer Rouge slowly withers away and people try to come to terms with democratic elections. Major players in the political arena race to empty the public coffers and bomb each other's offices, and in the lead-up to the elections there has been a constant stream of reports of intimidation and harassment at voter registration stations. But as is the case in much of Asia, most people seem to be more concerned about simply making a living without getting beaten up too much rather than which particular guy in a suit happens to be in office.

Angkor ThomFor most of us, all we know of Cambodia is political turmoil, land-mines and the Khmer Rouge. The only Cambodians I had seen previously were refugees living in Melbourne, marginalised and stuck in the ghettos so to come here and see the people in their own country has been a wonderful experience. Outside of Phnom Penh, towns are small and peaceful and isolated from the rest of the world. Time passes by slowly as people live their lives to a completely different rhythm. There have been plenty of UN soldiers and foreign-aid workers, but few tourists venture out this way and I received a warm welcome and lots of help wherever I went.

The country is still desperately poor and there are a frightening number of maimed people around. My young moto driver in Siam Reap told me that he was terrified every time he had to go into the bush. In a country like Cambodia, a land-mine will end your life even if it doesn't kill you outright. Yet the people are still cheerful and friendly and after so many years of violence, I think that they are long overdue for some good times.

My (ahem) "publisher" is nosing around for a book deal so maybe something might come out of all these scrawlings. Who knows...

/taka keels over from auto-asphyxiation :roll:

Sunday 8th August 2004 11:57 AM [General]

As you may have seen in the forums, I was out of town last week and having a bit of a hard time with masses of bureaucratic red tape. I won't bore you all with the gory details but I ended up spending a lot of time sitting around on my ass waiting for others to get off theirs. This was also partly caused by the fact that I managed to hurt my foot to the point where I was barely able to hobble over to the bar to get myself a beer. The horror!

So I crawled down to the local bookstore and picked up a few books which made for a nice change since I've been so busy of late, I've hardly had the time to do much reading.

The first was The Quality of Mercy by William Shawcross. While there have been many books that talk about the horrors that happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (including Shawcross's own Sideshow), this one is a little different in that it examines the aid and redevelopment effort that happened afterwards. Not only were governments from around the globe in there trying to manipulate the situation for their own political gain, aid agencies were fighting amongst themselves over the best (read: highest-profile, easiest-to-sell-to-the-public-for-donations) projects while the local politicians and military were creaming off the aid money and supplies as fast as it arrived.

However, something that really caught my attention was what he wrote in the book's introduction (and this was published in 1984):

The flood of instant information in the world today - at least in the Western industrialized world - sometimes seems not to further, but to retard, education; not to excite, but to dampen, curiosity; not to enlighten, but to merely dismay. Archibald MacLeish once noted, "We are deluged with facts but we have lost or are losing our human ability to feel them."

MacLeish compared the speed and plethora of modern communications with the way in which the world learned of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The news was brought to New York by MacLeish's grandfather, months after the event. The story was carried on the front page, but its effectiveness derived from the one man's telling of it.

Shawcross continues:

Today the battle of the Nile or the retreat from Moscow might have been covered live or at least endlessly commented upon as it took place - or it might have been almost ignored. Either way, covered or uncovered, it would soon have been superseded. The exiled Czech writer Milan Kundera pointed out, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, that "the bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh; the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende; the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai; and so on and so forth, until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten."

I've always been somewhat bemused by the headline ticker that goes across the bottom of 24-hour news channels and nowadays, even the daily six o'clock news. Stock prices are one thing but headlines from other unrelated stories are just something else. People tell me that it's a more efficient way of getting your news; "multi-tasking" they tell me to which I have a one-word response: "bollocks." Are our attention spans now so short that we can't even focus on the story that the news reader is presenting right that very second without getting bored and reading what's on the ticker? Good grief :roll:

And it's not like all this endless analysis and talking heads are making us better informed. As often happens, we mistake quantity for quality and think that we are that more knowledgeable about what's happening in Iraq, for example, because of it. Yet all the hours and hours of coverage simply serve as filler until the next cause célèbre but until that happens (and especially in the runup to the US elections), what hope for the people of Darfur or North Korea or Tibet?

The next book was Air America by Christopher Robbins. First published in 1979, it takes a look at the "secret" air services provided by CIA-backed companies in South-East Asia during the 60's and 70's. The book served as the basis for the Mel Gibson/Robert Downey Jr. movie of the same name but while there may have been some collaboration between the author and the film producers in the early days of the project, Robbins devotes a chapter of the latest edition disassociating himself and the Air America pilots from the film :-)

It's a very entertaining read, mostly anecdotal but some of the stories are amazing, from having to clear runways of tigers by releasing chickens with live grenades strapped to their bodies to learning how to keep a plane trimmed while cows wandered around inside to having to land planes on runways so short that they had to run the engines at full reverse except that the only way to do that was to have a guy sitting at the back of the plane and on a signal from the pilot, cross some wires over!

Of course, Air America is best known for running drugs and while Robbins doesn't go so far as to say that such a thing never happened, one feels that he lets them off somewhat lightly. Still, it's hard to imagine how he could have said anything else without losing access to the pilots (and getting the crap kicked out of him by the same). Opium has been an integral part of the region for a long time and the primary source of income for the Meo hilltribes who were fighting for the Americans; without it, the war in Laos would have been over very quickly. But in a deliciously ironical twist, a rising official interest in drug activities in the region during the early 70's led to Air America ferrying anti-drug agents around the country :-)

The last book was Another Quiet American by Brett Dakin. In 1997, Brett was 22 and not even out of college when he took a Princeton-In-Asia position at the Lao National Tourism Authority advising them on tourism development, something that Laos had only just started experimenting with. He starts off completely in the dark about Laos and what he is supposed to be doing there and the book takes us through his journey of learning about the country and people (and even a bit about tourism).

Dakin raises an interesting question that is not often asked: why are the aid agencies even in there at all? Yes, the country is extremely poor, infrastructure terrible and life hard but it's their life and it's amazingly arrogant for the western aid agencies to roll into town in their trademark white 4WD's with huge amounts of money (that has a very destabilizing effect on the local economy), starting "major infrastructure projects" left, right and centre that often prove to be totally unsuitable because no-one bothered to take the time to ask the locals what they actually needed.

And of course, the aid workers themselves are well-taken care of. Dakin writes of one UN consultant who was shipped in at a rate of USD $10,000 per month (average annual income in Laos: around USD $300) and another agency that was instructed to buy more vehicles and computers for itself but to reduce wages paid to the local staff!

UPDATE: And just in case you were thinking that this is all of historical interest only, thirty years later there are still thousands of Lao hilltribe people living in what are essentially refugee camps in Thailand, looking for somewhere to go.

So I spent a few pleasant days with my nose buried in a book with a cold beer at hand. Lovely! :-) I didn't choose these books with any particular theme in mind but together they gave a fascinating look at the recent history of that part of the world from three different perspectives, from the men who helped fight a war that had such a devastating effect, the efforts to rebuild a country after it had self-destructed and that of a small country's attempt to open itself up to a world that knew almost nothing about it.