Monday, September 14, 2009

Bye bye RLT

It's been unofficial for a long time so I may as well make it official: Real Life Thailand is going into semi-retirement. I will probably return and write longer articles on an occasional basis, but I don't anticipate any regular updates, unless the writing bug hits me again.

Why? It's hard to say. I've not lost my interest in Thai politics or in studying Thai society. I've not lost any of my free time (not that I had much anyway, being married and having two kids) and I've not lost interest in writing.

So what is it? I can't give a straight answer to that, I can only give a few thoughts. First, there are so many excellent bloggers on the Thai political scene, some of them blog two or three times a day and I just can't compete with that. I wish I had the drive to blog that frequently. I do like to think that some of my articles have been deeper and more reflective than the regular bloggers, though. But perhaps the real reason is that right now, my attentions are focused elsewhere. After four years of blogging on Thai politics (I had another blog before RLT) I feel that most of what I've got to say, I've already said!

After all, blogging is, essentially, a selfish thing to do. I mean 'selfish' in the sense that the typical blogger is looking to express his or her feelings and thoughts and convince others to think likewise and feels better for doing so. There are probably exceptions to this, but I think it is a fairly reliable axiom. For me, that feeling of satisfaction borne from self-expression lies elsewhere at the moment.

In my years of blogging on RLT I've enjoyed it all, and I've certainly learned a lot as I went along. Looking back at my earlier blogs - perhaps all the way up to early 2008 - I can see that I was trying too hard. I used to actually edit my blogs to make the vocabulary more specialised and difficult to read. It sometimes created unnatural writing, without fluency. But there were some surprises along the way. Some of the articles I felt were my best got little feedback. Others - often those I did quickly, with little forethought - still generate comments today.

I've never been bothered about hit rates or readership levels and I've no idea how many visitors I get. I know it must be a reasonably high number though, because I occasionally get businesses in Thailand offering me money to let them advertise. I never bothered replying to any of them.

Likewise, since one of my blogs made the front page of 'The Nation Thailand', I've had occasional offers of media work. At first it seemed exciting but once again, it's something I've lost interest in. Unless it's something I particularly enjoy discussing, I don't bother to take the interview.

I sometimes get emails asking questions or seeking advice about Thailand. Please do feel free to keep any questios coming, I'm always happy to reply.

In closing, to anyone who's taken the time to read my blog, I thank you. Please don't strike me off your blog list. I will still blog on teaching, politics and other aspects of life out here, just not so often.

I've got a new blog I'm working on that will go live soon. Anyone wanting to follow is welcome to email me.
All the best,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The evolution of Thai football

EDIT: I've corrected several of the typos in this blog, which were caused by a rubbish keyboard (and, of course, the plonker typing the blog).

I have, in the past, made some disparaging comments about Thai football and Thai footballers on this blog. It is, therefore, my duty to set the record straight.

Whenever I've been asked about Thai football, I have told friends that it is Sunday league standard and nobody goes to the games. This is the general axiom of Thai football held not only by farangs, but a good number of locals, too. Slowly though, the tide is turning.

The Thai FA (full of allegations of corruption and incompetence) set up the Thai Premier League a few years back and since then, have very slowly set about making some of the changes required to build a successful football league.

Step one was to dissolve the provincial leagues. Nobody is going to get too fanatical about a league in which you know which teams you will play every week, and with no major awards to win. One extra benefit of this is that some of the Bangkok teams have moved to other areas and given locals in large cities or provinces such as Kanchanaburi a team to follow.

Step two was to encourage teams to adopt real names. Many teams had (and some still have) ridiculous names of private teams such as 'Krung Thai Bank' and 'Chulalongkorn University'. This would be the equivalent of UK fans supporting teams with names like 'Natwest Bank' and 'Durham University'.

Actually, the Thai FA decreed that all teams must become private entities (no doubt some money was made by someone high up with this move) but the side effect was the desired one. We now have teams like 'Bangkok United' instead of 'Krung Thai Bank FC'. New team badges and strips have appeared at the same time, all helping to add to a sense of identity for players and fans.

Finally - and most importantly - money has started coming into the leagues. Massive sponsors such as Beer Chang, Yamaha, Coca Cola and many more have poured sponsorship money into the TPL. Already the befits of improved stadia and promotion are starting to show.

There are still massive steps to be taken though. Despite the rapid changes, many Thai football fans are blissfully unaware of their local team or even the league as a whole, they still have the same impression I had. Far more advertisement and coverage is required, but efforts are being made....

I saw an advertisement for Bangkok United in the Bangkok Post (where else?) and was intrigued by the idea of a Thai team carrying a proper football name. A little internet research revealed that my local team had also become a real team, with a remarkably impressive website and an incredibly popular fan site. Last weekend I went to my first game in a sold out stadium, jam packed full of fans, of which I honestly believe at least eighty percent were wearing the replica team shirts. The noise was amazing, the loudest I've heard since Southampton's days in the EPL.

The standard of football itself is not world class, Chonburi's star player is a Welshman released on a free transfer by Northwich Victoria for example, but there is a good pace to the games with moments of skill thrown in. The ticket prices for every team are ridiculously cheap, unlike the English leagues, the Thai leagues are still looking to attract fans rather than bleed them dry.

So if you're a footie fan in Thailand,google (or wiki search) for "Thai Premier League 2009", check out your local footie team and go and watch. You might not be blown away by the skill on display but you'll be impressed by the passion, devotion and friendliness of the fans and players. You'll also be doing your bit to help out a league that is trying hard to expand and improve. More people should know about Thai football.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The many faces of Thaksin

Well I guess you don't become a billionaire by being dumb, inflexible, unresponsive or unresourceful. It's no surprise that Thaksin Shiniwatra's 'big surprise' touted at his birthday bash yesterday was the formal announcement of the launch of his own media channel. The ex-PM pledged to employ reality TV (covering Thai poverty), news and sports shows. All this in addition to his new Facebook and Twitter profiles.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that this (dis)information barrage seems to have been a final resort. Thaksin's many faces have attempted several other forms of engagement since he was ousted in 2006.

1) The 'appeal to sympathy' approach.
Thaksin portrayed himself as almost naive, telling foreign TV channels of his shock at his removal, his exit from politics, his disgust at interference with the media, (apparently forgetting his own extensive and brutal actions in that area) and his hurt at being declared corrupt. This approach was not entirely unsuccessful.

2) The demagogue

This tactic followed from, and complimented tactic number one. Mr T purchased Manchester City and "promoted" both Thai culture via a night of Thai food at City of Manchester Stadium and Thai sportsmen by hiring three Thai national players. Of course they never made the first team, were treated embarrassingly and on occasion were not even paid. They were sent back as soon as their propaganda use was outlived. Requesting the Cityfans should 'treat me as one of them', Thaksin pledged to open sports schools in Thailand.

Sadly the dream was short lived. As his 'sympathy' charade began to fall apart, Thaksin decided to quit City before he failed the FA 'fit and proper person' test.

3) The moral superior (also known as the 'Jedi mind trick')

He knew better than everyone else. He was moral and pure, tireless and dedicated, victimised and heroic. Anyone that disagreed with him was simply wrong and misinformed. Soon they would realise the error of their ways, but he would forgive them anyway.

How does he convince us of such things? Why, simply by telling us of course! This aproach often gave way to incredible irony, such as his constant reminders that the UK welcomed him because it was "democratically mature". Of course, when his UK visa was cancelled that changed to: "They will soon feel sorrow". Likewise, he praised the Thai courts and told the people: "I believe in the Thai justice system" though after being found guilty, that changed to "a political decision and an unfair court".

4) The militant

The true angry face of the great one showed itself when the end game began - the powers that be started to talk about confiscating his already frozen assets.
Talk of "raising up" and "fighting for justice and democracy" (Jedi mind trick time again!) became more and more frequent, culminating in the Songkran riots. When the riots proved ultimately unsuccessful, the rhetoric died down remarkably quickly. One can only wonder if Thaksin was informed that, wherever he may be, certain forces would ensure he faced the consequences if he continued with his actions.

After a period of relative quiet, we now come to face five - the benevolent sage. Now Thaksin - out of the goodness of his heart - will cover the plight of Thai people. He will offer scholarships, solve problems, spread the word and empower the people. The strange thing is, all seems to have a familiar ring about it.

It may well be true, it may well be beneficial.It may be done with at least some genuine feeling. But surely I am not the only one wondering why Thaksin rarely, if ever, discuss what will happen to his frozen billions when talking to his people, why he seems to have changed tack so many times, why he refuses to accept any fault in his past, and what his ultimate goals are. Perhaps the biggest question of all remains as: what will Thaksin do if this latest change of approach does not work out?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My top class are doing a project on the constitution of Thailand. Because they have enough ability and initiative to do so, I asked them to tell me what parts of the constitution they thought were particularly important and/or needed to change. It was enjoyable experience because it gives me an insight into the finest minds of Thailand and a glimpse into the future. My role of course was not to give a 'right' or 'wrong' response but merely to listen and ask any questions to test how ell they had thought out their argument.
Student one told me that he thought the age limit for free education (as guaranteed under the constitution) should be raised to age fifteen. He felt taxes should be raised to cover this.

Student two felt likewise, but felt the limit should be raised to eighteen. Student three felt the same again - I guess it's easy to understand why fifteen year olds would focus on this point - but felt it should cover the whole of a student's university life. He felt Thailand should adopt a student loan scheme, similar to that used in the UK.

Student four had an interesting idea. He felt the constitution should introduce a law saying all women can carry a weapon to protect themselves when travelling alone at night times. When I pressed him on this, he stated women should be forced to carry pepper spray by law, and the government should cover the cost for each female.

Student five wanted the issue of ID cards to be delayed to age eighteen (it's currently fifteen). She felt too many students lose them, because at age fifteen they have no real use for them yet.

Student six was he most controversial in my opinion. He wanted the legal age for marriage to be raised to age twenty five. Anyone below that should require parental consent in his opinion. He said this is because people under age twenty five should be studying.

It's such a privilege to deal with students who have enough motivation to bounce their ideas around. Sharing, questioning Ned refining ideas is what real teaching is about, after all.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The computer teacher in my school is a highly gifted and intelligent character. I sometimes wonder why he doesn't work at a more prestigious location but he seems happy where he is.
This semester, he was told he should teach C++ to the students. The teacher immediately informed his superiors that C SHARP might be more appropriate. C++ is a dated language and C Sharp is in far greater demand. It would provide drastically more career opportunities for the students to learn it.

His superiors agreed but told him he would have to prepare the worksheets himself. He duly agreed and spent the next three days working flat out to prepare a curriculum. On the day he was due to begin teaching, the message came in. 'Head Office' had informed him that he was forbidden to teach C SHARP and should return to teaching C+++ immediately. Somebody somewhere was offended that the curriculum had been questioned. The career prospects and knowledge of the students had been flushed down the toilet to save face for someone senior.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Not from me but from a colleague I work with closely:

My first year in Thailand teaching Economics to Thai 8th Graders proved somewhat difficult in that not only did I have no English text book (I still don't), it proved singularly difficult to find the right definitions and explanations for the jargon of Economics in Thai. After several months of looking, however, I finally stumbled across and 1600 page tome in Asia Books (Thailand's answer to Borders) in that temple to conspicuous class-conscious consumption: Siam Paragon -- a shopping mall that defies comparison: let’s just say on the 4th floor of just one of their massive buildings you will find dealerships for Rolls Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Alpha Romeo, and Porsche ... for sale in a country where the road quality and traffic conditions even on "the best" highways make it difficult to maintain a speed of over 60 for more than a few seconds.

At any rate, there in Asia Books I started thumbing through this English-Thai dictionary and quickly noted that it had not only detailed Thai definitions of Economics and Business jargon, but also multiple examples of use and myriad compounds and idioms for almost every word. Sure that I had struck the mother lode, I shelled out the 1800 Baht (~$50) for the thing and gleefully took my prize home.

As time wore on, I gradually began to note a striking ideological bias in the cited examples of use. The 2nd example on "capital" is what first struck me as somewhat curious: "capital is created from every drop of sweat from the brow of labor." But when I looked up "relationship" and found the first sentence was, "the relationship between the people and the army has never been stronger," the light went on, and when I read under 'family,' "the farmers and the workers are one family," it was absolutely clear what I had unwittingly purchased - and what was no doubt unwittingly sold - in that theme park of consumerism in this the most anti-Communist nation in Southeast Asia.

Indeed, there is nothing in the title or any of the front material to lead one to suspect that this Mao's Little Red Dictionary was anything other than a fairly exhaustive English-Thai dictionary for academic, artistic, political, business, and technical usage. But one doesn't have to read beyond the first entry to see which way the author dresses:

a, an: art.: ... a united front ... an underground worker ... a foreign guest ... a high building ... a deep hatred for the enemies of the Revolution ... an ice cream ... a Comrade Lin is looking for you... a complete Lu Hsun ... a profound lesson in class education...

Each example was painstakingly translated into Thai.

I have gotten literally hours of very odd, sardonic enjoyment out of this work, and now I intend to share it with my friends. Every day I'll be posting yet another priceless example of the none-too-subtle attempts at indoctrination from this dictionary to my FaceBook Wall, so if you're interested and have a similarly twisted sense of irony as my own, please check in and take a look at the daily entries.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thaksin and justice

They say that if you tell a lie for long enough, it becomes the truth. If that's the case, then it must be true that the Thai authorities are desperately trying to bring Thaksin Shinwatra back to Thailand to face punishment for his crimes.

After all, we keep hearing that Thaksin narrowly escaped police swoops in various countries, we hear every week of a 'request'' from Thailand to some other country for his extradition and let us not forget the likes of The Nation publishing unfounded rumours, anonymous sources telling us where the man is hiding right now.

It all seems a little strange when you consider the real facts: he was allowed to leave Thailand  immediately after his wife was found guilty in court. That's right, the door was left wide open for Thaksin to leave Thailand to go to the Olympics in China the very day after Potjamo was sentenced. Imagine how hard it must have been for the powers that be to act surprised when the billionaire decided to remain overseas instead of coming hoe and facing possible jail time.

There are other points to consider too: is it really politically beneficial for Thaksin opponents to bring him home? His political and financial muscle seems to have passed its peak. The Song Kran riots achieved little, his phone ins have become dull and even Thaksin himself asked his supporters to cancel his birthday celebrations out of fear of reprisals. Bringing him back to the country and sentencing him in court would run a certain risk of bringing all the emotions and fanaticism of his supports back to the surface, kicking off a new wave of clashes. It's clear that his opponents fear being unable to control Thaksin, but it would be far more damaging to lose control of his supporters once more.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Political tumbleweed

Apologies for the lack of bloggage which is directly related to the birth of my second child and first daughter two weeks ago.

Of all the events that Pundit is  is as red hot as ever on, the charges leveled against all the FCCT execs looks the most shocking.

Meanwhile I can only offer thsi quote from a conversation witha twelve year old student today:

The word I was trying to get the students to say was 'hat'

Me: "I've never seen you or your sister wearing one, you've never seen me wearing one but we both do wear this sometimes....."

Student: "Ummm....clothes?"

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bye bye TNWL

I've stopped blogging on Tue Nation's weblog site. I've enjoyed a good relationship with TN for some time, but they just seem to sink further and further into silliness.

It's not just TN's fault, the whole newspaper scene in Thailand seems to be based around idle gossip, opinion pieces and agency reports. Meanwhile, the Thai language papers add as many gruesome photos as possible to their covers. The photo of Mister Carridine's corpse shocked foreigners who are not used to this procedure but the fixation with shocking and gruesome photos is something I have queried many times.

hat is totally absent in any Thai newspaper is investigative journalism. Rarely, if ever, do we see any kind of first hand digging, fact finding or pressing interviews. One can only imagine what would be revealed if a Thai paper uncovered information in the same way the 'Daily Telegraph' leaked the MPs expenses scandal in the UK. But of course, that simply would not happen here.

What really disappointed me though was the wasted potential of TN's blogging site. It could have been an excellent way for debate, discussion and amateur journalism. Instead it has descended into dullness, pathetic squabbles and repetition.

This is partly down to a couple of unstable people being allowed to run riot while other bloggers have blogs banned for bizarre reasons. My decision not to blog was made when I posted a blog on teaching only to receive a random vitriolic comment calling my wife a whore, and myself an alcoholic and an idiot. Ironically, this came from a native speaker with the most retarded English I had ever seen. Perhaps this is part of the price for free speech- morons should be allowed to babble - but TN's rules do state comments must be on topic and not abusive.

In any case, the site receives, at best, bizarre, random moderation and no effort is made to improve the service or structure. I have a blog in the 'editor's picks' section that has been there for months, simply because the editor can't be bothered to make any fresh choices.

All in all, I'm done. There are some good blogging sites in Thailand that can be found with a quick Google search.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The latest edition of UK magazine 'Private Eye' features an interesting column about Thailand. I hear the writer of the column is a handsome, sophisticated and smart Englishman.

Or at least he wishes he was :-)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

How to spot a (possibly) bad teacher

I wrote this blog because there has been a lot of discussion about teachers lately and I know many students spend their hard earned money on English teachers, only to be let down.

Let's get straight to business. There is no definition of a "good" teacher, because personality plays such an important part for any educator. Good teachers can come in all shapes, sizes and personality types in my opinion.

However, while it's also impossible to give a strict exposition of a "bad" teacher - as opposed to an obviously awful teacher - there are certain things to look out for and I will describe them here.

But first, be very clear: there are very good teachers in Thailand. A whole damn lot of them. Some are fully qualified, some partly qualified, a few unqualified. Wherever you are in Siam, look in the right places, ask the right questions and you will find them. I make this point because part of me feels like a traitor whenever I criticise the state of foreign teachers in Thailand, but sadly it needs to be done. I could go on at length about the attitude and approach of bad teachers but it would not help.

What will help is this; my list of 'warning signs' for possibly bad teachers. Bear in mind this guide is aimed at adult students. While much of it would naturally apply to a teacher for any age group, some things will differ for obvious reasons. I also want to stress it's aimed at teachers of English language, which is not my own full time profession.

1) Look at appearance.

Not too much needs to be said here as Thais are hot on appearances anyway. While I know some very good but overworked teachers who can be a little scruffy, it's generally a warning sign. Shoes are a particular signal. Teachers are not rich of course, we don't strut around in Armani leather soles but a glance at a teacher's footwear can often be a surefire giveaway to their attitude. Which reminds me, I must buy some more polish ;-0

2) Ask a very basic grammar question e,g:"What's the difference between the past simple and past perfect?".

It doesn't matter if you want to study grammar or not, a teacher who cannot answer such a question is like a pilot who doesn't know where the cockpit is. During my stint as head teacher at a certain school, I had an applicant teacher fill out our test form. One of the instructions was: "Name all the tenses". He answered: "Past, now, tomorrow". He was not employed.

3) Ask him if he's ever taught TOEIC or IELTS.

If you get a puzzled look, he's probably not a very experienced teacher. That doesn't make him bad, of course.

4) Ask a general question that has an open answer e.g: "What do you like about teaching?"

This has two purposes and is especially important if you wish to be a private student. First, you can actually listen to an answer to an important question. Secondly, you can test how much you understand of your potential teacher when he speaks. If he talks at a native speaker's pace and for a long time, he is probably not a very good teacher. I've only ever met one exception to this rule in my career.

5) Ask if you can watch him teach a class.

I don't know many people who jump for joy at the thought of a stranger watching them work but a teacher should be understanding and readily accepting of this. If he makes excuses as to why you can't, he is almost certainly a poor teacher.

That's all. Some people may be wondering why I didn't tell everyone to ask after a teacher's qualifications. Well it's simple: the bad ones will lie. Unless you are prepared to take the time to check the qualifications for yourself, you will achieve little. Following these steps should be enough to let you take a guess at his qualifications anyway.

Finally, the question of money. I avoided this because I think it's wrong to equate a person's wealth with their value but it is generally true that a cheap teacher is not such a good teacher. Keep this in mind when you go to the "shopping mall schools". That's not to say you can't find good teachers at the cheaper places , certainly you can, but your chances lower with the cost. It's like any type of shopping, you might strike a bargain, but you have to look carefully. I'd go as far as to say this is the most frequent mistake made by Thai students; they hunt for the cheapest private teacher without asking themselves why that teacher is cheap.

As usual, I never claim to be a good teacher and I'm certainly no authority on pedagogy. I have students that rate me very highly, a couple that probably don't like me (Thai students rarely say such things to your face) and most are somewhere in-between. I have never broken any of the above laws except on days when I forget my tie or shoe polish. I do not teach English myself, I teach grade nine and ten (and, next semester, eleven) Social Studies. My colleague in this is an ordained man with two masters degrees so to keep up with him, I must be doing OK.

I would be happy to give advice on teaching or checking teachers of young children or teenagers if people ask, and I invite other teachers to add ideas to my list.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Teacher's diary: difficult situations

Summer School has been better this year. Teaching on a higher floor makes a whole lot of difference - this is Thailand in April after all - and the class sizes are smaller. Smaller classes are easier to teach as the teacher can dedicate more time for each student. However, it's a sign that business is not going so well. I often say that class sizes are a teacher's paradox; bigger classes mean your job is secure, smaller classes means you can do your job much better.

Summer School students tend be a mix of old, new and vaguely familiar faces. This year there are plenty of very familiar faces who will be going into grade eleven next year. The poor blighters have studied with me for nearly three years. I've tried to be sympathetic to the students (how would you feel if your parents sent you to school during the holidays?) and I've employed the KISS principle. I've been arming the students with remarkably basic classroom language ("Excuse me, how do you spell this in English?") that newer students may not be familiar with. It's screamingly easy and it's been successful and well received. One class has presented a real challenge though.............

Class 10 C caught me by surprise. Twenty five new faces looked up at me as I walked in. At least, they should have looked up, but half of them were talking to each other, talking on the phone or running around the room. When students are doing this with a brand new teacher, it's always a sure sign of a "challenging" class. Still, I figured it was best to keep things light. I went into a comedy routine that caught their attention and then began a basic activity (students had to design their own "passport") that distracted them enough for me to suss them out a little more.

It was painful though. At least four students - including twin brothers - could not speak a word of English, and I mean not one word. At their age, it was going to be extremely hard to catch up, and they showed no interest in even trying. Soon they would be learning about world religions, and today they didn't even want to learn "How are you today?".

Two other students presented an even greater challenge. One dressed in a pink shirt depicting Hitler in sunglasses presented himself as Simon. Simon spent his time chasing a girl around the classroom. Both showed no interest whatsoever in the class and over the next two weeks turned up late every time, usually just as I had got the class settled. Eventually they stopped coming altogether.

It seemed my problem had been solved, but then two more students stepped up to the plate: Fern and Joy. Joy took a liking to Fern in week 2 and decided to move next to her. I wouldn't have minded except the conversations distracted them from working. Every time I warned them with a smile, Joy would promise to listen. She'd then wait for me to return to the whiteboard and begin her conversation again.

Today Joy really pushed her luck. First by moving around the room three times, then trying the: "we both need to go to toilet right now" trick that usually is lost before sixth grade, followed by the equally pathetic: "we both need to go and drink water right now" gag. Fern helpfully tells me "my friend need to drink water" seven times over in case I couldn't understand English.

When this fails, Joy starts purposely trying to get herself thrown out of class by drumming on her table, shouting across the room in Thai and generally being obnoxious and disruptive. And in case I hadn't made myself clear, it is disruptiveness that is the problem. If a student wants to be ignorant, that's his or her choice and I will respect it. But when a student arrives late and starts telling her friends why, or starts shouting in Thai across the room or talking so loud his friends hear him rather than the teacher, it's just not on and any decent teacher has to resolve the issue in some way.

Such behaviour presents a challenge because the teacher has to strike a balance between taking action to deal with the problem, yet not doing so in a way that does not cause the teacher's action to distract from the lesson itself.

So when Joy is purposely drumming away on her desk, trying to be disruptive so she can be thrown out, with twenty or so teenage students awaiting your reaction, what do you do? In my early days I would probably have become very nervous and lost my way in the lesson or overreacted by yelling at Joy. But now I have a little experience under my belt. I've had this stunt done to me a whole bunch of times before, and in much smarter style, too. I simply continued on with the class until a stage where the students needed to copy what I wrote on the board.

Had Joy still been going then, I would have quietly taken her outside - discipline should be done out of sight of a student's friends for a variety of reasons - and either spoken to her myself or - as I do with students who cannot speak English - taken her to the year head. As it happened, I didn't need to, I had managed to pull the students through to a part of the lesson they found interesting. With their attention caught, Joy had given up on getting the attention for herself, and decided to copy the work.

As the clock ticked down Joy finished her work and began to ask me a slew of questions about myself - my age, my home town, my family and so on. This is not that strange; students who play up are sometimes - but not always - just expressing a need for attention. It's unusual for this age group (15-18) to behave like this though; but this whole class seems very immature. Perhaps it's because most of them come from a government school, perhaps it's because their English is so weak, perhaps it all ties into one. I don't know.

I score another minor victory with one of the twin brothers, too. Today I actually managed to get him to speak a few words of English. When he does so, I shock him by smiling and praising him. My gamble is rewarded as he turns to his brother with a triumphant grin. He's given himself a sense of achievment, and his brother looks annoyed enough by this to try and copy him next class. Everyone's a winner.

In any case, I must confess I am relieved that most of them will not be learning with me next semester. Whilst it would be a challenge, it might just be one challenge too many right now.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Changing times

Tomorrow I have an interview with an Australian radio station concerning the recent political turmoil in Bangkok. In preparation, I browsed through a few of my old blog posts to refresh my memory of all the events in the never ending saga of Thai politics.

Two blog that jumped out at me are this one and this one , from an old debate with Jotman. Ironically, Jotman has recently linked back to his post on the subject too. (Perhaps not that ironically actually, Jotman seems mightily proud of that particular post).

Two things struck me about my old posts. Firstly, they seem a lot more detailed and better written than the blogs I post these days. I can only offer my work schedule, the demands of fatherhood and my split attention between UK and Thai politics as excuses. By contrast, Jotman and Bangkok Pundit remain prolific and high in quality.

Secondly, so many of my views on Thai political issues have changed. Most likely this is due to experience. Indeed, although I stand by the evidence and questions I raised in my debate with Jotman, I am more inclined to agree with him that resentment on the part of the middle classes formed at least part of the motivation to remove Thaksin.

More on this later.

Stating the bleedin' obvious

Ther Nation had this to say concerning the attackers who assaulted Sonthi, tried to take his life, fired over one hundred bullets, hit him several times in the arm and at least once in the skull....

"According to Sondhi's media firm Manager, he is furious with his attackers."

Friday, April 17, 2009

The latest postmortem

"In war there are no winners, only losers" is how the old saying goes, but I've never believed this to be true. There are winners, usually the rich,powerful leaders who can be sure they have lost no loved ones in the horror that preceded the victory.

But if the ongoing conflict in Thailand can be called a war, then it is truly perplexing to anyone searching for a victor.

Thaksin is certainly no better off after the week of violence. His appearance on Sky News was bizarre, reports state the ex-PM seemed rambling and disoriented, most likely due to a lack of sleep. The "revolution" called for by Thaksin has not materialised. In its place is a self-imposed exile without a passport. Thaksin may be able to get by with a passport from another country or simply by relying on his fortune to "solve" problems at the border but its a risky ploy. Any country seen to assist Thaksin too much will create a lot of problems with equally powerful people Thailand and not every immigration border is corrupt.One can only wonder how Thaksin's family feel about being forced to flee the motherland, too.

Aphisit has fared little better. From the start, international media have question just how in control the young leader has been, and the decisive action demanded by non-reds was slow in coming, so slow that the forced cancellation of ASEAN was a massive loss of face for the leadership, regardless of the sympathetic noises made by other national leaders. Equally damaging was the sudden appearance of 'blue shirt' thugs, that just happened to materialise around eh same time Newin Chidchob appeared in Pattaya.

The red-shirts themselves failed to achieve their objective and feel victim to public disapproval as cameras caught what can only be described as terrorist figures torching stolen buses.

The Thai police, yet again, seemed to stand around, equipped with expensive looking riot gear and police vans, looking utterly useless.

The PAD made angry noises yet stayed on the sidelines, quite possibly after some pleading by other players in the gate.

The Thai courts took remarkably decisive action against UDD leaders hats served only to highlight their lack of similar action against those who sieged Bangkok Airport for days.

Yet perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the only unit to emerge with any credit or public appreciation is the military. After bungled operations elsewhere, the clearance of Bangkok was handled reasonably well and came with thanks from any members of the public.

One can only imagine how people would feel about the military if they had not staged the coup that triggered this whole domino sequence in the first place.


The popular attitude towards the DAAD and PAD amongst the Thai public seems to be "They're as bad as each other" which I find to be a somewhat lazy supposition. The DAAD have generally not resorted to the violence adopted by the PAD. The torching of buses was clearly the action by a renegade few and the inconvenience to the public actually came with an apology and a clear - and viable explanation - that it was short term suffering for a brighter future.

And some may feel this is true. Those with Thai children can make a simple analysis - imagine the PAD win the struggle; how will Thailand be in thirty year's time? Will your children be better off? Now imagine if the DAAD win their objectives; would Thailand be ore democratically stable twenty years down the line? I believe it would.

Anyone who thinks I support or like Thaksin clearly has not read much of my previous work. Thaksin is interested only in his frozen assets and would be a dangerous man to have as PM, this is why it is crucial the red shirt faction grow to something bigger and more visionary than the return of Thaksin. They must expand to a true movement of people who wan a c lean democracy without interference, they must achieve this by weight of numbers and not weight of violence or burned buses. No other method can achieve a better future.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The day that never was

I don't like public speaking, in fact I get quite nervous when doing so, but I still volunteer whenever my school needs sometime to address parents or other public figures. I figure it's good practice for when I return home and enter politics.

Still, when my school told me yesterday that I was to literally take the stage alone and address all parents about the Songkran festival I was distinctly concerned, despite the hidden compliment. Firstly, although my vertigo has greatly subsided, it was not totally cleared up and a little stage fright could make it worse. More importantly though, the English in my statement had several faults and I was forbidden to correct it. This may seem strange to those who have never worked in Thailand but the rest will be neither surprised or lost for a guess as to how this could happen. Finally, I am always anxious about teaching Thai adults about their own customs.

I needn't have worried. Last night PM Aphisit declared today (Friday) a holiday to clear out the red shirt protests in Bangkok. The teachers in my school arrived for work anyway, but the students were not daft enough to pass up the chance for an extra holiday and those with a choice did not arrive. School - and my speech - were cancelled.

But this could be the beginning of something big. Thaksin's comments last night seem to have passed over as another rant. In fact, I found them to be the most blunt and revealing so far. Thaksin has already broken a key taboo by attacking a privy councillor but yesterday's remarks seemed even more surprising.

It's a truly compelling deadlock. The reds lack the support of elite institutions that so transparently aided the yellow shirts during their rampage that climaxed with the takeover of Bangkok airport, but the sheer number of red shirt protesters has clearly shaken the government. Whilst it remains unspoken, the reds have been notably lacking in certain accouterments that are usually obligatory in any gathering of Thais. There seems to have been a real change in the political thinking of some northern Thais and it's just possible that another military crackdown may not be able to quash the problem this time. Once freedom has been found, it can never be forgotten.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Computing minmalism part 3: Armageddon

Another non Thailand post. Sorry!

Only the brave may wish to enter here -the final lesson of computing minimalism - as we take things past the "moderate" level. 

Hopefully you have already seen the need to reduce the bloat on your PC and perhaps you're already enjoying the benefits of having lighter, user friendly software. This chapter is for those who have had their curiosity tweaked and want to see how far they can take this experiment.
Most users will probably prefer to read this section out of interest and consider later if they want to try the software suggested. 

But let's take a moment to ponder one last reminder of the problems with bloated, proprietary software. Have you ever owned an iPod? If so, you almost certainly used iTunes to change the music on your pod. It's just as well you did, because if you ever tried to use any other software, or even just the Windows file system, you would have had problems. iTunes actually scrambles the names of your music folders so that you cannot use " My Computer" to change your music! That's right, you paid for the iTunes licence when you bought your iPod, and you are thanked for it by purposely being inconvenienced and forced to do things the way Apple want.

It's worth re-reading and pondering that previous paragraph again - it really does sum up the problems with popular software.  Luckily, other programmers have come up with alternatives to iTunes such as this, this or this. These programmes allow you to change your music simply by dragging and dropping. Unlike iTunes, these applications are small, quick, unobtrusive and free. The choice is yours: pay Apple to have your time wasted, or have these programmers use their time to help you for free. You might want to send the latter a few dollars as a thank you.

Now let us proceed with our final experiment. Firstly, if you've come this far it's time to seriously consider switching to GNU Linux if you have not done so already. It might seem a scary prospect but it doesn't have to be. You can test GNU Linux without having to make a single change to your current PC setup. All you need to do is download a
live CD. A live CD runs the whole system from the CD for you to try. Once you're done, simply reset the PC and your computer is exactly the way it was before. Bear in mind, of course, a live CD will be a lot slower than the same software would be once it's installed on your hard drive.

You also have the choice of a "dual boot", meaning you can install GNU Linux on your PC whilst keeping Windows. When your PC boots up, it will ask you which Operating System you wish to load.

Because Linux is free, open source software (you remember those terms from last time, right?) there have been a whole slew of different versions released. The most popular is Ubuntu. Ubuntu standard version comes with and all other software most people will need for day to day working. Ubuntu is faster and more stable than Windows, yet is actually one of the slowest versions of GNU Linux.

Another popular choice is Puppy Linux. I must confess I love Puppy Linux. PL is frequently used as a live CD. It runs like lightening because it can load its entire system into your RAM. That's right, the memory that your PC usually uses for running different takes that you start and stop can actually handle the entire Puppy Linux system. What this means for you- unless your PC is a fossil - is that PL will run so fast, you will sometimes not have removed your finger from the button before your task is completed. Go ahead, download one of the many versions of Puppy Linux (I use boxpup myself) and give it a try. It's user friendly, straightforward, fun and as mentioned, can be used as a live CD so no changes need to be made to your computer.

Puppy doesn't have open office but it does have Abiword , a spread sheet programme and a web browser ( which browser varies depending on which version of PL you download). Oh yeh, it's also free as in 'beer' and 'speech'.

Now I'm going to give you my final list of software suggestions. I'm also going to introduce you to something called a console application.

A console application is basically a programme without graphics. Usually the user must type a command that will start up a programme that uses only words, not pictures. Windows users may remember the old days of MS DOS and GNU Linux users will be familiar the same interface, known in Linux as "the terminal". 

I know what you're thinking: why in the hell would anybody want to do that? Isn't that just living in the past? We've got graphical programmes to do the same stuff, why on earth would I want to bother typing commands into a blank screen when I can click a mouse on an icon?!

There are two answers to this. The first one is best illustrated with a practical example: as I type this, I'm running four console applications; a word processor that I'm typing this article with, an audio player, a bittorrent client and a system monitor. A system monitor is a programme to tell me what applications are running on my system, what they are doing, how much RAM they are using and how much CPU power they are using. 

My bittorrent client is very busy, it is downloading four files and sharing eight. In total there are about 30 kbs going in and out. Yet, a look at my monitor shows that the software is using just 2.7% of my RAM (which is one gigabyte in total) and less than 1% of my CPU power. My audio player is using 2% of my RAM and a whopping three percent of my CPU. My word processor weights in at 0.2% of my RAM and 0.1% of CPU and the system monitor itself is almost the same. 

In other words, I'm running four programmes - each doing an important job - at well under 100 megabytes of RAM. And there are no sacrifices here, all the software does its job just as well as graphical software, and in many cases, even better.

The second reason is simple. Using typed commands may seem scary but it's really not. Most console software can be operated with just one or two commands and a couple of keyboard shortcuts. By using typed commands, we strip away one of the "barriers' between user and PC. Naturally, we learn a bit more by doing this. You know the old saying: "knowledge is power". Console apps teach us a bit more about how our computers work.

So I may suggest several console applications in my forthcoming list here, but by no means only console apps. Let's crack on:

Office suites:

By their nature, office suites need a graphical environment to run. The trick to a lightweight office is to ensure each application is integrated with the others. In practical terms, it means that each programme should run and "feel" similar to the others. MS Office attempts to do this but because each application is loaded with excess "features" it is impossible

If you're a Windows user looking for a truly lightweight suite. I hear good things about Softmaker Office though I have never used it myself. The Softmaker Office is freeware, and the download is 24 megabytes, twenty times smaller than MS Office.

Users of Linux could use Siag Office, an office suite of just 1.5 megabytes to download.  In fairness though, Siag requires other applications to be installed to run and a little technical knowledge to get running. In real terms, you need about 20 megs to run Siag. Softmaker is also Linux compatible.

Word Processors:

In addition to the aforementioned suites, we have Wordgrinder, the console application I am using right now. Wordgrinder is extremely simple and does not feature font choices, etc. At present it lacks even a spell checker (I've written to the programmer to say thanks and also plead with him to add a checker one day). What it does do is let the user type..... and type..... and type without intrusion or annoyance. WG is free as in 'speech' and 'beer' and available for Linux and Windows.

If you need a spell checker, you can do as I do, type in Wordgrinder and spell check online or use a text editor with a spell checker, such as Jed (also a console app, also free in both senses).

Bittorrent clients:

Windows users have Utorrent. There simply is no need to use anything else. Utorrent is free beer, graphical, user friendly and highly featured.

Linux users can use one of my favourite apps: rtorrent. rtorrent is a console app that does its job brilliantly. It's free in both ways and you can read a tutorial here. There are also graphical apps available for GNU Linux but I can't bring myself to recommend anything apart from rtorrent.


Like to listen to music while you work? Windows users have Zinf. Zinf is based on freeamp, it hasn't been updated for a while but remember what we learned in lesson one: newer software is not always better software.

Windows and GNU L users also have the excellent MPlayer as a choice. Both apps are free in both senses.

Both of these applications may require an extra download a small amount of technical tinkering. This is the price we pay to get our PC working at its best. In all honesty, Windows users may want to stick with the straightforward and excellent Foobar 2000 I mentioned last time.

In the way of Console apps for GNU Linux, MOCP is the most popular choice though I enjoy Orpheus. Works like a charm.


Windows users have Fusion Media Player as a choice. If it requires too much effort, Media Player Classic that we looked at last week works very well and easily. Mplayer also plays multimedia. As a Linux user, I prefer Xine.

Web browsers:

The browsers we looked at last time - with my suggestion of Opera and Arora - are the only browsers I can suggest that are full featured. Browsers such as Dillo (Linux) and elinks (Linux or Windows) are lightweight and fast but cannot be used for pages such as Facebook. At least not yet, though Dillo is progressing.

CD Burning:

Basically, get rid of Nero now! It ranks alongside Itunes and Office in terms of over-sized, burdensome software.

To burn in Windows, Silent night can be used, though take note that it is proprietary.

To author a disc in GNU Linux, try cdw or XFBurn.

I don't use image editing software but I'm told GIMP - which is free in both senses and multi-platform - is catching up on Photoshop in terms of features. Gqview is a popular image viewer.

If you like to chat try aMSN (multi- platform, free both ways) or GNU Linux users can use the console app Irssi. With the latter you won't be able to see your friends' photos, but you already know who is hot and who isn't.

So that's the lot. Feel free to ask any questions or make further suggestions. If this all looks a bit intimidating, why not try just one new application a week or a month? Try a few Google searches; look for the ubiquitous user groups and help forums. Ask for ideas.

Don't get angry or annoyed if your new application doesn't work out for you immediately. Remember, a learning curb is healthy, it shows you are acquiring a new skill. Also remember, you can try out all the benefits of a fast system without any risk by downloading a GNU Linux live CD and running it from there.

Have fun!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Computing minimalism: try this software, be more productive

This is a totally non-Thailand entry.

This is a two piece article I wrote on computing minimalism elsewhere.


What is computing minmalism? And why should you give a damn?

Oh OK, I may, just may, be a part time geek. But I have friends, a healthy love life and I have not played laser tag since I was a kid. So that's my disclaimer done.

Now, I'm going to try and persuade you to think differently about the way you use a computer. Even if (unlike me) you are a total non geek. Even if you couldn't care less about computers and use them because you have to, even if you don't go as far as I do with my methods, I hope to just change the way you approach the idea of computer use, very slightly.

Here's what I'm building up to - I believe that a lot of computer software we use today is bloated, clumsy and non-conducive to productivity. In other words: it's slowing you down.

"Word processing was a solved problem in 1984. By 1987 spreadsheets had all the functions a normal person would ever use. Databases took a little longer, but by 1990 that was sorted. An infant could have been born that day and by now would be almost of age to vote and we've seen no real improvement in productivity since."

That was a quote from Mikel Kirk that I think sums the situation up beautifully. Think about it - how many features on your office suite or your web browser do you use? How many of them were not available on the same program back in the year 2000? Unless you happen to be involved in Desk Top Publishing or database maintenance - or perhaps even then? - I'm willing to bet the answer is: "one or less".

And yet the software you used has become far bigger, far more hungry on your resources and most probably far more demanding of your attention. You don't have to think too hard to come with examples; Ipod users normally use Itunes, a program that not only uses an oceanic amount of memory just to load up, but also dominates the user's entire music collection. It will sort them, it will play them, it will allow you to search for information about that new band online. No need to use your brain, just use Itunes.

Microsoft Word users have an even greater pleasure. For the last five years or more, Word has given you the utmost pleasure of completing your work for you. You want a bullet list? It's done! You want to line up all those answers for the quiz? It's already done! What's that? You didn't actually want to do that? Oh well, you can always manually undo it all. Oh and don't forget to hunt down the "auto complete" menu and uncheck every box before it happens again.

OK, so sometimes we have problems, but it's all meant to be user friendly right? I mean, these extra features are designed for people who aren't familiar with computers and need help, no?

It would be nice to believe that, but in my cynical mind I can't help but think that such designs are utilised for another purpose; to make damn sure you stick with that proprietary software that you just installed. The less you question Itunes, the more likely you are to use it. The less choice you have over how you play music, the more often you see the Apple logo. The more often Itunes "helps" you organise your music collection, the more likely you are to visit the Itunes store. 

You get the picture. Certain companies design the software this way not to help people who are unsure, but to "help" people who are stupid, because 'stupid" is how they think of you.

OK so maybe there's a problem, and maybe some of the software is big and clunky, but what does it matter? Computers are getting faster everyday and besides, everyone uses this software so what choice do we have? 

Well on the first charge, the answer is not so clear cut. Remember that quote I gave you earlier, software is growing more bloated at the same rate as our PC's are becoming souped up. There seems little evidence and no guarantee that we humans are becoming more productive.

As for "why worry?"  Well perhaps you shouldn't. If you can stand having your intelligence insulted and if you don't care about working at well under full productivity then maybe there's no problem.

For me though, it's matter of principle. I simply will not allow some lazy, overpaid programmers to use up a chunk of my RAM just to play an MP3.  I simply cannot abide using a "word processor" that insists it knows better than me about what I want to do and lumbers me with 101 featuresthat  99% of us will never use. I will not surf the Internet with a browser than takes an age to start up and a lifetime to open a page simply because it's from Microsoft. I prefer to open my mind a little more rather than accept such nonsense.

I want applications that do one thing and do them well, whilst getting the hell out of my way when I want them to. That's what real productivity is.

But even if that doesn't matter to you, there is another factor: cost. The alternatives I will propose to you are either totally free of cost or much, much lower than the prices you pay from the fat cat companies for the overblown nonsense.

In my next blog on computing minimalism I will propose two solutions. For the shy user I will simply suggest a few pieces of alternative software that can easily be installed (and uninstalled) on Windows and tried out. After that, I'll take things a bit further and go into some really lightweight and efficient applications for GNU/Linux and maybe Windows too.


OK, so in part one we established what the problem is with popular software, why that problem exists and we established the benefits of taking the trouble to find a solution.

In this section I will try to guide the reader through the first baby steps towards that solution. The idea is to make you more productive in terms of work speed and, ergo, freeing up your time. That solution can be summed up in two words: "free software".  Before we press on there are a couple of important points to make.

First, the term "free software" has two important and distinct meanings. "Free software" usually means "free" in the sense that it is non-proprietary. This means you are free to copy it for yourself or colleagues, free to distribute it and if you're feeling sharp, free to actually use the original code to improve the programme! This type of "free" is often called "free as in free speech" for clarity. 'Free speech' software can also be called "open source" , the difference in meaning is almost negligible.

The second type of "free" of course is "free of cost". This is usually referred to as "free as in beer". Even "free beer" programmes usually accept user contributions should you find the software useful, but it's entirely your choice. (One piece of software even requires the user to promise he or she will not take more than two airplane trips in one year).  Software can be free in terms of both 'speech' and 'beer', or just one, or neither. If you are a typical computer user, it's likely that all your software is not free in either sense.

Secondly, I have established already that I do not believe you can ever be truly free or efficient when using Windows. But I accept that leaving Microsoft entirely is a big step that many people don't feel they can take yet. So I am bearing that in mind as I make my suggestions here.

Now, here are a few suggestions for users of Windows and / or GNU Linux for alternatives to popular software. The criteria for my choices here are simple. A perfect, short and sweet summary of what makes good software can be found here, but I will briefly recap.

Good software should do one job and do it well.

A music player plays music while I type. I don't need to browse musical web sites with that same software. My word processor that I'm using now does not enable me to embed a database in my document whilst autocreating forms for me with links to an HTML web design template. I don't need any of that. You get the idea.

Good software is unintrusive.

As I'm type, I'm downloading some music (legally, from ). My download manager is in the background and will stay there, with just a little five second message appearing in the corner to say when it's done. It doesn't pop up to ask me for "upgrades". It doesn't offer to link to other software, it doesn't use any advertising or ask for a monthly subscription. It gets the heck out of my way so I can work. Try doing that with Adobe PDF reader.

Good software is lean

You don't need to spend thirty minutes downloading bloated software just to read a PDF. It does not take 20 MB of ram just to type a letter to mum. An internet browser should not take twenty seconds just to process a basic web page. These problems occur because overpaid programmes purposely bundle their software with burdensome features for reasons we have already discussed.

Yes hard drives are getting bigger, but that does not mean we should waste the space anymore than you should put large, empty boxes on your front lawn just because you have a large garden.

Good software is easy to install and uninstall.

It's my computer. I will decide what goes in and out. Software has no more right to make its removal difficult anymore than a guest in your home has the right to refuse a polite request to leave.

I could go on but the previous link explains it all nicely, so take a quick read.

Enough waffle. Let's press on with a few basic alternatives. Don't worry if this is not minimalistic enough for you, I'm taking things one step at a time.

Office suites

Let's start with the easiest answer. To get good, free software for the office use That's the actual name of the software as well as its web address. is free as in 'beer' and 'speech'. It does everything you need it to do. Its word processor can read and write Word documents, its spreadsheet programmer can read and write Excel files and so on. There's no excuse whatsoever not to use this software as an MS Office replacement. It's not exactly as lean as I would like but at least you have the freedom. Available for Windows and GNU/Linux.

Word processing

As well as the writer, there is a much leaner choice for Windows. It's called Jarte and you can see it here. Jarte is free as in 'beer'. It's small, it's quick and its interface is far more straightforward and user friendly than Word once you get past the tiny adjustment curb. I'm willing to bet that ninety percent of tasks you use your word processor for, you can do with Jarte at a fraction of the disk space and resource use. And yes, it can read and write .doc files.

Jarte is available only for Windows. A quick look at the website will see the case for minimalism explained once again, quite nicely.

Abiword is another alternative. Abiword sits somewhere between Word and Jarte for size and functionality. It is free as in 'speech' and 'beer' and is popular with Linux users, though it's multi-platform, meaning it can be used on any system. I use Abiword when I need a full featured word processor for my work. Yet again, it can read and write Word files.

If you're not sick of hearing about it yet, a good comparison of Abiword and Word is available here.

PDF File readers

Ever since PDF came into fashion, users have been baffled by the long start time of Adobe, agitated by the constant nag screens, confused by the amount of memory it uses and annoyedby  requests for upgrades and massive internet downloads. There must be an alternative, right?

Yes there is: Foxit Reader. Free as in 'beer', lighting quick and tiny, Foxit Reader cannot edit or create PDF files, but how many users need to do that? (And if you do, there's other free software for you to use). Available for Windows and GNU Linux.


Unless you have been living in an alternate reality, you may have noticed that Windows Media Player is slow, bulky and tries hard to run your computer for you. Well, the alternative is Football 2000, which is one of my favourite pieces of software and one of the very few Windows only applications I miss.

Foobar can play virtually any audio file, it can create playlists, it can convert between formats, it can look up details of your audio CDs online, it can - only if you tell it to - edit the tags on your audio files (tags are the small files that tell you details such as the artist name, album title, genre type etc.) and organise your music library. The interface looks spartan and there may be a tiny learning curve, but in the long run it will save you time and makes organising your music fun again. The only thing it can't do - as far as I know - is bring up a picture of the album cover. Though a quick glance at the website suggests maybe now it can!

Foobar 2000 is freeware, meaning free as in 'beer' but not speech. Did I mention it's quick and extremely light on resources? :-)


Slightly tougher area here. Multimedia, by its nature, is not something that is easy for computers to handle without a lot of power. Still, remember that challenge I gave you last time? Think about your software nine years ago, what can it do now - with much bigger software - that it couldn't do back then?

To prove this point, we have Media Player Classic. MPC is based on the Windows Media Player of old but only aesthetically, the code behind it is totally independent as is the team of designers. Free in both senses, MPC can play virtually anything - including DVDs - and runs lean. It is Windows only.

On Linux, we have the even more efficient Xine Media Player or Mplayer. The latter is also available for Windows but you need to have a little computing knowledge to get it running.

Web browsers

There is a whole ton of choice in this area. Most rebellious users like to use Firefox. Personally I prefer to use Opera. There's simply no competition with the two 'big' browsers, Opera wins hands down in style, features, security, users friendliness, stability, choice and light resource use. No I don't get kickbacks for that, Opera is free as in 'beer' and multi-platform. It can even be used on mobile phones.

The adventurous may like to try a little known browser called Arora. Arora will be easy to use for anyone who has used Firefox. The only feature lacking in these early days is a system for remembering user-names and passwords. Still, it runs super light and should work well for anyone who has older hardware.

That's enough for our first experiment. Give these programmes a try and use them without fear. Mess around, have fun. They will not affect your existing software and are easy to install and remove.  While you play around with them, try a little experiment: open up your task manager (Windows users press ctrl+alt+delete , Linux users all have their own way to do this) and make a comparison. Compare Jarte and Word, compare Windows Media Player and Foobar 2000 and so on. As long as your system is clean from viruses and spyware, the difference in speed and performance should be easy to see anyway.

I'll be back soon to take our experiment one step further for the willing. Meanwhile, if anyone has had their curiosity tweaked, the free software versus proprietary argument goes well beyond geek chat. It covers corporate behavior, ethics, philosophy on the rights of people and ideas about human development. A simple Google search will turn up many interesting resources, the GNU web site has many interesting articles ranging from FAQs to reasons why schools should use and benefit from free software. Finally, look out for a documentary called "Revolution OS". The introduction features one free software figure telling a Microsoft manager" "I'm your worst nightmare!".

Just another week in politics

So it's business usual then.

We have a censorship debate in which the outcome was never in doubt. A man who most people fear to speak their mind about his family talks about corruption.
The man "on the block" smiles all the way through, knowingly. Instead the true entertainment comes from a twenty six year old politician who cannot speak without reading from a script written for her by someone else that talks about "a can of rotten fish" and visits to America. She goes home and probably enjoys spending some of her taxpayer funded salary.

But one credible charge of corruption does arise. The next week the authorities finally confirm they will investigate. Not the claim itself you understand, but the people who leaked the information, so that they may be punished. As Giles UNpagkorn said: "Everything is upside down in Thailand".

And today we are greeted with the news (no pun intended) that NBT may be "restructured" meaning less news and probably more mind numbing soap operas. That way, less thinking is required. Who needs news after all? We already knew what would happen last week.

Diary of a madman part 2

A follow on from my previous blog.

So after leaving the hospital which had charged me ten times more for a scan than the price I had been told, the inevitable phone calls followed. Not from the big boss, but from a tearful cashier who told us she would be punished if we did not pay up. Chats with colleagues revealed that this type of pleading phone call was not uncommon during disputes.

In the end we spoke to a manager and agreed a settlement price, closer to five thousand than fifty thousand.

So, thank my lucky stars, I had nothing serious, at least not that I could see, but I was still no closer to the truth. I needed something new and the best suggestion came from my mother in law. She called and suggested I visit Thai Chiro. Now, anyone who knows me knows I am no fan of pseudoscience in any form. IN fact, I hold nonsense like ESP, homeopathy and astrology in contempt. Still, I have never quite put Chiro in that bracket because it involves massage and adjustment which can be an aid in itself, even if the fundamental philosophy of Chiro - spinal manipulation - is debatable.

Wednesday, week three

Anyway, my next visit was to the Natural Healing Centre and Chiropractor Dr Nicholas, whom I shall call Doctor Seven

Before I see the doctor, I'm asked to complete a form with questions like: "When was the last time you felt really good?" and: "How many sodas do you drink in one day?". It was rather holistic in its tone but I was actually pleased by that. The GP approach of "find the symptom, prescribe the drug" was failing me.

Doc Seven is American and has a good chat with me and listens to my problems. He is flanked by two helpful staff who take notes as he (not I) speaks. Doc Seven gives a few simple tests of my muscles (or lack thereof) and reactions. He tells me there seems to be some problem with the muscles in my neck and shoulder on the left side. This makes sense; I had noticed that turning my neck towards the right had been a little tense, and during my vertigo sessions the floor always seemed to tilt to the left, and of course my headaches always came from that side. Had Doc Seven,the "quack", hit the target?

Dr Nick leaves the room and his two staff run some therapy treatments. This involved a hot gel pack on the back, laser treatment and some cream applied to the affected areas. Dr Seven returns and does he thing, but forewarns me that: "You might hear some shocking noises, but it's just tension being released from the spine". Sure enough, I get scared out of my wits as he cracks my spine and neck and the noise resonates from the walls, but it feels good. This isn't the end though, the next treatment involved a towel being placed around my neck and - in the most professional way possible - having one assistant hold my legs while Doc Seven stretched my neck.

This may all sound like a form of torture, but it was all done painlessly and with the utmost confidence by Doc Seven in the most relaxing environment possible. When it;s over, Doc tells me I should see an instant improvement in myself but I may need "up to ten more visits". At 1,500 bhat a visit, this is another expense I could do without.

As events turned out, I would not visit the Natural Healing Centre again, but I did truly feel that the treatment helped and - as we shall see - Doctor Nicholas was the first person to identify my problem areas.

Friday, week three.

The headaches had gone, I was feeling a little better and the vertigo had seemed to clear away for a days. But just as I was getting my hopes up, the dizziness returned with a vengeance during a trip to a shopping mall. In fact, I was noticing a pattern;it always seemed to happen indoors, in brightly light areas.

I decided to give the GP's one final chance. I returned to Kasemrad Hospital - a hospital I have been highly critical of in the past. A colleague of mine - a PE teacher - once came close to blows with the security staff at the hospital after feeling he had been grossly overcharged and his tale was just one of many. But anyhow, Doctor Eight at Kasemrad tells me the minor bombshell: "I think you are having anxiety or panic attacks".

"Are you sure?" I reply ; "I really don't think of myself as the nervous or anxious type".

"Well, you symptoms now seem to exactly match the criteria of panic and anxiety attacks" he responds.

Was I going mad? This just didn't add up at all. After travelling to well over thirty countries, how could I suddenly be getting panic attacks in a bloody shop?

Doc Eight referred me to Doctor Nine , the in-house neurologist. Doc Nine was by far and away my favourite doctor in this whole saga. He spoke with energy - making emphasis with his hands - and with an authentic yet amusing accent. After performing a few tests to check my functions of depth perception and balance were working, Doc Nine tells me he agrees with the 'anxiety attacks' diagnosis. 

He nods towards my T-shirt - which happens to have a picture of Marlon Brando on it - "There's a Hollywood movie about anxiety attacks, it's 'Panic Room' with Jodie Foster. Good movie!" he tells me. "Don't worry too much, we'll give you something to help and if the problems go on, call me again and I'll arrange a chat with the psychiatrist" he says.

"And don't get too stressed with those teenage students" he tells me as I leave. Ah well, at least Doc Nine has given me a silver lining; if I don't get better, I get to see him in action again

I go home but decide not to take the medication. Even if there is a psychological problem, I want to deal with t myself, not with drugs.

Week Four.

I get another call from the mother in law. She has a friend whom I'll call 'Anne' (because I can't remember her real name). Anne is employed by a rich businessman on Sukhumvit because she is an expert in healing massage. On hearing of my problem, Anne offers to help and makes the long trip from Sukhumvit to our place of her own accord. 

Within one minute of starting, I know Anne is not your normal masseuse. Her style hurts like hell, but before she even speaks, I know she is sounding out any problems in my body. With pressure from just finger, she stimulates an entire nerve running down my left arm. A few minutes later, she touches a pressure point near the back of my neck. 
"Does it hurt?" she asks. "Yes a lot" I reply in earnest. "Well, it shouldn't and here is your problem" she retorts.

After three weeks and ten doctors, my problem was best diagnosed and treated by a woman who had not even been trained in massage, let alone medicine. Anne's mother was a masseuse but she never taught Anne, who only begun to perform massage after her mother's death. 

For about an hour, Anne stimulates muscles and nerves across my neck and shoulders. She explains that my muscles on the left side have become tense. This has restricted the flow of blood to my brain - hence the one sided headaches - and probably started the vertigo. Only Doc Seven got anywhere close to this diagnosis. After one hour, she finishes and tells me I would feel better. And I did.

So that's where I am. Thanks to Anne - who didn't even ask for any payment for her work (of course we insisted) I am feeling much better. The mystery isn't totally solved: I still feel dizzy in certain places and I don't know why, but it now feels manageable. 

I've come to appreciate my health and not take certain things for granted anymore. If I seem harsh on the doctors, I probably am. All of them were friendly, caring, polite and professional. Yet after all ten visits, more than twenty drug prescriptions, a whole lot of money and talk, the best cure came not from the drugs - of which I took less than half of what I was told to take -  but from an untrained yet incredibly accurate masseuse. There's probably a lesson in there somewhere. I'll let you decide what it is.