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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TTT - Topsy Turvey Thailand

The decision of the NCC to charge Chavalit and Somchai over the police crackdown of PAD protesters last year seems bizarre.

For starters, is it within the jurisdiction of the NCCC?

The constitution defines the role of the NCCC thus:

(2) to inquire into facts, summarise the case and prepare opinions in relation to a criminal proceedings of the persons holding political positions to be submitted to the Supreme Court of Justice’s Criminal Division for Persons Holding Political Positions in accordance with section 275;

(3) to inquire and decide whether a State official of high administration level or a government official holding a position of a Divisional Director or its equivalent or higher level has become unusually wealthy or has committed an offence of corruption, malfeasance in office or malfeasance in judicial office, and to take such actions against a State official or a government official of lower level who participates in the commission of such offence with the person holding the said position or the person holding political position or who commits an offence in the manner deemed appropriate by the National Counter Corruption Commission in accordance with the organic law on counter corruption;

(4) to inspect the accuracy, actual existence as well as change of assets and liabilities of the persons holding positions under section 259 and section 264 as stated in the account and supporting documents submitted in accordance with the rules and procedures prescribed by the National Counter Corruption Commission;

(5) to supervise and monitor moral and ethics of persons holding political positions;

(6) to submit an inspection report and a report on the performance of duties together with recommendations to the Council of Ministers, the House of Representatives and the Senate annually. The report shall be published in the Government Gazette and disclosed to the public;

Of course clause five could be used to cover virtually anything. Secondly, why charge Somchai? As PM, if he is to be found guilty for every mistake made by police then there's not a person in the world who would want the job of Thai PM. Finally of course, the insane amongst us might think that it is perfectly normal. indeed advisable, to have police crack down on a violent mob who have unlawfully invaded public space and refused all warnings to leave. But as Giles Unpagkorn recently said: "In Thailand, everything is topsy turvey.

Speaking of Giles, when hearing Aphisit's response to him in the Oxford speech concerning Lese Majeste, I couldn't help but think back to the excellent and highly articulate article by David Streckfuss that appeared on BP's blog.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Diary of a Madman

It took me through more than ten hospital visits, four specialists, a round tour of Bangkok and more thousands of baht than I care to remember but my journey into insanity started at work.

Week one:

I started to feel a little dizzy. I figured it was just a lack of sleep and shrugged it off. The next day though, I got other weird symptoms: back pains, the occasional tingles in my toes and fingertips and so on.  It was nothing pleasant but I had a pregnant wife, exams just around the corner and a boss looking to make redundancies to allow for the expected drop in enrolments next year. I had to soldier on. After all, a doctor would just throw some drugs at me and tell me to rest.

Day three was more of the same with one real difference: the dizziness had become vertigo. I first noticed the wobble as I sat down for lunch. I told my colleague - a Physics master who graduated from Yale - about my various symptoms. "It might be cancer" he said in jest. I smiled but resolved to see my doctor.

Doctor Number One - my local GP - told me the problems could be caused by bad posture whilst sitting at my desk. I should rest, take breaks from reading or computer use and, of course, take three kinds of drugs.

On day four I followed all advice but saw no improvement. The pains continued, the vertigo was the same and I was now suffering migraines on the left side of my skull. I felt terrible but could not miss work. The next week was exams - the worst possible time for a teacher to be absent - and I had a lot of work to catch up on.

After work my wife took me to Thonburi 2 Hospital to see a doctor. Doctor Number Two told me I needed to get more exercise. I protested that I cycled every day. She told me to rest and exercise more (which makes no sense when you think about it) and gave me three new drugs: two for pain and one for the vertigo.

Week two:

It was Saturday, and I hoped that a change of scenery and younger, energetic students might take my mind off things. Of course it didn't. I could now feel the migraine moving around the left of my skull almost at will. It felt like like there were three buzzers across the left of my face and the migraine would fire a random buzzer every minute. I made it through the day before my wife again taxied me to Thonburi 2. Doctor Number Three diagnosed me with: "non specific symptoms". He asked me if I was stressed. I said I was not stressed but I was a little tired with so much on my plate. He gave me a "stronger" painkiller and a drug to increase blood-flow to the cranium. This did seem to produce a minor improvement.

On Monday (day eight in total), I approached a colleague; Amy is a Chinese national who teaches her own language at the school. She also happens to be very well trained in healing massage, having learned from a blind person. I told Amy my problems and asked her to take a look at my neck. Within a minute of starting to massage me, Amy told me: "You need an x-ray on your neck, you have a serious problem". She told me a disc had been pushed out of place, possibly as the result of a fall. I couldn't think of any such event but it made sense, since a lot of my pain was now emanating from the back of my neck. In any case, that afternoon we took a trip to Thonburi Hospital (Not Thonburi 2 this time) to visit a specialist in the Skeletal Department. Yes, that's what they call it.

After a two hour wait to see him, Doctor Number Four (skeletal specialist) listens to my tale of strange symptoms and the warning from my Chinese colleague. In fact, he gives a rather patronising laugh when I tell him what she said. He takes a very quick look at me and says: "I don't think you have a problem". I insist on taking an X-ray anyway. After another long wait, the results come in. "It's like I told you, everything is normal" says Doctor Four. We chat a little longer. It seems my worries and impatience had made me judge Doc a little harshly. He was right all along and happy to answer my questions. Still, the riddle of my illness had not been solved. Doc suggests it could be an aggravated nerve in my shoulder. Still, the relief of knowing my neck was OK seemed to relieve my symptoms a little.

So I struggled on for the rest of the week. My symptoms got no better, I still felt wobbly walking up and down the exam hall - but got no worse, and the meds did seem to hold off the migraines, though anyone who knows me knows I am not keen on taking medicines. 

At school, I tell a few friends of my condition and they sympathise, but it's hard to convey just how I felt. Like any other business, teachers sometimes exaggerate their conditions to gain sympathy and time off, and I worry people may think I am doing the same. 

On day ten I notice one student has an unusually high exam score in Social Science. Impressed, I take a closer look and see that her score is identical to the student sat in front of her, complete with the same wrong answers. I make enquiries and discover the two students had the same scores and wrong answers in five other subjects. I was ready to grab the proctor of the exam for that class and ask what the heck he or she was doing when a student can cheat on no less than five exams without being noticed. There was just one hitch.....that proctor was me. I was ashamed, my reputation as the exam hall cop was in ruins. 

I inform my boss who brings both students back for a re-test that proved beyond doubt what had happened. Contrary to popular opinion, the school does take cheating seriously and my boss ensured the parents were informed. There was little more we could though, since the students were grade nine, and would leave for new schools next month anyway.

One of the two students - I'll call her Sara - seemed to find the whole thing a joke. I talk with Sara in front of my colleagues and ask her how she cheated and why. She answers both honestly but still nonchalantly. In a rare loss of calm, I actually raise my voice with Sara and tell her that her cheating not only makes her look bad but me too, I tell her that I'm glad she's leaving.

Later I came to regret my actions. Sara may not have been a model student but I should never have told her I was "glad" she would be gone. It was borne of frustration that my condition was clearly affecting me and I could no longer try to ignore it. A good teacher should never take out their own problems on their students. 

The rest of the week passed without incident and the term came to a close. Now it was just Saturday lying between me and a good rest........... but then it happened. 

Saturday (Day thirteen), week two.

After another morning of the same dodgy sensations, I had lunch with a colleague and left to go back to class. On my way, I stopped in at Watson's Chemist. Inside, a light bulb was flashing on and off. As I walked under it, I suddenly felt like the world was turning upside down. A gushing sensation of burning pain moved down my neck and shoulders. Gasping, I grabbed onto a shelf and took a deep breath.  I was scared to walk, scared to even move.

I stood still for about five minutes and gathered myself enough to hobble out of the shop and back upstairs. People were looking at me, wondering why the young guy was hunched over, holding onto rails or leaning his arm against shop walls all the way. I got back to the school and told them what happened. I finished my classes for the day; though I stayed in my chair and was rather 'out of it' . Halfway through class I had a call of nature. The toilets were about fifty yards from my classroom. That walk was hell. To feel the world is rocking, to feel you cannot put one foot in front of the other (without any alcohol involved) is a horrible feeling.

That night - another trip to Thonburi 2, Doctor number five, to his immense credit, referred me to a neurologist and did not prescribe me any drugs.

Monday, week three. (Day fifteen)

So a yet another trip to Thonburi Hospital again to see Doctor  Six (neurologist). Doc Six gives me a few basic tests of coordination then tells me that I have two concurrent problems: migraines caused by stress or alcohol (though I don't drink and was not stressed until this started) and a sore back. "But" says Doc Six " could have a brain scan just to make sure there is no serious problem" he tells me in broken English.

"How much is the scan? "I ask, suspiciously

He pauses, ".........about.........five thousand baht" he says. When he sees the relief on my face he tells me: "It's cheaper than your country".

I go into a special room for my brain scan and the nurse instructs me to lie in something that looks like a space age coffin. She leaves the room and the bed/coffin moves upwards and backwards. A bunch of circular disks light up and start to circle around me as they make loud whirring noises. "STAY CALM......JUST RELAX!" booms a computer voice from somewhere. At least they switched the voice into English mode.

The results come in and I'm clear; there are no serious problems. Naturally I'm in good spirits as my wife and I approach the cashier. The pretty lady smiles and hands me the bill. It was just as Doc Six said it would be......except with a few extra zeros at the end.

I cannot pay, and even if I could, I wouldn't. My wife - bless her, these moments must be testing - explains to the cashier what my broken Thai cannot get across.  She consults with some senior nurses who tell us they're sorry, but we have to pay. I'm pretty sure they think I am lying to get out of paying. Doc Six has already left so nobody can ask him. Eventually, they get Doc Six on the phone who confirms his broken English caused him to tell me the wrong price (five, instead of fifty) and he is very sorry. He apologises to me in person over the phone. I accept - it was clearly an accident - and say goodbye.

I put the phone down and the senior nurse smiles at me. "So it's over?" she smiles at me. "Yes" I smile back. "But I'm still not paying that much".

This goes back and forth for a while. Eventually my wife and I hatch a plan. She leaves for the toilet and then goes to our car. I do likewise ten minutes later. Yup,that's right. We did a runner.

To be continued.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Should Aphisit speak at Oxford?

The Nation today highlighted an open letter from Lee Jones to a colleague at Oxford Uni regarding the forthcoming appearence of Khun Aphisit. Lee has a website with some insightful articles on teaching and a blog. As I felt his letter was slightly unfair, I sent him the following as a comment. What do you think? Who was right?

EDIT: Lee has since made a post explaining that actually it was not an open letter but a private email which was leaked. As such, it was slightly harsh for PT to use it in a press conference but can anyone be surprised at politicians exploiting others for personal gain?

Mr Jones,

I am pleased to have found your blog and website, I'm only surprised I didn't discover it sooner, though I am familiar with your work on the esteemed New Mandala blog.

You touch on many issues on which we are in agreement, but because I am located in Thailand it would be unwise for me to comment on all of them. However, please allow me to express my profound disagreement with you on the tone of your letter to Sir Michael.

You strongly imply that there is a link between the rise to power of the Democrats and the PAD street protests. This in itself is a fallacy; the PPP were removed from power because of the outcome of judicial procedures that began well before the street protests were underway. Whilst there may be talk of a 'judicial coup' , it should be noted that the verdict of the courts was aired publicly over several hours, and there is no evidence to suggest that the Democrat Party had any sway over the verdicts. Therefore, I think it is highly unjust to imply a direct link between Aphisit's promotion and the court verdict.

With regards to your comments on the PAD wanting: 'an end to universal suffrage and an unelected PM', this is a wildly embellished paraphrase. I attended a press conference with Kasit - the politician you describe as 'a PAD leader and now foreign minister' - and the policies of the PAD were discussed. At no time was an unelected PM suggested or even implied and the only nod towards 'universal suffrage' was a suggestion - and it was strictly highlighted as a suggestion only - that a person's voting power could be affected by how much tax they pay. Kasit was also careful to distinguish between his role as a Democrat and a PAD supporter. Indeed, he was only a supporter and not one of the seven PAD leaders as you suggest.

As a minor aside, Chidchob Newin is in fact Newin Chidchob.

I stress I do not wish to defend the actions of the PAD, but I do want to express my disagreement with your approach to Aphisit's speech at Oxford, as I sense you wish to encourage a cancellation. I feel your approach is similar to those who disagreed with the appearance of Nick Griffin and David Irving at Oxford Unions some time ago i.e. by utilising an undemocratic approach to counter a perceived anti-democrat. Rather than attempt to stop Aphisit speaking,why not confront him with your concerns?
Thanks again for your work, it is particularly enlightening to read thoughts from a fellow teacher of your calibre and I look forward to reading more.


My lack of bloggage has been mainly due to a bizarre and unpleasant complaint that hopefully has passed. It has bought me into contact with several people and places that I plan to blog about soon.

Friday, March 06, 2009


Hot in this morning: PM promises return to "media freedom" ( link )

Hot in this afternoon: police raid a newspaper for alleged lese majeste. ( link )

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the media react.