Thursday, 26 May 2011

Spam, spam, spam, spam

I get about five spam comments a day. There are usually a few cheery little messages along the lines of ‘Hey, what up’s, Dude! I’m too happy than I’m find you blog! It was great post to read it!’ plus link to some tacky bum-and-tit site. There is a daily string of Japanese characters linking to a page in dolly-mixture colours with images of Hello Kitty and teen-girl idols, possibly a site for sex-groomers. This morning I received a snippet of hetero porn that looks as if it has been written by one of my students with the 'help' of babelfish and a pocket dictionary. David is getting sweatily tumescent at the prospect of fetching Betty a damn good leathering:

‘David narrowed his eyes, wiping the sweat mad his face with the forsake of possibly man hand.’

I’ve been puzzling over the meaning of ‘the forsake of possibly man hand’. Is David perhaps wiping his sweaty countenance ‘with abandon’? Dunno. And why is his hand only possibly a man-hand? Anyway, if he’s wavering about his butchness, he’s pretty sure of his purpose:

"Squire, she's gonna be gettin' more 'n she bargained as a service to when I get through with 'er."

And it is indeed quite a ‘service to’ that Betty gets:

He started beating her thighs savagely, hushed keeping the leather away from her pussy. Betty threw her head privately again and again, feeling that tantalizing piping hot amuse newest thing in the course her pussy. Fuck essence flowed from her pussy, wetting down her blonde cuntal curls, plastering them against her swollen pussy meat. Her thighs tightened, easygoing, then tightened in days gone by more.

‘Fuck Essence’ is a good one, I thought; must be the Boots No. 17 edition of ‘fanny batter’. The ‘swollen pussy meat’ sounds appallingly anaphrodisiac, making me think of the bowls of mince that someone near my flat in Athens used to put out for strays in the forty-degree July heat - you could smell and see them roiling with maggots at fifty paces. I must bear in mind that I am not part of the target audience for the genre exemplified here, and that ‘swollen man meat’, which appeals to me far more as an image, might equally be a turn off for men who enjoy using riding crops to thrash the bejesus out of ladies’ spam wallets - for days on end, it seems.

Occasionally, when correcting students’ writing, I have recourse to a correction code. Instead of correcting the errors, you highlight the bloopers and write above them such abbreviations as T for ‘tense’ or WO for ‘word order’ if you think the perpetrator might, after a little reflection, be able to self-correct. The most frequently used abbreviation in my experience is WW for ‘wrong word’. A touching degree of trust in bilingual dictionaries and a reluctance to edit a ‘finished’ essay leads many students to reach for the next word along rather than the most deserving candidate. I often wished I could have done this with the WWs in Greek subtitles on English language films. I understand that subtitlers work under great pressure of time, and their mishearings and misinterpretations were the best source of entertainment that dreadful nineties Greek TV could provide. In the TV movie ‘Jack the Ripper’, Michael Caine as Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline is brusquely apprising his coppers of the urgency of their mission:

‘Roit. I want you aht on them streets, door to door. Wear your boots out.’

This last phrase got into the subtitles as ‘φορέστε τις μπότες σας όταν βγείτε’ ‘put your boots on when you go out’, as though the Chief were expressing avuncular concern for his boys’ tootsies. In 'Ken Park' a lad asks his older girlfriend 'can I eat you out?' The innocent subtitler translated this as 'πάμε να φάμε;' 'shall we go for something to eat?' envisaging perhaps a shared Big Mac, in fact the last thing on anyone's mind in that movie.

In the early evenings, the cat and I would often watch nature documentaries. William was an afficionado, sitting in his sphynx pose at the foot of the bed, transfixed by flamingoes and chameleons. In one of these, peasants in some unforgiving, arid shit-hole somewhere were toiling in the fields, pouring water over the crops. ‘The peasants irrigate the field,’ said the narrator, redundantly. The subtitles read ‘the peasants irritate the fields’, which made me snort unattractively. 'Here we see a field on which peasants are pouring water,' I said to the cat. 'They are not standing about thumbing their noses at it and snickering ‘nyah nyah, nyah nyah, silly old field!’, so how could that possibly be the right translation? Eh? Chuh!' He agreed.

‘We are about to see something never before captured on film,’ the narrator told us on another occasion, piquing our curiosity with news of relatives. ‘A pride of lions stalking and killing a buck.’ The subtitle read: ‘stalking and killing a duck.’ We had a bit of a snigger at that, thinking what a bunch of drippy, effete lions it would be that needed the safety of numbers when hunting ducks. Then I wondered if the subtitlers could actually see the footage that accompanied the soundtrack. Given the nature of these last two errors, maybe they couldn’t. After all, I am pretty sure I have seen dozens of documentaries in which teams of lions stalk and kill bucks. If you could not see the image, might it not seem far more likely that a World First would indeed reveal a bunch of leonine milquetoasts, steeling themselves to pounce on a knackered, broken-winged duck? This could have been an excellent example of the sort of top-down processing I have failed to elicit from Group C any time this six months, so I will suspend judgement.


I would love to know what a Japanese speaker might make of the subtitles to the video above. In the mid-nineties ERT, the Greek state TV channel, ran a series of Monty Python episodes from the early seventies. Dragged out of its time and context, with subtitles by someone whose language level was at best upper intermediate and acquaintance with British culture non-existent, it was an typical example of the insensitivity to audience that characterises so much of Greek broadcasting, beaurocracy and teaching. Yes, I know, this sounds like an introduction rather than an afterthought. Άλλη φορά.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Rapture Postponed

The Rapture did not happen after all, then, this time. Just like 1994 - we were all prayered up with nowhere to go. All those people who returned their library books, stopped the milk, cancelled the papers and gave away their life savings in expectation of being swept aloft to meet the Lord in the air by 1800 hours local time today, have remained on Earth with the ungodly - bookless, milkless, paperless, broke. This, I suppose, renders all the more unlikely the End of the World on October 21st. Ah, it all seemed so assured, Mr Camping's formula so elegant! See, the Flood was 6023 years from the Creation, and Jesus was born 11,006 years from the Creation, and since a year is as a thousand years for the Lord, it was a foregone conclusion that being 7000 years from the Flood, the Last day would be October 21st 2011. Mr Camping pointed out that none of this would make sense to anyone who did not have faith. We, though, are strong in faith! It stood to reason! Watertight, we thought! We were wrong.

So, it is with regret that we must own that somewhere in that calculation, there's a tiny glitch that we must prayerfully seek to iron out. I prayed my way into this, and the Lord inspired me. Maybe Satan skewed things somewhat when he made gay marriage legal in Iceland on June 11, 2010? After all, June 11 is 6/11, and when you think about it, that's only three digits off the fateful date of 9/11, and three is the number of the Trinity, and May 21st is 5/21, if you read it as five divided by twenty-one, makes 0.23809524, which you have to admit looks on the face of it like a dead give-away for an ETA of 15th February 2013. The Lord is teaching us humility here, though. Our thoughts are not His thoughts. He is reminding us of our sin nature, admonishing us for our presumption. The campaign We Can Know ought to have been more modestly titled: 'We Are A Bunch Of Credulous, Fuck-Witted Numpties', perhaps. Lord, look favourably upon us: it's really quite cool how humble we're being.

Below is a blasphemous video that mocks the End Time prophets. Listen with prayer and try not to laugh, for though the Lord has tarried yet again, we are revising our calculations for The Day of His Inevitable Return.*


* Camping has admitted that he misinterpreted the Bible and that May 21 was not really the end of the world but the 'spiritual beginning of the physical end.' The physical end still comes on October 21st, so if you gave away your life savings, sold your house or knifed your kids in expectation of the Rapture and the Tribulation, you only have to live with the consequences for less than half a year. 'Were not changing a date at all; we're just learning that we have to be a little more spiritual about this,' he says, meaning don't consider claiming any earthly damages from the rotten old scumbag. In The Daily Mail article I linked to, Camping's followers come up with all the post hoc rationalisations I took the piss out of in the above post, so perhaps I have a future as a prophet.

Some of the fallout from the whole lunatic business is really not so funny.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Tist Eyelets

IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is a test of English popular with universities and colleges of further education for assessing the language level of overseas applicants for their courses. The name is pronounced by teachers as ‘the Eye-elts Test’ and by many of my Saudi students as ‘Tist Eyelets’. Anyone who sits the Tist Eyelets will be required to write a couple of essays. Themes beloved of those who set the writing paper are:

The effects of technology on society
The effects of television on society
The influence of Pelagianism on the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints
The effects of globalisation on society
The effects of pollution on society

(I made one of these titles up. Answers on a postcard, please.)

The rationale informing the choice of these brain-curdling topics is obviously to make sure that even the dullest of numpties can cobble a few platitudes together. This is not to imply that every IELTS candidate is a dullard, of course. We are assessing language here, not originality and wit, which is why we never get any of either.

I marked a pile of Tist Eyelets essays this morning. Today’s title was a variation on the first theme above:

Nowadays [they invariably start with ‘nowadays’] the way people interact has changed because of technology. In what ways has technology affected the types of relationships people make?

The IELTS essay as a genre is characterised by a cobbling together of a bunch of threadbare received ideas. As any fule kno, the birth of the internet put paid to face-to-face interaction, and nobody communicates any more except by Skype and SMS, to the detriment of everyone’s social skills. Children spend their evening watching porn instead of doing their homework or playing football, so they get fat and groomed online by paedophiles. Their parents are oblivious to this because they are too busy ordering gadgetry from Amazon. Students churn this bilge out by the bucket load. Providing it is reasonably accurate and reasonably well organised, they’ll get a good grade. Nobody is going to take a red pen to their essay and write ‘evidence?’ ‘When were you last groomed by a kiddie-fiddler?’ or ‘your last face-to-face conversation was in class this very morning.’

In his introduction, Mohammed is at pains to define his terms:

‘There is no doubt that since the mankind (human beings) existed on this planet (Earth) there was an interaction between its components and there was a relationship between people (who compose the human race.)’

Go on, argue with that if you can. The aim (purpose) of the essay is then introduced (set out):

‘This essay will browse the effects of technology on the people’s interact.’

So, why is technology such a big issue? Hassan?

‘In the last 20 years, technologie has become widdly.’

This is true. Technology has become so widdly available that everyone is affected by it in widdly divergent ways, some beneficial, some malign. You can keep in touch with your family with MSN, Hussam tells us, but:

‘There are more lie and bad things people can make, such as sex.’

Did people have sex before the advent of the internet? Reading IELTS essays, you could be excused for thinking they probably didn’t.

‘Some people use technology to lie with other people, and sometimes can get other people in the wrong way.’

Technology for lying with other people…? Are we speaking here of the Fleshlight, or those ingenious vibrating contrivances you can insert into the male urethra to have, as it were, an inside-out wank? Unfortunately not. At first I interpreted this as meaning that people seduced one another by various electronic means, and then got them up the duff. Rereading the sentence I realised that Adnan had simply chosen the wrong preposition in that first clause. It should read ‘to lie to other people’ and cheat them. Pity.

'It can tear our families apart if one parent give more attention to his gadget than to his children'

Just put the plural 's' on gadget and it will all sound perfectly innocent.

The other essay on the paper requires candidates to describe information presented as a graph or bar chart. Since all these blokes are pilots, this is actually useful to them. We have been unable to persuade the RAF that putting them through the hoop of a discursive essay on top of this is pretty much a waste of their time and ours, but orders are orders, I suppose, and we plough on.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Soothe your Savage Breast

For your listening pleasure – or horror – I have slung together a few of my current favourite pieces of music, and courtesy of Grooveshark embedded them in the side bar. Better that than music that strikes up as soon as you load the page; utterly naff, if you ask me. It’s quite a mixed bag to my ears, although to some it might, I allow, sound like little more than a compilation of minor-mode wailing and funereal ululation. I'll be adding and subtracting songs as the fancy takes me.
We kick off with two excerpts from Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten. Do not listen to these if you are prone to music-on-the-brain: I swear they have been on an unending loop in my head, night and day, since I bought the CD around this time last year. The Prelude, with its shifting rhythms, undulating arpeggios and sense of swift forward propulsion, produces the exhilarating sensation of rafting on a sparkling river. It's mesmerising and extraordinarily persistent: impossible to get out of one's head. Akhnaten’s Hymn to The Aten I find equally hypnotic in its Handelian beauty, and the choral setting of Psalm 104 in Hebrew that ends it, suggesting an influence of Akhnaten's religious views on Jewish monotheism, is pure bliss. I sometimes think of Akhnaten in the Next World, still heaping his thousand offering-tables with grub for the Sun Disc, having pigs tortured, working the malnourished poor literally to death and listening with satisfaction to his words being sung 3,500 years after he wrote them. How chuffed the megalomaniac whack-job must be that he still has quite a public, despite Horemheb’s assiduous efforts to obliterate all trace of the froot-loop's reign after Akhnaten, to general relief, slipped off the perch. (Or was he pushed?)
Countertenor Paul Esswood as Akhnaten, already required to wear a foil emergency blanket, exasperatedly asks the director if a geezer in a stripy body-sock striking attitudes behind him really helps all that much. Stuttgart National Opera premier, 1984.
Next we have Dumisani Maraire with the Kronos Quartet, performing ‘Kutambarara’, meaning ‘spreading’. I have no idea what it’s about but it has a beautiful spacious sound and is wonderfully uplifting to sagging spirits. There's Mari Boine singing the angry Vilges Suola ('white thief') which gave me my nom de bloggeur and then Jan Garbarek, with Evening Land, which incorporates two more Boine songs. Tavener’s Song for Athene is next. They sang this Diana’s coffin was borne out of out of Westminster Abbey, but I didn’t watch that, so the pellucid beauty of the piece has not been spoiled for me, even though this performance is not the one I wanted to include. Some more Kronos Quartet to follow, first with Azerbaijani father and daughter duo Alim and Fargana Qasimov, then with a marvellous performance of the raga Mishra Bhairavi. The Qasimovs are responsible for most of the minor-mode wailing on offer here, so if such music gets on your wick, skip them, but it will be your loss, I reckon. The riveting intensity of this performance of the Azeri song Getme, Getme (Don't Leave) can be seen as well as heard here. I find Fargana in particular rich and warm as a good single malt. This is the highest complement I can pay anyone, although as a Muslima, she might not be especially flattered. Bhairavi is a morning raga, appropriate between six and ten o'clock, apparently. Listen to it outside those hours at your own risk.

Fargana Qasimova
Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass then give us Prashanti, which features a Sanskrit prayer sung by Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam. He does a lot of vocals for Indian films. Possibly as well he doesn’t take leading roles, as it would cost a fortune to put that name in lights.
S.P. Balasubrahmanyam

What next? Bit of Azam Ali singing first in tongues and then in Ladino, followed by a sensuous performance by Hesperion XXI of the Ladino song Las Estrellas en los Cielos, beautifully played on the sarod. These Ladino pieces once proved very popular with a group of Saudi students, who borrowed my CDs to burn onto their laptops. Your teacher is a wine-bibbing atheist pouf, I thought, and he’s seducing you with Jewish music. If you only knew.
My musically and academically talented nephew (smart-arse) sent me two CDs of the Black Ox Orkestar, who perform in the other Jewish language of Yiddish, which in place of the vowels and open syllables of Ladino has a gentle, clanking, consonantal sound. Not that you’d know from this one song, as it has no words. Still, it clanks gently enough. There are three songs from Belgian lovelies Lais, and I was dead chuffed to find a couple of songs from the Greek album Sappho, sung by Aleka Kanellidou. This little gem of a CD is a collection of poems by Sappho rendered into Modern Greek and exquisitely set to music by Spyros Vlassopoulos, and now available nowhere.(Even here - they disappeared!)
I can't find any information about Vlassopoulos, and no other album by Kanellidou has ever appealed to me in the least. If anyone has Sappho and can burn it for me, though, they will make a middle-aged grump reasonably happy for a short time.

Azam Ali
We have Mari Boine again, singing 'Give me a Break' in the voice of a little girl. This is a song for anyone who has been trivialised or demonised just for being what they are, and at an early stage in their lives taken that mistreatment to heart as if it were their own fault. In Boine's case, a Sámi. In my case, a gay teen in the seventies. Fill in your own blank.
Mun hálidivččen ealliman
Mun hálidivččen eallit
De váldet dáid muittuid
Ja vuodjudehket meara bodnái
Vai mun in dárbbaš guoddit šat
Daid maid in galgga guoddit

I'd like to have my I own life
I want to be alive
So take these memories
And carry them to the bottom of the sea
So I need no longer carry
What is not mine to carry.
Mari Boine
Then for a big finish, the beautiful Mamak Khadem from the USA via Iran with Restless Yearning. It's cheery stuff:

The pain of loneliness is mine
The sorrow of disgrace is mine
Passion and lovesickness, all mine!
Restless my sleep, beyond words my grief
Alone I lie at night
In the embrace of your apparition.

Mamak Khadem


Akhnaten's Hymn to the Aten

Thou dost appear beautiful
On the horizon of heaven
Oh, living Aten
He who was the first to live
When thou hast risen on the Eastern Horizon
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty
Thou art fair, great, dazzling,
High above every land
Thy rays encompass the land
To the very end of all thou hast made

All the beasts are satisfied with their pasture
Trees and plants are verdant
Birds fly from their nests, wings spread
Flocks skip with their feet
All that fly and alight
Live when thou hast arisen

How manifold is that which thou hast made
Thou sole God
There is no other like thee
Thou didst create the earth
According to thy will
Being alone, everything on earth
Which walks and flies on high

Thy rays nourish the fields
When thou dost rise
They live and thrive for thee
Thou makest the seasons to nourish
All thou hast made
The winter to cool
The heat that they may taste thee

There is no other that knows thee
Save thy son, Akhnaten
For thou hast made him skilled
In thy plans and thy might
Thou dost raise him up for thy son
Who comes forth from thyself

At the close of the Hymn, Akhnaten leaves the stage deserted, and the act ends with distant voices singing.

Text: Sung in Hebrew by Offstage Chorus (from Psalm 104, Hebrew Bible, Masoretic text)

Ma rab-bu ma-a-se-kha ha-shem
Ku-lam be-khokh-ma a-sita
Ma-le-a ha-a-rets kin-ya-ne-kha
O-te or ka-sal-ma
No-te sha-ma-yim ka-yi-ri-a

Ta-shet kho-shekh vi-hi lay-la
Bo tir-mis kol khay-to ya-ar

Oh Lord, how manifold are Thy works
In wisdom hast Thou made them all
The earth is full of Thy riches
Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment
Who stretchest out the Heavens like a curtain

Thou makest darkness and it is night

Wherin all the beasts of the forest do creep forth

Friday, 6 May 2011

A Day in the Life II

‘We’ve addled us brass today’ people up in Yorkshire say (or used to) if they had had a particularly hard day at work. By this they mean ‘we have earned our money today’, with the implication that the day's wages have been especially well-deserved. Now, A’ve addled me brass today, me, and shall reward myself with a drink or three tonight after two ineffably dull evenings on the wagon.

Group C (of three) have occupied my Thursdays and Fridays since October, and they have made but scant progress. Attendance is patchy, and the excuses they come up with for lateness or absence wear ever thinner with frequent use. Never has a group of overseas students been so beset with visa problems, landlord problems, council tax problems, digestive problems, sick child problems, you-bloody-name-it problems. I have tried every approach known to pedagogy over the last seven months and got hardly anywhere, so I accept no blame for this: I’m sowing stony ground, leading hydrophobic horses to water, charged with educating people who have neither aptitude for, nor very great interest in, what I have to teach them. It happens sometimes.

After the Easter break only four students have returned, and today only three showed up. The course director decided to come in and upbraid them for this general lack of spunk, grit and house-spirit. She has at her disposal a headmistressy, Widdicomesque persona for use on such occasions, one which can reduce any susceptible adult to a tongue-tied ten-year old. I nearly said ‘any susceptible Arab’ then, but checked myself just in time not to appear racist. In my experience it is the case that Arab men, while they can be intolerably patronising to younger women, are easily brought to heel by women of maternal generation. Sarah’s little performance in W.I. / Oxfam Volunteer / Barbara Woodhouse mode left the two blokes and one woman feeling well and truly told off: a pity really, when you think about it, because it was aimed at the students who weren’t there, rather than those who had braved a sunny Spring morning to struggle in.

'You weren't here on Tuesday, Shaden, now why was that?'

'My husband was have headache.'

Sarah shook her head and tut-tutted over that one, but later in the morning Shaden's husband turned up to ask me about her progress, and I felt some sympathy for her. He was in smart casual and she, seated between us, a pair of doe eyes peering from a slit in a dome of heavy black cloth. While recommending ways to improve her English outside class, I deliberately broke eye-contact with him to address Shaden directly, otherwise we would have been discussing her literally over her head, as if assessing the prognosis of an anaesthetised patient.

'She's got lots of responsibilities,' the husband said. 'House, two kids, me.'

I bet his headaches occupy all Shaden's time while they last.

If you teach English, it is your job to get people communicating. Obviously, this is hard work with people who have very limited vocabulary. You can bottle out and just give them grammar exercises, which in many cases is what the students expect you to do, but these are of very limited value, like painting by numbers. So I spent all day feeding in vocabulary about travel and tourism, engaging the students in conversation that would encourage them to use that vocabulary, guiding them through a text on the topic, encouraging them to deduce the meaning of vocabulary items from the text and elicting their opinions and experiences, over and over. And over.

The text was about the difference between tourists and travellers, and I managed a fairly good start with some photos of flabby tourists in silly hats and loud aloha shirts, and some lean, studenty types with backpacks and boots, and elicited possible differences in destination and outlook between the two types. The text contained the term ‘tourist trap’. To encourage the students to deduce its meaning, I drew a mousetrap and a cartoon mouse on the whiteboard, elicited how the thing operated, then referred them back to the text and asked what they thought a tourist trap might be. I have no idea what images flashed through their minds – volcanic ash, tsunamis, terrorist outrages, a meteorite flattening Benidorm – but my mousetrap cartoon did not set up anything approaching the right vibrations, so I had to resort to asking why a cup of coffee is so much more expensive in Brighton than here in the Milands. We got there in the end. Similar problems arose with ‘armchair traveller’, which they interpreted to mean someone who never travelled without his armchair. I began to wonder if they really imagined that the traveller type, whom we had already profiled, would have some sort of E-Z-Karry La-Z Boy recliner in his backpack… we are still processing everything bottom-up here, it seems, despite the combined efforts of five teachers over seven months to encourage a smidge of top-down to go with it.

‘Steve!’ I am summoned to the side of Mustafa, the marvellous boy, lustrous of hair, angelic Twink of Tripoli, he of the eye-lashes, rubious of lip, he who shakes his head in perplexity. ‘Ferry deffackelt, this teckest. Deffackelt, ferry.’

So I sat with him and talked through the task for a few minutes until he felt more confident. ‘Is that OK now?’ I asked.

‘Yeah. Cheers, mate,’ he replied, most unexpectedly.

The text mentioned Thomas Cook:

Travel is an age-old phenomenon, but tourism is a relatively recent invention. Thomas Cook is often described as the first travel agent because he arranged the first ‘package tour’; a 19-kilometre trip for 500 people, in 1841.

‘What ‘Thomas’?’ Mustafa wanted to know, then, gesturing vaguely downwards, ‘this, for eat, no?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘That’s stomach.’ Despite my best efforts, it’s obvious once again that top-down processing and logical deduction are not running the show here. Stomach Cook, the well-known tripe chain.

I mentioned that Cook had begun operations in this town and that a statue of him stands outside the railway station. Mustafa has seen this statue.

‘Yeah! Is died now, huh?’

Well spotted, son – he’d have to be over 170 years old if he were still with us. Still, Cook is indeed dead, and while Mustafa had obviously failed to spot the capital letters on the proper noun ‘Thomas Cook’, at least he didn’t suppose that Cook’s package tour left at just turned twenty to seven yesterday evening.


Right! Khalas! (Arabic: ‘enough!’) I want a shower and then a sherry. There’s a nice Fino in the fridge and some green olives that are dying to accompany it. No more ELT for the next 48 hours.


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