I wrote this in the week before leaving. Now I'm back in England, and it seems like an appropriate final memory of Saudi.
Arabs don't have a concept of camp...but they know all about camping.
Going out into the desert, collecting dry wood on the way, pitching a tent and making a fire - then sitting around it cooking food, drinking coffee with cardamom, telling stories and building companionship into the night.
Of course, the tent is Made in China, the pitching is done by the same pakistani or philipino menial on minimum wages who also makes and serves the coffee, and the fire is started with a blowtorch, but the spirit is the same. The fire is also inside the tent, because it gets much too cold outside.
When you need to empty your bladder of all the coffee, there's a portable toilet (combined with shower facility) because you can't just pee on a sand dune when you're a hundred kilometers from the nearest city. Though that's exactly what I did when it was 'engaged'.
Here's something we don't do in the west on our camping trips: Perform classic poems for each other. The poetry may be read from smartphones nowadays, but the last time you were around a campfire, did you do readings of Milton for each other? Ging-Gang-Goolie it isn't.
Someone mentioned my dubious achievements as a singer, so I was encouraged to Do The Show Right Here. I gave my rendition of "Sweet Dreams" (which was called "deep and insightful" by the audience) and even managed to recall a poem to recite - Blake's "Sick Rose".
Then...someone set off fireworks in the distance, causing much excited murmuring. It seems fireworks are the traditional signal that a hunting party have found and killed a wolf - so we jumped into out giant people carriers (Arabs don't do small cars) to go and see.
I was initially reticent about going to look at a newly killed animal, but then realised I'd been spending the night munching on bits of sheep and cow grilled on the fire.
The wolf was grey and thin, surprisingly small - maybe four foot from long snout to tail...which was still twitching it's last as we arrived. There was a bullet wound and a trail of blood from it's neck, and after less than a minute all movement ceased. My hosts and their friends posed with the gun for each other's cameras, holding up the wolf's head by it's ears. I was struck by the sightless eyes that seemed to point directly at me, and the long, lolling red tongue.
The children got to pose too, including the youngest - a boy of ten who I'd played hide-and-seek with earlier. I posed with them - I've seen dead animals by the roadside before, but never touched one, let alone one still cooling. Everyone seemed happy. I asked whether the wolf would be eaten, but was told it was forbidden to eat any animal that eats meat.
Back in the tent, all dozen of my hosts said this was the first time they'd ever seen a wolf. Hunting for them was common, but seeing was rare, and killing almost unknown. They explained that wolves were a major problem, not just killing for food but being cruel and destructive simply for fun, killing 30 or 40 sheep on a farm in one night, but carrying just one on his back (sic) to the den.
So how many sheep farms were there locally? Apparently none. I considered asking how wolves could be such a threat if they were so rare...but didn't bother. There are probably less than 200 arabian wolves left in the wild. I wonder how long hunters will continue to search after they're extinct.
Two subjects always come up when saudis get into conversation with westerners. 1) Is it true that if they go to the west they can have all the sexual partners they want without shame? And 2) Why aren't you a muslim?
The second turned into a Q&A. They trotted out all the usual arguments, I responded with the usual refutations, and they replied that although they accepted the arguments presented failed, they still believed. At the end, they understood that faith isn't a matter of evidence, but of needing a certain kind of love in one's life. Most people need it, I don't, so until our needs change, our beliefs won't. All very amicable and civilised.
Except for the one inevitable idiot who repeatedly insisted that although he couldn't justify his faith, I had a duty to read every justification until I found one that was convincing. But not for anything that wasn't the wahabi varient of the sunna varient of islam.
But: it was interesting to hear the muslim version of Pascal's Gambit, specifically: If you don't accept any religion, and any one of the infinitely many possible religions that claim an afterlife is true, you'll go to hell. So by accepting islam, you increase your chances of heaven by an infinitely small amount...and isn't that worth it?
I've been here 14 months. My plane leaves in 4 days. Suddenly I'm surrounded by people who say they'll miss me when I'm gone. I have no idea how I'll feel about saudi when I'm back in england...and no idea how I'll feel about england after getting to know saudi.
I was in the limbo of "about to leave but not yet gone" writing that. Now I'm in the limbo of "lots to do but can't quite yet start it".
1) Islam is true because it prevents car crashes. Music is forbidden in islam, because music excites your emotions, which makes you drive too fast, which makes you crash. But no music means no dangerous driving.
2) Islam says music makes you think of sex. Islam says thinking of sex is bad. Islam saves you from things which islam says is bad. Therefore islam is true.
3) In answer to my comment that you can't persuade someone into or out of a religion for the same reason you can persuade someone into or out of love: In islam you *can* persuade someone to fall in love. The reason being:
3.1) It's forbidden to fall in love before marriage, because doing so might lead to the man declaring his intention to marry the women, but then changing his mind, which always causes severe psychiatric problems for the woman.
3.2) Getting married is a complicated, costly procedure involving the man seeking permission from the woman's father, and paying a large dowry. If he divorces her later, he loses their house and property, which he probably can't afford. Therefore he will decide to stay with her, which after a few years will lead to love.
3.3) A man is incapable of loving any children he didn't personally progenitate, therefore is incapable of raising them. But if he and his wife do procreate, then fall out, the presence of the offspring will force them to stay together, which will force them to decide to fall in love.
And as an extra added bonus:
4) Hospitals in the west are replacing medicine with readings from the Qu'ran, which cast out demons and thus work much better than nasty drugs. It says so in a little book, and books are always reliable because if they weren't, the police wouldn't let people publish them.
And the moral of the story is: For one who wants to believe, any excuse is good enough...but no amount of excuses is ever enough.
I've met a few zionists, but none of them were jewish. In the same way as I've met a few maoists, but none of them were chinese.
I've yet to meet a buddhist who's actually from a buddhist country. Almost everyone I've met from a hindu country, if they mentioned their religion, was muslim.
The proximimate reason why I've not encountered evangelical jews is...most jews don't believe in a god. Some of them might regard their right to a homeland as god-given, but that's in a different compartment of their brains. Compare with those atheists who kind-of wish there were a god so they could *hate* him.
But even the hassidic types with the cool broad-brimmed black hats and curly forelocks...the ones who really do say "Oy Vey!" and use "schmuck" to refer to a part of the body which they mutilate...they don't look for converts.
They might believe you're going to Sheoul for not following all the dumb rules they've interpreted into their magic book, and they might personally think you'd look better in a skullcap...but they don't try to *push* you into salvation.
Christians on the other hand take it as a personal affront that you're not one of them.
Even the ones in sects which believe they-and-only-they are the elite, hand-picked by the almighty for paradise, where they can virtuously enjoy watching the rest of us burn for eternity...even these are insulted if you don't want to join.
Which is a little odd, because you can't be the elite few without being few.
You can see the same kind of double-logic in most marxist groups. The rightous are in the oppressed minority, therefore the smaller and more oppressed the minority, the more rightous they are.
But how *dare* the majority not *want* to join us?
One doesn't need to believe in a magic man in the sky to believe in a holy cause. Or adopt the hypocrisy.
Muslims are different again. They might find it incomprehensible that you're not already one of them, but if they try to convert you...take it as a compliment. Because it means they like you - they think you're worth saving.
I've got my own double-standard here. On the one hand I find the arguments tiresome and simple-minded. But I *do* enjoy humiliating soul-winners when they try it on.
There's absolutely no excuse - it's like beating a retarded child at chess...and feeling affirmed by it. *And* getting angry when they don't realise they've lost.
Usually I know their holy texts better than they do, and half a lifetime of careful thinking means I'm fairly good at out-thinking people who don't think much. There's no trick to it.
Especially when the arguments all look like these:
"If there's no god, where do you go when you die?". "My religion is true because the believers of the other one eat babies". "It makes me happy to believe, so it'd make you happy, so it's true".
"This line of scripture sounds a little like a fashionable bit of science, therefore gay marriage is wrong". "You can't explain X, therefore god did it, therefore Obama is the antichrist".
"Atheism is a religion, and you believe science is infallible, so...something something something".
In science, the least interesting thing about an idea is who had it. In the wider world, the least interesting thing about a superstition is...the superstition. Why it was invented, why people believe it, and the tortured ways they justify it - these are the stuff of anthropology, psychology and history.
And that's why it would be interesting to meet a jewish evangelist.
They say you learn a lot when you teach.
Mostly what you learn is
(1) You don't know the subject as well as you thought you did, or
(2) The books are wrong, or
(3) The subject has got really weird quirks and byways.
Usually you discover these things when students ask questions. For instance: What's the English word for the sound made by camels?
So far as I can tell, there isn't one. We can certainly have a stab at describing the noise - a long gutteral croak, or a low wet mournful keening. Terry Pratchett described it as "like a herd of donkeys being chainsawed"
We can attempt to *transcribe* sounds, like "woof" or "arf" for dogs, or "boc" and "cock-a-doodle-doo" for chickens, but I'm talking about a noun naming the sound or a verb indicating it's production.
Lions roar, dogs bark, small dogs yap, very small dogs yip. Cats mew or miaw, angry cats hiss, sheep and goats bleat or baa, cows low or moo, birds chirp, parrots squawk, horses neigh, pigs snort or oink, ducks quack, donkeys bray, pigeons and doves coo, wolves howl, chickens cluck and elephants trumpet.
So there's plenty of special words for animal sounds, and a selection of words for more general sounds that we can also use for animals - bears and gorillas grunt, mice squeak, tigers and panthers growl, monkeys chatter, some birds sing, and if they don't, they call or cry. Dolphins and whales also sing.
Crickets chirrup. I once read in a book about psycholinguistics that grasshoppers make six distinct sounds, with meanings like "I'm hungry", "I want to have sex" and, rather wonderfully, one used specially for "I've just had sex". But for those of us who aren't grasshopper experts (Cicadologists? Locustophiles?), they probably just chirrup too.
Hippos, rhinos, deer, reindeer, moose (or is it mooses?) oxen and bison - these join camels in the list of animals whose utterances we don't designate with a specific word. They just "grunt".
I've absolutely no idea what sloths sound like. Maybe they're too lazy to speak.
Esperanto has a word meaning "to make the sound appropriate to the animal": Blek. The closest English has to this is probably "call".
So what do humans do? That's easy, we txt.
There's a term in prison slang: Gate Happy.
If you're gate happy, your release date is days or a few weeks away, and you're feeling bouyed up and optimistic, looking forward to it. You're still on the inside, but you're nearly out.
Even if there's nothing for you on the other side of the gate but a nebulous freedom and a whole lot of concrete problems, the prospect feels better than a stone box.
Well, I've got two weeks to go. And I'm feeling pretty good about it - with the inevitable downside that time can really *crawl* when you're waiting.
As for what's waiting for me...hmmm.
* A bacon sandwich. Yes, I'm perfectly happy to live without pork, but seeing as I haven't had it for over a year, I want it.
* A midnight meetup with my married, closeted friend. Yes, I'm perfectly happy to live without, erm, porking, but seeing as I haven't had much....
* A replacement laptop. I don't live online, but pretty much everything I do except basic biological functions involves a computer. Sometimes two.
* Parents and friends. You don't need to see them very often, but it's good to have them available.
* The Doctor Who 50th Aniversary Special. Plus a year's worth of other recorded TV and radio, so I can be a complete and utter couch potato over christmas and new year, munching my bacon sandwich in front of my new laptop.
* Same old same old. The plan was to wait out the recession while getting moderately rich doing a job I enjoyed. Now I'm bored with the job, not well paid and the recession's still going on.
* Little holiday, big plans. There's a lot of things I want to do or try out. But talking about them seems to make doing them more difficult. Which is either a profound psychological insight which explains much human behavior...or me being a bit weird.
* See the world. Some time off teaching followed by a job in a decent school will hopefully turn me from a tired old lag (more prison slang) weighed down with experience...into an experienced old lag weighed down with wisdom.
I want to try a different country.
What words should I teach? What words do students actually need to know? I don't know either, and intuition is always a lousy guide, but here's one approach to finding out.
The latest Oxford English Dictionary contains about 290,500 entries. The Concise OED has 65795, and I'm using these as my starting point.
I can discard 13,479 entries because they're phrases instead of individual words, plus I can lose 2,727 entries because they're hyphenated terms. That leaves 45,495.
But which ones are absolutely essential, which are kind-of useful, and which are in there to make it look 'comprehensive' or because the compilers just liked them?
I have the subtitles of 20,749 BBC programmes broadcast over the last two years - in effect, transcriptions. By ditching the shortest 749, then filtering out formatting data and punctuation, I've got a pretty large corpus of reasonably authentic utterances.
So, what words from the COED occur with what frequency in the BBC transcriptions? And what words don't occur at all?
Well, here a selection from the 14,633 individual words which occur exactly zero times in two years worth of BBC TV. I know what ten of them mean.
That means 29,140 words occur at least once. Here are 25 of the 19,381 which occur less than ten times. I know the meanings of 14 of them - what about you?
9,339 occur a hundred times or more. The following happen more than ten but less than 1,000 times.
A more managable quantity of 520 occur 10,000 or more times. Here are some of those between 1000 and 10,000:
Here's a selection between 10,000 and 100,000. Do any surprise you as being more or less common than you thought?
A mere 76 occur 100,000 or more times:
So, here's one difficulty in learning a language. Once you've got the major meanings of the top 100-200 words, you've got tens of thousands of others to learn, and the additional benefit of knowing each of them - their usefulness - is pretty damn small.
How often do you need to describe something as 'spicy' (position 3,000, 975 occurances)? Or 'compulsory' (position 5,000, 370 occurances)? Or describe someone as a 'colonel' (position 7,000, 182 occurances)?
I may have had the occasional 'manky' cheese sandwich (position 10,000, 85 occurances) - but I'm not sure I've ever used the word in conversation.
The Arabic method of learning languages is "memorise the dictionary". It doesn't work, for obvious reasons. But it's...interesting that they've taken only the most difficult, least interesting and least rewarding part of the process, missing out all the easy, fun and useful parts.
The Arabs are almost British in their ability to miss the point.
This is a bit of a rant. Sorry.
There are three reasons to stay in a job, or a place, or an arrangement. One is for the money, or some other definite, measurable and significant benefit.
Two is because you enjoy it.
And three, the job itself isn't what you love or benefit from, but it comes bundled with something that does give you something good. You might not like the city, but you stay because your family are there. A personal reason.
Well, my personal reason to stay in this job, this city and this country...is incredibly busy and a two hour plane journey away. I am thoroughly bored with teaching - maybe after a good holiday I'll start to like it again, but right now I get no pleasure from stepping into the classroom.
And the money...is always promised, and in the future. The one big contract which will make us all rich is always on the horizon, and negotiations are in progress, but it never arrives.
So, of the three possible reasons to stay, I don't have one.
And I do have reasons to leave. I am sick of so many things about this country. I'm sick of the insane bureaucracy that means it takes a year to get a licence to set up a business, and six months to get a bank account, and three months to get a work permit - which ties you to one contract with one employer for twelve months.
The only way to get out of a contract is to commit a crime and get deported. And if it comes to that, the easiest crime to commit is to go on strike.
I'm sick of the infantile supersition that's tied up with self-mythologisation. The more intelligent Arabs I've met are puzzled that god's chosen people are not rulers of the world - and the stupider ones can't grasp that outsiders don't want to be god's chosen people.
In this last, they're a bit like the stupider Americans.
Why did god deliver his message in Arabic? Was it because he was talking to an arab? No, it's because arabic is god's language. And how do we know this? Obviously, it's because he delivered his message in arabic.
Oh, and because arabic allegedly (but not really) has sounds that no other language has. Because...something or other. And therefore...something. Somehow.
We know the Quran is the perfect, eternal word of the magic man in the sky because it's impossible for mere mortals to make a sentence which compares in beauty to any of its sentences. And we know this because the people who've appointed themselves to judge the beauty of competing sentences have already decided that no sentence can compare.
I'm sick of a government that's trying to reap the benefits of being open, while staying closed. They want to be innovative and cosmopolitan while staying a fossilised monoculture. The people are obsessed with images of drugs, alcohol, sexual freedom and even political dissent...and with condemning each other for having the same thoughts.
This is a culture that's trying to develop a work ethic while maintaining a racist elitism that justify's only foreigners doing work. And not just foreigners from poor countries.
I'm sick of an educational system that confuses rote recitation and mindless copying with learning. Tomorrow I'm invigilating an exam for elementary students who, after six years of study, can name every object in their house. They just can't construct a single complete sentence about them.
They've actually asked for more tests and exams, presumably on the grounds that the more tests you do, the more chance you'll get the answers right by the law of averages.
Oh, and strictly unofficially, no one gets graded below 50%, even if all they do is write their misspelled name at the top of the sheet. Because low grades are "discouraging" and high ones are "respectful".
So what's the plan?
Well, there is another potential big contract that will take four weeks for come into effect...or else collapse. In fact it's the biggest ever. So if after six weeks the money is rolling in, I can stay until the work permit expires in February.
If it isn't, I'm out. And with luck I'll even be home for christmas.
Edit: Actually, a slight miscalculation. The work permit doesn't expire in the second month of the Gregorian calendar, it expires in the second month of the Islamic calendar - which is used in one islamic country, and almost exclusively on official documents. Like, erm, work permits.
Expiration date: The 27th of Safar. Also known as the 30th of December. New Year's Eve.
So I've got ten weeks.
In teaching (or learning) a language, it's always a puzzle which words you should tackle first, and which can wait for later. English has around 200 prepositions, of which half are so rare and specialised you can avoid them altogether unless you work in the relavent field. Here are the bottom ten prepositions in a frequency-ordered list I did:
I don't even know what 'agin' and 'frae' mean, and I'm pretty sure the only one I've used in the last decade is 'modulo'.
But simple frequency might not be always the best guide. So I thought, what about the number of senses? Excluding words with more 'structural' meanings, like conjunctions and pronouns, isn't it true that the most useful words are also those with the most uses?
Which would mean, if I can come up with an automatable procedure to transcribe a software dictionary, count the number of 'meanings' that each entry has, and order them by how many meanings each word has...I can get a guide to the most useful words for students to know.
So I did it. And then I did it again because the data was corrupted. And then I did it again because the processing wasn't quite right.
And now I have a list of 450 nouns, all with ten or more dictionary senses - though not generally ten noun senses, because they're also adjectives, verbs etc.
Column 1 is the word, 2 is the number of senses, then 3, 4 and 5 are whether the words has senses as noun, verb and adjective respectively.
I don't know whether I can do anything with this, and similar tables, after two weeks work. But if you're not prepared to invent something useless, you can't be an inventor.
- Students trying to flatter their teacher into giving them a discount on their fee, especially when it's not the teacher who decides the fee
- Teachers using the same crappy textbook that uses obscure technical terminology to explain simple ideas
- Schools employing Urdu-speakers with basic English to teach Arabic-speakers with even less
- Teachers measuring student english level as a percentage of an imaginary "total fluency"
- Doing it with an exam, yielding the very precise and totally meaningless estimate that Student X has 68.3% of perfection.
- Doing the same for teachers with 'assessments'. Apparently teachers can assess students, students can assess teachers, and managers can assess teachers, but the only people wise enough to assess managers are other managers.
And when that doesn't work, shouting, bullying, threatening, intimidation...and writing memos.
And when that doesn't work, insisting that you've won already, hoping the universe will be tired enough to not contradict you. Animism and anthropomorphism are probably the oldest superstitions on the planet, and the hardest to kill.
So, I have now had four days of working for this insane company, which is odd, as there's only been work for two of them.
Interlink has grudgingly accepted that students don't come into lessons on non-American national holidays. But it has yet to grasp that they don't come in on days leading up to, or following from, national holidays.
Hence orders from head office that I and my colleagues sit in our classrooms for six hours a day, even when there are exactly zero students.
We can't mark them as 'Absent', because if we did, we'd have to expel them for multiple absenses because the Big Book Of Stupidly Inflexible Rules says we have to. So we mark them as 'Late'. Specifically, that they will be two weeks late, when (if) they return after the holidays.
So why can't we just lie and mark them as 'Present'? That is, after all, the tradition in this country. Yes, it really is. Officially, a class cannot be empty, so if it is empty, it's officially full. Why can't we adopt the local custom and do this?
The answer is that in book-keeping, spoken lies don't count, but written ones do. Lying on a school register is Document Fraud(TM), which is Very Bad(TM). Plus, if anyone is registered as 'Present', there must also be a record of What They Were Taught. And of Whether They Learned It. And if they didn't, Why Not? Non-existence is not considered a valid excuse.
In bureaucracy, as in sitcoms, lies lead to more lies.
So, I have been sitting in my classroom, catching up on podcasts, reading and working out abstruse bits of grammar. My colleagues have been doing all the pointless paperwork for the job, which the job didn't give them time for before. And our manager has been very busy, co-ordinating the inactivity by skype with other managers.
And his manager gets to spend extra hours in bed, so we don't have to deal with his confident self-belief.
So lets hear it for stupidity. If you're a bit clever and a bit lucky, you can get things done while the idiots are trying to define how to get things done.
If so, I hated everything about my career today.
Bad managers like to make rules, because they think managing means changing things, and they think the more managing you do, the more effective you are as a manager.
A good manager realises that if you have to change things all the time, it's probably because your last set of changes buggered everything up. And if you don't have to make changes, you don't.
An actually effective manager has nothing to do - except block the imbicilities of the bad managers - and does exactly that, letting the people who do the actual work, do the actual work.
Guess which kind runs the Interlink corporation? And yes, it is an American company.
Here's an example of how it works:
Problem: Students don't come to lectures.Also, my work clothes are deemed not formal enough. This from the school which expels students if they wear jeans or don't wear a white shirt. It does this officially but not really, because if it did it would expel half the students, and lose the income from their fees.
Solution: Initiate a complicated registering system whereby a student who arrives less than ten minutes late is marked 'Present', while one who is between ten and thirty minutes late is marked 'Late', and one over thirty minutes late - or actually absent - is marked 'Absent'. Any student who is 'Late' more than three times gets an additional 'Absent' mark, and anyone with thirty 'Absent' marks is expelled.
This is supposed, somehow, to encourage lazy students to attend. Not so they can learn, but so they can continue to pay for the tuition they're not using.
Exactly how threating to stop charging should keep customers paying, I'm not sure.
Solution to the Solution: Students come to lectures on time, then after the register is called, develop an urgent and possibly plausible reason to be somewhere else.
Solution to the Solution of the Solution: Teachers call the register at the end of the session.
Problem: Management decree that all registers must be completed and submitted in thirty minutes after the lesson starts, neatly making the whole process even more pointless than it was.
And every student must add no less than three pages of written work to both of their colour-coded folders every week. And I have to explain grammatical concepts without using grammatical terms. And I have to teach only speaking and listening in the first lesson, and only reading and writing in the second. Even though my students are still shaky on the alphabet after six years of study
How much idiocy would you tolerate for a good wage? I have yet to decide.
There's a national fortnight's holiday coming up - the charmingly named "Feast of the Sacrifice" - and I was due to spend it with B. But he's developed family committments.
If you date an arab guy, just remember his mother always comes first. So it's not very different from dating any other guy.
I had three new students, all at different levels ranging from "doesn't know the alphabet" to "good conversational fluency"...and they wanted to study together because they're friends. And they want a special class just for them, so I can teach the absolute basics to the one third who didn't master them years ago.
Not that it matters, because they didn't turn up. Actually, almost all those who want special classes never turn up.
A teenager I taught nine months ago burst into the middle of a lesson, demanding to be seen immediately. Loudly, and repeatedly. His complaint? That on his six month old certificate of course completion, we'd transliterated his name with two Rs instead of one. He's very angry about it.
Oh and apparently my teacher's qualification must be a forgery because...something something something.
Another trio of students walked in as I was packing up, wanting to "practice conversation". They asked me to tell them about England. And then they started telling me I'd be happy if I adoped Islam. Five minutes later they decided they had an appointment elsewhere, and left looking disappointed.
There's a bank branch manager with an enormous book of management theory bullshit...which he wants me to translate into simple english, and teach him. I asked him about delegation - if the ATMs are broken, which department does he call? Answer: Marketing.
But it's not all bad. Ahmed is an english teacher from Jordan, complete with picture-postcard family and deeply humanist teaching philosophy. He's been dropping in for the last few weeks, asking about grammar and talking about how teaching children in a fun, life-affirming way makes the world a sunnier place.
My largely-absent boss has been telling me for months about how he's hired a new manager to market the school to businesses...and how he'll introduce me just as soon as there's a spare moment. Today I met the new man, and it's...Ahmed the Jordanian English teacher.
There's a big new technical college opening in town, with an english language department. The department head is James, a man so British I feel Japanese by comparison. Apart from his fluency in Spanish, German and Arabic, of course - not that I'm envious, oh no.
James needs more teachers. My contract has expired. The college runs in the morning and my school opens in the afternoon. Sounds good doesn't it?
At age 13 I remember finding the pictures in Playboy uninteresting - in fact some of them seemed a bit gross. It was puzzling why the other boys at school loved them so much - even the one with the pack of gay porn playing cards. I desperately wanted to get a closer look at those cards, which were being handed around as a joke.
In May 1981 I was 9, with a small collection of superhero comicbooks. One featured Captain Britain, which I thought was a dreadfully hokey name, to go with an equally hokey backstory and dialogue with enough cheese to feed Denmark for a year. The bad guy was more intriguing - an evil genius with terrible dress sense, name of 'Arcade' and creator of 'Murderworld'. That's right, I could have been a ComicCon geek.
But there were a few frames that showed off the hero's muscular frame in skintight spandex, which...provoked stong feelings in me - feelings I couldn't have described but which were unmistakable. If the artist wasn't a raving queen, it was someone who'd had a lot of practice drawing broad shouders and pert buttocks, all set off by inconsistent but convenient lighting.
Yes, the creators of comicbooks know perfectly well what hormones surge in children before puberty - and it just can't be an accident how much and how well they exploit it.
Before that...I think I was seven. The family were clustered around the TV on a winter night, watching some harmless, totally innocent teatime entertainment. A magic fantasy story of some kind. Told entirely 'through the medium of dance'. On ice.
The principle dancer. I just couldn't stop staring. At everything about his body, all the lines and curves, showed off by that sparkly blue costume. I actually had to leave the room, because I was sure my eyes were on stalks and my face must be flaming red and surely no one could miss the rocklike erection I was trying not to touch.
I didn't know what sex was, but I knew it was something I was supposed to be ashamed of.
There was a house we lived in till I was four. I remember the bedroom and the bed...and discovering that I could rub my...well, I didn't have a word for it...against the sheets, and it gave a kind of rushing tingling sensation.
The biological plumbing for getting an erection is in place by birth, and so are the nerves for all the sensations, including orgasm, even though sperm isn't manufactured for maybe a decade. A girl has the same nerve endings as a woman, long before she ovulates.
The intensity and emotional hair-trigger of adolescents is, I rather think, a continuation of the emotional sensitivity and sensuality of the child - with extra hormones added to the mix. But these extras are concerned with making reproduction possible, not with the pleasures of one's own body, nor with those of others.
It is simply empirically false to insist that a person is incapable of being sexually attracted before they're capable of reproduction. Which suggests the patterns of attraction - and fantasy - are laid down during childhood, though tastes can become modified in later life.
The conventional thinking about sexplay, that it's not the real thing, is based on confusing sexuality with reproductivity. It's like confusing the pleasure of eating with the process of digestion.
This obviously doesn't excuse the sexual abuse of children by adults - or as it usually is, by other children and adolescents. That's an issue of power, of taking from someone who can't resist. It's wrong to lock a child in a cellar and rape them for exactly the same reason it's wrong to lock a child in a cellar and beat them.
Yet we have this bizarre notion that sexual abuse is qualitively worse than other forms of abuse because it's sexual. We've got into the habit of thinking it's somehow an order of magnitude worse to stick a penis in a child's mouth than to stick a knife in.
How many ways are there to abuse a child - emotionally and physically? Probably hundreds. We're obsessed with protecting children from abuse, but by 'abuse' we somehow never seem to mean emotional abuse, or bullying, or sadism - we almost always seem to mean 'rape' or 'sexual harassment'. When an adult kills a child, the media always look for clues that he had his pants down while he was doing it. If he didn't, it's just not newsworthy.
A small but definite minority of children do enjoy being stimulated (not hurt) by adults - anyone with experience of churches or boarding schools could tell you that, though we're not supposed to admit that we know it.
Anyone who's worked in a field where pedophillia is an issue, knows that slow chatroom 'grooming' is almost a complete myth - the abuser raises what they want early in conversations with many children, and discards the majority who tell him where to go, show disinterest or don't understand.
Which means of course that some do understand and are interested. Something else we're supposed to pretend we don't know, on the grounds that acknowledging sexuality somehow exonerates sexual abusers.
It could be objected that the child who enjoys the headmaster rubbing their crotch in detention is actually enjoying the attention, or that they enjoy touching in general and they'd be equally happy with their feet being rubbed, because the crotch hasn't been made sensitive or 'special' yet by puberty.
But this is to view sexual pleasure as something other than bodily pleasure, as though it were a fundamentally different kind of feeling, felt with a ghostly second skin that has it's own unique sensations and only appears when androgens or estrogen begin to flow.
The spiritualisation of sexuality goes hand in hand with its mystification. Perhaps the real aim is mysification and the spiritualisation is only a convenient ruse.
The famously creepy NAMBLA (North America Man-Boy Love Association) likes to make the point that 'inter-generational love' doesn't necessarily have to be exploitative. Which manages to be true in strictest terms, while evading the point.
Plus it blurs the crucial distinctions inherent between '20 year-old with a 15 year-old', '...with a 10 year-old' and '...with a 5 year old".
It's interesting that NAMBA's chosen line relies on the trope that a mutually loving, presumably monogamous, presumably long term relationship legitimises the sexual act. Because that's really just a coded way of saying sex for it's own sake is bad.
Gay rights campaigners talk all the time about how gay people are just as capable of monogamy and love as everyone else, as though (a) that didn't meant they were just as incapable as everyone else, (b) only those judged morally upstanding deserve rights, and (c) figures of authority can and should make that evaluation.
If these lines were just bullshit propaganda to attract more conservative types to the cause, it would be a justifiable campaigning tactic. But it seems most people who want to radically change values in society...only want to change specific values in isolation. And it never works that way.
We live in a culture that's obsessed with youth and beauty - the younger and more beautiful the better. It's no coincidence that 'barely legal' is a selling point in porn - the obvious corollary being that younger than legal would be a bigger selling point. Just another thing we're not supposed to admit we understand.
Marketing lipstick and miniskirts to girls of seven has the same basis and the same reflex denial. Ditto the existence of pop magazines printing pictures of shirtless boybands. The entire point of boybands is to be sexy, so the question is, sexy to who? To the target audience of course - half of who are below the legal age of consent.
So, kids love to look and touch, and they also have nerve endings in their genitals. The distinction between the presexual and the sexual phases of life is so blurred that no line can be drawn. Humans don't acquire bodies and emotions at puberty.
We won't be able to cope with the consequences of this reality until we can admit the reality. Which is difficult, as right now we barely understand it.
I'm lazy. But I want to get a lot of stuff done.
The solution is to spent most of my limited energy getting my laptop to do it all for me.
If you're prepared to spend half an hour figuring out how to make your computer do something automatically, you can spend several happy hours sleeping while it does it. For example....
No matter how good you are at anything, there's always a few aspects where you're oddly weak.
I've got one student who's very good on grammar and conversation, but can never remember irregular verbs. Well, I reckon English has 166 irregulars, excluding compound forms like "overthrow", "understand", "redo" and such. There are also 45 which have regular alternative versions, eg. "dreamt/dreamed", "fit/fitted", which, having mentioned them, I'm sweeping under the carpet.
A few months ago I worked out an algorithm for putting them into frequency order. The result looks like this:
001 - be, am, is, are / was, were / been
002 - have, has / had / had
003 - can / could / _____
004 - do, does / did / done
005 - will / would / _____
006 - see / saw / seen
007 - make / made / made
008 - know / knew / known
009 - take / took / taken
010 - come / came / come
011 - go / went / gone
012 - get / got / go
013 - say / said / said
014 - set / set / set
015 - think / thought / thought
016 - give / gave / given
017 - find / found / found
018 - become / became / became
019 - put / put / put
020 - let / let / let
021 - light / lit / lit
022 - show / showed / shown
023 - saw / sawed / sawn
024 - read / read / read
025 - tell / told / told
026 - keep / kept / kept
027 - cost / cost / cost
028 - mean / meant / meant
029 - feel / felt / felt
030 - leave / left / left
031 - run / ran / run
032 - pay / paid / paid
033 - bring / brought / brought
034 - cut / cut / cut
035 - lead / led / led
036 - hold / held / held
037 - fall / fell / fallen
038 - deal / dealt / dealt
039 - meet / met / met
040 - write / wrote / written
041 - speak / spoke / spoken
042 - hear / heard / heard
043 - rise / rose / risen
044 - stand / stood / stood
045 - lay / laid / laid
046 - learn / learnt / learnt
047 - begin / began / begun
048 - spring / sprang / sprung
049 - speed / spe / spe
050 - wind / wound / wound
051 - bear / bore / borne
052 - spread / spread / spread
053 - break / broke / broken
054 - send / sent / sent
055 - sleep / slept / slept
056 - fit / fit / fit
057 - drive / drove / driven
058 - choose / chose / chosen
059 - prove / proved / proven
060 - fight / fought / fought
061 - draw / drew / drawn
062 - seek / sought / sought
063 - build / built / built
064 - lie / lay / lain
065 - grow / grew / grown
066 - buy / bought / bought
067 - cast / cast / cast
068 - eat / ate / eaten
069 - sit / sat / sat
070 - dream / dreamt / dreamt
071 - lose / lost / lost
072 - ring / rang / rung
073 - sell / sold / sold
074 - drink / drank / drunk
075 - strike / struck / struck
076 - hit / hit / hit
077 - forget / forgot / forgotten
078 - teach / taught / taught
079 - spend / spent / spent
080 - arise / arose / arisen
081 - win / won / won
082 - wear / wore / worn
083 - feed / fed / fed
084 - catch / caught / caught
085 - fly / flew / flown
086 - throw / threw / thrown
087 - hurt / hurt / hurt
088 - beat / beat / beaten
089 - shut / shut / shut
090 - blow / blew / blown
091 - split / split / split
092 - ride / rode / ridden
093 - stick / stuck / stuck
094 - sing / sang / sung
095 - hide / hid / hidden
096 - burst / burst / burst
097 - smell / smelt / smelt
098 - thrust / thrust / thrust
099 - wake / woke / woken
100 - burn / burnt / burnt
101 - shoot / shot / shot
102 - hang / hanged / hanged
103 - rid / rid / rid
104 - shed / shed / shed
105 - slide / slid / slid
106 - bid / bid / bid
107 - shake / shook / shaken
108 - spin / spun / spun
109 - sink / sank / sunk
110 - tear / tore / torn
111 - shear / sheared / shorn
112 - bend / bent / bent
113 - quit / quit / quit
114 - swing / swung / swung
115 - spell / spel / spel
116 - bind / bound / bound
117 - lend / lent / lent
118 - bet / be / bet
119 - breed / bred / bred
120 - sweep / swept / swept
121 - bite / bit / bitten
122 - leap / leap / leap
123 - dig / dug / dug
124 - steal / stole / stolen
125 - swim / swam / swum
126 - strive / strove / striven
127 - swear / swore / sworn
128 - shine / shone / shone
129 - freeze / froze / frozen
130 - creep / crept / crept
131 - swell / swelled / swollen
132 - flee / fled / fled
133 - forbid / forbade / forbidden
134 - plead / pled / pled
135 - slit / slit / slit
136 - spoil / spoil / spoil
137 - weep / wept / wept
138 - shrink / shrank / shrunk
139 - dive / dove / dived
140 - tread / trod / trodden
141 - sow / sowed / sown
142 - thrive / throve / thrived
143 - cling / clung / clung
144 - spit / spat / spat
145 - weave / wove / wove
146 - beset / beset / beset
147 - sting / stung / stung
148 - stride / strode / stridden
149 - spill / spill / spill
150 - grind / ground / ground
151 - sew / sewed / sewn
152 - bleed / bled / bled
153 - wed / wed / wed
154 - forsake / forsook / forsaken
155 - kneel / knelt / knelt
156 - fling / flung / flung
157 - slay / slew / slain
158 - sling / slung / slung
159 - forgo / forewent / foregone
160 - stink / stank / stunk
161 - mow / mowed / mown
162 - wring / wrung / wrung
163 - smite / smote / smitten
164 - shall / should / _____
165 - hang / hung / hung
166 - lean / leant / leant
I then used one of the better text-to-speech synthsisers to make mp3s of each verb's forms, and padded the files with silence to ten seconds each. The idea is: Put them on your generic mp3 player device, set it to shuffle, and play - while doing something which requires no intellectual power, like walking, or relaxing with quiet music in the background.
Your player recites the conjugations in random order, leaving a gap of six or seven seconds between each repeat, which according to the theory I read years ago, should help 'fix' them in your long-term memory.
Students often ask me: "Is this word always a noun, or is it a verb too?" Or "It has a meaning as an adjective, but does it have a different meaning as a noun?". Etc.
Well, over a year ago I set an old laptop to get the complete list of words and classifications from the digital Shorter OED, coming to around 65,500 root words. It actually took seven complete days, which tells you just how old the laptop was. After removing those entries which were both spelling-duplicates and sound-duplicates, it came to 51,446.
I've also got 18 months worth of BBC subtitles, which after word-frequency analysis, contains 97,539 individual words. Which means I can now reveal, the ten least common words transmitted by the BBC are:
Now, excluding non-root words - that is, excluding words from the BBC list which aren't in the SOED list - and then excluding those which aren't categorised as nouns, verb, or adjectives...we get 27,635 words. Which I re-arranged alphabetically, and put into a chart, showing which ones are nouns, which nouns and verbs etc.
I tried to post it on the blog I keep for stories and this sort of thing, but the new enhanced super-capable Blogger choked on such a large table. But here's an except:
So I've got my list of 65,500 or so words, And I often need to translate words into Arabic, and I've got google translate. Which has some quite egregious mistranslations, but is a lot better than nothing.
Unfortunately, I've also got wi-fi that doesn't work a lot of the time, so an offline version would be useful. I paste my SOED list into the English window, and copy what comes up in the Arabic window. I filter out the words which have no translation, leaving 16,898. I make a version of the Arabic list with letters listed right-to-left, but with the letters in 'isolated' form, so they're easier to read. I do another version with the Arabic transliterated into ASCII equivalents.
I put the four columns together and the result after a week's work is...completely and utterly unusable. Here's a sample:
|blueprint||مخطط||م خ ط ط||mxt.t.|
|blues||البلوز||ا ل ب ل و ز||alblwz|
|bluestocking||امرأة مثقفة||ا م ر أ ة م ث ق ف ة||amr?aa mTqfa|
|bluestone||أزرق||أ ز ر ق||?azrq|
|bluet||الهصطونية||ا ل ه ص ط و ن ي ة||alhs.t.wnja|
|bluetongue||اللسان الأزرق||ا ل ل س ا ن ا ل أ ز ر ق||allsan al?azrq|
|bluey||مزرق||م ز ر ق||mzrq|
|bluff||مخادعة||م خ ا د ع ة||mxadG.a|
|bluing||الصبغة الزرقاء||ا ل ص ب غ ة ا ل ز ر ق ا ء||als.bGa alzrqa?|
|bluish||مزرق||م ز ر ق||mzrq|
|blunder||تخبط||ت خ ب ط||txbt.|
|blunderbuss||الأبله||ا ل أ ب ل ه||al?ablh|
|blunge||جبل الطين||ج ب ل ا ل ط ي ن||Zbl alt.jn|
|blunt||ثلم||ث ل م||Tlm|
|blur||شىء ضبابي||ش ى ء ض ب ا ب ي||Sj? d.babj|
|blurb||دعاية مغالى فيها||د ع ا ي ة م غ ا ل ى ف ي ه ا||dG.aja mGalj fjha|
|blurt||أفشى من غير تفكير||أ ف ش ى م ن غ ي ر ت ف ك ي ر||?afSj mn Gjr tfkjr|
|blush||استحى||ا س ت ح ى||astx.j|
|blusher||أحمر الخدود||أ ح م ر ا ل خ د و د||?ax.mr alxdwd|
It doesn't matter how clever your data processing, garbage in will always give you garbage out.
It's easier to listen to a story than to read it.
Reading is faster, and you can control it better, and you can do it on your own, but it still takes more effort.
People who'd never think of picking up a book - or even reading an entire wikipedia article - will happily sit through long chalk-and-talk lectures on youtube. Audio books, once aimed only at the blind and the elderly, are having a major resurgence - name any popular book, fact or fiction, published in the last ten years, and you can guarantee that Amazon, Audible or someone similar have MP3 versions. Voice actors are now in constant demand, and it's not just Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter - you can hear Richard Dawkins reading his own polemics, or George Carlin performing the book versions of his own standup performances.
For the last few years, half of my bedtime reading has been done with eyes closed. I set my laptop to generate MP3s of almost-human-sounding voices reading chapters of ebooks, with speed and precision and tirelessness that a real person could never manage. I put them on my audio player (which occasionally also functions as a phone) and thus do most of my learning when I'm too tired to be learning.
So I thought: Is it only me who likes having a robot whisper in his ears, or could other people benefit too?
Well, here's a little experiment. On my youtube channel, you can listen to...the first famous and public-domain text I thought of.
You can also read along if you like, or use one of the many youtube downloaders to put it on your phone.
I announced that I wanted to go to Riyadh, because I'm bored with this small town, bored with the hot muggy weather combined with bad air conditioning, and bored with sitting in a classroom for six hours a day waiting for one or two students to turn up.
I'm bored with everything from doors to electrical switches to mobile phones being "Made in China" and none of them working properly, I'm bored with the rancid smells that come through the vents at four in the morning, when all the local industry pours its waste products down the street drains, and I'm bored with all restauants having the same dozen dishes - all of which turn out to be chicken with rice.
So I tell the boss that I want to move to Riyadh. And he tells me that because of the idiotic bureaucracy of this country, I'm legally only allowed to work for him, because he's my sponsor.
And the next day, there are mysteriously four schools and a hospital who all need an english teacher. So I can no longer say I have nothing to do. Oh, and all those unpaid bills that have been mounting up over the last six months...are now paid. Odd that.
Of course, the real reason to move was to be with B. Who has become afraid that anyone in his family who learns that he's good friends with a british man who lives in the same city...might put two and two together, and make seventeen, which just happens to be the truth.
So he wants to spend time apart for a while, so we can get our feelings in order, and allay any possible suspicion, and chat on skype from time to time, and concentrate on our careers, etc. and so on and so forth.
I'm no good at relationships or subtexts, but I don't think I've been dumped - just put on the back burner.
Either way, I'll be okay.
I had a look at my contract today. It contained a few things I'd forgotten about.
- I'm supposed to have 30 days off per year. Not that I need a holiday at the moment, seeing as how I have a grand total of three regular students. Plenty more signed up, but all disappeared after one or two lessons - usually when they were reminded that they hadn't paid yet.
- I'm supposed to get a travel allowance. Not that I particularly need to go anywhere by taxi - hotel, work, supermarket, restaurants and computer hardware shop are all on one road.
- The contract expires...erm, today. Which is a little bit unexpected. I thought I had another two months, and it does say I'm employed for 12 months from the day I sign my name on the dotted line. However it also says I get 12 months but not going past the 31st of August 2013. Which is
(a) for no readily apparent reason,
(b) a contradiction, and
(c) a slightly strange way of turning a 12 month contract into a 10 month contract
- Spend my day off packing
- Stay for the final week of the month and teach the three students who've paid for a full month of tuition
- Attempt to contact the boss, in the hope that this is one of the few times my phone works properly, and this is one of the few occasions his phone is both charged and switched on - and let him know
- Remind him that one of the other things I'm contractually entitled to is a plane journey after termination of employment - in the hope that he might possibly honour that part of the contract
- Take a plane (one way or another) to Riyadh
- Get a decent job there where they actually pay me
- Find accommodation
- Spend rather a lot of time cuddling with B
My work permit is good for another four months - renewable if things are going well. Who knows, my Arabian Adventure might turn out to be everything it was supposed to be, and more.