Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

US anchorman Keith Olbermann presents an essay on the controversy over the planned ‘mosque’ (it isn’t a mosque) ‘on’ (it’s a few blocks away from) the site World Trade Center in New York. His words are incredibly potent and percipient, and highlight the danger of the world’s most powerful nation turning into the kind of state it has taken up a crusade against.

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As of right now, I’ve been to four taekwondo classes since I started again. After having a lot of pain in my legs, from overstretched hamstrings and bruised shins, I’m feeling OK now. The classes are pretty good. After warming up, there’s a good and varied amount of training – of the kind I mentioned last time.

I’m having a few minor doubts, though. There’s only one teacher – and for the Koreans this is no problem because the class isn’t that big. But for me it means that the sabeomnim can’t take time out to help me without neglecting the others. At my previous dojang there were often as many as four sabeomnims training the students. My pre-taekwondo writing didn’t go well too well on Thursday (Friday was a national holiday – Buddha’s birthday). I was too tired to concentrate – I was falling asleep. I got a little bit of work done on my current story before I knocked it on the head. Then I went home and shared a private moment with Habiba. If you know what I mean. And I’m sure that you do.

The story I mentioned is now up to about 3,500 words and is shaping up to be pretty much what I wanted it to be (which doesn’t always happen). It will take a lot more work before it’s finished, though. I might have a first draft done in two or three weeks.

Yesterday, as I mentioned, was a public holiday, so Habiba and I along with Ksan went to a beach near Incheon Airport – Eulwangni Beach. The airport is on an island to the west of Seoul. I went to a similar place about a year and half ago with Botond. It was nice. The weather was hot, although hazy and gradually increasingly overcast; the breeze off the Yellow Sea (which Koreans call the West Sea) was cool. We just sat on sheets on the sand along with hundreds of other people and picnicked on cucumber, nuts and chocolate. We played some Uno, read, chatted. At one point Habiba and I took a walk to the receding waterline where we found that the water was surprisingly chilly. Only a few kids braved the gentle waves.

As Bo and I had done in 2008, we caught a bus to the airport, had a coffee there and took the airport railroad home. It’s a bit slower than taking an express bus, but only about half the price.

In political news, the new Con-Lib government is bedding down. Nick Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister – which is regarded as something of a joke position. If I remember rightly, the post was created for John Prescott, himself one of the most severely satirised politicians of the New Labour era. But Nick Clegg has some big tasks on his plate, especially from a Liberal Democrat point of view – reform of the whole political system. If the coalition government survives, he’s going to bring in legislation for a referendum on changing the voting system, reducing the number of MPs, having fixed term parliaments, introducing a wholly or partly elected House of Lords.

It’s an exciting time to be a Liberal Democrat, but also a very dangerous one. If the coalition breaks down, forcing a new election – perhaps because Lib Dems can’t support certain Conservative policies – Lib Dems may well be punished. We might not even see any progress at all towards that totem of Lib Dem ideology, proportional representation. Lots of Tories and Labour MPs don’t want any change, and the only new system that is on offer is one that Lib Dems don’t like.

That said, the signs seem pretty good so far. David Cameron are the same age and have the same background. A lot has been said about how the two parties share the same economically liberal ideas. Cameron has been talking about bringing in a new style of politics. It certainly seems like the leadership of both parties are in earnest about making the deal work. There will be problems, I’m sure, some of them big ones – but hopefully not dealbreakers. The next few years should be interesting. I’ll have to make more effort to get my vote in next time round, especially for any referendum on electoral change.

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A few weeks ago I sent off to register as an overseas voter with the local council in Britain where I was last registered to vote – Camden. I got an e-mail from an elections officer saying I should register to vote by proxy because there probably wouldn’t be enough time for me to return to my vote. I e-mailed a couple of people I know in the Liberal Democrats to ask if they could find someone to vote for me. I didn’t push too hard, and nothing came of it.

My postal vote arrived a day after the election. It wouldn’t have made much difference, as the Lib Dem candidate in my constituency was up against Frank Dobson and he won comfortably.

I got up extra early on Friday morning to start listening to the election coverage on Radio 4. As I proofread at work, I listened to the results coming in. I rather selfishly refused to go out to look at potential new textbooks with my colleagues at lunchtime.

What a disappointing and fascinating night. Despite the boost in the polls as a result of Cleggmania, the Lib Dem vote only went up by 1% – and we lost a handful of seats, ending up with 57 MPs. The Conservatives ended up the biggest party in Parliament with 306 seats, while Labour got 258. The Green Party got its very first MP – no mean feat in the UK electoral system.

In the council elections, Labour actually did pretty well, albeit from a very low base. In my hometown, Runcorn – which is covered by the constituency of Halton, the Lib Dems lost one seat, going down to 13, and the Conservatives lost three, going down to six, handing Labour an even more comfortable hold on the council. In Camden, where I lived in London, Labour gained control where previously there had been a minority Lib Dem administration.

The Liberal Democrats now have a difficult choice to make. Both Conservatives and Labour are making moves to get into bed with us – or at least into a casual relationship. The Lib Dems essentially now have the power to decide who will be the next prime minister, or at least which party will form the next administration. There are complex benefits and disadvantages to gauge.

The Conservatives have the strongest claim to be the next government, but their ethos is antithetical to many Lib Dems – liberalism and conservatism go together like oil and water. They are also against electoral reform – an issue of talismanic importance to Lib Dems.

Labour on the other hand, while they didn’t do disastrously badly on Thursday night, have lost the confidence of many of the voters who put them into power in 97, 01 and 05. I think most people would rather not have another Labour government. On the other hand, by constitutional convention, they have the right to be the first to try to form the next administration – they are also much closer philosophically to the Liberal Democrats, and before the election they had planned to introduce legislation to reform the voting system.

Besides all of this, there may well be another election within the year – and those voters who came to the Lib Dem cause this time around may desert us for one of the larger parties just to try to get a more decisive result. Right now may be the only chance we have for a generation to get electoral reform. If proportional representation were introduced before the next election we could end up with three times as many seats. But if the Lib Dems are seen to be making deals for selfish electoral advantage it could count against them.

For someone of my age, a hung parliament is terra incognita – something that only happened in the past or in other countries. It must be a huge challenge to the politicians, who have to change their whole way of thinking about elections and representation. All the signs seem to indicate that a deal of some sort will be hammered out sooner rather than later. We’ll just have to see what it is.

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About a week ago I had an e-mail from someone inviting people to a Democrats Abroad meeting on Wednesday to watch the US election results at a place near Itaewon. I asked Botond if he wanted to go with me and the answer was in the affirmative. So, after a minimum of sleep, I met him on Wednesday morning at Changdong Station and we headed down to Noksapyeong Station.

Noksapyeong Station is on one of the newest subway lines in Seoul (it seems like there’s always a new line under construction somewhere in the capital or the equivalent of the Home Counties (Gyeonggi Province)); the lines stations are often quite impressive – it’s a bit like the Jubilee Line. Noksapyeong has a fancy multi-levelled cylindrical concourse bisected by escalators, and is one of the nicest I’ve seen. It also has an hideous mural of football players (must resist the urge to say ‘soccer’ – must … resist …).

Anyway, the event was held in a modest bar in Haebangcheon called the Orange Tree, which is above a modest restaurant called Indigo (the Itaewon area is saturated with foreigners, especially Americans – it’s where the US Army base is). The two establishments are owned by the same people, and both are quite pleasant – in a modest, trendy way. Bo and I got hot drinks from the restaurant, took them upstairs (via the street) and sat at a table in front of the projector screen.

On said screen was projected an internet feed of MSNBC. We arrived shortly after 10 in the AM Korean time, which was something like 8 in the PM on the East Coast. Thus, polls had closed in some of the eastern states and the network was able to broadcast its own projections. Obama was winning, but it seemed like things were going according the usual plan – Obama taking Democrat states and McCain taking Republican ones.

At one point, a guy came over to us and asked us if we were European, and if one of us was British. Late the previous night I’d sent an e-mail to the person who’d sent the invitation asking if it was OK for non-Americans to attend; he’d e-mailed back saying ‘No problem’. And this was him. We shook hands, said hello, and he went back to his conversation with someone else. That was about the extent of our mingling.

There were about thirty people present, I’d say (but don’t quite me on it), and a good handful of Korean photographers and cameramen. These latter set themselves up by the projector screen so they could shoot people in the face – so to speak. As Bo and I were sitting right there about three metres from the screen we aroused some interest. I did my best to ignore them as they leant in and took my photo. I’t be funny if I turned up in the papers described as an American. I had a couple of days’ worth of stubble on my face, so I reckon it’s unlikely that happened.

Further projections were aired as polls closed at 11 and 12 o’clock – some of these provoking big cheers and rounds of applause from the Americans. We joined in with the clapping.

I wanted to leave shortly after midday so I had plenty of time to get back to Nowon and have time to see to a piece of business. However, Bo wanted to go and look at clothes in Itaewon. I decided I could drop into a PC room to check whether I had a payment to make, so I went with him. It turned out I didn’t have a payment to make (which situation was to be reversed the following day – see my next post) and Bo ended up not buying anything.

Of course, when we got back to the hagwon we learnt that Obama had won – and our American colleague was ensconced at the reception desk computer watching MSNBC on the internet. By then my interest had – not exactly waned, but been concealed under my grey office persona (that’s a grey persona for offices, rather than a persona for grey offices).

Obama’s win is fantastic, it goes without saying, and historic not just because he’s a black man in a country that has a painful history vis á vis people of African descent, but also because he’s a northerner, a middle-class liberal in a country that appears to see ‘liberal’ as a dirty word, that seems to distrust anything that smacks of intellect. And also because of the grass roots support he’s motivated.

The last thing to do with America that captured the world’s interest so sharply was probably the attacks of 9/11. And it seems to me that Obama’s election is a kind of inverse 9/11. In 2001 people outside the USA said, ‘Today, we’re all Americans;’ and I think the world must feel the same now. But this time it isn’t sympathy for gut-wrenching destruction – it’s hope, it’s excitement. It’s pride.

With a Democratic White House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House, America should really be able to move forward with a progressive agenda for the next for years – and the rest of the world will be willing it on. (And George R R Martin might just finish A Dance with Dragons.)

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On Thursday and Friday nights I saw my first glimpse of Euro 2008, in the form of most of the two semi-finals, courtesy of my Hungarian colleague, Bo. He invited me to his apartment to watch the games repeated at ten o’clock Korean time, nearly a day after the live matches. As we finish work at ten, we missed the first ten to twenty minutes of each game.

At Bo’s place I met his Korean wife. She introduced herself, ‘I’m So-yeong;’ then, with a broad smile, ‘I’m so young!’ We sat on or by the bed watching the TV opposite, and I was unpleasantly conscious that I was sweating a lot. I was fed a lot of fruit – peaches and watermelon chunks. The game itself, Germany versus Turkey, wasn’t too bad, with Germany going behind, then equalising, then going ahead, then Turkey equalising and finally losing to a goal scored in the 89th or 90th minute.

On Friday, while I’d managed to avoid seeing the result in advance, Bo and So-yeong hadn’t been so successful. The game wasn’t so entertaining. Russia seemed to be the equals of Spain in the middle of the pitch, but Spain converted three of their many chances and Russia didn’t seem to have a single shot on target.

So-yeong went to sleep shortly thereafter and Bo and I stayed up till the early hours exchanging music. He gave me various albums of Hungarian guitar bands – and the Beastie Boys most recent CD. We were using my computer hooked up to his external hard drive, and he helped himself to a number of albums, including some classical stuff for his wife and some Metallica and Rammstein, and the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, at my urging. (I really should listen to some of the Hungarian stuff before I go to work on Monday. I’ve recently made myself a new favourites playlist on WinAmp, which I’ve called ‘Favourites +’. It has a lot fewer tracks than my ‘Favourites’ list, but it’s a much more intense, enjoyable listening – and singing – experience.)

On Thursday evening, at some time past midnight, I said I should head home. So-yeong asked me what I would say to the taxi driver. I hadn’t even considered that the subway would be closed and most buses finished by the time the game was over. I rather lamely suggested ‘E-kaeseul juseyo.’ She said that wouldn’t do and she and Bo accompanied me downstairs to the roadside near a main junction where taxis appear to congregate, waiting for fares.

The first taxi driver she spoke to didn’t appear to have any idea where we wanted me to go (‘eunhaeng sagori’ – ‘Bank Intersection’) and he drove off. The second driver found it on his navigator and off we went. On Friday, with So-yeong asleep, Bo and I were expecting similar hesitancy on the part the drivers. I approached a taxi and said, ‘Eunhaeng sagori?’ The driver enthusiastically replied, ‘OK! OK!’ And that was that.

Looks like I’ll be back at Bo and So-yeong’s for Sunday’s final on Monday night.

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I bought a couple of books recently – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umbertor Eco, from Footsteps, a bookshop café in Whaley Bridge and I’ve just now got hold of Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Neither, as I’m sure you know but I’ll point it out anyway, regardless of the comment’s redundancy, are of my favoured genre of fantasy – which is no bad thing. I read Foucault’s Pendulum last year in Korea and found it an intriguing novel. I’ve never read any Murakami, but he’s obviously a major writer, so I should at least check him out (I mean his work, not him personally).

I remember watching an edition of The South Bank Show (ITV’s token arts programme) about Sting, wherein he said that he originally got into jazz because he thought it would be good for him. That’s kind of how I feel about literary fiction – it’s not something I can claim to be enthusiastic about, but it seems important to read, to improve the breadth of my appreciation of literature.

There are a number of such authors that I’ve read and mean to read again, but, in the absence of the affection and, dare I say loyalty I have for and to fantasy, I’ve not got round to it (The Mysterious Flame could be the first). They include (but are not limited to) Paolo Coelho (I’ve already read The Alchemist), Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Orhan Pamuk (My Name is Red), (I’m consulting my book database, now) Martin Amis (The Rachel Papers and Einstein’s Monsters), A S Byatt (Angels and Insects), Will Self (How the Dead Live).

I’ve also been reading New Scientist. I saw it in Tesco last week – the cover story was about the future of English as a global language. That article was moderately interesting.

More so was the piece about the difficulties pollsters face in surveying voter intentions regarding Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Such polls are apparently complicated by the ‘Bradley effect’ and its partner, the ‘reverse Bradley effect’ (so-called because of a black Democrat who lost a gubernatorial election in the 80s, having had a substantial lead in the polls). The Bradley effect means that white voters may tell pollers that they’ll vote for Obama, but actually vote for Clinton (and vice versa for the reverse effect). Therefore, in many states with mainly white populations, Obama may have been ahead in the polls, but lost the primary or caucus, or his lead was reduced; while in states with large black populations Clinton did well in the polling, but less well in the vote. Clearly, if Obama wins the nomination this could have major implications for the presidential contest; and if Clinton wins, then a similar phenomenon regarding gender could also come into play.

Well, I found it interesting, anyway.

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Train travel

I am now in possession of four train tickets: Delhi to Magaon (Goa), Madgaon to Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala), Thiruvananthapuram to Mumbai (Bombay), and Mumbai to Delhi (Delhi). I should arrive back in the capital in two weeks, spend the Wednesday night here, probably buy some souvenirs, then fly back home on Thursday 24th. The train ride to Goa will take the best part of two days. This time, my ticket is 2A class, so there should, at least be a little more space.

Been watching coverage of the New Hampshire primary on CNN (I spoke too soon about Anjali Rao – she’s there, as smiley and pretty as ever). It looks like Hilary Clinton is going to win after her emotional interlude the other day. John McCain won the Republican side just as he did in 2000, but I can’t see him being nominated. No matter who wins their party’s nominations, and even if the Republicans win the presidency again, anything will be an improvement on George Bush. Which makes the race a little more pleasurable to watch.

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Lord’s Hotel has CNN (not CNN IBN like other places). I like that. Although the amount of adverts annoyed me, CNN was my channel of choice early in my contract in Korea, and watching it now and occasionally back in Britain reminds me of that time; in fact, it’s the jingles that are the most evocative.

Its mix and balance of stories and programming is very good, and, dispensing with my pro-British bias, is a lot better than BBC News 24. For that matter, London is one of the channel’s broadcasting bases, so it has a number of English voices in addition to some Antipodeans and Europeans. Unfortunately, there’s been no sign so far of the lovely Anjali Rao. Her post on Talk Asia has been taken over by the entertaining (but much less attractive) Richard Quest (or maybe she’s on holiday).

There’s just been a story about Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, criticising England’s FA for appointing the Italian, Fabio Capello, as the new England manager (he’s just started in his new post). Apparently, this goes against the spirit of football or something. Of course, the reason the FA gave the job to a non-Englishman is that they, and we the nation, want the chance to actually win something (or just qualify for something).

I don’t know a huge amount about football, but it seems painfully obvious that the closest thing England has to a world-class football manager is Sir Alex Fergusson. And he’s Scottish. If he ever quits coaching Manchester United it’ll be interesting to see if he expresses any interest in the job. In the meantime, Capello has about two years to earn his salt and get us to South Africa.

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The last few days have seen the story of Gillian Gibbons broadcast over the airwaves. She’s been charged with insulting Islam in Khartoum, having named her students’ teddy bear Mohammed (or having allowed it to be named this). And today she’s been sentenced to fifteen days in jail.

Having taught English in a foreign country will almost certainly do so again, I have a feeling of there but for the vagaries of chance go I. She also has the same surname and is from the same place as someone I know, but it turns out there’s no relation.

She could be accused of being naïve, but it’s difficult to comprehend how seriously and personally people from other cultures take religion – especially when you come from a secular society like Britain where religion is almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, the reaction of the Sudanese authorities and religious groups seems completely wrong to me. Even taking into account that Gillian Gibbons’ ‘crime’ may be more serious in the context of Sudanese society than it would be here, the Sudanese have taken the opportunity to make a crisis out of a mistake.

I don’t understand why someone at the school didn’t deal with this before it got out of hand. Gillian Gibbons can be forgiven for not appreciating the sensitivites involved, but another member of staff could easily have quietly fixed things. Instead, the school sent letters about Mohammed the bear home to parents. Were they trying to get her arrested and deported?

I’m not surprised that Muslim representatives in Britain have been saying they’re embarrassed by all this – the last thing relations between Isalm and the West need is for parts of the Muslim world to live up to the fundamentalist stereotypes that people in the West have.

The sooner everyone becomes atheist, the better. Can you wait a few thousand years?

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I can now officially go to India.

Today’s visa adventure started before dawn. I’d set the alarm on my mobile phone for 7 am, and, in fact, I barely got any sleep. Just after I’d drifted off my phone informed me, ‘It’s time to get up.’ I really should change that. I got dressed in the darkness and left the hostel. For some reason, my watch informed me that it was getting on for 6:30. I hadn’t used my phone for quite some time – and the clock was still on British Summer Time.

I got into the centre of London nice and early, then, and proceeded to break my fast at McDonald’s by Charing Cross Station. I arrived at the High Commission of India on Aldwych for 8:30 – the opening time – and discovered a great queue stretching round the crescent opposite all the theatres and fancy restaurants. I walked along the queue. I continued walking along the queue. After further walking along the queue I reached the end on the other side of the D of buildings made up of India House, Bush House and so on.

I was expecting something like this, having read about it on IndiaMike.com. There were a good few hundred people in the queue and, with all the other people who joined it after me, I reckon the number of visa applicants today was possibly into four figures. The queue went down fairly rapidly, considering – although it still took nearly an hour to reach the front. When we got there we were issued with cards with our ‘Q’ numbers and a time to submit our applications.

My time was 11:30 – 12. When I got back things became less simple. Inside you go up a staircase if you have a yellow ticket or down half a staircase if you have a white one. Mine appeared to be pale green (but then I am slightly colour-blind). Without thinking too much about it I went into the wrong visa hall where the was a crowd of people just inside the door. My Q number was X253 and the number on the display in there was 370 or something. That didn’t seem right.

A short but confused conversation with the chap on the door outside (the confusion was all on my part), revealed that I had to go upstairs. Again there was a crowd just inside the door. More confusion ensued. I ended up half figuring things out, half following a bloke who was in the same boat as me. Turns out you have go past the crowd to the far end and wait in a queue to hand over your application (and £30). That done, I was given a receipt and told my visa would be ready in an hour.

I went out again (took some photos of Trafalgar Square), came back and waited. Eventually, my number came up and my passport was returned to me, complete with visa – valid until 20 May 2008. I smiled.

Later I – again, eventually – met up with my former colleague and lovely French woman, Morgane. We had a drink, chatted. The conversation took a somewhat metaphysical turn, and she propounded a Gaia-like notion that global warming and both over-population and declining birth-rates are the Earth’s way of healing itself. Naturally, I don’t much care for hippyish ideas, but apparently that makes me grumpy and cynical.

Later I found out that England were beaten 3-2 by Croatia. Although I support England and always follow the major tournaments every other year, I didn’t have much sypmathy with the result. Steve McClaren may be a decent manager, but I’ve never seen how he could possibly be the world-class coach the national team needs if it’s going to do well. Who next? Terry Venables seems like the logical choice – his financial scandal is well behind him, he’s well-liked and he didn’t do too badly last time. But I suspect that he doesn’t have the necessary calibre. What about Guus Hiddink? Or maybe Felipe Scolari would be up for it this time.

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