The night Gmail stopped talking to me

I used to be on a lot of mailing lists. Back in the 90’s and 00’s, I was doing a lot of Open Source contribution.

Debian, Wine, Thousand Parsec, OpenJPEG, Second Life Viewer, rt2x00, dwm, X.Org, uim, FreeRADIUS; to name-drop a few. My tendency to show up and contribute a single patch in those days meant having to subscribe to a -devel list (and possibly a -patch list), email your patch to the list, and keep monitoring your thread to respond to feedback, iterate on the patch, and eventually enjoy the warm glow of commit.

And once I was on the list, I tended to never leave. I also had a tendency to become the Debian maintainer if one was needed. And in one case, the Release Manager for a release.

Tonight, it ended in blood and tears for many such lists…

Actually, that’s not true. Many of those lists had ended themselves since I was subscribed. And it looks like some time in 2009, my university email address expired and so my subscriptions through that went away. (Apologies to the bounce-bots….)

Still, some of the larger projects stuck around, and had my now-20-year-old email address. Even my mobile phone number is slightly younger than that. Actually, some of my colleagues are younger than that, I suspect.

That means I’ve had the same email address for more than half my life. Or longer than Google has been around.

Speaking of Google, at some point I realised that maintaining my own email server was a dumb idea, and migrated my email to Gmail. I remember hunting down a script to upload all my own email via IMAP, and leaving it running for days.

Being a compulsive hoarder, I couldn’t leave anything behind. That gives me full email history to 1998 (according to my sorted folders) except a year where a typo erased my inbox instead of archiving it in the early 2000’s.

One thing about mailing lists, though, is they’re archived elsewhere. So it’s much easier to delete old email from a mailing list, even for a hoarder. However, I realised this much too late, and so email continued to accumulate.

Gmail’s UI isn’t great at unsubscribing from Mailman mailling lists, which is what everyone serious in Open Source used, “back in the day”. Mailman’s own development email list was hosted on Sourceforce, because… reasons.

There’s a header in each email indicating how to unsubscribe, but you have to “show original” to see it. Usually it’s a http: or mailto: link, which is not clickable in that view.

What the Gmail UI does do well, that the Inbox UI (what I normally use these days) does not, is let you multi-select in any way other than “Click one by one on the emails you want”. They have an ‘All’ button, which selects all the email on-screen, and then gives you a “Really, All” link to let you select everything that matches the current filter/label.

This will happily let you select and delete over 77k emails in one click. That was my largest folder, wine-patches, but only because I unsubscribed from debian-devel last time I tried to clean up my email.

What it will not happily do is delete 77k emails (move them to Trash) quickly. In fact, while I was waiting and occasionally clicking the “Something timed out, try again” links, I decided I should write a blog post.

This blog post.

I was hoping to end with “And I’m still waiting”, but it did finish while I was working on this. So despite the rocky start, Gmail and I are once again on speaking-terms.

Never go to bed angry with your email provider, as the proverb should go.

Instead, I get to explore how long it takes to delete 131,585 emails from “Bin”. That should give me time to follow this up with some thoughts on how Open Source project communication has changed. Expect a post about that some time in the coming week, since it overlaps with something I need to do in the coming week as well.

Update: It finished in under half an hour, while I was editing and adding links to this post. And relived some of my finest wall-of-text emails where I completely miss the recent release of Git when considering distributed version control.

Only 3gB of email deleted… It looked larger in the rear-view mirror.


A marriage of priority and purpose

Now that I’m back on the blogoblong (still my word, a decade later!) I flicked back and did a little bit of cleanup of the blog history.

I made all my ‘food diary’ posts private (self-shaming doesn’t work if you never read it), and passworded my occasional translations of Mew Azama’s old diary (“Mew”), to try take them out of the default view, and am working to rationalise the tags and categories, so am possibly breaking five-year-old permalinks, if anyone felt an entire subsection of my blog was interesting to follow.

Sorry, if you exist.

I also moved from tags to categories, because the latter reflected my tendency to over-subdivide. It was four or five levels deep, many leaf nodes with only one entry…

I also realised that in the 5.5 years between my last blog post in late 2011 and now, various changes happened in my life.

The main priority to mention (and the trigger for writing this ‘aside’ at all, beyond wanting to try out the ‘aside’ option) is that I married Trang, the “indescribably cute English teacher” I mentioned once. Still working on a description, but a photo may suffice.


See how out-of-focus she is? That’s why she’s indescribable.

Which was actually my purpose on moving to Viet Nam in the first place — Trang specifically, not marriage in general.

MyZone, MyJob and MyHeart

As a small step back onto the exercise bandwagon, I ordered a MyZone heart rate-monitoring belt and associated watch. (They sent me a $70-off link if anyone wants to buy one. I don’t believe it kicks back to me; I hope it kicks-back to my gym).

Like the MeasureUp DEXA scan we take at the beginning and end of every F45 eight-week challenge, the idea is that “you get what you measure”. MeasureUp have that written on the side of their van. MyZone go with the shorter and more pithy “Effort rewarded.”

The same idea shows up a lot, it’s considered a “business truism” according to brief research using Google. Certainly when we started looking at Scrum and Agile/Lean at work, this came up a lot.

I mean “You get what you measure”, not “Effort rewarded”. The latter is a Dilbert comic:

 - Dilbert by Scott Adams

I tend to pull this one out when we’re talking about communication, not salary reviews.

In Agile, it was a warning to be careful not to measure the wrong thing (e.g., effort undertaken), because we would end up optimising for that thing rather than pursuing our real goal (i.e., value delivered).

So unless this “truism” is in fact false, there must be an actual cognitive basis for it. I was unable to find anything relevant on this handy Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet, but an observation I saw somewhere else is that this works because human brains are very good at releasing dopamine when we achieve something or make progress towards it, and putting numbers on a thing makes it possible to achieve.

It’s much easier to see progress towards “Lose 10kg of body fat” than it is towards “Be healthier”. I would have achieved the latter half-way to the 10kg, but you can’t observe that the same way.

F45 Training (the gym franchise I attend) runs a regular eight-week challenge as I mentioned above. They have a large focus on measuring your changes at the beginning, the middle and the end. It’s from this that I have done the DEXA scans, and also been encouraged to purchase the MyZone equipment. Because these things are pricey, I’ve hopefully also engaged the Sunk cost fallacy, which should help me stick with the program, or even return after taking a period off, whether due to travel or sheer laziness.

I’m not sure if attempting to trigger the Sunk cost fallacy in myself is considered Precommitment or not. I’m also not sure if it works when you do it deliberately…

The “eight-week” part is quite interesting. I’m not sure where it comes from, but a lot of fitness plans, fitness bootstraps, and general “Get off the couch” programs will be eight weeks long. My theory is that someone’s observed that it takes that long for a habit to build, and that building a habit of fitness is good for you. My other, more cynical, theory is that someone’s observed that eight weeks is about as far as motivation based on “fear of my own mortality” will get you through an exercise program, before you drop off naturally, and that by limiting the program to eight weeks, it will be considered a success, with subsequent drop-off being attributed to one’s own laziness.


Why not both?

The F45 challenge is clever because it’s not a once-off thing, but you repeat it with four week breaks (longer over the solar New Year). Again, that’s either “give the body a rest” or “give time for regret to sublimate into motivation”, but I couldn’t say which. They encourage you to keep attending between challenges. And you get measured at both ends of the break, so you can see how far you’ve fallen.

So whichever mechanism they’re tapping in to, it should work.

Sadly, a combination of work travel, eating habit-breaking issues, and general laziness on my part meant that after a good result on the first challenge, my second challenge round was a write-off, and the third didn’t start so well.

Hence my decision to self-motivate by sinking more money into the program, beyond the already-expensive membership.

I spent the afternoon wearing my new MyZone band and looking at my new, ugly, watch to see my heart rate. I had confidently predicted a resting heart rate of 50-57 beats per minute, based on being measured in Viet Nam as having a slow heart rate, and taking my own pulse on occasion. I was hence shocked to see myself running at around 79bpm.

The best time to measure resting heart rate is first thing in the morning. So I’m going to take the belt home, and measure when I wake up. Hopefully I’ll get a more accurate, lower result.

Assuming that’s what will happen, why would my heartrate be so high at 1pm?

I’m not sure, but a few possible causes spring to mind:

  • At work, my zone is a standing desk, so I’m standing up all day, and hence more active than resting, which was the point of getting the desk.
  • I’m still stressed about my job, particularly wanting to get things done but have trouble making time, or working out what I can actually achieve in a day to get my dopamine hit.
  • My diet is still pretty poor, and while today was the day I got back into protein-heavy meals (protein shakes on work-provided cereal, wheat protein-based fake duck), there’s still one vice I haven’t shaken, which is possibly directly affecting my heart: Coffee, or the nearest substitute caffeine source I can stand…

Monster Zero Ultra

Really, it could be any of those…

To be brutally honest, I also ate a block of chocolate while writing this post, so it’s pretty clear my diet is not yet under control in any meaningful sense. Although at least I have not regained my daily chocolate habit, nor any real Diet Coke habit, except when travelling.

It’s really small steps that matter in self-improvement.

Blogging again

Time to resume getting my blog on.

Partly, this should serve to remind me to keep my journal (private posts on this site) up-to-date.

And will let me do some longer-form writing without filling people’s email inboxes or producing multipage Stack Overflow answers.

So, what’m I doing that’s brought me back out?

C++ Standardisation

As part of my efforts to broaden my interests outside work and sleep, I started attending conferences such as the excellent CppCon in the USA (hosted by Standard C++ Foundation) and this year, ACCU in the UK (hosted confusingly by ACCU). (I also attended GDC twice, and am hoping to attend 4C: St Petersburg this year, but they’re off-topic for this post.)

I realise that this isn’t a long way outside “work and sleep”… but it’s certainly different from “play video games all weekend”.

It seems to me that volunteering to help with things is an excellent way to get involved with the community. So as well as volunteering as a paper-review for the CppCon Program Committee, I went along to the SG14 meeting.

SG14 — formally “Study Group 14: Game Dev & Low Latency” — is part of WG21  — formally “ISO/IEC JTC1 (Joint Technical Committee 1) / SC22 (Subcommittee 22) / WG21 (Working Group 21)” — is the part of the ISO C++ committee focused on Low-latency and other topics for industries which are not well-served by current standardisation efforts. SG14 started from informal discussions at the first CppCon, and has now grown to encompass:

  • Game Development
  • Financial and (particularly) High-Frequency Trading
  • Simulation
  • Embedded Devices

Most of the discussion on the mailing list and in the occasional meetings is about various contains achieving low-latency, no-allocation, no-branching, cache-friendliness (or any combination of those); that’s an area I’m not strong on.

Occasionally a topic I am keen on shows up, around language change or adaption. I’ve volunteered to put some time into one such proposal, “Comparing Virtual Functions” which I will talk more about later.

Since ACCU, where I gave a spur-of-the-moment lightning talk about void{} I’ve also started preparing a small paper proposing a language change for C++ outside SG14: “Umambiguous prvalue void”. That’ll also be a separate post or a series, depending on how things go. I put it out into the wild for the first time today.

So, that’s where I am today. There’s a lot more going on, I intend to talk about it here as I go, so if nothing else, I can get the various ideas I have floating around down on “paper”.

Á-lô, is it me you’re looking for?

A friend linked me to “Foreign tongues don’t always come easy” on CNN’s website with the note “Is this you at all Paul?”

(As a quick summary of the article, the author laments his English-language monolingualism, and makes the following points: Anglophones have it easy because everywhere else, English is the fallback language of dealing with foreigners; and that the best approach is to get over your what you lack when speaking a second language, and work with what you have. But he puts it much more amusingly. Read that article. Maybe in a new window or tab so you don’t forget to come back here.)

I identified quite strongly with the author’s experiences of performance anxiety in high-school language class onwards, and the feeling of frustration when one knows precisely what one wants to say in one’s native language, but lacks the words, the grammar or simply the finesse to express it in another language.

So the quick answer is “yes, this is totally me”.

If you’re bored already, or you came here looking for more “ugly cake”, then this is a safe point for you to stop, without leaving loose story threads. It’s going to turn into a mess of story threads shortly, of course.

On a side-note, “ugly cake” was one of the two Google search terms that led someone to this blog yesterday. If I’m reading the control panel correctly, it was an image search. Sure enough, there on the first page of Google Image Search for “ugly cake” (without quotes), is my ugly cake. And it’s the only ugly cake on the first page, I think. The rest are merely confronting or bizarre. There’s one that appears to be a “Happy Hysterectomy” cake, for example. They do get ugly further on though.

I wonder if this means Google now ranks my opinion highly on matters of ugliness, cake, or merely on the specific topic of ugly cake…

On Sunday (Christmas) I had dinner with my landlords and a daughter thereof who happened to be home. I think they felt sorry for me because I was here in a strange country by myself, and all my local friends had returned to their home-towns for the weekend. I base this thought entirely on the fact that my invitation for dinner had arrived the evening after I mentioned this as being the case to said daughter.

After dinner, chatting with my landlady in very broken Vietnamese — mine, that is. I assume hers is native-level — we touched upon the topic of learning languages. Any conversation I have with a Vietnamese person that proceeds long enough will eventually include the question “Why study Vietnamese.” That seems natural enough a question, of course. Sometimes it’s “why come to Vietnam” but the focus is “Why Vietnam, as opposed to somewhere else”, rather than “Why study a foreign language” or “Why live in a foreign country”. I’ve tested this a couple of times by trying to explain that I wanted to live somewhere else than Australia, where I’d been all my life. The response is usually “Yes, but why Vietnam?”

I don’t really have a good reason for choosing Vietnam specifically. What I have is several bad reasons, bundled together and resold repeatedly until it looks like a single good reason. My own personal reason bubble, if you like. As mentioned, I wanted to go somewhere. Melbourne would have been somewhere enough, but entirely lacking in challenge. And I am certainly one to force myself down the hard path from time to time.

Japan was the obvious choice, given my years of Japanese study and of Japanophilia. However, I’d been warned off the Japanese games industry by a previous boss due to apparently low regard for programmers in their industry, and generally poor working conditions. Adding “foreigner” to either issue was only going to make things worse.

People who’ve read my older posts (the “Vietnam adventures: backgrounder” post specifically) will have seen the process by which I arrived at Vietnam, but the short summary is that I have a friend in Hanoi, and support from a few Vietnam-and-related friends back home, and Vietnam’s games industry is small but growing so I should be able to find work if I need to.

None of these are good reasons, of course. One friend does not a social life make, friends at home aren’t really a good basis for picking a foreign country to live in, and a small but growing games industry in a country economically disparate as Vietnam is from Australia is still not going to be well-structured to support an experienced Australian games programmer in the style to which he wishes to become accustomed. Particularly when the disparity between local and foreigner living costs means that I’d cost the same as any two or three locals simply to maintain equivalent living conditions.

That’s a very rough estimate of living costs, mind you. It’s been cheaper living here than I expected, but I’m still in the honeymoon stage where I’m living in a single room in a house, and haven’t yet seen my electricity bill. Once February rolls around and I’m (hopefully) renting a lovely 3-bedroom house and paying full bills and whatnot, we’ll see just how much cheaper it is to be here than Canberra.

Anyway, there’s no way I can explain the above five paragraphs in Vietnamese, and they wouldn’t be a particularly good way to respond to a small-talk question anyway. Particularly with an explanatory hyperlink in the middle. So usually I just say “I don’t have any reason” which gets me a knowing look and questions about my girlfriend or wife. This surprised me a little the first time, but only a little because I’d already realised that in Vietnamese culture, people are near-universally getting married (to me) at quite a young age. And the usual conversation partner is one of the early-to-mid twenties Vietnamese teachers at my school. Most of whom are (I assume) happily married and have been for some time, and naturally assume that a 30-something apparently successful man like myself has of course got a wife and presumably a couple of kids in primary school.

I’m assuming I appear successful on the grounds that I was able to wander into Vietnam without a particular plan or apparent concerns about paying for my next meal. That suggests that I’m either sufficiently successful to be able to take myself on the road as I see fit, or sufficiently young that I’m happy to wander off to parts unknown and expect the world to take care of me. And no one’s mistaking me for early 20’s at the language school, since they usually ask my age right after “nationality” and “name”. As opposed to my landlord’s family, who apparently had mistaken me for much younger than I am.

My landlady, didn’t launch straight into discussion of my reasons for choosing Vietnam. Being a 60-year old woman and presumably wise to the world, I suspect she’d leaped to her own conclusions about why I was here, having already met my friend in Hanoi who turned out to be an accomplished and attractive 20-something young woman. Instead, we talked about the importance of learning a foreign language. Her daughter had learnt Mandarin, as well as enough English to not understand much of what I say, but to be able to guess what I mean when I don’t know the Vietnamese word for something.

And I made the point that I thought it was very important that children learn a second language at a young age. Or at least, I tried. I may have been passing commentary on recent attempts by Dolphins to develop a low-energy-cost system for leaving the Earth’s gravity well. Whatever I said, I think my landlady agreed with me.

And it’s a point that I was reminded of when I read this CNN article tonight. But at the same time, apart from the Anglosphere (and I guess the Francosphere) second languages are being learnt by young children. Many nations in SE Asia are making concerted efforts and spending serious money to get English into practice as a second language of fluency in their populations.

Then again, it’s a bit easier to do that sort of thing in nations that speak a language distinct to that nation. In that case, the choice of language to put your national impetus is pretty narrow: English, French, or the language of one of your major trading partners.

Oddly enough, while Australia seems to feel that Chinese is the important trading language to learn (supplanting Japanese’s 90’s position), the feeling in SE Asia appears to be that English needs to be the language of international communication, perhaps to act as a counterbalance to China’s ever-growing strength. This might reflect a differing set of priorities, mind you.

On one hand, the Anglosphere isn’t worried about learning an international language, they already speak English. So they default to “large trading partners”. However, you don’t see the same level of national focus behind Chinese fluency in Australia as you do in countries like Vietnam, Korea or Malaysia in getting English fluency into their populace. You certainly don’t seem to see it in primary schools. My younger sister studied Indonesia in primary school, but I don’t know how long, and it was certainly not a subject of emphasis. 15 years earlier, I did French after school for a little while. And when I went to high school, language was compulsory for years 7 and 8, although you only ended up doing 18 months of one and 6 of the other choice, and then in years 9 and 10 it was optional (which meant the classes were smaller with less people who didn’t want to be there, so it was an improvement). But the important thing was there was really no particularly higher power telling us “it’s going to be really important to know a second language”. I was just interested in Japanese because I wanted to grey-import Japanese video games. Then I discovered anime and Japanese girls, and my decision tree became much clearer, although not really any better supported.

Compare this to Vietnam’s (ambitious) English 2020 program, which aims to have High-school graduates speaking English at a B1 level on the CEFR. That’s 350-400 hours. For reference, my Vietnamese course at the ANU is 75 hours a semester, so after a three year major (six units) I’d be hoping to fall between B1 and B2.

On the other hand, Australia has a wide selection of languages to choose from, so nationally focussing on one would be difficult anyway. Assume they don’t want to focus on another “international” language, that leaves major trading partners. In Australia’s top 10 trading partners I count six national languages — in order: Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Thai, German and Malaysian — where China and Japan make up about an eight each of total trade value, and English-speaking countries in that list (including Singapore) in total make up about a quarter.

On the gripping hand, Australia also has a large population who don’t speak English at home. It might be a good idea to consider the languages of that significant (10% or so) population group. As of 2006, the languages that show up in the top 10 LOTE spoken in the home in each state are (alphabetically): Arabic, Australian Indigenous, Cantonese, Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay (assuming Malaysian and/or Singaporean here), Macedonian, Mandarin, Polish. Samoan, Serbian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish and Vietnamese. National totals from the 2001 census suggest that the significant languages are: Italian, Vietnamese, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Mandarin.

The intersection of these analyses appears to be Mandarin again.

But taking a step back, would a single “national second language of importance” really be a good thing for Australia? If, as the experts I’ve been listening to appear to believe, English is to be the language of international communication in some form or other, then a national effort to develop competency in a second language isn’t particularly useful for Australia. If it was, the same reasoning would probably have put Vietnam on a “Chinese 2020” program instead.

Perhaps the best approach is to try and develop a “national importance of second language” program, and emphasise that a second language (of any kind) is as important a life-skill as mathematics, and should be treated accordingly, curriculum-wise. I personally feel that to be the best approach. Not everyone is going to need to use probability theory in day-to-day life, but having had frustrating discussions with people who’ve apparently never understood it, I feel it’s important that everyone have the _opportunity_ to understand it.

Similarly with language, there’s definite advantages to being bilingual from a younger age. (Wikipedia is not so clear-cut on the advantages of bilingualism, if you want some alternative opinions on the matter.)

As a programmer, I can see clear value in knowing multiple different programming languages, even if I never work in them. It lets you see with a slightly more structural view, and lets you look at the program, not just the code. And when you do need to work in a new language, picking up another one’s quite easy. I’m hoping that natural language will work the same way, once I can get my head around a second language.

I don’t actually pay any attention to the news, so it’s entirely possible Australia already has such a policy in place. That’d be nice, but it’s 30 year too late for me. And policy or not, where ever I end up, I intend that any children I have grow up bilingual or better. Parental languages, any thing else that catches their fancy, and C++. No one ever suffered from knowing too much C++.

tldr; The short version ended much earlier.

Communism: Inconceivable!

Vietnam is a land which challenges many of the assumptions I grew up building, e.g., water is drinkable and precious; showers come in cubicles; everyone pays the same price for things; a “sunny” day means unobstructed view of the sun.

Here, water is plentiful but only special water is potable. This is apparently true for lots of peole in Hanoi, not just the foreigners. I believe the Hanoi water company’s 2020 goal is to have potable coming through all the taps. Foreigners will probably still neec to boil it, but for different reasons.

I’m actually still not sure if I’m showering correctly. There’s a shower-head, a bucket, and a floor drain, but no clearly delineated area for showering or way to keep the water from covering the whole floor. Either that or I’ve overlooked something and now my landlords think I’m a total grot…

Pricing is a whole topic of it’s own, but every foreigner here who comes from a non-bartering culture has a blog post about it so I won’t bother until I have something interesting to write.

It’s probably just Hanoi winter, but last time I saw the sun I was above the cloud cover. The other day I was thinking “Gosh, it’s sunny today,” only to look up and realise it was still solid cloud-cover, but somehow lighter… So I _think_ I can tell a sunny day from a cloudy day from a going-to-rain day, but I also thought that in Australia with about as much accuracy as a weather-rock.

More importantly though, Vietnam challenges my assumptions about Vietnam. Specifically, about communism.

Growing up, all I knew about communism was that it was the direct opposite of America, and some vague images of people queueing to buy bread and toilet paper. I think I somehow built the idea that communism was a system without money: When you were hungry, you were fed. When there was work to do, you did it. When you were tired, you slept.

Having just written that out, it sounds like either childhood or slavery. Hobbes would be proud. And having read “The Stainless Steel Rat gets drafted”, I now suspect I’d actually started to recreate Marxist economics from first principles.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t a particularly nuanced understanding. And one I thankfully grew out of. Mind you, I don’t know if I grew into a more accurate understanding, or simply a more influenced one. My current understanding of communism is it’s like a committee system of government, as opposed to a partisan system like the Westminster system of Democracy, and the state’s welfare is held in greater importance compared to individual liberties than in a system like America’s, where the state is seen as a neccesary evil rather than a collective vehicle of the people.

In Vietnam, this idea, combined with the apparent basic Vietnamese values of community and entrepreneurship, seems to have produced a system where everything is privatised, but some things are owned by the public sector (government or the military for example). Some markets (education, for example) are tightly controlled by regulation but not closed, but the oddest thing is when the government competes, it’s on a (roughly) equal footing.

While I was aware of this effect already, it was brought home to me this morning, waiting to catch the train to Hải Đương. That train (run by the state-owned national railway) includes two privately-owned carriages. They cost more per ticket (most expensive is almost double the cheapest public car ticket) but are air-conditioned. Maybe this is normal in other train-based societies? I saw something like this in a book series I am reading (RCN by David Drake) so it might just be me this is an unusual concept to.

It seems like an obvious idea, of course. If you can sell more expensive tickets, to cover the cost of the carriage and the price of having it pulled, then it’s a good business idea; albeit a long-trm one. I expect a train carriage costs a lot, and the “expensive” ticket was forty thousand dong (about AU$2), although that’s not the entire length of the line.

The taxi to the station cost 125 thousand dong, for comparison. But it was almost 7km, as this train doesn’t stop at my closest station except for the first and last runs of the day. Early enough and late enough for working commuters, although why someone would live in Hà Nội and work in Hải Dương I can’t imagine…

Another thing that is challenging my assumptions (or maybe my basic character) is the total orthogonality of business and friendship. One of the reasons I’m a terrible businessman is that I feel really weird taking money from my friends as if they’re customers. It’s probably just me, not my culture, but I find business an adversarial, uncomfortable process. Here, it’s a natural part of life — everything costs something, and so you pay for things, but it’s not like you feel like you shouldn’t have to pay.

My first two experiences of this were actually last year. Firstly with pay-per-use public toilets, and secondly (and more importantly) at my friend’s wedding.

When I and a whole bunch of western friends-and-relations showed up for the wedding, we were picked up in a minibus which we were told belonged to a cousin of the bride. However, at the end of the day, he was paid off like a hired-driver. This got me thinking… If a cousin of mine needed help driving guests around, I’d be fine with doing it. A little bit of fuel money would be nice, and perhaps free lunch if it was an all-day thing, sure. But that’s not how the Vietnamese attitude runs.

Here, if you do work, you should get paid. Cousin, friend or stranger. The more I look around in this framework, the more I see it. Or the more misinterpret what I’m seeing into this framework. I can’t say for sure.

This is pretty much the opposite of what I expected from communism. But it does seem to suit my own ideals of egalatarianism, and a fair reward for fair effort.

And I think it’s a culture which will help me get over myself, and become a better, more detached businessman. Or at least a poorer-but-wiser businessman.

And that’s one thing I’d never have assumed a communist country would teach me.

A week in Magic Kindergarten

Dear Princess Celestia,

CC: Anyone else reading my blog.

So I’m a week into my course now, more than one seventh of the way to magic Vietnamese fluency. Or something like that. Between work, classes, minimal homework, and an annoying head-cold, I’ve been pretty much flat out, which is lucky as I don’t have any other plans or commitments. (Or none I can’t procrastinate away, rather)

Magic Kindergarten has been an interesting experience. As a mature-age student at the ANU, I was generally taking classes where the lecturers were pretty senior, and therefore much older than me. However, here I’m confronted with the fact that as a foreign-language student (equivalent of the English course at ANUTech, I guess) I’m actually working with fairly junior teachers. Specifically, junior to me. My oldest teacher is three years younger than me, and the youngest is… well I suspect she’s actually only just graduated from my current creepy dating range. (Bet that’s not how you thought that sentence was going to end…) This actually caused my one main personal pronouns flub, as I hadn’t realised she was my teacher, and called her “em”. In my defense, she’d called me “anh” and herself “em” first, so I took my cue from that. That’s been the weirdest part, actually, as my main technique for dealing with personal pronouns was to simply guess until the native-speaker used some, and reflect them. Apparently that’s not a viable strategy.

For people who aren’t familiar with Vietnamese personal pronouns (like myself ^_^), the system is generally age-based: people your age and older up to your father’s age are “anh” and “chị“, people younger than you are “em” and people older than your father are “ông” and ““. There’s a couple of exceptions to the age rules, such as “thầy” for male teachers, “” for female teachers and women slightly older than your father whom you think it would be safer to call “auntie” than “grandmother”. I’m not sure exactly how that last one works, I think it’s supposed to be for unmarried women only, but I call my landlady cô when I can bring myself to vocalise properly and she seems to get a laugh out of it. The age rules also have more complications, e.g., apparently my friend’s eventual children will be “anh” and “chị” to his younger brother-in-law’s already born child as the parent’s ages override the children’s.

To complicate things a little further, I was taught in class that one’s self is “tôi” until one is close to someone, in which case you refer to yourself as they would refer to you, and vice versa. I believed that was keyed off the more senior person using the personal pronoun for themselves, but haven’t really tried that out. So far I’m sticking with “tôi” for everyone I meet here who hasn’t told me to use the personal pronoun. (Which has actually been no-one here, but certainly my bilingual friends have told me to use the personal pronoun from the outset. It doesn’t clarify matters that I’m “anh” to pretty much all of them, limiting my sample size.) I’ll take a being deliberately a little stand-off-ish over unintentionally insulting for now. Call it a little “Gaijin Smash” if you like.

Here’s a “primer” on Vietnamese personal pronouns if the above wasn’t clear.

I’ll gladly receive corrections to the above in the comments, of course.

Speaking of Gaijin Smash, one of my lecturers was telling me that one of his students used to get out of traffic fines and such by simply repeating “I don’t understand” in Korean until the officer gave up. However, many police officers now speak English, so I can’t really rely on that technique, and I doubt I’d get away with it if I tried Korean. Apparently French might work unless I get an older police officer. If anyone knows the Gaelic expression for “I don’t understand. Do you speak Gaelic” feel free to post in the comments? Perhaps wildly mispronouncing “I don’t understand Vietnamese” in Vietnamese will work. “Thuy khon hieeeuuuuu thing Vietnam”. Actually, simply trying to say that normally would probably be enough to warm them off.

If any Vietnamese police officers are reading this, this is of course hypothetical.

I briefly considered explaining the term “Gaijin Smash” to my lecturer, but decided against it. We lost enough time trying to explore the abstract concept of “half-past”. It seems Vietnamese doesn’t have such a concept, but does contain a grammar rule that depends on it. (The correct use of “kém” in reading time) Another longer-than-expected discussion was “a little far” being not quite as far as “far” in Vietnamese, while meaning “just too far” in (Australian) English. I don’t know if this is direct translation (“hơi” is the adverb “a little”) or if that’s a different English dialect. This turned into a discussion of Australian indirect expressions (“How are you?” “Not bad”; “How was the test?” “Not great”) which at the time seemed related, but on reflection, maybe not.

So… back to Magic Kindergarten.

It’s Kindergarten because the first lesson was dedicated to my placement test. I did so poorly and slowly on it that my second lesson (and the homework inbetween) was also spent on the placement test. That’s not encouraging. I described myself as being sent back to magic kindergarten because I was initially enrolled for level B, but am currently “reviewing” the level A-2 book. The fact that all my lecturers are younger than me didn’t become apparently until later in the week. I don’t know if I’m psychic, lucky, or if the universe really does rearrange itself to match my subconscious. In which case I need to have a few discreet words with my subconscious on a number of topics.

I guess University’s not Magic. But certainly Vietnam is. I kept telling people that I was coming here because simply from sheer population size, there are as many attractive young women in Vietnam as there are women in Australia. Turns out I was actually right about this; which is a bit of a surprise ’cause I was simply covering the fact that I didn’t have a good reason to be here. I have several poor reasons, so I’m relying on the aggregate. Think of it as a motivation bubble, where I rebundle bad reasons until they look like they’re worth a single good reason, and then sell it to someone who is being insufficiently critical. This is one aspect of reality my subconscious has done a terrific job of, no complaints at all.

And everyone’s so industrious, I don’t feel so bad being a workaholic. I dunno what my landlords do during the day (they’re usually out) but given the huge amount of UPSes and Huawei equipment in an insulated and shielded room on the roof, and the two company signs on the door, I suspect there’s two or three businesses going on here. Particularly when every bedroom in my home has a LAN cable, and when I pointed out that the one in my room had been cut off, the “son-in-law who speaks English” (Mr Quy) produced a crimping tool and RJ-45 cable head and expected that I’d know how to use them.

Having done this, and bought a USB multi-card reader to read the CF card driving my Alix 2c2 router, I installed OpenWRT on it and now have a private WiFi network in my room. And decently fast Internet, even if Facebook is DNS-blocked. (But Google’s DNS service is not. If you’re a Vietnamese official from the relevant ministry or bureau of public safety, that’s hypothetical.) So now I’m no longer paying $1 per 40MB for 3G data.

It probably reflects my poor communication skills that I got my Internet connection because I was trying to borrow a screwdriver. ^_^

Nonetheless, that particular interaction as well as the discovery of a street full of computer shops nearby cheered me up quite a lot. A belly full of Cháo and nem chua rán helped too. I’d been feeling rather down that morning (partly because I’d just discovered the night before that I’d misread the above-mentioned 3G data plan, and partly because of the heavy cold I was suffering) but by the end of the day, being back on the Internet for real, I was feeling much more like I had arrived somewhere magical.

Then again, perhaps it’s simply that a sufficiently different culture is indistinguishable from magic?

For those who don’t consider the mere ability to walk down the street and be stared at by attractive women to be magical, there’s also the fact that I can buy Steam games at US prices on my Australian credit card. So hit me up if you want something gifted, for a small appreciation. ^_^

If none of the above strikes you as magical, or at least amusing, you might be at the wrong blog. Or you’re hoping to hear me report about the magic of friendship, in which case you’ll have to wait for a later post, as I’ve experiments to run, there is research to be done, and a forgotten but returning ancient evil to thwart.

tl;dr: I feel FANTASTIC and I’m still alive.

Your Faithful Student, TBBle.