22 November, 2009
English Around the World
I'm not biased. At
least, I don't think so. But English really does seem to be becoming the new "lingua franca". Almost every country in the world is full of people wanting to learn English.
Here in Mexico,
the cities are loaded with language schools teaching English. other languages are taught, but the classes are overwhelmingly English. Bilingual schools are becoming more common. Most secondary and
university courses have compulsory English classes. People here truly believe that English is essential to them advancing in the workplace and in life. Almost no-one speaks English in everyday life
here. But many know English to a greater or lesser extent for their job or for travel.
The need for English follows from Mexico's economic dependence on the United States. Mexico has a large
proportion of the U.S.'s manufacturing, call centres and casual labour. Other latin american countries perhaps are not so closely linked to an English-speaking country, but as the language of business it is
becoming more common in those places as well.
I'm going to Europe for the first time in a month, for two and a half weeks. I'll visit the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and France. I know virtually
nothing of Dutch, French or German. But I'm not worried. The majority of people in Europe know at least two, if not three or more languages, and English is the primary second-tongue. They say that the
French dislike speaking English, and understandably so given their history. But I'm expecting that most can still communicate with me in English if they want to.
India, China, Japan, Korea - the
major asian nations are teaching their citizens English. The demand for native English speakers to do the teaching is high. Many young people from English-speaking countries head to these countries to teach
English to adults and kids alike. It's a common way to experience a different culture and get paid for it. Unfortunately teaching English in Mexico is paid poorly. But some countries pay a lot more - a
friend of mine taught English in Dubai, and was paid $US 60,000 per year, with minimal taxes.
The other language that is starting to challenge English as a business (and therefore worldwide) language is
Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese). Two schools here in Guadalajara are trilingual - they have classes in Spanish, English and Chinese. China is rapidly becoming a world superpower with approximately 1.33
billion inhabitants, a massive and exploding economy, and increasingly more influence on the world stage.
Excluding a few schools that are up with the play, most schools in New Zealand still only offer three
language classes - French, Japanese and Maori. Maori is important as an official language of the country. However my recommendation is for schools to 1) make a second language compulsory and a third language
optional, 2) broaden the language options available to students, and 3) make the compulsory second language a choice of Maori, Spanish or Chinese.
But that's a side topic from my main observation - how much
English is dominating as a global language. A science-fiction series Dave and I are listening to on audiobook describes "Common" - a slightly-modified English - as the language of the world. Give
it a decade or so, and this could well become science fact.
I'm not exactly sure why this is happening. I have a few theories though. Maybe the dominance of the United States of America in the
world economy has pushed it, combined with the reluctance of native English speakers (from the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, England etc.) to learn a second language. If you need to communicate with someone, and
he/she is arrogant enough to not bother to learn your language, you have to learn English.
"So if English is going to become the world language, why bother learning other languages?" you may ask.
A few reasons to think about:
1) Knowing a language is an entry into a culture. You can appreciate songs, sayings, idioms, stories, and values of different cultures.
2) Not everyone will
be able to speak English, especially less-educated people. More importantly, foreigners may not want to speak English. If you do not speak the language of the people you are visiting, your ability to
influence, to understand, to enjoy, to effectively interact, will be limited.
3) It is arrogant to assume that just because most people will be able to speak English, that English is the language that
should be spoken. If you truly believe this, you are a poor citizen of the world.
So if you're not bilingual, try to become so. If you're bilingual, try to become trilingual. But if you
have to travel or do business and you only have one tongue to talk in, just be grateful that English is becoming the common language of the world.
31 October, 2009
Dave and I have just finished the most unnecessarily bureaucratic process we have ever experienced. This
honour belongs to the Migracion department in Guadalajara. I was trying to get a temporary immigration visa, called an FM3, so I can legally work as an English teacher in Mexico. Dave was applying for a visa
so he can have Mexican computer clients.
Let me go through the process we had to endure. Keep
in mind that to attend each booth in Migracion involved a wait of between 10 minutes and three hours - usually about an hour. Also, every visit meant a drive downtown
in peak time, taking up to an hour driving time each way, and paying for parking.
Step 1: Visited Booth 1 to get an information sheet about what we needed to give them, and forms to fill out.
Step 2: Photocopied documents and hired a secretary to type out the forms (as required).
Step 3: Went to the bank with an approved form to pay the deposits for the FM3 processing, then photocopied
the deposit receipts.
Step 4: We both presented our documents and deposit receipts at Booth 3. Dave's was accepted, but I was told to get a new number and wait in line as we couldn't hand
in our paperwork at the same time.
Step 5: I handed in my paperwork. We were told to come back in a week.
Step 6: So we came back a week later to be told by Booth 7 that our documents hadn't been processed. We could wait or come back the next day.
Step 7: We came back the next day, to be told that the proof of residency receipt wasn't
sufficient (because it was a rent receipt). I wondered why Booth 3 accepted the receipt if it wasn't sufficient.
Step 8: Returned with a detailed receipt showing our residency for 3+ months at the
motor home park and presented it to Booth 3. The Booth 3 lady told me that was not sufficient either; they needed an electricity receipt from the park, a letter from the owner
(not the manager!) saying we lived there, and a photocopy of the owner's ID and his signature.
Step 9: We came back with the aforementioned papers and gave them to Booth 3. Told to come back in a week.
Step 10: The next visit a week later, we were told our papers weren't yet ready. We could wait or
come back another day. We decided to wait this time, to avoid the ragged commute. Three and a half hours later, we gave up.
Step 11: The next day, we visited Booth 7, were given our documents back and were told to go back to Booth 1 to pick up new information sheets and forms.
Step 12: Waited in line at Booth 1 and collected the new information requirements, including photos and payment at a bank for the FM3 processing.
Step 13: Hired a secretary to type out the
new forms (which contained a lot of the same information!) and to take the visa photos.
Step 14: Paid the remaining processing fee at the bank and made photocopies of the receipt.
Step 15: Handed in all the documents and receipts to Booth 2 and were told to wait a week. We tried to hand over our photos but they were refused.
Step 16: Paid the tow truck $500 pesos so
he would offload our car and not take it to the impound lot on the other side of the city. Okay, maybe that wasn't Migracion's fault.
Step 17: Came back a week PLUS ONE DAY! later (to make sure the docs were ready this time), and waited over an hour to collect our ongoing documentation from Booth 7.
Step 18: We handed over Dave's photos to Booth 2 with the documents. Why they couldn't take those photos the last time with the rest of the information flummoxed us. I tried to hand over my
photos, but was told I needed a tax number first.
Step 19: Went back to Booth 7 a week later
and was told a tax number wasn't required yet after all, but instead I had to fill out another form.
Step 20: Gave the form to Booth 2, but was told they needed photocopies of every page
of my passport before accepting the information. I had already given them the photocopies of every page, and I didn't have another passport copy with me, so we had to leave.
Step 21: Came back with the new form completed PLUS the second set of passport photocopies. Delivered them to Booth 2 after an hour wait. Was told to return in one week.
Step 22: Returned one week and a day later to collect the FM3, and give my signature and fingerprints. But I still had to collect a tax number within thirty days and deliver it back to Migracion.
Step 23: Returned three weeks later with the tax number to Booth 2, and was told to wait in line for an hour to collect another form from Booth 1. The lady at Booth 2 showed us the form, we needed,
but refused to give it to us.
Step 24: Collected the form from Booth 1.
Step 25: Dave and I filled out our forms stating details we'd already given. We also had to write them a letter explaining that we were fulfilling the tax number condition,
give them a copy of our tax numbers, and the sheets they gave us requiring the tax number. Triplicate reporting when the information was self-explanatory. After another
long wait we handed them into Booth 2, and were told to come back the next day to re-collect the FM3s.
Step 26: Two days later, after a mercifully short wait for our final visit, we were handed our FM3s.
By the time we got to the last few steps, I was starting to swear under my breath. I longed for the efficiency of the Canadian and New Zealand visa processes. Just two,
maybe three visits, one processing agent to deal with, one set of requirements and a simple, easy-to-follow process. But here in Mexico, my theory is that there is no
incentive for the Migracion to become more efficient or customer-friendly. They are doing you a favour in their minds, and so they can use as many
different processes and booths as they like. Time and effort is not money for them.
The scary thing is, on Step 21 while waiting an hour to be seen at the booth, I read in Migracion's
magazine that they recently modernised the visa process and made it more efficient. I shudder to think of the torture new migrants must've suffered before then.
18 September, 2009
Corruption and the Drug War
My partner and I haven't had to deal with much local corruption here in Mexico. The times when we thought we'd have to pay a bribe here or there: when our car was towed, when receiving a
cellphone plan discount, getting our immigration papers etc., nothing was implied. Even trying to give a generous tip was sometimes refused.
It's a nice reality from what we read before we came. We were told that the local police would stop you for a cash payment, border officials might need an incentive to leave you alone, and "morditas"
(little bites) would be required to make life smooth.
Instead, in recent years everyday Mexicans seem to be less and less corrupt as a culture. Maybe
they instinctively recognise the damage it does to their economy and way of life, or maybe enforcement against such corruption has increased.
Unfortunately, corruption in Mexico still permeates anything to do with the drug war, senior business leaders and politicians.
As part of the federal government's protracted war on drug cartels, swathes of mayors, local police chiefs, elected officials and community leaders are arrested for corruption relating to the drug trade.
Even the head of Mexico's narco offensive in 2008 was bought. A lot of the times the problem is greed for money and power. But sometimes the corrupted don't have much choice. Either they
accept money and help the drug traffickers, or they and their families may be kidnapped or shot.
And the latter is also common here. An English language client of mine was shot at in his car while
giving a friend a ride back home. She is the daughter of a member of the judicial police and had received death threats. Federal police and soldiers are ambushed on the roadside, tortured,
decapitated. Senior politicians are assassinated. There are thousands of kidnappings per year.
I still feel safer here than in many parts of the USA and New Zealand - partly because most of the
crime is centered near the US border, in Mexico City, and/or is drug related.
The problem is that many state and local police are corrupt or inefficient. I read an estimate that
98% of crimes in Mexico are unpunished. Municipal police can be paid as low as 30 pesos an hour ($US 2.27). That sort of wage doesn't encourage anyone to put themselves in harms way. It also
promotes widespread corruption.
There is a lack of transparency and checks and balances in local, state and federal budgets.
Politicians earmark essential funds for pet projects, and siphon money as it is spent. This is a problem in the USA as well, but in Mexico it's harder to trace.
In my opinion, Mexico's Drug War started by President Calderon (a good man, but hamstrung by widespread self-interest and corruption in his government and administration) is unwinnable unless
the rich and powerful of Mexico renounce corruption and their own ties with the drug cartels.
17 August, 2009
I'm writing this on a rustic cabin patio overlooking a forest south of Mazamitla, Mexico. Mazamitla is
a mountain town about 2,200 metres high and 120 km south of Guadalajara. Mazamitla is a favourite vacation place for middle-upper class Tapatios (residents of Guadalajara) during the
summer and on weekends. Second to white sandy beaches (which are popular world-over), Mexicans love to relax in cabins with wood trim and wood decks, surrounded by forests.
I wonder if the desire for a particular vacation destination reflects elements that are uncommon
where people usually live. Much of Mexico is hot and dry, the remaining forests are shrinking in size, and the cities are polluted and full of people. So people seek out temperate pine forests in
mountain areas. Wood is expensive here and an uncommon building material, so wood cabins are a touch of the exotic.
Canadians flock to Mexico during the winter, leaving behind the bone-chilling cold for a warm, dry, sunny climate, with a touch of the exotic – Mexican culture and food.
Many Mexicans, if they can afford it, like to holiday in Canada and Europe. The snow, cold, rocky
mountains and clean cities are so different and exciting.
New Zealanders like to head to Australia or Southeast Asia for big-city excitement and shopping, or
the Pacific Islands to escape the damp chill of winter. For many kiwis, lying on a beach and snorkelling on a coral reef for a few days sounds very appealing.
The grass is usually greener on the other side when vacationing, but probably only because it is
different than the usual and slightly exotic. The number of people who decide to move permanently to the "other side of the fence" is much lower. "A change is as good as a holiday" is the saying – "a
holiday is as good as the change it gives" also appears to be true.
27 July, 2009
It was new, it was scary, it was somewhere, it was everywhere. No-one had it, lots of people had it,
it was deadly, it was harmless. The media wet their pants over it, the media lost interest over it. What on earth happened to the swine flu?
It certainly hasn't disappeared. Ironically enough for a so-called "Mexican Flu", I've been passed over while my young brother in Wellington was hit.
The short answer is that it's still spreading out of control across the world. But it doesn't seem to be any more deadly than other flu strains that crop up every winter.
Here in Mexico, the southern states are reporting a surge of H1N1 flu cases. Jalisco (my state) has 802 cases, with five reported deaths. For a state with almost 7 million people, that's not many -
even when you include estimated unreported cases.
Countries like Great Britain and Australia seem to have it much tougher. 100,000 people were
infected just last week (as of 23 July) in England, double the week before. When winter hits, the numbers are expected to jump again.
As the WHO (World Health Organisation) predicted, travel bans to/from Mexico were a waste of time. Yet the Mexican tourist locales like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Acapulco were still
hammered by the fear of the flu - even though there were no flu cases in those areas.
The WHO has given up trying to count cases. They reckon that the virus has now hit 160 countries
and could infect 2 billion people in the next two years. All they can do now is give advice and encourage vaccination.
So was the swine flu overhyped? Probably. It certainly generated a lot of advertising income from media coverage.
What SHOULD we be worried about? Stephen Hawking believes that the two biggest threats to humankind are climate change, and a virus genetically modified by terrorists that has no human
immune response. On climate change, the bumbling, inept moves of the current New Zealand government is an example of how most of the world is failing to take heed of this clear and present
danger. And the GM virus threat seems to be relegated to the realm of B-grade movies.
For readers who will be infected by this flu over the next two years, keep warm, rested and
hydrated. But don't worry too much - chances are, you'll be ok.
8 July, 2009
Time Zone Refresh Part 1
Okay, an admission first up - I dislike time zone allocations in many countries around the world. Not
because I disagree with the cultural, economic and historic reasons for the variances, but because I like human allocation of hours to be as close as practicable to actual sunlight hours. Keeps us
closer to the natural rhythms of the world: summer winter, sunrise sunset. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun should rise at 6 am, reach its zenith at midday, and set at 6 pm.
Here at Guadalajara in Jalisco State, Mexico, the sun rises at about 7:30 am and sets about 8:30 pm - 13 hours at this time of year. Waking up at 6 am in pitch-darkness in the middle of summer
throws me a bit. Why are the daylight hours so late? One - because Guadalajara is in the wrong time zone. Two - because Guadalajara has "daylight savings time" (moving sunlight one hour
forward during the winter).
If it were up to me, states could only implement daylight savings (assuming they wanted to) if they
are not in the Tropics. I.e. if they are north of the Tropic of Cancer or south of the Tropic of Capricorn. In the Tropics, sunshine hours don't vary significantly from summer to winter, so why
bother with daylight savings?
Here's my Time Zone Refresh for Mexico, aligning states to more appropriate longitudinal-based time zones from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
1. The western states have their time zones correct: Baja California Norte = Pacific Time (-8 GMT). Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa, Narayit = Mountain Time (-7 GMT).
2. The states from Veracruz and Oaxaca eastwards have their time zones correct = Central Time (-6 GMT).
3. All remaining states should switch their time zones from Central Time to Mountain Time.
4. Daylight savings should only be used, if the citizens want it, in the following states: Baja California Norte, Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila.
In some future posts, I may turn my purifying stare at other parts of the world that I reckon need a Time Zone Refresh.
21 June 2009
The Bible Bulls-Eye
I'd heard a lot about the Bible Belt in the United States. The Bible Belt is a catch-phrase for an area where conservative evangelical Christianity is the predominant culture.
But I never knew where in the States it was exactly. It didn't help that people from many different
states claimed to be part of this "Bible Belt". "Dallas is the buckle of the Bible Belt." "Nebraska -
smack bang in the the middle of the Bible Belt." "Fresno's in the western Bible Belt." And so on.
Wikipedia suggests that the Bible Belt is synchronous with the traditional 'South', from Texas to North Carolina and southwards, excluding certain cities. They base this on the location of
traditional Anglican and religious revival movements. This is a good starting point, but I wanted to get more specific.
A small piece of inspiration came to me one day when I read an article linked from the Gay Christian Network
, called "Will Iowans Uphold Gay Marriage?"
The article's author built a statistical model to predict whether a gay marriage ban would pass by 50% or more in any particular US state. 30 real-world instances were used for the model; when
states attempted to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage by voter initiative.
It turns out that only three variables were needed to predict opposition to gay marriage in a US state:
1. The year in question.
2. The % of adults in the state who say that religion is an important part of their daily lives (by Gallup survey).
3. The % of white evangelicals in the state.
Looking at these variables, and given that gay marriage is the latest battle front-line for conservative evangelicals, I wondered if the model's results could be translated into a
demonstration of the Bible Belt on a USA map.
States that are predicted to reject a gay marriage ban earliest I color-coded blue; those that were
predicted to reject a gay marriage ban latest I color-coded red. Those in-between were color-coded between these two colors.
This is what came out:
My hypothesis ended up fitting remarkably well. Even where the lines are drawn across states
makes sense for the most part, for example: Chicago is more liberal than southern Illinois; the western mountains of Montana and Idaho are more liberal than the eastern plains.
A glance at this map shows that the "Bible Belt" is actually more like a "Bible Bulls-eye". The bulls-eye, the centre of conservative evangelical culture, is the states of Mississippi, Alabama,
Tennessee and Arkansas. The further away from these states you go, the less "conservative Christian" your culture is.
Of course this is a very general rule. There are some liberal cities within conservative states, and vice versa. And the glaring exception to the bulls-eye model is Colorado. As the centre of Focus on
the Family ministries, I expected Colorado to be more conservative Christian than it is. Perhaps all those skiing tourists and nature-lovers have too much of a heathen influence.
It saddens me somewhat to realise that the main source of opposition to gay marriage is religious folk, especially white evangelicals like myself. But as progress on other front-line issues such as
slavery, sexism and racism took time to work their changes into the Bible Bulls-eye culture, I hope that GLBT rights will also infiltrate the culture in all states, starting from New England and the West
Coast into the very heart of the Bible Bulls-eye.
10 June 2009
Whatever happened to the new Auckland Harbour Bridge?
This post is likely to have little relevance to those not from New Zealand. Don't worry - the next will
be based in the U.S.A. A consequence of my recent cosmopolitan history.
For those not from New Zealand, Auckland's harbour bridge is the main road conduit joining North
Auckland and Northland to Auckland's CBD and the rest of New Zealand.
As a large structure in the middle of New Zealand's largest city, it's a kiwi landmark. Equal in
stature to the newer Sky Tower and the much older One Tree Hill. The Bridge is about 1 km long, with the highest point of the road 43 m above the Waitemata Harbour.
Despite its landmark status, the Bridge isn't particularly pretty. It's a poor cousin to the Harbour Bridge across the Tasman Sea in Sydney.
The Bridge was built in the 1950s, and right from the start short-sighted decisions were made. The
bridge only had four lanes, with no footpath or cycleway, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to board a boat or travel 50 km around the harbour. The Golden Gate Bridge it was not.
Only 10 years later, traffic across the bridge was three times forecast, causing massive traffic jams. The Japanese came to the rescue with two clip-on lanes on each side. They were nicknamed the
The clip-ons now only barely cope with the load of traffic placed on the bridge during rush hour, and
the lanes are scarily narrow when being squashed between a bus and a truck on either side. From this the clip-ons now have structural problems needing constant maintenance.
Recently, Aucklanders have been suggesting many different alternatives to these problems. These alternatives include a parallel bridge, a new bridge nearby, a tunnel, multiple tunnels, and replacing
the bridge altogether.
The decision-making process now has new leaders. A new National (right-wing) government is in
charge, and the current mash of local government in Auckland is being reshaped into a super-city governance structure. These changes give much more power and decision-making priority to a
handful of politicians. I'm playing the optimist and hoping it leads to more proactive, visionary decisions. It will depend who the players are.
The Transport Minister is still um-ing and ah-ing about whether to build a new crossing. The latest consultant team to think about the issue recommended four bored tunnels - two 3-lane tunnels for
freeway traffic and two for electric trains. The existing Bridge would carry local traffic and have a cycleway and walkway across it. All this would cost up to $4.1 billion.
This is a sensible solution, albeit expensive, which will probably prove its undoing. Given Auckland's historic short-sightedness, the politicians of the time will probably remove the public
transport part and just build one chunky tunnel to lug more cars into and out of the Auckland Isthmus.
But the existing bridge will remain. Probably without the clip-ons, removed to reduce expense.
Auckland will be stuck with a black skeletal ramp across their very pretty harbour.
The New Zealand Herald published an alternative last year. A team of architects and engineers
designed an elegant arching structure spanning Waitemata Harbour between Wynyard Pt near the Tank Farm on the waterfront and Onewa Rd in Northcote.
It features a giant angled pylon supporting a splay of cables in the shape of a sail. This radical
design reflects, in an abstract-art sort of way, Auckland's nautical history. And it looks like an "A" from the side.
It could carry cars, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and possibly even light rail carriages given its lower gradient.
An added benefit is that this bridge, one and a half times longer than the existing one, would free up prime coastal land. The sale of this land would pay most of the bridge's costs. Westhaven could
be restored as a sandy beach for the public.
It'd be a piece of world-class architecture to frame the Waitemata Harbour and give Auckland an icon to rival the Sydney Harbour bridge.
But soon after the concept was proposed, it died for lack of attention. This seems to be an incessant problem of Auckland's politicians, both national and local. They talk lots about having
"vision" and making Auckland a "world-class city", but in action whatever vision they have is usually frittered on removing beloved public artworks and renovating their offices.
Even when a good idea is actually adopted, such as Vector Arena, blunders are still made, like hiding the Arena near an industrial sector with no visual prominence from afar.
Where to from here? A lot depends on the big political players poised to take an oligarchical hold on Auckland, such as Rodney Hide, John Banks, and Paul Holmes. If this new Harbour Bridge
could capture their imaginations enough to extend their horizons, Auckland could finally get the magnificent bridge structure it deserves, a stunning complement to the Sky Tower above.
But I'm not holding my breath.
3 June 2009
This'll be my second go at a blog. I wrote one fairly regularly in 2005-06 - it can still be found at www.watchofgryphons.blogspot.com. It lasted about 8 months. (Let's see if this one lasts longer!)
The Watch of Gryphons blog was a mix of my experiences, ideas about life, and outspoken thoughts on current issues.
My AndrewandDave blog is going to be a bit different. I'll focus on new concepts and ideas, as well as giving my 20 cents worth on topics lucky enough to catch my attention. I can't promise regular
posting - posts will appear as they come to me and as I have time.
So please read on! I hope you enjoy my blog entries and that they catch your interest. I would like
to get a comments option up here too, to generate a discussion every once in a while or even just some smart-alec remarks.
A small caution - I want to play around a bit with the structure of this website to learn more about html etc. So if things get screwy for a while, my apologies in advance.