Tkasbira lil Malta

Tkasbira

With apologies to those non-Maltese who come across this. All Maltese will recognise the poem I am parodying here… a tribute to our island home from the 19th century. A sad updating of reality.

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Wherefore distance education in the digital age?

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Right now I’m happy to be part of a very well attended conference on digital literacies, organised by the indefatigable Alex Grech. There are a lot of high-flying educators and instructional technologists telling us about the future. Well, the present, which sounds a lot like the future defined by science fiction writers. We live in a time when there is no definition of the future that can amaze us. We are already there.

It is taken for granted, this late in the day, many years after Michael Moore and the rest of the pioneers dared to go distant with their courses, eventually moving online as the natural progression of all things digital, that this is the way to go. Speakers are talking about digital strategies, MOOCS, online course development, VLEs and all those other buzz words so staple to the world of technologically aided education. All massively interesting. All reiterating the fact that the classroom is potentially over-rated as the arena in which teaching and learning happen. Many years ago I had been hotly contended by educators when I presented my paper called “Tolling Bell for Institutions” at a conference (expanded and published later as “Hypertextual Processing and Institutional Change”) in which I discussed the change happening to students because of immersion in technologies that are growing much faster than we can map them. And definitely much faster than the traditionally slow moving education sector can keep up with and counter… or at least work with, understanding, adopting, adapting and moving in directions that are more in tune with the spiral of incidental acquisition that omnipresent, and particularly mobile, technologies offer.

I don’t think it’s even a question whether we should use online channels to teach our courses. Of course we should. There are tricks to e-learning, of course, and anybody who tries to teach online in the same way that he or she teaches in class will come a cropper. It’s a different methodology altogether, specialist and needing the understanding of all the tools available in virtual learning environments. The method allows students geographical and time flexibility. It permits them access to minds that would otherwise have been denied them. It gives the possibility of synchronous and asynchronous resources that permit interaction… often more liberated in context than the daunting one permitted by actual presence… and that can be accessed at all times.

I did rock the boat a little during the first session of the conference yesterday, and was probably considered a retrograde by many in the hall when I suggested we can’t abandon the face-to-face approach in a country that is a sea-locked minuscule enclave in which people bump into each other whether they want to or not. That research needs to be done within this unique context to understand which is the better way to actually teach our students. Or at least to understand to what degree each is effective with regards to teaching outcome results. I was not being UNtechnological when I said that. Anybody who knows me knows where my mind lies in this domain (firmly IN the technological… for those who don’t know me). I was actually reacting to the fact that it seems to be the fashion to go the digital technological way, ignoring the fact that a more rudimentary approach to education might actually be a useful alternative within the special context of students able to congregate in person after a short bus ride.

Yes, face-to-face does not take into consideration all the ramifications of the international context. Yes, that eliminates their exposure to different takes instigated by cultures present through online facilitation. Yes, that restricts the input to what is available locally. So if that were to be what is to be considered, then there is nothing that beats online courses. But I do sometimes think back to the time an uncle of mine… a bit of a self-professed handyman… who had bought an extremely elaborate tool onlne and because he had it he wanted to use it all the time. It took him ages to hammer in a nail with that tool, but he had it and of course that was what was best for this, forgetting that a simple, traditional hammer could have done the job better and in half the time.

No, not decrying in any way digital literacies infusing online education. That’s a revolution that has left enormous effect world wide. An enormous movement that has been studied and mapped, evaluated, modified and honed to almost perfection. I just refute that they are the only future.

For one, I often think in terms of motivation. That is at the core of success in anything, really, but definitely in education. Unmotivated students are sluggish and only get to the finishing line limping and crawling. This is very true in traditional, face-to-face teaching and learning. We were told, way back at the beginning, that interacting online would change all that. It would generate the motivation that might have been lacking in the lethargic student. Because young people, particularly, like computers and will, of course, like learning using computers.

Only that didn’t happen. The allure of the technology sort of falls by the wayside when courses are formalised and, at least in spirit if not in form, simulate those same courses given in the classroom. When there is a rigid, summative accreditation imposed (because that seems to be the only way universities can give grades) and a time frame within which a course needs to be followed.

This is were (the so-called disruptive) MOOCS excel. They can be followed informally. They can move to the rhythm of the student’s own life. There is little to no accreditation on offer (just enough to motivate the lazier), and the incredible number of takers gives ample possibility for peer interaction across the board. Wonderful that they were taken on board by so many institutions.

But courses duly delivered on the institutionally adopted VLE leave me quite cold. Yes, the blended sort create an element of excitement because of diversity, though the concept also limits participation. I’m referring to straight, online delivery. Formalised modules. Using the tools available because they’re there. In many cases unimaginatively created by instructional technologists whose onus is technical, not creative. Of course there are exceptions. Of course there are brilliant units that are cutting edge in creativity, that go the extra mile and really engage. But, I might be going on a limb when I say that I believe  that this is not the norm. The norm is often unmotivated, done because it’s expected. Because it’s “the way forward”.

Cynical? Maybe. But if you’re making do without the style that good lecturers bring to face-to-face, then creativity in the style adopted online is indispensable. And, no… I’m not ignoring that there are also dud face-to-face lecturers. They exist in abundance. I’m not going tit-for-tat, here. I’m talking about the reality that in both modes of delivery there are the flops, and the fact that one of those is delivered through digital technology does not save it. I know I’m squeezing the massive reach of digital technologies online to simple form, but for me that is indispensable and can easily be damning! I find clunkiness in navigation daunting. I get quickly impatient with long paths created by rote till the crunch of the pedagogy is reached.

And I’m not the only one going that route. There can be no doubt that immersed users of the internet have become progressively more economical in their attention span. Only bytes do. A news item needs to be two hundred words or less, preferably constricting the inverted pyramid to the gist into the title, not even in the intro paragraph. Hypertextual surfing has become manic. Linearity has, of course, long gone out the window, even in linear hypertext clicking. With surfing often happening on the small screen of a mobile, with websites becoming responsive (or dying) and content losing ground to monitor space, wherefore the VLE interfaces used extensively by so many institutions?

I have always been fascinated by the way the information generation absorbs random snippets of information, often latticed into a web of seemingly unconnected, difficult to retrieve mass of “knowledge” that is quite useless in application. It’s incidental acquisition facilitated by the ease with which information can be accessed and fueled by the natural curiosity of the young. It is predominantly useless because the skills for synthesis are missing, and education tends to ignore the need for such skill giving… the finding of ways to get to the nodes of knowledge and to create a kernel of synopsis.

This ever-growing core of young people is often disenchanted with all forms of formal education, online and off. They thrive on social media. They chat in abbreviative language and live in the internet fast lane. I have missed this really interesting, massively well informed conference touching on the role social media can play in educational practice (for example) – on how what has essentially been social can be rerouted to delivery of informal educational processes (both procedural and declarative). Embracing a form that is motivational per se, retaining the social underpinning and voluntary uptake that makes for that motivation, and take it from there.

Along with, I have no doubt, many others, I see incidental, informal acquisition as one of the ways forward. Educators need to understand the tools available to them (even if they are not essentially made for that) to access this massive group that could easily become part of a lost generation.

I think it’s time for another book.

On why David Bowie’s death affected me…

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And Ziggy played guitar!

And the world was never the same again. Well… not the popular cultural world, anyway. That world I grew up in… beginning with the twelve year old me interacting with a white plastic and blue “leather” transistor radio, emoting with the fantasies created by a singer who pushed himself out of the norm. I even remember requesting “Life on Mars” on the BBC World Service Pop Club a couple of years later (and got the badge to prove it).

It’s been a year since his death, but I’ve been struggling to answer a very simple question. Why did the death of David Bowie affect me so much? I’ve asked myself that over and over again, and up to a bit ago had no solid answer. I mean, I liked his work, sure… one hell of a lot, but I was prog while he was glam. My friend Joe used to rave about his work. I was luke warm. Loved some of it to bits, was left quite cold by others. But a few years later it grew on me. In my late twenties, when I started being a lot more discerning about the music that affected me, Bowie crept under my skin and, true to the chameleon that he was, fit into every nook and cranny of my existence.

I’ve just finished watching the excellent documentary shown for the first time a few days ago on BBC 2, “David Bowie – the last five years”… an in-depth look at what made him go back to music, and his frenetic rush to the all-too-sad finishing post, creating feverishly every step of the way. And the question I’d been asking started answering itself.

It’s all in the art. Bowie wasn’t pop. He wasn’t even rock. He was an artist. Full stop. Yes, an artist whose prime matter was rock (and at times even pop), but he lived life manifesting an intelligent passion into crafted artworks that we bought, back then, on vinyl, and which we can even now play over and over and still be thrilled.

It’s a thrill that permeats the being. An intrinsic feeling of oneness with the artist and his many personas. But how the hell can one emote with a fictional alien guitarist with a red and blue lightning bolt on his face? Obviously, we could, and still do. Those early riffs play at the back of our heads even when they’re not being listened to. That introduction to Ziggy Stardust is as memorable to my generation as the first few notes of Beethoven’s fifth are to those whose music is richer in tradition. Up there with Blackmore’s base in Smoke, and Page’s solo on Stairway. Yet, more raucous… less virtuous, but nonetheless a digger… deep into the very heart and soul of a young man who’s mind was often beset by struggles with existential angst.

Bowie was a showman. He was an actor and a writer. He was a musician and a philosopher. He understood the times he lived in and indelibly ingrained them in his productions. From the recurring Major Tom, lost in a dream of space, to suffragete city and drive-ins. He rocked the house with howling diamond dogs, and cried from sorrow, while postulating the significance of fame and of being a hero (just for one day).

And he changed. Every time. He moved from one persona to another, shifting his music to the tempo of the era and the generation, his image projecting him into the lives of one more group of music lovers for whom he provided a sound track for growing up.

His assertion that fame was a means to achieving artistic ends… a facilitator, rather than as a means in itself, as it is for so many who have very little to contribute to culture, says a lot about the man.

He is a lazarus, as his last great feat in music will have us believe… but he’s that in all but one very essential trait. Lazarus died to rise again. Bowie never died. His poetry and song still live and are a continuous manifestation of his artistic greatness. The sadness lies in that there will be no more of those. That this is all we’ve got.

In which case we are indeed lucky that what we’ve got is brilliant.

The fearless master of the visual jab: The cartoons of Ali Ferzat

The horrendous story of how Sakharov Prize laureate Ali Ferzat was beaten up and had his hands broken by thugs working on behalf of the Al Assad regime is very well known, as are his outstanding cartoons. The man himself potentially less so.

I was honoured to get to know him on his short visit to our islands in November, organised by the European Parliament Information Office in Malta, and what I got to know of him was wonderful. A man who laughs out loud at jokes that tickle his fancy, loves life, but does not fear death if it means compromising on his beliefs. A man who believes in the power of satirical images, and how they can bring people together.

I was invited by the organisers of his visit to meet with Ali Ferzat up close a number of times while he was in Malta, and we had time for some long conversations. In the main, the talk was about Syria and the dire situation there, with political powers from around the world contributing directly to the nature of the war that is destroying the lives of the common Syrians. This was also the main topic of the well received talk he gave at University on November 19.

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Ali Ferzat talking about cartoons with Ġorġ Mallia (photo by Marie Louise Kold)

Because I had been introduced to him as a cartoonist, we also talked about the techniques he uses for his cartoons. I asked him if he uses a computer to draw, colour or enhance his witty, satirical takes on the tyranny he despises, but he was aghast at the thought.

“You cannot get the passion across if you use a computer,” he said vehemently. And then added, with a smile: “It’s like kissing a woman through a pane of glass.”

An apt image indeed, and it sums up what Ali Ferzat is all about. He is hands-on, passion incarnate. It is little wonder that it was those same hands that were broken by those who wanted him silenced. But his belief in being present, right there, signing his name and saying it directly (ironically, by means of the inference that is at the base of socio-political cartoons) got him through that, and through all other threats (not least from ISIS themselves).

At one point he took out two felt markers from his jacket pocket, one medium, one thick. “I use these,” he said. “And whatever else comes to hand.” And went on to show me by making a quick sketch, there and then, standing up and resting a blank piece of paper on a copy of The Times.

Basically, what he was saying was that the tools do not entirely matter. The skill of the cartoonist does. His ability to suss out a situation that can then be ridiculed by means of his razor wit, or portrayed in ways that will definitely stick in the mind of whoever sees it.

The objective of this piece is to select a few random Ali Ferzat cartoons and look at them with the intention of understanding how he works technically, and what his wit dictates, all of this against the background of what he said to me personally and in public during his Malta visit.

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I’m beginning with one that’s close to home, and has nothing to do with the war in Syria. Lots of tall buildings in the background, and cut trees bundled in a trash can in the foreground. The juxtaposition of both is where the crux of the comment is. The “trees” are actually branches, and what we see would barely fit in a fraction of the ground on which just one of the buildings is built, but the branches symbolise the whole, and their presence in the foreground, destroyed and discarded, overwhelms the senses, with the backdrop providing cause and suggesting disgust at the artificial replacing the natural. The line work is rough and even untidy at times, but the portrayal of the elements is perfect. His feathering on the branches and the tight crosshatch on the dustbin provide the necessary shading that makes the elements in the foreground stand out, pointing out the death of beauty, replaced by the ugliness of man-made things.

In his talk at the University of Malta, Ali Ferzat stated an unequivocal opinion that Russia was aiding and abetting Syrian President Bassar al-Assad, and he went on to accuse Russia of a number of oppressive actions of war. So a despotic Russia figures quite often in his cartoons.

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Ferzat’s ability to portray the human figure, morphed into whatever strikes his fancy, can be seen throughout the thousands of images he has produced. Russia is a dour-faced general, wearing a military hat, striding forward holding up a delicate olive branch. But the military figure is also a bomb, the fins substituting for pant legs, with shoes indicating a marching soldier, and the sleek body of the bomb replaces the dark-coated body of the soldier. The bomb/body is huge and dominates the mid-ground of the cartoon, framed contrastively against white and a light orange (the smoke of war?). It overwhelms entirely the olive branch, which, though held up front, is contradicted and negated by the rest of the image. An incredible denouncement of the hypocrisy of international politics that are used as an excuse for oppression. The pen stroke is clean for the face, olive branch and hand, but necessarily harsh and rough for the bomb, though the yellow-green-blue of the outline provides a sheen that emphasises the sleekness of the weapon, its intended use, and its ramifications.

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Another of Ali Ferzat’s attacks was on the media and the way they pervert the truth about Syria and what is causing the war there. A brilliant cartoon defines the media as he sees it… a dark forest made of microphones instead of trees, all of them pointing the same way, while multicoloured arrows all point in different directions, as a small man with a large question mark over his head crawls among them, lost and unable to find his way out. I’m not sure whether the word “Syria” was added for the English dissemination of the cartoon, but it adds clarity regarding who the figure is. Syria is lost in a jungle of media comments, all of which point away from it, but which communicate conflicting messages about it. The portrayal of the microphones as each being different from the other infers that not just one media outlet spreads the misinformation, but many and they come from different countries and institutions. The roughness of the feathering on the microphone stems, the darkness portrayed as a cloud on which they rest, and the hulking silhouettes that provide a backdrop of more microphones, make for a denseness that conjectures impossibility of penetration. It is little wonder that the figure lost among the “stalks” has the question mark over his head.

4-lift

The United Nations’ plan of peace for Syria and the way it has been ignored irritates Ferzat massively. It is clear from the cartoon where a soldier is using the lift while the man brokering peace is taking the stairs that outright war has been given an advantage over the possibility of any sort of peace agreement. The visual allegory that is at the core of all the best socio-political cartoons is clearly evident in this one. The soldier and the lift are centred in the foreground, the peace broker sidelined on the right, the stairs disappearing behind the lift that will obviously get to the destination a lot quicker. The soldier is in full combat gear, drawn in Ferzat’s signature economy of line style which, however, is heavily toned with dark blocks and feathered softeners. The peace broker looks at the soldier, but still walks slowly up the stairs (one can tell from the position of the legs and the posture of the whole figure). The image continues to stand out because all the action happens in the lower half of the drawing, with the rest taken up by (at least part of) the distance to be travelled… fast by one and very slowly by the other.

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Ali Ferzat’s former friend and, eventually, most bitter enemy, Bassar al-Assad, is often the butt of his savage, visual jabs. He thinks of al-Assad as a traitor to the intellectual class, and, of course, to the whole of Syria and its people. Al-Assad is almost always drawn as a thin, tall figure, with jutting out ears and an elongated neck that includes a non-existent chin area (“He’s ugly!”, said Ali Ferzat about him during his University talk). Ferzat draws him in contexts that indicate what al-Assad thinks of himself, for example framed in an ornate, baroque casing that shows he considers himself to be great. The podium to the right tells us the General is about to give a talk, but the audience is being assembled from cutouts, brainless, opinion less, and with no character at all. Al-Assad wants only his voice to be heard, and for it to be heard only by those who will say yes to him (or in any case, not “no”). Ferzat uses a tight cross-hatching to create contrast between the floor and the cutouts, that are all the same and lie in a muddled heap on each other. The army official putting them on the chairs has only placed one so far, but the inference is that the whole hall will be taken up by the cutouts. The fact that they are in a box (nicely labeled and with a “this side up” indicator) shows that they’re stored away in between speeches, and brought out for the occasion. This is Ferzat’s denouncement of all those who support al-Assad, and, even more than that, it is clearly his denigration of a man who had once hypocritically given the impression that he supported intelligent dissent, only to then brutally suppress it.

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In fact, the “grandeur” with which al-Assad perceives himself is spelt out in the cartoon where his tiny, caricatured figure is being reflected in a gigantic mirror, arms bent upwards to indicate mighty muscles. The detail on the General’s uniform and on the actual mirror itself, along with the black blocking and feathering that give a rounded, three-dimensionality to the figure, are all signature elements of Ferzat’s drawing styles, as is the roughness of the cross hatching, intended solely to create depth and illusion of size.

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The need of the regime in Syria for brainless support and stopping at source dissenting ideas, can be seen clearly depicted in the cartoon in which a customs officer not only checks the traveller’s bag as it lies on the conveyor belt, but also makes sure that there is nothing in the brain of its owner. Again, Ali Ferzat resorts to one of the staple weapons of cartoon art, a visual, metaphoric interpretation of an abstract concept – the realistic portrayal of the skull being lifted like the lid off an empty box, and the sheepish look on the “brainless” man’s face, countered by the stern look on that of the official, pretty much speak for themselves. The traveller is stooped forward in an abject servile posture, while the official is rigidly bent, showing him to be the superior of the two. The simplicity of what is shown in the image, and the fact that only what is needed is there and in the foreground, along with the black blocking of the figures for the sake of contrast (there is no drawn background) make the full figures pop and the message all the more poignant.

8-fighting

One final cartoon I’ve chosen from the almost 15,000 produced by Ali Ferzat to date defines the man’s anger at how the majority of people are being used by the few who have the money and the power to manipulate everybody else. The two, well dressed, grimly smiling men shaking hands with each other, sit on the shoulders of tattily dressed, barefoot figures who fight each other brutally. Wars are being fought on behalf of prime-movers who sit back as destruction ensues. The sheer dynamism created by the white, dotted and dashed lines indicating movement, the clear representation of status by means of clothes worn, and the brutality in the facial expression of the fighting men, make this an incredibly powerful cartoon. There are only the four full figures, up front and in the face of the reader, heavily rendered in black against a stark white backdrop. The men on top ignore the figures they are piggy-backing, and just look at each other and smile, knowing that in the end, whatever happens to the fighters, they will both win.

Ali Ferzat knows well the power of cartoons, and his is the skill to portray visually what can only be described as a spitting in the face of despotic authority. This is done both in those cartoons that symbolically refer to figures that represent stereotypes, predominantly used before his fall-out with al-Assad, and after that, even more so in his direct attack on those who were and are destroying his native land. It is fair to say that not even broken hands can stop this man from using his images to inspire dissent, underscore injustice, but at the same time spread his message of love as a weapon against hate. It is little wonder he has been named as one of the most influential figures in the world. The medium of cartooning deserves that. As does the man who masterfully uses the medium in this best of all ways.

This article was published in The Sunday Times‘s cultural supplement Escape on November 27, 2016.

Half the man I used to be

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On the left, me in a group photo in July 2014 and on the right, me again, in July 2016… minus sixteen kilos. Marie Louise (gorgeously) remains the same in both cases.

Of late, I’ve got used to people who have not met me for a while looking me up and down, with the more daring saying “Gosh you’ve lost an enormous amount of weight!” with the implied hope that I’m ok.

I am very much ok, in spite of my usual chronic conditions! The weight loss was intentional, took a bit of time and a lot of will power, and it worked. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, since the logical next question by those daring ones is, “how did you do it?”

OK, first off… I did not lose an enormous amount of weight. I lost 16 kg, which, given my height is, I suppose, quite substantial. I got rid of about 18% of my body weight.

I had got to 91 kg, and my health was suffering. I’m severely asthmatic and have been suffering from hypertension most of my life. Apart from that, walking long distances (which I love) was becoming a series of aches and pains in ankles and knees. So something obviously needed doing. My weight has been inconstant all my life. I balloon at times and manage to slim down at others, but since I turned forty (eighteen years ago) losing the extra kilos became damned difficult.

I do work out whenever my health allows it, but am not a great believer in diets. They are daunting and once you’re psychologically damaged by them, there’s no way they’re going to help you lose weight. Transgression becomes a form of protest, and that’s that.

So I knew I had to go the personalised way. I had to suss out what I was doing wrong and cut down on that. And I knew straight off that my worst sin was chocolate. I don’t eat mounds of it, and only as dessert, but one square is never enough, nor, once I get started, are four or five. I don’t particularly like cakes, but on frequent birthday bashes at the office, I’ve been known to wolf down large chunks of the stuff, and often go for more. So sugar had to go. I bring 70% cocoa slims with me down to Malta from Sweden (the Marabou ones are to die for) and started having half of one (c. 5 gm) at the end of every meal. And that was the only added sugar I had all day. Well… except for my habitual, relaxing whiskey in the evenings, which I decided to keep.

Breakfast has always been a mix of sugar-free cereals and milk, with one day a week allocated for toast with pålægschokolade (very thin Danish breakfast chocolate… a total yum!), and I retained that. The latter being a reward for the former.

Bread is also something I love. I eat it with everything, and I decided not to cut out bread entirely, but to cut down drastically, so that lunches often became four or five Finn Crisp slims with cheese. I only ever drink water with meals, so there was nothing to cut down there.

I still wanted to have my habitual, cooked evening meal… but here, volume was the main kilogram culprit. So I started getting volume down to about 70% of what I used to have before. Sometimes more. Sometimes a bit less. And also broke the habit of a lifetime of always finishing what was on my plate, regardless of how full I felt.

And then there was the secret ingredient. A hyperactive conscience that screamed at me at  every transgression. It still does, though I reached my target (and slightly beyond … 74.5 kg) a few weeks ago. It took me a year and a half to get there. I lost between .3 and .5 of a kilogram a week, with the occasional increase of roughly the same, which then had to be made up for. I now hover around the 75 kg mark, give or take a kilo here and there (more often give than take, alas!)

My conscience will make sure I stick with this weight, though my frequent travels do mean I and/or my partner Marie Louise are not always in complete control of the calories. But I’m very very careful. It was hard work, in spite of the simplicity of the lifestyle change, and it still is, and will be forever. The worst enemy is complacency, or the giving up when a plateau hits – was damnably stuck at 78 kg for weeks! I’ve seen too many people go that route. I’ll also work out whenever I get the chance… hopefully c. three times a week to try and tone the remaining flab.

So, there you go. Not quite a formal diet. More of a permanent lifestyle tweak, and a massive stoking of a nasty conscience that’s really quite a monster. Oh, and having someone (in my case ML) to keep track of gains and losses is also very useful. I knew my weight loss was pleasing her. She was worried about my health. So that too is excellent motivation. She kept a graph of my weekly weighings, and when I thought things were moving too slowly, she could encouragingly point out a clear – even if not fast – downward trend.

Admittedly, writing this is part of the process. If I ever balloon again, I’m hoping many of you who have read this will point at it and shake your heads with disappointment.

I intend to make sure you don’t have the opportunity to do it.

Tortured by the noise

What do Aztec warfare, South and North Korean clashes, the conflict in Northern Ireland, Guantanamo Bay and living in a Maltese town have in common?

In all cases there are instances of intense sound torture, a persistent, damaging loud noise that dominates the lives of individuals, overpowering their senses and damaging them to the point where the lifestyle of each goes to the dogs.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, our small flat is being assaulted on two sides by horrendous noise. Immediately behind us there’s a jackhammer, very slowly and agonisingly demolishing a gorgeous old townhouse to turn it into a tower of flats, the earsplitting metallic stuttering making us shout to be heard. In the meantime the flat shudders and vibrates every other second as in front of us, a metal monstrosity toc-toc-tocs incessantly from seven in the morning till seven at night, digging into the rock of a huge plot that used to be a factory, aided by a large electric shovel that reverberatingly piles the dug-up rocks into the back of a truck. Every day. Six (sometimes seven) days a week. Assaulting every sense, flooding my head with so much noise there is a persistent headache and a feeling of hopelessness that makes me want to run away. Except that, in Malta, there is nowhere to run away to from the persistent, loud noise.

Writing in Torture and Democracy about a 1971 instance of sound torture during the conflict in Northern Ireland, Darius Rejali has this to say about the effect of persistent noise on the prisoners. “Most men reported auditory hallucinations including church hymns, Sousa marches, an Italian tenor, protest poems, and a death service. […] Less attention has been paid [by the guards] to the not so dramatic effects of the tortures, including blurred vision, intense loss of sensation, and intense swelling of the ankles to almost twice normal size.” (p. 364)

There is rampant over-construction going on in Malta, uncontrolled for a very long time, but even worse now that MEPA has lost all sense of anything short of the politically instigated and is allowing everything everywhere. Because of this, normal Maltese people, living their daily lives in homes that should be their castles of relaxation, are exposed to continuous noise pollution This has seriously interfered with our well-being, causing us an irretrievable loss of rest and the undermining of a lifestyle we worked very hard to achieve.

But that’s not the only thing we’ve lost in the process. Peace of mind is absolutely necessary to the functioning of people who need to work for a living and who then need to recharge, otherwise they don’t function. The effect of the constant noise around us is also ruining our health.

According to S. K. Agarwal, in his 2009 book Noise Pollution, persistent noise can have an enormously negative effect on people. Selecting just a few effects from a never-ending list, I can mention: ill-temper, mental disorientation, loss of working efficiency, violent behaviour, and a lot of psychological and physiological disorders – neurosis, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension and even severe effects on foetuses in the case of pregnant women. All of this results in severe health consequences, which include: hearing damage, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, ear pain, burning of the skin, significant change in pulse rate, and prolonged exposure can cause insanity, ear drum ruptures and lung damage.

A 2011 Danish study by the University of Copenhagen’s Mette Sørensen and her colleagues terrifyingly showed that there is a direct relationship between the increase of noise and stroke.

I can continue quoting the literature ad nauseam. Everything says that noise is bad for you. Everything!

So why are the Maltese so apathetic to all of this? When I posted on a social network a sound recording of the horrendous noise that forms the backdrop to my daily life in my apartment (in spite of its double glazing), I got a lot of sympathetic noises, with some people actually telling me they’ve had to buy noise-filtering headphones, and others having to sleep with ear-plugs in, but nobody could suggest anything practical to stop this infernal intrusion into our daily lives. We accept it as if it’s a normal part of who we are. ‘The Maltese are a noisy race, what can we do?’ ‘There is nothing wrong with manically pealing bells being played through loudspeakers in the local belfry at 6.30 in the morning… it’s all part of our traditions!’ ‘The economy depends on the construction industry. They need to work, after all!’

But what about our own civil liberties? What about our own slice of happiness and the right to living a healthy life that is not corroded by someone else’s egotistic activity that ignores entirely the fact that there are those who will not benefit from any of the construction, but who are being severely hurt by the effects of it?

The EU demands that local authorities make action plans to reduce ambient noise, which categorically includes construction noises. In a number of directives, I have found reference to the fact that these authorities have the power to provide that conditions in relation to noise prevention or reduction be included in the planning permission at granting stage, and these are conditions that can apply to either the construction stage or the subsequent use of the building. Or both.

So why do the local authorities (read MEPA and local councils) ignore this? Yes, there might be lip service paid to noise abatement, but it is little more than that given the proof. What can a normal citizen, needing to rest in a home that should be a protector of health and sanity do to ascertain that there is no infringement to the right of the enjoyment of a lifestyle that is not deteriorated abysmally by others?

Our very existence is being threatened by the noise that seems to be increasing every day. Our authorities do not seem to care one whit about this. Maybe it is time for a citizen’s movement to rise and demand a right to sanity!

(Published in THE TIMES of MALTA on March 9, 2016)

JackHammerCartoon

When GO did not come!

go-guy

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions” (Aristotle, Poetics, c. 350 BCE, Book 6.2).

Think of this, then, as catharsis. Not sure there was ever fear, but please pity me my personal, 21st century induced tragedy. Think of this as the purgation of one frustrated client, letting off steam that has boiled and fumed so much, it might easily explode something, most likely my head.

This is a story of inexcusable inefficiency, underscored by incompetence and a lack of even the basic understanding of what makes professionalism. True, they compensated (a little) in the end, but the story remains one of avoidable mishaps.

A few facts first. I have a very poor internet connection. GO says it does not have the infrastructure to give me anything better than 4 gigabits, though I paid for a few years for a lot more without being informed of the fact. Even that ceiling is quite stretched and hardly ever reached, but I make do and live with the hope that the promise of a fiberoptic connection by the end of the year, made on the phone (not in writing) by a customer-care official, will actually materialise.

I am always online. Think of me as part of the wired (or is it wireless now?) generation that needs to be plugged into the universe to exist. I do a lot of work online, I have persistent correspondence (with my students, my colleagues abroad, with co-workers and others with whom I interact professionally, among others), I use the internet extensively for study, for awareness, and for research – both directly and indirectly. It also keeps me in touch with my much-missed partner, who right now happens to be abroad.

Please don’t think I’m exaggerating if I compare what the internet means to me, to the drip needed for life support of a hospital patient. Remove the drip and he might not die, but will be severely debilitated and terribly harmed.

So when I came back from a long stint abroad on Wednesday 16th September, very late at night, and found that what little internet I usually had was now intermittently switching itself off, my heart sank and I phoned GO customer care. I think it must have been one o’clock in the morning. Their 24 hour support service is to be commended. And I commend it. Which is one of the few good things I have to say about the company and its workers in this blog. It’s also manned (and womanned) by quite courteous people who really make an effort to help. There, I think I’ve exhausted any warmth I might have had left in their regard.

They said that my phone line, much maligned and very accident prone throughout its short life, was probably faulty. I phoned again the following day, when the intermittent interruptions continued, and it was confirmed that the line had pretty much had it, and a report lodged with technicians to work their magic and fix it. GO called me back a few days later to tell me that the magic would be worked on Tuesday early afternoon, when I was given an appointment with one of their technicians. My internet had come and gone a zillion times in the meantime, and though I was managing to work, it was in fits and starts, and the customer-care gentleman was really gentlemanly and offered me extra gigabytes of mobile internet that I could use to bolster my failing connection. I thanked him profusely and used his gift with relief.

But at one point, something happened and the hotspot I was using to link my computer to the phone suddenly stopped working. In any case, I still had internet about sixty percent of the time, though the phone line was now fizzing like an over-carbonated soft drink, so I made do.

The technician came a few hours early. He went up a long ladder to check the box on the façade from which my line emanated. He came into my study and dismantled the connection box here. He went up the ladder again. Then he went off in his van to check something while I took care of the ladder. He came back half an hour later and told me not to worry. He said it was a cable fault and said cheerfully it would be fixed by that afternoon. He came up to my study again, fitted the connection box back together and left.

I checked the line. It was totally silent. What had fizzed and crackled before was now as dead as a doornail, and with it, just as completely dead, was my intermittent internet.

I had an errand and actually ran into the technician, still sitting in his van, planning his next visit, and I reiterated with some vehemence my dependence on the internet and that he was absolutely (ABSOLUTELY) certain that the fault would be fixed by that afternoon. He said absolutely.

It’s amazing how some people can lie with so straight a face you don’t even begin to doubt the veracity of their words. We’re used to accepting the authority of those “who know what to do” when it comes to technical matters. And that’s what I did.

He was lying of course. Through his teeth. With a smile that obviously indicated he thought I was a gullible idiot. Which is entirely what I was at that point. I will be kind and think he believed it. But it’s more likely that I wanted to believe that I’d be connected to the world again soon, so, yes, I was a gullible idiot.

Not forever, though. The mistrust of the system nagged at me, and told me to phone customer care again at around half past three. And the gentlemen at the end of the line was flabbergasted when I told him that what my poor line had was a cable fault and that I had been (categorically) told that it would be fixed that afternoon.

“Let me check, sir,” he said, and something tremulous in his voice told me I’d been had. That’s when the first gushes of red flashed before my eyes. They were to continue doing so in greater volumes over the next hours and days.

He hemmed and he hawed and he told me that a cable fault takes … erm… days to fix, possibly… erm… many days. He became more flustered as I became more distressed. And I did something I never do. I raised my voice. Shouted at the messenger because I could not throttle the person who had lied to me so blatantly. It wasn’t fair on him, but at that point GO (and he represented GO) was not being fair on me.

He offered me more mobile gigs, but I said I had a hotspot problem, so he offered me an internet key, and I said yes, but how? And he phoned their Birkirkara outlet, and their Bay Street outlet (since they were closest to Msida, where I live), but no joy. Only the Naxxar outlet had one, but I had to collect it. And it was a quarter to four and I had a meeting at University at five. And I told him so. And I said I would go there and then and would he tell them to have it ready so I could take it and run, please? And he said “certainly, sir”.

And he was lying too!

I lived through the drive to Naxxar in rush hour (in MALTA) by the skin of my teeth (and tires), parked in front of a garage, and dashed into the outlet at a quarter past four, and I told my story to the security guard, and she went to talk to the supervisor and came back and told me I had to wait in line! There were six people in the line, and three attendants, and they were drawing up mobile contracts and selling phones!

I told her I’d been told I wouldn’t have to wait and beseeched her to let them let me have the key. She was a very nice woman and knocked on the manager’s door and came out sadly shaking her head and telling me I had to wait in line.

I did (ungraciously, after moving the car to a more legal spot, with the security guard nicely keeping my place in the line) and waited for forty minutes till it was my turn and the lady there fiddled with a sim card and filled it with gigs for me and I paid 50 Euros deposit and told her that I had a Macintosh and she said “no problem, sir, it works on all computers” and I grabbed my USB internet key, and my contract and dashed out of the outlet at five to five and made it to University by ten past five (and found the meeting had been cancelled unbeknownst to me, but that’s another story altogether!)

Went home a bit later, and tried to set up the key. And all it did was yield a pdf with instructions that could not be followed. I have a vague knowledge of networking on a Mac, so I followed my own whims and nearly got there, except for the simple, nagging point that the computer was not seeing the key. At all.

So I phoned customer care (humming impatiently through gritted teeth to the ear-worm music they play as you wait with boiling blood to be talked to by a human), and the human finally came on and he tried to walk me through the process.

Only what he was talking about was a PC, not a Mac. I said I had a Mac. He asked if I’d told them at the outlet that I had a Mac. I said I had. And he said … erm… that key only worked… erm… on a PC.

So the woman at the outlet was also lying. Either that or she was so totally incompetent that she actually thought the useless thing I’d nearly died half a dozen times to get really worked on a Mac.

The poor customer care guy who was getting a large bit of my (rather sore by this time) tongue and being screamed at in abject frustration, offered me yet more gigs on my mobile, but found I had been given enough, so I rang off and scrambled to get the hotspot to work again. A struggle later, I did, after fighting a bit more with the key, finding it incredibly difficult to believe that I had been led wrong yet again!

But I had been!

And that was that. My line remained silent, like a grave that’s been buried in marble for centuries. It was silent all of Thursday. It was silent on Friday before I went to work.

And at two o’clock GO customer care called.

“You have reported a fault on your phone line, sir.”

“Yes!” and gave a digest version of the story.

“Well, sir, the technicians called at your house, but you were not there.”

“What? Today?”

“Yes, sir, earlier today, and you weren’t there.”

“People WORK, you know? They don’t stay at home! Did they call me before they rang my doorbell?”

“No sir. You weren’t there!”

“I know I wasn’t there! I’m at work! Did they fix the cable fault?”

“Yes, the underground fault has been fixed, but…”

“I still don’t have a line!”

“No, sir, you don’t. I’ll have to give you an appointment for the technician to come fix your line there.”

“When?”

“The earliest I have is Tuesday afternoon…”

“But I’m working Tuesday… never mind, I’ll manage.” And gave him a time and he repeated it and said he’d note it for the technician. And I vented my frustration and anger a bit more, and was offered more mobile gigs, and rung off!

This might not have been word for word (I did not repeat above that he started by saying that he would be recording the phone call) … so the transcript might be slightly off. But not by much!

Honestly, I’m quite soft spoken normally. I do not, almost ever, raise my voice on the phone at anybody who’s doing his or her job to the best of his or her ability. But my nerves were now fraught to the point of fraying and I’d had enough! It was one ridiculous, idiotic thing after another.

GO did realize they’d messed up pretty badly, and, again when I was at work, I found I had a missed call. I returned it and found that a technician had actually gone to check the work, but, of course being unable to go into my home, he could not fix it. Again.

All a bit ridiculous. So much time and effort wasted on the off chance that the disgruntled client is home, when it’s clear that nine cases out of ten, the client works for a living and therefore isn’t.

And I’m not convinced they will come on Tuesday when I’m home waiting for them, or if they do, I’m not convinced they’ll fix my line.

***

All the above was written on Friday in a dire mood. Since then I’ve worked in very limited fashion using my mobile hotspot, but my beloved landline remained dead to the world. The way the story ended has mellowed me a little. Not a lot, because I still had to go through hell, but at least, at the very end (much too late, if you ask me) there was a major effort by the contracted technician to finalise the story. And one more happening made me think a little better of GO personnel.

He came on Tuesday at the appointed time and had to use two very long ladders (two storeys, at least … one of the two boxes set on the walls of the blocks were I live was meant for a time of giants…) just to find out that the cable link to my line had been sent up to a box from which I could not get a connection, because it would need to cross roofs of unfriendly (let me not use the correct adjective) neighbours who had already cut and dumped my phone line off their properties twice. Trying to find a way of patching the line to the correct box proved dodgy. Two hours worth of dodgy. Two hours worth of going up and down very long ladders (at his own expense, since he did contractual work) giving me ample reason to forgive him his trespasses of the past. He really (really) tried hard to give me my lifeline back!

But at the end of those two hours, my line (and my life) remained as silent as Marcel Marceau in his heyday. At least I had the promise of a return the following morning, Wednesday (today, 30th September), two weeks after my first report, with a colleague to help coordinate the effort, since there were two boxes that needed synchronising. I was late for work (had popped home for a few hours while he worked) and did not argue.

True to his word, he and friend came first thing this morning and fixed the fault in half an hour (after much clambering on ladders again). The dulcet sounds of a ringtone never sounded so melodic and I felt like popping a champagne cork in jubilation.

The colleague (upstairs to check it all worked) noted that I had a very old modem and that it took ages to come on. He suggested I exchange it. And since I had to go to a GO outlet to return the useless internet key and get my deposit back, I decided to do what he recommended.

Went, key was handed in, modem was exchanged for a modern one, technicians there set it up, and I was told it was plug-and-play and I came back home to plug and (not play, but) work.

And all hell broke lose again. When I plugged, the phone line went. When I unplugged, the line came back again.

So I called GO customer care again (go on, count the number of times I’ve said I did that in this blog! I dare you!) and on explaining about what had happened, I was asked to wait and told (I couldn’t believe my ears) that a technician would be with me in my home very soon.

And he was. An affable chap who checked the cabinet of wires (Dr Caligari take note) and fixed something before turning up. And in his capable hands both my internet and my phone worked. Simultaneously, too! And he didn’t stop there. He stayed and waited till I tried all the tricks, the cable in the back of the Mac, the router… one by one, and they all (HALLELULJAH!) WORKED. He went the extra mile and checked the port to which my internet was connected, and found a glitch there. He contacted the engineer and had it rectified. He really deserved the mug of tea I prepared for him as he worked. Yes, I was, at that point, magnanimous enough to offer refreshments to representatives of a company I felt like dumping unceremoniously not many hours before and for two weeks before that.

A happy ending? Doubt it’s a lived happily ever after situation. Not for as long as the infrastructure remains antediluvian. Not till fiberoptic solves my speed problem, and probably creates tragedies and the need for catharsis all its own.

But GO needs to take a good long look at itself. Some of its areas (not least its customer care) work well, but those bits of it that are old and tired define it, and mine is not the only story of gnashed teeth and abject frustration that I’ve heard.

Let me enjoy my internet in peace for as long as it’s there, and sing an occasional chorus from Handel’s magnum opus to ease the clenched, nervous stomach brought about by my trials and tribulations. It keeps on telling me something else will soon go wrong and I’ll be in a vacuum again, whirling in the dark nothingness of the unconnected.