Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On pro- and anti-

Anyone who is connected to me on facebook will have noticed that of late my  updates have tended to be ones of support for the people of Gaza, and horror at the actions of the Israeli state. There seems to be a tendency to categorise all such comments (from me or anyone else) as pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. I want to reject that characterisation.  My wish that Israel ends it slaughter of Palestinians, that it ends the siege of Gaza, that it ends this brutal occupation are NOT an anti-Israel position.  On the contrary I feel they are a pro-Israel position. An Israel that is not acting in this way is a much better (and, ironically, a much more secure) Israel.

I am, therefore, reclaiming these labels.  I am pro-Palestine AND pro-Israel. I am anti-occupation, and I am anti-massacre and anti-brutality and anti-bombing children.  I am also anti-Likud, anti-Netanyahu, and anti-the actions of the Israeli state and it's military wing, the IDF.

I've spent time in the occupied territories and I know full well how the IDF operates.  And it's not pretty at all. There are, of course, some good decent soldiers in the Israeli army.  But there are also some real shits, and the overall policy of the army is to subjugate, humiliate, brutalise, dehumanise and oppress the Palestinians  This is what I am anti-

In supporting the liberation of the Palestinians, I am, at the same time, supporting the liberation of the Israelis from their owns state's appalling inhuman actions.

"A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations." (Engels)

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

More collective punishment, more war crimes

There will come a time, in the not too distant future, when those who seek to justify Israel's destruction of Gaza will be looked upon as craven and disgraceful as those western communists who applauded when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956.


Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Testing my patience

So, I wrote last week about the important tests for 8th graders which go a long way to deciding their next 4 years. I mentioned then that I don’t believe in testing in general, because I think it tends to favour those who are good at tests .  But I do see that they at least provide something of a level playing field.

Except when they don’t

There are times when my patience for the way things work in Romania is tested to its limits.  This last week has been one of those times. It is not an exaggerated rant to say that the testing system in this country is an absolute fucking disgrace.

Let me explain:  The marking of these tests is done pretty much the same day (or the following day) by local teachers who are paid almost nothing for the job (they get a gross payment of something like 3.70 Lei per test marked, which, after taxes and everything probably works out at about 40p net). These teachers have a mark sheet to refer to, which they use to score the tests. But – and it’s a very big but – there is no standardisation.  Essentially the teachers mark as strictly or leniently as they like. Indeed on the markers' information sheet it actually gives the marker the leeway to decide whether they think something deserves a mark or not.  If your paper ends up with a strict marker you get a low mark. If it ends with someone willing to give the benefit of the doubt, then you get a much better one.  The test grade is, to all intents and purposes, a lottery. Your grade depends, very heavily, on the marker your paper is randomly assigned.

Now, I know a fair amount about testing and assessment in my professional work.  I'm by no means an expert in that field, but I have read a fair amount on it, taken training courses, and have attended testing and assessment conferences. In short, I know something (less than many, more than most) about how tests work and what their function is. In addition, I am an oral examiner on a well-known international English test, and in that capacity I have to attend thorough and extensive annual standardisation meetings.  

In these tests, though, far from levelling the playing field, the testing system does exactly the opposite (the papers are marked anonymously, so at least we can say the process is not corrupt, but it’s still based on pure luck).  And levelling the playing field is, and I want to stress that I'm stating this in the most calm, objective, thoughtful way possible, levelling the playing field IS THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT OF HAVING A FUCKING TEST IN THE FIRST FUCKING PLACE.

The maths test is reasonably balanced, because obviously in maths (especially at the 8th grade level) there isn’t a great deal of potential variation in correct answers. It’s either right or not. But the literature tests (and here in this town most kids take two of those – in Romanian and Hungarian) are pretty much marked by whim.

So,  one can draw the short straw in the Romanian and/or Hungarian marking lottery and get a terribly hard marker.  The best in the class can get the worst marks.  To give an example, there are two identical twins in another class at her school, who are both brilliant, and who both score more or less exactly the same on any work.  Their marks for the Romanian test were 9.10 and 5.25 out of ten. This is simply not a possible split. Some of the best in Romanian in Bogi's class got some of the lowest marks (including the two kids who have a Romanian parent, and who are therefore functionally bilingual. Though, of course, as I've mentioned before, the test does not test language competence, but literary analysis)

There is an appeal process.  But everybody in the know says that the second marker tends not to alter the mark much because it’s perceived as undermining a fellow teacher. 

The Romanian test in particular has been the subject of much debate in the country over the last week, since a teacher from Bucharest last week complained that it was (a) testing things that were not on the curriculum; and (b) subjective in the marking.  She gave an example of a question of synonyms in which two answers were given but others were possible.  (Her letter here, in Romanian).  The Ministry of Education has responded on their website by pointing out that (in the case of (b)) it states quite clearly that the teacher/marker has the flexibility to decide whether an answer not given in the key is acceptable or not. (Link here). In other words, they have proudly stated, defending themselves against the charge of having a subjective grading system, that they do in fact have a subjective grading system. 

The function of the test is essentially a competition. Having your test marked hard is not a problem – if everyone is marking the same.  But they are not. So, the upshot is that some kids get punished through no fault of their own.  And these tests (or rather the grade given for these tests) decide which school you can go to and which subjects you can study. They are, in short, extremely important.  Much too important, it would seem, to be left in the hands of whichever people at the Ministry of Education are currently responsible for them. 

I love living in this country for many reasons, but sometimes the way it is run makes me want to scream. Perhaps I should not expect more when the Prime Minister is an unrepentant plagiarist. 

Maybe it's an important lesson for 8th graders to learn that their lives are subject to the whims of fate and that ability and hard work count for nothing.  But I figure they'll learn that eventually anyway.  It seems shameful to institutionalise it.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Day of the flag

Yesterday, I learned while watching the news, was "The Day of the Romanian Flag". WTF is that? There's also a day for the national anthem, and a day for the constitution.  I am not yet sure if there is a "National Day of the Romanian Penal Code" or "National Day of the Romanian Currency".  I mean seriously, what exactly do people do on a day which celebrates a piece of cloth? Do all countries have one of these? What's the point of it?  Can anyone tell me?

Not really the same thing, but anyway:

Slightly later update:  I made the day of the currency up, imagining it to be an impossible date... but it exists! April 22nd, if you ever want to pay homage to your Lei.

Seriously though.  the day of the flag. What's it all about?  "The day of the symbol of the national day".  Does the flag get its own symbol, that you can wave in its honour?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Romtelecom, setting Romania back 30 years

Customer service in Romania is frequently (though by no means always) a haphazard affair, with there still being a significant number of places where your custom is seen as more of a burden than a positive.  But things are changing for the better, and noticeably so.

So when a large company with - no doubt - up to date processes and a focus on customer service manages to piss you off so much through treating you like the old days it can be really shocking.

Romtelecom is the company that used to have a monopoly on all telecom type services in this country, but these days they are in competition with other companies, and they provide internet, land-line telephone services and cable TV.  Of late I've actually heard reasonably good things about them.  And so, when we decided to get a much better Internet connection in our house, we had no problems in going to them.  Last week we got in touch and put in our request to be connected to their service.  "OK, we'll let you know", was the response, which we took to mean "We'll call you when the guy is coming round to connect you up".  We checked in today and ... well it wasn't like we had imagined.

Today's message was "The fact that you asked for internet does not mean we will give it to you.  That was just a logging of your request.  The village you live in is not part of our "development plan", and so, well,... "(you get the picture). Now, Romtelecom has cable here.  Our neighbours have internet through Romtelecom, as do most people in the village.  it's not that they have to lay cable out here or something.  They just can't be bothered sending someone out to the village.  It's an absolute fucking joke.   I feel like I jumped back in time 20 years to a Romania where the customer is just a pain in the arse to be ignored or treated like shit.

I'm flabbergasted, to be honest. 

Monday, June 23, 2014


This week is exam week for the 8th graders of Romania.  Essentially, they have 2 (or 3 - see below) big exams, after which their futures (or the next 4 years of those futures anyway) are decided.  Roughly, how it works is this: Over the 4 years from 5-8th grade they have been receiving marks for everything they do at school, and this continuous assessment goes towards their final grade.  But it only constitutes 25% of the total, and the exams they are taking this week make up the other 75%.  But they don;t have exams in all the subjects they have been studying, just 2 (or, as I said, 3, in some cases).  So there are large amounts of subjects that have almost no weight in this process - Physics, English, chemistry, geography, history, biology, etc etc are all sort of left behind here.

The exams that they do have are in Romanian (that was this morning, Monday), and maths (that's on Wednesday). For those kids whose first language is not Romanian, they also have an exam in "limba materna" - in my daughter Bogi's case (and the case of 90% of Harghita County, and about 7-8% of the country) that means Hungarian. Seems a bit unfair that they have to do 3 rather than 2, but them's the breaks. (It will be this way after the 12th grade too).

Next year, from the 9th grade, they will all be at high school.  These tests will decide (a) what "track" they will be able to take in high school, and (b) what high school they can go to.  Because while there isn't any form of streaming in the Romanian system, the "good" high school can choose the "good" students to fill its places (this happened to me too when I was at school choosing sixth forms, so it;s not exactly a Romania-specific issue).  So it does make a difference.

Over the years the weighting of the continuous assessment and the exams keeps changing (to the point where you only really find out what it will be during that final, 8th, year.  4 years ago, there was no test at all, and it was all on continuous assessment.  Last year it was, I think 50/50.  Now the test is dominant.  I'm intellectually opposed to the primacy of the test as a form of assessment, but the argument that I hear a lot from parents is that in schools in villages, everyone knows everyone and the teachers tend to give higher marks during the year than do teachers in towns.  Thus when the reckoning comes, kids from villages end u taking the places in the "good" schools, squeezing out the town kids who have had much tougher teaching and more exacting standards.  I have no idea if that's true but it sounds like a valid concern - especially in a community like this where it's very rural and this is the point at which kids from a large hinterland are all feeding in to a few schools, all in the town.  The national test, it is thought, at least provides a level playing field.

Anyway, the stress will all be over in 2 more days, and then it's just about trying to jump through the bureaucratic hoops to get to your chosen school.

Today, then, the kids are not 100% happy, but just to wrap this up, here is a video that Bogi's class made to celebrate the end of school.  You get to see lots of shots of the town and it is really, genuinely  a very high quality video.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Modern slavery in the free market

My neighbour has just come home from Sweden. She's been working there for a month or so picking asparagus.  She came home early because she started suffering from a heart condition and basically was advised that she should no longer work.

Now the reason that she may have developed this heart condition is that she was worked like a dog.  Well harder than that.  They got up to start their day at 3am.  yes, that's right 3am.  And they worked, some days as late as 11pm (it being light late in Sweden).  They worked 7 days a week at this appalling pace, in terrible conditions - they were told they would be picking strawberries, which wouldn't have been much better, but is not as bad as picking asparagus.  Before she got the heart problem she also had an infected leg wound from working in the wet fields. For the time that she was there, just over 5 weeks, of this punishing, brutal schedule, she has brought home 600 Euros. 7 days a week 16-20 hours a day.  For 600 Euros. Away from her husband and daughter, away from her home.

And, let's not forget, this is in Sweden, one of the best places in Europe and the world for conditions for workers we always think.  God knows what she'd have gone through somewhere else.

Now we've heard a lot recently about the EU's open borders for workers, the migration of people looking for work.  But we don't hear that much about the unscrupulous bastards who use this fact to treat people like virtual slaves.  These vile, cruel, workhouse capitalist pigs. Scum of the earth, using and abusing the poor and disadvantaged to furnish their own profit margins.  Sweeping up poor, undereducated people from SE Europe, transporting them half way across the continent and them working them (literally) into the ground, until their bodies fail.  This is inhuman and absolutely disgusting.  This is where the EU's policies are failing the continent - failing to protect people from these slave-drivers, these rapacious monsters who abuse the system and those they "hire" into their appalling schemes.

And, yet, repugnant motherfuckers like Farage and Le Pen, focus their ire, their hate, their attacks on the people who are forced by circumstances to take these "jobs".  The victims are not to blame, and to make them the scapegoats is just piling misery on top of those who can least fight back.  The EU needs to change its policies - it needs to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged.  Instead it creates the conditions for the exploitation of people in the name of free movement.

It's time to fight this shit.  The market may be free.  Those that are used by it most definitely are not.  Just another commodity to be mined for profit. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


I wonder if there is any town that is has produced as many successful sportspeople per head of population as Csikszereda.

Novak Edouard
I have gone on before about the ice hockey team and how they are the best in Romania  - well, they've been champions for the last seven years, and while this streak may well be ended this year by Brasov, the vast majority of Romania's national team hail from Harghita County and more specifically this town.  And while Romania's hockey team is not close to being the best in the world, they do reasonably well, and in the past have done extremely well.  Someone I consider a friend was on the team at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, (the famous one in which the USA beat the USSR in what the US media referred to as "The Miracel on Ice"), at which they finished 7th.  Which is not to be sniffed at.

Tofalvi Eva
But, you may be thinking, ice hockey is a fairly niche sport in Romania and it's really only popular here, so that's not necessarily a big deal.  Obviously I'll have to come up with more sportspersons to convince you.  Well, how about Novak Edouard, Romania's only ever paralympic medalist and current World and Olympic champion in cycling?  (Who, in fact was a very fine young speed skater before the accident which cost him a leg and meant he ended up as a paralympian)

And then cast your eyes over to Sochi and the current Olympics going on there.  Featuring no fewer than 4 separate Szeredans.  Some of whom have done extraordinarily well, especially given the lack of funding and support that Romania offers to its athletes.  A quick listing of the results so far shows a genuinely superb set of performances:

Eva Tofalvi, biathlete
7.5km sprint - finished 22nd
10km pursuit - 26th
15km individual - 21st
12.5km mass start - 21st

Edit Miklos, alpine skier
Miklos Edit

super combined - 16th
downhill - 7th
super-g - 15th
giant slalom - 34th

Emoke Szocs, biathlete
7.5km sprint - 70th
15km individual - 70th

Zoltan Kelemen - figure skater
short programme - 24th
free programme - 23rd

Given the circumstances, these are truly brilliant results, and these people should be extremely proud of themselves.

[Note: Because the new Hungarian constitution allows anyone of Hungarian ethnicity to become a Hungarian citizen, two of the above athletes (Miklos and Szocs) have competed under the Hungarian flag rather than the Romanian. As I understand it they say it's because they felt they were offered more support by the Hungarian Olympic Committee, but (a) that wouldn't be difficult; and (b) personally I think that's a shame, and if people have to participate in the Olympics under a national banner I'd rather they would have done so under the Romanian one, but ultimately I'm counting them as "from Csikszereda" before anything else anyway.  And, if people actually paid any attention to the Olympic Charter this wouldn't be an issue anyway since it says
Article 6: The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.
But sadly everyone ignores that and makes it all about nationalism anyway.  I mean why - given the above - do we have a medals table?]

So, anyway, before we end up down the usual cul-de-sac of my standard rants about national identity, can anyone give me a town with a greater number of top athletes per head of population?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Extreme Mildness

That's about as oxymoronic as it gets, I suspect, but in fact it fits.

We are experiencing a very very weird winter. As I may have gone on about at some length, Csikszereda is a very cold place.  Temperatures in January are regularly below -20 and in some years down as low as -30 and below.  By this time of the year, we should be waist deep in snow and wrapped up like michelin men. But we are not because we are in the middle of what ought to be termed a massive heatwave.  It won't be termed a heatwave of course, because temperatures of +3 are not really what one would call a heatwave.  But in terms of comparison with the norm, we must be at least 10 degrees over the average, and possibly more.  Which is a heatwave, of sorts anyway.

So, what to call this extreme mildness? The US media has gone way over the top with these kind of things of late, with this year's Polar Vortex beating last year's Perfect Storm and Snowmageddon, so I think we need a term for this year's incredible bout of mild and unusually bearable weather.

Some possibilities:
  • Fair-to-middlingmageddon
  • The Great 2014 Carnage of Tolerability
  • The Four Horseman of the not-that-parky
  • Temperataclysm
  • Clement Void
  • Actually-pretty-comfortable-to-be-honest-pocalypse

To be serious for a moment, it is having some serious effects on the local economy, as at this time of year there is usually a lot of snow (and this year there is precisely none).  The vast majority of the local ski runs don't have any snow making equipment so they have already effectively lost half their season (which typically runs December to March - we're now in mid January and they haven't even been able to open yet).  Then of course there is the fear of the possibility of a drought later in the year - since there has been basically no precipitation of any kind since October, we could be in some trouble later on down the line.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Health and Safety

One of the things that the Daily Mail reading knobheads who make up a dangerously large proportion of my countrymen moan about is "health and safety". You know, how people are much safer now and people care about the safety of people when they plan stuff.  I mean it's quite understandable why it causes these right wing dicks such pain, to see people taking "precautions".

Health and Safety in Romania is a very different kettle of fish though.  We don't really have things to sign, or long involved forms to fill in, or lots of paperwork.  If my daughter goes off with her class skiing for example, we have to sign something which says she can go, but nothing else. Once a week her class goes skating (this is a new town policy that all 1st and 2nd graders learn to skate and all 3rd and 4th graders learn to swim), and again, we just drop her off and off she goes.

Now, while I do tend to trust people and think that she is perfectly OK in these situations (and obviously if I thought she wasn't, I would find a way of making her safe), there are areas of life here in which I feel a dash of health-and-safety-ism wouldn't go amiss.  Driving, for example, in which Romania punches well above its weight in totally unnecessary deaths, due mostly to the fact that there are a huge number of complete arseholes let loose at the wheel in this country.  And the number of times that the news leads on the explosion of an apartment building somewhere due to a gas leak does seem somewhat excessive.  I mean one would be excessive, but here it's seemingly one a week.  And the number of buildings in this town which have some form of tiled entranceway, including tiled outdoor steps at the hospital, where tiles are the world's worse surface in icy conditions (conditions which are really pretty common here), is mind-blowing.  I mean has noone ever noticed and thought to themselves "That new public building we're constructing - I wonder if it would be safer not to tile the front steps?"

This morning however, as I crawled back and forth on my customary morning swim, noting the 9 year olds doing their thing at the end of each lap (that school policy mentioned above), wondering as I plunged back down the pool, what the ratio of swim teachers to children would be necessary in the UK (I'm pretty sure that the apparent 30 kids: one teacher ratio would be unacceptable), I realised that there is a health and safety culture here.  It's just a very different one.  It's not an officially sanctioned one, and it doesn't really rely on evidence-based safety features, but rather a kind of institutionalised old wives' health and safetyism.

I am sure I have already mentioned the fear of "curent", which is to say draughts. Get on a bus in summer, in 40 degree heat and dare to open a window to try and make the whole situation bearable, and instantly incur the wrath of the self-appointed health and safety inspectors who will quickly shout at you for your idiotic desire to not melt and will close the window despite your protests. Draughts make people sick, you see.

Go out with your child in a temperature of anywhere below 20 degrees C and have the self same health and safety inspectors will come up to you and tut loudly about her lack of a hat.

And, to prove my point, after my hydro-exertions, I was reminded of the other aspect of the kids' swimming lessons. The hair drying. As the kids come to the swimming pool in their regular class time, they are accompanied by their teacher.  I presume the teacher is allowed to swim, but usually they just sit around watching.  Their real duty at the pool is the making sure everyone gets changed successfully on arrival and departure, but most importantly to make sure every child's hair is totally and utterly dry before they leave the building and return to school. Because going outside with wet hair is so so much more dangerous than racing through a village at 120 km/h, or jerry-rigging the wiring of your house, or asking old people to walk up ice stairs to get into a hospital.

To cap it all, have you seen how much hair 9 year old girls have? Each one of them takes about half an hour to dry it to the exacting standards required.  This means that for a one hour swimming lesson the children are out of school for getting on for all day.  (I exaggerate slightly, and I do think making sure all the children of the town can swim is an excellent idea and even contributes to actual health and safety).

I tend to get changed, slip on my coat and walk out, wet head held high. I have no idea how the teachers explain that to the kids.  "You see that man, leaving with wet hair? Obviously having wet hair as a child has made him crazy as an adult to the point where he doesn't even dry his hair!"