Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Knife Tricks Is Dead. Long Live Nomad Law.

Paris

I have completely redesigned this blog, which is now at:

Nomad Law.

In a few days, clicks to Knife Tricks or any of its posts should re-route you directly to the new blog.

Update: Please leave comments on the Nomad Law site. Knife Tricks will no longer be updated. Thanks.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Review of Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain, A Guy I Should Hate But Don't


Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain (HarperCollins 2010).

I should detest Anthony Bourdain, but I can't.

It's obvious he's trafficking in some myth-making whoppers. He loves to talk about how he wrote his bestseller Kitchen Confidential for an audience of several dozen tri-state cooks, but that can’t be right. Before KC, Bourdain wrote several books which bombed and which were, until recently, kept on the down low. He was aiming for the bleachers with KC, no doubt concerned it was his last chance to become a professional writer.

Bourdain also plays a middle-class tune which I loathe: the safely domesticated former bad boy. The fact that the rebel is now a mortgage-paying, married dad makes dullards feel that their conformist life "choices" are validated. The feeling is reinforced by the underlying Bourdain motif that, no matter where his journeys take him, he always goes home, which -- as every mainstream movie tells you -- is the best place of all.

Bourdain's discussion of drugs is cagy. He emphasizes on his television show that his druggie ways are in the past -- not 100% true, I suspect, based on a few hints dropped in his most recent book, the goes-down-like-chocolate Medium Raw -- so that the drug use is not threatening to an audience that becomes more uptight as it ages. Tony would not be the toast of basic cable if his shows consisted of him hitting a new town, figuring out how to score and then filming inside a shooting gallery as he and a bunch of local chef smackheads chase the dragon.

It's also taken the guy -- who portrays himself as bravely and recklessly honest -- years to admit his whoremongering, which makes an appearance in the new book. Bourdain’s instinct for his audience must have told him that, in order to become accepted by the women who buy food books, he needed to keep that one in his pocket until his celebrity was firmly established. As it currently stands, he won't describe his assignations in any detail, and he won't admit that banging hookers was fun. He colors it as shameful, which is what women want to hear.

Eric Bogosian performs a sketch where he plays a pompous older rockstar giving an interview, and the character says, "The thing with drugs is that you're having such a good time that you don't realize what a bad time you're having." Bourdain recites similar lines.

Bourdain did coke and heroin and crack and banged hookers and lived a nocturnal, outside-of-society existence because it was, to a significant extent, enjoyable and rewarding and what he wanted to do. But that's not something he wants to admit now to the audience that pays for his luxe existence and allows him to travel in culinary circles to which his talent would never admit him.

So I should hate, detest, loathe, vilify him.

But I can't. Bourdain’s too likeable. His writing is too zesty. His show is exceptional. And he comes closer to explaining and exemplifying my attitudes than anybody else with a mass audience. There's no principle or value or logic that justifies Bourdain's exclusion from the expanding pantheon of People I Hate. It's just the way it is.

I give the guy a pass because he's the closest to me I can find on TV.

With that out of the way, all I’ll say about Medium Raw is that it pushes the Bourdain shtick half a step forward, and it’s a perfect airplane or beach read. Here’s a couple paragraphs on various topics, to let you test if Tony is your cup of tea or braised beef shoulder or, hey, you don’t need my help with food metaphors:

Overpriced, hip restaurants: The Ciprianis, along with a few other operators and imitators, made, a long while back, a remarkable discovery: that rich international fucktards like to hang out with each other and eat marginally decent Italian food – and are willing to pay for the privilege. Better yet, all the people who wanted to look like they, too, are rich international fucktards will want to get in on the action as well. That’s the customer base that dreams are made of. If you go to Harry’s Bar in Venice, you get a pretty good plate of food – and the Bellinis are just fine. They just cost a fuck of a lot. But they do treat you courteously and it is Venice out the window – and everything’s expensive anyway. I’m guessing the Ciprianis figured out that if this model worked in Venice, it would work in New York. That maybe twenty-nine bucks for a bowl of spaghetti with red sauce is perfectly reasonable.

Nueva York: Spanish is the language of the early morning in Manhattan. At the bagel place where I get my coffee, everybody, customers and counter help alike, are papi or flaco or hermano -- or addressed by country of origin. Doesn’t matter if Spanish is even your language. At this hour, it’s what’s spoken. It’s how things are done. The Bengali shop owner, the few American suits – everybody addresses each other in one form or another of Spanish. That’s who’s up and working this time of the morning and who owns this part of the day: the doormen from the nearby apartment buildings, the porters, the nannies on the way to work, the construction guys sent out on a coffee run, the dishwashers and early-arriving restaurant help, they greet each other with the familiar nicknames. If they don’t recognize a face, they ask, in Spanish, “Qué paí?

The Economics of Cheese: Cheese is expensive. Very expensive. And perishable. And delicate. Properly aged, stored, served, and handled cheese is even more expensive. Every time you cut into an intact cheese, its time on this earth becomes limited. Every time you pull one out of the special refrigerated cave it lives in, you are killing it slowly. Every time you return it, partially served, back to the refrigerator, you are also killing it. Whichever employee is serving your cheese? Every uneven cut, every pilfered slice or smear can pretty much end any possibility of a return on your investment. In fact, to properly serve a reasonably excellent selection of cheeses – always at their peak ripeness and at proper temperatures – one almost must accept the imperative of throwing a lot of it out sooner or later, or find a way to use it elsewhere. And the more varieties of cheese you offer, the less likely you will be able to merchandise all of the remnants as ingenious appetizers.

Kobe Hamburgers Are a Rip-off: What makes a Wagyu steak so desirable is the unbelievably prodigious marbling of fat that runs through it – often as much as 50 percent. Its resulting tenderness and richness, and the subtle – repeat -- subtle flavor. When grinding a hamburger, you can put in as much fat as you like – just reach in the fat can and drop it in the machine – so there’s no reason to pay a hundred bucks for a burger. A burger, presumably, already is about as tender as a piece of meat can be – and a taste as subtle as real Wagyu’s would, in any case, be lost were you to do something so insensitive as bury it between two buns and slather it with ketchup.

Fresh French Bread: Six o’clock in the morning is when the pains raisins come out, and already the customers are lining up in the dark outside this tiny Parisian boulangerie waiting for the first batch. The baguettes are ready – piping-hot from the brick oven, fabulously, deliberately ugly and uneven in shape, slashed crudely across the top. They’re too hot to eat but you grab one anyway, tearing it open gingerly, then dropping two fingers full of butter inside. It instantly melts into liquid – running into the grooves and inner spaces of white interior. You grab it like a sandwich and bite, teeth making a cracking sound as you crunch through the crust. You haven’t eaten since yesterday lunch, your palate is asleep and just not ready for so much sensation. The reaction is violent. It hurts. Butter floods your head and you think for a second you’re going to black out.

I like Anthony Bourdain so much that I’ll overlook the repetition and the malformed sentences. I like him so much I’ll ignore the fact that his riff on bread in the morning is a reworking of the last page of Bright Lights, Big City. Although I make it a point to detest anyone who tries too hard to be likeable, A.B.’s OK in my book.

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Singapore Changi Airport -- Quick Notes

Singapore Changi Airport

-- A show of force was on display, presumably because of the alleged European terror warnings. When we came off the flight from Phuket, all passengers were directed to a security station with easily 40 guards, many of whom were arrayed to stare at us as we walked down the corridor. I've been through this airport more than a dozen times, but I've never seen that level of visible security.

-- I'm usually going through Terminal 1, so I've forgotten what a palace the new Terminal 3 is. It's spotless. There's a playground and a free movie theater. Free internet (which I'm using right now). There's a table with crayons and drawing paper for the kids. There are readouts which display the temperature. This airport even smells nice.

I'm not saying a fully developed democracy has to build every major airport to rival that of this authoritarian state. But U.S. airports could at least be in the same game, since the same league seems out of the question.

Flight Report: Air France 174 from Bangkok to Hanoi, Or How One Flight Attendant Can Sell An Airline


Flight Report: Air France flight 174, Bangkok to Hanoi, Airbus A340-300, Economy, Seat 24A, September 2010, US$228 round-trip.

The male flight attendant stared at the plastic cup, saw a spot, threw the cup away and, in that moment, sold me several thousand dollars in Air France tickets.

The cabin had made a strong and positive first impression. The aircraft was my favorite model, an Airbus A340 (pictured) with a smooth ride and lots of passenger comforts. The 2-4-2 economy seats were covered with dark blue cloth decorated with rows of small white dots. The seatbacks and armrests were molded from a dark but bright blue plastic that wasn’t as contradictory as that sounds. The carpet was dark grey, with irregular lengths of black, white and red striping.

I was tagging along for the last part of a long ride. Thirteen hours earlier, the airplane had taken off from Charles de Gaulle airport. Its mission was to connect the metropole with the capital of its former colony. As a matter of euros and baht, the plane touched down in Bangkok, its final destination barely over the horizon, to take on additional passengers.

More than half the seats in the roomy cabin had white plastic tags reading “Final” slipped behind the headrests. These were the passengers, heavily ethnic Vietnamese, who were there from start to finish.

The flight from Bangkok to Hanoi offered a long-haul product on a regional route. Although the last leg was in the air for only 90 minutes, the accouterments of a much longer and more expensive flight were on offer.

The welcome package included headphones, moist towelette, eye shades and a pair of North EP-08 earplugs. The seatback offered a full in-flight entertainment system with movies, games, TV shows and news, with the drawback that the metal box containing the system took up legroom under the window seat. Lunch consisted of a half-sandwich, Dutchie brand yogurt with mixed fruit, crumble cake and a pre-sealed cup of orange juice.

But it was during the after-dinner beverage service that Air France made its sale. The male flight attendant was about to pour cola for the passenger in front of me. A spot caught his eye, he took a few moments to focus, and then he threw out the cup and started again with a fresh one.

That’s service. That’s a well-trained, conscientious, professional flight attendant. That’s what I want when I spend money on air travel. That’s why I’ll be spending more on Air France.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Traversing The City At Night: Beijing v. Jo'burg

Phuket Island, Thailand

Erin Conway-Smith posts an atmospheric piece about the half a world of distance, actual and metaphorical, between Beijing and Johannesburg.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

More Law: Refusing To Answer Questions At U.S. Passport Control

Hanoi, Vietnam

1. CBP Officers Have Acknowledged The Right of U.S. Citizens To Remain Silent. Lost in the many comments is the fact that, at the end of my silent entry into the United States, a CBP officer -- who was the oldest and seemingly most educated and experienced of the CBP officers -- said, "Just inspect his bags. He has a right to remain silent.”

Another CBP officer has admitted as much on a CBP message board. CBP employee "onemoreshot" posts:


what a delta bravo... looks like one too. It's sad he doesnt realize how much quicker he could be on his way if he just answered the question.

Also sadly, he is right. Once someone proves they are a USC, all we can do is inspect their bags/conveyance, and absent anything derogatory being found, we cant force them to answer questions. Non-USC's do it, back home you go. They did that and he was off, but he made it a lot harder than need be.

Another CBP poster in the same thread discussed the refusal to answer the question "Did you pack your bags yourself?":


In baggage, him refusing to answer whether or not he packed the bags or if everything in that bag is his could have some legal implications. Lets say you open the bag and find dope but you never got a verbal declaration that those were his bags. Be aware that something like could get your case tossed by the USA.

The questions CBP asks are not innocuous. They are designed to trick citizens into making incriminatory statements. If someone were to sneak prohibited material into your baggage, and you verbally admitted that you packed the bag, you are now in a world of hurt. If you had said nothing, you would have preserved a potential defense.

Silence is the best protection when dealing with CBP.


2. A U.S. Citizen's Fourth Amendment Rights Against Unreasonable Searches and Siezures Are Limited -- But Are Not Nullified -- At The Border. Many commenters confuse CBP's augmented border search authority with a right to interrogate. This conflation is understandable, since CBP goes out of its way to blur the distinction.

In short, the law currently says that a U.S. citizen's Fourth Amendment rights against an unreasonable search and seizure are limited at the border (or its equivalent in an airport) -- but they are not eliminated. Usually, your bags and your laptop can be searched in the airport even if the CBP officer has no suspicion of wrongdoing. The U.S. Supreme Court left open the possibility that some searches of property at the border are so intrusive as to require particularized suspicion or a warrant -- and I hope the Supremes place laptop searches into that category when they ultimately rule on this issue. But the bottom line is that the Fourth Amendment is weak at the border.

But it's not gone. The cavity searches that people love to joke about may only be conducted by CBP with reasonable and particularized suspicion that the traveller has swallowed contraband. It wouldn't be reasonable to order such a search solely because a traveller refused to answer questions, and a CBP officer who so ordered would be exposing himself and the agency to monetary liability.

The Fourth Amendment is concerned with protecting physical objects -- it refers to
"the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" -- from nosy government eyes. If a policewoman wants to read the diary you keep in your bedroom, she is going to have to show cause and obtain a warrant from a judge.


3. Returning U.S. Citizens Retain Their Fifth Amendment Right To Silence. Some lawyerly commenters have noted that, when CBP forces a traveller to stand at its kiosks, the traveller is not under full, must-read-Miranda arrest. At many U.S. airports (depending on the federal appellate circuit in which the airport is located), this makes no difference.

Although the lower courts have issued conflicting decisions, the judicial trend is to hold that pre-arrest silence is entitled to Fifth Amendment protection. And, as a practical matter, what a returning U.S. citizen doesn't say is far less likely to boomerang than what she does say.

Here's a quick summary of the Fifth Amendment protections available to people who, like returning U.S. citizens, are subject to some form of law enforcement questioning:

We believe that application of the privilege is not limited to persons in custody or charged with a crime; it may also be asserted by a suspect who is questioned during the investigation of a crime. The Supreme Court has given the privilege against self-incrimination a broad scope, explaining that it can be asserted in any proceeding, civil or criminal, administrative or judicial, investigatory or adjudicatory; and it protects against any disclosures that the witness reasonably believes could be used in a criminal prosecution or could lead to other evidence that might be so used . . . . See also Hoffman v. United States ("The privilege must be confined to instances where the witness has reasonable cause to apprehend danger from a direct answer."); Hoffman ("To sustain the privilege, it need only be evident from the implications of the question, in the setting in which it is asked, that a responsive answer to the question or an explanation of why it cannot be answered might be dangerous because injurious disclosure could result."). In a prearrest setting as well as in a post-arrest setting, it is clear that a potential defendant's comments could provide damaging evidence that might be used in a criminal prosecution; the privilege should thus apply.


Combs v. Coyle, 205 F.3d 269 (6th Cir. 2000) (collecting cases ruling on both sides of the issue of use of pre-arrest silence as substantive evidence of guilt; edited for readability).

This describes CBP questioning. The returning citizen's answers could provide damaging evidence in a criminal prosecution. The entire point of the CBP interview is to obtain damaging evidence. Consequently, the Fifth Amendment right to silence applies.


4. CBP And Its Supporters Need To Stop Conflating These Two Separate Concepts. The comments are riddled with people invoking the Fourth Amendment border search exception and then making the illogical, unfounded and unlawful conclusion that a citizen must answer CBP questions.

There is no legal authority for this novel proposition. These are two different amendments which protect different dignities, and the reasoning behind the border search exception -- to enforce customs and tariff laws -- does not counsel in favor of a corresponding loosening of Fifth Amendment rights. If anything, the law enforcement nature of CBP questioning increases the need for Fifth Amendment protections.

This confusion is caused in part by CBP's propaganda. CBP loves to talk about citizens "cooperating" -- a term which means "waive your rights." CBP brochures and websites describe CBP's broad search powers and cite to statutes and regulations promulgated incident to that search authority, but none of these rules repeal -- or could repeal -- a returning citizen's constitutional right to silence. (I can't currently link to a typical CBP page, because I'm getting the "There is a problem with this website's security certificate" result.)

If a CBP supporter can cite a court decision holding that a returning U.S. citizen has no right to silence at the border, I'm happy to review and discuss the decision. But the burden of persuasion falls on the party arguing that, in a certain situation, U.S. citizens lose a constitutional right.


5. Semi-Ironic CBP Silence. In the last two weeks, I've twice asked the head of public affairs for CBP's admissibility programs for an official statement regarding the right of U.S. citizens to decline to answer CBP's questions. CBP has not provided me with a substantive response.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Hanoi: First Impressions


Hanoi, Vietnam

-- Some powerful people here get it.

The bane of eastern Asian city planning is the willingness to destroy old buildings, some of which are beautiful or historic, to build a large drab box. The new construction enriches the developers, generates work for the contracters and increases tax revenues. The new construction also makes the streets less appealing and often creates blank-walled eyesores.

Hanoi said No. The French Quarter, where I'm staying, is exactly what you'd expect from the name. Most of the buildings are three or four storeys, and the streets are lined with shade trees. Many of the government buildings appear to be refurbished French mansions or grand hotels. Newer buildings, like the Ministry of Finance, reflect and augment the neighborhood aesthetic.

The outskirts of Hanoi, from what I could see transfering in from the airport, have their share of ugly new construction. But the powers that be in Hanoi have decided, to their lustrous credit, that the best way to make money from the French Quarter is to let it remain the French Quarter.

-- There's something about sidewalk cafes that immediately makes a city more enjoyable.

-- The touts here in Hanoi are nowhere near as bad as they were in Saigon. Like many travellers, my first experience in Saigon was unwisely selecting a hotel in the travellers' ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao and then being badgered, prodded, yelled at, pulled, exhorted, blocked and manhandled by peddlers every few feet throughout the district. Some people are shellshocked after a spell in Saigon; in my case, it was bad enough that I switched hotels after a filthy encounter with a six-year-old girl.

The little I've seen of Hanoi is world's away. The French Quarter has few obnoxious touts; mostly it's motorcycle guys who call out to you but leave you alone when you ignore them. The pitchmen in the Old Quarter, where a lot of the backpackers' lodgings are located, were not bothersome, physical or nagging.

Walking down a touristy street in Hanoi is far more pleasant than in Saigon.

-- The transcription of Vietnamese into Roman characters is huge. You can read street signs, you can translate menus, you can match sounds to letters. You're not at sea without a rudder, as is often the case in Thailand and China.

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Verbatim Transcript of Questions Posed To Me Yesterday By Vietnam Passport Control













Update: Of course, Vietnam has the same interest as all other nations in preventing the flow of illegal items into its borders and policing entrants for phony documents, yet Vietnam does so in a manner which does not assume that every traveller is a criminal. And, if Vietnam is going to single out anybody for automatic interrogation, it would be travellers with passports from the countries that waged war against it. But Vietnam's passport control policies appear to be rational and proportional, while the U.S.'s policies are designed to create work for CBP personnel, to maintain the fear that feeds budgets, and to make it appear to supplicants and the gullible that the U.S. government is "doing something."

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Francophonie" -- The Unity, Real or Imagined, of the French-Speaking World



Indochine

1. “Mitterrand was under strong pressure from the French pro-African lobby. Whereas the majority of European capitals had radically broken with their colonial past, Paris had not. French society still includes a large, active, and well-organized army of people who made their careers in the colonial administration, spent their lives (quite well!) in the colonies, and now, as foreigners in Europe, feel useless and unwanted. At the same time, they believe deeply that France is not only a European country but also the community of all people partaking in French culture and language; that France, in other words, is also a global cultural and linguistic entity: Francophonie. This philosophy, translated into the simplistic language of geopolitics, holds that if someone, anywhere in the world, is attacking a French-speaking country, it is almost as if he were striking at France itself.”

From “A Lecture on Rwanda” by Ryszard Kapuściński, in The Shadow of the Sun (Poland 1998).


2. "I don’t remember Europe from my childhood. Not even the voyage to America, really. That I had been born there was an abstract idea. Yet it had a hold over me which was as powerful as the hold France can have on a colonial. I spoke French, read French, remembered waiting for the reports of the Revolution and reading the Paris newspaper accounts of Napoleon’s victories. I remember the anger I felt when he sold the colony of Louisiana to the United States. How long the mortal Frenchman lived in me I don’t know. He was gone by this time, really, but there was in me that great desire to see Europe and to know it, which comes not only from the reading of all the literature and philosophy, but from the feeling of having been shaped by Europe more deeply and keenly than the rest of Americans. I was a Creole who wanted to see where it had all begun."

From Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (U.S. 1976).

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review of Lonely Planet Encounter Guide To Hanoi & Halong Bay by Tom Downs


Lonely Planet Encounter: Hanoi & Halong Bay by Tom Downs (LP 2007).

I try to give Lonely Planet the benefit of the doubt, but its Encounter mini-guide to Hanoi left a bad taste in my mouth.

I don't criticize Lonely Planet because it's successful or corporate or allegedly promotes unsustainable yuppie tourism while simultaneously hectoring readers with PC pabulum. My principal criticisms of the company's products are that they are uneven in quality and often seem most interested in selling you another book.

The Encounter books are pocket-size city guides. The format forces concision, and I'm not expecting a cyclopedia.

But there's nothing in Hanoi & Halong Bay that couldn't be found online in half a day of surfing. Based on the content, the book's not worth the asking price, new or used.

But what's not in the book is what pissed me off. There are no accommodation listings. Instead, there's a two-page section which flogs LP's then-new Haystack hotel sales engine.

Haystack crashed and burned, another online failure by an old media company that understands paper and ink better than bits and links.

Consequently, the Encounter guide to Hanoi doesn't have anything to say about where to sleep while you're in town (other than that the Metropole Hotel is historic, elegant and expensive).

I had a similar problem with LP's larger-format city guides. They seemed to be miserly with information, prodding me to buy the larger country or region guide.

It's been almost two years since I've used the blog tag "This Book Is Crap," but Hanoi & Halong Bay deserves it -- probably because of the editorial constraints imposed from above and not through any fault of author Tom Downs.

I doubt I'll buy another Lonely Planet city guide.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Editorial Note

Phuket Island, Thailand

Today's flight report was this blog's 1,000th post.

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Trip Report: Bangkok Airways flight 278 from Phuket to Bangkok


Trip Report: Bangkok Airways flight 278, Phuket to Bangkok, Airbus A319, Economy, Seat 7C, September 2010, US$105 one-way.

Muslim Lady Gaga sat near the back of the plane.

She was in her early 20s, and she wanted everyone to know how sexy she was. Her hijab was pulled back so you could see the start of her luxurious black hair. Her face was lipsticked, powdered and mascaraed.

But her white robes were the eye-catcher. They were tight. You could see her silhouette, with a waist that had never seen childbirth. Her breasts stood out like two C-cup mountains, with the fabric of her clothes cinched tightly across her top to exaggerate her features. Her skin-hugging white leggings flaunted the shape of her perfect calves.

Technically, she wasn't showing an inch of skin in violation of Muslim protocol. In reality, she was a walking cover for FHM Saudi Arabia.

We were both on Bangkok Airways flight 278, which leaves Phuket International Airport at 7:45 p.m. and lands at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi, the big international airport, about an hour later.

Bangkok Airways brands itself as "Asia’s boutique airline," and there’s truth to the slogan. The planes are painted with bright, sunny liveries that depict the carrier's destinations. My aircraft was an Airbus A319 named Luang Prabang, which is the royal city of Laos.

Unique to airlines (AFAIK), all Bangkok Airways passengers, regardless of ticket class or elite status, are allowed to use the airline’s lounges, which offer complimentary finger food, non-alcoholic drinks, newspapers and magazines, and a generally calm and comfortable place to wait.

While offering these amenities, Bangkok Airways tries to match the last-minute fares of the low-cost carriers. Forty-five minutes before the flight, I walked into the ticket office on the second floor of the Phuket airport and purchased a one-way ticket for 3,235 baht (US$105).

Within ten minutes of takeoff, the flight attendants served a snack box (pictured) with a chicken and cucumber croissant sandwich and a moist towelette. Video screens descended from the ceiling, about one screen every five rows, and showed a silent reel of slapstick, YouTube-style clips about people tripping at weddings.

My only quibble with the flight is that, at Bangkok, it lands at a remote gate, so you have to take a bus from the plane to the terminal. As it happens, when you are in a taxi approaching Suvarnabhumi airport, you can see on your left much of the colorful Bangkok Airways fleet parked at its remote gates. The process adds about ten minutes to debarking, but it presumably helps keep the fares down, which in turn helps you afford women like Muslim Lady Gaga.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

A Couple More Links and Comment Threads About Citizens Refusing To Answer CBP's Questions

Bangkok

✇ Bruce Schneier, the security guru, posted a link which generated more than 100 comments.

I recommend Schneier's blog. His principal point on the issue of airport security is that public moneys should be spent on intelligence gathering and analysis of potentially threatening people instead of the current security theater that searches, poorly, for threatening materials.

The Economist posted to their Gulliver blog.

✇ Reddit has a thread of more than 250 comments.

✇ Double Blind did some research into the rights of Canadians re-entering their country.

✇ The Devil's Kitchen analogizes U.S. law with the European Arrest Warrant.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Expat Society Is Riven By Class Differences


Phuket Island, Thailand

A surprising aspect of expat life is that the class divisions of the old country follow you.

Academic and popular literature has noted the class-transcending quality of travel. Employees of the English East India Company in the eighteenth century were middle-class merchants back home but could amass the wealth and influence of a maharajah after sailing east. In the opposite direction, an unpromising son of minor Persian nobility could study at Oxford and be treated like the Shah’s personal ambassador.

Expatriation can loosen cultural restraints. A number of gay American servicemen stayed in Japan to work the Occupation because they could live a freer life than possible back in the States. Although the Paris in the ‘20s meme is probably overblown, a coterie of authors believed they had more latitude to express themselves abroad. There are plenty of Brits, Aussies and Kiwis in Asia today who are from middle-class backgrounds but who want their kids to grow up wealthy.

Expat World is divided by language, of course, although a non-Anglophone receives a pass to the Shakespeare Club by speaking decent English. So it’s common for a German expat to move between two social circles based on gutturals. For some bilinguals, like the Dutch, the home crowd is small, and most socializing occurs among the English speakers.

I’ve always envied the French for their global network of culture. It lies below the surface, like the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and you have to seek it out. But, if you walk into the right bistro in Saigon or Mexico City, you see groups of Gauls at the zinc bar and at the tiny wooden tables surfing the L’Equipe site or arguing about whether François Bayrou is a third way or a spoiler.

But then you notice that most of the customers have the uncalloused hands of university graduates and that they’re wearing brand name or bespoke clothing. The owner is a petit bourgeoisie patron, flattering and deferring to his wealthier customers. The bartender is a rough man who doubles as the bouncer, while the chef supervising the local cooks has the hungry-eyed, splayed-haired look of a thin man who rents his room by the day.

They travelled thousands of miles to a place that imposed no obligations, a city on the edges of their imaginations which accorded them the assumptions and privileges that benefit white Europeans – and, with that freedom, they chose to replicate the social structure of the Île-de-France.

Perhaps V.S. Naipaul is correct. Perhaps people have no ability to change their condition. Perhaps humans are too stupid or timid to grasp freedom when it’s half an arm’s length away. Perhaps language is centripetal, pulling the expat back into the society he left.

Whatever the reason, expats stratify themselves by class. Westerners abroad do the same type of work they would have done back home, socialize with the same type of people and read the same books and websites. Across Asia, there are private clubs and temples and apartment buildings that cater to a specific stratum of the expat world, and, if you don’t match all the entrance requirements, the common passport won’t matter. An Irish policeman can walk into the fashionable nightclubs in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, but he won’t feel comfortable among the architects and designers.

The classes, by the way, are defined more by education and taste than by money, so maybe there’s a mild leveling. The graduate student researching Jawi literature and the social media marketer are, roughly, on par with the younger lawyers and certified financial planners. But even that commingling fades as careers advance, children are raised, and social distance increases.

The notion of expat camaraderie, of a bond born of shared blood and past soil, is a romantic myth. Ultimately, there are people like me, and there are people not like me, and we don’t spend a lot of time together.

Just like home.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Blast From The Past: 3-2 Airline Seating



In his most recent Salon column, Patrick Smith mentions that "some carriers tinkered with five-across seating back in the day, but these schemes were unusual and short-lived."

I'd never heard of or experienced five-across airline seating, so I scrounged up the photo above, which is apparently from a Continental jet.


Update: Be sure to check out the comments, especially Daniel's reminiscence of family flying in the 3-2 configuration.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Trying Priceline’s "Name Your Own Price" Feature in Bangkok


Phuket Island, Thailand

I recently tried, for the first time, the Priceline "Name Your Own Price" feature and found it moderately useful.

I was travelling to Bangkok for a few days and figured that, with images of troops and rioters fresh in tourists’ minds, the hotels would be offering bottom-tranche prices. They were – in a Ryanair sort of way.

Name Your Own Price is a “black label” service. You key in your parameters (dates, location, price, quality of hotel as measured in stars), pay for the entire stay and then find out the name and address of the hotel afterward, with only a limited ability to change or cancel the reservation. If you’re willing to live with a little risk, the feature can be economical.

So I punched in a five-star hotel in the Siam Square neighborhood, which is the high-end shopping district, and bid the $55 a night that was the minimum for that class of lodging. Accepted, Priceline said. I would be staying at the Amari Watergate Hotel.

The reason for the fire sale was immediately obvious. The more desirable hotels in Bangkok are directly on the Skytrain, preferably in front of a station. The Watergate was a block away from the Skytrain's Chit Lom station. A massive block. A block that, in another city, would have been bisected by at least five streets. And sitting on that block was the charred husk of the CentralWorld mall, which had been torched in the rioting.

Which means that, if you stay at the Watergate, you either catch cabs (which add up, although most rides are only $3 to $6) or you catch the Skytrain by trudging down the long block, in the heat, around the swarms of Thais congregating for various reasons (protest, police, demolition, construction) near the CentralWorld site. That $55 a night starts to look less a bargain.

The Watergate room was international luxury class; it was not on the pricier executive floor (pictured), but no complaints. In particular, it had the longest, most spacious desk I’ve ever seen in a hotel, semi-circling perhaps one-third of the wall space, with plenty of desktop on which to work or study. The desk was a digital nomad’s dream.

The internet rates were not. While free wifi was available in the lobby – and it was fun to see the impromptu UN that would congregate in the lobby after hours to Skype Geneva or Seattle or Salvador – the in-room wifi cost $25 a night. That $55 a night starts to look like a bait and switch.

Everything else at the Watergate was typically fancy-hotel expensive. A room service sandwich was $11. The breakfast buffet – which was substantial and varied but not inspired in its offerings (American, British, Indian, Chinese, etc.) – cost $27.

I forgive hotels the markups on food. A traveler doesn’t have to eat in the hotel, particularly in the heart of Bangkok where any cuisine is available for moderate to inexpensive prices.

But the internet charge rankles. There’s no choice if you’re a digital nomad, and an assignment comes in. Internet cafes are sub-optimal places to work -- particularly Asian internet cafes which traffic in teenagers playing first-person shooter games and screaming into their VOIP connections. So you pay the obscene in-room internet rate and fume.

I’ll try the "Name Your Own Price" feature again. But I doubt I’ll stay at the Watergate again. Unless Priceline makes me.

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Hot White Women In Japan Can't Give It Away


Phuket Island, Thailand

Reannon Muth files a Vagabondish report about attractive young white women working in Japan who can't get a date to save their lives. Excerpt:
If you’ve ever visited Asia, you’ve likely seen the pale, rail-thin, greasy-haired white boy walking hand-in-hand with a perfectly made-up, mini-skirt wearing Asian chick. This would never happen anywhere else in the world. Because everywhere else, Barbie ends up with Ken, not his underemployed, socially-awkward, samurai-sword-collecting neighbor, Kevin. But in Asia, dating rules defy all logic or evolutionary law. In Asia, the nerd is king.
Knife Tricks readers are already familiar with this phenomenon.

Photo: Baseball star Jason Giambi shows what it's like to be an average Western guy living in eastern Asia.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What To Do, Say and Not Say When U.S. Police Stop Your Car



I haven't seen the entire video the creators are selling, but it might be worth buying, especially if you have teenagers in the house.

In light of a recent court ruling, the driver would now need to affirmatively say, "I am not answering your questions" or something similar.

Review of To Hellholes And Back by Chuck Thompson


To Hellholes And Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism by Chuck Thompson (U.S. 2009).

Officials in the Congo play an ingenious scam on travelers, but there’s a mystery at the heart of the con.

When a foreigner arrives in the Democratic Republic of Congo via N’Djili Airport, the main international gateway, a customs agent will stamp an incorrect arrival date into the traveler’s passport. The phony date is not random. It’s a date from several months ago, and – the key – it’s a date which fell prior to the issuance of the official DRC visa already pasted into the book.

The intrepid traveler then spends part of her time in the Congo treating with law enforcement officials who all notice that, judging from the stamps in the passport, she appears to have entered the country illegally a month or two before the visa was issued. That’s a serious federal offence, but, luckily, the situation can be rectified for a fee.

It’s a well-conceived scheme which guarantees that international travelers with enough money to arrive in the Congo by plane are always carrying incriminatory documents which can be used by a string of minor functionaries to justify a shakedown. But, as I read about this stitch up in Chuck Thompson’s new book To Hellholes And Back, a question gnawed at me.

How was the customs agent at the airport compensated for his role, the most important part of the plot?

Thompson doesn’t have an answer because, by the time he was detained by a petty despot demanding $500 to correct the irregularity, he was hundreds of kilometers away from the capital in the care of an untrustworthy Belgian tour operator and his Congolese assistants. On this one occasion, the Belgian came through. A sputtering fit of Francophone threats caused the blackmailer to back down, and Thompson was on his way.

Specifically, he was on his way to more hellholes. The conceit of the book is that Thompson decided to visit four of the places he most feared: the Congo, Mexico City, India and Walt Disney World. Thompson included one of those destinations as a joke. There’s nothing scary about India.

Although the sub-continent has its challenges:

Amid the streams of pleas, promises, and come-ons there are flashes of levity – “Sir, wouldn’t you be honored to visit the shop where Richard Gere, Paul McCartney, and Wes Anderson have all bought spices?” Mostly, though, the pressure comes from wheeler-dealer jackoffs who throw themselves at you in unrelenting waves, like post-modern cinematic hyperzombies – forever approaching, hooting, hissing, demanding, wheedling, pawing, clawing, badgering, hassling, negotiating, renegotiating, reneging, hectoring, flim-flamming, lurking, following, promising, promoting, emoting, up-charging, lying, prying, spying, conniving, and, worst of all, sometimes actually convincing you to buy crap you’ve got absolutely no practical use for. All of which makes India by a developing-country mile the most annoying place in the world in which to be a tourist. Of course, I’ve never been to Egypt. Or Target the day after Thanksgiving.
As you can see, Thompson writes in the easy, conversational style he used in his previous book, Smile When You’re Lying, but the tone never becomes cloying or cute. Hellholes reads like a story told at a bar, but one you actually want to listen to. There’s even a few travel tips if you ever find yourself wondering about your choice of lodging in western Congo.

Mindful of the dozens of broken promises that have already marred the trip, I’ve been silently dreading whatever accommodations might be scared up in Matadi. But the Hotel Metropole is an unexpected jewel – a five-story, dark-stone, Venetian-style palace of porticos, archways, ornamental palms, patios, and balconies overlooking an enclosed tiled courtyard. The hotel was built by the Belgians in the 1920s as a vacation spot for privileged whites; along with Chinese businessmen and government dignitaries, the same clientele keeps it in business today.

Just be sure to check the entry dates in your passport.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Hyperbolic Dramatization of the Day


1776: "Then it's agreed, gentlemen, in order to secure our rights as a free people, we will risk embarrassment, imprisonment, expropriation, bankruptcy, bodily harm, exile and hanging."

2010: "Of course I'll waive my rights. I don't want to miss my connecting flight."

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