Saturday, July 29, 2006

"It's wrong in every single wretched reactionary thing about it"

Once again, Prime Minister Tony Blair did a better job of explaining the U.S. position than President George W. Bush did. Bush seems so concerned with not describing the War on Terror as a politically incorrect fight against militant Islam that he fails to communicate that the war most certainly is a clash of civilizations that pits pluralistic modernity against theocratic medievalism.

At yesterday's dual press conference at the White House, NBC correspondent David Gregory asked a long-winded question about whether the laundry list of current troubles in the Middle East reflected a loss of U.S. influence in the region.

Blair's response focused on the tenacity and methods of the enemy:

"[I]t's a global movement, it's a global ideology. And if there's any mistake that's ever made in these circumstances, it's if people are surprised that it's tough to fight, because you're up against an ideology that's prepared to use any means at all, including killing any number of wholly innocent people.

"And I don't dispute part of the implication of your question at all, in the sense that you look at what is happening in the Middle East and what is happening in Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine, and, of course, there's a sense of shock and frustration and anger at what is happening, and grief at the loss of innocent lives. But it is not a reason for walking away. It's a reason for staying the course, and staying it no matter how tough it is, because the alternative is actually letting this ideology grip a larger and larger number of people.

"And it is going to be difficult. Look, we've got a problem even in our own Muslim communities in Europe, who will half-buy into some of the propaganda that's pushed at it -- the purpose of America is to suppress Islam, Britain has joined with America in the suppression of Islam. And one of the things we've got to stop doing is stop apologizing for our own positions. Muslims in America, as far as I'm aware of, are free to worship; Muslims in Britain are free to worship. We are plural societies.

"It's nonsense, the propaganda is nonsense. And we're not going to defeat this ideology until we in the West go out with sufficient confidence in our own position and say, this is wrong. It's not just wrong in its methods, it's wrong in its ideas, it's wrong in its ideology, it's wrong in every single wretched reactionary thing about it."


Official Transcript, White House Press Conference, July 28, 2006 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/07/20060728-1.html)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Linguini With a Side of Petty Fraud

Peter Kiefer files a humorous report on the tactics some Rome restaurants use to rip off tourists. Who knew such things went on, and in Italy no less . . . .

"When in Rome, don't expect to pay as the Romans do," Peter Kiefer, IHT, 27 July 2006 (http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/07/27/news/journal.php).

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (United Kingdom, 1954).

I somehow graduated from high school -- a boys religious high school, no less -- without being assigned Lord of the Flies. So I decided last week to read the mother of all high school English books.

I came to the text with certain preconceptions and prejudices. Like many high school students, I was force-fed my share of meaningful stories with something to say. I though To Kill a Mockingbird was simple and didactic, and, after two readings, I cannot comprehend what any serious person sees in The Catcher in the Rye. In Cold Blood and The Stranger were more my speed, stories with the confidence to tell their tales and not hit you over the head with life lessons. I approached Lord of the Flies with wariness.

The story is well known. A flight filled with English schoolboys crashes on an uninhabited island, killing all of the adults. Ralph, a charismatic but forgetful 12-year-old, is elected the leader of the survivors, who quickly segregate by function. Ralph determines the day's tasks. Fat but smart Piggy counsels. Jack and the members of his boys' choir hunt the island's wild pigs. The "littluns," the six- and seven-year-olds, exist in a task-less state of near hysteria.

Jack, the warrior prince who provides meat, becomes envious of Ralph's position as leader. The principal arc of the 200-page book is the heightening tension between Ralph, whose priority is to maintain a signal fire and be rescued, and Jack, whose priority is to hunt and lead.

Many passages were suprisingly clunky. Dialogue sections repeatedly ignored Strunk and White's admonition to "make sure the reader knows who is speaking." Author William Golding devoted substantial space to physical descriptions, but they tended to be vague and confusing. Many of the secondary characters were cardboard, as thinly drawn as in Dickens but without the cartoonish charm. The narration's point of view changed abruptly at certain points.

Lord of the Flies was Golding's first novel, so imperfections can be forgiven. He was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize and a Booker so, to paraphrase Shelly Winters, some people thought he could write.

But what is it about this book, an almost archetypal "promising" first novel, that has landed it on so many required reading lists? Lord of the Flies has sold more than 10 million copies, deep into Dan Brown territory, and my raggedy paperback is the 96th Capricorn printing. (Interestingly, the book initially flopped, selling only a few thousand copies.)

Much of the success of Lord of the Flies must be due to the fact that it is a useful tool when teaching some of the basics of literary theory.

First of all, kids will read it, especially boys who may not be the most avid readers. The idea of a world without grown-ups catches adolescent interest. The book is short. There's a fair amount of action, including a taut climax.

Moreover, the Big Themes are laid on with a backhoe. The symbolism is so obvious that the slowest kid in fourth-track English can figure it out. A student can spend hours matching the characters with their analogues in modern society and, judging from some of the web pages devoted to the book, students have spent much more time than that. Every high school English teacher needs to explain that sometimes there's more to a story than what the characters do and say, and Lord of the Flies feels custom-cooked for that effort.

I don't think Lord of the Flies has much to offer an adult reader, but it's a pleasant reminder of youthful efforts to learn the rudiments of symbolism and subtext.

Now, class, what do Piggy's glasses represent?

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

LAX Upgrades

LAX is making a weak stab at upgrading its facilities. The airport stated last week that it will spend $60 million over the next 10 years to spruce up its facilities, USA Today reported on Monday. Planned upgrades include better lighting and signage and revamped bathrooms.

Terminal 3 will be the first to be addressed. Its principal airline is Alaska.

Too little, too late. These types of cosmetic upgrades should be made as a matter of course at a world-class airport. Does LAX expect us to cheer because it plans to install some signs and decent facilities -- and take 10 years to do it?

"LAX gets a makeover, Vancouver lets you catch a nap," Roger Yu, USA Today, July 24, 2006 (http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2006-07-23-flight-plan-usat_x.htm?POE=click-refer).

Disneyland with the Death Penalty

Thirteen years ago, a new magazine called Wired commissioned science fiction author William Gibson to write his first major piece of non-fiction, an account of his trip to Singapore. Since its publication, Gibson's article has become the Singapore travelogue against which all others are measured, powered by the immediately memorable description of the city-state as "Disneyland with the death penalty."

Another good line:

"Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation. If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have had a lot in common with Singapore."

The scrubbed and gleaming New Singapore was created by levelling Old Singapore, a notorious colonial fleshpot in which the most louche behavior could go unremarked. An example:

"Bugis Street, once famous for its transvestite prostitutes - the sort of place where one could have imagined meeting Noel Coward, ripped on opium, cocaine, and the local tailoring, just off in his rickshaw for a night of high buggery - had, when it proved difficult to suppress, a subway station dropped on top of it."

I will blog about Singapore when I get there. For now, I recommend Gibson's article.

"Disneyland with the death penalty," William Gibson, Wired, Sept/Oct 1993 (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.04/gibson.html).

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Home Serviced Home

I am currently living in a "serviced apartment," a phrase which overstates both components of its name.

I have rented rooms in a "mansion," which in Asian usage refers to an apartment house. Smaller hotel-style rooms, including mine, are on the third through sixth floors, and are rented by the day, week or month. Larger one-bedroom flats with kitchens are on the seventh and eighth floors and are all leased through next spring. The staff refer to the guests on the top floors as "the residents."

I inhabit a 500-square-foot space, furnished with bed, desk, shelves, cabinets, table, couch, refrigerator, cable TV, air conditioning and a private bathroom with Western toilet and shower. The entire building is wi-fi. By the standards of this provincial Thai town, the set-up is impossibly posh. Americans would find the lodgings akin to a nice Ramada.

The mansion provides some of the services of a hotel. Food service is available from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the maids visit three times a week. Other than that, you're on your own.

These accommodations cost $13 a day.

Cambo Tales: The Surviving Big Brothers

Former Newsweek correspondent James Pringle writes an excellent summary in the IHT of which Khmer Rouge leaders are still alive and the conditions under which they live. Pringle's subtext is that almost all of the KR madmen will escape justice.

"Another butcher goes laughing to the grave," James Pringle, IHT, 25 July 2006 (http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/07/24/opinion/edpringle.php).

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Let Them Entertain You

The Black Eyed Peas are touring Asia, as every media outlet regularly reminds me. Newspapers, television, posters, a cross-promotion with Thailand's largest cellular provider -- the Peas have the Kingdom wired.

It's fashionable to poke fun at B.E.P. and their gleeful commercialism. After all, this is a band that re-recorded two of their songs in "simlish" for use in Sim video games. Peas on Ice can't be far away.

On the other hand, they seem to be walking the walk of their cheery-eyed globalism. In addition to Thailand, the Peas are playing Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and India, where they will be staging one of the first major concerts in Mumbai since the train bombings.

You don't see a lot of other international acts skipping two prime weeks of the U.S. summer concert season to perform in the developing world. The only other major act currently touring South East Asia is the reconstituted INXS.

Otherwise, the Western musical pickings are slim in the world south of Japan but north of Australia. Keane hits Bangkok in three weeks. The Yale University a cappella Whiffenpoofs recently performed in the capital, but I must have had a prior engagement that night.

The big concert news is that Robbie Williams is visiting this fall. He plays Hong Kong on November 10, Bangkok on November 14, and Singapore on November 18. He better not cancel. Don't phunk with my heart, Robbie.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Charge!

I recharged three small machines today. At the unhurried pace at which I now live my life, this qualified as a good day's work.

In my defense, there was a fair amount of study involved before I took the calculated risk of plugging the first charger into the wall outlet.

Standard electrical outlets in the United States provide about 120 volts of current at a frequency of 60 hertz. The U.S. standard has been more or less adopted in North America, the Caribbean and about half of South America, as well as in Japan and Taiwan. (Japan's situation is screwy; although the entire country operates at 100 volts, the juice is delivered at 50 hertz in eastern Japan and at 60 hertz in western Japan.)

Most of the rest of the planet operates at 220 to 240 volts, usually delivered at 50 hertz. My current location of Thailand operates at 220 volts delivered at 50 hertz.

The adapter kits you can buy in the airport gift shop have nothing to do with volts and hertz. They only adapt the end of the charger's plug so that the two- and three-pronged flat vertical plugs we use in the U.S. can physically fit into the round or slanted outlets found in other countries' walls.

Nothwithstanding the physical "adapter," if you plug a machine designed only for the U.S. standard of 120 volts at 60 hertz into an outlet delivering 240 volts at 50 hertz, you have just turned your expensive gizmo into a wicked-looking tray or coaster. Think of it as the electric chair for your laptop.

Fortunately, many electronics companies have decided to create one physical product to sell worldwide. It also makes sense that small, portable devices which a traveller could pack should work around the world.

Consequently, many chargers and power converters are "switching" or "universal," meaning that they have been engineered to work most anyplace where the local power supply isn't truly weird. The relevant information is often printed directly on the charger.

The chargers for my iPod, PDA and digital camera all bear the notation "Input 100-240V 50/60 Hz," meaning that the chargers can operate at any current between 100 and 240 volts delivered at either 50 or 60 hertz.

So, at 1:43 p.m., I took out my digital camera battery charger, added the physical adaptor which turned the two flat pins into two round pins, and plugged it into the wall. No explosions. No zapping sounds. No scent of burning plastic. The battery re-charged, and the indicator light went from red to yellow to green. I did the same with the PDA and the iPod.

Drained of energy, I called it a day and decided to read a book to recharge my batteries.

Funny Lede

"It was just around the time when the giant eagle swooped out of the greater Philadelphia night to rescue a creature called a narf, shivering and nearly naked next to a swimming pool shaped like a collapsed heart, that I realized M. Night Shyamalan had lost his creative marbles."

"Finding Magic Somewhere Under The Pool in 'Lady in the Water,'" by Manohla Dargis, NYT, 21 July 2006 (http://movies2.nytimes.com/2006/07/21/movies/21wate.html?8dpc).

Friday, July 21, 2006

Trip Report: LAX-BKK TG 795 C

(Note: The following is my flyertalk.com trip report of the flight to Thailand. Since most people are not fascinated with the minutia of air travel and do not refer to obscure airports by their three-letter IATA codes, this post may be Too Much Information. Feel free to skip it and meet me at the next Cambo Tale.)

I decided to suspend my entertainment law practice for a year or so in order to travel. The first leg of the journey was LAX to BKK, on the TG 795 non-stop, departing at 23:00 on 11JUL06.

I purchased a one-way full fare Premium Economy ticket, because I needed the flexibility and the full refund in case my grand plans changed or fell through. Otherwise, I would never be paying full fare.

The ticket was issued in booking class U, which I though was strange since I assumed I would be booked as a Y. In any event, I got my flexibility (which I exercised) and my refundability (which I didn't), so I didn't sweat the letter.

As always, the worst part of the journey was dealing with LAX and its Tom Bradley International Terminal. Built for the 1984 Olympics, the terminal is now cramped and outdated. The clumsy security procedures don't help.

Los Angeles is the second-largest city in the world's most powerful nation, a glamour city and international gateway, and the airport is an embarrassment. It should be a showstopper like HKG. As a resident of the city, I apologize to everyone who has every tried to buy food at LAX at 11:15 p.m. or nearly gotten run over while looking for the red courtesy shuttle sign.

Thai Air had separate check-in lines for Economy, Premium Economy, Business and First. My Premium Economy counter agent was fast and courteous, and Thai Air had assigned enough agents to process passengers quickly.

Then, in accordance with LAX policy, I lugged my baggage to a TSA screening post, waited as visibly bored TSA personnel scanned the baggage while barely looking at it, and waited again while an LAX stevedore humped the baggage back to the Thai Air counter. There must be a better way to do this. If it takes a wholesale re-design of the terminal, then that's what Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has ultimate control of the airport, should do.

The counter agent gave me a courtesy pass to the Qantas lounge. It was better than my usual haunt, the LAX United lounge, and that's damning with faint praise indeed. The freebies were beverages, alcohol, crackers and spread, and small sandwiches, which included decent lox. Copies of the major Australian newspapers were provided.

I dawdled and got to the gate at the final boarding call. I was distracted by my tardiness, and I didn't register that the FA directed me to turn left, and I didn't notice that my seat looked more like a pod, and then an FA offered me champagne, and I finally realized that I was in Business Class.

I looked at my ticket stub. I was sitting in 14J, and I was classed in C. Equally as important, the welcome wine was a Fleur de Champagne brut non-vintage.

I had been upgraded! Either the counter agent or the CRS had noticed that I was flying full fare and that there was space available in the Business cabin. That's an auspicious way to start a year-long journey, I thought.

The A340-600 was beautiful, immaculate and new, exactly the equipment you want for ultra-long haul. The flight pushed back three minutes early and was in the air without undue waiting. The safety video was standard fare, with the added touch of noting that passengers were not permitted to lie on the floor.

The seat was the space-age pod you see splashed all over Thai Air's promotional literature. Sixty inches of seat pitch, nineteen inches of width, and 170 degrees of recline. The seat had plenty of shared armrest and two separate areas to stow magazines and other items.

The seat had amazing massage and contour features, reflecting the Thai national appreciation of massage. There were more than a dozen ways to configure the seat. The seat unfolded to become completely flat, if not exactly parallel to the floor. I am six one, and I was able to lie supine in comfort.

The first meal, served about one hour after takeoff, consisted of Thai dim sum, a smoked salmon pate with flying fish roe, salad, steamed chicken in garlic soy sauce with rice, rolls and mocha cake. All excellent for airline food.

I washed dinner down with the 2001 Chateau Lamothe-Cissac red. The other wine options were 2000 Marsannay Louis Latour red, 2002 Santa Helena Chardonney white and 2002 W. Gisselbrecht Rieseling Schiste white.

The cabin lights were turned off and, after several days of manic activity finalizing this trip, I crashed.

Breakfast was served about seven hours later. The egg dish was tasteless and, I am discovering, consonant with the Thai culture's inability to prepare a decent American breakfast.

The IFE was on demand. I watched the film Moulin Rouge again, then re-watched several of the musical sequences in a French-language version that was also available. The IFE also offered Thai movies, a few TV shows, some video games and flackery for Thai Air's new Moscow route. Only the two-hour version of Peter Jackson's King Kong was available, which seemed strange on a 17-hour flight.

The IFE offerred a text news service, with content from AP and other wires. I was disappointed to discover that the feed was not updated during the flight, so I could not obtain new information about the Bombay bombings while in the air. The IFE also lacked internet access.

About one-and-a-half hours before landing, the FAs served a light brunch of lobster, greens and rolls. Perfectly suitable.

The landing was smooth, immigration a snap, and customs a non-event.

While I still need to try Singapore Air's legendary service, I am certainly a satisfied Thai Air customer and can readily recommend their front-of-the-plane service to other travellers. Just bring your own breakfast.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Editorial Note: Word Verification Added to Comments

I have added a word verification requirement to the Comments function. In order to post a comment, you will have to type a word that you see on screen, just like you do when ordering concert tickets online.

The word verification is supposed to prevent comment spam, which is the posting of generic comments to a blog which link to an advertisement. Comment spam has been on this site for several weeks, and I have deleted the offending posts.

Now, it appears that a newer generation of comment spam is disabling the delete function. Hence the need to enable the word verification requirement.

Flashman and the Shiny Gear

The 15 - 21 July 2006 edition of Chiangmai Mail prints an AP article about "flashpackers," long-term travellers who roam the globe with worldphones, laptops and other high-tech gear.

Flashpackers can be divided into two distinct groups, according to Hostelworld.com editor Colm Hanratty. There are "the young type, still in college, who might have all the gadgets but not that much money, and someone in later life, late 20s and early 30s, who has more money to spend and carries an iPod and a digital camera," Hanratty said.

Let's see. iPod? Check. Digital camera? Check. Some money to spend? Check. Early 30s? Three out of four will have to do.

My name is Paul, and I am a flashpacker.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Club Floor

At the J.W. Marriott Bangkok, I stayed in a room on one of the hotel's club floors. A room on a club floor costs extra, but some travellers enjoy the additional perks. After a door-to-door journey of 21 hours, I certainly did.

A club floor is a floor within the hotel which allows its guests access to a dedicated lounge -- the eponymous "club" -- which is usually located on one end of the floor. Club floors are also sometimes called "executive floors," since the floors cater to business travellers. Some hotels have multiple club floors, which are often linked by an internal staircase that connects only those floors.

The specific perks vary depending upon the property and the class of hotel. Even the most basic club-floor lounge should provide guests with complimentary newspapers, magazines and soft drinks.

Assiduous use of the club floor's privileges can reduce your food and beverage tab. At the J.W. Marriott Bangkok, the price of a club-floor room included a buffett breakfast in the morning and high tea and a dim sum spread in the late afternoon. After dark, the space became a lounge proper with an open bar and nibblies. Non-alcoholic beverages were available all day for the taking.

Consequently, at this particular hotel, you could eat two meals a day on the house, and you rarely needed to raid the mini-bar (which you could re-stock for free in any event).

Club-floor privileges can also include internet access (wired and wi-fi), use of a meeting room or whatever other services the hotel decides to offer. The club floor sometimes provides separate front desk, concierge and butler services for its guests.

All of which adds up to the fact that the club floor has excellent snob appeal. A well-run club floor is a hotel within a hotel, in which you never have to venture down to the lobby and wait in line with other guests. Rooms on club floors are generally not marketed to leisure travellers nor sold to packagers. Thus, you can take your breakfast in the company of other International Herald Tribune-reading members of the global business community and away from the tourist couple from Iowa and their three fat children. They're not members of the club.

Cambo Tales: Gambling monks attack $2 winner

A taxi driver was allegedly beaten and slashed by four Buddhist monks after the driver attempted to leave a card game with about $2 in winnings. "The monks did not want him to stop playing and leave, as he had won around 50 cents from each of them, so they lost their tempers," said Kien Svay District police chief Mang Pech. "Three of them beat him with the poles used to beat the pagoda's sacred gong, and another one returned with a cleaver and chopped him 14 times." News reports did not indicate the condition of the taxi driver, 29-year-old Meas Buntheng. (DPA, 18 July 2006).

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Searching

Selected previous Google searches on this computer in the Business Lounge of the J.W. Marriott Bangkok:

"Harley Davidson Club Bangkok"

"Adu Dhabi Financial Market"

"AIDS blow job"

"cherry picker"

"why workers join unions"

"Beijing, China+American soldiers+22 January 2006"

"Swiss society of Bangkok"

"textile factory"

"fabric factory"

"goth teen porn"

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Passport Control

One of the decisions each traveller has to make is whether to comply with local laws which mandate that the traveller always carry his or her passport.

Many nations impose this requirement. According to the letter of the law, a traveller caught by law enforcement without a passport can be arrested, imprisoned, deported and/or fined.

So, given the potential penalties, who would break this law? Almost everybody. Why? Because complying with the law is often more trouble than it's worth.

Your passport is best protected in your hotel room safe, preferably the type of safe for which you program your own entry code. The safe behind the hotel counter is also an option if you think the establishment is trustworthy.

Carrying your passport increases the risk that it will be lost or stolen. It could fall out of your pocket. You could lose the purse or daypack in which it is kept. Certain common travel activities, such as going to the beach, cannot be harmonized with the safe portage of a passport.

Constant carriage of the passport also increases the chance that it will be damaged and have to be replaced. The passport is an awkward size and will become bent and bowed if kept in a pants pocket. It can be nicked, scraped, torn and discolored by the contents of a purse or daypack. It can be rendered useless if you sweat its pages together, which would also destroy many of the inked visas inside.

Consequently, many travellers, myself included, make the decision to leave the passport in a safe place and carry only a photocopy. I copy the front pages, which establish my identity and citizenship. I also copy the relevant visa pages, which establish that I am in the country legally. This should satisify any reasonable law enforcement officer who isn't out to hassle me.

Of course, there are countries in which law enforcement personnel are not reasonable and are out to hassle you. I would probably keep my passport on my person in any of the 'Stans. In that case, I would place the passport in a sealed plastic baggie, which would in turn be kept in a "money belt" around my chest and under my shirt.

But for routine travel destinations, I leave my most important travel documents in the safety of the hotel and venture out with a photocopy.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Cambo Tales: Man Stung To Death

"A Cambodian man was stung to death by a swarm of enraged hornets when he tried to break into a hive to collect their larvae for food, police said yesterday. Seng Mith, 50, died on Tuesday after being stung dozens of times in Kandal Province, 25 km from the capital Phnom Penh, district police chief Kem Sokun said. 'The men tried to take the hornet's hive for food, but unfortunately the hive broke and the hornets came out to bite them,' he said." (AFP, 14 July 2006)

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Full Fare Upgrade

Thai Airways gave me a complimentary upgrade to Business Class.

Most auspicious!

While my baggage was being scanned by visibly bored TSA personnel at LAX, the Thai Airways counter agent -- may she be praised from morning until evening and dusk until dawn and at all times of twilight and gloaming -- upgraded my reservation from Premium Economy to Business Class. I didn't notice until I got on the plane and the flight attendant offered me a pre-flight glass of champagne.

Thai Airways was probably following the custom of many airlines in providing free, space-available upgrades to passengers traveling on full fare tickets. It's a way to get into Business Class for a fraction of the price, but the strategy has risks.

As I blogged below, I purchased a "full fare" ticket to Bangkok. A full fare ticket can be amended and cancelled, for a full refund, at any time. This flexibility usually comes with a steep price tag, so travel on full fare tickets is usually the province of business travellers and those with specific travel needs.

In my case, I paid full fare for two reasons. I needed to guarantee myself a seat on the non-stop, because summer is a high-volume time for travel between Los Angeles and Bangkok; the Thai Airways non-stop does not operate from LAX every day and the airline ripped out about one-third of the A340's seats to reduce the weight and thereby extend the aircraft's range. (By my rough calculations, Thai's LAX-BKK route is the fourth-longest regularly scheduled passenger flight, after Singapore Air's routes to LAX and JFK and Thai's route to JFK.)

I also needed complete flexibility in changing my travel dates which, as it turned out, was an option I exercised.

Most leisure travelers purchase "discounted" economy class tckets. These are tickets offered at a sharp discount from the full fare but which have restrictions, such as a required Saturday night stay, a fee for schedule changes and the non-refundability of the price if you can't make the plane.

The upgrade policies are also different. With a discounted economy ticket, your only real way to move into Business Class is to redeem frequent flyer miles. However, many airlines have a policy of upgrading to Business Class every passenger who purchased a full fare economy ticket, provided there are unsold Business Class seats. Sometimes the upgrade is automatically issued by the computerized reservation system, sometimes by the counter agent and sometimes you have to ask for it.

If your full fare economy ticket is upgraded, be happy; you just landed in Business Class for about one-third of the published fare. But I wouldn't purchase a full fare ticket solely in the hope of getting an upgrade. If Business Class is sold out, you end up having paid a first-class price for a third-class seat.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Death Watch 2006

One of the purposes of this blog is to keep a record of the flights on which I am booked so that my friends who keep an eye on the news will know if it's time to order up the dental records. (Dr. Robert Wasserman, D.D.S., of Magnolia Blvd., Sherman Oaks, California.)

My trip begins today. Thai Airways Flight 795. Non-stop from LAX to Bangkok.

I'm not terribly worried since Thai Air is equipping the route with an eight-month-old Airbus A340-500, a jewel of an aircraft, and the A340 series has never had a "fatal event," to use airline jargon.

The Historian

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown 2005)

(Spoilers: This review contains a discussion of the conclusion of the novel.)

A co-worker of mine recommended that I read The Historian. I forgive her.

The Historian is a 642-page book about vampires in which vampires appear for maybe 40 pages, and that’s a generous estimate. After a compelling set-up, the reader is subjected to hundreds of pages of picaresque plodding through Asia Minor and Cold War Europe by a bland hero, a fitfully interesting heroine and a cast of helpers and hinderers who all try mightily to be colorful. Even the drab Communist minder is drab in a neon kind of way.

In sum, American graduate student Paul decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his thesis adviser, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who vanished from his faculty office after providing Paul with information and documents which suggested that Vlad Tepes Dracula, the fifteenth-century Romanian ruler, was still alive. On his journeys, Paul is accompanied by Helen, a fellow graduate student with the same academic interest. The tale is told principally in flashback excerpts from letters, in homage to the manner in which Bram Stoker told Dracula.

The set-up works. Then you have to spend several hundred pages in the company of Paul, who is a boring, literal drip. Paul rarely thinks about the larger implications of his findings, referring every new discovery back to the closed universe of the novel’s plot. Paul is so busy comparing fragments of medieval poetry to Bulgarian folk songs that he never steps back and acknowledges that the discovery of a 500-year-old bloodsucking prince is kinda cool. We’re dealing with a hero so aggressively little picture that it takes him about two weeks to realize he’s on a romantic adventure with a blazingly hot woman.

The characterization is purposeful. In the scenes set in the novel’s present day (the early 1970s), Paul is engaging and broadminded, and you want to invite him over for dinner. The author is taking a page from Amadeus, in which the young Salieri is humorless and driven, and the old Salieri is amiable and content with the fact that the world has forgotten him. The difference is that young Salieri’s machinations are interesting, and young Paul is too dutiful to machinate.

The book does have one extraordinary character. His name is Dracula, and he is not what you expect him to be after listening to a dozen tales of torture and war. He is a scholar, a ravenous intellect and a reverencer of learning and books. Having had five centuries to study, he is arguably the greatest scholar who has ever existed – “live” would be the wrong word -- and he is the historian to which the title refers.

Yet Dracula does not appear until Page 570. We spend less than 20 pages in his company. It is not nearly enough.

Ultimately, The Historian is a failure because none of the characters confronts or even speaks the question that stares them in the face for more than 600 pages: Why not join Dracula, instead of hunting him?

The novel’s climax reveals that Dracula kidnapped Professor Rossi in order to have him catalog Dracula’s library, one of the greatest collections of books ever assembled. Dracula has found the rarest texts, many known only in legend, and offers to provide Rossi with a staff of undead researchers and an eternity in which to read and catalog the books.

Rossi is not even tempted. Rossi is a 60-ish Ivy League professor, unmarried and childless as far as he knows, who put aside, but never forgot, his academic curiosity into Dracula and his world. I think many people in Rossi’s position would have accepted Dracula’s offer and almost everybody would at least think about it.

But no one in the book does. The central idea of the vampire myth – what price would you pay for eternal life? – doesn’t even enter their minds. Paul and Helen and Rossi are righteous prigs and, after far too many pages, I wearied of their sinless company.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Five Easy Pieces

Guy Answering Phone: Jerry’s Deli.

Me: This is for delivery. I’d like a tripledecker number 9.

Guy: What’s that?

Me: [beat] Um, on the menu, there’s a section called “Tripledeckers,” and the sandwiches are numbered. On that list, I’ll take a number 9.

Guy: What’s on that sandwich?

Me: Roast beef and turkey and some toppings.

Guy: That’s not available.

Me: But you’re a deli.

Guy: It’s not available.

Me: Which of the tripledeckers are available?

Guy: Numbers 7, 8, 10 and 12.

Me: But the number 7 is roast beef, turkey and pastrami. It’s a number 9 with pastrami.

Guy: [silence]

Me: OK, tell you what, I’ll have a number 7 and then take off the pastrami. Is that OK?

Guy: Yes.

Me: Thank you.

Friday, July 07, 2006

First and Last Words

“This I tell you: decay is inherent in all conditioned things. Work out your own salvation, with diligence.”

The last words of the Buddha, 480 B.C.


“There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.”

First words from the Preface to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, 1549 A.D.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mexican Counts

The Mexican Federal Electoral Institute announced today that conservative candidate Filipe Calderon is the expected winner of the country’s presidential election.

With 97.98% of polling stations reporting, the preliminary count indicated that Calderon had 36.37% of the vote while leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had 35.37%. Mexico has a “first past the post” system for presidential elections; the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate did not receive a majority of the votes cast. There is no runoff.

The preliminary count is not final and binding. It is based on sophisticated statistical sampling. A hand count of the ballots begins Wednesday, and Lopez Obrador has vowed to mount a vigorous challenge, with recounts and court filings.

A presidential candidate who demands a recount demonstrates that he does not deserve to hold the office. In demanding a recount, a presidential candidate single-handedly hampers the operation and transition of the government, creates endemic uncertainty, encourages foreign and domestic enemies, destabilizes the financial markets and otherwise puts his personal ambition above the good of the nation he swore to serve. Demanding a recount is pure vanity, with an entire nation forced to play the part of the reflecting pond to the candidate’s Narcissus.

Al Gore’s demand for a recount in 2000 created a tedious script which we will have to watch being re-played for decades. From now on, every Republican presidential victory will be met by the loser’s proxies scrambling into court to invalidate the winning ballots, and Al Sharpton & Co. rumbling ominously but vaguely that minorities had been disenfranchised in the pivotal jurisdiction. Republican presidents-elect will as a matter of routine have these accusations, however lacking in evidence, hanging over their victories and reported in detail by a press corps with little else to report between Election Day and the first Cabinet announcement.

Richard Nixon did not demand a re-count in 1960, and if ever a presidential candidate was entitled, it was he. Gore should have shown the same class. But he didn’t, and neither will Lopez Obrador – which is all the more reason he should not be wearing the Mexican presidential sash.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Licensing Scheme

There is no such thing as an international drivers license. All of the internet sites selling “international drivers licenses” are scams that sell you a worthless piece of paper with no official standing. You might as well ask the goth girl in the Art Department to design one for you.

An International Driving Permit (IDP), on the other hand, is an official document which, in conjunction with a valid license from your home jurisdiction, allows you to drive a motor vehicle in most countries. In short, the United States has ratified the 1949 Geneva Convention on International Road Traffic, as have about 113 other countries. Interestingly, about 66 additional countries have not ratified the Convention but have decided to abide by it anyway. So an IDP is valid most anywhere you would want to go.

Each country designates one or more organizations with the authority to issue valid IDPs. The U.S. State Department has designated the American Automobile Association, the well-known drivers club, and the American Automobile Touring Alliance, an organization that nobody has ever heard of.

These are the only two organizations in the United States with the authority to issue official IDPs. You should consider every other provider to be a con artist.

While it is theoretically possible that a provider could act to expedite the issuance of an official IDP, there does not seem to be a need for the service. The IDP application form is simple, and the entire procedure took me less than 30 minutes on Friday at the AAA office in Van Nuys.

Free of PRI

Although press reports about today’s Mexican presidential elections focus on the left-versus-right horserace between the two leading candidates, the important result of today’s voting is that PRI will lose.

Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that a candidate from any political party other than the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) would reside in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. Today, it is unthinkable that PRI’s candidate, Roberto Madrazo, will do better than third place.

It is difficult to overstate the degree to which PRI dominated Mexican politics in the twentieth century. Every single President of Mexico from 1924 to 2000 was a member of PRI or one of its predecessor parties. Although the United States of Mexico is composed of 31 states and a Federal District, an opposition candidate did not win a governorship until 1989.

The Mexicans had a saying that PRI would never allow an opposition candidate to win an election and, if one did, PRI would never allow the victor to take office. PRI maintained its power through patronage, ballot stuffing, ballot stealing, media intimidation, strong arming and outright bribery of voters.

I’m sure that you could find a few Mexicans who voted for PRI because they agreed with the party’s politics or liked the candidates, but let’s not get carried away with the good government rhetoric. This is a country where PRI’s tactic of bribing voters – often with goods purchased by taxpayer money -- has become an entrenched and routine part of every major campaign. For example, voters this spring in PRI-controlled Oaxaca State were offered beds, mattresses and supplies – originally obtained for hurricane relief -- in exchange for votes for PRI candidate Madrazo.

From this perspective, the victory in 2000 of Vicente Fox and his pro-business National Action Party (PAN) was a miracle. Today’s race pits PAN candidate Filipe Calderon against old-school leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the archly socialist Democratic Revolution Party.

It has become fashionable to dismiss Fox’s presidency as a do-nothing failure, lacking in grand reforms. But look at what did not happen during Fox’s presidency: The Mexican peso did not collapse. The IMF, World Bank and USA did not have to prop up the national economy. Domestic terrorism did not roil everyday life.

To a true conservative, this is progress – and perhaps the best that can realistically be expected. Under Fox, Mexicans could believe, correctly, that tomorrow and next June would be similar to today – never a guarantee under PRI. Under Fox, pesos saved today would be worth roughly the same next year – certainly not the case under the most recent PRI presidency. Under Fox, Mexicans could plan for the future without worrying that the latest PRI-backed “reform” would chaotically re-organize an entire sector of the economy for the betterment of PRI and at the expense of ordinary citizens.

So, when the Mexican election returns come in tonight, down a shot of Petron – with salt and lime -- to the fact that, regardless of the winner, PRI is the loser.

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