Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Thai Immigration

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I don't know why I was expecting a proper office. I've been in Thailand long enough to know better. I just figured that the main Immigration office next to the airport would be in, like, an office.

The Immigration office, no, hut, no, shack, yes, that's the word, shack, held about a dozen Royal Thai police, mostly men but a few women. The Royal Thai Police are the national police, akin to the F.B.I. Provincial police handle traffic accidents and day-to-day crime. The Thai Royal Police handle issues like narcotics and financial crime. In the area of immigration, their remit is to review applications for visa extensions and generally remind you who's boss.

One side of the shack has a series of windows. You stand in one line to get the visa extension form. Then you sit at some tables and fill it out. Then you get into another line to hand in the form. Then you wait for the police's decision.

All of this occurs outside. The inside of the Immigration shack is off limits, so the lines, waiting room and tables are all outside on a makeshift patio. There's a wooden roof over the patio to provide shade and keep out the rain, neither of which it does well.

I filled out the form, which asked why I needed a visa extension. A corkboard on one side of the patio listed the officially recognized reasons: retirement, Thai relatives, business owner, medical reasons. There was no category for "I just wanna stay" or "I've become used to doing fuck all and gorging myself on $50 a day." I wrote "additional tourism."

The form requested a picture, which is normal. The picture had to be 2 centimeters by 4 centimeters, which is not normal. Many visa applications the world over request a picture which is a standardized 2 inches by 2 inches, also known as "passport-sized."

Luckily, there was a photo service right next door. No points for guessing that it's owned by a relative of the police official who drafted the form.

A man travelling on a Saudi Arabian passport, dressed in Western pants and a light green golf shirt, was also having his picture taken. He was explaining the visa extension form to his wife, speaking in perfect British-accented English. She was wearing an all-covering black niqab, or veil. The man and I exchanged pleasantries as we waited for our photos.

After paying for the pictures ($2.50), I handed everything in and waited about twenty minutes in the coffee shop that was attached to the patio. No points for guessing who owns the coffee shop, either.

"Lu-ka Pau Kah," announced a policewoman. She wordlessly handed over my passport. I noted that the police gave me a full 30-day extension, and I gave the policewoman a thankful wai, a Thai gesture of respect which combines a bow with a prayerful meeting of the hands near the chin.

"Congratulations," said the Saudi man as I left.

"Good luck," I told him and his wife.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Bend In The River

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad-United Kingdom 1979).

How the members of the Nobel Prize committee must have blanched and twitched as King Gustaf handed their bauble to V.S. Naipaul. The author had, by that evening in 2001, been accused of being a colonialist, a neocolonialist, an elitist, an imperialist and several other -ists that would normally put one in bad odor with the world literature crowd. But if you're in the habit of feting the world's best writers, you could stall for a decade or two, but, sooner or later, you were going to have to give Naipaul his due.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Literature prize, stated in its official citation that it honored Naipaul “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." Fortunately, the prize winners write better than the prize givers.

In A Bend in the River, history -- suppressed, overt, how people make it, react to it, counterfeit it -- is as much the titular river as is the never-named Congo. The famous first line of the novel is the narrator's condemnation of people who allow their lives to be dictated by history and its sergeants-at-arms, family and culture: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

Most people don't live their own lives, Naipaul argues; most act out the lives their parents and culture planned for them. In superficially individualistic countries like the United States, most people will take offense at his argument. "I live my own life!" would be the retort.

Really? Is your life colored within these lines: same level of education (or one additional degree) than your better-educated parent, similar general class of employment as your father, marriage to a co-religionist of your race, a residence within 500 miles of a parent or in-law, at least two kids, all family and business life conducted in the languages of your youth?

Such a life, A Bend in the River argues, is a capitulation to historical forces, not a victory over them.

The novel is narrated in the first-person by Salim, an Indian Muslim merchant who grew up amid the Indo-Arabian diaspora of a cosmopolitan city on the East African coast (probably Mombasa). Salim -- a pleasant, practical man who reminded me of Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children -- realized that, with the success of the African independence movements, the orderly world of the Arab and Indian traders was ending, a fact which escaped the notice of Salim's relatives. "They were buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider the nature of their lives," Salim observed.

Salim decided to leave his world before it was taken from him. To that end, he purchased a general store deep in the African interior, at a bend in the great river.

Throughout the book, Salim is quietly horrified at the way that some of his fellow villagers willingly relinquished control of their lives, unquestioningly swept away by the currents. "They seemed content to just live out their lives," Salim said of an elderly Asian couple who lost their transport business after independence. "They had done all that their religion and family customs had required them to do; and they felt -- like the older people of my own family -- that they had lived good and complete lives."

Salim's childhood friend Indar agreed. "And that is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them," Indar said.

The Asian couple was not alone in their capitulation. Others also repeated cycles of behavior patterned generations before.

When the militias of the independence movement took control of the coast, Salim was joined by Metty, one of his former servants. "The family servants, burdensome to the end, refusing to go away, insisting on their slave status even at this time of revolution, were being split up among the family," Salim explained. Not completely free of his historical obligations, Salim employed Metty at his store.

To Salim, even the wars of African independence were a variation on an old theme. "Some papers spoke of the end of feudalism and the dawn of a new age. But what had happened was not new. People who had grown feeble had been physically destroyed. That, in Africa, was not new; it was the oldest law of the land."

And did the wars bring true independence from the colonial powers? Salim didn't think so. The grasp of Europe on the African mind remained strong after the last gunboat left. "Europe no longer ruled. But it still fed us in a hundred ways with its language and sent us its increasingly wonderful goods, things which, in the bush of Africa, added year by year to our idea of who we were, gave us that idea of our modernity and development, and made us aware of another Europe -- the Europe of great cities, great stores, great buildings, great universities."

Individuals, couples, nations, continents -- none were as free as they thought they were, all were bound by historical forces they could not or would not best.

"After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilites," Indar said. "We have to learn to trample on the past."

Salim tried. He left home and started his business; he was a freer thinker and actor than anyone else in his family. But he still accepted an arranged marriage to the daughter of a family friend, and, when the logic of African politics left him only one option, he quietly accepted his fate.

Salim was one of the strongest ones. And he failed. Where does that leave the rest of us?

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Red Dawn

Chiang Mai, Thailand

"She's too hot to be a Communist," I thought as the Chinese consular officer beckoned me over.

I handed her my passport and paperwork, trying not to stare. She was in her mid-thirties, with wavy black hair and not a single visible line or wrinkle. She looked like a more sophisticated Ziyi Zhang, the type of woman who pays for college with beauty pageant winnings and becomes a television news anchor.

Miss Collective Farm 1991 reviewed my paperwork in silence. She must be a Party member to work in the Foreign Service, I thought, and she must be fairly successful to land a cush post like the Chiang Mai Consulate. I didn't see a name plate, so I decided to call her Red Dawn.

"One or two entries?" she asked.

"Multi entries," I said.

"You need letter for that."

"No letter. New treaty," I said, handing her a printout from the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles. "Nothing about letter."

"Need official letter for multi entry," she said, ignoring the printout. "No letter, only one or two entries."

"Two entries, then." I was not going to win this argument.

I used to tell junior lawyers at my old firm that, while the printed and bound Rules of Court were all well and good, the real Rules of Court were whatever the courthouse clerks said they were. Try to convince them otherwise, and you might be in for rough justice. Certain clerks would refuse to file your papers if you implied that they didn't know the rules, so save yourself and your client the grief and just do what the person with the rubber stamp says.

The same applies to visas. While, in theory, every prospective traveller holding a certain passport is subject to the same rules, in reality, that's just not the case.

One of the staples of traveller small talk is the difference in standards imposed by different embassies and consulates for the same request. Sometimes it's easiest to apply for a visa in the U.S., sometimes in one neighboring country but not another. Sometimes the embassy staff in the capital are picayune about your application, while the consulate staff in a province rubberstamp everyone who pays the fee. And sometimes a Communist hottie insists that U.S. citizens need a letter of invitation for a multi-entry tourist visa when official releases from the Chinese Foreign Ministry say nothing of the sort. But you do what the person with the rubber stamp says.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Health Fascists Laying Siege to Chicago

Scramble all freedom fighters! The health fascists are attacking Chicago! Libertarian irregulars needed at the front to protect your right to eat deep-dish ham and bacon pizza with a side of cheese fries!

The City of Chicago implemented this week a ban on the sale of foie gras, the fatty liver pate. The stated reason for the ban was the alleged cruelty of the foie gras process, in which ducks and geese are forcefed with a tube to enlarge their livers to more than 10 times their normal size.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, no fool, sees exactly where this is going.

"I think it's the silliest law that they've [the City Council] ever passed," Daley said Tuesday. "Why would they pick this and not anything else? How about veal? How about chicken? How about steak? Beef? How about fish?"

The answer is that the health fascists picked foie gras because they thought nobody would care about an expensive, French appetizer. That way, under the cover of consumer apathy, the health fascists could quietly set the precedent of banning the sale of a legal food on the ground that animals suffered in its creation. Then, when the time was right, the precedent would be slowly expanded to other meats.

The health fascists appear to have miscalculated. Chicago diners and restaurateurs enjoyed a day of civil disobedience on Tuesday (the day the law went into effect), with restaurants across the city offering foie gras, many for the first time. According to the Chicago Tribune, you could order foie gras pizza, burgers, hot dogs or soul food, among the choices.

The Illinois Restaurant Association has filed a suit challenging the law. According to published reports, the IRA's primary argument is that the City of Chicago does not have the authority to ban a food based on actions -- the force-feeding of the fowl -- which take place outside of the city. I'm not convinced that's the best argument, because, as the Chicago counsel's office said in response to the filing, cities validly ban things like guns and drugs which were not created within city limits.

Most laws are valid if they are "rationally related" to a "legitimate" government concern. For example, the State of California can attempt to reduce air pollution by requiring that all vehicles registered by the state pass an emissions test that is stricter than the test imposed by other states.

However, even a rational law -- and "rational" is usually an easy hurdle to vault -- can be challenged on a host of grounds, one of which is that the law impermissibly interferes with interstate commerce. Laws passed by cities can also be challenged on the grounds that the local council overstepped whatever authority was granted by the state.

Off the cuff, my primary legal argument would be that the law draws irrational distinctions which prohibit the sale by restaurants (but not stores) of a certain type of duck meat (but not other meats in which an animal is bred for slaughter). A secondary argument would be that the alleged suffering of specially raised ducks and geese -- which have no legal standing -- is not proven as a matter of fact and, even if it were, is not a legitimate government concern. And, even though it's not strictly a legal argument, I would make it clear to the Court -- and to every reporter who asked about the case -- that this law is just the nose in the tent, a first attempt at articulating a legal theory which would allow the gradual prohibition of all meat.

Because that's the real goal. Right now, the health fascists are focusing on foods that come from fuzzy, wuzzy, huggable little animals. But the goal -- never stated -- is to ban all meat. The health fascists are a prohibitionist group masquerading as a regulatory group and, as such, every little thing they want needs to be roundly and comprehensively opposed, even if it's just a silly local ordinance banning the sale of overpriced goose liver.

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Nearly Useless Words: Quinquennial

Quinquennial.

Part of Speech: Adjective.

Etymology: Stinks of Latin. Combines "thumb" and "year."

Meaning: Lasting for, or occurring every, five years.

Why Nearly Useless: The phrases "for five years" or "every five years" should almost always suffice. And how many things in modern life occur at five-year intervals?

C'mon, Use It In A Sentence: "For 69 years, the peoples of the Soviet empire suffered as one Five Year Plan was superseded by another, radically revised Five Year Plan, three generations of quinquennial staggering."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Red Sox World

The implosion of the Boston Red Sox at the hands of the New York Yankees is the second-biggest sports story in Asia. (The biggest is the Pakistani cricket contretemps. What? You're not following that?)

The Yankees swept a five-game series against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. The Yankees currently lead the American League East by 6 1/2 games over Boston.

ESPN Asia airs a package every hour or so, as does CNN International. BBC and NHK are on the story, too. Even the Thai-language newspapers and television stations are covering it.

The Red Sox are being embarrassed on a global scale. Sox fans may now return to their natural state of pre-2004 depressed fatalism.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Free To See P.R.C.

China this summer implemented much-needed reforms and will now, pursuant to treaty, grant U.S. citizens six-month and one-year multi-entry tourist visas.

This is huge because China is, well, huge. If you plan to hopscotch across Asia, life becomes immeasurably simpler if you can move into, out of and across China at will.

Before these reforms, U.S. travellers needed to obtain a single- or double-entry tourist visa to do anything other than change planes in Shanghai, and these visas had to be obtained before you arrived on the mainland. Last-minute itinerary changes often involved a nettlesome trip to the Chinese consulate, and spur-of-the-moment trips to the P.R.C. were out of the question.

The new rules do not affect the length of time you can stay in China, which is still a paltry 30 days (with potential short extensions), but they make it easier to do visa runs to get additional month-long chunks of time.

Here's the form if you feel like exercising your new-fangled travel option: www://losangeles.china-consulate.org/eng/visa/forms/P020060816374198127008.doc

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P.R. Coup for THAI

Thai Airways couldn't buy this kind of P.R. As everyone in the United States now knows, THAI provides luxury Business Class service with champagne, prawns, duck, pate and extravagant seats. Readers of Knife Tricks knew this weeks ago.

Granted, if the flacks at THAI had their druthers, they'd rather not be associated with an alleged child killer, but no P.R. executive is going to decline a weekend of non-stop news coverage focusing on the sumptuousness of the front-of-plane product.

THAI's counterparts at Singapore Air must be secretly fuming. For decades, Singapore Air had a lock on luxury air travel to Southeast Asia, but THAI decided in recent years to compete directly for high-dollar trans-Pacific traffic by greatly improving the quality of its service. Now the entire U.S. market has been reminded of the success of THAI's upgrade.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Perp Talk

Westerners may have thought it unusual that Thai authorities held a press availability with JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Karr. After all, some U.S. law enforcement agencies have suspended the practice of granting access by news cameras to criminals being transferred between facilities, a.k.a. "perp walks." See Lauro v. Charles, 219 F.3d 202 (2nd Cir. 2000) (holding "perp walks" to be Fourth Amendment violation).

It is common in Southeast Asia for law enforcement officials to take a televised victory lap after apprehending a criminal. Cambodian television, for example, features a regular program in which suspects, often apprehended that day, sit behind a table on which sits the evidence against them, sometimes a bloody knife or bat. This program reinforce the impression that the Cambodian police are running down criminals when, of course, the Cambodian police can't run a bath.

The statements made by the Thai officers about the alleged in-custody confession of Karr should be treated with some skepticism. A suspiciously high percentage of the newspaper crime reports involve suspects who have either "fully confessed" or were "caught red-handed."

The fact that Karr is not being granted an extradition hearing comports with my understanding of Thai law. Extrapolating from published reports, Karr appears to have been in country on a "B visa," which is a one-year, multi-entry employment visa. A "B visa," like almost any other kind, can be revoked at any time for any or no reason. Justice works quickly here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Let's eat at Starbucks. Really.

It is one of the inner mysteries: Why is the food at Starbucks so bad?

There is a Starbucks in the building where I used to work. If I were eating dinner at my desk, I would try to hit the little deli before it closed at 5 or the kinda mini-mart before it closed at 6, because, after that, Starbucks was the only option.

The sandwiches were horrible. Bland egg or chicken salad on wimpy brown bread. Bacon as construction paper. Lifeless turkey sandwiches which were a chore to eat. All too small, unappetizingly packaged and overpriced.

Starbucks' Thailand partners have done a much better job of feeding their customers.

The Starbucks here have food you actually want to eat with reasonable sizes and prices. Want lunch? Savory quiche lorraine is $2, as is a ham and cheese sandwich on a croissant. If your tastes are more English than French, chicken pot pie is $1.50, as is the chicken curry puff. Want dessert? Tiramisu is $2.50. Just want something to munch with coffee? The muffins (smaller than their oversized U.S. cousins) are $1.50, and the biscotti is 80 cents.

There are more coffees on tap than in the U.S. A Thai Starbucks offers you a choice of more than one dozen coffees. The beans come from your choice of Latin America, Africa or Asia, straight up or as part of a blend.

If you eat or drink there, the hot stuff is served in white ceramic mugs, and the food comes on real plates. Why can't the U.S. branches do all of this?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

First Place

Dodger doubters may drive to Anaheim for their baseball. The boys in blue have won more games than the mighty St. Louis Cardinals. October baseball in Chavez Ravine . . . .

The Proportions of War

Paul Robinson writes an excellent piece in this week's Spectator about proportionality in waging war. An excerpt:

"In Just War theory, proportionality has a role in both ‘jus ad bellum’ (the rules which determine whether you may wage war at all) and ‘jus in bello’ (the rules which determine what you may do during the war). In the first category, the theorists postulate that it cannot be just to wage war when the possible harm done by the war is disproportionate to the possible good which will result. In the second category, it is impermissible to attack a specific target of the opponent’s when the possible collateral damage will be disproportionate to the military value of the target.

"That does not mean that any attack which causes collateral damage is deemed to be unjust. The first test is whether you deliberately target non-combatants. If you do so, your action is automatically unjust. If you do not, but non-combatants are nevertheless harmed, the next test rests on the doctrine of double effect. Every action has both intended and unintended effects. If the unintended collateral damage was proportionate to the payoff, or was disproportionate due to unforeseeable factors, the action may yet be called just. If the collateral damage was disproportionate and you knew that it would be before launching the attack, then the action was unjust.

"This reasoning balances moral judgments based on intentions with those based on consequences. As long as your intentions are good, some unintended negative consequences are permitted — although not unlimited ones."

"Let's get a sense of proportion about disproportion," Paul Robinson, The Spectator, 12 August 2006 (www.spectator.co.uk) (free registration required).

Monday, August 14, 2006

MADD at Traffic School

I attended traffic school today -- to the extent that sitting in an internet cafe for several hours in Northern Thailand and answering online questions while drinking Chang Beer and eating squid crackers can be described as attending to anything.

I received a traffic citation in May for allegedly rolling through a stop sign in Beverly Hills and, due to the inability of an Officer Givens to fill out the one-page form correctly, I could not resolve the matter before I left the country. In order to prevent a trip-delaying court appearance, I had to repeatedly remind the Traffic Supervisor to put the damn thing in the system, ably coordinating my own prosecution.

California has a simple procedure for resolving minor traffic infractions. You pay the fine (in this case, $126) and in theory you have one point assessed on your driver license. However, you can pay the court about $40 extra to attend a "traffic school," in which case the point is wiped off your record so your insurance premiums don't go up. The catch is that you can only attend traffic school once every 18 months.

Traffic schools used to be in-person, all-day seminars held in flourescent-bathed storefronts on the second floors of god-awful minimalls. In order to attract students, the traffic schools, which are private companies operating under concessions, would one-up each other with eye-catching curricula and names like "Free Pizza Traffic School" and "Comedy Traffic School (Laugh and Learn!)." These non-traffic-themed traffic schools quickly became a staple of "wacky California" newspaper and magazine feature writing.

Then it all moved online. In-person traffic schools probably still exist, but it's been ten years since anyone I know actually attended one. Instead, you log on to one of the accredited online schools, pay the fee (about $20), read the text, complete the quizzes and, upon passing an always-capitalized Final Exam (hey, this is serious stuff) get an also-capitalized Certificate of Completion for forwarding to the court.

The traffic school I chose turned out to be dreadful. The site contained jumbled lessons in no logical order, mangled text, and poorly written, obtuse test questions such as "What is the picture appears above the 'Driving in Fog' section? A. Lake. B. Bridge. C. Forest. D. Downtown." Someone at the Superior Court may wish to adjust the quality control.

That was merely irritating. What infuriated me was the following sentence from the drunk driving section, printed in red letters so you couldn't miss it: "MADD and SADD are excellent resources."

No, they're not. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and its cohort organizations are examples of the most pernicious force in American politics: prohibitionist groups that masquarade as regulatory groups.

MADD is not against drunk driving. MADD is against the legal sale or consumption of alcohol by anyone, adult or minor, even though it will never admit that's its true goal. In a similar vein, Handgun Control Inc. was never in favor of handgun control, it was in favor of prohibiting the ownership of any firearm by any private person. And don't get me started on the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which won't be happy until all our meals are reduced to handfuls of macrobiotic gerbil pellets.

If you want to learn how little MADD cares about preventing drunk driving, ask Bill Anderson. In 2004, the West Warwick, Rhode Island, dad allowed his 18-year-old son and friends to drink at the family house after the senior prom -- with the conditions that everyone stay until morning and Dad kept all the car keys.

"I took a recliner, put it down at the front door, grabbed a good novel," Anderson told CBS News. "I let them know as soon as they came in the door, the keys came over. So, if you needed to get anything out of your car, get it done before you came into the house -- because once you come in the door, you don't leave." For his trouble, Anderson was arrested but had to be released because, under state law, he had not committed a crime.

Did MADD come to the defense of the dad who made sure that none of the 34 teens in attendance got behind a wheel? Of course not. MADD denounced Anderson and repeated its zero tolerance bleating.

"We want parents to understand that underage drinking is not just kids being kids, or a rite of passage. It is a serious -- even deadly -- problem," said MADD president Wendy Hamilton.

But it wasn't deadly in this case, precisely because of the actions taken by Bill Anderson. And, judging from news reports, the results of the teenage partying weren't anything more serious than a couple of senior-class hangovers.

Still think the people running MADD have some grasp of proportion? A Virginia couple were found guilty of throwing a booze party for their 16-year-old son, and a yahoo state judge imposed an eight-year sentence. The local MADD president stated she was "pleasantly surprised" by the sentence and "applauded" the effort, according to the Washington Post. (The sentence was later reduced to 27 months, which still seems oppressive.)

MADD is nothing more than the grand-daughter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. It says one thing, even down to the wording of its name, while advocating a far more reactionary agenda. But it's an "excellent resource," I'm told.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

LOTF: Attack of the English Teachers

I received two interesting comments from actual, bona fide high school English teachers about my Lord of the Flies post.

Dr. Gregg Cramer is the Department Coordinator for the English Departrment at Middleton High School, in Middleton, Wisconsin.

"Many of our teachers use LOTF in our English 10 class," Doc Cramer wrote. "I would if I were teaching it, but I haven't been assigned to this class for several years. The premise of the book seems worthwhile as an admonition to youngsters: without proper supervision, young folks might tend toward chaos. Teachers who leave the classroom or study area for even a few minutes can often be reminded of this."

Howard Clausner teaches in the same time zone, in Northbrook, Illinois, at Glenbrook North High School, which was used by alumnus John Hughes for the exteriors in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

"LOTF is still assigned -- perhaps just because it HAS been assigned for the past thirty years. I have a collegue, now teaching in another state, who reported that she was beginning to teach the text for the twenty-ninth year running. Phew!" Mr. Clausner wrote.

"The tale does engage tenth graders. The messages -- not to mention the symbols -- are unmistakable and relevant to issues in the 21st Century. And so why not teach it? While I personally have listed LOTF as one of the optional texts on an independent reading list, I do not 'teach' the text as I 'teach' Macbeth, The Odyssey, or Pride and Prejudice.

"First, the message in LOTF is so straightforward that it doesn't need to be 'taught.' Second, the language of the text isn't notable for its beauty, or simplicity -- so that doesn't recommend it. Third, it's a story about boys -- indeed, boys behaving badly. After Macbeth and The Odyssey, students need a break from male protagonists and perspectives. And finally, I've not been personally wowed by the text -- not when I was a kid, not as a new teacher, nor now as a seasoned teacher."

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The Nation's Mother




Today is the Queen's birthday, which is also Mother's Day, so don't expect to go bar hopping. The place is dead.

Thai custom absolutely mandates that I wish Queen Sirikit a long and happy reign.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Old Unreliable

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (United Kingdom 1955).

(Spoiler: This post discusses the conclusion of the novel.)

Is an infant unreliable? How about a tattered old man working in a junk shop who brags about his great wealth? Is a Socialist parliamentarian an unreliable vote for the oil and gas industry?

No. You don't expect much from these people. The baby will mew when it will, the old man is a fantasist, and the petroleum lobby long ago wrote off the radical's vote. None is unreliable, because none was reliable.

Yet literary critics insist that obviously flawed and unbelievable story tellers are "unreliable narrators." The phrase, coined in 1961 by University of Chicago professor Wayne Booth, is so elastic as to potentially encompass any narrator who is not an omniscient god telling a wholly linear story in a deadpan style.

Each of the following have, by one critic or another, been classified as "unreliable narrators": Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, because she was a child. Huckleberry Finn, for the same reason. Bob Arctor from A Scanner Darkly, because he was high on drugs. The murderer from The Tell-Tale Heart, because his guilt induced madness. Patrick Bateman, because he may or may not have been an American Psycho.

In many of these novels, the imperfect perspective of the narrator is part of the point. Huck Finn is a product of one place and one time, and it's inconceivable for the story to have been told by a distant third person. What some literary theorists label unreliable narration, I call voice and character and point of view.

In other examples of allegedly unreliable narrators, you are informed early on of the narrator's limitations or biases, and you may proceed with all due caution. Of course the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury is less than dependable; it's the fractured, stream-of-consciousness memories of a retarded man. You take it for what it is worth (which, in Benjy's case, is quite a lot).

None of these characters is a truly unreliable narrator. Each tells the story, the best he or she can, given the attitudes and experience at each's disposal. None is anywhere near as unreliable as the first-person narrator of Graham Green's The Quiet American.

Thomas Fowler is a lazy, middle-aged English newspaperman posted to Saigon in the 1950s to cover the Vietminh rebellion against the French. He befriends a young, idealistic American official "on special duties," and a love triangle emerges among Fowler, the American and Fowler's Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. Fowler is witty, observant and, you discover too late, has lead you down a garden path.

Fowler is unreliable for the simple reason that he lies to you. The first sentence of the book is a lie. The first chapter of the book is a series of lies told to the reader and to some of the other characters.

But Fowler is, by all evidence initially presented, trustworthy. The reader has no reason to suspect Fowler's storytelling until Fowler reveals the truth near the end of the book (and, even then, he never admits that the first chapter was an exercise in mis-direction).

Fowler is not presenting events as he perceived them but discolored by age or background or mental impairment. He is knowingly telling falsehoods to the reader, calculated to be credible and lulling. He is, truth be told, an unreliable narrator.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Notes On the Situation

-- Airline stocks are down. If you believe in the long-term profitability of the airline industry, now is a time to buy individual stocks or transport indexes.

-- Airlines operating out of Muslim countries may see increases in traffic or revenue on the perception that Al Queda isn't going to target Emirates or Royal Brunei or Malaysia or Qatar or similar airlines.

-- This might also be a time to make a bet on general aviation stocks. The more that high-revenue passengers are hassled or have to waste in line, the more sense it makes for their employers or clients to fly them out of general aviation airports in private planes.

-- If you're really concerned, book your international or transcontinental travel on Air Canada. You can reach many major cities in the world if you're willing to connect through Toronto or Montreal. Unfortunately, the same is not true for Aeromexico or Mexicana, both of which have limited international routes.

-- There's always Swissair.

-- The TSA's initial reaction is typical: sweeping, impractical, absolutist prohibitions which grossly burden ordinary travellers to achieve a negligible, if that, increase in immediate security.

-- The threat is to trans-Atlantic routes. Why ban fluids on regional jets running between Kansas City and Saint Louis?

-- An airline cabin is incredibly dry. The ban on carry-on water is unhealthy.

-- Does a large plane like a 747 have enough water on board for every passenger for a 12-hour trans-oceanic flight? Does a smaller jet like a 737 have enough water on board for every passenger for the five-hour transcontinental flights that smaller jets are increasingly tasked to fly?

-- Once the current ban is scaled back, expect airport retailers to sell "TSA-approved" liquids at an even higher price than currently charged.

-- A liquid isn't a type of matter. A liquid is a form of matter. A liquid could be turned into a solid for a limited period of time and later re-constituted as a liquid. Is the TSA going to ban solids?

-- A FlyerTalk poster noted that physicians write prescriptions for non-prescription substances and that your physician can write you a prescription for contact lens solution or something else you want to take on board. But note that the DHS guidance states that "medicines" are still allowed on board, not that anything subject to a "prescription" is.

Cambo Tales: Man hacks cousin to death over dog roast

A Cambodian man hacked his cousin to death with a machete "after a family fight erupted when the man decided to celebrate pay-day by roasting the family's dog and inviting friends over for the barbeque," The Nation reported this morning.

"Nun Chouen, 51, had earned US$20 from itinerant work and had returned home to drunkenly slaughter the family dog for a celebration feast, devestating his nine children and sparking a fight with his wife," according to reports credited to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

"Chouen's cousin-in-law, Long Soueng, 44, attempted to intervene after Chouen punished his wife for arguing by hacking off one of the legs of their stilted house, and Chouen then chopped Soueng with a machete."

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Trains, Planes and Unhappy Guards

"No seats," said the ticket clerk at the Bangkok railroad station. He swivelled the computer screen so I could see a spreadsheet listing all of the available seats on today's trains to Chiang Mai. Every cell contained a zero. Then he pulled up the spreadsheets for tomorrow and the next day. All zeroes.

That's not good, I thought. An air-conditioned first-class sleeper compartment on the train costs $37, but it's a twelve-hour journey. Buses are faster and cheaper but less comfortable because you can't lie flat and there's no privacy. One option seemed best.

I asked for a ticket to Don Mueang airport. It's scheduled to close in September, but, as of today, it's still Bangkok's airport. The clerk sold me a third-class ticket for 5 baht, which is 14 cents.

I got what I paid for. The train was haggard, an unpainted steel frame with thick, dowdy wood panelling that looked 50 years old. Metal seats circled the car facing each other. Two rows of rubber straps ran down the middle of the car.

One rickety black metal fan, screwed into the ceiling at the center of the car, moved back and forth. There was no air conditioning. The windows were large, all open, and anybody with the itch could lean out and be decapitated by an onrushing pole. This trip, however, was uneventful.

The train station was connected to the airport by a series of dirty walkways and overpasses. I found a Thai Airways ticket counter in the International Terminal and asked if there were any seats available to Chiang Mai today. The attendant consulted her computer and asked, "Seven o'clock OK?"

That's good, I thought. I purchased a one-way Y fare economy ticket on Flight 126 for 2,640 baht, which is about $71.

I walked to the Domestic Terminal -- easily half a kilometer away -- to obtain my boarding pass. As I noticed in Los Angeles, Thai Airways dedicated a lot of staff to the check-in counters. Most of the lines moved quickly. I was assigned Seat 40B.

As I walked to security, I noticed that everything about Don Mueang airport seemed tired. It was cramped, sagging and weary. The airport felt like it knew it had a good run but was ready to be kicked upstairs next month and assume the low-volume life of a government and VIP airport.

I put my daypack on the x-ray machine conveyor belt and walked through the metal detector. As I waited on the other side, the female guard at the scanner suddenly pointed to the x-ray of my daypack and yelled something loud and high-pitched in Thai.

That's not good, I thought.

Two female guards with stern looks immediately flanked me.

"Do you have knife?" one asked. Oh my God, I did, and I explained that I packed my Swiss Army knife. I thought I would be taking the train, for which there is no security check, and I had forgotten about the knife when I switched to flying. The guards took the knife, gave me a yellow "security item" receipt and told me to collect the knife from the airline after the flight.

As I waited for boarding, I learned about the foiled plot to destroy several U.S. airplanes departing from Heathrow, and I realized that the Thais would have been within their rights to have me spread-eagled on the floor with their guns drawn. And why exactly did I bring my Swiss Army knife for a one-night trip to the ritziest neighborhood in the country? Did I think I was going to get trapped in the wall between Prada and Hermes and have to cut myself loose?

The gate attendant called for the pre-boarding of elderly and handicapped individuals. Everyone rushed the gate at once. The flight was about 90% full.

The aircraft, named Sritrang, was an Airbus A300-600, a large, twin-aisled widebody. Quite a piece of equipment for a one-hour domestic flight. The craft was at least fifteen years old, according to thai-aviation.net, but the cabin was so fresh and clean that it felt like a newly delivered plane.

As we boarded the plane, white steam-like gas was coming out of all of the overhead vents, lending the plane a winter wonderland look. None of the Thais seemed to care, so I assumed this was standard. The cabin was hot but cooled as the air conditioning did its job.

The flight pushed back one minute late. The weather was drizzly, and thirty minutes passed before wheels up.

Within two minutes of takeoff, the flight attendants passed out boxed meals of greens salad, breaded chicken and a four-layer gelatin dessert. The meal came with fruit punch and water, and the flight attendants were serving coffee and tea from polished silver pots. I found an ant on the side of my meal box, and I thought it was an amusing reminder that, for all Thai Airway's aspirations, it was still the flag carrier for a developing nation.

Tired and full, I snoozed until the captain said we were landing at Chiang Mai. That's good, I thought.

On The Move

I must attend to business in the capital and will therefore be in Bangkok for a day or two.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The World's Most Dangerous Book


The World's Most Dangerous Places (5th ed.) by Robert Young Pelton (Collins 2003) (www.comebackalive).

It took about five months, but I read all thousand pages of The World's Most Dangerous Places, known to its fans as DP. The book is a breezily written cyclopedia of what can go wrong and where as you travel the world.

Presented in a gazetteer format, DP first devotes several chapters to the different ways you can die or wish you had (stepping on a land mine, being kidnapped, intestinal flukes). The heart of the book is the 24 following chapters devoted to different dangerous places.

Pelton and his contributors write in a jokey, jaded style. Congolese president Joseph Kabila Junior is judged to be more sane than his father and "hasn't been quite so bad so far, but, to be fair, it might just be that he hasn't had the time -- what with his country hosting an eight-way war, and all." The authors note the dangers of being an American. "You don't have to go to a war zone to get killed. Sometimes belligerents will track you down and kill you without your leaving the hotel." The security situation in northern Algeria: "Death comes at random if you're a local, and by special delivery if you're a foreigner. You might be safer jogging around downtown Mogadishu wearing 10 gold Rolexes and a stars-and-stripes cape."

Humorous tone aside, Pelton and his reporters -- two of whom died between editions, one being shot in the face by a Russian soldier -- accurately summarize the history and the players in many of the world's hot spots. For example, Pelton explains the differences among al-Fateh, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and the three separate groups that call themselves the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Pelton, who conducted the first media interview of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh on the evening of Lindh's re-capture, is particularly informative regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pelton explains how the United States had a hand in creating the madrassas which churn out anti-American jihadis because, during the 1980s, they churned out anti-Soviet mujahideen.

If anything, the book's breadth of knowledge can be disorienting. When discussing the conflict in the Caucuses, Pelton makes the offhand observation that one of the now-dead Chechyan warlords led troops who "were veterens of the war in Abkhazia."

Of course! The war in Abkhazia! If anything gets my undies bunched, it's the way the U.S. media is constantly yapping about the war in Abkhazia! WTF? (Abkhazia, it turns out, is a coastal province of Georgia which, with no small Russian prodding, declared itself an independent nation. Abkhazian separatists are fighting the Georgians, and Chechyan irregulars, apparently insufficiently challenged waging war against the Red Army in their homeland, crossed the border to fight against the Russians and the Georgians. WTF?)

What it is to view the world through such mordant eyes. DP's most ascerbic criticisms are directed at the African kleptocrats. Former Zaire strongman Mobutu Sese Seko owned 25 villas across the world and "his numerous offspring will live well on the boulevards of Paris." A correspondent at De Gaulle Airport describes "men in expensive suits with huge tribal scars [and] mountains of luggage in bursting cardboard boxes and metal 'caisses,' or coffin-sized steel boxes with large, brass, Chinese-made locks" filed with scotch, perfumes and other luxury goods.

Not that Pelton is a knee-jerk cynic; praise is given where it is due. "Maybe some of the press hailing [Nelson Mandela] as a secular saint can get to be a bit much, but it's really not much more than he deserves," Pelton writes. "He was the principal reason that postapartheid South Africa didn't drown in a sea of blood . . . . One needs only look north to Zimbabwe to see how badly it could have turned out."

Zimbabwe is possibly the most dangerous place on earth, especially if you live there. Almost half of the population is HIV+, with a life expectancy of 34 years for women and 37 years for men, and those numbers are getting worse, according to the WHO. Madman dictator Robert Mugabe blames the crisis on his two favorite bogeymen, homosexuals and the British government, and also, in a charming act of synthesis, on homosexuals in the British government. The country was racked by famine, and Mugabe's response was to order the white farmers to stop growing food and leave. Mugabe capitulated to extortion from marauding thugs claiming to be war veterens and got the payoff money by turning on the printing presses, causing hyper-inflation. "He seems to have gone bonkers in a big way," admitted Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Faced with such appalling facts, DP tries to find the humor. Zim warlord Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi selected his own nickname, which "pretty much renders any other biographical data redundant." And has there ever been a politician with a name as preposterous as the late Reverend Canaan Banana? (A 1982 law prohibited the making of jokes about his name, according to the Telegraph. Luckily, the law only applied within Zim.)

There is one significant surprise tucked away in DP's thick binding. For all the camo and gun talk and machismo, Pelton is a bit of a bleeding heart. "Anyone who chooses to die for something should be listened to very carefully, and possibly corrective action should be taken," Pelton writes about terrorism. "Whether you agree with these groups or not, you do need to pay close attention to what they are saying and why they are being so damned obnoxious about reminding us about it on a regular basis."

"A few angry people can change the course of history."

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Cambo Tales: KR Trial Fiasco Looming

Among other problems, the two prosecutors leading the Khmer Rouge war crimes trial don't speak a common language. Four of the judges have never tried a case before, and there is a shortage of skilled translators. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is not a defendant but was a mid-level KR officer, has "raised obstacles." Imagine that.

"Cambodian court faces high hurdles," Seth Mydans, IHT, Aug. 4, 2006 (http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/08/04/news/cambo.php) (strangely, the web version does not contain all of the copy of the print version).

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Truth In Advertising Preferred

Experience Preferred . . . But Not Required: Foreign Teachers in Thailand by Paul Murphy (Bangkok Books 2004).

In Thailand, you often have to judge a book by its cover. A common practice of Thai booksellers is to shrinkwrap new books or seal used books in plastic bags. A few stores post signs warning that you're not allowed to break the seals without buying the book.

Such were the circumstances of my purchase of Experience Preferred . . . But Not Required: Foreign Teachers in Thailand by Paul Murphy. The front cover is a humorous illustration of two cute teenage Thai girls making googly eyes at a sheepish Western teacher. The back cover promises a "dark comedy and a sometimes brutally realistic portrayal of the kinds of dubious characters who infest school staff rooms across Thailand."

I had just downed more than 100 pages of Henry James, so dubious characters seemed in order. I paid my $15 and went back to my apartment. (Books are curiously expensive in Thailand, even locally produced ones.)

The book is a rip off. It's a series of composites, vaguely revolving around the fictional AEIOU language school. It's fiction but doesn't say so anywhere on the front or back covers.

The book provides no information about the author's research methods or his background. If he is drawing from experiences teaching English in Thailand, fine, but there's no reason to believe the author did anything more than cobble together a bunch of stories he heard from drunk ex-pats in go-go bars.

Experience Preferred . . . seems written and packaged solely to relieve a traveller of 550 baht. In this case, it worked.

But I will never buy another book published by Bangkok Books, and I invite you to avoid the publisher as well.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Miami Vice

Miami Vice. Written and directed by Michael Mann (Universal 2006).

All of the actors are the right age. Colin Farrell is 30, an experienced police hotshot still in lust with undercover work. Jamie Foxx is 39, more reflective of the risks he and his partner are taking. Gong Li plays the love interest and she's 41! Even the two pieces of eye candy on the squad look like they've been around the block a few times.

There's no unrealistic casting designed to pander to a young demographic. No hunk with great hair borrowed from a prime time soap. No 22-year-old girl we're asked to believe is a forensic scientist. No Josh Hartnett.

Commercially, the film makers may pay a price for their casting. The opening weekend's gross was mediocre and, given the reported $135 million budget, the film is not on pace to gross its budget during the theatrical window.

Which means the next action movie by, for and about adults may be harder to make. At least without Orlando Bloom and Eva Longoria.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Trapped!

I am trapped in Chiang Mai. Heavy rain caused the Ping River to overflow, flooding the city. Roads are blocked, service on the only rail line is suspended, the tiny airport is a bottleneck, and no one is getting out because another tropical storm is hitting tomorrow. Cool!

The locals have piled 200,000 sandbags to deflect and route the flooding, according to the Bangkok Post. Government promises made last year to install a comprehensive flood prevention program have not been fulfilled, according to The Nation, the other English-language daily.

The flooding has affected my routine not at all. My street is relatively dry, the internet cafes are open, and room service still works. After this posting, I'll hit 7-11 and buy enough peanut butter, jelly and chocolate to ride out the storm. It's my version of hardtack and jerky.

The good ship Nonthaburi

The experts at flyertalk.com have informed me that the Airbus A340-600 on which I flew to Thailand was eight months old, having had its first flight on November 4, 2005, and having been delivered to Thai Airways on December 9, 2005. The link below leads to a picture of the craft, which is named Nonthaburi.

The double-decker A380 and Boeing's upcoming 787 get much of the press, but the A340s are my favorite planes currently in the air. They're roomy and can carry enough passengers to keep the ticket price down. They're also flagships of which their owners are proud, so the planes tend to be kept in top shape.

An A340-600 has a 2005 catalog price of $218 million, although purchasers of aircraft negotiate substantial discounts off the list price. By comparison, a 747 listed in 2005 for about $221 million and the double-decker super-jumbo listed for $292 million. You start ordering these planes by the bunch, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

I also like the A340 because I prefer to fly trans-oceanic routes on four engines rather than two. The four-engine configuration has hurt Airbus' sales of the A340 series, because more engines means higher fuel costs. But, if something goes wrong over the Pacific, more engines means more engines.

Although the A340 does not have the unique shape of the 747, it can carry roughly the same number of passengers and double the cargo. The photograph gives you a sense of how immense the craft is; in fact, it's the longest commercial airliner ever built.

http://www.airliners.net/open.file/0988258/M/

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!

North Korea has reversed its decision to issue a limited number of tourist visas to U.S. citizens this fall, according to Koryo Tours, a leader in North Korean tourism.

The North Korean government had stated that it would allow U.S. citizens to visit for a maximum of three nights in order to attend the Mass Games, a nationalistic gymnastics exhibition. However, severe flooding has caused the cancellation of this fall's Mass Games, obviating the reason why U.S. citizens were being allowed in.

Looks like I'll have to wait longer to bag that rarest travel bird, the North Korean entry visa.

Internet Banking with the Stupids

The American tourists next to me did everything wrong.

I was peaceably reading my e-mail in an internet cafe in the touristy part of town when I heard the duo lumber in. "Do you think there's internet?" the man asked his wife. "I think so," responded the woman, tipped off by the rows of computers and the sign saying "high speed internet."

The couple, who I immediately nicknamed The Stupids, sat down, and the man began to loudly relay everything he thought to his wife and everyone else. "I hope the link works." "Which one should I order?" "Do you have the credit card?" "What's a card security code?" "I hope there's some still in stock." "How long will shipping take?"

After about ten minutes of this, the Stupids stood up and asked the good-natured Thai clerk if he knew where to buy tickets to "traditional Thai dancing," which is like asking a convenience store clerk in Las Vegas if he knows where to find "a musical show with dancing girls." The two left, and calm re-settled on the tiny shop.

There is no way to avoid internet banking and other transactions when you are on the road for any length of time, but it needs to be done with some sense and discretion. The couple demonstrated how not to do it.

All public internet connections are unsecure. There is no way to eliminate the risk of theft or identity fraud, but there are steps to take to manage the risk.

The first step would be to shut your yap and not let everyone in the internet cafe know you are making an online financial transaction. You'd think that would be obvious.

I take additional precautions. I only make online transactions when absolutely necessary. Each additional log-on carries a marginal risk.

I pick an internet cafe in a Thai neighborhood. An organized scammer would be more likely to target the high-dollar tourist market than Thais earning $1,000 a month.

I pick a time when the cafe is slow, and then I pick a computer which faces away from everyone else. If anyone walks by, I change screens to a blog.

Perhaps most importantly, I try to pick a cafe which is being managed by a bored adult reading a magazine. A bored 17-year-old sitting behind the server is far more likely to know how to run a proxy and capture all of my keystrokes.

I wonder how many mobile phone cards were charged to the Stupids' credit card before they realized something was wrong.

Induction, Dear Watson

Travelling is in part a process of observing large and small details and then making an inductive leap. An example.

Large details: American actress Selma Blair is the face of the Jaspal clothing stores. Massive posters of Ms. Blair dominate the Jaspal store at the local mall.

Small details: This particular Jaspal store is also dominated by a poster which reads "50% off." Although it's a weekend afternoon and the mall is packed, the store does not have a single customer in it.

Conclusion: Ms. Blair may want to have an "all hands" meeting with her people and re-think her East Asia branding strategy.

Closing Time

The brothels of Thailand closed early on Friday in honor of the Crown Prince's birthday. Patriotic girls.