Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Town and a Bridge



Nong Khai, Thailand

Nong Khai was a nothing river town, a sleepy provincial capital in the northeast of Thailand, the place where the railroad ended although most passengers had already debarked by the time the train pulled into the last station. Then the bridge was built.

Now Nong Khai is a larger provincial capital with a dozen or so blocks of hotels and guesthouses catering to tourists and banks and other businesses catering to two countries' worth of expats. But the streets are still quiet and lightly travelled after 10 p.m., even on a Friday. The bridge hasn't changed that.

The bridge is the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which spans the Meekong River and connects Thailand with Laos, the landlocked country to the northeast. Financed by the Australian government as a showcase for Aussie contractors, the 4,000-foot-long bridge was completed in 1994 and was, at the time, only the second bridge to cross the Meekong.

The bridge is one of the few borders where traffic has to change from a drive-on-the-left country (Thailand) to a drive-on-the-right country (Laos). The changeover is controlled by traffic lights on the Laotian side.

The Thais have extended the rail line across the bridge to the center of the river, where the tracks dead-end and wait for the Laos to find the money to finish the project. According to news reports, the French government agreed earlier this year to finance the railroad construction in its former colony. Perhaps in five years, you can take a night train directly from Bangkok to Vientiane, capital to capital.

I cross the river tomorrow.

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Hockey

I was surprised to learn that hockey is popular in Asia. Then I learned that "hockey" meant this.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Airport A "75% Success"

The opening Thursday morning of Bangkok's new international airport was, depending on whom you asked, a "75% success" or a "touchdown into chaos."

The computerized check-in systems crashed, and the conveyor belts did not work. Airport officials appeared to be the only people surprised that the baggage handling systems malfunctioned, since baggage system meltdowns are practically a routine occurrence when a new airport opens.

Some passengers waited three to five hours for their luggage, and the Thai Airways executive in charge of baggage handling was fired. (The contracts for ground operations at the new airport were awarded to Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways.)

Suvarnabhumi Airport accommodated 813 flights on its first day, and airport officials insist they have already corrected the initial problems.

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Where's O.J.'s Right of Publicity?

Nong Khai, Thailand

Fred Goldman has asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to transfer to him O.J. Simpson's right of publicity.

On the surface, the Motion seems well taken. The right of publicity, as recognized in California by statute and at common law, is assignable and divisible, like any other property right. See Motion, at 4 (although the drafters could have made this section more authoritative).

Although it may strike some people as strange, a third party can own or control a celebrity's right of publicity; it's a standard business practice. For (hypothetical) example, you turn heads in the tavern with your boss Joshua Radin concert t-shirt, because Radin probably licensed a portion of his right of publicity to a merchandising company which has the exclusive right, for a certain time and in a certain territory, to create t-shirts and other tchochkes featuring the Scrubs balladeer. Radin gets a check, the merchandising company profits from sales, and you get to wear a t-shirt that makes you feel cool but will ultimately get you beaten up. Everybody wins.

If, to continue the hypothetical, Radin failed to pay ten months rent -- because he invested the funds in the box office disappointment Zach Braff Ponders The Universe In Extreme Close-Up -- the landlord would have every right to sue, obtain a judgment, levy on the right of publicity and get into the Joshua Radin concert t-shirt business, up to the value of the judgment. (Most creditors would only levy on the income stream because that's easier, but a creditor usually has the right to seize the underlying income-producing asset.)

So, in my opinion, Fred Goldman's Motion is probably supportable under California law.

It's just not certain that California law applies.

As the Motion glancingly admits on Page 9, Line 8, O.J. Simpson is a resident of Florida, where he has been sheltering in the lee of Florida's asset protection laws for a decade. So the question is: Which state's right of publicity laws apply to O.J., those of Florida (where he resides) or those of California (where, according to the Motion, he allegedly engaged in income-producing activity)?

The law isn't clear. Personal property is usually subject to the law of the state in which the owner lives. "If there is no law to the contrary, in the place where personal property is situated, it is deemed to follow the person of its owner, and is governed by the law of his domicile." California Civil Code section 946. Therefore, your comic book collection is governed by the laws of the state in which you live (at least as far as California is concerned).

This rule -- which I'll call "one state, one law" -- has been applied to deceased celebrities. Thus, Princess Diana has no post-mortem publicity rights, because she was a resident of the United Kingdom at the time of her death, and U.K. law does not recognize rights of publicity which continue after death. Cairns v. Franklin Mint, 292 F.3d 1139 (9th Cir. 2002).

The question of which state's law applies to a living celebrity would seem to be answered by an easy extension of the Princess Diana rule. Logically, a celebrity's rights should be governed by the laws of the state (or country) of residence. Except that, as is so often the case in the practice of law, there's a screwy court decision that throws everything off kilter.

In 1999, Abercrombie & Fitch published a clothing catalog which reproduced photographs of famous 1960s surfers without the subjects' permission. Five of the surfers were residents of Hawaii, but our fiftieth state has vague, judge-created right of publicity laws, so the Hawaiian surfers sued in California under California law. The Ninth Circuit, the federal appeals court, said this forum- and law-shopping was ripping, rad and totally cool. Downing v. Abercrombie & Fitch, 265 F.3d 994 (9th Cir. 2001).

So, does a celebrity have one right of publicity, governed by the laws of his or her domicile, or does a celebrity have a certain amount of protectible publicity rights in every state or jurisdiction in which the celebrity is known or renders services or is the victim of infringement?

Obviously, the one state-one law approach is far easier to administer and is arguably fairer. You can choose to live in Florida and enjoy no state income tax but a limited right of publicity, or you can choose to live in California and enjoy muscular publicity rights that cost you 9.3% at the highest marginal rate - but you can't do both.

The some-rights-of-publicity-in-every-jurisidiction is not without precedent. Trademark rights can work on that basis. A nationwide retailer could chose to register its mark in all 50 states and all territories, in which case each jurisdiction would protect the mark to a certain degree based upon its trademark laws. (This doesn't usually happen, because large companies register their marks with the federal government, but the point is that each state has the ability to afford a certain amount of specific protection.)

Although Fred Goldman's attorneys wisely avoid the issue -- while ethically disclosing the key fact of O.J.'s Florida residence -- the choice of law question will need to be definitively answered sooner or later. If I were Judge Lefkowitz, I would ask for more briefing on this specific issue, issue a ruling and then let the appellate courts do their job.

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How To Go

Sooner or later, you will be forced to use the dreaded Asian squat toilet with water but no paper. Here's a cheat sheet.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Those Lips, Those Eyes

Two out of two Westin Bangkok waitresses agree: Suri Cruise is one Asian-looking baby! "Maybe his grandfather Chinese," said Pom. Maybe, ma'am, maybe.

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Blair: No Craven Surrender


Tony Blair, speaking at his last Labour Party conference as Leader, tells his colleagues what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear:

"The new anxiety is the global struggle against terrorism without mercy or limit.

"This is a struggle that will last a generation and more. But this I believe passionately: we will not win until we shake ourselves free of the wretched capitulation to the propaganda of the enemy, that somehow we are the ones responsible.

"This terrorism isn't our fault. We didn't cause it. It's not the consequence of foreign policy. It's an attack on our way of life. It's global. It has an ideology.

"It killed nearly 3,000 people including over 60 British on the streets of New York before war in Afghanistan or Iraq was even thought of. It has been decades growing. Its victims are in Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Turkey. Over 30 nations in the world.

"It preys on every conflict. It exploits every grievance. And its victims are mainly Muslim.

"This is not our war against Islam. This is a war fought by extremists who pervert the true faith of Islam. And all of us, Western and Arab, Christian or Muslim, who put the value of tolerance, respect and peaceful co-existence above those of sectarian hatred, should join together to defeat them. . . . .

"If we retreat now, hand Iraq over to Al Qaida and sectarian death squads and Afghanistan back to Al Qaida and the Taleban, we won't be safer; we will be committing a craven act of surrender that will put our future security in the deepest peril."

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Diplomatic Communique


Nong Khai, Thailand

I razzed the U.S. State Department for its lack of communication regarding the Thai coup, so, in fairness, I need to point out that the American Citizen Services department of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok (pictured) did ultimately send an e-mail to U.S. citizens in Thailand. They sent it six days after the coup, but better late than never. Here's the portion about the Thai political situation:

"PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT - THAILAND

"1. This Public Announcement is being issued to alert U.S. Citizens traveling to and residing in Thailand to the recent military coup in Thailand. This Public Announcement expires December 19.

"2. On September 19 a military group calling itself the Council for Democratic Reform Under the Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) seized control of the Thai government and declared martial law. The CDRM banned any political gathering of more than five persons. The CDRM also banned the hoarding of goods or the increasing of the price of goods of any kind. The CDRM announced it will appoint a civilian government within two weeks as the first step to returning the country to democratic government.

"3. The military deployed troops around key government facilities and other strategic locations, but there is little visible military presence elsewhere. There have been no indications or reports of any violence at this time.

"4. Road traffic throughout the country continues to flow normally, although at reduced volumes. Public transportation is in service and all airports and most border crossings appear to be operating as normal. There have been reports of difficulty crossing the border with Burma at Mae Sot and Ranong. Americans who are scheduled to fly into or out of Thailand in the coming days are encouraged to contact their airline to ensure that the flight schedule has not been changed.

"5. Given the fluidity of the current situation, the Department of State advises all American Citizens in Thailand to continue to monitor events closely, to avoid government installations and any large public gatherings and to exercise discretion when moving about.

"6. The Department of State and the Embassy in Bangkok are continuing to follow developments closely. For the latest security information, Americans traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Internet web site at http://travel.state.gov where the current Worldwide Caution Public Announcement, Travel Warnings, and Public Announcements can be found. Up to date information on security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the United States and Canada, or, for callers outside the United States and Canada, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

"7. American citizens traveling or residing in Thailand are encouraged to register with the Department of State or the U.S. Embassy or Consulate General. American citizens may also register at https://travelregistration.state.gov. The Embassy is located at 95 Wireless Road in Bangkok. The American Citizen Services Unit of the U.S. Embassy can be reached by calling 66-2-205-4049 and by e-mail at ACSBKK@STATE.GOV. The Consulate General is located at 387 Wichayanond Road, Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand. The telephone number is 66-53-252-629."

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Golden Land Opens Tonight



Bangkok, Thailand

3 a.m. is the magic hour.

At exactly 03:00 tomorrow morning Bangkok time, all passenger and cargo traffic will switch from aging Don Muang Airport to the nation's new showcase, Suvarnabhumi Airport.

If the recent openings of other international airports can be used as a gauge, tonight's opening of Suvarnabhumi will be a disaster. Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Denver all opened to massive delays, system crashes and legions of problems, with breakdowns of the baggage handling systems being a refrain. An airport has too many moving parts to open on a dime.

However, Incheon International Airport, serving Seoul, South Korea, did open smoothly in 2001, and Thai officials state that they have implemented many of the practices used in South Korea, one of the key safeguards being that electronic systems are capable of being manually overriden in case they don't work. Eight hundred airport and Air Force employees are on standby tonight in case additional workers are needed to replace malfunctioning automated systems.

For the next 48 hours, a caravan of about 900 trucks is moving equipment, files, computers and pretty much everything else owned by Thai Airways from Don Muang to Suvarnabhumi. About 300 police officers have been assigned to assist, and the government has asked Thais to avoid the caravan routes.

The nation's new military leaders are reportedly personally overseeing the opening of the airport, and this is the first public test of the junta's competence in managing a high-profile government operation. If the airport opening tanks, expect public acceptance of the military government to decline as well.

Still, when everything is sorted, Suvarnabhumi should be a showstopper. The $3 billion airport, which will inherit the IATA code BKK, is designed to handle 45 million passengers in the world's second-largest terminal. The airport will have 51 contact gates and 65 remote gates, with 5 gates capable of serving the double-decker Airbus A380. It can also handle 3 million tons of cargo a year.

Suvarnabhumi is Thai for "Golden Land," a name reportedly personally selected by the King. Once its teething pains are over, the new airport should be a golden opportunity for passengers to see why Asian airports are given such high marks by frequent travellers for convenience, comfort and efficiency.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Moving On

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I am kicking myself out of Chiang Mai and will be on the 4:30 p.m. train to Bangkok. The problem with Chiang Mai is that the living here is so easy that I could easily spend another two months doing absolutely nothing. It's a chill out kind of town, with good food and lots of used book stores.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Bad Trip

Chiang Mai, Thailand

After I finished vomiting, I returned to sweating. The air conditioner was off and the temperature in the hotel room was stifling, but I was buried under the covers trying unsuccessfully to stop shivering. My head hurt, the room spun, and, if I fell asleep for a few moments, I woke up and had trouble remembering where I was. My body was broken.

So were my dreams. Imagine that someone smashes a television screen into tiny shards, each one still playing its fragment of the picture. My dreams were those shards, incoherent swatches of writhing color. I could close my eyes and, still awake, see my dreams projected onto the back of my eyelids.

My medicine was poisoning me.

* * * * * * * * * *

Malaria is the definition of nasty. The Plasmodium parasites live in the stomachs and salivary glands of infected, female Anophelese mosquitoes. If an infected mozzie bites you, the parasites move to your liver, buy furniture and have kids. Once the colony has sufficient numbers, the parasites enter the bloodstream and burrow into your red blood cells, where they continue to reproduce until the infected red blood cells explode, spilling yet more parasites into your circulatory system. The toxins released by the rupturing of the red blood cells are what causes the fever, chills and other symptoms of the disease. With proper medical care, you will not die, but there will be a one- to three-week period when you might wish you would.

Two of the principal anti-malarial medications on the market are mefloquine (often referred to by its brand name Lariam) and atovaquone (called Malarone). The pills are not perfect. They're expensive. They're hard to find outside the First World (where they are least needed). They can have powerful side effects, including, according to the warning label, "intense nightmares, depression and fear."

Worst of all, the anti-malaria pills don't prevent malaria. The various medications suppress the number of parasites in the liver or blood, but the only way to prevent the disease is to not be bitten by an infected mosquito. There is no vaccine.

* * * * * * * * * *

At 3 p.m. last Tuesday, I was fine. At 6 p.m., I took my first dose of Lariam, in preparation for a planned trip into Laos. By 9 p.m., I was suffering from debilitating Lariam side effects, as happens to a small percentage of travellers.

Travellers who are sensitive to Lariam sometimes experience a truncated version of the disease itself. Think of Lariam side effects as the 30-second trailer to malaria's Peter Jackson-length epic.

I couldn't sleep at night, and I didn't have the strength to get out of bed during the day. I had no appetite, which was just as well, since anything I injested quickly flew out one end or the other. The psychotropic effects of the drug were powerful: I went from happy and optimistic about the next phase of my travels to being so depressed and lonely that I wanted to get on the next plane back to Los Angeles.

The first and second days were torture, the third and fourth much better, although a new set of symptoms seemed to establish themselves. Sore throat. Cough. More obviously a cold of some sort.

The fifth day took a return for the worse, and I decided that, for the first time since I was born, I was going to have to check into a hospital.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chiang Mai Ram Hospital is a private hospital which treats both "medical tourists" and local Thais who can afford private health care. The hospital rooms for the medical tourists -- which include a lot of Japanese patients -- are like four-star hotel suites, with a couch, kitchen, mini-bar (no booze) and satellite TV. The Thai floors are less sparkly and more utilitarian.

The doctor's diagnosis was that the Larium side effects held me down, while a throat infection decided to slap me around for grins. The doctor ordered two nights of observation.

The hospital had a rhythm. Cute nurse in impossibly tight uniform took my vital signs at 6 a.m. First meds at 7 a.m. Breakfast at 7:30. A nurse would then come in about once every hour to give me more pills or change my IV or tell me to drink my chalky electrolyte-replacement beverage. Lunch at noon, and, in a nod to the fact that hospitals house senior citizens, dinner arrived at 4:30 p.m. Regular visits from the nurses continued until about 10 p.m., at which point I was left alone until a 2 a.m. vital signs check. The actual doctor would show up once a day about 11 a.m.

Total bill for three days in the hospital: $550. Less per night than a fancy resort. My guess is that the exact same treatment in the United States would have cost ten times as much.

I'm feeling much better now. And I'm throwing out the Lariam and switching to Malarone.

Laos Rumors

The scuttlebutt among the travel agents is that the Thai-Lao border crossing at Nong Khai/Vientiane is open again, but that all crossings north of that are closed, including the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai crossing in northern Thailand.

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Why Register?

The U.S. State Department encourages travellers to register their trip at a secure government website. I generally register, although I've never read or received a persuasive explanantion of exactly what benefits a U.S. traveller receives from registering.

Now I am even more skeptical. Although the U.S. State Department has my address, telephone number, fax number and e-mail address here in Thailand, I have received no communication in the past week (or ever). I would think a military coup would rate at least an e-blast.

The folklore among American travellers is that registering guarantees you a seat on a helicopter out if the shit truly hits the fan, but I have my questions about whether registering acts more to protect the traveller or more as a form of self-reported surveillance that allows the U.S. to keep track of its citizens.

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Many Happy Links

A tip of the knife to the various web pages which have linked to this page in the past few days, not the least of which has been Le Monde. "Paul Karl Lukacs, sur son blog KnifeTricks, dément l'instauration d'un couvre-feu," the French report.

Many thanks also to Gridskipper, Instapundit, L.A. Observed, Pajamas Media, Top Ten Sources and World Hum.

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Scissors Put Away

The Thai authorities appear to have stoped censoring CNN. Even the stories about ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at the Dorchester Hotel in London, calling for prompt elections was allowed to be broadcast.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Overheated Oz Travel Warning

The Austrialian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has issued a hysterical advisory urging Australians to reconsider any travel plans to Thailand. The Aussie government now ranks travel to Thailand only one step above a flat "Do not travel" warning. Many State Department and Foreign Ministry consular statements and travel warnings are overblown and serve more as bureaucratic CYA that informed travel advice, and this one is no different.

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Good WaPo Roundup

The Washington Post prints a detailed overview of yesterday's events, perfect if you are new to the story.

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White House Comments

White House spokesman Tony Snow answered reporters' questions yesterday and left dangling an intriguing hint as to whether the U.S. knew of the Thai coup in advance:

"Q. Given the President's heartfelt promotion of democracy yesterday in his speech, how come we haven't heard from him about the coup in Thailand? Does he have any reaction to the efforts by the military there?

"MR. SNOW: Yesterday, while this was going on, we were still trying to gather facts on the ground. We're disappointed in the coup. We hope those who mounted it will make good, and make good swiftly, on their promises to restore democracy. And by restoring democracy not only means elected governments, but protected rights of citizens, including freedom of speech and assembly. And we also think it's important -- well, again, not only the restoration of democracy, but once that's -- once you have democracy restored, we'll also be in a position to move forward on a free trade agreement with them.

"Q. Did the U.S. government either officially, or unofficially, have any indications that this coup was coming? Did it catch you guys by complete surprise?

"MR. SNOW: I don't -- the honest answer is, I don't know. I'll try to find out. Rather than saying something on the record, call me later and I'll get you a clear answer. I think I know the answer, but I don't want to say without being absolutely sure.

"Q. Did the President have any interaction with the Prime Minister, former Prime Minister of Thailand at the U.N., or any other Thai officials?

"MR. SNOW: I don't believe so, no. I think -- in fact, I believe the Prime Minister was back in the air yesterday -- wasn't he in the air fairly early? I think he was heading back to London."

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China: Thai Coup "Internal Affair"

Not that you were expecting the Chinese to extoll democracy in the region:

"It's Thailand's own internal affair," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in statement about the Thai coup. "China has consistently upheld the principle of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs."

"China and Thailand are friendly neighbours. We wish Thailand harmony and prosperity ... and we hope for the continued development of friendly bilateral relations."

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The King Assents

Bangkok Post:

8:17 p.m.

"His Majesty the King officially endorses appointment of coup council of administrative reform with Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin as head."

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Show of Arms

This evening, I saw ten soldiers stationed at Tha Phae Gate, the central crossroads in the tourist section of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I rarely see soldiers in the city, so this was clearly a show of force.

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Censored News Network

The Thai authorities are censoring the CNN International feed. The anchors can report all they want about the coup, or its economic effects, or almost anything, but as soon as the reporters switch to the obligatory mention of what deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is doing or saying, the screen goes blank and is replaced by a "More To Come"-style message flashing five-year-old pictures of Britney Spears. The censorship lasts from 5 to 10 seconds.

From what I have seen, the BBC World feed and NHK's English-language news feed are not being censored.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

No Spiral Predicted

The L.A. Times reports the opinion of Rand Corporation official William Overholt, arguing that the absence of economic instability in the neighboring economies makes it unlikely that the current slide of the Thai baht will trigger another East Asian financial crisis.

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Curfew? Doubt it.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is being quoted on CNN referring to a "curfew" imposed by the new Thai authorities. As far as I can tell, he is incorrect. There is no news in any of the various English-language media about any curfew.

A curfew would be politically unpopular, as any American teenager can tell you. Thailand is a late-night culture, due in part to the fact that several hours during the middle of the day are unbearably hot. I would be surprised if there were anything to the "curfew" report.

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Land Borders Closed, Air Travel Unaffected

Highlight's from the Bangkok Post's tick-tock:

-- The military has closed Thailand's land borders with Laos and Burma. Crossings into or out of these countries need to be accomplished by air, which means there's gonna be some peeved backpackers who won't enjoy shelling out for the $75 plane ticket.

-- The new Bangkok Airport will open as scheduled on September 28, 2006.

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The Morning After

Chiang Mai, Thailand

It's a drizzly, nothing day.

The sky is overcast, the strong afternoon rain is starting. Most private businesses are open but not banks. The post office is closed. There are more teenagers than usual, more crowds of people sitting in restaurants and listening to radio or TV broadcasts.

The day has the feel of a holiday, but a subdued one. Life at my hotel is normal and uninterrupted, although the management did add an extra person to cover the desk at night.

It's the type of day I'd normally spend inside reading or mapping the next leg of my journey. Aside from the massive headlines at the newsstand and the higher-than-normal number of radios being blared, there's little to indicate that the Army took over in a coup last night.

For outward appearances, it's a blah and boring day.

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Sleep

It's about 4:45 a.m. here in Chiang Mai, and I'm going to sleep. I'll start blogging again tomorrow afternoon Thai time.

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To Learn More . . . .

There are two books in English about former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker (Silkworm Books 2005).

The Thaksinization of Thailand by Duncan McCargo and Ukrist Pathmanand (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies 2006).

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Royal Imprimatur

The New York Times provides a huge fact:

"Overnight, General Sondhi was shown on television in an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a clear indication that the revered constitutional monarch endorsed the move."

Plus, "Armored vehicles seen moving in the capital bore ribbons of bright yellow, a color associated with the monarchy, news agencies reported."

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Au Revoir, Le Ancien Regime

The members of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government are escaping to Paris, the Philippines and upcountry, among other locations. Thaksin's wife had flown Monday to Singapore. The whereabout of Thaksin's three adult children are not know.

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Whose Gear?

I'd greatly appreciate it if a Knife Tricks reader who knows something about weaponry could review these pictures and tell me if any of the machinery was purchased from the United States.

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Coup Blog

A coup blog named 19 September is up and running and is translating the coup spokesperson's broadcasts. Tomorrow has been declared a holiday, and the Bangkok Stock Exchange will not trade.

Ominously, the coup leaders have ordered all management-level government employees and all university presidents to appear tomorrow at Army headquarters. Let's keep this bloodless, guys.

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Coup Leaders Meeting With The King

This BBC report states that coup leaders "went to meet the king." Nothing certain yet about the outcome of that meeting, if it even happened.

If the King tells the remainder of the armed forces to stand down, the crisis is over, and the coup succeeds without a shot. No one wants to see a civil war, with different factions of the Army fighting each other. I cannot fathom this King allowing that to occur -- the King's first responsibility is the physical security of his subjects (which, at the moment, includes me), with the preservation of democracy lower down the list.

It may be hard for Westerners to grasp the enormity of the influence of the Thai monarch. The Thais revere him. Although he is not officially a god, in practice, many Thais treat him as if he were. Although he has little formal role in government, he can -- and has -- brought down governments and his intervention in politics is reserved for only the most critical junctures.

King Bhumibol, the world's longest-serving monarch, is a Renaissance man, and, while the constant hosannas to His name are a bit much, if even one-fourth of what people say about him is true, he is an impressive individual.

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A Muslim Leading Thais

The latest AP piece notes that the coup leader, Army commander-in-chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, is a Muslim, leading to the perhaps unprecedented situation of a Muslim leading this powerfully Buddhist nation.

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Welcome, Instapundit Readers!

Please bookmark this page and return! I am a libertarian travel blogger taking a year off from law. I'd love it if you dropped in every few days. Again, welcome.

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Yet More Notes

-- As of 20 minutes ago, the local channels on the hotel television were all still playing patriotic music videos of the royal family.

-- Other televisions, in Thai homes and businesses on the street, are up and running with news reports. Must depend on the specific service.

-- I walked out to the major street, a north-south artery here in Chiang Mai. Aside from one ambulance racing north, nothing unusual, just the typical light traffic of teenagers on motorbikes.

-- The guy who sells fried dough all night on the street corner was listening to the English-language BBC Radio broadcast. He invited me to sit with him, and I did. Several members of the government had been arrested by the military, the BBC reported, and the specific charage againt Prime Minister Thaksin is corruption. Then an analyst launched into a discussion of Shin Corp. and its holdings.

-- The kids around me in the internet cafe know. They occassionally click to a web page with photos of the coup or receive a call where I can make out a few words. They know, but they certainly do not care.

-- The other post I've been meaning to write -- about how the opening of the new Bangkok airport on September 28 would determine Prime Minister Thaksin's results in the national elections two months later -- is now perhaps less needed by the world.

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Break

I have to take a break and get my passport and immigration papers in case friendly men with guns look in and wonder why the farang is typing so fast when all the kids around him around him are playing Ragnarock.

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Martial Law Declared

The Army has declared martial law, according to Reuters.

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Pajamas Media Roundup

Fourth Cavalry Battalion In Position

Only the laid-back Thais could stage a coup, with most people not seeming to care and the Army apologizing "for any inconvenience." The Bangkok airport is open, which is hugely important from an air traffic perspective.

Newest From The Bangkok Post:

COUP D'ETAT IN THAILAND

by Bangkokpost.com

The army commander Gen Sonthi Boonyarataglin staged a coup d'etat Tuesday evening (Thailand time) and ousted the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr Thaksin was in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, and had earlier tried to dismiss Gen Sonthi and order troops back to their barracks. His order, via a voice broadcast on TV and radio, was cut off halfway as the dramatic coup unfolded.

Tanks and troops of the Fourth Cavalry Battalion moved into strategic points in Bangkok, including the Royal Plaza.

A so-called "Democratic Reform Council" declared itself in control, a throwback to former coups when military commanders promised more democratic reform.

Like most of the previous 19 military coups since 1932, there was no violence. Tanks surrounded Government House and apparently some newspaper offices. All broadcasting on local TV was interrupted, and replaced by a notice which stated the military takeover and apologised "for any inconvenience."

At least in the early hours of the coup, most other communications continued uninterrupted. Cable-TV broadcasts continued -- including foreign news reports of the coup -- and the airports remained open.

Thailand websites including the Bangkok Post were operating under very heavy loads as people tried to find out what was happening. As always, local broadcast media contained no breaking updates.

Mr Thaksin said he would return to Thailand from New York. The shadowy coup administrators said he would not be allowed to resume his post as prime minister.

Sources told the Bangkok Post that Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulananonda had tried and failed to mediate between the coup forces and another army faction loyal to Mr Thaksin. Gen Prem was summoned to the Royal Palace.

The whereabouts of most of the members the government were unknown. Mr Thaksin, Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai and Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkol were in New York. Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Wannasathit, the caretaker premier, was reportedly detained by the military.

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Additional Notes

Chiang Mai, Thailand

-- The coup leaders call themselves the Democratic Reform Council and are under the control of the Army chief, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, according toThe Bangkok Post.

-- For the last week or so, a sound truck would travel around the city blaring something. The signs, in Thai of course, did not contain any pictures or logos. One would go through my northern Chiang Mai neighborhood about twice a day.

-- There is a Royal Thai Air Force base here, attached to the airport. In addition, Chiang Mai is the home of now-deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family. Which means Chiang Mai is a base for both of the contesting factions (although the role, if any, of the air force in the Bangkok events is unclear).

-- Thailand has a homegrown insurgency. The three southernmost provinces, called the Deep South, are overwhelming Muslim and do not consider themselves culturally Thai. They want to create an autonomous Islamic state, and they reportedly engage in small but coordinated and well-planned bombings. A bomb killed four in Hat Yai on Saturday.

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More Notes on the Coup Attempt

-- All eyes on the King. The Thais will do whatever he says.

-- The Thai baht, which has been gaining in strength on the U.S. dollar for a month, is falling.

-- Good roundup.

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Notes on the Coup Attempt

Chiang Mai, Thailand

-- The city of Chiang Mai, in the north, appears unaffected. I am in an interent cafe surrounded by the usual complement of teenagers playing video games. I don't think most of them know.

-- As God as my witness, I have been meaning to write a blog post for the last two weeks on how I thought there was a 1 in 5 chance of a military coup. Everyone is relieved of believing me.

-- I have spent the last week quite ill, including two days in a local hospital, which is why I have not been blogging.

-- The UBC feed of all of the Thai television stations was knocked off the air for a while. When I left the hotel, the stations were playing patriotic music videos of the king.

-- Associated Press.

-- CNN man on the ground reports 14 tanks around Government House, with additional tanks around the Royal Palace. CNN showed footage of Thais walking right up to the military vehicles and shooting cameraphone photos.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Scoop


Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (United Kingdom 1938).

Most British journalists know the meaning of the phrase, "Up to a point, Lord Copper." It means No, but the fictional press baron's employees never wanted to give him so straightforward a report.

Scoop was the Wag the Dog of its day, a knowing and funny satire of cynical journalists determined to concoct a non-existent story to bolster their careers -- and quickly, so they could get back to drinking and screwing on the company tab.

A revolution may be brewing in the East African nation of Ishmaelia! The ruling family is rumored to be factionalizing! Communists and fascists are reportedly taking up arms! Consequently, Lord Copper mistakenly assigns William Booth, his incompetent rural life correspondent, to cover the story for the Daily Beast:

"Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war that drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side, and a colorful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war."

Change the names, and this could be a memo from CNN brass.

Not that the scribes who descend upon Ishmaelia are any better than their employers. "Shumble, Whelper and Pigge knew Corker; they had loitered together of old on many a doorstep and forced an entry into many a stricken home." Meanwhile, the Ishmaelite officials prevaricate, the work-a-day citizens charge felonious prices, and William becomes entangled with a young German woman whose husband never seems to be in town.

The novel is based on author Evelyn Waugh's unhappy experience reporting on the impending Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Waugh's big scoop was ruined. Waugh learned that the Italian ambassador was leaving, which meant that the Italian Army would soon be arriving. Knowing that all telegrams were read by the authorities and by rival reporters, Waugh wrote and telexed his dispatch in Latin. His editors at the Daily Mail couldn't make heads or tails of it and killed the story.

Is Scoop entertaining? Yes. Nasty? At times. Dated and irrelevant? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

* * * *

(Judging from reviews, the new Woody Allen movie of the same name has nothing to do with the book.)

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Kindred Spirit

I know the feeling.

Monday, September 11, 2006

N.D.A.

Intellectual property attorneys like to think of themselves as working in a cutting-edge field of law which barely existed a few decades ago. So I had to laugh when I read the following excerpt from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which was published in 1902.

The sailor Marlow is visiting the office of a Belgian trading company, where he has been hired to lead an expedition to find the ivory hunter Kurtz.

"In about forty-five seconds I found myself again in the waiting room with the compassionate secretary, who, full of desolation and sympathy, made me sign some documents. I believe I undertook amongst other things not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to."

(Free full text of the book is available at Bibliomania).

Skying in Style

Thai Airways has launched a site devoted to its Business Class and First Class products.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Slow Boat from 4 Times Square


Chiang Mai, Thailand

Copies of the Tom Cruise issue of Vanity Fair are expected to arrive at selected newsstands around September 21st, according to the Night Bazaar magazine lady I've been bugging all week. Curiously, the Thais do not consider this the most important news story of the year, but they clearly haven't done the research.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Vampire of Siam


The Vampire of Siam by Jim Newport (Asia Books 2003).

Jim Newport spends part of the year in Los Angeles working as a production designer and the rest of the year in Thailand writing novels. Nothing wrong with that.

Newport's 30 years in Hollywood are evident from the slickness of his first published novel, The Vampire of Siam. The book is a well-packaged product designed to shift units and make money. Nothing wrong with that, either.

You can almost hear the checklist. Subject with proven popularity? "Vampires." Exotic setting? "Thailand." Action at famous locations? "Major sites in Bangkok and Pattaya." Sex and violence? "It's there." Short? "182 pages." Price point? "Just under ten dollars." Could we sell this to tourists by the box-load? "I certainly hope so."

Martin Larue is a 35-year-old trustafarian, living off his family's Microsoft royalties and sharing his swank Bangkok pad with his beautiful young Thai girlfriend. In order to have something to do, he writes film reviews for a local newspaper but is asked by the editor to spread his wings and write up a "ride along" with the local police.

That night, Martin travels with Bangkok's finest as the police ignore a drunken politician who kills a motorcyclist and later shake down a Westerner arguing with a tailor. A typical night in Bangkok, until the police are forced to respond to a call about a dead body dumped at the Hernando Cemetery (based on Xavier Cemetery, a decaying Roman Catholic burial ground in the center of the city).

Martin and the police find the crumpled, nude body of a young Thai woman spread-eagled on the bier of the largest mausoleum. Strange, the police want Martin out of there now. Stranger, the police are not saving any forensic evidence. Strangest, the police announce three days later that a woman who fits the description of the victim died that night . . . by accidental drowning in the Chao Phraya River.

Martin investigates and uncovers similar murders, young women killed at night with their bodies dumped in the cemetery, missing most of their blood. Martin begins to hunt for what he initially thinks is a serial killer preying on Bangkok's bar girls but learns he's on the trail of something far more bloodthirsty.

A competent set-up, competently executed and followed through. Newport's prose is spare, without the over-done descriptions that often belabor stories with foreign settings. The novel is obviously written with an eye toward the screenplay, which isn't a bad thing, since the discipline of writing a linear through-line keeps the story focused on action and relevant dialogue.

You can buy The Vampire of Siam at almost every airport and major railroad station in Thailand and finish the book before you reach your destination. That's what it's designed for.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

I Want My MTV Asia

Deposed Viacom executive Tom Freston announced that he's taking a break from the high-pressure Hollywood life to travel through Asia. "I intend to take a prolonged trip to Asia and get back to my roots, to clear my head," Freston told the L.A. Times.

Wonder where he got that idea?

One more person and it's a trend.

"Opportunity Already Knocks," by Charles Duhigg, L.A. Times, Sept. 7, 2006 (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-fi-freston7sep07,1,1815828.story?page=1&ctrack=1&cset=true&coll=la-headlines-entnews).

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Plane Insanity


Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet by Elliott Hester (St. Martin's Press 2002).


For sixteen years, Elliott Hester worked as a black, male, straight flight attendant. So he certainly has a unique perspective.

He can also write. His prose is light-weight, but it has the quality which the French call attention, you want to keep turning the page to see what he'll say next about his years in the sky.

He should have said more. The book Plane Insanity (titled In-flight Entertainment outside the United States) is a collection of Hester's columns for Salon.com, the on-line magazine that everyone used to read in the '90s but no one has read in years.

Hester plays all the greatest hits. He tells stories about puking kids, disgusting businessmen, arrogant pilots and mile-high-clubbing couples. He occasionally worked the infamous San Juan Special, a cheapo overnight flight from New York to Puerto Rico, where drunken fights were a norm and mothers routinely asked the cabin crew to fill baby bottles with cola. (Although Hester never reveals which airline he worked for, the routings and equipment make it fairly obvious he worked for American.)

Hester also describes some of the insider aspects of the job, like the fact that flight crews do not go to the bathroom in the last few hours of a flight because they need to be loaded for a potential random drug test upon landing. In one of the better columns, Hester tells of how a "crew room" in Caracas -- a hotel room rented by the airline to serve as an employee lounge -- descended into a bacchanalia, with pilots drinking belly shots of tequila from the navels of nearly naked flight attendants.

The book contains a few tips for the frequent flyer. There is not enough room in the 757's overhead bins to accommodate every passenger's carry-on, while the 767 has more room than can normally be filled. The airlines will allow a "celebrity animal" to fly in its own seat, but a non-famous animal which happens to be with a celebrity must be kept caged. Check-in technology has made it almost impossible for a passenger to get on the wrong flight.

The anecdotes are funny, and enough anecdotes make a column, but they don't make a book. Hester never pulls back and gives you a bigger picture. He writes about funny things that people said and did during flight attendant training and during a three-day reassignment, but he never gives you an overview of "Charm School" or explains how a three-day reassignment actually works. What did Hester do during the course of a normal day? What is the flight attendant routine? How does an airline actually work? Hester never says, because he's busy telling the story of the business-class blow job, which is:

A flight attendant notices that a man in business class has a frozen expression of bliss on his face and that a blanket on his lap is making suspicious up-and-down movements. The flight attendant comes over and removes the blanket to reveal a woman in flagrante delicto.

"Ma'am, this type of behavior is not appropriate in business class," the flight attendant says.

The woman does not hear and proceeds apace.

"Ma'am," the flight attendant shouts, "this type of behavior is not appropriate in business class!"

The woman hears, interrupts her activity and asks, "Can we take a seat in coach?"

Good story. OK book. I'm sure there's better.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Sorest Loser




Is there any remaining doubt that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is unfit to be the President of Mexico?

The country's electoral court reviewed all of Lopez Obrador's objections and yesterday ruled unanimously, in a 309-page opinion, that conservative candidate Filipe Calderon was the winner of the presidential election. The loser's reaction, from today's New York Times:

"The losing candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, refused to recognize Mr. Calderón’s victory. He has threatened to continue a campaign of mass protests and civil disobedience to thwart the new president’s ability to govern. . . . . Mr. López Obrador also plans to hold a national convention this month to set up an alternative government, putting himself and his followers on a collision course with the new government."

At this point, world leaders should follow up their congratulatory phone calls to Calderon with denunciations of Lopez Obrador's behavior.

(By the way, the Times article, further down, recites a trope of political writing that has hardened into cliche. A leftist's victory at the ballot box is reported in terms of its triumph, while a conservative's victory is reported in terms of how much "hard work" lies ahead, especially in terms of "healing" the "divisions" created by the election campaign. I have never seen next-day coverage of a leftist's victory which discussed the challenges awaiting in building bridges to landowners, business leaders and the wealthy.)

"Election Ruling in Mexico Goes to Conservative," James C. McKinley Jr., NYT, Sept. 6, 2006 (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/06/world/americas/06mexico.html).

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Smokers International Airways

A German entrepreneur announced the receipt of 300 million euros in capital to launch Smokers International Airways, the IHT reports. The airline, also called Smintair, will operate long-haul routes and, as the name implies, allow passengers to smoke in the cabin during the flight. The airline will commence flights between Dusseldorf, Germany, and Tokyo, Japan, using 747s configured with only first- and business-class seats.

A small victory over the health fascists! Although Smintair will no doubt quickly stop emphasizing the smoking angle and position itself as a luxury product, the refreshing fact is that EU law and Japanese law allow the carrier to operate smoking flights between the two jurisdictions. The continued existence of Smintair will be decided by the ticket-buying public, an abhorrent notion to the health fascists who always know what's best.

Unfortunately, U.S. citizens are not considered smart enough to decide for themselves if they want to fly Smintair or a similar service into or out of the United States. In his last year in office, President Clinton promulgated regulations which forbid smoking on all scheduled flights into or out of the country. 14 C.F.R. Part 252. The Republican Congress, which passed the underlying legislation, shares the blame. See 49 U.S.C. section 41706.

"Smoke and enjoy the flight," Nicola Clark, IHT, Sept. 3, 2006 (http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/09/03/business/smoke.php).

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Monday, September 04, 2006

The Manga-verse, Vol. 2: What Is Going On?


Westerners who are new to manga usually have a few questions.

How do I read manga?

Backward, meaning from back to front and from right to left. You start at what Westerners consider to be the back of the book and read the English translation in a manner that is, to us, literally backward. Most translated manga are now presented in the original Japanese format. The early U.S. publishers introducing manga "flipped" the pages, which was expensive and led to continuity and other artwork problems.

I thought you said it was translated. What's with all the Japanese writing on each page?

Manga tend to be heavy on sound effects, and sound effects tend not to be translated because they are considered part of the artwork. Usually only the speech and thought balloons and the narration are translated. Some publishers provide translations of the Japanese-language words, either at the bottom of each panel or at the end of the book; some don't.

Why are the eyes so big?

Yes, that tends to be one of the first questions asked, and there does not appear to be any definitive answer other than that's the way it is. One explanation is that the style developed organically as a matter of aesthetics. Another is that form followed function; the larger eyes made it easier for artists to communicate emotions. Another explanantion is that the manga industry that established itself in post-war Japan purposefully modelled its art on the cartoony style of Disney and Warner Bros. animation.

Why do the Japanese draw themselves as Caucasians?

You could fill a Sociology Department annex with books, magazine pieces and scholarly articles which attempt to answer this question by positing everything from self-hatred to semiotics.

I prefer the explanation that the Japanese don't actually draw themselves as Caucasians. Rather, the manga technique is to remove unnecessary lines, drawing the minimum detail required to create a recognizeably human face expressing an emotion. To Japanese eyes, this minimalistic rendering looks Japanese, while, to Caucasian eyes, it looks Caucasian.

What's with all the -chan and -kun talk?

Now there's a question with a concrete answer. Japanese forms of address follow an honor heirarchy. By ending someone's name with the honorofic -dono, you are according that person the highest level of respect. -Sama indicates a high level of respect, but not as high as -dono. The most common honorific is -san, which is a neutral term. Friends end each other's names in -kun (for boys) and -chan (for girls). Importantly, the absense of an honorific indicates a great intimacy reserved for immediate family, significant others and the closest friends.

Why do the characters sweat so much?

They don't. Manga is more about the idea of what is happening than the physical reality of what is happening. The sweating usually means the character is nervous or bashful. In the same vein, an angry character may appear in one frame as a fiery demon, and a horny character may be drawn for a frame as an impish troll with a nosebleed. This technique strikes many Westerners as hyperactive, but that's not the intent. (To answer your unspoken question: The Japanese associate sexual excitment with increased blood flow, which they associate with nosebleeds.)

Why do the guys look like girls?

You've paid to see movies starring Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio, and you have a problem with androgynous men who are prettier than their leading ladies? It's a Japanese aesthetic called bishonen, which means "beautiful boy." It's one of the bigger problems with shojo manga, because the object of the heroine's affection is almost always a colorless pretty boy with no compelling feature other than his good looks.

Why are the characters constantly talking about their emotions?

Many manga are bizarrely Freudian. Characters will launch into soliloquies revealing their inner monologues, dreams are often treated as oracles, and the shadow of the past -- sometimes events which occurred generations ago -- routinely haunts the characters. (OK, I guess that last one is more Jungian than Freudian, but you get the idea.)

Here's an excerpt from Fruits Basket, Vol. 1, in which the heroine explains herself as she lies bedridden with fever:

" 'Come home safe.' Why couldn't I just tell her that? The morning my mom died in the accident, I had a quiz. I stayed up all night studying and I overslept. That was the only morning I didn't tell her 'Come home safe.' I always did -- except that once. I . . . after the accident, I considered not going to high school and just working full time. But Mom would have said, 'I only graduated from junior high. I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of it. So I want you to go to high school and have fun for me.' She wanted a better life for me. She worked so hard, and I forgot to tell her to come home safe."

That goes on for another two pages.

Why do so many women in manga get tied up?

Why do so many American crime dramas have a scene or two set inside a strip club? Why does every new reality show have a bitchy contestant who reveals as much skin as the network will allow? Why does every U.S. slasher film feature a slutty girl who gets poked by one of the guys and then gets punctured by the killer?

All of the above are stock dramatic situations which show off pretty girls in various states of undress. Westerners are used to the gutting and flaying in slasher films, for example, so we don't think much of it. But we're not used to large scoops of S&M-inspired imagery in mainstream entertainment, so we notice it more in Japanese arts, where it's prevalent. But it's the same thing.

(By the way, if you want to feel your eyes bug out in disbelief at what you are seeing, rent a copy of Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh (Nikkatsu 1964).)

What's with the giant hooters on the Japanese girls?

Artistic license.

Where can I buy manga?

Any comic book store will have a manga section, and, of course, you can order online. But, if you are lucky enough to live in a city with an outlet of Japan's Kinokuniya Bookstore chain, I recommend a visit, if only as a cultural experience. The Los Angeles outlet is in the open-air mall connected to the New Otani Hotel downtown. (http://www.kinokuniya.co.jp/english/contents/network04.html)

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Manga-verse, Vol. 1: What Is This?


Fruits Basket, Vol. 1, story and art by Natsuki Takaya (Tokyopop 1998).

Genshiken, Vol. 1, story and art by Kio Shimoku (Del Rey Manga 2002).

Ikebukuro West Gate Park, Vol. 3, story by Ira Ishida, art by Sena Aritou (Digital Manga Publishing 2002).

Lament of the Lambs, Vols. 1 & 2, story and art by Kei Toume (Tokyopop 2002).


Westerners are usually amused the first time they ride the Tokyo subway system and see how many Japanese adults are reading comic books. Westerners are usually less amused when they notice that the grandfatherly man next to them is reading a comic book depicting bound and gagged naked teenage girls, but one of the points of travel is to challenge cultural assumptions of what is appropriate, no?

Welcome to manga, the alternative universe of Japanese comic books. In Japan, manga -- rhymes with "kanga," hard g -- are much more popular than their counterparts in the United States, which are still predominantly read by adolescent males and geeky college guys.

Manga in Japan are read by men and women, small children and middle-aged adults and retirees, almost everybody, although manga obsessiveness is, as in the U.S., usually confined to teenage males, called otaku. (The world of the otaku is explored in the manga Genshiken, among other titles.)

Japanese manga depict an initially bewildering array of genres and stories. Some manga -- as with most Japanese nouns, the word "manga" is both singular and plural -- emphasize teenage romance, some are devoted to action, some horror, some are even about the challenges and triumphs of Japanese white-collar businessmen.

The vast universe of manga can be crudely compartmentalized into five categories, two for kids and three for adults.

Shonen manga are action and science fiction stories for boys. I've tried, and I just can't get into these. Many of the stories employ the same cookie-cutter of an earnest and blandly handsome male hero, with one great flaw or emotional wound (a dead girlfriend or an absent parent is always good), tooling around a futuristic Tokyo with some sort of cool machine or special power. When Westerners think of Japanese comics, they usually think of these boys own stories or their animated counterparts, properly called anime but crudely dubbed "Japanimation."

Shojo manga are far more varied and therefore better. Geared toward teenage girls, shojo manga are freed from the confines of the action genre to focus on relationships or realism in whatever setting the creators deem most interesting. Stories in shojo manga are as likely to occur in present-day Japan or during the Tokugawa shogunate as in the near-future, and they are as likely to depict family life or the knives-out world of high school dating as killer robots.

Fruits Basket, a hit title which became an animated television series, demonstrates the elasticity of shojo manga. Tohru Honda is an orphaned and temporarily homeless schoolgirl who moves in with two boys from her high school -- and discovers that they and their relatives are the human embodiment of the characters of the Chinese zodiac. Better: if you hug one, he turns into his corresponding animal for about ten minutes. It sounds twee, but it's pleasantly entertaining, and it's an example of how far removed shojo manga can be from Akira.

The adult manga fall into three rough categories that I've dubbed adult action, pornographic and everything else.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park is a typical adult action title, in which our hero Makoto is recruited to save a series of distressed damsels, all of whom find a reason every few pages to lose their clothes. In Volume 3, Makato and his friends must protect the comely Asumi who is being stalked by one of the men who watches her strip on a web-cam site called The Fairy's Garden. Hip detective stories with lots of skin is the general idea.

Pornographic titles are exactly that, barely plotted stories exploding with graphically drawn sex. While many manga series are flavored by the Japanese taste for sado-masochistic imagery, the straight-up pornographic titles -- sometimes called hentai -- burst with page after page of cute naked women being tied up, slapped around and generally being set upon. If you poke around, you can find English translations, but the stories are so, um, single-minded that you can follow along in the original Japanese.

And then there's everything else. Almost every aspect of Japanese life is dramatized in a manga series. For example, Division Chief Kosaku Shima is an example of "salaryman manga." In the words of publisher White Rabbit Press, this series depicts a middle manager's "attempt to improve the image of the conglomerate and his life." (Note the order of the priorities.)

Baby & Me is a variation on the universal theme of getting stuck with the job of raising someone else's kid. Yuri, or Girl Love, manga are non-pornographic tales of lesbian relationships, with a cognate genre called Boy Love. Iron Wok Jan details the behind-the-scenes politics and competition in the world of professional chefs. Everything has its manga.

The embrace of manga by Japanese of all ages is one of the islands' many achievements. The larger and more diverse the potential market, the more stories can be told and, hopefully, the more stories can be told well.

Although great strides have been made since the 1980s, comic books in the United States are still for the most part ghettoized as a children's medium. The term "comic book movie" does not bring to mind a thought-provoking adaptation of Art Spiegelman's Maus or Los Bros. Hernandez's Love & Rockets. The term does not even apply to the movies Ghost World or Road to Perdition, both of which were based on comic books.

"Comics are just words and pictures," said writer Harvey Pekar. "You can do anything with words and pictures." The Japanese agree, and their culture is immensely richer for it.

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