Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Notes on Laos

Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R.

-- Laos is a prototypical "reformed" Communist country, which is to say that Laos is a capitalist country in which the members of the Communist Party control every piece of the machinery of government, which they use to skim the profits. The Communist flag, the famous yellow hammer and sickle on a red background, flies on government buildings and was flapping outside my hotel window.

-- Laos' former status as an adjunct of the Soviet block appears in small but telling ways. The satellite TV in the hotel carries a Russian-language channel. Aeroflot and other Eastern Bloc airlines like Malev, the Hungarian carrier, have offices or agents here. One hotel on the water front, the Lane Xang, is a Soviet dinosaur now trading on its retro cache. A smaller hotel further inland, the Asian Pavilion, was, in another life, the Constellation Hotel, the favored haunt of U.S. and British spies and the setting for John Le Carre's thriller The Honourable Schoolboy.

-- The ethnic distinction between Thais and Laos is minimal. Most of the population of northeast Thailand is ethnically Lao. The distinction may be entirely political. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents use the words "Thai" and "Lao" interchangeably.

-- The Thai and Lao languages are mutually comprehensible. They are closer than Spanish and Portuguese (although the alphabets differ somewhat). But even the minor linguistic differences are fading, because Laos watch Thai television and read Thai gossip magazines.

-- To the extent that Lao culture is dying in the face of its great neighbor, the Lao government can blame itself. The Communist censorship of Lao media is total, and you don't have to speak a word of Lao to see that the one state-run television channel is a boring propaganda arm. The news is particularly stultifying, with video coverage of Very Important Communists chairing meetings and giving speeches at conferences. I'd watch Thai soap operas, too.

-- The principal English-language newspaper, The Vientiane Times, isn't much better, but it's tabloid journalism compared to the paper chloroform of the KPL News, the Communist Party paper which, curiously, can only be found at a handful of locations, one of which is the lobby of the old-school Lane Xang Hotel. Old habits must die hard.

-- Laos contains an unusually large number of Swedes. And, therefore, Volvos. I don't get it, either.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Flying North

Bangkok, Thailand

I am on a redeye tonight to China and then, about a week and a half later, will be in Turkmenistan, returning thereafter to China for at least a month.

My ability to blog from China may be limited, and it will be non-existent in Turkmenistan, which has an, um, interesting political situation.

E-mail should work fine, although everything sent to me while I am in Turkmenistan (November 6 to 16) may be read by the authorities. Certainly, all outgoing e-mail will be reviewed.

We're not in Kansas anymore.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Colonialism. A good thing?

Saigon, Vietnam

Slate reports on a study which finds that relatively isolated islands which were colonized by Europeans tend to have higher current standards of living depending upon the length of the colonization. The longer the Europeans were in control, the nicer a place the island is now, as measured by income growth and infant mortality decline.

The study's authors disaggregate the data to reveal which European countries did the best job at improving their insular possessions. As summarized by Slate, the study's "verdict is that the islands that are best off, in terms of income growth, are the ones that were colonized by the United States — as in Guam and Puerto Rico. Next best is time spent as a Dutch, British, or French colony. At the bottom are the countries colonized by the Spanish and especially the Portuguese."

This conclusion jibes with what I learned in college, when I was an African Studies minor. Being a U.S. colony was a godsend to the people involved; many received U.S. citizenship, and one of our Pacific possessions won the jackpot of statehood. The Dutch, Brits and French -- who could be inhumanly cruel when their interests were challenged -- brought technology, knowledge and capital to many of their outposts. The Spanish were generally weak and irrelevant after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and the Portuguese were brutal, clinging to some of their African possessions until 1975.

I often made the point in class that the investments of capital, infrastructure and, in certain colonies, education and governance provided the locals with tangible benefits they still enjoy today, India's train system being the obvious example. My comments were often greeted with hisses from my superficially open-minded classmates, since, in academic Boston in the late 1980s, all post-colonial problems were the fault of the occupying power, which was evil incarnate.

But that's not true. Colonialism is a mixed legacy. The new study reveals some of its positive aspects.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Informant

Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R.

About two hours from our destination, a strange and crumpled old man entered the bus, stood for a moment surveying all of the passengers and then decided to sit behind me. His friend, a sharply dressed contemporary, sat next to him.

"Where you from?" the dishevelled man asked before he was even in his seat. I smiled my fake, stupid-tourist smile and said "Vang Vieng" as I noted his appearance. He wore a suit, the only Lao I'd seen wearing a suit, but the trousers and the jacket, both shades of brown, did not match. The suit was dirty and frayed, as was his once-white button-down shirt. He looked like one of those vagrants you sometime see, the ones who wear suits and ties in a grotesque of their former selves.

"No, where you from outside Lao?" he croaked.

"Los Angeles," I said, hoping to confuse him. A surprising number of Asians do not recognize the place name "Los Angeles," although everyone knows the term "Hollywood."

"Ahh, Los Angeles!" the man said, breaking into a darkly stained, teeth-missing smile. I avoided seeing more of his rotten teeth by looking upward but was equally disgusted by his right eye, which was solid black, with visible ripples on the cornea surface where violent damage had been done.

The man, who claimed to be a lawyer, began to tell me about his former position as a consular officer in San Francisco in 1973 and to recite his various international postings. From his rambling, I started to build a plausible storyline. If he were a government official in 1973, he would have been a loyalist of the American-backed royal government. If he were in Laos when the Communist rebels prevailed in 1975 (or had to return at some time), he would have been subject to the roughest treatment in the re-education and work camps which the Lao Communists call "seminars." That would explain the eye and the crazed demeanor.

He interrupted his monologue and barked, "You journalist? You write about Lao?"

"No. Tourist," I said. Is this guy secret police? I wondered. No, he's too pathetic, but he might have agreed to be an informer in exchange for his bar card. Or he could just be some crazy guy who fancies himself the protector of Laos' global reputation.

The man, in his 60s and pudgier than most Laos, resumed his spiel, this time emphasizing his role within the Lao Bar Association and his trip north to see a client. He interrupted himself mid-sentence and almost yelled, "You write about Lao? You journalist?" "No. Tourist," I said again, noting that several of the Lao women on the bus seemed uneasy and a few were eyeing the man with suspicion and dislike.

That cinched it. Fucker was an informer.

He asked for my name, and I said "Karl," a combination of syllables that Thais and Laos have difficulty comprehending. I was preparing to give him Ali G-style nonsense responses to his remaining questions, when I was saved by the winding mountain road. The bus lurched left one moment and right the next as we trundled through the mountains like a malfunctioning washing machine. When the hardest jolts started, the man stopped talking to me, and, after about fifteen minutes of swaying and veering, the man hurled the wet, chunky contents of his stomach against the back of my seat.

Serves you right, Communist prick, I though as I heard him moan. He didn't ask me any other questions and, when we arrived at his stop, his friend had to carry him out. Hopefully, he was too ill to file his report about the visitor from California.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Bus Ride of Horror

Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R.

I started to worry when the two Israeli soldiers at the back of the bus cracked open a window and started smoking a joint to calm their nerves. If these tough-guy sabras, celebrating their discharges from the I.D.F., were nervous, I had every right to be terrified.

If you want to travel from the Lao capital of Vientiane to the royal city of Luang Prabang, you have three options. You can take the bus, you can fly on Lao Airlines, or you can hire the guy at the airport who pilots the helicopter. Most people take the bus.

Route 13, which connects Vientiane and Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, is the central artery of Laos. By Western standards, it's a country road, with barely enough width for two passing buses. But, unlike almost all other Lao roads, it is paved and competently maintained. The road is arguably the country's greatest commercial asset.

A dozen or so buses run the route every day. The "VIP" buses are comfortable, Western-style buses with air conditioning, the kind used in the U.S. to haul ex-urban commuters into the central city on workdays. The "local" buses are jalopies with hard seats and broken fans. I was under the impression that tickets to the VIP bus were only sold to travellers and affluent Laos, and I was mistaken.

About fifteen Western travellers boarded the bus in Vang Vieng, mentally preparing for the 6-hour ride north. The Lao driver was in his 40s, a good sign, since men in their forties are more interested in living to see their family than setting land speed records on windy mountain roads. A Lao woman of similar age who may have been the bus' owner -- and who certainly was earning a percentage of the fare box -- sat in the first row with a clipboard, the universal symbol of petit authority.

About 20 kilometers out of town, the clipboard lady decided she had sold as many Western-priced tickets as the market would bear for that day and started to sell the remaining seats and some of the aisle space to ordinary Loas for whatever she could get. The airlines call it "yield management."

Over the next dozen stops -- and there was a stop every ten minutes -- the bus filled with rural Loas, mostly women and girls, and their packages. Food. Vegetables. Two dogs. A motorcycle was hauled into the aisle, forcing every passenger to climb over it, including two women with babies strapped to them. The smell of Lao spices filled the bus, which was welcome since rural Laos and Western backpackers do not smell like lavender.

A teenage boy with acne and a weathered rifle hopped on, did not pay, and travelled with us for about three hours. By this point in my travels, I have become so accustomed to kids with guns that I was upset when he left. Either he was with the government and was our security guard, or he was with the rebels and he was our insurance policy.

About halfway to Luang Prabang, the bus started to climb into a mountain range. The bus would nearly stall each time the driver changed gears. The road was thin, and the bus was forced to make blind turns while occupying the oncoming lane. To the left was a cliff, at times a 150-foot, tree-spiked drop with no guard rail. To the right was an ill-conceived drainage ditch that would have sent the bus tumbling if a wheel caught.

The Laos were acting like this was any other day. The Western travellers were troubled, exuding that silent electricity you feel when an airplane hits heavy turbulence. It was about ten minutes into the mountains when the freaked-out Israelis decided to spark it up and take the edge off. No one begrudged them.

But how quickly we tire of terrors.

After about thirty minutes of staring into a wooded abyss inches from the window, the Western travellers became inured to the danger. The mood slowly improved, and the Westerners began to reach for cameras instead of clutching the seats in front of them. Conversations resumed. The Australian woman across from me went back to reading her Paulo Coelho novel while listening to her iPod.

The bus weaved through the mountains for more than three hours. We watched as one forest-covered limestone hill receded into a green checkerboard rice paddy and was obscured by a filthy village with leaning wooden houses and one water pump for everyone. Lao women bathed in the rivers, their bodies covered by beautiful blue and red cloth wraps as they washed the coal hair of their five-year-old daughters.

A steep descent, and then we pulled into the bus station at Luang Prabang. Taxi drivers and hotel touts called to us, while merchants tried to sell snacks, sodas and bottled water. We had arrived at our destination, we went our separate ways, and I never saw the two Israeli soldiers again.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Burmese Days, Past and Present

Burmese Days by George Orwell (United Kingdom 1934).

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin 2005).

The Burmese people joke, quietly, that George Orwell actually wrote three books about their country. Burmese Days obviously, but also Animal Farm and 1984. The few Burmese who dare to whisper call the three novels the "Burmese Trilogy."

The analogy fits snugly. Burmese Days describes life in a north Burmese province under the rule of the disinterested British Raj. Animal Farm describes how Burmese dictator Ne Win imposed a post-independence Communism in which some animals -- those with guns and uniforms -- were more equal than others. 1984 describes modern life in Burma (now re-named Myanmar), a Panopticon police state which treats citizens as slaves and travellers as threats.

There is little new I can say about Burmese Days other than that, if you have not read it, you should order it now from Amazon and read it next weekend. (Or read it here for free.) Like many of Orwell's books, Burmese Days is still in print because, aside from its journalistic and political content, it's a damn good read.

John Flory is a British timber merchant, and he has been stationed in the backwater of Kyauktada for more than a decade. Expat life in Kyauktada revolves around the European Club, the private whites-only establishment where the town's dozen or so Brits congregate most evenings.

It's hot and lonely and boring -- and then she arrives. Her name is Elizabeth Lackersteen, she is the niece of the local timber company manager, and she has come to Burma to hunt for a husband.

Elizabeth is completely wrong for Flory. She is close-minded and conspicuous and haughty, while Flory is curious and modest and appreciative of Burman culture. But eligible young white women are non-existent in Kyauktada, so Flory pursues her, correctly intuiting that she is his last chance at marriage.

Which makes the book sound like a soap opera. Which it is. It's also a crackling tale of deception and politics, as corrupt local magistrate U Po Kyin manipulates the whites and launches a whispering campaign against a kindly Indian doctor in Kyin's drive to become the first native member of the Club.

The novel provides a window into the daily life of Europeans living in British-ruled Burma. Orwell drew heavily from his five years as an imperial policeman, during which he was posted to a series of Burmese towns.

His time as a policeman transformed Orwell. According to eyewitness accounts, Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, entered the police force as a snotty Eton graduate, a young man who beat natives with a stick. Orwell came to loathe the Raj, seeing the Empire as a larcenous outfit which stole the wealth of the countries it claimed to govern. In other words, Eric Blair went into the imperial police, but George Orwell came out.

Journalist Emma Larkin, a pseudonym, decided to follow the path of this transformation, visiting all of the towns at which Orwell was posted and researching Orwell's family, which had roots in Burma. (Orwell himself was born in India.)

Larkin may have been the only person who could have written Finding George Orwell in Burma. She speaks fluent Burmese and is effortlessly comfortable within Burman culture. Moreover, she is an Orwell expert, having apparently read almost all of his published writings, researched his life and family tree, and reviewed his private papers. This is not How I Spent My Gap Year.

Larkin's credentials demonstrate how high the bar is now set for travel writing. Back in 1973, a not-particularly successful novelist named Paul Theroux decided to travel by train from London to Japan and write it up. Nothwithstanding the fact that Theroux was not an expert on North Asia, his publisher accepted Theroux's pitch on the theory that a travel book couldn't possibly sell less than his novels. The resulting travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, was a hit and launched Theroux's second career of picaresque, hop-on-a-train literature.

Larkin's journey through Orwell's Burmese past is plotted much more tightly. She visits the towns of Orwell's postings in the same order as he did, and her language skills and local contacts provide her with entree to the hidden world of Burmese private life.

Hidden from whom? From the government. Military Intelligence and its informers are everywhere -- or are thought to be everywhere, which yields the same result. Public employees must report every interaction with foreigners. One guesthouse owner had to notify nine separate agencies of Larkin's stay.

Burmese citizens have no rights against their government. All publications are reviewed by censors. The elementary and secondary schools teach fluff and propaganda, and the universities have been dispersed into a series of satellite campuses sited behind bridges or other bulwarks which make them containable in the event of a student protest. In one of its few technology initiatives, the Burmese officials implemented television-based distance learning, because it kept students away from each other and made it easier to monitor the lessons.

Thus, the Burmese dictatorship reveals itself to be nervous about foreigners, ideas, education, students and crowds. But what really scares the overlords is . . . tea shops. The Burmese love tea, and the tea shop is an ingrained Burman institution that the junta can't outlaw without risking revolution. But people in tea shops talk, they talk quietly in dark corners, and the government can't hear what they're saying, and that drives the generals to distraction. So an unknown number of undercover policemen spend their work days hanging out in tea shops listening for the buzz of sedition.

The point of Finding George Orwell in Burma, no less compelling for its obviousness, is that the military junta has imposed a surveillance state which is worse than the fictional one in 1984. At least Winston Smith and Julia could escape to their secret love nest or get lost in the slums of Oceania. In Burma, Big Brother is watching everywhere and at all times.

If you had the choice -- and almost no one in either country does -- you would rather live in Oceania than in Myanmar.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

White Flag

Vang Vieng, Lao P.D.R.

Vang Vieng is a town where the Lao government has given up.

The government, which is to say the Communist Party, has surrendered Vang Vieng to the foreigners. Tens of thousands of Western travellers stop for a night or two in the small town, which is part way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang on the country's main road. On a busy day, you see more travellers than Laos on the streets (of which there are about six).

The government has waved the white flag regarding development. If a businessman wanted to build it, he built it, even if it's an ugly concrete block and he ran out of money part way through, as many of the developers did. A store of some type occupies the ground floor of these failed buildings , and all the other floors are bare platforms without walls. The builder's money-minting hotel was not to be.

The government is not enforcing, if it even recognizes, any rules against noise pollution. Perhaps a decade ago, a bar owner discovered that foot traffic increased when he turned on the television and loudly played a pirate DVD of the American sitcom "Friends." Now, you can walk down the street and hear every other watering hole playing a different one about Chandler and Monica and Ross. The better establishments have a sign reading "No Friends."

The government is turning a blind eye to the rampant drug use in town. Several restaurants openly sell "happy" pizza and cakes and shakes, which are prepared with marijuana or psilocybin mushrooms. You can smell pot in the streets, and the stumbling knots of giggling young Europeans aren't fooling anyone.

During four days in Vang Vieng, I did not see one police officer or law enforcement official. The barbarian hordes have sacked the town, and the forces of order have retreated.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Flight Data Recorder

Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R.

Am taking Bangkok Airways flight PG 635 from Luang Prabang, Laos, to Bangkok, Thailand, this afternoon, on an ATR-72 (actual plane pictured), my least favorite of the standard Western commercial crafts. The French and the Italians build ATRs by starting with a large tin can, plopping a pair of wings on top, and then hanging two turboprops in such a way that it looks like the wings will snap off. Although the plane is safe (four fatal events in about 25 years, with more than 600 planes in service, according to airsafe.com), its in-flight performance gives new meaning to the phrase shake, rattle and roll.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

The Last Room

Vang Vieng, Lao P.D.R.

"Only one room left," the Lao receptionist said to my dismay.

There's usually a good reason why one room is the last to be sold to customers. It's next to the dumpster, or receives the smells from the kitchen, or is the darkest, dampest room in the place. But the town was filled with people, and this was reportedly the best guest house, so I said I'd look at it.

The receptionist led me to a room, off a courtyard with a river view, and opened the door. Bed, air con, modern bathroom. Looked fine. I said OK and paid the $25.

I had unpacked and was napping when the concert started. A few words of Lao, jarringly loud, and then a rock band started playing. The back wall of my room was vibrating from the noise, and I could hear each note from the guitar, bass and drums. A pen on the dresser was wiggling from the bass notes.

What the hell, I thought, and went to investigate.

A river festival was in full swing next door. Several hundred Laos and a few Westerners were on the riverbank, eating, flirting and dancing to a Lao band playing on a makeshift stage. The back wall of the stage was my wall. The monitor -- the speaker facing the band so they can hear themselves -- was aimed at my bed.

There was only one sensible thing to do. I bought a Beer Lao and watched the show.

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Another Quiet American

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos by Brett Dakin (Asia Books 2003).

It's difficult not to judge a book by its author. Another Quiet American is an excellent book, a detailed and perceptive account of two years living and working in Laos. If only the author were less annoying.

Author Brett Dakin makes a bad first impression when he indulges in the most irritating characteristic of Ivy Leaguers, their compulsion to inform you immediately that they're Ivy Leaguers. Dakin shows more restraint than some of his brethren; he waits until the book's second paragraph to start dropping his credentials (Princeton and Harvard Law).

Judging from the various unintentionally revealing passages, Dakin wants to appear modest and self-effacing while simultaneously ensuring that you know exactly how sterling his credentials are. "Without having done a thing to deserve it, I had been born into a life of comfort and privilege," Dakin writes. "I had grown up in London, New York and Washington, D.C., and had been educated in elite, private institutions just about every step of the way." By the end of the first chapter, all right-thinking people should hate this guy.

Dakin decides to work in Laos as part of a Princeton University program -- did he mention he went to Princeton? -- and the book improves vastly. Dakin did the reading. He probably studied every major text in English about Laos before he started his travels, and his observations are enriched by his research.

Dakin accepted a position at the National Tourism Authority and saw first hand the inefficiencies of both the Lao government and the well-meaning non-governmental organizations which lavish aid money on the country. At the NTA (nominally lead by an allegedly timber-poaching general), promotions and assignments were determined by a person's reputation within the Communist Party, allowing talented people to languish. An employee might arrive at the office to learn that he had no work, that someone had been moved into her office, or that he was being transferred to another ministry.

Not that anything was in danger of getting done at the NTA. A planned marketing push, "Visit Laos Year 1999," was delayed and had to be re-branded "Visit Laos Year 1999-2000." After the revamp, the NTA staffers were unclear when the year was supposed to begin and end. Employees drafted brochures in mangled English about tourist spots that none of them had ever seen. Consultant reports on tourism promotion were accepted, translated and ignored.

The NGO staffers and expats are the book's comic relief, formerly idealistic internationalists who now just feed at the trough with varying levels of competence. According to Dakin, United Nations consultants earn a standard rate of $10,000 a month, a Microsoft fortune in Laos. No wonder that some expats settle in and, despite their grumbling, can't bring themselves to leave. They couldn't afford a large French house with a cook, a maid and a guard in the First World and, Dakin observes, they would be held to Western standards of performance and professionalism if they returned to their old lives. So they stay in Vientiane, a capital with good food and little anti-foreigner sentiment, and engage in useless development work, like gifting a state-of-the-art copier to the NTA when the NTA can't afford to purchase a replacement toner cartridge.

Dakin's writing is crisp and informative and entertaining . . . when he writes about Laos. For example, his portraits of residents, Lao and expat, are illuminating, and his summations of Lao historical events are succinct and informative. But Dakin insists on engaging in navel gazing and "who am I to judge" junior varsity philosophizing that made me want to throw the book against the wall.

"Here I was, 23 years old, fresh out of the ivory tower. For most of my life, I had been told what to do -- what papers to write, what courses to take. And now, as a 'consultant' of sorts at the NTA, I was expected to tell others what to do," Dakin writes in a characteristic passage. "But what did I know about their jobs, or about how to develop tourism in Laos? Just about the youngest person at the office . . . I was among the least qualified to provide advice on sound and sustainable development policies for Laos' future. It is true, I had been offered opportunities most of my colleagues could only dream of . . . but --".

It is true that, at Dakin's mention of his opportunities that others could only dream of, I threw the book against the wall. Then I retrieved the text and checked the Table of Contents for a chapter called "I'm Incredibly Privileged and Accomplished, But I'm Extremely Modest And Introspective About It." I believe the British term is wanker.

Luckily, Dakin's internal monologues are kept to a minimum. Don't get the wrong idea. Another Quiet American is a must-read if you are interested in Laos, an accessible yet thorough portrait of the country. But there are passages you'll want to skim over.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

River, Cliffs and Clouds

Vang Vieng, Lao P.D.R.

The Nom Song River.

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The View From My Guesthouse

Vang Vieng, Lao P.D.R.

A view across the Nam Song River. The hills are limestone outcroppings called karsts, which are covered by foliage and obscured for most of the day by low-lying clouds.

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The Day Inn Hotel, Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane, Lao P.D.R.

The Day Inn Hotel in Vientiane, Laos, is one of those hotels you read about in travel magazines but never seem to actually stay at.

The Day Inn Hotel -- no relation, corporate or aesthetic, to the Days Inn chain -- is a three-storey hotel within walking distance of everything in central Vientiane. The rooms are large and airy, with high ceilings and enormous bathrooms. The rooms are painted in tasteful colors and appointed with wicker furniture and Lao fabrics (pictured). Room service until 10 p.m.

The rack rate is $27 a night. A Knife Tricks recommendation.

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Dodger Blues

Vang Vieng, Lao P.D.R.

-- Guess I don't have to worry anymore about whether to fly back to L.A. if the Dodgers make the World Series.

-- In the end, the Mets played better baseball. They had a little more than the Dodgers in Game 1, a lot more in Game 2, and, from what I've read, more than enough in Game 3.

-- I watched Games 1 and 2 on ESPN Asia (at 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., respectively), but this tiny town barely has television, much less satellite channels from Hong Kong. Curiously, ESPN Asia has the rights to broadcast the Division Series and the World Series, but not the League Championships, which are the most important games.

-- The Dodgers should have won at least Game 3, but there was always a wobbly character to the team. When it all came together, it was beautiful, but it only came together about half the time.

-- Is there any part of Nomar's body that isn't injury prone? How's his spleen? Has the trainer checked his duodenum? Does Mia cover the walls and floors of the family home with padding? Does the City of Manhattan Beach park an ambulance outside their house, just in case Nomar needs anything?

-- The most galling part of the series was watching Mets third baseman Jose Valentin score two runs in Game 2. Valentin was a Dodger last year and stank up the place. He couldn't hit, couldn't field and couldn't stay healthy. Early in the 2005 season, he blamed a game-losing error on the fact that "the ball and the chalk are the same color," a fact he should have mastered in t-ball. He ended his season in L.A. with a .176 batting average, but hit .271 for his new masters. Wish we had seen some of that last year, Jose.

-- I realize Red Sox and other teams' fans have been tolerating this for decades, but the broadcasters in both leagues barely attempt to hide their favoritism toward the New York teams.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Price Check

Calling the United States from Thailand, using the 1-2-Call mobile phone network, costs about 26 cents a minute. Calling the United States from Laos, using the Tango mobile phone network, costs $1.35 per minute.

Which is why I haven't called.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Criminalization of Politics

Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard details the process by which flimsy criminal indictments are used to harass government officials who are ideological opponents of the accusers.

I would add one point. Barnes notes that Step Four of the process is often an attorney-imposed silence, which allows the allegations to be repeatedly rehashed at a time when the accused cannot state his defense.

But sometimes the accused decides to speak with federal investigators or is forced to provide testimony. Then every word is parsed by the prosecutors, and the slightest arguable variances, no matter how innocent or immaterial, form the basis for an additional criminal charge of either perjury or making false statements to federal officials. Confuse a meeting in December 2004 with a different meeting with the same people in October 2004, and watch the superseding indictment come down.

And editorialists wonder why talented people won't volunteer for government service.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Most Livable City?

Vientiane, Laos

Is this the most livable city in Asia?

Vientiane (pronounced "Weng Chien") is the capital of Laos (silent s, rhymes with "wow"), which is in turn one of the least-known countries in the world that isn't a dodgy Pacific island specializing in bank incorporations.

Laos was a colony of France from 1893 to 1954, and the French cultural influence is manifest. Human-sized streets, featuring multi-storey buildings with verandas and mansard roofs, lead to grand ceremonial avenues. Cafes serve croissants and Lao coffee (among the world's best) all day. French groceries, tailors and other stores dot the rues.

Vientiane is calm. The most laid back, Type B person you know would be a shrill neurotic here. I arrived on a Saturday and thought the lack of traffic was due to the weekend. No. With the exception of three main drags, there's not a lot of movement.

The city is inexpensive. An excellent hotel room is yours for less than $30. Breakfast is three dollars. A multi-course dinner is $8, double that at the fanciest French restaurants. It is impossible to spend more than $75 a day unless you either stay at the ritziest place in town (the Settha Palace) or you splash out for French vino. (A bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape that would cost about $45 at Greenblatt's on the Sunset Strip costs about $70 here.)

Arright, you say, enough with the Chamber of Commerce rap; what's the downside? The place is small, about 200,000 people, and the expat community is tiny. In less than a week, I'm already starting to recognize people.

There are only five used bookstores (one is rental only), none with an engaging selection. Films are hit and miss, the music scene is a handful of bar bands and the occasional visiting Thai pop group, and you certainly don't want to get sick here (although the far superior Thai hospitals are only a short ambulance or medivac ride away). In time, Vientiane would feel cramped.

Right now, the biggest problem is mud. The Japanese, Loas' largest grantor of foreign aid, are dropping heavy coin to repave the capital's streets, drains and sidewalks. Unfortunately, some bright light decided to dig up and reconstruct most of the city at once. Many of the streets in the city center are currently patchworks of red dirt, concrete and construction workers. The better hotels have a mop boy stationed near the door to clean up the mud that's constantly being tracked across the lobby.

But the town has its undeniable charms. The Laos speak much better English than the Thais, and the older generation speaks French, so meaningful interaction with the locals is possible here. The Francophone signs give speakers of Romance languages a fighting chance to understand what's going on. The food is tasty, the girls are pretty, the pace is relaxed, and the wine works.

Vientiane may be one of the world's best secrets, a surprisingly pleasant and cosmopolitan village hidden within one of the world's least-celebrated countries.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Borat and the Stupid People Argument

The Anti-Defamation League has voiced concern over the satirical anti-Semitism of the film and television character Borat, a fictional television journalist from Kazakhstan (pictured with daughter-in-law). While the ADL acknowledged that the character portrayed by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, himself Jewish, is intended to mock bigotry, the group is worried that not everyone will understand the humor.

"We hope that everyone who chooses to see the film understands Mr. Cohen's comedic technique, which is to use humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear," the ADL said in a press release. "We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry."

This idea appears regularly in American culture and politics, and I call it the Stupid People Argument. As usually expressed, the S.P.A. warns that dumb people won't understand something or will react in an undesireable manner, so limits need to be placed on what everyone sees or hears.

To its credit, the ADL is not calling for a boycott or a cancellation of the release of the Borat film. But many activists who employ the Stupid People Argument do seek to impose some form of censorship.

The late C. DeLores Tucker made a second career out of demanding that media companies and record stores cease selling gangster rap albums, which Tucker said had a deleterious impact on impressionable black youth. The legions of high schools that refuse to teach Huckleberry Finn often argue that the novel's historical use of racist language is offensive to modern sensibilities, avoiding the fact that teaching the novel's historical context is what every competent English teacher should be doing. The current hand-wringing over MySpace -- and every teen fad since the end of World War II -- is a variation on the theme. Our teen fads were harmless, parents say, but I dunno if kids can handle this new stuff. Ban pinball!

The most disturbing aspect of the Stupid People Argument is its tendency to mimic racial, class and age divisions. Raucous Latin music will yield violent Latin men. The Confederate flag sends the wrong message to uneducated Southerners. This Elvis and his rock'n'roll will corrupt our innocent youth.

We -- however defined -- can consume these materials without ill effect but they -- however defined -- can not. I doubt the ADL had Jews in mind when it worried about audience members who were not "sophisticated" enough to understand Borat's high-brow jokes, like the one where he washes his face with toilet water.

Rap music is the best example of how the Stupid People Argument is simply a socially acceptable way of saying that you don't trust other groups. White adults worry about the effect of rap music on black teens, black adults and white teens -- but not about its effect on fellow white adults. It's only the "other" you have to worry about.

Depending upon the context in which it's deployed, the Stupid People Argument is merely a proxy for racism or ageism or the fact that the speaker harbors suspicions about the group he or she is talking about. I completely discount the argument every time I hear it, and I wonder why the speaker doesn't just say, "Those people over there -- they're ignorant and they're not to be trusted." In its press release, the ADL says exactly that, which is honest but is not what you'd expect from an organization committed to combatting bigotry.

Found Art

You have to respect a blog that's this confident about its journalistic mission.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Tips For Crossing Land Borders

-- Start early. Some border crossings are an all-day affair.

-- Plan nothing else. All you're doing today is crossing the border and getting to your lodgings on the other side.

-- Do not eat breakfast. A border crossing is the last place you want a surprise bout of diarrhea.

-- In case the crossing drags out and you become seriously hungry, bring some food that you know is absolutely safe and that you know for certain your body will easily digest. I bring pre-packaged cashews.

-- Bring lots of ID. In addition to your passport, bring your home driver license, your International Driving Permit, school ID and anything else that looks official. If a grumpy constable hurrumphs at your passport and demands backup, you'd better have it.

-- Bring your International Certificate of Vaccination, or "yellow card," which is a formal list of your vaccines. The chances that a border officer will ask for a yellow card are almost nil but, if he asks and you don't have, you ain't getting in.

-- Bring two pens to fill out the various forms that will be thurst in your face. Bring two pens because one might break or run out of ink.

-- Bring lots of small bills in the preferred currencies. There are lots of little charges. Expect a departure fee, a visa fee, a transport fee if you ride a bus or boat over the actual border, an entrance fee on the other side, etc. My favorite is the "overtime fee," which some countries charge before 9 a.m., after 5 p.m., on weekends, during the lunch hour, or whenever the border officers believe that, in a just world, they should be napping.

-- Bring extra passport-sized photos, especially if you are planning to request a visa on arrival.

-- Have several $20 bills ready to go in case the border officer says there's a "problem" but, lucky you, it can be resolved on the spot. Have at least one $100 bill ready to go if the border officer sadly informs you that your problem is "serious."

-- If you are taking prescription drugs across a border, make sure the medications are in their individual containers with the prescription labels attached. You should also have copies of the actual prescriptions and a note from your doctor listing the meds and stating that they are medically necessary. I also strongly recommend that you do your research and see if your destination country's Customs web page provides relevant information. Many countries are reasonable and understanding about prescriptions, but a few (such as Singapore) have confused Ambien with crack and require you to obtain, I kid you not, a "controlled substance permit" before you bring in certain of your meds.

-- If you are taking illegal drugs across a border, you are a fucking moron. You can score 10 minutes after crossing the border by sniffing out the rattiest, hippiest guest house in town and hitting up the bong-addled '60s wanna-be behind the counter. Imagine how enjoyable next Thanksgiving will be if your loved ones have to pull out $100,000 in home equity to bail your idiot ass.

-- Bring lots of patience. If the crossing is quick, be pleasantly surprised.

-- Bring lots of humility. You have no rights and no power. Act accordingly.

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The Dodgers Clinch

October baseball in Chavez Ravine!

The Dodgers have earned a playoff spot, and Derek Lowe will start Game One of the Division Series.

The moral of the story is that sometimes the gassy old baseball men know what they're talking about. Last season, whiz kid Paul DePodesta and his Moneyball math led the Dodgers to a 71-91 record, the team's second-worst tally since moving to Los Angeles.

In response, owner Frank McCourt decided the solution was old guys. He started listening to the creakiest geezer hanging around the stadium, one Thomas Charles Lasorda. McCourt replaced DePodesta and his spreadsheets with Ned Colletti and his 23 years of front office experience. Then McCourt approved the hiring of Grady Little, who has been managing baseball teams since Jimmy Carter was president. The top ranks of the Dodgers organization looked like something out of Grumpy Old Men III: Breaking Training.

The new management in place, they decided to field some codgers (relatively speaking). The Dodgers hired Nomar Garciaparra (major league debut 1996),
Kenny Lofton (1991) and Greg Maddux (1986). Although new to American ball, 36-year-old Takashi Saito played 13 seasons with the Yokohama BayStars before crossing the Pacific. I'm surprised the Dodgers didn't sign Julio Franco (born in 1958 and going to the playoffs with his fellow Mets).

To be fair to DePodesta, he signed Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew and Derek Lowe, none of them greenhorns. Kent has been a Hall of Famer, Drew got it together this season, and Lowe knows how to win games and entertain fans with his personal life.

The contributions of one rookie must be acknowledged. DePodesta's trade of catcher Paul Lo Duca left a hole behind the plate that was not filled by the meager skills of Paul Bako, Brent Mayne, Dioner Navarro, Jason Phillips, Mike Rose or David Ross -- an uninterrupted line-up of chumpdom. But Russell Martin has been a wonder, a catcher who can nab a thief at second when playing defense and make it on base about one-third of the time when playing offense. Rookie of the Year, I hope.

But the story of the year has been the triumph of the coots. Let the cool kids dominate music and MySpace and the entertainment industry blogs. The Dodgers have men, on and off the field, who wear dark socks with sandals and hoist their pants up to their nipples and like to get a good night's sleep -- and they're bringing to playoffs to L.A.

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