Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hong Kong Reacts to The Departed’s Oscars


Hong Kong, China

(Spoiler: This post discusses the twist ending to The Departed.)

The two English-language Hong Kong dailies both featured Page One stories this morning about local reaction to the Academy Awards earned by The Departed, which is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs.

Both the South China Morning Post and The Standard noted that an announcer at the Oscar telecast incorrectly referred to Infernal Affairs as a Japanese film. In his acceptance speech, director Martin Scorsese corrected the record by noting his debt to “Andrew Lau’s original film from Hong Kong.”

Lau himself was gracious about the mistake. “I think it’s a silly mistake as everybody knows it’s a Hong Kong movie,” Lau told The Standard. “Personally, I’m fine, and I can understand that, in a big event with millions of things to coordinate, small mistakes happen.”

Still, such an elementary mistake doesn’t change the perception that many Americans divide the world into North America, Western Europe and Here Be Dragons. It’s not a mistake that should be made by an organization that’s in the film business.

Lau hopes The Departed’s Oscars will help revitalize the sagging Hong Kong film industry.

“Everybody was talking of a slow box office and the decline in movie output, with only 50-something films this year,” Lau told The Standard. “The message is that we make good movies, and that everybody, everywhere, is now aware of this. Now more people will pay attention to our films. Foreign movie makers will buy our screenplays. Many international companies will give us more money to invest in more new movies.”

“But those who say this is a brave new dawn for Hong Kong movies are missing the point,” Lau continued. “Hong Kong movies already play a vital role in the international scene. Wong Kar-wai has won several awards, and Stanley Kwan Kam-pang has won prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival long ago. Hong Kong films have not been neglected.”

However, Alan Mak Siu-fai, who co-wrote and co-directed Infernal Affairs, complained that the adapted screenplay by William Monahan, which also won an Oscar Sunday night, did not add enough original elements.

“It stuck so close to the original it looked like they are just making Infernal Affairs again – well in that case I’m, of course, happy because it is like Infernal Affairs winning an Oscar,” Mak told the South China Morning Post. “Of course, I wouldn’t want my screenplay to be moved about when it was made into a film for the first time – but when it was being used for the second time, I would have hoped some new elements were being introduced to it.”

In a somewhat contradictory statement, Mak also complained about one of Monahan’s most significant changes to the original story. In the original, the “bad cop” lives to do evil another day; in the American version, he dies.

“With the death of Matt Damon’s character, the symbolism in the film’s gone – it was designed so that the opportunist lives and has to face a life led on false pretenses,” Mak said.

Looks like Hong Kong writers whine as much as U.S. writers.

The SCMP also reported that Warner Bros. paid $1.75 million for the re-make rights and that Mak saw only Monahan’s first draft and none of the later drafts.

An SCMP house editorial weighs in. “Recast in Boston, the film’s script . . . nevertheless mimics sequences and details from the Hong Kong movie. As many critics have pointed out, Infernal Affairs and its sequels have the imprints of Scorsese’s influence all over them. It is not always clear who is copying whom.”

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Rule of Law, Beijing-Style

Hong Kong, China

Joseph Kahn of the New York Times reports on the attempts of two Chinese lawyers to protect their clients' rights using the mainland Chinese legal system. The men have had to variously endure rigged trials, beatings and the arrest and confinement of exculpatory witnesses days before trial, preventing their testimony. In the most famous case, "barefoot lawyer" Chen Guangcheng -- who successfully exposed a local government's illegal practice of forced abortions -- was sentenced to more than four years in prison for "destroying property" and "obstructing traffic" at a time when he was in his home under house arrest.

The article provides additional support for prior reports that court cases in mainland China are not decided by the presiding judges, but by officials of the Chinese Communist Party, who instruct the judges how to rule.

"A senior law professor and government adviser in Beijing, who is not connected to the Chen case, said he attended a meeting shortly after Mr. Chen’s second trial in which top judicial officials, including Luo Gan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee who oversees the judicial system, discussed the case. It was cited as an example of how 'hostile forces' had used the courts to provoke social unrest, said the law professor, who asked not to be identified because the meeting was secret," Kahn reports.

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I Just Made Five Dollars

Hong Kong, China

How to make US$100,000 a year as a freelance writer.

("I just made five dollars" is the slogan of writers being paid one dollar a word.)

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Before The Fall, Part 1

Before The Fall, Part 2

Before The Fall, Part 3

Judicial Nightmares


Hong Kong, China

Now do you see what we lawyers have to put up with?

Wacky judges like Broward County Circuit Court Judge Larry Seidlin aren’t news to litigators, they’re part of our daily existence. In my estimation, about 15% of American bench officers are flakes.

Some were loony before they ascended to the bench but hid it during the nomination process. A two-term California governor can expect to appoint anywhere between 500 to 1,000 judges, and it’s impossible to screen them all thoroughly.

The eccentricities of even the most normal are indulged once he or she becomes a judge. His every joke is funny. If she wants to discuss the details of her personal life on the record, the attorneys will nod and act rapt. No one is going to tell the logorrheic judge to shut up and get to the point.

The saving grace of Judge Seidlin is that (although I have no knowledge of Florida probate law) he appears to have made a legally sound decision that the body of Anna Nicole Smith is the property of the next of kin, her daughter Dannielynn, who acts through a court-appointed lawyer because she is a minor. That’s better than having a barmy judge who makes incorrect legal rulings (or, worse, rules against your client).

Here are my categories of nutter judges:

Hamlet. Just as there are professional basketball players who are unable to shoot the ball, and professional actors who can’t convincingly play a dead body on the floor, there are a mind-boggling number of judges who can’t make up their minds. Didn’t someone tell them that making decisions was, like, the job?

Indecisive judges come in two flavors. One type sits on your submission for months, leaving everyone in limbo (although the side that thinks they’re going to lose doesn’t mind). The second type rules one way in the tentative ruling, seems to change her mind during oral argument, allows post-hearing briefs, issues a ruling with yet another outcome, allows a motion for re-consideration, amends her ruling, allows another set of briefs, and on and on until the money-hemorrhaging clients beg the lawyers to make it stop.

Overshare. Judge Seidlin is textbook. The courtroom becomes an extension of the psyche, as lawyers, litigants, witnesses, court personnel and messenger dudes get to hear about the judge’s haircuts, children, health problems and anything else the Robed One wants to say. The newly imposed permit parking on the judge’s street doesn’t seem to be relevant to your client’s motion to quash a subpoena for financial records, but you’re going to hear about it. You have no choice.

Atcheson, Topeka & Sante Fe. The judge decided early who’s the good guy, and he’s going to railroad the bad guy. It’s great if you represent the white hat. It’s actually not that bad if you represent the black hat, because the judge will dispose of the case quickly, which gets you away from him and into the Court of Appeal. But God help you if you overturn the judge’s ruling and have to go back to him for “further proceedings consistent with this appellate decision.”

Arsenic and Old Lace. Who knows why she’s so bitter? Maybe it’s because she’s assigned to a courthouse 70 miles from her home; maybe it’s because she resents the salaries of the attorneys in private practice; maybe it’s because she has the highest disqualification rate in the county (if the state allows attorneys to disqualify judges without cause). In any event, she's not happy, and she's going to make your appearance in her courtroom as miserable as she can.

* * * * *

The majority of judges are hard-working, intelligent public servants. Those aren't the ones you remember.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Turning Now, Your Honor, To The Legal Definition of "Tard"

Hong Kong, China

U.S. appellate judge Richard A. Posner -- one of the few jurists who knows how to write well -- ruled this week on a case which introduces the phrase "tard" into the legal lexicon:

"Every year the eighth graders choose a class T-shirt. Among the designs submitted for the 2003 contest was plaintiff Michael Brandt’s; his mother is the plaintiffs’ lead counsel. Brandt was in the school’s program for gifted students. The program draws from all over Chicago. The other students in the school, the ones who are not in the gifted program, are local. There are some tensions between the 'gifties,' as the students in the gifted program call themselves, and the 'tards,' a derogatory term (short for 'retards') sometimes applied by gifties to the other students. The gravity of those tensions is not revealed by the record." Brandt v. Board of Education of City of Chicago, Case Nos. 06-1999 & 06-2573 (7th Cir. Feb. 20, 2007).

The opinion is peppered with sarcastic and deflating statements which make it clear that Judge Posner and his two colleagues believed that the case was a waste of their time. Even if you're not in the habit of reading court opinions, I recommend you spend ten minutes on this one, as a rare example of top-notch legal writing.

Four Lies In Four Words


Hong Kong, China

The Chinese Communist Party lies with concision. The northwest portion of China is officially named the “Xinjiang Ugyur Autonomous Region.” Every word of the title is a lie.

”Xinjiang.” The region called Xinjiang is the ancestral and current home of the Ugyurs, a Mongol people who speak a Turkik language and practice Islam. They are not, in any way, Han Chinese.

The Ugyurs (sometimes transliterated "Uighurs") call their homeland "East Turkestan" or "Ugyuristan." The name “Xinjiang” is a Manchu Chinese portmanteau word meaning “new frontier” – which describes the region from the Chinese perspective. To the Ugyurs, it is not a frontier. It is home.

”Ugyur.” Ugyurs now comprise less than 50% of the population of Xinjiang due to decades of the central government’s population policies.

Ugyurs were reported to constitute 45.2% of the Xinjiang population in the Chinese government’s 2000 census. That being said, the Party hides the statistic in popular media. (For example, see this page and this page from a Chinese government web site and note how the pages state that Han Chinese comprise 41% of Xinjiang’s population but then lump all other ethnic groups together, leaving the Ugyur percentage unstated.)

Ugyurs comprised more than 90% of the area’s population when the People’s Republic of China was declared in 1949. In the 1950s, the central government began patriating Han Chinese into Xinjiang in a deliberate – and now successful – attempt to turn Ugyurs into a second-class minority in their own land.

”Autonomous.” All five of China’s so-called “autonomous” regions are micro-managed from Beijing. The “autonomous” regions were created in areas with substantial non-Chinese populations. (The other four “autonomous” regions are Ningxia (home of the Muslim Hui people), Guangxi (home of many southeast Asian minority groups), Inner Mongolia and Tibet.)

The top official in an “autonomous” province is the Party Secretary, who is almost always an ethnic Han Chinese. The Party Secretary, like all regional officials, is appointed. “Autonomous,” as defined by Beijing, does not include the right to elect one’s own leaders.

”Region.” The Deep South is a “region” of the United States, a part of the whole but with definable differences. Sichuan Province in southwest China – with cuisine, dialect and culture distinct from, yet related to, that of most Han Chinese – can creditably be called a “region.”

East Turkestan is a country. The Ugyurs differ from their Chinese masters in that the Ugyurs speak a different language, use a different writing system, eat different foods, look different, wear different clothes, practice a different faith, and organize themselves and their economy in different ways. They are a separate, identifiable people, and they have every right to be recognized as a nation if that is their choice.

Unfortunately, the Ugyur people are poor and ill-educated, and the Ugyur nation has the abominable luck of sitting on the geopolitically crucial terrain that links China, Russia, India and the Central Asian republics.

In other words, it isn’t called Xinjiang, it isn’t Ugyur anymore, it sure as hell isn't autonomous, and it’s definitely not a mere region.

It’s not often that four words do so much work.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Nobel Prize: The Kiss Of Death?


Hong Kong, China

In researching Sunday's post about the paucity of full-time foreign correspondents employed by U.S. daily newspapers, I counted the number of living Nobel laureates as a comparison. The numbers of surviving winners differed greatly by the fields in which they won their awards. (Since I counted manually, the numbers may be off by one or two.)

Total number of people who have been awarded a Nobel Prize: 768

Total still living: 275

Physics: 74
Medicine: 69
Chemistry: 51 (Fred Sanger won twice but is counted once)
Economics: 34
Peace: 28
Literature: 19

The fact that laureates in medicine tend to be long-lived isn’t a surprise. They specialize in health, after all.

But what’s with the Methuselan qualities of the physicists and chemists? These are guys – all but 4 are men, with Marie Curie winning twice – who spend their days playing with radiation and volatile compounds.

The answer seems to be that the prizes for physics and chemistry tend to be awarded to teams of up to three scientists, increasing the total number of recipients. In addition, many physicists and chemists, like mathematicians (for which there is no Nobel), tend to make their breakthroughs while young, allowing them to live long enough to earn the prize (which cannot be awarded posthumously).

The low number of living economics laureates is easy to explain. While the prizes in all other categories were first awarded in 1901 (and were created by Alfred Nobel’s will), the economics prize was not instituted until 1969 (and was created by the Swedish central bank in Nobel’s honor).

The small number of living Peace Prize winners is a bit of mystery, since the Peace Prize tends to have the shortest “waiting period.” While some scientists waited decades to have the importance of their discoveries confirmed, United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan was awarded the prize during his fourth year in office. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Peace Prize nine months after completing the Vietnam War ceasefire agreement. (Tho declined the award.)

The number of potential living Peace Prize winners is reduced by the fact that, more than any of the other prizes, the Peace Prize is sometimes awarded solely to an organization, such as Doctors Without Borders (1999), the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (1988) or the International Committee of the Red Cross (1917, 1944, 1963 – the most prizes to a single recipient). Still, 28 living laureates seems low. Perhaps it’s because, in contrast to the bright young scientists, politicians and activists have to work most of their lives to obtain the positions of influence that allow them to end wars or intercede in famines, receiving the award late in life.

And then you have the writers, 19 men and women, barely enough people for a baseball game. Maybe it’s because the prize is almost always given to a single individual. Maybe it’s because it takes decades to establish a body of recognized work. Maybe it’s because spending your days sitting at a desk, deep inside your head, is a most unhealthy lifestyle.

But the numbers teach a lesson. If you win the Nobel Prize in Literature (pictured), prepare an acceptance speech, fly to Stockholm to accept the award, and finalize your will.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Insane Alcohol Regulation Meets Global Baseball

Hong Kong, China

Some bluenoses in the U.S. government are threatening Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka because the Japanese national filmed a beer commercial, to be broadcast in Japan only, in which he is seen sipping beer -- a no-no for U.S. alcohol ads. Here's the Boston Herald report, and here's the Volokh Conspiracy discussion in the legal issues.

Now do you see why I prefer the live-and-let-live cultures of Asia?

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Shrinking Circle

Hong Kong, China

Question: How many foreign correspondents are employed by all of the newspapers in the United States (not including The Wall Street Journal, which publishes bona fide international editions)?

Answer: 144.

That's it. The total number of reporters employed full-time to write about the world for America's morning papers is slightly larger than the number of people with courtside seats at a Lakers game (130) and is about half the number of living Nobel Prize winners (275).

Which is why international freelancers and bloggers are more important than ever.

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The Real Forbidden City


Beijing, China

Imagine a map of Washington, D.C., that omitted the White House or a map of London which failed to include Downing Street. That’s standard operating procedure for Chinese maps of Beijing.

Take this map, created by the city-run Beijing Tourism Administration. In the middle of the map, you see the Forbidden City, also known as the Imperial Palace Museum. Now look at the lakes and parks to the left of the Forbidden City. The map makes it seem like there’s nothing unusual there, just some pleasant parkland immediately west of the capital’s biggest tourist attraction.

But only the most privileged few will ever see those grounds. The area is called Zhongnanhai – which means “central and southern lakes” – and it is the secret compound from which the Chinese Communist Party runs the nation.

The offices of the most powerful institutions in the country are housed in Zhongnanhai. The site is home to the Office of the General Secretary, the Office of the Premier, the Party’s Organization Department (which controls appointments and promotions), as well as the top brass of the military. The National People’s Congress – which is the supreme governmental body on paper but which is actually a rubber stamp that has never rejected a Party-sponsored bill – is located off Tiananmen Square, blocks from the real corridors of power.

Everybody knows what and where Zhongnanhai is, yet the Chinese Communist Party treats it as a quasi-official secret. Any taxi driver in Beijing can drive you to the main gate -- although my driver didn't want trouble and dropped me off a block away. Google Maps hosts a nice satellite photo of the grounds, which the Party blocks within China. You can even buy Zhongnanhai brand cigarettes.

The Party's reticence about its own headquarters seems strange since the existence of Zhongnanhai is one of the few aspects of the Party’s rule which is completely justifiable. The top leaders of any country need a place to work with an appropriate level of dignity and security. Zhongnanhai isn’t any different from Los Pinos (the home of the Mexican President) or Elysee Palace (the French President’s quarters). Yet China’s leaders are loathe to publicly discuss their compound. (Note how this official description of Zhongnanhai yammers on about architecture and landscaping while almost ignoring what the complex is actually used for.)

One reason for the closed lips is the Party’s schizophrenic attitude toward its imperial predecessors. On the one hand, the Party seeks to legitimate its rule over China by affirming itself as the rightful successor to the 127 documented Chinese emperors. On the other hand, the Party claims (inaccurately) that it freed China from the yoke of imperial oppression.

The elephant in the room is the UNESCO World Heritage site across the street. For more than 500 years, ordinary Chinese were not allowed within the Forbidden City, which housed the homes, offices, temples and gardens of the Chinese Emperor, his family and the top court officials. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Party opened this ancient symbol of power and privilege to the common man but quickly sealed off Zhongnanhai for itself. The irony of creating a parallel Forbidden City right next door was obvious to everyone.

Another reason for the Party's general wigginess about its HQ is that its right to occupy Zhongnanhai is as illegitimate as its right to govern China. No one elected the Communist Party leaders to anything. The Chinese people did not voluntarily give the Party the keys to the compound. No one outside a select few has a clue how much public money is spent on central government administration (while, in contrast, the cost of White House operations is transparent). Too much talk about Zhongnanhai may raise uncomfortable questions about what these guys are doing there in the first place.

So enjoy the satellite photos and the vague green drawings on the maps. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, walk by the main gate and be watched by a dozen soldiers and plainclothes policemen. It's as close to Zhongnanhai as you or almost any Chinese person will get.

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The Logic of the C.C.P., Part 1

“Taiwan affairs should be decided by the Taiwan people. This does not mean that they can hold a referendum and then declare independence.”

-- Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rumpole Rests His Case


Rumpole Rests His Case by John Mortimer (Penguin 2001).

If only life at the Bar were as entertaining and convenient as it is for Horace Rumpole, the fictional British criminal defense attorney. Created by barrister and writer John Mortimer for a television program in 1975, Rumpole has spawned a small industry of books, television series and radio plays (They still have those in the U.K.).

Rumpole is a curmudgeon who likes his cigars and his wine and loves nothing more than defending his clients at the Old Bailey, the central criminal court in London. He could make more money if he really wanted, but he’s a dedicated liberal who feels obligated to defend Public Aid clients. With his decades of experience, he could certainly become a judge or a Queen’s Counsel (the highest honor in the English legal system), but he’s not stuffy or vain. He wants his simple personal pleasures, and he wants to cross-examine hapless police detectives until their stories disintegrate like a tissue thrown into the Thames.

Rumpole does not win every case, but, my, things do tend to go swimmingly for the chap. Adverse witnesses implicate themselves on the stand. Exculpatory evidence appears at the last minute. Rumpole’s wife Hilda, whom he secretly calls She Who Must Be Obeyed, drags him to a school reunion and, what do you know, he meets a man who has vital information about a pending case.

The Rumpole tales are fluff, but they’re entertaining, diverting fluff. Mortimer is a crisp writer, and Rumpole is always good for a quip. At one point, Hilda is reminiscing about an old lawyer friend, “You must remember Chappy. He was in Daddy’s Chambers when you joined. He didn’t get much work. It was rather sad. He said he just couldn't bear spinning improbable stories for ungrateful people.”

Rumpole responds, “Then he clearly had absolutely no talent for the law.”

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Four Beautiful Words


Hong Kong, China

It is the most uplifting phrase in professional sports: "Pitchers and catchers report."

The pitchers and catchers have to start work before the rest of their teammates, since hitters need pitches to swing at and fielders need batted balls to chase. So the pitchers and catchers report for spring training a few days before the position players do.

The pitchers and catchers for the Los Angeles Dodgers reported this morning to the team's Dodgertown spring training facility in Vero Beach, Florida. Here's a roundup of the team's roster changes, and here's a start-of-the-season essay by MSNBC contributor Mike Celizic about why baseball is still the most American of sports.

Winter is over, at least spiritually.

Baseball is back.

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Editorial Note

Hong Kong, China

As you can see on your right, I have added an Amazon interactive advertisement. This "Omakase" program -- allegedly named after a Japanese menu option in which the chef decides what you eat -- is supposed to review the text on this web page and also review what most interests you and then, through a process called Science, promote those Amazon products it thinks you're most likely to buy. So, if you keep logging on and it keeps offerring you a combination of Japanese bondage DVDs and Anne Coulter books, I'm not sure whom to blame.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Peace Kills


Peace Kills by P.J. O’Rourke (GroveAtlantic 2004).

What a joy it was, twenty years ago, to discovery P.J. O’Rourke. It was the late 1980s, and all polite people knew that Republicans were boring, moralistic greed-heads who tricked the voters of 49 states into re-electing a doddering actor with crazy ideas like protecting the country from missile attacks. Republicans were unfeeling, inappropriate and certainly not funny.

O’Rourke wasn’t much for feelings or propriety either, but the former editor of National Lampoon was very funny, and he became the sole squatter on a tiny parcel of real estate called Funny Republicans. When people accused Republicans of being humorless, we could say, “Hey, we have P.J. O’Rourke,” and hope no one asked for additional names.

O’Rourke’s take on life is summed up in the title of his most famous essay, the libertarian rant “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink.” This and other essays were collected in his first book, Republican Party Reptile, which made O’Rourke a star.

The GOP had its HST.

Fast forward to the turn of the millennium. O’Rourke had published a series of best-sellers with great titles, including The Bachelor Home Companion, Give War A Chance and his masterpiece about government Parliament of Whores. He swapped journalistic homes, trading up from Rolling Stone to The Atlantic. He even subbed for Pat Buchanan on Crossfire.

So, was a kindler, gentler O’Rourke traipsing around the world between 1999 and 2003? Had he become a sedate family man of a certain age? Yes, it turns out. The book Peace Kills doesn’t have as much of the fratty drink-and-drug humor as his prior books. O’Rourke is also more benign toward women, perhaps aware that women buy a lot of books and write outraged letters to the editor of The Atlantic.

In Peace Kills, O’Rourke’s travels take him to Kosovo, Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq and Iwo Jima. One essay has O’Rourke walking the streets of Washington during an anti-war rally, marveling at how the thousands of protesters, many advocating directly contradictory policies, were held together only by “a general loserish quality.”

O’Rourke’s talent is for wry summary. “Copts believe that the nature of Jesus Christ was completely divine. Other Christians believed that the nature of Jesus was both divine and human. This used to be something you could get killed over.”

On the Arab-Israeli conflict: “What if people who had been away for ages, out and on their own, suddenly showed up at their old home and demanded to move back in? My friends with grown-up children tell me this happens all the time.”

The former Yugoslavia: “The locals explained how to tell the difference between the piles of rubble. When the destruction was general, it was Serbian. Serbs surrounded Albanian villages and shelled them. When the destruction was specific, it was Albanian. Albanians set fire to Serb homes and businesses. And when the destruction was pointless – involving a bridge to nowhere, an empty oil storage tank, an evacuated Serb police headquarters, and the like – it was NATO trying to fight a war without hurting anybody.”

On traditional Arab dress: “She was a beauty, though cloaked to the soles of her feet and veiled to the eyes. A girl who is really pretty – whether she wraps herself in an abayah, a nun’s habit, or the front hall rug – never wraps herself so that the world can’t tell.”

Funny men mellow with age, but the best are still worth your time. David Letterman is one example. O’Rourke is another.

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Kitchen Confidential


Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (Harper 2000).

At the age of 16, I worked my first job, a gig on the crew of the local McDonald’s; at the age of 17, I quit to work on a political campaign and vowed that I would never, under any circumstances, work in food service again.

This lifetime vow is one of the few that I’ve kept. So, while college mates would tell stories about serving breakfast to David Brinkley or turning a bar surface into an Everclear-fueled bonfire, I would just nod. I had no similar tales from the trenches of telemarketing or temping or whatever other boring McJob I had at the time, but I didn’t care. At least I wasn’t working in food service.

I missed a rollicking time, according to Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. The concept of the movie Top Gun was pilots as rock stars. In the same vein, Bourdain has you convinced by Page 25 that Steven Tyler, Axl Rose and Pete Doherty in their primes could not have kept up with the drinking, drugging, screwing, thieving and all-out mayhem found in the kitchen of the Dreadnought, a tacky seafood joint on Cape Cod where Bourdain started his career in the 1970s.

Bourdain’s first lesson in the culinary life: Cooks rule.

“They had style and swagger, and they seemed afraid of nothing,” Bourdain wrote. “They drank everything in sight, stole whatever wasn’t nailed down, and screwed their way through floor staff, bar customers and casual visitors like nothing I’d ever seen or imagined. They carried big, bad-ass knives, which they kept honed and sharpened to a razor’s edge. They hurled dirty sauté pans and pots across the kitchen and into my pot sink with casual accuracy. They spoke with their own peculiar dialect, an unbelievably profane patios of countercultural jargon and local Portugee slang, delivered with ironic inflection, calling each other, for instance, ‘Paaahd’ for ‘Partner’ or ‘Daahlin’ for ‘Darling.’ They looted the place for everything it was worth, stocking up well in advance for the lean months of the off-season. A couple of nights a week, the chef would back his Volkswagen van up to the kitchen door and load whole sirloin strips, boxes of frozen shrimp, cases of beer, sides of bacon into the cargo area. The speed racks over each station – containing bottles of cooking wine, oil, etc., for easy access during service – were always loaded with at least two highball glasses per cook . . . . Joints were smoked in the downstairs walk-in, and cocaine – always available, though in those days very expensive and still considered a rich man’s drug – was everywhere. On payday everyone in the kitchen handed money back and forth in a Byzantine roundelay of transactions as the cooks settled up the previous week’s drug debts, loans and wagers.”

Yes, a summer of that would certainly affect an aimless 18-year-old.

Bourdain got it together enough to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America and spent his 20s working in every type of chowhouse in New York City. Bourdain paints cooks as nomads wandering Manhattan, working three weeks at a nameless oyster bar, then five months at an overrated warhorse (such as Windows on the World), then six weeks at a doomed vanity project (a Moroccan with a Casablanca theme), with several stints at red-sauce restaurants owned by members of an “Italian fraternal organization.” Each move is characterized by cooks and staff being fired, being poached, quitting, or just vanishing and re-appearing weeks later. It’s musical chairs with broilers and shallots.

Bourdain’s writing is zesty and fun, and it’s a marvel that he can remember the details since he’s the first to admit he was drunk and high most of the time. Miraculously, he also kept his marriage together, although he rarely mentions home life. Kitchen Confidential is firmly about life behind the swinging doors.

Bourdain offers practical advice to foodies. Order seafood on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when it’s the most fresh. The toughest meat is reserved for customers who request “well done.” Salads with meat or pasta are reworkings of food that didn’t sell yesterday. The “discount sushi” people buy their fish near the close of the market, just before the cat food people do. No-name diners on weeknights are held in higher esteem by the staff than the bold-faced names who secure tables on Saturday night. Half of all bread placed on tables is not eaten, so it is routinely recycled to other patrons. Hollandaise sauce – which turns an uppity Egg McMuffin into the world’s best hangover food – is a magnet for bacteria that must be stored and handled exactly correctly.

For me, the most disappointing lesson of the book was learning that Sunday brunch is a culinary farce. The expensive food that wasn’t sold on Friday and Saturday night is dumped into the brunch. The best chefs work evenings, so the C team works Sunday morning. The seafood is three days old. It’s leftovers at $30 a person.

All of this is old news to readers who follow the food books that clutter the bestseller lists. Celebrity chefs are a cultural wave that passed me by (although I did notice that Nigella Lawson is easy on the eyes). I’m the type of bachelor who did not realize for two years that the pilot light in my oven was out. But I made my vow, and I’m sticking to it. I’ll place the order and pay the bill, but I’ll stay out of the kitchen. That’s Bourdain’s world, and he’s welcome to it. I hope his other books are as entertaining as this one.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Forgotten Trailblazer


Can you name this man?

He was the first African American elected to the United States Senate since Reconstruction, and, due to the intervening passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, he was the first African American senator to be elected by the voters, not by a state legislature. He served two full terms by reaching across party lines, representing a state in which the majority of voters were of a different political party. After leaving office, 14 years passed before another African American became a senator.

He was born in Washington, D.C., the son of a government lawyer. He earned his undergraduate degree at Howard University, the most famous historically black college, and he later saw combat in the infantry in World War II. After attending law school at Boston University, he made several unsuccessful bids for political office. He was ultimately elected twice as his state’s Attorney General, where his prosecution of organized crime helped elevate him to the Senate.

On Capitol Hill, he was known as a liberal. He was a member of the Kerner Commission, which issued the famous report arguing that race riots in 1967 were because "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white —- separate and unequal." He also helped lead the successful blocking of one of Richard Nixon's appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.

His story has all the elements for popular renown: Middle-class background. Military service. Crime buster. Bipartisan appeal. First popularly elected black senator. Civil rights advocate. Nixon foe. In short, a hell of a better resume than Barack Obama.

Yet, unless you are a political junkie, you can’t identify him.

The reason is simple.

Edward William Brooke III, who served as the junior senator from Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979, has been written out of public consciousness because he was a black Republican, the unforgivable sin of the Left and its occupied territories, the press and the academy. Many historical black political figures are feted repeatedly for their contributions. Rosa Parks. Andrew Young. Barbara Jordan. Thurgood Marshall. MLK himself. Democrats all.

Currently active black Republicans like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas can't yet be ignored. But, as their time on the world stage passes, watch them be relegated to the same memory hole as Edward Brooke. The Left wants everyone to forget the ground-breaking black Republicans.

In the face of such partisan silence, Brooke, 87 and recovered from a form of breast cancer which affects men, is having his say. He has published his memoir, Bridging The Divide, and The Washington Post, to its credit, hosted an online discussion with Brooke this week.

Hopefully, the book will publicize the inconvenient truth that the first elected black senator was a Republican.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Notes From a Small Island


Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson (Doubleday 1995).

There is a certain type of reporting which I call “NPR humanism.” (If you live outside the United States, substitute “NPR” – the States’ government-funded, left-leaning radio network – with “Le Monde” or “voters who thought the SDP a capital idea.”)

NPR humanism consists of accounts, usually first-person, focusing on a quotidian detail, which the author then imbues with depth and meaning. Think “Robert Siegel on the smell of fresh coffee” or “Nina Totenberg discusses the penmanship of the Supreme Court justices.”

Bill Bryson is the walking, talking, writing personification of NPR humanism. To his credit, Bryson, an American, is funny – at times, laugh-out-loud, your-stomach-hurts-from-chortling-so-much funny. I won’t hesitate to read another of his books. But 352 pages is a long time to spend in the mind of one man, and, over that time, I came to suspect that Bryson’s public persona was more calculated and commercial than he lets on.

As he presents himself in this travel book about the United Kingdom, Notes From a Small Island, Bryson maps perfectly to the caricature of the overeducated, middle-aged liberal. In the book, Bryson takes askance slaps at conservative politicians, has a fetish for walking and for public transport, bashes Rupert Murdoch, pinches pennies in the manner of one with a high-status but low-paying job, and is a ready armchair critic of architecture and town planning. He could walk into the Farmers’ Market in any university town and effortlessly make friends with everybody spending five dollars for a loaf of organic tomato bread.

Even the gaps in his knowledge match those of an assistant professor of humanities. Bryson dislikes cars and is an awkward driver. He seems to have no knowledge of pop culture and embarrasses himself, as far as I am concerned, when he visits Manchester and states that he cannot name a single famous person from the town – this at a time when every television, radio and magazine in the U.K. was trumpeting five local lads and their band. Likewise, Bryson can discuss the famous academics of old Edinburgh but spends his time in Liverpool writing about Gerry and the Pacemakers when, if memory serves right, another band from Liverpool had more fans. (I refer, of course, to Frankie Goes To Hollywood.)

All of which probably means that Bryson is well and truly a member of his audience, an educated, sincere, bookish lefty. But still, the congruence is so exact, the fit so lacking in friction, that I have to suspect that Bryson is in some part playing to his fan base. Throughout the book, I kept waiting for him to say or do anything that wouldn’t wash at a Howard Dean coffee klatch, and it never happened.

None of which makes the book any less enjoyable. After decades living in the U.K. with his English wife, Bryson decided to return to the States since, among other reasons, so many Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens, his people clearly needed him. Before returning, Bryson spends six weeks traveling through England, Scotland and Wales, and the book is a description of the journey and a warm valediction to his British hosts and their culture.

Bryson writes with a breezy informality, the same unlabored spontaneity that John Kenneth Galbraith said only appeared in the sixth draft of his own work. The book is a pleasure to read. Many of Bryson’s insights into English life are interesting, and he never stays on a topic long enough for you to get bored.

But, more than for most travel writers, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was in the company of the real Bill Bryson or the one calculated to sell the most copies before being placed on the bookshelf between Beloved and Living History.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

My Brief Career


My Brief Career, by Harry Mount (Short Books 2004).

As I read My Brief Career, journalist Harry Mount's fictionalized memoir of his pupillage in a London barristers' chambers, I checked off sentences which reminded me of my 13 years of legal work on the other side of the Atlantic.

-- "Anything that speaks of originality or lateral thinking or non-legal reading is rare."

-- "Nothing the barristers valued -- money, social standing, professional status -- was lost by being rude to pupils. . . . What made it worse was that the barristers were perfectly capable of being polite if they wanted to be."

-- A particularly obnoxious lawyer "was outraged if you behaved for a moment in the same way that he did."

-- "It is wrong to make out that the Bar is brimful of evil. There are some decent people around the Inns of Court, who if anything showed up the indecency of the rest of them."

-- "You're old enough to do what we all do," an experienced barrister tells Mount. "Go on doing something boring because you've worked out there isn't anything better to do."

Mount probably was never cut out to be a lawyer, and his subsequent success as a journalist implies that the Bar's loss was Fleet Street's gain (although, in reality, all major news organizations have left Fleet Street). Still, after a stab at banking, Mount earned a law degree and then proceeded to undertake the peculiar English institution known as the pupillage.

England has a divided legal profession, with solicitors drafting documents and generally advising clients, and with barristers -- the ones in the robes and the wigs -- arguing cases in court. After completing the coursework, most newly minted barristers obtain on-the-job training by spending one year as a pupil to established barristers, termed the pupilmasters. American lawyers will be horrified to learn that, until recently, a pupillage was unpaid. (If there is a better way for the upper class to maintain its dominance of a profession than to require one year of unpaid labor in the most expensive city in the country, please let me know.)

The pupil's experience is dominated by the personality of the pupilmaster, and Mount's first pupilmaster was a dud. The barrister plopped Mount in a corner of his office and spoke less than a dozen words to him per day. Still, this is better than the experience of a fellow pupil, who was once required by his pupilmaster to stand by the desk and move an inch every ten minutes, acting as a human sun shade.

Mount's principal observation will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked at a law firm. He finds that most barristers are arrogant, windy drudges with few outside interests other than the consumption of luxury goods which they don't seem to enjoy all that much.

Ultimately, the book falls short, because Mount was not offered a tenancy and his legal career fell short. One year isn't nearly long enough to absorb all the absurdities and petty indignities that come with legal life. That would take a decade which, for Mount, is what his twelve-month pupillage felt like.

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Expat Life Is A Sexual Feast For Men And Famine For Women

“I think the main problem in Beijing is that most of the men here I wouldn't touch back home, so why would I here?" -- Juanita Hartman, 33, American.


Because you’re not back home, Juanita.

Sooner or later, The Topic arises. The Topic is always introduced by a woman, specifically, a white expatriate woman from a Western country. When The Topic arrives like an unwelcome houseguest, the men grow still. They glance at each other, seeking telepathic advice on how to make it go away. Ideally, they can change the subject after a few vague remarks but, if other expat women are present, The Topic tends to metastasize. The men now have a choice of sitting quietly, heading to the bar or bathroom, or starting side conversations and pretending they don’t hear. The men will try any gambit to avoid speaking frankly with expat women about The Topic – which is the refusal of Western expat men to date Western expat women.

Here is what many men would like to say but don’t:

“Look, I think I’m a smart, attractive, successful guy, but dating back home was a continuous assault on my ego as woman after woman – many depressingly average -- decided I wasn’t good enough to date or sleep with. Now I’m living in East Asia [or Brazil or the former Soviet Union], and young local women who are so sexy they could walk unquestioned into the most exclusive clubs back home will sleep with me on the first date. And I can do this every day, because the cost of a night on the town is so cheap here and the number of beautiful, interested women seems to be in ever-replenishing supply. So, no, I’m not interested in dating Western expat women. Not one bit.”

The numbers do not tell the tale. According to data obtained by the Wall Street Journal, more than half of all expats are between 20 and 39 years old and, of all expats, 23% are women. On its face, dating within the expat world would seem to be a buyer’s market for the women.

It’s not. To switch metaphors from business to food, expat life is a sexual feast for men and a famine for women.

"You never see Thai men with expat women, and expat men are either married, gay or have a young Thai girl hanging on to their arm,” Julie Sleva, a Canadian cosmetics executive posted in Bangkok, told The Wall Street Journal Asia. “You sit in a car near Soi Nana [a popular night-time entertainment district] and you can't believe what walks out of that place -- the ugliest, grossest men with beautiful Thai women. It's so easy for the Western man."

One expat woman summarized the dating situation in Taiwan by stating that “single ‘western’ women don't have a very good chance of dating here. Single foreign men tend to date local women, and there aren't many chances to date the local men either. If you're a single woman in your late 20s or older and want to date, then you may be disappointed while in Taipei. This is the case for every single foreign woman I have met in Taiwan.” (Emphasis added.)

"It's a stereotype, but it has truth," one Beijing expat woman told me. "Let me put it this way," said another, "if you can't get a date in England, the solution is not to move to China."

Expat women do not respond well to the situation.

“A girl who was pursued in NYC or London and comes to HK, suddenly finds her value on the dating market sharply diminished. They don't like it,” wrote blogger Conrad of Gweilo Diaries. “As for anecdotal evidence -- the reaction of white women faced with substantial Asian competition is not pretty. Hong Kong girls in particular are nearly always well turned out (their taste might often be questionable but they are nearly always made up and well dressed). Combine that with the fact Asian women tend to be petite, exotic to many and readily approachable and my distaff fellow Caucasians respond, not by stepping up their own games, but by letting themselves go to pot and becoming hostile and bitter. I'm obviously speaking in generalities here, but the generalities are based on personal observation and considered common knowledge. White women here are a good 10 lbs heavier on average here than in NYC or London. Many make no effort at all about their appearance and become bitter and offensive.”

One man’s opinion, of course.

Some expat women resort to desperate measures. In the course of reporting an article on this topic for Exile magazine in Russia, writer Antonella Morosi kept hearing the same anecdote.

“There is a story going around that I ran into more than once while researching this piece. Whether it is apochryphal or not is something I can't tell you. But it goes something like this: an expat woman -- a USAID employee, to be exact -- was said to be complaining to a bar manager at one of Moscow's expat hangouts.

" ’I want you to understand something,’ she says. ‘I'm not a lesbian. But I've been reduced to licking pussy.’”

But many of the expat women have only themselves to blame because they, like Juanita, are still applying the dating criteria they employed back home.

"Beijing seems to attract only certain types of guys: English-teacher types straight out of college who just want to have fun, ladder-climbing executive types and a bunch of weirdoes," Emily Patterson, a 23-year-old American, told China Daily. “You don't want a college guy. Maybe the executive type is already married, busy or boring. And of course, you don't want to date a weirdo.”

Returning to the business metaphor, dating and sex are markets, and both Juanita and Emily, like many of their expat sisters, need to adapt to changing market conditions or be trounced by the competition. What’s so wrong with college guys? How do you know the businessman is boring? Maybe the weirdo’s not so weird if you give him a chance.

Most teenage boys want to have sex with supermodels. Later, they acknowledge the market reality that there is a general scarcity of supermodels and a specific scarcity of supermodels who want to have sex with them. They adjust their standards to fit the market in which they live.

Juanita and Emily need to do the same. East Asia is not Los Angeles. Here, the nerdy white guys get to be George Clooney, and the expat women will have to radically change their dating behavior if they don’t want to spend their evenings with a life partner watching women’s basketball and reruns of “Ellen” on the satellite feed.

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