Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sitting By The Dock of the Bay

I will take a short break from blogging for the next week or two.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Highest Court In Another Land

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Where is the highest court of the Sultanate of Brunei?

In London, of course.

In fact, the highest court for 17 countries isn’t located in their capitals; it’s located in an unnumbered building off Downing Street in central London, SW1. The court is called the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and it has the widest and strangest jurisdiction of any court in the world.

The Privy Council, an ancient institution with origins in Norman times, is a body composed of the English monarch’s closest advisors. In centuries past, the Privy Council advised the King or Queen on matters of domestic and foreign policy. This is still one of its functions.

Today, most high-ranking politicians in Great Britain, including the leaders of the opposition parties, are Privy Counsellors, a title which allows a person to append the initials “P.C.” after his or her name and to be addressed as “the right honorable.” (In a quirk of English spelling, Privy “Counsellors” – advisors – serve on the Privy “Council” – an assembly).

The Privy Council is composed of several committees, and it is through those committees that the institution governs. The most important committee is the Cabinet, composed of the Prime Minister and his or her department heads. Thus, from the perspective of the British constitutional monarchy, does the government speak on behalf of the Crown.

Although a Privy Counsellor is appointed for life, only those members who are part of the current government participate in policy formation. Consequently, while Margaret Thatcher (and any living former Prime Minister) is still a member, Tony Blair is probably not requesting her input on proposed legislation. There are currently 544 Privy Counsellors, which underlines the importance of limiting participation.

During the time of the British Empire, the Privy Council was tasked with adjudicating legal disputes appealed from Great Britain's territories and possessions. Enter the Judicial Committee, a tribunal composed of Privy Counsellors with judicial training which acted as a “court of appeal for the colonies.”

After gaining independence, many former British colonies decided to retain at least some of the Privy Council’s appellate jurisdiction. A common formula is the one used by Brunei, the tiny oil-rich nation located on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo: criminal, domestic and religious cases are entirely adjudicated within the country but the largest-value civil cases are appealable to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Other countries which allow appeals to the Judicial Committee include Belize, Jamaica, Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the few scattered remnants of Empire, such as Gibralter and the Falkland Islands. (Singapore allowed limited appeals to London until a Privy Council decision in 1988 ruled in favor of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s principal political opponent; Lee responded by abolishing all Privy Council appeals.)

Many of the former colonies inherited and retained English common law, so one of the functions of the Judicial Committee is to maintain a consistent interpretation of the law across all of these nations. The countries in question believe this makes their laws more predictable and legitimate, especially in the economically important areas of contracts and finance.

Personnel is policy, and the composition of the Judicial Committee is designed to safeguard the policy of legal consistency. The members of the Judicial Committee are principally Law Lords, which is to say that all serve on the House of Lords committee that currently acts as the United Kingdom’s supreme court. Consequently, it is essentially impossible for a ruling of the Judicial Committee to conflict with a ruling of the House of Lords.

Not that the fate of the Empire is riding on all of these cases. The Judicial Committee’s first judgment of this year resolved a family spat over a house in Jamaica. Last year, four lords and a baroness – each case is reviewed by a panel of three or five judges who meet in a wood-paneled chamber (pictured) – upheld a defense verdict in a traffic accident involving Belgian tourists in the Cayman Islands.

Yet some of the issues which are appealed to the Privy Council are important. The Judicial Committee last year quashed two Bahamian death sentences and interpreted the relevant capital statutes to be discretionary, not mandatory. The Council held that a company in Mauritius had properly been assessed taxes in the sum of 43,907,000 rupees (currently about US$1.39 million). The Council even ruled upon the constitutional law of Trinidad and Tobago. Imagine the U.S. government ceding final determination of a constitutional question to the court of another country.

The Judicial Committee also has the antiquated responsibility of promulgating “Orders in Council,” government decrees that are not passed by Parliament but are drafted by the Prime Minister’s Office and signed by the sovereign – akin to presidential executive orders in the United States. Last week, Her Majesty Elizabeth II earned her keep by, among other things, declaring two bank holidays (three-day weekends), prohibiting further burials in the St. John the Baptist Churchyard in Barnsley and referring for further consideration a petition by the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants.

You can’t accuse Liz of sloughing off the small stuff.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

"Mass Destruction" by Faithless

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hell's Kitchen, Best BBQ in Northern Thailand, Relocating

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Hell's Kitchen, Chiang Mai's home of "Afro American Style B-B-Q," is moving to the Anusarn Market, between O'Malley's Irish Pub and Mike's Burger. Proprietor Lateef Fahari, a retired Defense Department civilian employee from Cleveland, has closed the original Chaiyaphum Road location, citing a lack of foot traffic at the two-year-old storefront, which was not directly visible from the street.

Hell's Kitchen specializes in half and whole racks of ribs, along with BBQ chicken. Sides include Fahari's popular cornbread and the best baked beans this side of the American South -- recipes Fahari credits to his mother and grandmother from Tuskegee, Alabama.

Hells' Kitchen: Knife Tricks' highest recommendation.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Surprisingly Informative: Hong Kong Law Reform Commission Reports

Bangkok, Thailand

When attorneys look for law to support their clients' arguments, most can be forgiven for not taking a minute to see if the Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong has issued a relevant report. While admittedly obscure and naturally focusing on Hong Kong statutory and case law, these reports often provide excellent summaries of the state of the law in the major common law jurisdictions along with explanations of the principal policy issues.

In my specialty of entertainment and intellectual property law, the Commission has relatively recently issued reports on "Civil Liability for Invasion of Privacy" and "Privacy and Media Intrusions." While Nimmer and McCarthy need not fear lost sales, these reports are often surprisingly informative.

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Slavery In China

Bangkok, Thaland

This is how the Chinese Communist Party sees its citizens: as slave labor to be utilized by industry which, in turn, enriches Party members. The Party will take corrective action, not because of serious qualms about the conditions under which the peasants labored, but because of the bad publicity. Expect the following:

-- A high-level investigation will address the problem of forced labor;

-- The Party will blame this and all similar schemes on "lawless local cadres" or some such circumlocution, with the central government being found blameless;

-- The ringleader of this particular kiln operation will be executed; and

-- The Party will quietly impose further restrictions on the internet, because this scandal came to light when a group of 400 concerned fathers posted an online letter regarding sons who were missing and believed enslaved.

UPDATE: That didn't take long. Prediction One, the announcement of a high-level investigation, has been fulfilled.

The saving grace in the United States' adversarial relationship with the government of mainland China is that the Chinese Communist Party is utterly predictable.

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The Happy Verses

Bangkok, Thailand

A happy 60th birthday to Sir Salman Rushdie, newly appointed Knight Bachelor.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

BKK-CNX-BKK TG Y (That's Airline Nerd Talk For Bangkok To Chiang Mai, Roundtrip, On Thai Air, in Economy)

Bangkok, Thailand

Don’t I remember full meal service on these one-hour Thai Airways International flights between Bangkok and Chiang Mai? I think I do.

For economy passengers, those days are over, or maybe they’re on holiday in Pattaya for a few months. On both legs of this June 2007 jaunt to Thailand’s “second city,” in-flight food service consisted of a cardboard box containing (1) a sealed container of yellow fruit juice, (2) a white plastic cup for additional beverage service, and (3) exactly one plastic-wrapped food item. Flying north, the repast was a single curry puff; flying south, a small spiced coffee cake. “You have got to be kidding,” said an older British tourist as he opened his purple box of treat.

Flew a 777-300 up (tail number HS-TKD) in seat 32D, and a 777-200 down in seat 45C. On the 773, one of the lavatories had been converted into a telephone booth. No in-flight entertainment, other than the flight map. As usual on THAI, the flight attendants were friendly and diligent, and the cabins were clean, pleasant and purple.

The price was right. I booked the leg to Chiang Mai on Expedia for a published fare of US$99. I sauntered into the small C.M. airport at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night and grabbed a walk-up W fare of 1,755 baht (US$50.14) back to the big city.

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How Do I Take A Taxi From Bangkok Airport Into The City?

Bangkok, Thailand

Since I see this question asked constantly online, I am going to post a response for people to find when they do a web search for the answer. If that’s how you found this site, please bookmark and drop in once a week. I try to be interesting.

If you are landing at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (airport code BKK), taking a taxi to your hotel in central Bangkok is relatively simple, but there are a few things you need to know. (The public taxi line is in a non-intuitive corner of the airport, and the signage leading to it is poor; I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that the airport authority operates a competing fleet of "limousines.")

After baggage claim and customs (you will rarely be stopped by customs if you are a Westerner walking through the green channel), you will walk into an arrivals hall on the second floor of the airport. You will see hotel drivers holding name cards, as well as an array of airport businesses such as money changers, newsstands, coffee shops, etc., lined up against a magnificent five-storey glass wall facing the outside.

As you emerge from the baggage and customs area, various Thais – mostly women in vaguely professional-looking dresses and suits – will say “Taxi.” Ignore them. Also ignore everybody who says “hotel” or asks you where you are going or tries to get your attention. They are touts trying to earn a commission.

In the arrivals hall, change a few hundred dollars, pounds or euros into Thai baht. You will receive most of your money in 1,000-baht notes (currently worth US$28.57 each), which are too large for day-to-day purchases at Thai prices. Have the money changer break one or two 1,000-baht notes into a stack of 100-baht notes.

(The money changers accept all the major convertible currencies as well as many East Asian currencies. All of the money changers at the airport offer the same exchange rate, with no commission. In fact, most of the money changers throughout Bangkok offer similar rates; this is not a place like Bali with wild variations. Hotels offer poor rates, as do Islamic banks.)

Stay inside the building and go down to the first floor (by which I also mean, using the European terminology, the ground floor, the bottom floor, the floor immediately above the dirt). You reach the first floor by using escalators and, for travelers pushing luggage dollies, sloped conveyor belt-style walkways spaced at intervals throughout the hall.

Once you are on the first floor/ground floor/whatever, face the giant wall of glass that looks outside. Turn left. Walk to the end of the arrivals hall, where you will see a door into a food court. Instead of walking into the food court, turn right and walk outside.

You will be slapped by the humidity. Welcome to Thailand.

You will see two or three somewhat incongruous office-type desks near the curb, probably with a line of passengers in front of them. Get in line.

At the front of the line, a Thai sitting at the desk will ask you where you are going. His or her job is to determine your destination and communicate it to the taxi driver, who will speak little if any English. An English-language map printed from your hotel’s web site will help; a Thai-language map will help more.

The person at the desk will assign you a taxi from the line of waiting hacks. He or she will give you a red-and-black form containing, among other information, your driver’s name and license plate number. Do not tip the person at the desk (or anyone else in Thailand).

The taxi driver will offer to stow your luggage in the trunk of the cab. Go right ahead. Thailand is not the type of place where the drivers hold the luggage for ransom.

The taxi will probably have a seat belt, but no buckle to click it into. Get used to it.

The cabbie may ask if you want to take the highway. Say “Up to you.” He – almost all are men – will know the route with the least traffic at that specific time. The trip into the city will take about 45 minutes.

The fare to central Bangkok will cost about 300 baht (US$8.57). You owe an additional 50 baht (US$1.43) for the services of the airport taxi desk, payable to the driver. If the driver takes the tollway, you will owe another 60 baht (US$1.71) in tolls. Approaching the first toll gate, I usually hand the driver a 100-baht note and say “tolls.”

Do not tip the driver. Thailand is not a tipping culture.

Enjoy your stay in the Kingdom.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Good Reading

Chiang Mai, Thailand

--Nick Tosches of Vanity Fair profiles the incredible Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo -- a place every traveller should visit before the market is inevitably closed to the public.

Tosches makes some points about sushi restaurants: Beware the "spiced tuna rolls" at lower-end joints; the spices often mask a fish on its last fins. Most wasabi is from powder or paste and is not natural. The pinker the ginger, the more likely it's processed. One of the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo is a hole in the wall named Daiwa where the bill comes to about US$60 a person. One of the best sushi places in New York City is Masa, which charges US$400 for a price fixed meal.

-- A New York Times dispatch by Somini Sengupta from the front lines of the Sri Lankan civil war.

-- A racy advertisement in a field (pictured) -- racy if you're an uptight 98-year-old nun, IMHO -- is targeted at passengers flying into Gatwick Airport in England.

-- Time writer Bryan Walsh sends a postcard from Shingo, Japan, where the locals believe Jesus lived most of his life and was buried (unless it's all a publicity stunt to drum up tourism). The tale:

"The legend has it that Jesus — or as they call him in Shingo, Daitenku Taro Jurai — came to Japan at the age of 21, during the lost years when he was supposedly carpentering in Nazareth. Like many an eager gaijin student, Jesus became entranced with his adopted land's noble culture, learning the Japanese language and Shinto religion at the feet of a sage. At age 33, he went back home, where he preached about his experiences in Japan, which so annoyed the local authorities that he was promptly sentenced to death. From there, the story gets really weird. Instead of Christ being crucified, somehow his younger brother Isukiri ends up dying on the cross, while Jesus fled to Japan via Vladivostok and Alaska. (Such details as how Jesus had a younger brother and how the Romans got the wrong guy are not addressed in the legend.) Eventually he came to this tiny village, where he took up rice farming, married a local girl named Miyuko and produced three daughters before dying peacefully at the age of 106. In Shingo, Jesus kept a low profile — he didn't multiply any loaves or fish, although when the villagers were dying of starvation he did travel far to find them food."

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ABBA: Affecting A Breezy Manner

ABBA: The Name of the Game by Andrew Oldham, Tony Calder & Colin Irwin (Pan Books 1995).

You know that guy, that guy who talks a bit too much but you don’t mind because what he says tends to be interesting and, even when it’s not, he changes the subject all the time so that, when he’s not making your ears prick, he will a few minutes later? The guy who can talk about films or politics or history and actually seems to know what he’s talking about, but especially when he’s talking about music? And it’s OK if you fade out for a few minutes while he’s talking, because you can come back later and be welcomed with hugs and beers and – this is the important part – what he says is genuinely though-provoking and he tries to say it in an entertaining way? You know, that guy.

Turns out, that guy’s name is Andrew Oldham, and, back in the day – which is to say back in Swinging London Mark I with The Small Faces and the Profumo Affair and Diana Rigg and Britannia being the center of all that was cool and young and beautiful – Oldham was the manager of the Rolling Stones. Couldn’t ask for a better job – jetting around the world with Brian and Mick and Keith and Charlie, pretending to be in charge of that crew during the years when they were, without question, the greatest white rhythm and blues band that ever there was or ever would be, world without end, amen.

Of course, it did end, because cool and youth and beauty fade, and bands and managers are fated to divorce in bitterness and over-familiarity (U2 and Paul McGuinness excepted), and Oldham needed a new gig. So he turned to writing, trading his time at the side of the stage for a publishing contract.

What he decided to write, improbably enough, was a biography of ABBA. Not cool. Not hip. Even meretricious commercial outlets like Rolling Stone and Melody Maker would smirk at the mention of the Swedish foursome. ABBA was naff. Everyone knew that. But that’s what Oldham did, and the world is a far better place because he conceived and organized and dictated – “wrote” is probably not the word – one of the most compelling, illuminating, entertaining, page-turning, engrossing and altogether awesome biographies ever written.

Not that a single word of the book can be trusted, mind you. Let’s get something straight right here: as a work of journalism or history, ABBA: The Name of the Game is rubbish. It is a clip job and a write around; the facts all seem to be gleaned from pre-existing news sources, and it does not appear that any member of ABBA granted an interview. The book does not contain a bibliography or any notes as to sources (although it does contain an excellent discography of all four members’ releases, group and solo.)

Key facts are missing. Every rock bio needs to note the exact date, place and venue of the group’s first performance. (Say it together, Oasis fans: “August 18, 1991, Boardwalk, Manchester, England”). Oldham and his co-writing crew – he was assisted by a fellow music manager and a journalist – unearthed the following: “[ABBA’s] first live performance as a four-piece occurred in the relative obscurity of a restaurant in Gothenburg at the end of ’70.” I’m sure that sentence will send a stampede of fans in white judo outfits to the venue on the anniversary date.

But the greatest failure of a biography isn’t the omission of detail. The greatest failure of a biography is when it tells you everything about a person except what he or she was like. Whether he ever met them or not, Oldham knows what the four members of ABBA were like or, to be precise, he knows what he thinks they were like, and, if there’s anything Oldham loves to do and does well, it’s give you his opinions on people, places, things, music, meadowlarks, whatever.

Oldham on Benny Andersson, “the one with the beard”:

“What is it about laid-back guys that inspires total fury in women? Benny wanted nothing but the freedom to indulge his one all-consuming passion – music. Beyond that you could set fire to the world around him and it wouldn’t matter. Burnt dinners. A slag-heap in the front room. A houseful of Austrian weightlifters. Benny wouldn’t worry. Benny wouldn’t notice. Benny would let the world drift by him, oblivious to it all, completely unmoved and untouched by any mayhem unfolding around him.”

After reading one paragraph, you get Benny, you know Benny, if someone with the same personality as Benny Andersson sat next to you at a dinner party, you’d think “This person reminds me of the guy in ABBA with the beard.”

The other three members of the group are drawn as vividly. Bjorn Ulvaeus was the Ric Ocasek of the group, a pug ugly who women inexplicably found attractive and who was a fair musician, a gifted songwriter and a great producer. Anni-Frid Lyngstad (“Frida” or “The Other One”) had a steely resolve forged during an impoverished childhood lived under the stigma of being the illegitimate daughter of an occupying Nazi soldier. (Frida was also a Norwegian in the world’s most famously Swedish group.)

And there was Agnetha. The star of the show, as well as the star of millions of Quaalude-fueled fantasies, Agnetha Faltskog was a blond Nordic beauty, a Swedish media darling since her teens. She was also neurotic, brittle, needy, fickle and prone to depression and phobias. Agnetha had to be handled with reindeer fur gloves, because there was no ABBA without the first A, and Agnetha’s continued participation in the group was always a question.

Holding it together was Stikkan “Stig” Anderson, the group’s manager, who ran Polar Music, the Abbey Road Studios of Stockholm. Stig’s great insight was that ABBA (and he) could make a lot more money by individually licensing tracks for release in each foreign territory, rather than entering into one global deal with a major record label. Stig’s great failure was that, when ABBA was the best-selling band in the world, he couldn’t begin to keep track of all the details of all the deals – and the overlooked detail of paying the Swedish tax authorities proved unspeakably costly. (Oldham states that, at the time, Sweden’s highest tax rate was 85%.)

All four members of what was to become ABBA were established Scandanavian singers with their own fan bases and track records of success. Bjorn met Benny, and the two realized they made a good songwriting team; Benny could write the catchiest melodies on Earth, and Bjorn could sculpt them into glittering three-minute radio diamonds. Then they recruited their girlfriends to sing and wear tight pants, although the women took an immediate dislike to each other which ripened over the years into mutual loathing.

Most people know that ABBA vaulted into the public’s eye by winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Waterloo” (defeating the favorite, an English entrant named Olivia Newton-John). What most people don’t know is that ABBA followed up “Waterloo” with three flops. One year after its triumph, the group was a trivia question on its way to the obscurity and day jobs which are the fates of almost all Eurovision winners.

In a do or die maneuver in late 1975, ABBA released the song “S.O.S.,” which became a global hit and saved their bacon. Then, in a run not seen since the early years of Beatlemania, ABBA released seven consecutive hit singles (“Mamma Mia,” “Fernando,” “Dancing Queen,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “The Name of the Game” and “Take a Chance on Me”).

Why were these songs so successful? Take it away, Andrew Oldham:

“Pop music is silly and trivial and fleeting and floating and meaningless and disposable and momentary and light and frothy and funny and worthless. That’s what makes it so great. That’s what makes it important. That’s what makes it last. And that’s what ABBA understood better than most . . . .

“Maybe it’s the lot of great pop that it’s discounted as meaningless and transient when all the evidence is there for everyone to see that truly great pop has to appear that way to be great, but in fact lasts forever. The sheer consistency of ABBA’s output has to put them at the very top of pop’s golden greats. They did it and they did it and they kept doing it for over a decade . . . .

“So yeah, Ulvaeus and Andersson are in that league [with Lennon/McCartney, Rogers & Hammerstein and Cole Porter] and why should we feel embarrassed about acknowledging it? Because they recorded supposedly frivolous pop songs and wore ridiculous costumes [pictured] and nobody took them seriously, that’s why. But they didn’t sell seven million copies of ABBA Gold a full decade after any real active service purely on the basis of some kind of camp nostalgia trip. Ask any songwriter – simplicity is the most effective and most difficult quality to successfully construct in music. When a song sounds like it was slotted together like a five-piece jigsaw in a matter of seconds, then that’s a recipe for extravagant, enduring success . . . . They’re the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century.”

I told you the guy could talk.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Moving On

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have unfinished business in Cambodia.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The "Call Steve Bing" Front Page Was a Retread

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I am red-faced to admit that Piers Morgan's diaries are a crackling good read. I guess that's the point of successful tabloid journalism: you're upset with yourself for reading the stuff but you keep reading.

In any event, it turns out that the 2002 Daily Mirror cover story I discussed yesterday -- in which the paper printed producer Steve Bing's office telephone number and exhorted its readers to call him -- was not an original idea. It was a rewrite of a story that Morgan ran six years earlier about James Hewitt, an ex-lover of Diana, Princess of Wales.

From the diaries:


James Hewitt's cashing in on Diana yet again with a TV interview, so we decided to have a little fun with him, putting his car number plate, home address and home phone number in the paper and urging our millions of readers to let him know what they think of him.

We also sent our West Country reporter Geoff Lakeman down to make a citizen's arrest on him for treason.

At 9am this morning, the newsdesk called me, laughing, and said a BT van arrived to change his line. 'He's had a few thousand calls of support,' they said.

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The Other Side of the Table: Steve Bing v. Daily Mirror

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Whenever you are litigating a dispute, you always wonder what the other side is saying about the case in the privacy of their office. When the case is newsworthy, you sometimes find out.

In 2002, I was working at the entertainment litigation boutique of Lavely & Singer P.C., when the firm’s name partner, Martin D. Singer, represented successful writer and producer Steve Bing in legal proceedings against the British tabloid Daily Mirror, which was edited at the time by the flamboyant Piers Morgan.

Morgan’s diaries, titled The Insider: The Private Diaries Of A Scandalous Decade, were published in 2005. After seeing the book several times in second-hand stores across Asia, I broke down today and purchased a copy to see what, if anything, the deposed Morgan – he was fired in 2004 -- had to say about the lawsuit.

I was not disappointed. Of the more than three thousand diary entries, three were devoted to the case. They are reproduced below, with Morgan’s British spelling and punctuation retained, and with my editorial additions in brackets.

* * * * *

Friday, 31 May [2002]

Steve Bing, Liz Hurley’s billionaire American ex-lover, is suing us for millions for calling him Bing Laden for dumping her after making her pregnant. [Actually, the gravamen of Bing's suit was that the Daily Mirror published his office phone number and incited readers to call and "tell him what you think of him."]

Today I was forced to spend ten hours giving a deposition to his legendary lawyer Marty Singer – who’d flown in from Hollywood to do it.

Things got more and more heated as as it went on, mainly because I was totally bored and could only amuse myself by taking the piss out of him – which made him even more laborious.

Eventually he shouted, 'Mr Morgan, if you persist in behaving this way, then we will just have to fly over to Malibu and do it all there.'


'Great, when can we go?'

Monday, 21 October [2002]

The Steve Bing case has been rumbling on for ages now, and I’m bored with it. He seems ready to settle, and we just want to get rid of it.

Bing’s lawyer, Marty Singer, had a drink with our new legal manager, Marcus Partington, last night and asked for a million dollars and a front-page apology. Marcus laughed and offered an apology inside with no money.

Today we got the suggested wording of the apology, and a more obsequious and sickening diatribe of self-congratulatory twaddle I have rarely read. Marcus and I began laughing so much, in fact, that I spotted a chance to turn this thing to our advantage in spectacular style.

'Why don’t we stick this rubbish all over the front page?'

Marcus was temporarily stunned.

'Why the hell do you want to do that?'

'Because if we really lay it on with a trowel, everyone will know we’re taking the piss – apart from Bing and that idiot Marty Singer, because they are Americans and won’t understand irony or sarcasm.'

Marcus, always up for a laugh if we can get away with it, said it was worth a go. So we ran a front-page headline, A HUMBLE AND SINCERE APOLOGY TO MR STEVE BING, PHILANTHROPIST AND HUMANITARIAN, and further grovelling in nauseous, gut-wrenching detail on page nine – together with a piece on page eight by Kevin O’Sullivan headlined WHY AMERICANS DON’T UNDERSTAND IRONY OR SARCASM.

It worked beautifully. Bing and Marty thought we were sincere and had completely capitulated, while everyone in Britain knew it was a gag. I did an intereview for Radio 4 in which the presenter Nick Clarke and I had a great laugh, without ever actually laughing.

Tuesday, 22 October [2002]

Well, nearly everyone. Alan Sugar’s bemused. 'Er, I just read the paper – what’s all this with Steve Bing? Why’d you give him a full page? Even if you were wrong, normally all papers just give you a postage stamp apology. This has to be a first. Which lawyer did he use? I would like to know for the future.'

Well, he is a Spurs fan.

Marty Singer was on Radio 4 today, insisting, 'Our response to Mr Morgan’s comments yesterday is that this was an unprecedented apology, and this is a very serious and not humorous matter. If you’re telling me that in England the wording of this apology would be read as humorous then I’m sorry, but I see nothing funny about it.' Marvellous.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

More On the Kim Il-sung Mummy Question

Pattaya Beach, Thailand

Curtis Melvin of North Korea Economy Watch (whom I met on a tour of Turkmenistan) weighs in with some background on the L.A. Times' "interesting claim," as he puts it, that the displayed body of former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung is a wax phony (with which I took issue earlier).

Melvin also notes that, in life, Kim Il-sung had a disfiguring goiter on the right side of his neck that was airbrushed out of most photographs. (You can see the growth's outlines in the accompanying picture.) Melvin did not see the goiter when he viewed Kim Il-sung's body, which is displayed in a four-sided glass case which visitors are required to circle 360 degrees. I did not see the goiter, either, and I was looking for it. My guess -- and I am merely guessing while the L.A. Times claims to be speaking with authority -- was that the goiter was removed postmortem so that the body would look like the official portraits.

And, just to be clear, I do not know if the body is real or wax. My educated guess (that word again) is that the only people who know for certain are Kim Jong-il, a few Russian embalming specialists and the most trusted workers at the mausoleum -- a tiny circle that does not include any reporters from the L.A. Times.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

L.A. Times' Problematic North Korea Travel Article

Pattaya Beach, Thailand

Mark Magnier of the L.A. Times has written a short account of his trip to North Korea, which appears to have roughly coincided in time with my visit last month.

Writing up a North Korean visit is difficult, because almost every traveller's experience is similar, and there's so much you can't see. It's like trying to write a punchy, perceptive account of a ride on Space Mountain.

That being said, I question two of Magnier's statements, one minor but one going to the core of the modern North Korean experience.

As to the lesser matter, Magnier writes that a tour of North Korea "can set you back up to $8,000." While some travel agents may or may not ask that much per traveller (and Magnier certainly appears to be talking about a per-person charge), no one needs to drop anywhere near eight large to visit Pyongyang. Koryo Tours, the leader in travel to North Korea, charges U.S. citizens 1590 euros (US$2,124) for a standard trip and 2290 euros (US$3,060) for a VIP trip with better food and lodging. Round-trip economy airfare to and from Beijing, from which the North Korea tours depart, is perhaps another $1,000 per person. If Magnier or the L.A. Times paid $8,000 for one person, someone got ripped off.

But that's a quibble. What shocked me was this blithe statement:

"A museum north of Pyongyang features a Madame Tussaud's-style wax likeness of Kim Il-sung," Magnier writes in reference to the Great Leader's mausoleum (pictured).

North Korea watchers question whether the body on display is Kim Il-sung's actual preserved corpse or a wax replica. It's an intriguing question, as it is with the (allegedly) preserved mummies of Lenin, Mao and Ho. One of my British tour leaders, who had been in country multiple times, believed it was real. I could not tell one way or the other, since I don't have much experience in differentiating between real and waxwork heads. (You only see the head; everything below Kim Il-sung's neck, including the hands, is covered by a red blanket.)

Magnier is absolutely correct in reporting that, to the North Koreans visiting the complex, they are not honoring the mortal remains of a deceased leader, they are in audience with God Himself. The Kim Il-sung Mausoleum, which is engraved on the front of the 500-won North Korean banknote, is the keystone of the state's entire propaganda apparatus, and it is, in the words of another of my British tour leaders, "the most serious place in the country."

If the body is a fake, it would be the most closely guarded secret in North Korea -- a secret impervious to the questionings of a visiting reporter on a chaperoned tour. Consequently, if Magnier stands by his statement, he needs to disclose his supporting evidence, so this historical question can rest in peace.

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Pattaya Beach, Thailand

I am greatly modifying this page's links to external web sites. For a while, the new set of links in the sidebar might appear at the very bottom of this page, especially when this page is viewed with the Internet Explorer web browser. So far, the revised page looks fine when viewed with Mozilla Firefox.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Today's Airplane Porn

An elegant shot of an Air Force C-37A, the military version of the pricy Gulfstream V beloved by celebrities and bajillionaires.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Awoken By Explosions In Granada, Nicaragua

From the Knife Tricks Travel Journals:

Granada, Nicaragua

Thursday, October 25, 2004

Explosions woke me up. Boom cracka boom! The church bells rang and rang.

“Is the revolution starting?” I thought. A sleepy lakeside town seemed an unlikely place to commence a coupe or uprising, but so were Wittenberg and Gdansk.

The din started at 6 a.m. and continued for more than half an hour. Boom. Pop. Pa-bump.

It didn’t sound like gun shots. No rat-tat-tat in quick order, like the movies taught. Each explosion was self-contained and separate.

I lay in bed waiting to hear sirens or alarums or other indicia of civil disorder. I waited to hear crowds shouting or yelling or at least jostling for position as they pulled their burros and wagons out of the city. But – apart from the sound of bombing – everything felt normal.

I fumbled through a shower, loath to admit by my actions that something might be wrong – and walked out of the Hotel Alhambra onto the Parque Central.

Business as usual. Vendors were setting up stalls. Men were sitting in groups. School children in their white tops and dark blue pants and skirts walked along. And explosions every few seconds, eliciting no response from the populace.

Pourquoi boom boom?” I asked, sleepily using the wrong language but happily falling into an approximation of the correct Spanish sounds.

Festividad religiosa,” an elderly construction worker, restoring the façade of the hotel, responded.

And so it was.

Across the parque, a crowd of faithful was congregating outside the doors of the cathedral. A statue of Saint Joseph was being prepared for a procession. Children held flowers.

“What holy day?” I asked the man.

Festividad religiosa,” he repeated. That was all the information he wanted to impart.

I tried to place the day within the Roman Catholic calendar. It was the final week of October, so it was Ordinary Time (which means numbered time, from the word “ordinal”). All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) was the following week, followed by All Saints’ Day nee All Hallows (November 1st). No, there was nothing significant about October 25th in the overall Catholic calendar.

Was it a saint’s feast day? Every day of the year is some saint’s feast day. In the High Middle Ages, the Church tried to take advantage of this fact by declaring that no war or violence could occur on a holy day – which was almost every day. The initiative was as successful as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the 1928 treaty in which Germany, Italy and Japan (among others) renounced war.

The Hotel Alhambra housed a great internet café. The internet part was typical -- older computers with Jessica Alba screensavers running slow dial-up connections. But the café part excelled, with teenage attendants bringing whatever food or drink you wanted. Rice and beans with a coffee cost less than one dollar.

Online, I learned that October 25th was the feast day for at least 15 saints, some with interesting names or stories. Saint Fronto lived in the first century and was a convert from Judaism, baptized by Saint Peter himself. Saints Crispin and Crispinian are the patron saints of shoemakers, cobblers and leatherworkers. Saint Hilary was a man, not a woman. Saint Fructus was the brother of Saint Engratia and Saint Valentine (who, in turn, was not that Saint Valentine). Nobody remembered what Saint Lupus did. None of the listed saints seemed to have an obvious connection to a small colonial town on the shore of Lake Nicaragua.

October 25th had important political significance for a different “Granada.” On October 25, 1983, troops from the United States and six Caribbean nations invaded the island of Grenada – note the spelling – to oppose a coup attempt by Marxist deputy prime minister Winston Coard who had, several days earlier, seized power and executed the Prime Minister. While Operation Urgent Fury had been a success and October 25th was now Thanksgiving Day in Grenada, I doubted that the residents of Granada were celebrating the same event.

I asked the teenage girl working the cash register at the internet café what the firecrackers were for.

Festividad religiosa,” she said.

There was only one way to get to the bottom of this. I paid for my food and internet time and walked across the Parque Central to the cathedral. Locals, almost all women and children, were milling about. A washer woman was sweeping steps. I looked around until I saw a woman in a nun’s habit.

In my weak Spanish, I asked her what holy day it was.

Festividad religiosa,” she said.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Topographical Confusion in Central Asia

Dear Uzbekistan Airways:

I was happy to learn this spring that your airline increased service and now flies twice a week between Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and New York City. However, please be aware that the photograph that accompanies the announcement on your web site is not a photograph of New York, the most populous city in the United States, but is in fact a photograph of New York New York, a casino located in the desert city of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Just thought you might like to know.


P.S. Could you double check and make sure the pilots of the flights to "New York" understand the difference? Thanks.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Writer's Block

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Glimpse Inside A North Korean Concentration Camp

"An escapee tells of life and death in North Korea's labor camps" by Choe Sang-Hun, International Herald Tribune.

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