Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The New Spiritualized Album


Sherman Oaks, California

The new album by Spiritualized, Songs in A & E, will be released on May 26, 2008. Fans with internet connections may download the album without leaving their homes, presumably a boon to the band's hardest core supporters.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Ever-Changing Name of the Law School at Berkeley


Sherman Oaks, California

My old law school at U.C. Berkeley was founded in 1894, and it still does not have a permanent name.

In previous years, it has been the Department of Jurisprudence, the School of Jurisprudence and the School of Law, and the building was named Boalt Hall after an early benefactor.

I received a letter dated April 22, 2008, from Dean Christopher Edley informing alumni -- in language only a law professor could write -- that the name has changed again.

"Our official name has been -- and will continue to be -- the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. We will use this name and especially its short form, Berkeley Law, in most communication with external audiences. The name Berkeley is known worldwide as the gold standard in higher education. And Berkeley Law mirrors the names of our peer schools, all of which exploit the equity in their university names: Harvard Law, Stanford Law, Michigan Law, etc.

"We will continue to use the name Boalt Hall among ourselves, especially within the alumni community. The Boalt name is enormously meaningful to countless people who've been associated with the school over the years, including newcomers like me. To them I say: We understand. We, too, take pride in the Boalt name and all it embodies. As I said to newly admitted students visiting campus recently, within the family, we will always be Boalt."

Three points:

1. When I attended in the mid-1990s, the administration stressed that the formal name of the school was the "University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall)." That's what it says on my resume, and I'm not changing it.

2. No one refers to the school as "Berkeley Law." The phrase sounds wrong, and there's no reason to use it. If you're talking in a law school context -- which is usually the case -- you say "Berkeley." Otherwise, you say "the law school at Berkeley."

3. The new Berkeley Law logo (pictured) is an example of why lawyers should not select logos. It looks like something that would have been created ten years ago by a stodgy tech company trying to look hip. (The worst legal logo has to be that of the firm Paul Hastings, which appears to have been designed on WordPerfect for DOS.)

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Schmidt. Rose. Matheson.


Sherman Oaks, California

Belated kudos to Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Bob Ford for breaking the story of Kathy Matheson, the right-handed, five-tool player who’s the biggest sports phenom since Sidd Finch.

Writing an exclusive for the Pen and Pencil Softball blog, Ford stayed at his post at great personal risk (as they say in the Pulitzer citations) to cover the breakthrough performance of this new and photogenic star (pictured).

Playing the Philadelphia Zoo (which may be a team of scientists or may be ten people plucked at random from the bleachers at Citizens Bank Park), Pen & Pencil were down 10-4 in the bottom of the sixth inning when six straight hits brought the tying run to the plate, and around the bases, in the seventh.

Matheson, 1 for 3 with a prior run scored in the game, stepped to the plate with the fate of the P&Ps in her dainty, manicured fingers.

Crack!

Matheson, as clutch as the gearbox on a 1959 Trabant, set the table with a power single, leaving catcher Ellen Kenney to knock her in and win the game in the extra inning.

Matheson could not be reached for comment because she was yachting through the Aegean Sea contemplating endorsement offers, according to her agent Scott Boras.

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Book In Euros, Pay In Dollars

Sherman Oaks, California

The WorldHotels chain is offering a discount through June 30, 2008, in which U.S. passport holders can pay for Euro-denominated rooms in U.S. dollars at a 1:1 exchange rate, the Wall Street Journal reported. Friday's market exchange rate was 64 euro cents for 1 U.S. dollar, meaning that the chain is actually offering a 40% discount but "1:1 Euro-Dollar Offer" is better marketing than "40% off."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Military Bases Can Still Sell Highlights, Ranger Rick


Sherman Oaks, California

The assault on straight male sexuality continues as nitwit congressman Paul Broun (R-GA) sponsors a bill that would prohibit military PXes from selling Playboy, Maxim or any film with a touch of nudity. The milblogs are all over it, noting that the armed forces are home to young, single men who don't want to spend their down time reading Lapham's Quarterly.

There's a point where this type of Power Puritanism stops being an indictment of the headline-seeking politicians who sponsor the bills and starts to become a conviction of the voters who return these people to office.

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U.S. Customs: Straight Men Inherently Suspicious


Sherman Oaks, California

An adult man who appears to be sexually attracted to adult women is a possible child molester – that is the logic employed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that enforces immigration and customs laws at airports.

The Ninth Circuit, the federal appeals court in the westernmost United States, recently reviewed the case of Michael Timothy Arnold. Upon returning to the U.S. from the Philippines, Customs officials at Los Angeles International Airport found alleged child pornography on his laptop. The Ninth Circuit held that government officials do not need a reason to search laptops at a border (and an airport has long been held to be the equivalent of a border). United States v. Arnold, No. 06-50581 (9th Cir. April 21, 2008).

While the Ninth Circuit’s decision was unfortunate, it was also predictable. A returning U.S. citizen has almost no Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches or seizures at a border. The government can search luggage, pockets, etc., for any reason or no reason. More personally invasive searches like a strip search require “reasonable suspicion,” but searching a laptop does not.

But the facts of the Arnold case demonstrate that, in the eyes of the U.S. government, ordinary male sexuality is suspicious. Agents inspected Arnold’s laptop and found a photograph that “depicted two nude women,” according to the Ninth Circuit. Based on that, the agents alerted their supervisors, detained Arnold for hours and seized the laptop, eventually finding “what they believed to be child pornography.” (Arnold has not been tried, entitling him to a presumption of innocence.)

The photograph which triggered the incident was almost certainly a photograph of adult women. The District Court noted that the “government has not presented evidence that the photo depicted minors.” If the photo had been kiddie porn, the government would have said so immediately, and the case would not have made it up to the Ninth Circuit.

Thus, the U.S. government is enforcing a policy that a straight man’s normal – and perfectly legal – interest in naked adult women is inherently suspicious activity which warrants detention, search, seizure and questioning.

I generally disregard the argument that the Bush Administration is attempting to impose a theocracy, but incidents like this make me wonder.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

You Have Been Warned, Frenchies



Flash of the Knife to the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Speed Tribes: How Journalism Can Be True And False At The Same Time


Speed Tribes: Days and Nights With Japan’s Next Generation by Karl Taro Greenfeld (HarperCollins 1994).

The lowlifes knew the party was over.

The value of Tokyo real estate – once estimated at more than the value of all the buildings in the United States and of all the companies on the New York Stock Exchange – was in free fall. So was the Nikkei average, dropping 63% in less than three years. During the Bubble Economy, everyone in Japan was flush with cash to spend on liquor or drugs or women, but that was then, and this is the early 1990s. Japan Inc. was bankrupt.

People still had to make a living, street-level hustlers no less than white-collared salarymen. Izumi managed three betting operations for the Kobayashi-kai, an arm of the Yakuza. Daisuke and his friend Naoya stole motorcycles and sold them to chopshops. Choco Bon-Bon was a meth-smoking porn star, his nickname based on the fact that his dark brown scrotum looked like a chocolate sack with two candies in it; he was paid one million yen per ejaculation, which was about 8,000 U.S. dollars back then.

These Tarantino-esque hoods are the stars of Speed Tribes, Karl Taro Greenfeld’s compendium of reports from the back alleys of Tokyo. In each chapter, Greenfeld – his mother was Japanese, his father Jewish – draws vivid pictures of the seamy world in which his subjects lived and worked, such as the industrial wards of eastern Tokyo:

“Ohana-jaya, a sprawling suburban wasteland about an hour out of central Tokyo, is best known as a bedroom community of last resort for the armies of blue-collar and service sector employees who keep Tokyo fed, housed, clad, gassed-up, and on time. The suburb is also an industrial vassal community, where subcontractors and mechanics eke out livings from the scraps dispensed by world-famous manufacturing concerns such as Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha. The streets that extend outward from Ohana-jaya’s Occupation-era train station are lined with motorcycle parts contractors and motorcycle repair shops. The shop interiors are twisted masses of bike frames, plastic body fairings, bulbous gas tanks, chrome forks, black handlebars, white rims, tires, electronic ignition systems, and carburetors dangling fuel lines. The men who work in these tiny factories are the foot soldiers of Japan’s renowned just-in-time parts delivery system – the much-vaunted manufacturing system that enables Japanese car and motorcycle manufacturers to keep costs down by understocking parts and call on their subcontractors when they need, say, five hundred lower cowlings or twelve gross of regulator rectifiers. The substantial cost of keeping necessary parts in inventory is thus passed on to the small subcontractor, hired on a piecemeal basis by Honda or some other corporate giant. The subcontractor must come up with the parts or risk being dumped by the manufacturer.”

Speed Tribes – named after the Japanese term for motorcycle gangs – is filled with evocative passages like that one. Greenfeld, simultaneously insider and outsider, was able to get under the skin of a hungover culture, a nation state which, for a moment, considered itself the wealthiest and most powerful race on earth – and then it all fell apart.

Although the book is an excellent read, Greenfeld’s pointillistic descriptions are closer to painting than photography. Greenfeld does not cite his sources, and he reports in seemingly eyewitness detail on conversations and events at which he could not have been present, such as a teenage boy’s losing his virginity while his father chops sushi downstairs.

Greenfeld has admitted that the book contains composites. For example, Keiko, in her early 20s, is an under-achieving party girl who drinks, sleeps around and tolerates her mother’s desperate efforts to affiance her with respectable Japanese men – all of whom Keiko finds hopelessly nerdy and boring. Keiko is a composite of three separate women, Greenfeld admitted. There was no Keiko.

Except that there were thousands of Keikos.

The purpose of Speed Tribes is not to report on the verifiable statements and actions of specific individuals at certain dates and times. That may be what the White House press corps does, but it’s not what Greenfeld was doing here.

Greenfeld, a magazine writer, was reporting on a zeitgeist. The residents of Tokyo had stayed too long at the fair, and Greenfeld describes what it felt like as the drunken rush of the Bubble Economy was replaced by sober reality. No, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo were not worth more than the State of California – and an economy based on that assumption was going to crash hard.

As far as I’m aware, no critic has demonstrated that the big picture drawn by Greenfeld was incorrect. The pious acolytes of Journalism will object to his methods, but, as a reader, I don’t. I would have preferred an Afterword explaining Greenfeld’s sourcing, but most people have read enough books to know instinctively when a passage is a verbatim transcript versus a reconstructed narrative -- and to find value in either.

Speed Tribes is a valuable and entertaining work – of journalism.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Medellin v. Texas: President Cannot Rewrite Treaties, Supreme Court Rules


(Blogger’s Note: Law students learn case law through a process called “briefing.” After reading a judicial decision, a diligent law student will summarize the components of the case in a pre-set format which aids comprehension and memory. Like most law school best practices, students stop briefing cases the second semester. Knife Tricks, however, will occasionally brief a case of import or interest, adapting the briefing format to better fit a blog.)

TITLE: Medellin v. Texas, issued March 25, 2008.

FACTS: Jose Ernesto Medellín, a Mexican national who had resided in the United States since preschool, was arrested in 1993 on suspicion of raping and murdering two teenage girls in Houston. Within four hours of arrest and after being given a Miranda warning, Medellín confessed to the crimes. The arresting officers did not, however, inform Medellín that, as a Mexican national, the prisoner had a right under the Vienna Convention to notify the Mexican consulate of his detention.

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Medellín was convicted in a Texas state trial court and sentenced to death; his conviction was affirmed by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas. Medellín did not raise the issue of the Vienna Convention during his trial or appeal.

Several years later, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention when Houston police failed to inform Medellin of his rights thereunder. President Bush issued a Memorandum stating that state courts would give effect to the I.C.J. opinion. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that neither the I.C.J. decision nor the President’s Memorandum were binding. Thus, Medellín’s failure to raise the Vienna Convention defense at his trial or direct appeal precluded him from raising it now.

ISSUE: Is a decision of the International Court of Justice interpreting the Vienna Convention binding upon the United States? If it is not, can the President make such a decision binding upon the states by issuing a Memorandum?

SUPREME COURT RULING: No and no.

REASONING:

Treaties are either “self-executing” or “non-self-executing.” A “self-executing treaty” becomes law, binding upon the federal government and the states, automatically upon its ratification by the Senate. A “non-self-executing” treaty does not become law upon ratification; rather, it becomes law only after the Congress passes implementing legislation and the President either signs the legislation or has his veto overridden. Interestingly, a “non-self-executing” treaty does create an international obligation, which the President can enforce unilaterally by legal means which do not require formal legislation.

A court begins its determination of whether a treaty is “self-executing” or “non-self-executing” by examining the text of the treaty. I.C.J. decisions are enforced by a provision of the United Nations Charter which provides that each member of the U.N. “undertakes to comply” with I.C.J. rulings. This language means that an I.C.J. ruling is not automatically effective; a member state must take additional action to enforce an I.C.J. ruling. In addition, no other U.N. member state treats I.C.J. decisions as automatically binding, creating a “postratification understanding.”

But the President’s Memorandum is not a valid enforcement action. “The President has an array of political and diplomatic means available to enforce international obligations, but unilaterally converting a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing one is not among them,” the Supreme Court held. “The responsibility for transforming an international obligation arising from a non-self-executing treaty into domestic law falls to Congress.”

DISPOSITION: The ruling of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was affirmed. Medellín was not entitled to relief under the I.C.J.’s ruling. His death sentence stands.

(CURIOUS TYPOGRAPHICAL NOTE: While all references within the Supreme Court’s opinion are to “Medellín” – with the diacritic over the i – the formal title of the opinion does not include the diacritic.)

Pictured: The signature page -- signed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay -- of the Treaty of Paris, by which the United Kingdom recognized the independence of the United States.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Move Over, Carla: Putin Reportedly Dating 24-Year-Old Gymnast


Sherman Oaks, California

Carla Bruni may have to share the crown of Europe’s sexiest First Lady. The British press is running with reports that 56-year-old Russian president Vladimir Putin has left his wife and is carrying on with 24-year-old Uzbek-born gymnast Alina Kabaeva (pictured). The gymnast, who is also a freshman legislator in the Russian Parliament, is renowned for her “unusual flexibility” (scroll down). Kabaeva has also posed for racy photographs for the Russian editions of Maxim and FHM. Putin denied the reports during a press conference in Sardinia.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Thoughts On The Dith Pran Memorial Viewing Of "The Killing Fields"


Whitley Heights, California

 They don’t make movies like that anymore.

 After the critical success of Gandhi in 1982, historical dramas about non-European cultures were briefly in vogue, allowing such films to obtain financing or distribution. The Killing Fields, about the Cambodian autogenocide of the mid-1970s, was one of them.

 The film, as Knife Tricks readers know, is about New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian interpreter and assistant Dith Pran (played by non-actor Dr. Hiang S. Ngor). The two men worked in the capital city of Phnom Penh, reporting on the efforts of the U.S.-backed government to contain an insurgency of shadowy Communists called the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians). When it became obvious that the government would fall, Schanberg and Pran stayed to cover the story.

 Other journalists who stayed were Newsweek stringer and photographer Al Rockoff (played by John Malkovich) and London Sunday Times correspondent Jon Swain (played by Julian Sands). Clint Eastwood likes to say that the casting of small roles is as important as the casting of large roles, because a movie, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. Killing Fields director Roland Joffe clearly shares the belief.

 The film contains three bravura sequences, any one of which would have been the pride of a lesser work:

 (1) The evacuation of the Americans is a heart-pounding action sequence, scored with atonal electronic music that emphasizes the chaos. In commercial films, action scenes are rote devices that compel interest through shock and noise. The evacuation is gripping because two stories are being told at once -- the end of a failed intervention by a great power and, caught in the middle, Pran’s family trying to board the last chopper out. By that time in the story, you care about both the great power and the little family, which makes the final, heartbreaking shots of the helicopters disappearing into the sky that much more powerful.

 (2) Trapped in the French Embassy, the journalists concoct a plan to save Pran, who, as an educated Cambodian working with Westerners, would face execution if captured by the Khmer Rouge. This is the most “Hollywood” sequence in the film, but it worked (and it’s a reminder of the old days when creating photographs required paper, developer, stop bath, fixer and a dark room).

 (3) My favorite scene in the film is a tracking shot which, unlike most tracking shots, does not announce itself. After a near-fatal encounter with a Khmer Rouge platoon composed of armed teenagers, Schanberg and Rockoff emerge from a courtyard to see a street full of Cambodians being forcibly evacuated from the city. The tracking shot pans left following Rockoff, then pans right following a passing truck, then pans left again following the journalists as the camera cranes up to a big reveal of thousands of refugees walking away from the camera along railroad tracks. The speed of the camera’s movement never matches the speed of the people in the frame, further obscuring the fact that it’s all one, finely choreographed take.

 Rockoff is a real person, and he’s none too happy about the way he was portrayed in the film.

 Joffe can’t be called to task for what happened after the movie was released. Sometime in the late 1980s, the John Lennon song “Imagine” became overplayed on classic rock radio, such that Q magazine referred to it as “a song nobody ever need hear again.” But Joffe could not have known this when he selected the song to end the film.

 One of the major film critics – I believe it was Pauline Kael – objected to the scene when, immediately after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Schanberg is confronted in the hotel bathroom by Rockoff who berates him for not doing enough to help Pran escape from Cambodia. The critic objected to the needlessly earthy setting of the scene and to Rockoff’s behavior on the grounds that Schanberg was doing everything he could to help Pran, while Rockoff was doing nothing.

I don’t think the scene actually happened. It’s a symbol of Schanberg’s guilt with Rockoff as his conscience. Schanberg was portrayed as consumed by guilt not only because Pran was left behind but also because, as Schanberg later admits to his sister, he manipulated Pran into staying in Cambodia because Schanberg wanted the glory of landing the big story.

 The film was produced by David Puttnam, later the head of Columbia Pictures, known today as Baron Puttnam of Queensgate, Labour Member of the House of Lords.

 Imagine what would happen if a producer met with a studio executive this afternoon and said, “I want to film a two-and-a-half hour movie with no stars about a civil war in a tiny country everybody’s forgotten – and half the movie stars an Asian guy who’s never acted before.”

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Pope-o-plane


Sherman Oaks, California

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the United States this week aboard "Shepherd One," his airplane.

Except that "his" is putting it too strongly. Reporter John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter reported during last year's papal visit to Brazil that Shepherd One is actually whichever aircraft Alitalia loans to the Pope for the trip.

"In reality, there is no 'papal plane,' in the sense of a jet owned by the Vatican and used exclusively for papal travel," Allen wrote. "Instead, a regular commercial jet owned by Alitalia, the national air carrier of Italy, is set aside the day of the pope’s departure. The pilots and crew are all regular Alitalia employees. The next day, the plane returns to running Alitalia’s normal routes, with its passengers presumably unaware that they’re sitting in what was only recently the 'papal plane.'

"There’s also no special room on the plane for the pope, no Air Force One-esque office with a couch, desk, TV set, and wet-bar. His lone perk is that he gets a seat by himself in the front row. Behind him are the most senior officials from the Secretariat of State, beginning with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. (This seating arrangement usually means that when the flight attendants sit down for take-off, they’re directly across from the Holy Father. Watching them try not to stare is a favorite on-board pastime.)"

But, like Air Force One, the Pope generally keeps to the front of the plane with minimal interaction with journalists.

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Overheard: The Sushi Bar


Sherman Oaks, California

Fat Man In Hawaiian Shirt: I’ll have the all you can eat and start with three Spanish mackerel.

Sushi Chef: Only one Spanish mackerel with all you can eat.

Man: I was told it was unlimited Spanish mackerel.

Chef: One Spanish mackerel.

Man: The guy said it was unlimited for dinner.

Chef: (silence)

Man: Let me speak to the owner.

(pause)

Owner: Yes?

Man: I was told that it was unlimited Spanish mackerel for dinner.

Owner: No. One Spanish mackerel. Who told you?

Man: The guy.

(pause)

Owner: One Spanish mackerel with all you can eat dinner.

Man: I come here all the time. It’s unlimited Spanish mackerel for dinner. You’re going to lose a customer. I’m here two or three times a week.

Owner: One Spanish mackerel with all you can eat dinner.

(pause)

Man: I’ll have one Spanish mackerel please.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Worry Candy"

Sherman Oaks, California

Great phrase: "worry candy." It was used today by Slate writer Darshak Sanghavi, in a piece titled "Why Do We Focus On The Least Important Causes of Cancer?," to refer to media scare stories.

I would add one point to Sanghavi's piece: the most effective scare stories are those which allow the reader or viewer to "avoid" the threat by making a trivial change in purchasing habits. It's easy to stop buying apples sprayed with Alar or to avoid flying on DC-10s. The factoids strengthen the link between the news organization and the audience, which thinks it has consumed news it can use.

The fact that the scare stories are later proven to be completely wrong -- Alar is not carcinogenic, and DC-10s are perfectly airworthy -- is beside the point.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Lonely Planet Scandal: The Guidebook

Sherman Oaks, California

Writer Dude: "I broke all the Lonely Planet rules. I made up or copied my guidebooks, accepted comps, wrote the Colombia guide without visiting the country and sold drugs to make a living because LP pays so poorly."

Lonely Planet Global Domination Bunker: "Nope. False. Untrue. Trying to flak a book. Wrong. Our guides rock."

Writer Dude: "I'll back pedal a little."

Bloggers: "Who trusts guidebooks?"

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The World's Cheapest Destinations (Revised Edition)


The World’s Cheapest Destinations: 21 Countries Where Your Money Is Worth A Fortune (Revised Edition) by Tim Leffel (Booklocker 2006).

Travel writing is going private. It’s an act of economic self preservation.

“Real” travel writing – the phrase is both condescending and accurate – has a limited audience. Casual travelers want to read about Five Hip New Hotels In Helsinki, not about the frustration of Uruguayan tech workers over Argentina’s control of internet bandwidth in the Southern Cone.

The “travel” magazines are the worst offenders. Most are about consumption, not travel. They compete over a small demographic of affluent Westerners who want luxury and absolutely no surprises. Worse, these “aspirational” magazines can convince readers that expensive, high-margin travel is the only type that exists. Newspaper travel sections aren’t much better.

So where do serious travel writers sell their stories? To the handful of magazines that will print them. Some are within the travel genre (such as Outside or various National Geographic titles), although many are general interest magazines which find the space for well-told tales (such as GQ, Esquire and Vanity Fair). A few web sites, like WorldHum, also fight the good fight.

That leaves books, the medium in which you can find endless top-notch travel writing. But books have their limitations. An author needs to find a publisher, and the publisher has to competently sell the book. (Don’t get Salon aviation columnist Patrick Smith started on the topic of how he wrote a book for airline passengers, but his publisher refused to sell it in airport bookshops.)

Tim Leffel has found a way around the problem. His book, The World’s Cheapest Destinations, is self-published, in the sense that the physical English-language copies are created by publisher-on-demand Booklocker. Leffel markets the book online, allowing him to earn a larger profit margin than through a traditional publisher.

Entrepreneurial maneuvers like Leffel’s may be the best hope for real travel writing. The market is too small, with most of the oxygen in the travel writing room consumed by vapid monologues about $400-a-night “rustic” cottages in the Scottish highlands. Travel writers who want to take the time (and word count) to explain what a place is like will have to find innovative ways to finance their projects.

The World’s Cheapest Destinations is one of the first success stories in Travel Writing 2.0. Originally published in 2003, the book was so successful – principally from internet sales – that a Revised Edition was released in 2006. Leffel informs me that a new edition, updated for the decline of the U.S. dollar, will be out this year.

The book delivers on its title’s promise. In each of the major regions of the world (except Australia and Oceania, too pricey), Leffel identifies three to seven countries – plus a few honorable mentions – where $100 a day is more than enough cash. A meal for two in Luang Prabang, Laos, can cost $3 (although, with the recent influx of tourists, the price may have doubled). A decent hotel room near the beach in Turkey can be had for $15. One thousand dollars can last three months in India.

I enjoyed Leffel’s other travel book, Make Your Travel Dollars Worth A Fortune, which provided broad principles of what he calls "contrarian travel." The World’s Cheapest Destinations is, by its nature, specific to certain countries. You can order a physical copy from Leffel's website for $13.95 or the e-book for $7.95 -- your small contribution to the future of real travel writing.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

The Geography of Bliss


The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Place in the World by Eric Weiner (Twelve 2008).

Please let me begin by revealing my bias against National Public Radio correspondent Eric Weiner.

Through no fault of his own, Eric Weiner the author and reporter has the same name and profession as an acquaintance of mine, who is also “Eric Weiner, Author and Reporter.” (You can buy his book about Wall Street here.)

With the rise into prominence of the NPR Eric, I’ve felt badly for “my” Eric, as I'll call him even though we haven’t spoken in years. It must be an irritant to have a professional competitor who writes for Slate, publishes a New York Times bestseller, appears on The Colbert Report and has the same goddamn name. (The Eric-Eric issue reduces to relative insignificance my pique at the existence of Washington Times wine columnist Paul Lukacs; that being said, I wish Mr. Lukacs would take a buyout and retire to Sauternes.)

So, as I started reading said New York Times bestseller, I tried to set my bias aside. Turns out, there was no need to.

The Geography of Bliss is a con, a bait-and-switch, a shaggy dog story that meanders without form, substance or conclusion. It’s a bland broth of empty calories, and I would be saying that whatever the name of the author.

The book’s conceit is that a self-confessed grump travels around the planet to find the happiest place on earth. Decent idea, but there’s no set up. NPR Eric is never established as a grump. He does not portray himself as particularly snippy or peevish, and I had forgotten about the book’s sub-title by the final chapter when, out of nowhere, NPR Eric decides to chin-scratch about his alleged crankiness. It’s as if The Godfather had forgotten to mention that young Michael wanted to go legit.

One of the myths of American culture is that NPR provides in-depth reporting. In reality, NPR’s reports are as superficial as television news, but they’re polished with deadpan voices, collegiate diction and sound from ethnic festivals. NPR arguably covers a greater range of news than a U.S. cable news channel, but radio as a medium can’t convey detailed information, and radio’s audience of commuters can’t absorb it.

The biggest problem with The Geography of Bliss is that it reads like a 325-page NPR transcript. The author jumps from interview snippets, to narration, to descriptions of terrain, to background information. You can hear the edits and splices in your head, and you keep waiting for Michele Norris to break in.

NPR Eric’s coverage of the factors which contribute to happiness is shockingly superficial, considering that’s the point of the enterprise. He devotes only four pages to the Thai concept that thinking too much about life leads to dissatisfaction. He has read widely within the science of “happiness studies,” but his write-ups are weak. For example, one study found that people who won the lottery and people who became paralyzed both returned to roughly the same of level of happiness they enjoyed prior to the life-altering event. NPR Eric writes:

“What was going on? [Psychologist Philip] Brickman surmised that, in the case of the lottery winners, they now derived significantly less pleasure from ordinary events like buying clothes or talking to a friend. What was once enjoyable was no longer so. Psychologists call this the ‘hedonic treadmill.’ Much like a regular treadmill, the hedonic treadmill makes you sweat and should be avoided at all costs. Unlike a regular treadmill, however, the hedonic variety is definitely not good for your health. It will drive you nuts, this infinite cycle of pleasure and adaptation. Interestingly, there are two notable exceptions to the hedonic treadmill. Noise and big breasts. Studies have found that we never really get used to loud noises, despite prolonged exposure. Another study found that women who get breast implants never tire of the enjoyment it brings them, and presumably their companions feel the same.”

Interesting, but that’s about all NPR Eric has to say on the topic. By the next page, he’s moved on to the ancient Greek attitudes toward luck; the page after that recounts a dinner at an Indian restaurant in Qatar with an American expat.

NPR Eric was freed from the constraints of a two-minute radio report, but, faced with the expanses of a book in which he could report in detail, he reverted to the bantamweight summaries of his day job.

And I wish he’d change his name.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Must Read: Devastating Piece on the Attorney Mindset


Sherman Oaks, California

The issue was the career effect of quitting a law firm job and taking several months off. As it happens, I have more than an academic interest in the topic.

The sadly anonymous author of this article answers the question -- no, attorneys grinding out their lives at large law firms won't appreciate your independent thinking -- and, in the process, crafts a pulverizing indictment of the legal mind.

An excerpt (but read the whole thing):

"Accordingly, most attorneys have drilled into their very psyche the importance of working for others and being seen with favor in their employer's eyes. Most attorneys believe they should always be seen with favor by others and the idea that an attorney could possibly put themselves outside of an environment where they are being judged and rewarded by others is something that is difficult for many other attorneys to comprehend. Just as a middle class person would likely be judgmental against another middle class person wearing an ascot - or sitting on their front porch in a cowboy hat drinking whiskey and listening to country music, so, too, are they judgmental against attorneys voluntarily choosing to take significant time off from the practice of law.

"While we realize that this 'class based analysis' is something that understandably may make many people uncomfortable, the fact is that it does exist. It has often been said that the upper class and the lower class in America are more like each other than they are like the middle class. The driving factor in this observation has been that the upper and lower class typically do not care what others think about them. The middle class, in contrast, is defined by what others think of them, from what kind of neighborhood they live in to what type of car they drive, whether they went to college, where they went to college and so forth. In the legal profession, just like the distinctions within the class system, lawyers have a tremendous amount of concern of falling in the parameters of what is expected. Here, it is expected that you will not leave the practice of law."

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien


Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui's Missteps in Argentina by Brian Winter (PublicAffairs 2008).

The elegant streets of Paris. The cable cars of San Francisco. The futuristic electronics of Japan.

Every one is a travel cliché: musty, unchallenging, rote.

But clichés can be useful, as illustrated by reporter Brian Winter in his new book Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina.

Winter’s book is a memoir of his fours years as a cub reporter from Texas covering the Argentine financial meltdown of the early 2000s. While writing the book, Winter could have organized his story around any of several themes. He could have focused on Argentina’s consistently useless government, his personal fish-out-of-water story, the country’s renowned beef, the class-driven rivalry between the Boca and River football clubs, or the political telenovela of Juan and Evita Perón.

Instead, Winter choose the biggest Argentina cliché of all: the tango.

As Winter describes it, he moved to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires at the turn of the millennium with $2,000 and a vague goal of working as a reporter. But journalism jobs were scarce, and Winter filled his days with lonely, low-cost activities such as riding the city buses for hours at a time. Finally, out of desperation, he called the father of a friend and was invited to an evening at the Niño Bien.

The titular Niño Bien, it turned out, was a milonga, a dance hall specializing in tango. The lords of the dance were a group of older gentlemen, known only by nicknames such as El Tigre and El Dandy, who spent their nights drinking, gossiping and dancing. Their mastery of the tango earned them the respect of everyone in the milonga, including, it was not lost on our unmarried author, attractive young women.

Thus began the author’s journey into the world of the tango, and thus begins a book which can be described with a phrase like “thus began the author’s journey into the world of the tango.” While I have no reason to doubt the accuracy or honesty of Winter’s account, the tango theme of Long After Midnight . . . . feels contrived, less the lynchpin of the author’s expat experience than a pre-digested formula designed to sell books to an unadventurous American public.

More’s the pity, since Winter is, from the evidence on the page, an excellent reporter. He reconstructs the mysterious origins of the tango from ragged primary sources. He has a feel for the sensibility of Buenos Aires, the way its residents simultaneously have huge egos and an inferiority complex. And, after landing a job with Reuters, he followed every twist of the Argentine economic crisis, although few of the details made it into the book.

The tango cliché serves its purpose. For Americans unaccustomed to reading about other nations, the romance of the dance may open a few minds. Better yet, Winter’s sympathetic story may coax a few Americans into spending their next vacation in B.A. instead of Branson.

But, to an internationally atuned reader, the book will read like a better-than-average “one year in _____” tome, held together by an artificial and arbitrary spindle which limits its reach. Repeatedly throughout Long After Midnight . . . ., Winter begins to discuss an interesting aspect of Argentine life only to force the narrative back to the subject of tango. It’s like building a book around the Venice gondoliers or an attempt on Everest. No matter how well researched or written, you feel that there’s more to the place, something new and unexpected that could have been explored but for the requirement of always having to return to a market-friendly theme, in this case tango.

The travel cliché, having enticed the reader into the parlor, becomes a poor host by dictating the limits of the conversation.

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