Monday, June 30, 2008

Government Turns Lights Out At "Time Out Beijing"

Sherman Oaks, California

In a heavy-handed move, the Chinese government has banned the production of Time Out Beijing, an English-language magazine at the core of the city’s expat community.

According to the London Times, the ban may be temporary, extending until after the Olympics. The official reason for the shut down was that the magazine, which has been publishing for four years, did not have a license.

Some thoughts:

1. Time Out Beijing is not political; it’s an arts and nightlife magazine. The publication certainly would not have lasted four years if it were agitating for multi-party elections or demanding the prosecution of former premier Li Peng for giving the order to clear Tiananmen Square. Time Out Beijing is a much-better-than-average listings mag about where Anglophones can eat, drink and hang out. To the best of my knowledge, restaurant reviews have never sparked a counter-revolution.

2. Time Out Beijing is written in a smart, snappy style that helps make the city seem hip and cosmopolitan. For all the hype, much of Beijing is drab. The city and national governments would presumably want to spice up the image of the capital, and Beijing Time Out was, from that perspective, a bunch of laowai (foreigners) promoting Beijing on their own time. (And, yes, I’m biased, since I met various Time Out Beijing folks during my stays in China.)

3. Time Out Beijing is central to the expat experience. When you’re in a city as vast and intimidating as Beijing, with opaque language and Martian signs, you need a guide. Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, said that her readers saw the magazine as a friend. That’s certainly true for Time Out Beijing. It’s the Big Cool Friend from a similar cultural background who’s been in town a few years and can show you the ropes. It is incomprehensible to me why the Chinese government would want to ban a publication that makes it easier for people to live in the capital.

4. The Chinese government is sending a terrible message to entrepreneurs: We can, and will, shut down your business any time we want. Meanwhile, it appears that the Chinese government has confiscated a competing listings magazine called that’s Beijing. I’ve blogged before that China presents itself as a terrible place to build an idea business, and these moves support the argument.

5. Maybe there’s something in the air this month. Over in Russia, the government has forced the closure of The eXile, a popular expat publication. Mark Ames, the editor, is blogging about the closure at Radar.

6. The Chinese officials appear to have no media savvy. Why would they? There’s no need to learn message management or how to influence a story in a system where all print publications are government controlled. In this instance, the officials responsible seem unaware that (1) they’re closing an outlet that presents the city in a positive light, (2) they look like small-minded autocrats, and (3) journalists empathize with censored colleagues, which can color subsequent coverage. And, of course, this shutdown adds more velocity to the “China cracks down before the Olympics” narrative, increasing the chances of negative coverage. Rogers & Cowan these guys ain’t.

7. The mere existence of publications like Time Out Beijing and City Weekend, another expat magazine, help foster the image of a free and open China – which you’d think would be one of the goals of the employees at the Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. To the extent the copy is written in English, more than 90% of Chinese can’t read it, and the rest have made their peace with the system. So the principal effect of allowing Time Out Beijing to publish during the Olympics would have been to convince credulous English-reading visitors that the Chinese press was just like the media back home in Wellington or Wolverhampton, but with more photos of Ziyi Zhang. Somebody needs to read a basic public relations textbook.

8. Ultimately, this befuddling move by the Chinese authorities may be rooted in the base motive of all totalitarians: the need to control everything. Perhaps an official in the walled compound of Zhongnanhai can’t stand the fact that someone other than the government – particularly a bunch of expats – will have any say whatsoever in the way China is perceived during the Olympics.

In any event, if it’s not allowed to resume publication, or if it’s taken over by apparatchiks, Time Out Beijing, like all good friends who have passed on, will be missed.

UPDATE: Welcome James Fallows and Atlantic readers. Please bookmark and stop in every week or so for travel and foreign affairs blogging. I aim to amuse and inform.

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Ohio Is For Losers

Sherman Oaks, California

It's official: My home state of Ohio is "getting poorer, older and dumber – and making all the wrong moves to reverse the situation," writes Chester E. Finn Jr. in the Wall Street Journal.

The most galling statistic is that Ohio ranks 41st among the states in the percentage of adults with bachelor's degrees.

These are the people who will be deciding the presidential election.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Sherman Oaks, California

Maybe I'm punchy from too many consecutive days of work, but this may be the funniest thing Stuff White People Like has posted.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

U.S. Government Making Copies Of Your Data

Sherman Oaks, California

Alex Kingsbury posts an article for U.S. News and World Report about a classified program under which Customs and Border Protection officers are seizing laptops and may be making copies of electronic media taken from travellers entering the United States at airports.

All law enforcement will tend toward fascism, and this program is of a piece. It's theoretically possible that CBP officers have made nuanced decisions about proportional responses to threat-signalling conduct, decisions aided by each officer's rigorous recruitment into an Israeli-style training command.

More likely, a bunch of unemployable but unionized cafeteria workers napped though two weeks of community college video lectures on "threat assessment" before being released into Concourse B as SPOT Officers.

Despite a Freedom of Information Act request and an attendant law suit, the government refuses to reveal the purpose of the laptop seizure and data copying program, why people are being selected and what is done with the information copied.

The Goverment says that's none of our business. Anybody against this program is clearly on the side of child pornographers, terrorists and Men Who Look Normal But, When No One's Looking, Will Become Giant Termites That Will Sodomize Little Madison With a Wii While Filming It For YouTube.

Somewhere in the early days of 9/11, TSA and CBP realized that they could get away with any conduct shilled to make us safer. The majority of Americans do not fly even once a year, according to Arbitron. Since only 1/3 of Americans have passports, it's safe to say that two-thirds of Americans fly abroad a multiple of never. The voting public was not going to complain; too few of them will ever have a confrontation with our nation's Gestapo gatekeepers. Many will agree with the instrusive actions of these Little Goerings, since "better safe than sorry."

In my travels, I have met Americans who repeatedly postponed trips back home, because they don't want a waterboarding at the airport about where they've been and who they've met while out of town. They think that it's none of the government's business.

It's not.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Money Nobody Wants

Sherman Oaks, California

Until 1995, China had two currencies: renminbi for locals and Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) for foreigners (pictured). Old China hands tell of how they were limited to eating in overpriced (and dreadful) hotel restaurants, the only places that accepted FECs. Hungry expats resorted to private transactions (haters would say "the black market"), trading FECs for renminbi for real Chinese food.

It sounds like an amusing throwback to Communist days, but we currently have two tiers of currency in the United States. Although it goes virtually unnoticed (and is on a far smaller scale than the renminbi/FEC system), the U.S. government uses a form of money that is almost never used in private commerce.

I refer, of course, to the one-dollar coin.

The average U.S. citizen encounters the dollar coin in a single situation: receiving change from a Postal Service vending machine.

No one in the private sector wants anything to do with the copper tokens. The vending machine companies don't want to rejigger their millions of machines. Most private stores don't want to deal with the oddly sized coins (because banks make the stores create separate rolls for dollar coins and how often will a store receive enough dollar coins to roll them, anyway). The coins are heavy and bulky, and the people have spoken: We want bills.

That's not good enough for our commissars, who are acting like their counterparts in Maoist China. Coins are easier for the government to use, they're cheaper for the government to maintain, and that's how it's done in Europe, so it must be better. This report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland lays blame on the fact that Congress still allows the dollar bill to circulate, instead of forcing Americans to use a coin they don't like.

In a ploy to tempt Americans to go metallic, the U.S. Mint has been releasing a dollar coin for each U.S. president. The people at the Mint release four presidential coins a year, and they're up to Andrew Jackson. I didn't know about the program until this afternoon, when I bought some stamps from a Postal Service vending machine and realized that John Adams was incongruously staring back at me from a pile of change.

In other news, the penny -- a coin which nobody wants (except the Lincoln devotees in Illinois and the zinc interests in Tennessee) and nobody uses (not even the people in Illinois or Tennessee) -- is also still with us.

Currency reform: China did it. We can't. Where's our Deng Xiaoping?

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The Terms And Conditions of Thomas L. Friedman's Employment

Sherman Oaks, California

"Just a brief word about being a columnist. The only person who sees my two columns each week before they show up in the newspaper is a copy editor who edits them for grammar and spelling, but does not have any say about what opinion I adopt or where I go. In that sense, I am completely home alone. I decide where to travel and when. And I have total editorial freedom to take whatever stance I want on an issue. As I said, it's a great job! I have been the foreign affairs columnist since January 1995, and since then I have never had a conversation with the Publisher of The New York Times about any opinion I've adopted -- before or after any column I've written. No one sent me to Afghanistan or Pakistan, Israel or Indonesia -- they were all impulse visits based on my sense of where the larger story was at the time and what questions I thought needed answering or reflecting upon. I have total freedom, and an almost unlimited budget, to explore."

Introduction, Longitudes and Attitudes: The World In The Age of Terrorism by Thomas L. Friedman (Random House 2003).

One Year Ago This Week

Friday, June 20, 2008

Martha Stewart Denied UK Visa

Monday, June 16, 2008

It's "Doctor Who" Day At The New York Times

Sherman Oaks, California

The Gray Lady ran two articles with a Doctor Who connection.

The big one, currently #7 on the Most E-Mailed list, is a Sunday profile of Doctor Who executive producer Russell T Davies, the man behind the program's revival.

Choice bits:

-- This season's opening broadcast was watched by one-seventh of the population of Great Britain.

-- Davies will leave as executive producer after the 2009 season, which will consist of four specials rather than the usual twelve episodes.

-- His middle initial T has no meaning; it was added to avoid confusion with another Russell Davies.

-- The new executive producer will be Steven Moffat who wrote the show's best episodes ("The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances," "Blink"). For my money, Moffat has a stronger story sense than Davies, and Moffat is the best person for the top job.

Bad bit: The article refers to the character as "Doctor Who." As fans know, the character is always called "The Doctor." "Doctor Who" is the name of the program, in the same way that Blondie was the name of the band, not the lead singer.

The other Who-related item was an article this morning about Showtime's U.S. broadcast of Secret Diary of A Call Girl, starring DW fan favorite Billie Piper. Parents of young Who fans might have a difficult time explaining why the kids can't watch Piper on her new show.

Pictured: Davies (seated) with Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper.


The Law Giveth And Taketh Away: The Right To Wear Pants

Sherman Oaks, California

Actual law (also known as California Government Code section 12947.5):

"Prohibition on wearing of pants based on sex; unlawful employment practice; exemptions

"(a) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to refuse to permit an employee to wear pants on account of the sex of the employee.

"(b) Nothing in this section shall prohibit an employer from requiring employees in a particular occupation to wear a uniform.

"(c) Nothing in this section shall prohibit an employer from requiring an employee to wear a costume while that employee is portraying a specific character or dramatic role.

"(d) The commission may exempt an employer from the requirements of this section for good cause shown and shall adopt standards and procedures for granting exemptions."

Consequently, a California employer cannot prohibit women from wearing pants to work, except when it can.

All clear now?

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Efficient Delivery of Private Sector Health Care To The Uninsured, or How I Screwed Up My Choppers And Dr. Wasserman Saved The Day

Sherman Oaks, California

Something felt wrong in my mouth.

Tuesday evening, while eating a sandwich, I felt a pop and realized I had chipped a tooth. The next morning, I explained the situation to my dentist’s receptionist. She created a slot for me first thing Friday.

Dr. Wasserman did his thing and, after less than one hour in the chair this morning, my right mandibular central incisor had been reconstructed.

The total cost was $214 which, having opted against dental insurance, I paid in cash. The price struck me as low, considering that, along with his time and overhead, Dr. Wasserman’s expenses included an x-ray, local anesthetic and the composite material used to rebuild teeth. (He jokingly offered a choice of white or silver.)

I suffered a small but problematic injury and, within three days, received full and painless treatment which cost the equivalent of two DVD box sets.

No, I don’t want the government further nationalizing health care. Our private system is excellent in many ways.


Monday, June 09, 2008

The Knife Tricks Plan For Coping With Higher Gasoline Prices

Sherman Oaks, California

Please select an option:

A. Buy less gas.

B. Buy less other stuff.

C. Earn more money.

It's really that simple.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Join The Ukranian Army. Get Laid.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Darkness Is Coming

Sherman Oaks, California

The new season of Doctor Who is half way through its run. The BBC released a mid-series trailer.


Monday, June 02, 2008

Welcome To The Occupation

Los Angeles International Airport

The first thing we saw, walking off the jetway, was a dirty hallway.

We turned and moved down a different hall, one without a ceiling but with exposed wires and tubes. A line and ropes ran down the length of this hall, forcing us into a single-file line on the right side.

An officer of Customs and Border Protection stood in the middle of the hall, scanning the line, visibly and purposefully unfriendly. About twenty feet later, we passed another CBP officer; his German shepherd sniffed us as we walked by. Then more officers, all looking stern and eyeing us.

We spill into the customs hall at the Tom Bradley International Terminal. It’s crowded and dirty. The officers ask intrusive questions, and those of us who are American citizens have it easy.

This is the first impression of the United States that international visitors to Los Angeles receive.

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