Saturday, February 21, 2009

More On The State Department's Subpar Citizen Services

Sherman Oaks, California

This month's Conde Nast Traveler has an article about the inefficacy of the State Department's citizen services, a topic I've blogged about here and here.

The article by Sallie Brady -- which is not online -- contains the following anecdote from a woman who was in Mumbai with her husband during the November 2008 terrorist attack:

"When I called the consulate, I was told, 'We don't have any information. Stay in your room and keep watching TV,'" recalls Alyssa. Twelve hours later, the couple checked the Web site of the U.S. embassy in Delhi and found nothing related to the attack. Hours after the Western press began reporting on the violence in Mumbai, the photograph of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was still the top news item on the embassy's Web site. And although Alyssa had registered her travel plans on the State Department's site (, she never received any e-mails related to the Mumbai attack.

The State Department fared little better during last fall's Bangkok airport demonstrations (although I hasten to add that there was little danger to foreigners in that situation). China, Spain and the Philippines sent planes to evacuate citizens. The U.K. kept its people informed by text message. Americans had to fend for themselves.

The article ends with a recommendation that U.S. citizens will be better informed if they electronically register their travels with the Foreign Ministry of a country that's more on the ball.

We spend more than $20 billion a year on the State Department, and they can't update their web page or send timely e-mails.

Pictured: Travelers at U-Tapao International Airport in Thailand during the November 2008 unrest.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

Sherman Oaks, California

Professor and actor David Moser has posted his 1991 essay on why learning the Chinese language is so difficult for English speakers.

Take heart, it's difficult for Chinese speakers, too.

Two characteristic excerpts:

5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile . . . .

6. Then there's classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you'll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you're sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure . . . .

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here's a secret that sinologists won't tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you
already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the "personal" section of the classified ads that say things like: "Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please."

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review of The Lonely Planet Story by Tony and Maureen Wheeler

Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story by Tony and Maureen Wheeler (Periplus 2005).

One-third of The Lonely Planet Story is an interesting read. Unfortunately, it’s the final third.

In 1972, two British newlyweds traveled overland from London to Sydney. So many people asked about the journey that the young couple, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, typed up a how-to guide titled Across Asia On The Cheap and drove around Australia selling it to bookstores. The rough guide was a hit, and Lonely Planet – the dominant brand in the guidebook industry -- was born.

It’s a great story – the evolution of a mom-and-pop lark into a globe-straddling business. It’s not told well. Nor are any of the other possible storylines presented by the material. The Lonely Planet Story could have been an expressionistic diary of the odd characters encountered on the road, or an eyewitness analysis of mass tourism’s impact on the developing world, or an intimate tale of how a hippie marriage changed with the onset of unimagined wealth.

Instead, the first two-third of the book is filled with paragraphs like:

From La Paz we flew back through Lima and straight on to Quito in Ecuador. We continued up into the Andes and then descended to Guayaquil on the coast and flew out to the Galapagos, where we cruised around enjoying the wildlife attractions which have made the equatorial islands so incredibly interesting. Then it was back to the mainland and down the coast to conclude our South American escape where it had started in Lima.

I’d like to know why the wildlife attractions on the Galapagos Islands were so interesting, but Tony Wheeler, from whose perspective the book is written, doesn’t say. He also fails to explain in even the vaguest terms what he did on his many research trips, although he insists on reciting the itineraries.

Wheeler is a smart guy, but he can’t tell a story. He has no sense of rhythm, drama or character. The book’s pacing is monotonous, characterization is lost in a jungle of names, and there is no dramatic tension. What were the Wheelers trying to achieve? What type of people are they? How has travel changed them? I don’t know, and, after reading a 375-page autobiography, that’s sad.

Around Page 220, the book starts to exhibit some life. Wheeler explains the politics of the guidebook industry and the various obstacles that Lonely Planet faced, including a boycott from activists who were upset about the company’s Burma guide. Some of Wheeler’s business deals were less successful than others, and – in what would have been a fully developed theme in a better book -- Wheeler hints that constant travel may not have been psychologically healthy for his family.

But 220 pages is a long time to wait as Wheeler lists every town he visited in Indonesia. I would have told him to expand the final third of the book – focusing on The Little Business That Could and the couple’s family life – and to condense the first two-thirds into one chapter.

Tony Wheeler may be the Bill Gates of his industry but he's not the Sebastian Junger.

(Note: The book has been released under multiple titles, including Once While Travelling, The Lonely Planet Story and Unlikely Destinations.)


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why U.S. Consular Services Are So Shabby: A Theory

Sherman Oaks, California

Last week I blogged about celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s criticisms of the U.S. State Department. Bourdain and his crew were stranded in Beirut during the 2006 Israeli bombing, and the U.S. was less than spry in arranging the evacuation of its citizens.

This is a common complaint among Americans abroad. When geopolitical thunderstorms threaten, the Royal Air Force is quickly shepherding Brits out of danger. The Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Ministry is calling NGOs for assistance. Australian diplomats, in particular, are noted for their zeal in assisting fellow citizens overseas. Americans, meanwhile, are sitting by silent phones and refreshing useless web pages, wondering why the most powerful nation on earth can’t send in a few planes and airlift everybody to Germany.

Here’s my stab at why:

Weak Political Demand. Americans don’t travel much overseas, so there’s little political will to create an efficient system of consular services. Israelis and Australians routinely travel the world (or as much of the world as will have them), so those two countries have honed systems for helping and, if necessary, extracting their countrymen. But the unfortunate reality is that there is a strain of American opinion which equates the American expat with Benedict Arnold, and, in any event, funding for consular services isn't spent within any congressman’s district. Why bother?

It’s Your Own Damn Fault. One of the drawbacks of a meritocratic ethic is that you are deemed to be the author of your problems. Combine that with the fact that Americans rarely travel to “trouble spots,” and the result is a cultural attitude that Americans caught in the crossfire shouldn’t have been there in the first place and that taxpayers shouldn’t bail them out.

Consular Affairs Self Selects For Mediocrity. When a person applies to take the U.S. Foreign Service Examination, she has to select a career track, or “cone,” that effectively determines the trajectory of her career. The most glamorous -- and therefore popular – cone is always the political cone. The least popular is usually Consular Affairs, which includes American Citizen Services.

While there are many excellent Foreign Service Officers working in the consular cone, there are many who chose the cone because it was seen as the easiest way into cushy government employment. There is less competition for a Consular Affairs slot than for jobs in other cones, and the hours can be easy. The position lacks a private-sector equivalent, so deadwood hangs on for dear life (if that’s not mixing metaphors). Consular Affairs is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Service, generally looked down upon and having the worst long-term promotion prospects. The result is that many of the people who Americans abroad rely upon are not the can-do rocket scientists of the Service.

Consular Affairs Can Be Slow Off The Mark. At a macro level, decisions of any sensitivity involving U.S. citizens abroad are decided in Washington, not at the embassy or consulate. At the micro level, consular affairs is a field where action can hurt your career (e.g., granting a student visa to a person who later commits a crime) but inaction generally won't (e.g., denying tourist visas to a harmless but politically unconnected family). Together, these two qualities can slow the response to an emergency.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

I have too much work this week to blog and to post my follow-up about the lameness of the U.S. Foreign Services' consular section. Play this instead and, if it intrigues you, buy the DVD and watch it on the largest television you can find.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Celebrity Chef in War-Torn Beirut: The State Department Was No Help To Stranded Citizens

Sherman Oaks, California

I was catching up on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain's television programs, when his controversial Beirut episode of No Reservations underlined an unfortunate fact of expat life: The United States offers terrible services to its citizens abroad.

In July 2006, Bourdain and his small crew were in Beirut filming an episode about the city's cuisine and nightlife. Two days later, Israel attacked. Bourdain watched from his hotel balcony as the Israeli Air Force bombed the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, the country's principal transport hub -- and Bourdain's way home.

For the better part of a week, Bourdain had to rely on second- and third-hand information. "We call the embassy day after day and get no response. Nothing. Officially -- after days of war -- the State Department advice is to visit its Web site. Which contains nothing of use," Bourdain wrote in Salon. The best intel came from a guy who hung out by the hotel pool.

Meanwhile, other nationalities were being evacuated by their governments. The French. The Italians. The Romanians. No word came from Foggy Bottom for days, and, when instructions finally arrived, the civilian execution was poor.

"After a hideously disorganized cluster fuck at the eventual 'assembly point' -- a barely under control mob scene of fainting old people, crying babies, desperate families waving pink and white slips of paper, trying to get the attention of a few understaffed, underprepared and seemingly annoyed embassy personnel in baseball caps and casual clothes -- we are put in the charge of the sailors and Marines of the USS Nashville who've hauled ass from Jordan on short notice to undertake a mission for which they are unrehearsed and inexperienced. Yet they perform brilliantly. The moment we pass through the last checkpoint into their control, all are treated with a kindness and humanity we can scarcely believe," Bourdain wrote.

"I can't possibly say enough good things about the U.S. Marine Corps or enough bad things about the embassy and the State Department," Bourdain told The Washington Post.

Next Post: A theory on why U.S. consular services are so poor.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Book Review: The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat by Ryszard Kapuściński (Vintage International 1978). Translated from Polish by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand.

The Emperor is about the final years of Haile Selassie’s rule of Ethiopia and, as obscure as that may sound, it’s a book that ranks with The Prince and 1984 in its shocking descriptions of how power is hoarded and abused.

Written by the late Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor is an oral history, composed principally of interviews with former Palace staff. They painted a portrait of a paranoid, selfish ruler who used the wealth of Ethiopia to buy loyalty from squabbling factions. The fact that the country – which His Most Puissant Majesty insisted on calling an empire – was impoverished and starving was important only to the extent that international outcry or internal dissent might threaten his rule.

By the 1960s, the elderly Selassie, who ascended to the throne in 1916, lived in a strange but regimented dream world that revolved around his patronage and duplicity.

“The Emperor began his day by listening to informers’ reports. The night breeds dangerous conspiracies, and Haile Selassie knew that what happens at night is more important than what happens during the day,” said one source, noting that His Supreme Majesty demanded to hear all intelligence reports orally. “The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: if need be, the Emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said, and the latter could not defend himself, having no written proof.”
The King of Kings would then be driven in one of his 27 cars to the Old Palace in Addis Ababa, where his security men would accept a few of the dozens of petitions that were being thrust at the Emperor by people milling near the gate. At nine a.m., His Sublime Majesty commenced the Hour of Assignments, during which courtiers were promoted or relegated according to royal favor. At ten a.m. began the Hour of the Cashbox, during which he doled out money from two lambskin bags, one containing bills and the other small coins. Next was the Hour of the Ministers, at which government officials were summoned by the Emperor to give reports – which determined whether the officials would be happy or crestfallen at the next Hour of Assignments. At one p.m., he lunched.

The Emperor reads like a how-to manual of despotism. The vassals closest to Selassie were called the “personal people”; plucked from obscurity, they owed their positions entirely to the Lion of Judah, and, to protect their new-found comforts, they fought vicious turf battles which checked the power of the aristocracy. Selassie preferred ministers who were incompetent and corrupt, since these qualities also fostered loyalty; one minister lost favor when he used bribe money to build schools.

Like most tyrants, His Benevolent Highness preferred an uneducated, compliant populace. No need to agitate the broth with ideas, one former official explained:

And I’ll go so far, my friend, as to say that we had a loyal press – yes, loyal in an exemplary way. To tell the truth, there wasn’t much of it, because for over thirty million subjects twenty-five thousand copies were printed daily, but His Highness worked on the assumption that even the most loyal press should not be given in abundance, because that might create a habit of reading, and from there it is only a single step to the habit of thinking, and it is well known what inconveniences, vexations, troubles and worries thinking causes.

The reader is left to make up his or her own mind as to whether the various sources quoted by Kapuściński were being sincere or sarcastic. It’s sometimes a difficult call, as when one person explained why, in the early 1970s, Selassie did little to stop the famine that was killing tens of thousands of people in the northern provinces:

A man starved all his life will never rebel. Up north there was no rebellion. No one raised his voice or his hand there. But just let the subject start to eat his fill and then try to take the bowl away, and immediately he rises in rebellion. The usefulness of going hungry is that a hungry man thinks only of bread. He’s all wrapped up in the thought of food. He loses the remains of his vitality in that thought, and he no longer has either the desire or the will to seek pleasure through the temptation of obedience. Just think: Who destroyed the Empire? Who reduced it to ruin? Neither those who had too much, nor those who had nothing, but those who had a bit. Yes, one should always beware of those who have a bit, because they are the worst, they are the greediest, it is they who push upward.

And it was the hunger of moderately fed men that ultimately cost the Emperor his Empire. Over the course of 1974, a rebellion within the lower ranks of the armed services progressed, but with a stealthy gait. Army officers would announce the creation of a new ministry then another and another until most of the machinery of government lay under their control – less a coup than the formation of a counter-government that absorbed the previous regime. Arrests and executions followed.

On September 12, 1974, the army cabal – called the Derg – deposed the Elect of God, imprisoning him within one of his palaces. Selassie died the following year, senile at the end in his belief that he was still the Emperor and that his intrigues and manipulations, powerfully detailed in this book, retained their force and relevance.

It’s troubling to think that an ambitious dictator could read The Emperor and find a working blueprint for domination and control.

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