Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thailand's Sexy Reputation

Sherman Oaks, California

The lead piece in the arts section of this month's Liberty magazine is my review of the books Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne and Tone Deaf in Bangkok (And Other Places) by Janet Brown.

The article is not available online, but my point is that Thailand is undeservedly punished for its sexual honesty. In deference to reality, the Thai authorities have set aside four principal places in the country where prostitution laws are not enforced, the most famous being the Patpong nightlife district in central Bangkok. If you're not into that scene, you can easily avoid it. Yet, because of its driblet of honesty, Thailand has a bad reputation as the world's brothel.

Meanwhile, China allows a far vaster sex industry to flourish, one which is so intertwined with tourism that it's difficult for Western men travelling in China to avoid harassment from the working girls. Yet, because China forces its netherworld to operate behind a veil, China is rewarded in terms of PR. No one equates China with rampant prostitution, although anyone who has visited Hainan Island may beg to differ.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Malaysia-to-U.S. Non-Stop Flights Closer To Reality

Sherman Oaks, California

Jaunted has published an exclusive -- but curiously quoteless -- interview with Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes, confirming the budget airline's plan to enter the U.S. market. Los Angeles and New York City are the target markets.

To show its commitment, Air Asia has painted an Airbus A340 in Oakland Raiders livery (pictured). The symbolism is important, because the A340 has the range to fly between Southeast Asia and the United States non-stop.

It's always better to have more options. Right now, the principal direct flight from LAX to Kuala Lumpur is a Malaysia Airlines flight (MH94/MH95) that stops in Taipei.

That being said, I'm ambivalent about budget travel across the Pacific. The flight between the West Coast and Southeast Asia is 14 to 17 hours. I'd rather pay more for some comfort, such as the Singapore Airlines flight or the late, lamented Thai Airways non-stop.


Another Song of Lost Summer: The Tomato Song

Can't get enough of the Spanglish pop songs about frolicking at the beach bar. Yeah, "The Tomato Song" sounds like a five-year-old could have written it, but your five-year-old didn't, so there.

The Vanishing Book Review: Prof. Levinson Sees What's Missing

Sherman Oaks, California

Knife Tricks publishes a lot of book reviews. Law reviews don't. Here's why.

I write lots of book reviews because I read a lot of books. I can't think of a more pleasant use of time than reading, although people who enjoy being spouses or parents would probably disagree.

A good book review isn't a synopsis. A review can sparkle and, at the same time, barely mention the book.

To me, the best book reviews are essays about an idea, usually an idea addressed by the book, but not necessarily so. It's enough that the book evokes the idea. It would be strange if a review of Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey talked at length about the resistance and execution of Tupac Amaru but, handled with intelligence and verve, the review could be a fascinating discussion of ideas that link the two doomed royals.

A review can also be a visceral reaction. Gene Siskel once said in the context of film criticism that his reviews are journalistic accounts of his reaction; Siskel's sparring partner Roger Ebert added that a review should include enough detail to allow members of the audience to determine if they would like the film, even if the critic did not.

And a review can be a short cut. No one has time to read all the books they want; no one has time to read all the books they own. So reviews are an intellectually acceptable cheat sheet. A character in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan said it best: "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking."

Professional academics lean heavily on book reviews. It's impossible to keep up with all the publications in a field or sub-field, so reviews allow an academic to select which books are worth the time to read in full. Reviews also allow scholars to stretch their wings; chances are, an expert on the European Black Death will only read about Dravidian kingship in a review, but every bit of cross-pollination helps. For these reasons, many academic journals, such as The American Historical Review, are composed principally of book reviews.

So I was surprised to learn that law reviews -- the scholarly publications in which law professors publish their work -- shy away from book reviews. In a recent essay, University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson bemoaned the decreasing space that law reviews accord book reviews.

Some of the top law reviews -- Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, New York University, UCLA, William and Mary -- do not regularly publish any book reviews. Many publish one or two a year. The Michigan Law Review publishes an annual compendium of book reviews, but its size has been shrinking across the decades.

Why? If anything, the legal professoriate is more burdened with To Read lists than other disciplines. In addition to academic scholarship and lay publications, law professors also have stay abreast of what legislators and judges are doing. It's a lot of work, and book reviews would be useful in culling the workload.

Prof. Levinson has a number of hypotheses:

Indifference from student editors. Law reviews are edited by law students, who often don't see the value of book reviews.

Tenure considerations Although a well-written book review may take a considerable amount of time to research and write, tenure committees do not see book reviews as important publications. Ambitious young scholars therefore avoid the format.

Book-length manuscripts. It's more prestigious for a law professor to publish a lengthy article in a law review than to publish the same manuscript as a stand-alone book. This consumes limited pages and editorial resources that could otherwise be devoted to book reviews.

Prof. Levinson's suggestion is to create a new journal, or web page, devoted to reviews of academic books. I'd contribute.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The End Of Summer

Sherman Oaks, California

I'm busy with work, but summer ended today, so here's a great summer party music video which I have to link to because I can't find an embed, but it's more fun than a beach house full of Mexican bikini models. It's not safe for work if you're working for an extremely stuffy place, which you shouldn't be. Best played LOUD.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Enduring Appeal of Peter, Paul & Mary

Sherman Oaks, California

Two days after her death, Mary Travers' richly reported obituary is still the second-most blogged article at the New York Times. Why the enduring appeal of a group which largely stopped producing new material in 1970?

1. The Death of Snark. There was nothing sarcastic or faux sophisticate about Peter, Paul & Mary. They were earnest, and unashamed of their earnestness. Sometimes, it's comforting to drop the pose.

2. Multiple Generations of Fans. The first PPM album was released forty-seven years ago. Younger fans experience the act three times: first as children who enjoy "Puff" and the other children's songs, second as young adults exploring folk music, and again as parents playing "Puff" to their kids. The cycle will repeat for decades.

3. Talent. There's no place to hide when the act consists of three voices, two acoustic guitars and a bass:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's Easier For Attractive, Young Women To Be Thrifty

Sherman Oaks, California

The New York Times has published an interview article with author Lauren Weber, who espouses a philosophy of cheap travel - which I'm all for.

Some of the comments chide her for being smug, but my criticism is about her belief in a total lifestyle of frugality. She appears to be missing the highly gendered nature of status-seeking spending.

An attractive young woman like Ms. Weber can afford (pun) to drive a jalopy, live in a dump and wear pedestrian clothes. As long as she keeps her figure, men will line up to rap with her.

But a young, unmarried man runs a serious risk of being shut out of the mating game for being too cheap. If he refuses to surround himself with totems of success, many women will be turned off.

I once debated this point with a female co-worker. My position was that a man who spends more than $500 a month on a fancy car would have less money to spend on the lady; therefore, it's in a woman's self-interest to date a man who doesn't buy status symbols.

My co-worker's response was that the logic was irrelevant. The man with the more expensive lifestyle was more attractive.

So, young men of the world, it might be best to ignore Ms. Weber's advice.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When All Is Said And Done, Sung By Kylie Minogue

Sherman Oaks, California

An ABBA tribute concert in London earlier this year.

How did I miss that?

Someone pulled a bootleg dub from the DVD, with Kylie Minogue singing "When All Is Said And Done" accompanied by Maestro Benny on the piano. Ahhhhhhh.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Congress Should Be LESS Civil When The President Speaks

Sherman Oaks, California

The internet chattering for days has been about Congressman Joe Wilson's yelling "You lie!" when President Obama claimed that his health care plan would not cover illegal aliens. Predictably, the professional handwringers are calling for more civility and are lamenting the coursening of our discourse.

The quality of U.S. political debate would be improved if there were more yelling, name calling and cheap shots -- to the President's face.

The insulation of the President from viscerally experiencing criticism is a flaw of our system. Protesters are kept away from his limo, and an audience member who challenges him is led away by security (a perk that continues after office). The closest the President gets to a confrontation is an election-year debate, and those are dueling news conferences in which the ground rules usually prohibit the candidates from directly interacting.

Look how much better the debate is in Great Britain's House of Commons. The parliamentarians are boorish, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown's point is a cheap shot, but notice the skill with which he and Tory leader David Cameron mix stat-quoting wonkery with political theatrics. A more confrontational system could breed a better class of U.S. politicians.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Panama: A Boring Place With An Imported Culture

Panama City, Panama

Other than the Canal, Panama was boring.

Panama was too wealthy to be interesting, but not wealthy enough to be comfortable. As a traveler, I encountered the problems and inconveniences of the Third World. But I rarely felt like I was in the Third World. Most of the time, I felt like I was in a California border town.

Panama City is reputedly the most cosmopolitan of the Central American capitals. There’s a lot of American and Canadian retirees, as well as communities of Sephardic Jews, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Punjabis and Arabs. Many of the convenience stores are owned by Chinese immigrants.

The mix of peoples should have made Panama City dynamic and lively, but it didn’t. The food was bland. The museums were meager. The few head-turning women were invariably Colombian. Much of the architecture was uninspired; many of the buildings were either indifferent concrete boxes or Miami Vice towers shouting their modernity (pictured).

If there was a local visual art scene, I couldn’t access it beyond a few galleries. There must be a music scene, but I couldn’t find it. The English-language publications were advertorials pitching tourist traps and real estate. There was no Time Out or Weekly to show an Anglophone the cultural ropes.

The bookstores were the most expensive I’ve ever seen. Used hardcovers at Libreria Argosy were priced at $30, new paperback at $15 to $20. The prices imply high import costs but also a tiny market of English readers.

Nothing sizzled. The nightlife districts were passable. The budget hotels would do. Nothing was objectionable. Nothing was exciting.

Much of Panama’s culture was imported. The television broadcast telenovelas from Mexico and Venezuela. Bars and cafeterias played American baseball. One day during my journey, the arts section of La Prensa featured the breakup of Oasis. Rap music blared from cars.

Panama City was modern enough that the Latin American touches looked like blemishes, not local color. Piles of garbage were on the curb, growing over the course of each day. Wild dogs trotted about, although not in the numbers seen in Asia. Street signs were not consistently placed, and there weren’t enough traffic lights or crosswalks. A restaurant in the hotel district named Crepes & Waffles did not open until 1 p.m., because what traveler would want crepes or waffles in the morning? Shops were closed on Sundays, when the city air felt lifeless.

If this were Nicaragua or another country with a lower score on the Human Development Index, all of the above would be bracing. But in a town with Citibank branches and Kia dealerships where you can seamlessly follow the Dodgers or Law & Order, it’s disappointing.

I may have done everything wrong. I may have stayed in the wrong hotel, visited the wrong neighborhoods, or traveled at the wrong time or with the wrong mindframe. I plead guilty to making no real effort to connect with Panamanians other than a few Jewish and Indian shopkeepers.

The Canal rocked. It’s not often you can get that close to massive container ships, and it’s fun to watch them rise and fall on elevators of water. But the Canal is an import, an American creation, yet another thing which sprung from outside the country’s borders.

Panama was a disappointment.


Four Mexicana Flights

Sherman Oaks, California

No complaints about the airline. The kids are another story.

I traveled between Los Angeles to Panama on Mexicana, changing planes in Mexico City. Mexicana has been around since the 1920s as one of Mexico's flag carriers (the other is AeroMexico), and it's currently privately owned by a hotel group.

Aside from an early morning departure, the flights were easy. About three hours twenty minutes from L.A. to Mexico City; one to two hours between flights; about three and a half hours from Mexico City to Panama City's Tocumen International Airport.

Each segment followed a routine. The planes were Airbus 320s and 319s, with small, communal video screens in the ceilings. About 15 minutes into the flight, the attendants passed out free headphones. About a half hour in, food service began. A movie was screened, and, a few minutes before the end of the film, it was time to land.

The food was forgettable airline feed, not bad, not good. The entrees included scrambled eggs with ham, a pasta dish and chicken with rice. One breakfast entree was a four-inch-thick slab of banana bread; it was decent and different, and the bilingual flight attendant had no idea what the English word for it was. Many of the meals were garnished with a dinner roll (no butter) and two small, crisp chocolate chip cookies from the Gabi bakery.

The plane interiors were clean -- fresh-looking, in fact. All of the equipment seemed to work. Three of the flights left and landed on time; one left about 15 minutes late. The crew uniforms were clean and looked kinda snazzy.

One of the bonuses of flight segments that don't touch the United States is saner airport security. No shoe carnival. Bring your water on board. And you can put books and items in the seatback pocket -- now forbidden on some U.S. airlines because savvy terrorists know how to use pockets and we can't be too careful.

My only quibble was that the Tuesday afternoon flight back into LAX was filled with kids. Screaming, crying, fighting, kicking, yelling, blabbering kids. With parents -- Anglo parents, I emphasize -- who didn't try to control the annoying behavior. Not Mexicana's fault, but I landed with a headache.

Here are the Google bait flight specs: MX 903 from LAX to MEX; MX 381 from MEX to PTY; MX 380 from PTY to MEX; MX 902 from MEX to LAX.

Pictured: Mexican president Filipe Calderon in front of a Mexicana Boeing 717.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Welcome, James Fallows Readers

Sherman Oaks, California

Glad you stopped by from James Fallows' link to me in his Atlantic blog. Please take a moment to bookmark Knife Tricks and visit once a week or so.

I share Fallows' curiosity about the world outside the United States. Given my druthers, I'd rather be an expat, but that's not the easiest transition to make in midlife.

So I read a lot of books about the outside world and blog about them, the news, travel, expat life, law and academia.

Look around. Stay a while. Enjoy.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

One Reason For Airport Hotels

Panama City, Panama

LAX does not have an airport hotel. Yes, there are hotels around the airport, but there is no hotel within, or attached to, the airport. It´s one more reason LAX is an embarrassment.

Most of the uses of an airport hotel are obvious. It´s a place to crash or freshen up during flight delays or during long layovers or if you land at an awkward hour.

But, as I prepared to fly to Panama, I realized that an airport hotel could also be useful before a departure.

Due to various commitments and a stab of insomnia, I had little sleep the two nights before the flight. It was eleven p.m. The plane to Panama left at 6:45 a.m., meaning I had to be at the airport by about 5:00 a.m. I was exhausted but didn´t want to take the risk that I would doze off and miss the flight.

In a city with a decent airport hotel -- that is, in Seoul or Hong Kong or, hell, Gudalajara -- I could have driven to the airport hotel and slept for a few hours, safe in the knowledge that the staff would wake me up in time to embark.

No can do in the entertainment capital of the world.

Pictured: A room in the Incheon Airport Transit Hotel.


Choosing a Hotel in Panama City or Anywhere

Panama City, Panama

An old rule of real estate applies to hotels: Find the cheapest place in an expensive neighborhood.

When I travel, I´m interested in the streets around the hotel. Regardless of my plans, I´ll end up spending a lot of time there. It´s where I eat, wander, launder, telecommunicate, and shop for toiletries and bottled water.

The hotel´s location has a larger impact on a trip than the hotel´s amenities. If it´s too far away from the action, I feel isolated. If it´s in a sketchy neighborhood, I feel beseiged. But if the neighborhood is safe and stocked with services, the specifics of any one hotel become irrelevant.

So, when I´m in cost-minimizing mode, one M.O. is to find budget lodgings in the high-end tourist hotel district. That way, I can enjoy everything the neighborhood offers -- including the bars and lobbies of the expensive five-stars -- without paying the top rate.

I´ve done this succesfully several times. In Saigon´s District 1, I slept at a no-name flop, but spent my time at Apocalypse Now, the Park Hyatt and the area´s succulent French restaurants. In Vientiane, Laos, I stayed at the excellent Day Inn Hotel for $27 a night, but the colonial atmosphere of the Settha Palace Hotel was down the block. The temptations and treats of Bangkok´s Sukhumvit neighborhood are the same regardless of whether your rooms are in the pricey J.W. Marriott or next door at the cheapo Nana Hotel.

I used the strategy in selecting a Panama City hotel. After studying the Moon guide to Panama by William Friar, I settled on the El Cangrejo neighborhood, which seemed to have the tell-tale signs, including car rental offices, airline offices and a cluster of international and regional hotel brands. The neighborhood of La Exposicion seemed more budget oriented but was less central. The ¨up and coming¨ Casco Viejo (Old Town) neighborhood was, like most ¨up and coming¨ neighborhoods, a crime-ridden slum which artists and entrepreneurs were slowly gentrifying; it´ll be great in a decade.

Once I had selected the El Congrejo district, it was a process of elimination. The Veneto was more than $100 a night, as was the Crowne Plaza and the El Panama Hotel. The best reviewed discount hotel, The Milan, was full. I booked myself into the Marbella Hotel (pictured), which cost $55 a night. Like I posted yesterday, Panama City is less expensive than the United States, but not incredibly so.

MORE TO COME . . . .

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Panama City Taxi Fare Conundrum

Panama City, Panama

The tourist literature touts the cheap taxi fares within Panama City as one of the region´s best values.

Don´t you believe it.

Officially, the taxi fares are inexpensive. Hacks operate on a zone system. Crossing several zones only costs two, three or four dollars. Since Panama City isn´t that big, you should never have to pay more than a few singles for a ride.

But the taxi drivers take one look at your non-Panamanian mug and they quote two or three times the official price. They won´t negotiate much, because they have a powerful ally: the weather.

There´s nothing stopping you from standing on a corner and flagging down cabs until you find an honest driver. Nothing, except for the fact that in five minutes the heat and humidity will have you soaking through your underwear with sweat. So, if you don´t want to arrive at your destination looking like Michael Phelps after a hard day´s practice, you pay the ferryman.

Other factors prevent you from getting the official price. Panama City has no metro, only the wealthiest can afford a car, and only the poorest ride the intracity bus lines; everyone else uses taxis. Consequently, there´s not a lot of available cabs.

Panama City taxi rules allow a cabbie to pick up other passengers en route. You can sit down in an empty taxi and, before you know it, you´re squeezed between two strangers. Some of the cabbies understand travellers´ desire for a solitary ride, but they make you pay for the privilege.

And if you´re going anywhere near the Canal, take your negotiating hat off and surrender. No one wants to return from Panama without being able to say that they saw the Canal, and the cabbies know that. Regardless of the official rate, they want $25. As always, you´re free to stand on the corner of Via Argentina as long as you want searching for a lower fare to and from the Miraflores Locks. In addition to the sweat, watch out for the midday cloudbursts.

I blame the government. The zone system isn´t enforced. The cabbies have no fear that their licenses will be suspended or revoked if they gouge the gringo.

The government also warped the market by creating a standard $25 rate to or from the international airport -- a rate which is significantly higher than rates to the domestic airport or the national bus terminal. The $25 might make economic sense after factoring in distance, turnaround time, etc., but the principal lesson the drivers learned was ¨Tourists will pay $25 for a ride! Let´s try to charge $25 for everything!¨

If I were a Freakonomics type, I would tease some punchy, counter-intuitive truth from these observations. As it happens, the experience leaves me grizzled.

It´s not the absolute amounts that rankle. Being charged $5 for a $2 ride won´t break the bank.

What grates is the constant feeling of being ripped off every time I step into a Panama City taxi.

And that´s entirely a government creation.

If the government enforced the zoned fares, there would be no problem.

If there were no zoned taxi fares -- if the rates were entirely a product of free-market negotiation each time I haled a cab -- there would be no problem. If I felt I paid too much, I could haggle better terms next time.

But, by creating a zone system and declining to enforce it, the Panama City government has created a problem. I know for a fact that I´m being ripped off, and I feel powerless to do anything about it. That´s not how the taxis in a world-famous tourist destination should work.

Pictured: A taxi in the city of David, Panama.

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Panama City Money and Prices

Panama City, Panama

Panama is not the country for a low-cost getaway. The place isn´t expensive by any means, but it´s not a steal like Nicaragua or Malaysia. Some points:

-- The George Washingtons are weirding me out. Panama has a dollarized economy. The official unit of currency is the balboa, but it´s fixed to the dollar at a 1:1 ratio. Balboa coins are minted at the same size and shape as U.S. coins, but all the paper money is U.S. greenbacks. Prices are in dollars (but with a B/ symbol instead of a $), and people speak in dollars.

While the use of American money makes it easy for travellers to compare costs, the sight of dead presidents makes Panama feel less like a foreign country and more like a U.S. colony (which is essentially what Panama was for 100 years).

How does Panama have a monetary policy? Its flow of dollars must be like the flow of water in a small tributary of the Amazon; any disruption on the main river would overwhelm the crick.

And, for better or worse, Panama is lashing itself to the foreign exchange value of the dollar. The country´s purchasing power for many imports is tied to decisions made in Washington, and I will guess that the interests of Panamanians is not a high agenda item at meetings of the U.S. Federal Reserve´s Federal Open Market Committee. (Loyal reader StatBoy3000, who once held U.S. monetary policy in his deadly fingers, will correct me if I am wrong.)

Countries should have their own currency. It´s strange that Panama has adopted another country´s money.

-- General Cost Levels. As a rule of thumb, the high end of consumer purchases in Panama City costs about 75% of what you would expect in a major city in the United States. More value-oriented options cost about 50% of the U.S. price, and the least expensive choices -- particularly those marketed to Panama City´s working class -- cost about 25%.

From what little I´ve experienced and read of the provinces, prices can be half of the Panama City price. The principal exceptions are provincial resorts marketed to affluent tourists. Those charge the top Panama City price.

-- Lacuna. Panama City is a hotbed of international banking, yet there are few obvious places to change money if you arrive without U.S. dollars.

Pictured: A Panama City branch of Global Bank.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Editorial Note

Panama City, Panama

Posting will be running several days behind. Panamanian internet services are quirky, but how much can you expect for 75 cents an hour (and that´s the top tourist rate)?