Friday, April 30, 2010

Thailand Waiving Tourist Visa Fees As of May 11th

Sherman Oaks, California

Thailand, which knows what it's doing in the tourism trade, announced this week that it will waive all fees for tourist visas for U.S. passport holders. The fee waiver begins on May 11th and lasts until March 31, 2011.

So, in a week and a half, double-entry visas which let Americans hang out in the Land of Smiles for a minimum of 120 days are yours for the asking. Once you get there, the immigration authorities will often extend each entry by 30 days, so this is a chance to live in Thailand for half a year with a reduced cover charge.

That's a smart move since Western travellers will overreact to the current political tensions in Bangkok and avoid the entire country -- which is about 20% larger than California. As you can see in the accompanying graphic of the Thai railroad system, most of Thailand lies outside of Bangkok.

If clashes in Sacramento would not prevent you from visiting San Diego, the widely reported clashes in Bangkok should not prevent you from visiting Chiang Mai or Phuket. If troubles in Sacramento would bottle your trip to San Diego, I can't help you.

See also: This funny Tim Leffel post about why now is the time to hit the road, especially to "trouble spots" like Thailand.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Follow Up

Sherman Oaks, California

My post about refusing to answer the questions posed by Customs and Border Protection officers has engendered a lengthy discussion on FlyerTalk (186 replies at last count).

I don't know what amazes me more: that some people who understand the issue are willing to waive their rights in return for minor conveniences (such as clearing CBP checkpoints quickly), or that some people knuckle under to authority and feel righteous about doing so.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Biggest Mistakes To Avoid When Planning Long-Term Travel

Sherman Oaks, California

Writer Sarah Lavender Smith, who is on the road with her family for a year, lists the biggest mistakes that people make when planning a year-long trip. Most of the advice reduces to "Stop being control freaks."


Saturday, April 24, 2010

I Am Detained By The Feds For Not Answering Questions

UPDATE: The comments have raised many issues, and I address the most salient ones in a new post titled "10 Brief Responses To 700 Comments About Refusing To Answer Questions At Passport Control."

Sherman Oaks, California

I was detained last night by federal authorities at San Francisco International Airport for refusing to answer questions about why I had travelled outside the United States.

The end result is that, after waiting for about half an hour and refusing to answer further questions, I was released – because U.S. citizens who have produced proof of citizenship and a written customs declaration are not obligated to answer questions.

* * *

“Why were you in China?” asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.

“None of your business,” I said.

Her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“I’m not going to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country,” I said.

This did not go over well. She asked a series of questions, such as how long I had been in China, whether I was there on personal business or commercial business, etc. I stood silently. She said that her questions were mandated by Congress and that I should complain to Congress instead of refusing to cooperate with her.

She asked me to take one of my small bags off her counter. I complied.

She picked up the phone and told someone I “was refusing to cooperate at all.” This was incorrect. I had presented her with proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport) and had moved the bag when she asked. What I was refusing to do was answer her questions.

A male Customs and Border Protection officer appeared to escort me to “Secondary.” He tried the good cop routine, cajoling me to just answer a few questions so that I could be on my way. I repeated that I refused to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country.

“Am I free to go?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

The officer asked for state-issued ID. I gave him my California Identification Card. I probably didn’t have to, but giving him the ID was in line with my principle that I will comply with an officer’s reasonable physical requests (stand here, go there, hand over this) but I will not answer questions about my business abroad.

The officer led me into a waiting room with about thirty chairs. Six other people were waiting.

The officer changed tack to bad cop. “Let this guy sit until he cools down,” the officer loudly said to a colleague. “It could be two, three, four hours. He’s gonna sit there until he cools down.”

I asked to speak to his superior and was told to wait.

I read a book about Chinese celebrities for about 15 minutes.

An older, rougher officer came out and called my name. “We’ve had problems with you refusing to answer questions before,” he said. “You think there’s some law that says you don’t have to answer our questions.”

“Are you denying me re-entrance to my own country?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, and walked away.

I read for about five more minutes.

An officer walked out with my passport and ID and handed them to me.

“Am I free to go?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

But we weren’t done.

I picked up my checked bag and was told to speak to a customs officer. My written declaration form had been marked with a large, cross-hatched symbol that probably meant “secondary inspection of bags.”

The officer asked if the bags were mine; I handed him my baggage receipt.

He asked if I had packed the bags myself. I said I declined to answer the question.

He asked again, and I made the same reply. Same question; same response. Again; again.

“I need you to give me an oral customs declaration,” he said.

“I gave you a written declaration,” I said.

“I need to know if you want to amend that written declaration,” he said. “I need to know if there’s anything undeclared in these bags.”

I stood silently.

Visibly frustrated, he turned to a superior, who had been watching, and said that I refused to answer his questions.

“Just inspect his bags,” the senior officer said. “He has a right to remain silent.”

Finally! It took half an hour and five federal officers before one of them acknowledged that I had a right not to answer their questions.

The junior officer inspected my bags in some detail, found nothing of interest, and told me I could leave.

* * *

Principal Take-Aways

1. Cops Really Don’t Like It When You Refuse To Answer Their Questions. The passport control officer was aghast when I told her that my visit to China was none of her business. This must not happen often, because several of the officers involved seemed thrown by my refusal to meekly bend to their whim.

2. They’re Keeping Records. A federal, computer-searchable file exists on my refusal to answer questions.

3. This Is About Power, Not Security. The CBP goons want U.S. citizens to answer their questions as a ritualistic bow to their power. Well, CBP has no power over me. I am a law-abiding citizen, and, as such, I am the master, and the federal cops are my servants. They would do well to remember that.

4. U.S. Citizens Have No Obligation To Answer Questions. Ultimately, the cops let me go, because there was nothing they could do. A returning U.S. citizen has an obligation to provide proof of citizenship, and the officer has legitimate reasons to investigate if she suspects the veracity of the citizenship claim. A U.S. citizen returning with goods also has an obligation to complete a written customs declaration. But that’s it. You don’t have to answer questions about where you went, why you went, who you saw, etc.

Of course, if you don’t, you get hassled.

But that’s a small price to pay to remind these thugs that their powers are limited and restricted.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Optics of the Tibetan Earthquake


The bad news is that I caught a cold and spent most of my time in Shanghai lying in a hotel bed sniffling and coughing. The good news is that I was able to watch a lot of state-approved television about the Tibetan earthquake.

Since I don't know any of the Chinese languages, I was forced to rely upon the information provided by CCTV9, a state channel which broadcasts in English. But flipping through the many Chinese-language channels was also instructive.

Some points about the internal coverage of the earthquake:

Grandpa Wen. The images were monopolized by Premier Wen Jiabao looking alternately caring and determined. Several shots featured pathetic-looking Tibetans supplicating themselves before Wen.

Pool Coverage. Every channel was broadcasting the same footage, so the Chinese government was either using a pool system or releasing one set of approved videos.

Cheeky Journalist! In one closely cropped shot, Wen is seen talking to a group of rescue workers. The conversation looked easy and unrehearsed, and it felt like Wen was talking to a throng.

But then, for half a second, the screen cut to the same scene, shot from much farther back. You could see that the workers had been arranged into a tight square and that there were a limited number of them. The impression was much more of a stage-managed event.

Perhaps someone inside CCTV knew she could get away with a quick flash of balance.

The Chinese Secret Service? I scanned the video footage for Wen's security detail, and only a few people had the tell-tale look of Praetorian guards (buffed, younger men with buzz cuts gazing more at the crowd than at Wen).

This raises the question of what kind of security members of the Politburo Standing Committee receive, a topic I've not seen addressed in English.

As Wen, 67, worked his way up a pile of rubble, I was struck by how relief workers -- or, at any rate, people dressed as relief workers -- took his hand and helped him up the pile with a degree of physicality which would be inappropriate with a Western leader.

The Other Guy.While coverage of the earthquake dominated, the news programs devoted significant time to footage of Hu Jintao at a BRIC summit meeting with the leaders of Brazil, India and Russia. The message seemed to be that, while Hu was not in the country, he was handling important matters of state.

Pre-empting Criticism. A lot of time on CCTV9 was devoted to explaining the remoteness of the region at the quake's center. The host and guests described the one decent road into the region, the few working airstrips, etc.

All of which are probably true. But it also sounded like an attempt to pre-empt criticism of an inadequate response.

No Go Areas. On the days I watched CCTV9, not a word was spoken about potentially shoddy construction, lax inspections, limits on reporting, or extra-legal dissuasion of tort claims by citizens against the government.

Talking Pale Heads. Several Caucasian commentators appeared on CCTV9's evening coverage, and their participation gave me pause.

None of the European, Australian or American talking heads I saw mentioned any of the "no go" areas. They seemed to stick to the segment topics of geography, relief, disease prevention, etc.

This raises the issue of whether it's ethical for a pundit to appear on a state channel knowing that certain highly relevant topics are off limits.

If the pundit's area of expertise is narrow, perhaps it's OK. I would expect a Red Cross person to focus on blood supply issues, not on school construction.

But when a foreign affairs commentator knows that, say, the Propaganda Department has banned all non-local journalists from entering the quake zone (reg. req.) or that allegedly shoddy construction by government-connected firms will be one of the first questions asked around the world, it seems to me troubling that the pundit would make the appearance and stay mum on these topics.

A Chinese person could have been found to say many of the same things that the white pundits did. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that one of the purposes of the laowai was to lend an air of international credibility to the broadcast.

I will think about this some more, but I'm leaning toward concluding that it is unethical for a pundit to appear on a state-sponsored program if there are such obvious and relevant "no go" areas.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Shanghai Items

-- It's cold. Not unbearably cold, but not pleasant either.
-- Shanghai subway line 1 connects the two train stations. Line 2 connects the two airports and links to the first line. Imagine that.
-- Some of the subway lines are so new they smell of freshly applied paint.
-- The buildings, at least in the core, are better looking than those of Beijing. The early Shanghai buildings and street layouts are traditional Chinese or Western. So they look and feel more human than the Stalinist design of central Beijing.
-- There are clocks counting down to the opening of the Expo/World's Fair. Who cares? Quick, name the city that hosted the Expo in 2000.
The Expo seems to be an excuse for governments to ladle out public construction contracts to connected builders, who then use the money to design and erect facilities that will rarely be used once the Expo ends.
(It was Hamburg.)
-- Costs in the central neighborhoods of Shanghai appear to be on par with costs in a less expensive part of the United States. So lunch might cost $3.50, instead of $8.
-- Uyghur restaurants selling lamb kabobs. Yum!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

At The Shanghai Public Library

Her: Can I help you, sir?
Me: I'm looking for a table.
Her: Why you need table?
Me: To read my book. [I pull my book out of my laptop bag.]
Her: You cannot read your book here.
Me: What do you mean?
Her: You can only read library books here.
Me: But I just want to sit for a few hours and read my book.
Her: You can't do that in library.
Her: You can read your book in coffeeshop.

Things That Make Me Wonder If The Chinese Will Actually Dominate World Business, Part 22

In much of the world, you walk up to a small storefront labelled "Currency Exchange" or "Cambio" or "$," hand the attendant US$100 and walk away with the rough equivalent in local currency. Whole process takes about 20 seconds.
In mainland China, you walk into a bank branch, obtain a counter ticket, wait until your ticket number is called, hand the teller US$100, hand her your passport, watch as the teller inputs data from your passport, watch as she makes a photocopy of your passport's identification page, watch as she scrutinizes your currency, watch as she inputs more data, sign three forms she prints out in Chinese and hands to you, and leave with the rough equivalent in Chinese RMB. Whole process takes about 9 minutes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Newburyport Posts Blocked in China!

The political party that maintains the world's largest standing army is terrified of a Massachusetts blogger named Tom Salemi.
Newburyport Posts, a blog devoted to politics and life in the New England seaside town of Newburyport, is blocked in the Chinese mainland.
"All attempts to reach from Shanghai return a 'Bad Request' page written mostly in Chinese," said fellow blogger Paul Karl Lukacs. "Clearly, the Chinese Communist Party is scared of running dog counter-revolutionary Salemi and his democratic, bottom-up suggestions regarding fencing on bike paths."
"China probably just blocks every page hosted by Blogger," said Salemi, in a quote which Lukacs made up while drinking tea in a Huangpu District cafe.

Shanghai Surprise

I am in Shanghai and have been abruptly reminded by the PC that I cannot post directly to Blogger from Mainland China.
Because people writing freely about cats would be a threat to a political party backed by the world's largest army, apparently.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Good Reason Not To Reserve Your Vacation Travel In Advance: Saving Money

Hong Kong

This is the most important piece of travel advice I can give: Do not reserve the entire trip in advance.

You will want to change itineraries once you're on the ground. The weather may throw you a spitball. Machines break. You might meet a new friend and want to stay within range of his bed. You might run out of steam and decide to stay in City #3 until it's time for the international flight home.

So, more than any other travel tidbit I can type: Please do not reserve all your transport and every night of lodging in advance.

Go ahead and do the research. Prepare a list of air routes and preferred hotels and recommended sights, if that's your style. Reserve the first two or three nights. But don't make deposits or pre-payments beyond that (unless it's for a centerpiece event, such as a safari).

A problem with pre-payment is that you can pay too much. Travel industry professionals know that some people, particularly Americans, are nervous control freaks who are willing to pay a premium to lock down everything in advance. So a hefty markup is charged, an anxiety tax.

Another problem with pre-payments is that they reduce spontaneity. Pre-payments, combined with the American tendency to overschedule, can result in vacations which consist of people running from pre-paid hotel to pre-paid event to pre-paid flight. This argument tends to be a loser, however, since control freaks don't value spontaneity; I'll focus on the "paying too much" angle.

Here's an example I encountered today of why on-the-fly purchases make economic sense:

The published fare for a one-way "soft sleeper" ticket on the overnight train from Hong Kong to Shanghai is US$106 (HK$825).

The MTR, the company operating the Hong Kong train system, is currently promoting the ticket at a discounted fare of US$95 (HK$743) (same link).

But I walked up to the counter today at Hung Hom Station and bought a ticket for tomorrow's train at a point-of-purchase, last-minute, let's-move-this-inventory price of US$59 (HK$457).

Meanwhile, people who booked ahead paid more. China Trip Advisor is displaying the ticket at US$125. China Train Tickets is asking US$210, and China Train Ticket (no s) wants US$220.

There's no reason to pay US$220 for a US$59 ticket.

Make fewer plans, have more fun, and spend less money.

Pictured: Chinese soft sleeper train compartment (cutie not included).

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Thursday, April 08, 2010


Hong Kong

Last night at 1 a.m., I was walking through the desolate streets of triad-infested Macau carrying a book on monetary policy. "I deserve to be mugged," I thought.

Pictured: Slums in Macau


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

More People Renouncing U.S. Citizenship (But Not Enough)

Hong Kong

More U.S. citizens and permanent residents are severing their ties to the United States, the South China Morning Post reports (reg. req.). But I doubt it's in sufficient numbers for the U.S. government to change its worst policies.

Irene Jay Liu reports:

In the last quarter of 2009, 502 people relinquished their citizenship or long-term permanent residency status in the United States, a nearly eight-fold increase compared with the last quarter in 2008, when 63 people did so, according to the US Federal Register, which publishes the names of such people on a quarterly basis.

In recent years, the number of people worldwide giving up US citizenship or permanent residency has ranged from 22 to 144 people per quarter.

I've been critical of the state of California for overvaluing its uniqueness. The state has high taxes and low-quality services and, in the right combination of circumstances, people will migrate to other states that have sand, space and sunshine.

The same is true for countries.

The United States is a high-tax country with services, depending on what you want, ranging from terrible to terrific. The universities, heavily subsidized with federal dollars, are top-notch. Amtrak is not.

Americans are not culturally disposed to renounce their citizenship. In Europe, people cross borders regularly, and swapping (or adding) a passport, while unusual, is not unheard of. In America, it's unthinkable.

This cultural reality gives the U.S. government leeway to be heavy handed. If the government infringes on liberty (by, for example, requiring all citizens to purchase health insurance from a private company upon pain of fine), people may protest by writing blog posts or by voting for the opposition. A few brave souls will engage in civil disobedience. But almost no one will expatriate and renounce their citizenship.

If the government were worried that decreased population and an out-flow of wealth were possible, legislators and bureaucrats might try to avoid framing bad laws.

But the loss of 502 people per quarter (many of whom were PRs, not citizens) isn't going to scare Washington.


"Freedom Means That Things Aren't Perfect"

Hong Kong

From a New York Times interview with Kentucky senate candidate Rand Paul. For fun, I'm adding how I would have answered the questions.

But in light of your distrust of the federal government, where are you on an issue like seat belts? Federal legislation requiring people to wear seat belts could obviously save lives.

I think the federal government shouldn’t be involved. I don’t want to live in a nanny state where people are telling me where I can go and what I can do.

[PKL: People can review the data on seat belts and make their own decisions. If people think that using a seat belt will prolong their lives (and that's something they want to do), most people will choose to use it. But the government should not be forcing auto manufacturers to purchase and install a component and then fine people for not using that component.]

You shouldn’t trivialize issues of health and safety by calling them nanny issues.

The question is, do you want to live in a nanny state where the government tells you what you can eat, where you can smoke, where you can live, what you can do, or would you rather have some freedom, and freedom means that things aren’t perfect?

[PKL: Here here. And, lady, since when is it OK for a Times interviewer to sharply inject her own opinion? Issues of health and safety should be trivialized because health and safety are the current excuses that statists use to increase their power at the expense of individuals' autonomy. They are also the excuses that governments use to force you to purchase products or services you don't want. I would rather live in a state of unsafe freedom than bubblewrapped slavery.]

Monday, April 05, 2010


The couch is doomed.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

GIRLS Trailer

Hong Kong

Due to work commitments, I will miss the premiere of this film tomorrow, but I hope it gets a commercial release. Most big-budget U.S. movies don't put this much thought (or sex) into a trailer.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

Why Reporters Don't Cover Anti-Obama Stories

Hong Kong

Commenter Grumpy Puppet has argued, off line, that the American press is hostile to President Obama and that this hostility comes naturally from the fact that a reporter who uncovers a scandal in the White House will receive fame and fortune.

But that's too simplistic a view of how journalism works.

A more nuanced view is found in this Glenn Greenwald post, where he describes the potentially lucrative scramble among White House reporters for access to Obama and his top aides. Only the few staffers at the top can provide the color and anecdotes that earn multi-million-dollar advances, and that information isn't going to reporters who are hard on the administration. So I expect the White House press corps -- already slobbering shih tzus in Obama's presence -- to be even more sycophantic.

BTW, there was an interesting tidbit in a recent NYT Public Editor column. Although 14 Times reporters covered aspects of the ACORN story, the story was described as "an orphan at the paper" by ombudsman Clark Hoyt. "Nobody owns it," Hoyt wrote.

If Grumpy Puppet were correct, several of the Times reporters would have jumped on the chance to lead the ACORN coverage. This was a story with a House angle, a Senate angle, an electioneering angle, a Chicago politics angle, a fundraising angle, an investigative reporting angle, a new media angle, a criminal law angle -- a way for a reporter to get her story in the paper almost every day for several weeks.

But no one wanted it. Not one of those 14 reporters stepped up and took the lead on a big national story.

I think the reason is obvious. The ACORN story was almost immediately construed by most journalists to be a "conservative" story, and no one wanted the social stigma of advancing it. A reporter who was perceived as legitimizing and advancing the anti-ACORN case would start to have a faint odor, one part Republican shill and one part Judith Miller.

It's just not cool to report certain stories, and those stories have a habit of being the ones that make Obama or his allies look bad.


Southwest Makes It Easy


Me: "Every Southwest flight to San Francisco is cancelled or delayed. Can you put me on the next flight to Oakland?"

Southwest guy: "Sure."

No hassle. No demand for the difference in the cost of the ticket. No demand for a standby fee.

Southwest's policy is to be easygoing when there are delays or cancellations:

Delays and Cancellations

Southwest always does its best to operate our flights as scheduled. Sometimes, events beyond our control or situations we could not anticipate prevent us from doing so. If, for any reason, your Southwest Airlines flight does not operate as scheduled, we will, at your request, refund the unused portion of your fare, or we will assist you by arranging to transport you to your destination on another Southwest flight with available seats. If you elect to take an alternate Southwest flight, we will not charge you any more money even if your ticket for the disrupted flight has usage limits or fare restrictions. Because Southwest offers high-frequency service in most of the markets we serve, we can usually accommodate our inconvenienced Customers within a reasonable amount of time.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Things I Learned Today

Hong Kong

✍ If you carry home a slice of spongy cake in the same bag as a bento box of sushi, you arrive home with a fish-flavored dessert.

✍ Hong Kong today enjoyed the first day of a five-day weekend. Friday, Monday and Tuesday are holidays.

✍ The air was difficult to breath today and smelled bad. The New York Times ran a story recently about the current air pollution problem in HK.