Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Somewhere

I love Sofia Coppola's movies, but the trailer for her new film Somewhere plays the wrong note. In the middle of a prolonged recession, people won't be interested in a movie star's ennui, even if it's linked to a universal father-daughter relationship. The film may be excellent -- I don't think Coppola can make a bad movie -- but it may suffer from terrible timing. Somewhere will be released in the United States on December 22, 2010.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Al Franken Seniority Watch

Phuket Island, Thailand

With today's death of Senator Robert Byrd, Al Franken (D-SNL) moves up one notch. Franken now holds the precedential rank of 97th out of 100 senators. He retains, at least for now, the lowest rank of all members of the Democratic senatorial caucus, 58th out of 58.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Insomnia

Phuket Island, Thailand

When you hear the mosque's 5 a.m. call to prayer, and you're nowhere near falling asleep, it's a bad night.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sixteen Years Ago Today in Glastonbury



Saint Etienne are Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Peter Wiggs.

Did a more beautiful woman ever walk the earth?

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review of Celebrity In China

Phuket Island, Thailand

Asia Sentinel is currently leading with my review of Celebrity in China, a collection of essays about the nature of fame in the People's Republic. The book was edited by University of Hong Kong professor Louise Edwards and University of Technology, Sydney, professor Elaine Jeffreys and was published by HKU Press.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

"It is a sign of total arrogance on the part of the U.S. to feel it can impose its rules on the rest of the world."

So says Jackie Bugnion, as quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal piece about the effects of the HIRE Act, the latest piece of legislation which treats American expatriates as criminals and marks.

The act, which I have not yet read, requires foreign banks to turn over information about their U.S. customers if the banks want to operate in the United States. Some foreign banks are consequently refusing to do business with Americans. The bill also contains provisions which would potentially make Americans unemployable in the financial operations of foreign companies, because the U.S. government demands information about the accounts to which the citizen has access, a commenter notes.

This will only get worse. Someone has to pay for the U.S. government's spending, and expats are the obvious target. Few congressmen will care, and most voters will view "unpatriotic" expats with distaste. You'd think American businesses would object, but, on the other hand, why would they want foreign competitors competing for personnel or investment?

An excerpt:

The U.S. government – under a new law incorporated in the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act signed by President Barack Obama on 18 March 2010 – is demanding that international financial institutions reveal which of their clients are U.S. citizens with accounts of more than $50,000. Foreign banks are, in effect, being asked to act as the international enforcement arms of the Internal Revenue Service. Those banks that don't comply will be subject to a 30% withholding tax on all payments made to them in the U.S. Many banks and wealth managers have decided it is far easier to politely show their U.S. clients the door. . . . .

The Hire Act is only the latest in a raft of different laws aimed at American expats, American residents with off-shore accounts and the institutions that service both groups. Jay Krause, a partner at the law firm Withers, says: "The difficulties that American expats face predates the HIRE Act. But the new law will take it to a whole new level. I think that it is the most remarkable piece of tax legislation ever enacted."

The U.S. government already taxes expatriate citizens on their worldwide income regardless of where it is earned or where they live, making them the only people in the developed world who are taxed in both their country of citizenship and country of residence. Many expats complain that these rules are getting tougher and the penalties more draconian by the year.

I've blogged in the past about how the state and local governments in California are pricing themselves out of the market for residents, seemingly unaware that people can leave. The federal government also needs to be aware that, while the current number of persons renouncing their U.S. citizenship is small, internationally minded people can only take so much.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Because I Feel Like Posting It, That's Why



"Sunshowers" by M.I.A. (2004).

Quick Shopping

Phuket Island, Thailand

Colgate Double Cool Stripe toothpaste (90 grams): 23 baht (US$0.71)

Unilever Men's Shampoo, with Thai and Khmer markings (85 grams): 32 baht (US$0.99)

Loacker Napolitaner hazelnut creme wafers, made in Europe (45 grams): 20 baht (US$0.62)

Van Houten Full Cream Milk chocolate bar, made in Indonesia (50 grams): 30 baht (US$0.93)

Plus 7% sales tax.

Total: 104 baht (US$3.21)

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Genius International Traveler, I Am

Phuket Island, Thailand

So I'm walking around Phuket Town this afternoon, running a few errands, when I notice that the locals are looking at me in a different register.

Usually, they ignore me -- farangs are nothing new here -- or they take one curious look and go on their bored way. But, today, the glances were furtive, some noses were wrinkled, and I saw a quick finger pointing at me.

The behavior stumped me. I was wearing my ordinary uniform of tan dress pants, a button-down dress shirt, tan socks and sandals. A dork uniform, no doubt, but nothing about it should have registered with the Thais.

I walked into my apartment building, and, as I pressed the elevator button, I noticed the cloth of the shirt sleeve.

It was white with red stripes.

I was wearing a red shirt.

In Thailand.

At a time when wearing a red shirt has a specific and incendiary political meaning.

Smart, Paul, real smart.

I changed into a blue shirt, which was just as dorky but wouldn't get me lynched or arrested.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Unwatchable

Monday, June 14, 2010

Trip Report: Thai Airways flight 201 from Bangkok to Phuket

Phuket, Thailand

I looked across the taxiways of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and thought, “I bet my plane is that tub parked on the other side of the terminal.”

Yup.

The flight from Bangkok to Phuket is only 50 minutes, but it’s such a high-volume route that Thai International Airways uses a widebody. Sometimes it’s an old, rickety 747, but today it was an old, creaking 777. The plane bore the carrier’s outdated, light purple livery. Some faceless manager inside THAI had decided the route wasn’t worth a paint job.

The manager was probably right. The flight to Phuket is a scribbled afterword. My fellow passengers had debarked overnight flights from Sydney, Copenhagen, Los Angeles and Frankfurt. We were all groggy and just wanted to arrive at our final destinations. So THAI strategically skimped.

The in-flight service was fine, though. The flight attendants passed out boxed lunches consisting of a flavorless fish filet sandwich -– when it comes to mass-produced fishy food, flavorless is good -– a slice of Puff & Pie brand pound cake, and a Thai drink labeled "20% Mixed Fruit Juice."

Then I watched the landscape turn from farmland to coastland to islands. Then we landed.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Review of Thai Airways Flight 795: Better Than Singapore Airlines' Trans-Pacific Service

Phuket, Thailand

Let me throw down: If you have to cross the Pacific in economy class, you’ll have a more comfortable experience on Thai Airways than on Singapore Airlines.

In the last six months, I’ve flown four trans-Pacific sectors on Singapore. But last week’s flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok on Thai International Airways was preferable by every measure I care about.

Leg Room. On long-haul routes, every inch is precious, and Thai is the most generous airline. As you can see on this SeatGuru comparison chart, Thai Airways gives each economy-class passenger 36 inches of seat pitch on the Airbus A340-500s it uses to connect LAX and BKK. (Seat pitch is the distance from any point on your seat to the same point on the seat in front of you.)

Singapore is tighter (by both meanings of the word) in its treatment of the people in the cheap seats. Depending on the route, Singapore laps the Pacific using Boeing 747-400s or 777-300ERs, either of which only provides 32 inches of seat pitch. That’s industry standard, but Singapore claims to be a superior airline.

The four extra Thai inches were delightful. There was room for my legs – I’m six foot one – plus my books and drinking water in the seatback compartment, plus a carryon stowed under the seat in front of me. I never felt cramped. On the Singapore flights between San Francisco and Hong Kong, my knees were against the seatback.

On this factor – the most important factor on lengthy flights – Thai prevailed handily.

Food. The Thai food was tastier and more varied, there was more of it per meal, and the first serving came on a nearly cafeteria-sized tray, not the microtrays Singapore used. Thai offers a series of special meals, including Indian and religious meals, but its web site doesn’t make a big a deal of the service the way Singapore’s does. I vote Thai on this category, although it’s a matter of taste.

Décor. My first impression of the Singapore Airlines décor was “clinical.” The economy cabin was oatmeal beige, and business class wasn't any better. It had the zest of an office park.

The Thai economy cabin was a potpourri of color: violet, lavender and yellow seats, with stitching in orange and red and other colors. The design was reminiscent of a resort, not a board room. It’s not a place to work; it’s a respite, a place to relax as you fly between workplaces. I’ll take the Thai cabin any day.

Booze. Thai seemed looser with the spirits. During dinner, there was plenty of acceptable-for-air-travel wine. After dinner, the flight attendants offered cognac. Singapore offered wine but not the digestifs. (BTW, I learned from a flight attendant that 18 is the drinking age on Thai flights, regardless of the laws of the jurisdiction over which the plane is flying.)

Cup Holder Placement. On Thai, the cup holder is mounted to the back of the tray table; when you’re eating and the tray table is down, you don’t have access to the cup holder. On Singapore, the cup holder is mounted above the tray table, so you can always use it. Advantage Singapore, I guess, but it doesn’t matter when the flight attendants are prompt with the refills, which the Thai attendants were.

Flight Attendant Attentiveness. Luck of the draw plays a large role in whether your flight attendant is Ananda-on-the-spot or lazy Suchin. I’ve had better luck with Thai. On this flight, my aisle had two flight attendants assigned to it, and we never lacked for anything. I’ve been on flights where the Singapore Girl was clearly a fill-in, unfamiliar with the long-haul product and what was expected of her.

In-Flight Entertainment. No contest: Singapore’s AVOD was fantastic, with literally hundreds of channels providing movies, television programs and games in half a dozen languages. The Thai AVOD had only a fraction of the offerings, and, on my recent flight, it barely worked.

But I didn’t care. I spent the flight reading The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, a science fiction allegory about the austerity of life in Great Britain in the decade after World War II. It was more interesting than Avatar on a tiny screen.

The Little Things. Thai excels. The Thai flight offered a rolled blanket with a cardboard band, printed with the airline logo; Singapore offered a folded blanket in a plastic bag. Thai offered its headsets in a purple pouch bearing the legend “Take Me Home”; Singapore’s headsets came in a plain plastic bag, and the flight attendants made a point of collecting them before landing. Thai passed out bottles of water to everyone before turning the lights out; Singapore didn’t.

Award Seat Availability. I accrue my frequent flyer miles to Singapore Airlines because that’s the only way I’ll experience its Business Class service. But I’m starting to think that’s a mirage. I was unable to secure a Business award seat for this trip despite weeks of effort and waiting, which is why I took Thai. Plus, the more I learn about the nature of the Singaporean regime, the less inclined I am to support it with my travel dollars. According to the road warriors at FlyerTalk, Thai award seats are readily available (if only because Thai has trouble selling out its premium inventory).

Conclusion: It’s Cultural. Here’s the cultural difference between Thai and Singapore in one factlet: The Singapore pilots turned on the seat belt signs whenever there was a whisper of turbulence. The plane had to be shaking before the Thai pilots did.

My opinion of Singapore, the airline, is similar to my opinion of Singapore, the city-state. Its reputation outstrips its reality, it’s not as efficient or luxurious as it claims to be, it costs too much, and the quirky, home-spun human element has been replaced with a stifling corporatism. People with money (business class flyers, on the plane, and supporters of the ruling Lee family, on the ground) are treated well, but the commoners (economy flyers, and working class, HDB-dwelling Singaporeans, respectively) are offered a homogenous, pared-down product that does the trick but isn’t as generous as it’s hyped to be.

I’d rather live in colorful and chaotic Thailand than in antiseptic Singapore, and I’d rather fly Thai Airways than its beige, bland, boring competitor.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Bradley Terminal Renovation -- Departures Level

LAX

The visible aspects of the $737-million refurbishment of LAX’s creaking Tom Bradley International Terminal are underwhelming.

Yes, the place looks better, but the changes to the walls are cosmetic. They are now purposefully beige instead of the previous palette of low-bid government contractor paint varnished with dirt.

I’ll also give points for the new electronic ceiling signs at the front of each aisle of check-in counters. The signs are large and visible, hung from the ceiling, and display the logos of the airlines which are currently serving passengers in each aisle.

But the smaller electronic signs are a flop. They’re supposed to tell you the row where your airline’s counter agents are located, but the signs are too low. If anybody is standing in the way, you can’t read the signs. Hong Kong’s airport uses similar signs, but they’re bigger and mounted higher, so you can read them.

I miss the Hudson Booksellers which used to be at the front of the terminal. It was the only proper bookstore in the place, and you could find more than Steve Martini, David Baldacci and Nicholas Sparks. It was also one of the few airport bookstores where you could buy a copy of Patrick Smith's Ask the Pilot.

Here’s a video of the renovations, including the Arrivals level (which I have not visited):

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Mayor Admits LAX Is Not Up To Snuff

LAX

Here's the Mayor of Los Angeles, announcing the completion last month of the first phase of the renovation of the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Funny Things Happen When You Travel

LAX

Twenty minutes ago, I'm standing on the sidewalk between the Tom Bradley International Terminal and Terminal 4 when the guy walks up.

He's a pudgy-turning-fat early 30s white guy in a red hoodie. He catches my eye and goes into his spiel, talkingthisfastyesthisfast.

The Guy: "You look like someone who travels a lot, and I really need your help, because I have a ticket for the nine o'clock AirTran flight back to Pittsburgh -- I'm a chemical engineer in town to interview at a company called DuPont -- and I got the job, by the way -- but the AirTran flight was cancelled, and AirTran isn't affiliated with any other airlines, and I went to the Marriott where I stayed before, while I was being interviewed for the job with the company called DuPont, and they won't let me stay another night, and there's no other flights back to Pittsburgh tonight -- and I'm a Panther, because that's where I earned my engineering degree --and there's no place to stay, and I'm Jewish, by the way, but I've called various temples and synagogues and there's nothing they can do, so I was wondering if you could help a good Jew and --"

Me: "I already fell for this con once."

The Guy: "Asshole." Walks away.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Only In Los Angeles

Sherman Oaks, California

So I'm enjoying a Darth Vader roll Friday night at Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant in the Hollywood Hills, and I see blogger and Senate candidate Mickey Kaus holding court at the A table, front and center, with blogger Amy Alkon, comedian Larry Miller and the guy who played Dr. Romano on ER.

Kinda cool.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Review of Traveler's Tool Kit by Rob Sangster



Traveler's Tool Kit (3rd edition) by Rob Sangster (Menasha Ridge Press 2000).

If you're looking for your first book explaining the basics of extended traveling, this book is as good as any other primer. If you've already read a few books on the topic, this one will add nothing.