Saturday, January 20, 2007

Heckuva Job, Brownie!

Why does this not surprise me?
Brown told a group of graduate students Friday that some in the White House had suggested the federal government should take charge in Louisiana because Blanco was a Democrat, while leaving Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, in control in his state...

..."Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking, 'We had to federalize Louisiana because she's a white, female Democratic governor, and we have a chance to rub her nose in it,'" he said, without naming names. "'We can't do it to Haley (Barbour) because Haley's a white male Republican governor. And we can't do a thing to him. So we're just gonna federalize Louisiana.'"...

...Blanco reacted sharply to Brown's remarks.

"This is exactly what we were living but could not bring ourselves to believe. Karl Rove was playing politics while our people were dying," Blanco said through a spokeswoman, referring to Bush's top political strategist. "The federal effort was delayed, and now the public knows why. It's disgusting."
Every time I hear something like this, I'm reminded of how a former Bush Administration official once characterized the Bush White House:
"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus...What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."
Everything is political. Nothing else matters. Except maybe marketing. Think back to Sept. 2002, in the run-up to the 2002 midterm elections, as the Bush Administration made its case for the Iraq War. Why now, some asked, eleven years after the Gulf War, with Saddam Hussein's regime crippled by sanctions, kept in a box by no-fly zones? White House chief of staff Andrew Card had the answer:
"From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What? No lattes?

A Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum, if you'd prefer) may be forced out, after a CCTV anchorman declared the coffee house "undermined the Forbidden City's solemnity and trampled over Chinese culture," on his blog.

Unlike all those souvenir stands, "art" exhibits and snackbars, which clearly exemplify the highest flowering of the Qing Dynasty.

I'll admit, I was pretty appalled when I first heard that there was a Starbucks on the Imperial City grounds (though the article says it opened in 2000, I swear it was there in Dec. 1999, my first trip back to Beijing in 20 years). But when I actually saw the store, I couldn't get too worked up about it. If you haven't been there, the Starbucks is tucked into a small, traditional gallery, and is actually rather easy to miss.

Besides, it was freezing cold that day, and yeah, I had a double espresso, and I liked it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

So, President Bush proposes to not only "surge" in Iraq but expand the war to Iran and Syria.

Because, you know, things have gone so well so far.

The staggering hubris and stupidity of this "plan" are difficult for me to put into words. Here's a Los Angeles Times article that provides a little perspective on how this is going over in the region (though the title, "Mideast shaking its head" seems a bit of an understatement. "Shaking its head"?!).

Keith Olbermann has a few words as well. If you can't access youtube, try this crooksandliars link.

A few other words do occur to me, words from John Kerry, who was not always as verbally obtuse as he is now. You've probably heard them before.

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

We had to burn the village, etc.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Don't Call Us...

Okay. I'm a good liberal. A progressive, even. I'm "PC" in that I believe one should err on the side of politeness and respect. I think globalization is inevitable, and I heart immigrants.

I'm a multi-cultural kinda gal, you know?

But as the Animating Spirit of the Universe is my witness...



It's a combination of things. Poor language skills, lousy phone lines, and a lack of cultural fluency that generally turns what should be simple transactions into bizarre and frustrating parallel monologues, often compounded by the fact that "Justin" and "Sophie" are reading from canned scripts that only sometimes match the situation you've called about.

I once refinanced my mortgage because the bank I'd been using outsourced their customer service overseas. Maybe it's just me, but I'm not comfortable discussing my property taxes with someone in Bangalore who I'm not sure understands what I'm trying to do and what I need.

Two recent examples.

I wanted to bundle my phone and internet service and keep both my old phone number and my email address. My email provider said they could do that and save me something like seventy bucks a month. What's not to like?

Well, for starters, there would be suddenly not being able to receive calls and getting a robot "Extension (your phone number here) is not available" message if you tried to call me. My service had been switched without warning, but only halfway.

I spent about two hours on the phone trying to straighten this out, to a call center that I'm guessing was in India.

The first representative told me that my phone service had been switched, but not my DSL, and that according to their IT engineers, they had to be switched at the same time. Therefore, my options were:

1. Change my phone number.
2. Switch my service back to my original provider, and then put the order in all over again, and make the switch in 4-6 weeks.

My response was: "Unacceptable. I am not changing my phone number. Unacceptable. I don't know how long it will take for my current provider to make the switch. Unbelievable. I don't understand why the voice and DSL can't be switched at separate times." And, further: "You created this problem, not me. I am your customer. You are not giving me confidence in your service. You need to fix the problem for me."

Her response boiled down to: "I am very sorry for the inconvenience." Repeat ad infinitum.

After going around and around, even getting on the phone with my old service provider and confirming that I couldn't even talk to anyone until Monday, and it would be a new order, I finally said: "I realize this isn't your fault, but I want to speak to a supervisor."

More time on hold to the canned strains of Vivald's 4 Seasons. Eventually, a supervisor "Vivian," came on the line.

Now here's where I make an exception to my loathing of overseas call-centers. Vivian was really good. She explained the situation, what had actually happened (I won't bore you with the details) and that the DSL switch was scheduled for January 15th.

"Ah-HAH! So you CAN switch them at different times. I knew it!"

So I asked if there was any way to access the voice mailbox and change the message to let people know that my phone was wonky and to call me on my cell. She thought maybe that could be done. She also said that she could have my calls forwarded from my land-line to my cell phone until the problem was fixed.

We couldn't change the voicemail message, but Option #2 worked like a charm.

Credit where credit is due - Vivian, wherever you are, you rock!

But apparently, that's why she's a supervisor, and it took two hours of my time to find her and get some help.

Here's another example. This just happened tonight. I was booking my plane ticket to Beijing on the internet. I got a great fare, on sale. The sale lasted through Jan. 9. I selected the flight, the seats, clicked to purchase, and all of the sudden, my ticket was $100.00 more.

This cannot be, said I. I refused to accept it. I called the airline.

Somewhere in Bangalore, "Jonathan" took my call.

"Maybe the fare is over," he suggested.

"No," I insisted. "It was $667.00 when I chose it and selected my seats, just now. Then I went to purchase, and it was $775. The sale goes through January 9. It is still January 9 where I am."

"You have to call web support. I cannot see the information. I will transfer you."

After sitting on hold for ten minutes or so, I decided Jonathan's solution was b.s., hung up and called Reservations again.

This time I got someone in the States. She was extremely helpful. She looked up the flight and said, "Oh. That should be $667.00. I don't understand what the problem on the web was, but I can book it for you."

The whole transaction took maybe ten minutes, and it only took that long because I was so pathetically grateful to deal with someone who could actually help me achieve my desired outcome, and I told her so.

"I'm not really allowed to say anything negative," she told me, after hearing my tale of woe. "But we hear this all the time. And I'm just sorry you had to go through that."

Let me be clear about this - I blame American companies who think they are saving money by outsourcing customer service overseas. Maybe they are saving personnel costs, but they are costing me, their customer, time and a considerable amount of goodwill, and they are creating aggravation and anger at a level that has prompted me to change whom I do business with. Oh yeah, Capital One. I'm talking about you! Citibank, you too!

One more.

I was trying to find a business I'd used in the past in my area. The number on the web now belongs to a private individual. So I called information to see if I could find an updated one.

I got an operator in freakin' India.

"There is no listing for this business in...("hiss!" "crackle!") Santa Monica."

Here's the thing: back in the day, if you called an operator, they frequently were people who lived in your area. They might even know something about the business you were trying to find. They were local! Neighbors!

Okay. I know that there's a price to be paid for a 24 hour world. I was dealing with my phone problems on a Friday night, from 9 PM until after 11. Maybe in the Olden Days I just would have been S.O.L. until more normal business hours.

But it's like I said to the second airline customer service representative. I expect language barriers when I travel overseas. That's part of the package. And if I don't understand what's going on, that's pretty much my problem.

But when I'm sitting on my couch in Los Angeles, California, trying to get some help with whatever it is I'm dealing with, I want to deal with someone who is at least on my continent.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Five Things...

Boy, there's a whole lot about these intranets that I just don't know. For example, blog memes or meme tags. This is kind of the blog equivalent of a chain letter, except nobody promises you riches if you tag 12 of your friends and doom if you don't. In this case, I was tagged by Lao Lu, who got tagged by Richard, who got tagged by China Law Blog, and before that, CLB can tell you if you want to know.

Anyway, "5 Things You Didn't Know About Me." Now, I have some issues with this. Some people who read this blog will know just about any 5 things that I'm willing to share, so I guess it's really "5 Things That Most Of You Didn't Know About Me And Why Should You Care?" But be that as it may...

1. My first attempt at a novel came when I was five years old at most. It was to be an ambitious epic about two cats who went camping. The problem was, I did not know how to spell "camping," and my mother was on the phone while I was trying to write the first chapter and wouldn't tell me. Thanks, Mom. I hope you realize the loss of this masterwork for the ages is on your head.

2. I manage to combine an obsessive/compulsive streak with a short attention span, meaning: I can focus on long, complicated projects on the one hand and get dreadfully bored with many things on the other. This might explain how I ended up with six minors, no major, enough units for a masters and no undergraduate degree (the minors, for the record, were: writing, visual arts, political science, German, Chinese Studies, and music literature. I think).

3. I turned 21 in Kunming, China, during a total eclipse of the sun. To be completely accurate, the eclipse was on the day after my birthday in China, but I figure in the place of my birth, San Diego, CA, it was a day earlier, and therefore my actual birthday. I sort of vaguely recall that a solar eclipse is supposed to mark the death of the old and the beginning of the new, a rebirth of sorts, and indicate major changes in one's life. While I'm disinclined to take such things too literally, being in China at that age completely changed the direction of my life, for good or for ill (I still haven't figured out which).

4. If you've read this blog from the beginning, you already know that I used to be the singer/songwriter/bassist of an LA-area band. We got some good reviews in the local music press, and pretty much no actual success. We did however play together for over ten years and have a really good time doing so. I'm still friends with those guys (hey, one of them is my sister) and spend nearly every Christmas Eve with the guitar player and his family and friends (and then there's drummer Todd's "Last Monday Before Christmas Musicians' Party, which I never miss either).

Way back at the beginning of my so-called music career (not counting the cover band I had in college), a guy who used to be one of the main engineers for Motown told me I had talent, but if I wanted to succeed, I needed to make some choices. In the immediate future, I needed to ditch the guitar player I was working with at the time or at the very least, not do any of his songs. The band needed to be about me, and I had to be the only lead singer. Both of those things ended up happening. He also gave me a football metaphor for life: "You can't make them throw you the football. But you can be ready to catch it if they do."

To this day, I don't know if they never threw me the ball or if I just dropped it.

Anyway, even if you knew I had a band, bet you didn't know that I'm left-handed, but I still play the bass right-handed. So there.

5. In the movie Undercover Brother, there's a karaoke scene where Eddie Griffin and Denise Richards sing "Ebony and Ivory." The backup vocals for the karaoke track were done by me and my friend Christy, who was music coordinator for the film and begged me to go with her to the studio and arrange and sing the backups. I don't know how well you can hear our efforts over Griffin and Richards (I never did see the movie), the results were pretty magnificantly cheesy on our end. The three of us, Christy, me and the producer/engineer, laughed our asses off after nearly every take. The downside: for weeks afterwards I had that stupid song embedded in my brain. All of the back-up vocals, the orchestration, the cheesy lyrics...I would wake up every night around 4 AM with "Together A-LLIVE!!!" echoing in my head. It wasn't pretty.

Now I have to pass the pain on to some other poor bloggin' slobs...Here it goes...

Zhadi, Redzilla, SusanUnPC, Real History Lisa.

Hey, if any of you guys don't wanna do this, I totally understand.

Just remember. Edgar P. Collingsworth broke the chain. Two weeks later, his business partner embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from their firm and ran off to the Cayman Islands with Mrs. Collingsworth, leaving Edgar alone, penniless and afflicted with a severe case of gout.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Things fall apart?

British writer Will Hutton began research for his upcoming book on China's astounding economic and political rise believing that "China was so different that it could carry on adapting its model, living without democracy or European enlightenment values." In the course of his research, he changed his mind. After detailing the staggering growth of China's economy, the global reach of its political power, the abandonment of anything resembling Maoist doctrine, Hutton concludes:
But for all that, it remains communist. The maxims of Marxist-Leninst-Maoist thought have to stand, however much the party tries to stretch the boundaries, because they are the basis for one-party rule. Yet the system so spawned is reaching its limits. For example, China's state-owned and directed banks cannot carry on channelling hundreds of billions of pounds of peasant savings into the financing of a frenzy of infrastructure and heavy industrial investment. The borrowers habitually pay interest only fitfully, and rarely repay the debt, even as the debt mountain explodes. The financial system is vulnerable to any economic setback.

Equally, China is reaching the limits of the capacity to increase its exports, which, in 2007, will surpass $1 trillion, by 25 per cent a year. At this rate of growth, they will reach $5 trillion by 2020 or sooner, representing more than half of today's world trade. Is that likely? Are there ships and ports on sufficient scale to move such volumes - and will Western markets stay uncomplainingly open? Every year, it is also acquiring $200bn of foreign exchange reserves as it rigs its currency to keep its exports competitive. Can even China insulate its domestic financial system from such fantastic growth in its reserves and stop inflation rising? Already, there are ominous signs that inflationary pressures are increasing.
Hutton goes on to discuss China's environmental crisis, which has been covered here on so many occasions that I don't think it's necessary to restate it now. His basic argument is that "it is the lack of independent scrutiny and accountability that lie behind the massive waste of investment and China's destruction of its environment alike."
Enterprises are accountable to no one but the Communist party for their actions; there is no network of civil society, plural public institutions and independent media to create pressure for enterprises to become more environmentally efficient. Watchdogs, whistleblowers, independent judges and accountable government are not just good in themselves as custodians of justice; they also keep capitalism honest and efficient and would curb environmental costs that reach an amazing 12 per cent of GDP. As importantly, they are part of the institutional network that constitutes an independent public realm that includes free intellectual inquiry, free trade unions and independent audit. It is this 'enlightenment infrastructure' that I regard in both the West and East as the essential underpinning of a healthy society. The individual detained for years without a fair trial is part of the same malign system that prevents a company from expecting to be able to correct a commercial wrong in a court, or have a judgment in its favour implemented, if it were against the party interest.

The impact is pernicious. The reason why so few Britons can name a great Chinese brand or company, despite China's export success, is that there aren't any. China needs to build them, but doing that in a one-party authoritarian state, where the party second-guesses business strategy for ideological and political ends, is impossible. In any case, nearly three-fifths of its exports and nearly all its hi-tech exports are made by non-Chinese, foreign firms, another expression of China's weakness. The state still owns the lion's share of China's business and what it does not own, it reserves the right to direct politically.
Hutton believes that the world cannot afford a China that dominates the globe without achieving some form of democratic transformation. From what I can suss out about him, he's no neocon; he's also no cultural relativist and makes a strong case for the superiority - and universality - of Western enlightenment values, which he believes China desperately needs to achieve its stated "peaceful rise":
Britain and the West take our enlightenment inheritance too easily for granted, and do not see how central it is to everything we are, whether technological advance, trust or well-being. We neither cherish it sufficiently nor live by its exacting standards. We share too quickly the criticism of non-Western societies that we are hypocrites. What China has taught me, paradoxically, is the value of the West, and how crucial it is that we practise what we preach. If we don't, the writing is on the wall - for us and China.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. Nowhere in Hutton's piece does he make a case that certain traditional Chinese values might be advantageous or even virtuous in the modern world (in fact, quite the opposite). I can't help it - I'm a good liberal, and this makes me uncomfortable. I'd venture, a little tentatively, since this is only a small excerpt from a much longer work, that this lack and even downright dismissal of 5,000 years of cultural traditions somewhat undercuts Hutton's larger argument.

I will say, however, that my first time in China, back in the beginning days of Deng Xiaoping's reforms, gave me an appreciation for the American Constitution, Bill of Rights and the rule of law that I'd never had before. And also, as Hutton states, the absolute necessity of following our own values.

As for China's future, Hutton concludes:
My belief is that what is unsustainable is not sustained. Change came in the Soviet Union with the fifth generation of leaders after the revolution; the fifth generation of China's leaders succeed today's President Hu Jintao in 2012. No political change will happen until after then, but my guess is that sometime in the mid to late 2010s, the growing Chinese middle class will want to hold Chinese officials and politicians to account for how they spend their taxes and for their political choices. What nobody can predict is whether that will produce another Tiananmen, repression and maybe war if China's communists pick a fight to sustain legitimacy at home or an Eastern European velvet revolution and political freedoms.
So what do you think?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Power Outage

Last night we had a really hellacious windstorm in Venice - strongest and most prolonged winds I can recall in my nearly two decades of living there. I really thought my little shack by the sea was going to blow away. It survived intact, but the power went down around 9 AM and as of this writing is still down. I had a couple things I wanted to post, but I guess they'll have to wait.

Happy weekend, everyone.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Stop me if you've heard this before...

Howard French has a new piece on the contradictions of modern China. These are all familiar themes, mostly of the "beneath the glittering surface lurk serious problems" variety, but French summarizes them well. The key graphs:

The intent here is not to slight China's economic achievement, which in the past quarter-century has truly been all but miraculous. The point is to say that so much remains to be done here, including most of the hard work.

China's outstanding tasks tend to be of the kind that evade quick and simple measurement and will certainly not loom large in the calculations of the graph paper and ruler gang.

The people who inhabit the world's oldest unitary state have a common nationality, but they have yet to construct commonly held bonds of citizenship, which allow for the sharing of other people's problems and of each other's dreams.

The road thus far for China has been built on an official religion: the cult of GDP growth. China has built roads and buildings in dizzying quantities. And at the individual level, Chinese people are acquiring things just as fast as they can, but there seems to be little other rhyme or reason to life here for the time being.

The predominant reason for this is the government, which reserves for itself the right to proclaim causes and strikes down anyone who insists on articulating a different agenda too loudly. Similarly, it tightly controls the right of association, meaning that any group of any size must be organized under the government's aegis.

The result is an atrophied sense of the individual and of civic participation, from which the country and its people are just now awakening, and not a moment too soon.
Sounds about right to me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Wow...what a game

My not-so-secret shame...I love football. For one thing, I find football the perfect accompaniment to cleaning my house, sorting papers, doing laundry - all the mundane stuff I hate to do. There's plenty of breaks, and if you miss something, they'll show it again.

There's things I don't like about football - the violence & injuries, certain aspects of the surrounding culture - but I love the game, the athleticism, the strategy. Football is a smart game (in fact I keep meaning to buy a copy of "Football for Dummies" to help me understand it better). And it's a drama, with its four-act structure, reversals of fortune, characters and storylines.

Which is a roundabout way of asking, "Holy shit! Did anyone watch the Fiesta Bowl tonight?!" Non-BCS underdogs Boise State beat one of college football's elite teams, the Oklahoma Sooners, 43-42, in overtime. One of the best football games I've ever seen, with jaw-dropping plays that looked like something you'd see in a movie. A fifty-yard touchdown play to tie with seven seconds left in regulation, on 4th and 18, with a pass and a lateral? A fake throw and a Statue of Liberty (really!) for a two-point conversion to win (oops - that was the play that tied it in overtime. The winning play was even weirder. Oops again. I had it right the first time. Here's a better recap). Unbelievable.

And the star running back proposed to his head cheerleader girlfriend live on national television.

'Twere well it were done quickly


Happy New Year. It seems we've rung in the new by hanging Bush's bete noire. Ding-dong, Saddam is dead. New Year coincided with an important Muslim holiday as well, Eid Al-Adha, celebrating the end of the hajj, in the last month of the Islamic calendar:
The Festival of the Sacrifice commemorates the God's gift of the ram in place of the biblical patriarch Ibrahim's (Abraham's) son Isma'il (Ishmael). (In Judaism and Christianity, the child in this story is Ishmael's brother Isaac.) During the festival, families that can afford to do so sacrifice an animal such as a sheep, goat, camel, or cow, and then divide the meat among themselves, the poor, and friends and neighbours.
I suppose you could look on Saddam's execution as a sacrifice of sorts, but for what, and to whom?

Morbid curiousity led me to the cell-phone video of the execution. I watched up to the point of the hanging, and stopped. It is a profoundly depressing piece of history. A number of commentators have remarked on its similarity to the Al Qaeda beheading videos, and I would have to agree.

Saddam's execution takes place in a small, dark cell, cement walls, dimly lit; according to one account I heard, the floors are still stained in places by the blood of those who had died before him, by his orders. The guards and executioners wear ski masks and civilian clothes. At the end, they taunt Hussein. There are shouts of "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada!" in support of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi'ite cleric and militia leader.

God knows how many times this video has been seen by now. Enough to inflame the Sunni Arab world, furious at the shabby, degrading way a Sunni former head of state was dispatched. Enough to demonstrate the degree to which Shi'ite militias have infiltrated the government of "New Iraq" - or are the government, more accurately.

Enough to show the proportion of justice to revenge.

There's been a considerable amount of debate on the culpability of American authorities in this execution. Our government claims to have had nothing to do with the decision. I've heard credible accounts that American officials were suprised by the haste of the whole process, the speed with which the execution was conducted. And on the one hand, it's hard to understand why American authorities would encourage an action certain to provoke more sectarian violence. On the other, the cynical part of me wonders if more violence was needed to justify the "surge" in American troops the Bush Administration so very much wants. As well, one should never underestimate the extent to which the Bush Administration can utterly fuck things up. And the conspiratorial aspect of my nature wonders about the secrets Saddam takes with him. After all, he was our man in the Iraq/Iran War before he was our Hitler d'jour.

In the end, I'm not sure it matters. The perception will be that America was behind Saddam's execution, and perceptions are as potent a fuel as realities, it seems.

Yeah, he was a brutal dictator; he murdered thousands of people, and I'm not blind to the poetic justice of his being put down like a dog in the same execution chamber where he'd had people slaughtered in his name. But this was not the kind of justice I want done in mine. Blood spilled over blood, staining the hands of us all.
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return,
To plague the inventor; this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.