Friday, February 27, 2009


Not content with passing his driving test, the splendid LC off of Liars and Lunatics has found the time to concoct a new “experiment in citizen journalism” called The Pamphleteer, which I suggest you check out at your earliest convenience.

—end of plug—

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Different voices

The BBC’s come in for a bit of abuse in recent months, some of it justified. But just as its friends begin to despair, along comes a programme like this morning’s In Our Time, discussing The Waste Land and you just want to grab all the sneering lackeys of Murdoch and the Mail by their lapels and ask them where that sort of thing’s going to come from once the licence fee’s gone.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A little less information

Comment is free, but facts are sacred, said CP Scott. That said, some facts are so sacred that journalists would rather not know them, as I discovered just now when I phoned a contact to arrange an interview.

“Hello, could I speak to Khun ******, please?”

“Sorry, Khun ******, he is in toilet.”

“OK, shall I call back in five minutes?”


“Perhaps ten minutes, yes?”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Slice of life

On Sunday afternoon, the head of a foreigner was found in a plastic bag suspended from the Rama VIII bridge in Bangkok. What is assumed to be the rest of the unfortunate gentleman was retrieved from the river yesterday.

Pol Col Pornsak Surasit... said it was uncertain whether the man was murdered or if he committed suicide.

Pol Col Chawalit Prasopsin, deputy commander of Metropolitan Police Division 7, said specialists at Siriraj Hospital would need time to examine the head thoroughly to determine whether it was severed with a sharp object.

PS: Actually, it looks as if they could be onto something, unlikely as it may seem... But the bag?

PPS: It’s still not entirely clear what happened but it really does appear to have been a suicide. “Maybe Mr Tasadori had no place to go and felt guilty.” A very sad tale.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Under the covers

A glance at the tag cloud for LibraryThing, which measures the relative popularity of the identifying tags that members apply to their books, would suggest that people own a great deal of erotica, but no pornography.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Monkey* gone to heaven

I don’t know whether the above cartoon, published in the New York Post earlier this week to much brouhaha, was intended to be racist. As Gawker has pointed out, the artist, Sean Delonas, doesn’t appear to be a particularly sophisticated political thinker, but his peculiar obsession would seem to be homosexuality rather than race.

As with the Danish cartoons controversy (see here and here for previous rumblings), I think the aspect that everyone’s overlooked is that Delonas’s cartoon is completely crap, a far greater crime on my charge sheet than any perceived sociopolitical insensitivity.

He does, however, follow in a glorious tradition of bad, reactionary cartoonists. I have particularly fond childhood memories of leafing through my grandparents’ copies of the Daily Express and enjoying the foam-flecked daubs of the veteran Cummings. Here are a couple of his gems, that make Delonas look like a woolly liberal:

*Although, as the deliciously preposterous Al Sharpton failed to acknowledge, chimpanzees aren’t monkeys.

PS: And, if you really want to see people living up to derogatory ethnic stereotypes, here’s an Irish joke to beat them all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Crash bang wallop

So there I am, standing at the junction of Rama IV and Sathorn and Witthayu, the point at which Bangkok’s drivers believe they’re Italian for five seconds and inevitably I think of JG Ballard and then I remember that in the early 80s you could get on Top of the Pops with a song inspired by Ballard and because I’m a lazy, busy, sloppy, half-arsed blogger, and can’t even keep to my own self-imposed rules, all I can offer is this:

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Turning Japanese

I’ve been reading A Wild Haruki Chase, a collection of pieces about Haruki Murakami, written mainly by those tasked with the translation of his works into other languages. It’s a mixed bag; some of the pieces are witty and perceptive; others are as clunky and pedestrian as those stock essays you can lift from the internet (the Russian contribution is especially bad). It’s inevitable, given that most of the pieces were written in Japanese by non-native Japanese speakers, then translated into English by native Japanese speakers, that some stylistic nuances are bound to disappear. But a question arises: if you’re translating something that’s badly written in the first place, do you have an obligation to convey that badly-writtenness in the new version?

In one of the better chapters, academic and critic Inuhiko Yomota points out that Murakami’s initial success on the international market came because he was one of the first Japanese authors who transcended Western notions of what Japan was – until the late 1980s/early 1990s, a hodgepodge of samurai, geishas, kamikaze pilots and yakuza. Given a name-change or two, his jazz-loving, spaghetti-eating protagonists could just as easily have been Danish or Polish.

But then, argues Yomota, just as Murakami’s global success began to build, our image of Japan began to change, and Murakami’s Japan became ours; to gaijin readers, his characters acquired a Japaneseness they had previously lacked, because Japan no longer equated samurai or geisha. Which opens up all sorts of chicken-and-egg arguments about stereotypes and perception and reality that I don’t have time for right now, but I would just like to highlight Yomota’s phrase for the transnational accessibility of Murakami’s world: “cultural scentlessness”.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Theirs’ know buisness...

The most dispiriting moments in editorial work come when you’ve just spent a couple of hours ploughing through some turgid prose, attempting to suck some sense out the mangled syntax and comedy typos and unintentional non sequiturs and the only thing that stops you from putting a foot or some other extremity through the monitor (apart from the money) is the awareness that the writer does not have English as a first language and when you remember that, it’s really a pretty good effort, and then you happen to glance at the byline for the first time and you realise, no, actually he does notionally have English as a first language and that’s when you just want to curl up in the corner and whimper.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

...but Giant Haystacks was better

Can anyone tell me what happens in the last 20 minutes or so of The Wrestler? The DVD I was watching crapped out at that point.

Actually, that’s not such a great idea, is it? If you tell me what happens, it’ll spoil it for other people who haven’t seen it. I’ll have to put a big, aesthetically compromised *SPOILER ALERT* notice over the comments. So let’s do this differently. Tell me what you think *ought* to happen in the last 20 minutes. Or what *might* happen. Even if you haven’t seen the film. *Especially* if you haven’t seen the film, or even heard of it.

It’s after the bit where Mickey Rourke snorts coke, shags the annoying blonde woman and wakes up in that room surrounded by pictures of firemen.

(I didn’t make that last bit up, it’s really in the film.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

News in briefs

One stereotype I’ve never understood is the idea that feminists are dour and humourless. Most of the feminists I’ve known (and by that I mean women who actively characterise themselves as such, as distinct from women who believe in equality and empowerment and reproductive rights and so on, but don’t actually use the word, for whatever reason) have been very funny people. Especially the lesbians, they’re hilarious, and foul-mouthed too.

Granted, it’s usually a somewhat dark, gallowsy brand of funny, with a deep seam of absurdism, all the better to prick the pretensions of the patriarchy. And maybe that’s the problem; the people who find them humourless are probably the same people who characterise Morrissey or Harold Pinter as depressing. Arseholes, in other words.

Anyway, there’s a splendid manifestation of funny feminism going on in India at the moment. A group has formed to protest against the actions of a particularly repellent religious group called Sri Rama Sen, members of which were caught on camera beating up women who’d committed the outrageous sin of going to a bar for a drink. But instead of staging a grumpy demo, or writing angry letters to the press, the ladies, bless ’em, have formed a Facebook group called the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, and plan to give pink underwear to Sri Rama Sen members this coming Valentine’s day. The underwear thing is an allusion to the characterisation of extreme Hindu bigots as "chaddi wallahs", or shorts wearers. (Wodehouse fans will, I trust, immediately note parallels with the asinine wannabe Führer Roderick Spode and his black-shorted minions/morons.)

Sorry, there’s no punchline to this one, except that it brings a smile to my face to think that on Saturday, hundreds of reactionary bigots are going to have to explain to their wives why these pink thongs have started popping through the letterbox. In the meantime, if you can, do join the Facebook group to express your support, because, let’s face it, sexist violence isn’t funny, but pants bloody well are.

PS: More info here. You know, if this turns out to be some kind of marketing wheeze by, I dunno, Agent Provocateur or something, I’m going to be bloody angry.

Monday, February 09, 2009

String theory

Still on the theme of Facebook’s apparently desire to become the Dremel Multi-Max* of Web 2.0. The thing is, most of us are capable of using various bits of the interweb, and joining any relevant dots when it feels appropriate.

For example: yesterday I was listening to David Suchet on Desert Island Discs, while reading Shane Richmond’s Telegraph blog. David was expressing his admiration for Joe Morello’s drum solo on ‘Take Five’; Shane, as I mentioned in a postscript to the previous post, was sticking up for Wikipedia in the face of what seems to be a particularly ill-advised rant from someone who is not, repeat *not* the offspring of a former deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Independent of conscious thought, my fingers reached for Morello’s Wikipedia entry, and discovered the fact (although the appropriateness of that word depends on the precise quantity of salt you choose to pinch when referring to Wikipedia) that he actually started as a violinist, playing his first solo with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the age of nine.

But the bit that really impressed me was this:

At the of age 15 Morello met the violinist Jascha Heifetz and decided that he would never be able to equal Heifetz's "sound", so switched to drumming.

Which supports my contention that only a real genius understands how good he isn’t.

* Only follow this link if the phrase "oscillating tool" does not make you gurgle with merriment.

PS: I think if I ever find myself running a nightclub, “jazz casual” will be the dress code.

PPS:Even cooler Brubeck footage here.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Professional, foul

I've spent so much time and energy over the last year or so sneering at Andrew Keen and his anti-Web 2.0 spiel The Cult of the Amateur that it seems a bit superfluous actually to read the bloody thing, which I did last week. It would be charitable, if a little embarrassing, to report that I'd got the poor man completely wrong, and that his apocalyptic vision of the damage that blogs, social networks and Wikipedia are inflicting upon contemporary culture is bang on the money.

Well, it's not, but hundreds of others have already taken him to task over that, and I'm not going to chuck another bundle of twigs on the pyre just to make a point. That said, here's a very quick flavour of his argument: he expresses horror about a New York Times report that "50 percent of all bloggers blog for the sole purpose of reporting and sharing experiences about their personal lives."

Well, as that consummate professional, the blessed Gene Hunt would put it, "You make that sound like a bad thing." Keen joins all the other defiantly analogue numpties (Janet Street-Porter, Mary Dejevsky, etc) in making the reductive and simplistic assumption that because bloggers don't necessarily write brilliantly incisive news stories, they're bad at what they do; which is about as sensible as asserting that because Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't get many wickets, he's a rubbish cyclist. I thought we dealt with all this well over two years ago? Ah. I see we did.

So Keen's grasp of blogging and other manifestations of Web 2.0 is on a par with all those broadsheet journos who suddenly tried to get their heads round Twitter when Stephen Fry got on board. Little or no surprise there. But what astonished me about his book is the number of other things that he appears not to understand.

Let's take economics. Now, I can't claim to be the heir to Keynes or Friedman, or even Robert Peston, but I think even I can see the flaw in Keen's objections to advertisers running user-generated clips at the 2007 SuperBowl:

According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the average professionally produced thirty-second spot costs $381,000. Yet Frito-Lay paid a mere $10,000 to each of the five finalists on the table. That's $331,000 that wasn't paid to professional filmmakers, scriptwriters, actors and marketing companies — $331,000 sucked out of the economy.

"Sucked out of the economy"? Since when has a cost saving been money sucked out of the economy? It's not as if Mr Frito and Mr Lay went off to some remote Scottish island, KLF-style, and burned that $331,000. So it didn't go to filmmakers or scriptwriters: but Frito-Lay doesn't exist to keep filmmakers and scriptwriters in business. They could have spent it on salaries or shareholder dividends, they could have knocked a couple of cents off some of their products, or redecorated their offices or given it to charity; all of which would have seen that money re-enter the economy.

Later, Keen demonstrates further that sums aren't his strong point when he multiplies 99 cents (the cost of an iTunes download) by 20 billion (allegedly the number of songs 'stolen' by downloaders in a year) and makes $19.99 billion. Maybe he can use that stray 190 million to pay off all those scriptwriters who are going to have to sell their grannies because the likes of Frito-Lay have sucked all the money out of the economy, like big, cheese-flavoured Hoovers.

But this is just a sideshow to Keen's most egregious flaw. It's not just that he doesn't understand Web 2.0, the thing he's attacking; he doesn't even seem to understand old media, the thing he purports to want to save. The history of print and broadcast journalism is strewn with examples of corruption, hyperbole, political spin and honest-to-goodness mistakes. Yet Keen lays into the online video Loose Change (which claimed that the 9/11 were carried out by the US government) and the Moonie-owned webzine Insight — originally a hard-copy magazine — with its smears against Hillary Clinton, as if wacky conspiracy theories and politically-motivated muckraking were invented at about the same time as wireless internet.

Moreover, he seems to believe that one of the main things that distinguishes traditional media from self-defined citizen journalists is paper qualifications. "After all," he sneers, attacking the credentials of bloggers such as Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Glenn Reynolds, "who needs a degree in journalism to post a hyperlink on a Web site?"

Well, I've written for major (non-Moonie-owned) print publications in Britain and Asia, which I suppose makes me a journalist of sorts. And I've never set foot in a journalism class. The closest I've come to proper training was in 1993, when I sat in a pokey little office near Carnaby Street while a former disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh showed me how to sub-edit. "Above all, make sure it fits on the page," he said, and I think he was probably right.

In Keenland, it's not just journalists who need degrees and diplomas, though. He attacks Wikipedia by comparing it unfavourably with the Oxford English Dictionary, a product that apparently exemplifies the benefits of a properly trained and accredited editorial team. He neglects to mention, however, that two of the men most responsible for the success of the original OED, James Murray and Henry Bradley, were, by his own definition, mere amateurs, not even having attended university (a distinction they share with George Bernard Shaw, lauded by Keen as an example of the 'qualified' contributors that Britannica has and Wikipedia lacks). Incidentally, I got the information about Murray and Bradley, not from Wikipedia, but from a rather good book called The Meaning of Everything, written by Simon Winchester, who has worked with great success as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and The Sunday Times. He read geology at Oxford, and I rather suspect he doesn't hold many journalism qualifications.

It would appear that Keen's (wilful?) lack of understanding even extends to the title of his own book. If we take the risk of conflating blogging and journalism under a general heading of people-who-write-for-public-consumption, what defines amateurs isn't lack of ability; it's nothing more than the fact that they don't get paid for doing what they do. Which may imply a lack of seriousness, but also frees them from a hell of a lot of other pressures, such as the demands of proprietors or advertisers. When he has a go at the "amateur", what he's really getting at, in his dim and disgruntled manner, is the "amateurish", a label that can be applied to a depressingly large chunk of professionally written product. Including, as I now know, Keen's own silly, ill-considered book.

PS: On the subject of Wikipedia's perceived shortcomings, Shane Richmond discusses the mysterious case of the phantom entry.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


I've been on Facebook for over two weeks now, so I reckon it's high time I made some hasty, sweeping generalisations about the experience I resisted for so long.

First, it hasn't really become the time thief I thought it might be (which is what dissuaded me from joining). After the initial frenzied delight of catching up with several friends I thought had vanished into the ether, it's just become another site I check when the thought strikes me. I don't use it at work, which puts it on a par with Twitter or LibraryThing, as things that are nice to have around, but it wouldn't cause me immense pain to lose them (unlike this blog, which is like a finger at least).

So what's wrong with it? Well, first of all, it seems to be a bells-and-whistles, belt-and-braces, jack-of-all-trades, how-many-more-bloody-cliches-can-he-squeeze-in bit of digital kit, part blog, part messager, part dating service, a sort of Web 2.0 WalMart. Which sound fabulous, but I've always been wary of things that claim to be able to organise your social life *and* cut your toenails; possibly something to do with my childhood crush on Professor Branestawm and his amazing contraptions that aimed to solve 10 problems at once and ended up causing 20. I'd rather have a thing that does a thing properly, and another thing that does another thing properly; but it's OK if all the doing things fit in one box.

There's something else, though. Facebook is all about connectivity, linking to people, poking them, throwing sheep and prog rock paraphernalia at your virtal chums. Actually putting things up for people to read or watch or look at or listen to, and upon which they can comment if they so wish, isn't such a priority. Contact is more important than content; compared with the blogosphere proper, there's far more talk, but it's ultimately *about* less.

And it's also essentially closed off to those who don't feel the urge to join, whereas everyone knows the best thing about blogging is the lurkers. (Hi guys, you're all beautiful!) So for those of you who remain resolutely unfbooked, here's something I put up there as part of one of those daft tagging bouts we bloggers grew out of a couple of years ago:

25 random things about me

1 The period/full-stop key on my laptop appears to have stopped working, which may account for some interesting typographical phenomena in this note

2 I have lived on three continents

3 But I have thought of London as 'home' since 1990

4 I have three corns on my left foot

5 Sometimes I have to slap myself (metaphorically) to remind myself that I'm not a failure; I've achieved several things that most people haven't and won't

6 Yesterday I saw the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, which was far better than I was expecting, albeit it rather grim

7 I sometimes find myself grasping for specific words; "synergy" is one

8 I dislike shaving but I'm not that keen on having a beard either, because it itches

9 I tried contact lenses a few years ago and it wasn't a success; I am happy being a four-eyed gogglebox

10 If I could have lived in any other era, it would have been in the 1920s/1930s

11 But I would have wanted to hang out with Waugh and Eliot and Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald and groovy people like that; I'm well aware that most people in the 1920s/1930s didn't do that sort of thing

12 For a brief period in my early teens, my favourite films were Hellzapoppin, Skin Game and Mr Forbush and the Penguins

13 Pathetically, my only episode of shoplifting was taking a single barley sugar from the pick 'n' mix at Woolworths, but I put it back a few minutes later

14 I am a bit of a fence-sitter in the Middle East conflict, in a "hey, why can't you guys just sit down and have a coffee together?" sort of way

15 I don't like fizzy drinks

16 I don't believe in God, but I do like and admire several people who do; I think Richard Dawkins can be as prescriptive and obnoxious as many religious fundamentalists

17 Raspberries are my favourite fruit

18 I can't believe how much TV I used to watch

19 Yesterday, I had an idea for a new blog, but it will be quite time-consuming, so it may have to wait a few months

20 I really ought to start running again

21 My favourite teacher and my favourite dog died within days of each other

22 I firmly believe that what Bangkok needs right now is a few more reasonably priced Spanish restaurants

23 I haven't really offered up many deep dark secrets in this note, have I?

24 I think I probably don't have any

25 Which may be the biggest revelation of all

Monday, February 02, 2009


A couple of nights ago, I had dinner with the saintly Noel Sharkbloke at a newish restaurant that makes much of its adherence to feng shui principles. This would appear to necessitate water features, fake torches, lights so dim the waiters wouldn't be able to see you if you set off a distress flare, very low seating, slightly-too-loud sub-Cafe-del-Mar-type music and several video screens. But the food was nice, and Noel is always amusing company, on account of his being Canadian, and looking a bit like James Joyce and all that. And we weren't paying, which is even better.

At one point, I noticed that one of the screens was showing some sort of documentary about a restaurant kitchen, a jolly coincidence that I pointed out to Noel. I was also very impressed by the quality of the picture coming from the flat screen.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

When one of the cooks in the documentary handed a plate out through the screen, and I realised it was in fact a serving hatch, I wondered what dear old Baudrillard would have made of my instinctive preference for the image over the real. And I guessed that Baudrillard would probably have done what Noel did, which was to sigh gently, and suggest we order dessert.