Others

Storked Begets Rattled

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Last April, when my book came out, Christine Coppa invited me to come in and guest blog on her ridiculously popular weblog Storked! which is part of the Glamour magazine empire. Speaking of Glamour, I wrote a little piece for them years ago and while I don’t remember what I said, I do remember they paid $3 a word. Good times. Good times.
Anyway, I digress.
Storked! came about when Christine – a professional, single New Yorker in her twenties – got herself a little pregnant and decided to keep the baby. Because her story was not written by the folks who gave us Knocked Up, there was no happy ending where all loose ends are taken care of. In fact, the guy who did the ‘pregnatin’ bailed. As a result, Storked! documents the life of a professional, single New Yorker in her twenties opting to have and raise a child all on her own (though with priceless familial support). In general, I consider Christine very lucky in that she gets paid to write about her life. She’s almost as lucky as Jack Nicholson, who gets paid a fortune to play Jack Nicholson.
Storked! turned into a book. That’s not easy. There was a time when all weblogs turned into books, but not anymore. Publishers finally learned that they couldn’t simply sell a book of collected web postings because the collected weblog postings were initially free. Because of this, writers must write brand new things to justify the price of the book. So hard! Rattled! is the account of Christine’s journey as a professional, single New Yorker in her twenties. However, it is not a re-hash of her weblog – it’s a memoir.
I am going to bet that it winds up being made into a movie. And I’m going to bet even more that the people pitching the movie are going to sell it as Sex & the City meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Juno.
Now that she has a book, Christine is a single mom & author. That might make her more appealing to Anne Coulter, who recently accused single moms of being the root of all evil. And all along I’d thought it was video games.
Rattled!: A Memoir on Amazon.

Outsourcing US Jobs Overseas: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Years ago, for reasons even now I don’t fully understand, I co-chaired a tutorial in political economic systems in a certain English university. This was unusual because I was not and am not an academic; I was not attached to the university in any capacity; I had a hangover of gargantuan proportions.
This particular college was renowned for accepting students whose parents were rich enough to send them to an Oxbridge university but sadly the combination of their wealth and genes had produced morons. Through the red mist of my hangover I was being confronted by 11 or 12 Paris Hiltons & George W. Bushs.
At the tail end of the Thatcher era the political mantras of free market economics had been firmly established. I started by suggesting that the flaw in many economic theories in their purest form was not the theory in itself but the ability to implement that theory i.e. a centrally planned economic model on paper could produce a utopian, perfect society but that if you actually tried to have a centrally planned economy it would collapse for lots of reasons, primary amongst them that mankind is venal, greedy and irrational.
I may as well have suggested that we end the tutorial, go to the pub, ingest a world class collection of illegal drugs and that the Hiltons & I then retire to my room for some vigorous group sex. Come to think of it, I might had more success with that idea. Damn.
Nice but dumb little rich kids that they were, they had a total inability to grasp the distinction between a theoretical economic model and what we laughingly refer to as the real world. The tutorial degenerated into a satisfying chaos of misunderstanding and confusion and myself and the co-chair buggered off to the nearest bar for a cure.

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An Average Mind

My brain demands an intellectual balance at all times. I have no idea why or whether anybody else has the same condition. For instance, if I’m reading a book written for grown-ups my brain will force me to watch endless crappy movies as if to offset the possible benefits to be gained.
Right now I’m reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author recommended to me by my youngest brother. A stunningly good writer, his beautiful prose meditates on Japan, war & philosophy conveying a strong sense of dislocation & alienation from contemporary life.
Unfortunately, I have also had the overwhelming urge to view:
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – a total travesty compared to the original graphic novel, featuring lousy special effects and a worse script.
Bad Boys II – unbelievably bad. Everything about this movie was indescribably awful and it went on for two and a half hours. Starting with the scriptwriters, who think funny banter is two actors shouting at each other, and ending with the director Michael Bay everybody associated with this picture should be publicly executed or at the very least never, ever allowed to make another motion picture of any kind.
Old School – as a rule I avoid any movie with a blow-up doll on the cover, especially if it’s a comedy. Blow-up dolls are never funny & let’s face it there are people out there using them for the purpose they were intended for (as opposed to being the basis for lame jokes in movies) which is just sad, tragic and more than a bit disgusting. That said, there was couple of funny scenes in general thanks to the surprisingly good cast. It also had Juliette Lewis in it, whom I have long maintained is in fact Tom Hanks in disguise – ever seen them in a movie together?
So is it worth being forced to watch such heroic rubbish in order to savour the pleasure of a well written novel? This urge to average my intellectual intake can be a good deal more traumatic. I read Camille Pagila’s published thesis Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson a few years ago. A deeply misunderstood and widely misquoted work, it is a pretty fascinating examination of the effect of sexual identity on the creation of art or indeed what the examination of art tells us about sexual identity.
The book systematically examines major works of art from the time period covered and, as I recall, has a particularly memorable chapter on Wuthering Heights. Pagila didn’t really mind the mis-quoting as it turned her into a highly paid media star/pundit as opposed to an unknown, badly paid academic (as an aside: Dr Kissinger was once asked why academics are so spiteful to one another and replied “Because the stakes are so low”). It’s a pretty long book and during it I was forced to endure the entire Jean-Claude Van Damme back catalogue, relieved only by the Steven Seagal oeuvre.
John Ralston Saul’s extraordinary meditation on the failure of the modern world “Voltaire’s Bastards: The dictatorship of Reason in the West”, actually extended my need to dumb down into the physical world, creating a serious compulsion to eat junk food whilst watching Chuck Norris lead the Delta Force. Did the chapter arguing how photography destroyed the need for representative art and led to the creation of the meaningless modern art movement really have to be counterpointed by the antics of the American Ninja?
Happily, right now all I have to do is think about nipplegate and I’m able to continue reading.

An Aimless Life?

Recently one of my brothers sent me a link to a website where you are supposed to list your top 50 goals in life both for yourself and as an inspiration to others. Here, in no particular order, are some of mine:
Invent a word & get it listed in the Common Oxford English Dictionary.
Learn to fly a helicopter.
Take magic mushrooms (again).
Learn to sing.
Fake my own death.
Start smoking again. It’s great.
Live to see faster than light travel proven possible.
Eat in a Michelin 3 star restaurant.
Write a fan letter.
Be the Band.
Prove you all wrong.
Invent something useful to more than 100 people.
Learn to speak Latin fluently.
Eat an endangered species.
Write a creepy, stalkerish fan letter.
Go to the Far East.
Teach the entire world the difference between irony, sarcasm & cynicism.
Make politicians understand that criticism is a good thing and not to be feared.
Get somebody else to pay for it.
Always speak freely.
Vote for someone I actually believe in.
Stop smoking again. Sigh.
Drive faster than 200 miles per hour.
Laugh in the face of adversity.
Get smart.
Make people stop confusing solemnity with wisdom.
Insult someone in Latin.
Never lick a stamp again.
Really understand Hex.
Live to see it proven that we are not alone.
Write a Batman story.
Get a Batman story published.
Write my own obituary.
Drink from the skulls of my enemies.
Sell the Eiffel Tower.
Commit the perfect crime.
Nearly meet David Bowie.

Failing To Be Intelligent

Finally it all becomes made clear to us. There are no WMD’s to be found and the fundamental argument to go to war in Iraq has been shown to have been totally without foundation. Hussein was a savage pig but regime change and the democratisation of the world by force has never, ever been a part of US foreign policy and it still isn’t. There is a long list of total bastards still in charge and not under threat from anybody. Gaddhafi was actually held up as an example of the effectiveness of the policy when he voluntarily disclosed that he had a nuclear program that was years away from producing anything, assuming he didn’t get caught in the meantime. Nobody’s talking about regime change in Libya even though it is yet another fun loving dictatorship which (unlike Iraq) has actually been proven to be deeply involved in International terrorism. Not just the Lockerbie bombing I might add, we had personal experience in these parts as Libya supplied vast amounts of arms to the IRA who went on to use them against such enemies of the state as shoppers & children.
The sheer cynical political genius of the Bush administration has moved to deal with the situation. It cannot be their responsibility that they went to war, so who’s to blame? Why the intelligence community of course. If they had not supplied all that wrong intelligence, they would never have declared war on Iraq. Bad, mean intelligence community.
I wrote about this issue last September, specifically the total lack of media comment as to the implications if the intelligence was actually at fault and not the motives of the Bush administration. It’s a stark position now: either the Bush administration & Blair knew the intelligence was weak but had other motives for attacking Iraq or the intelligence services have failed miserably.
There were a lot of people – 10 million marched worldwide – in a lot of countries who were not convinced by the intelligence at the time. If you recall, we were continually being told that there was unequivocal proof that WMD’s existed. Not opinion. Not balance of probability. Absolute, objective certainty. They never actually produced this proof and now we know why. Those at the time who questioned the Iraq policy were vilified in a way that has never been seen between supposed allies – rather than answer their questions or assuage their fears, they were either bullied or simply abused in schoolboy language doing untold harm to the relationship of countries that used to respect and rely upon each other.
This week Blair faces the publication of the Hutton enquiry report into the apparent suicide of Dr David Kelley, a weapons expert and member of the intelligence community, whom his government deliberately exposed when they discovered he was the source of some stories in the press about the UK government sexing up the intelligence dossier on Iraq. No doubt he will look to his American cousins and explain how it is all MI6’s fault.
“I actually think the intelligence community owes the president rather than the president owing the American people” said David Kay. “I’m not doing a Paul O’Neill” he went on to say. Quite right, what David Kay is doing is far, far worse.

Preaching To The Converted

It not just unbelievers who have the pleasure of undergoing pre-marriage instruction. In order to get married by the Catholic Church in Ireland, the hopeful couple must undergo a pre-marriage course. At the time we were engaged, there was a fair degree of choice in the courses that could be undertaken and, crucially, the length of these courses varied a great deal.
Faced with 2 hours a week, thirteen week sessions with the local priest we began to panic.

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Kazakhstan – How To Get There

Having successfully got my visa, pausing only to smile smugly at the angry South African outside the Kazakhstan embassy, I journeyed to Gatwick where the charter flight to Uralsk was departing that evening. I picked up my ticket, checked in etc. and proceeded to wait for the flight to be called. As anyone who has traveled outside what are normally described as first world countries can attest, one of the tricks to doing so successfully and with the least hassle of any kind is to adopt a completely open attitude to timetables and how long any particular process may take. True to form, we boarded the plane and sat on the tarmac for a little while. Eventually the pilot came on to say that we did not have ATC clearance for Kazak airspace. It’s worth noting at this stage the charter had been flying on the same plane every week for four years but Kazak ATC were feigning complete ignorance of the plane and everyone on it.
“We’re trying to get the paperwork sorted in Kazakhstan and we leave as soon as possible” announced the pilot.
“We’re going nowhere tonight” thought the passengers, knowing full well it was four hours ahead and thus past midnight in Uralsk. Sure enough, after making us wait for another hour or so (just for form) we were all booked into Gatwick Hilton for the night, one of the less well known Hilton daughters.
The charter was only for employees and contractors of an oil company, a joint venture formed between the Kazak government and several big Oil Co’s to exploit a very large oil, gas and condensate field in the North-West of Kazakhstan near, well, nowhere. As such, we all promptly went to the bar where I learnt that the most likely explanation for the delay was a local operator trying to muscle in the charter business which was currently held by an English low cost airline. The English company had won the business after a number of incidents (cracking windows/engine shutdowns etc.) with the local operator had led to a demand for a change. However, as can be seen, in true free market style the local boys were not letting these “minor safety issues” get in the way of encouraging the company to switch back.
Next morning, we got to take off with no doubt the right amount of paperwork having been filed in the correct brown envelope and delivered right into the hands of the appropriate official. It was a direct flight to Uralsk, made pleasant by the fact that the plane was less than half full. It was dark when we began our descent into Uralsk and thus came the first real evidence of the remoteness of this part of the world: as we descended there was no signs of electric light at all. Bearing in mind that the skies were clear, this gives you some idea of how sparsely populated the region is.
We bounced down the runway (uneven but thankfully no potholes) and were eventually let off the plane to begin stage two characteristic of customs & passport control in LDC’s and, from recently, the U.S. This is the weirdly long customs wait combined with much pointless filling out of forms.
Amongst other forms (Are you a terrorist? Yes or No – if you answered “Yes” are you not a very good terrorist or just an idiot? etc.), I filled out a customs declaration form on which you must list anything of value that you have with you and much it is worth in US dollars. This includes such things as wedding rings etc. If it’s not on the list you’ll run a real chance of having it “confiscated” permanently.
We came down the stairs of the plane to de greeted by an unsmiling woman in Military uniform (army, customs, police – who knows?) who gave us each a numbered card. This was to hand to passport control so they could work out if any passenger did a runner in the freezing cold darkness to the middle of nowhere, in a bid to break into Kazakhstan which should be a whole new concept from their point of view. We then went over to the terminal, which was a small two story building. We then sat & stood in the standard bare room on plastic seats queuing to go through passport control & customs which for 70 people has been known to take up to four hours. Nobody knows why.
Perversely, having been through many similar situations, once you get to the relevant official or whatever it never seems to really take very long. Eventually I got to the counter of the plywood booth containing an unsmiling woman in military uniform who took my passport, opened it, compared the photo, did some furious typing on her computer, asked me my date of birth, checked it on my passport to make sure vanity hadn’t got the best of me, more furious typing, asked me what company had sponsored my visit (there’s no such thing as an unsponsored visa – somebody in the country has to sponsor your visit), yet more typing, checked to make sure it was the same answer as everybody else on the private flight chartered by the local company and that I was not just some thrill seeker coming to the empty steppes of Kazakhstan, maybe she’s taking the opportunity to type a novel at work to make up for an undemanding job?
Picked up my luggage by climbing over the unmoving luggage conveyer & went on to customs which consisted of four trestle tables in a small room, two each side, leaving very little room for us and our luggage. Behind each table was an unsmiling man or woman in military uniform.
“Open Bag”
I opened it and he made a very desultory show of looking in it.
“Other bag”
Same story.
“Form”
Gave him the customs form. He clearly could read neither English nor my handwriting. That said, I can’t read my handwriting.
“Currency”
I showed him the $200 I had with me. He looked a little disappointed.
“Booze?”
“Nope”
“Cigarettes?”
“Nope” He’s looking even more disappointed now.
“Porno?”
“No” I almost said sorry – he looked so terribly sad.
He then dismissed me with that universal “you no longer exist to me, so please fuck off” air that custom officials the world over do so well. I went to the exit door where a pretty young woman jumped out at me, thrust a plastic bag into my hands containing an apple, water and sweets and wished me a “Welcome to Kazakhstan”.
I stepped out into the cold and dark.

Kazakhstan: Not very -stan like.

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If you got all the other -stans and put them together, the resulting country would still be smaller than this place: the 9th largest country in the world, with a maximum of about 20 million people living here. Basically, it’s empty and flat.
When the Mongol hordes came through they killed everybody in sight and continued on their merry way to the gates of Vienna. As the terrified citizens of Vienna awaited their certain slaughter, the hordes suddenly upped and left to go home for a funeral and a world class fight to decide who got to be King, etc.
They left their genetic code in this place though, and some of the locals enjoy a reputation for serious cruelness. I witnessed this at the embassy in London, where the following exchange took place in front of me between a South African and a Kazakh embassy employee:
South African: Hi, I’d like to collect my visa (hands over passport).
Kazakh Embassy: Thank you, please fill out this form and come back on Thursday (this was happening on a Tuesday).
SA: I filled out these forms and sent them in two weeks ago – I can’t come back on Thursday, I’m flying to Johannesburg tonight.
K: Thank you, please fill out this form and come back on Thursday.
SA (Becoming agitated): I just told you I can’t come back on Thursday and I sent the forms two weeks ago.
K: Blink. Impassive stare.
SA (More agitated): What are you going to do to sort this out?
K: Blink. Impassive stare.
SA: (Postively cross): This is ridiculous. I just won’t travel unless this gets sorted!
K: Blink. Impassive stare.
SA (Livid): Oh, for fuck’s sake. Leaves.
K: (Smiles.) Hi, can I help you?
Excellent people. More news from the front in due course.

It’s The Economy, Snoopy

Dogs are very important to the economy in New York. I don’t suppose many people realize this.
I hadn’t realized this for quite some time, but recently I was walking down the sidewalk as one often does here. The sidewalk is always covered in dog poop remnants from the folks that clean up after their dogs, and sometimes whole dog poop from the jerks who don’t clean up after their dogs. And there’s always lots of dog urine. Dog urine on every pole, hydrant and stationary object. My personal favorite is dog urine in the middle of the sidewalk, courtesy of the dog owners who can’t be bothered to get their pet out of the way of people traffic. While I expect to see trails of dog tinkle coming from a flower planter or building corner, the mysterious puddle in the middle of the sidewalk is always a joy. After I’ve walked in it, I try and tell myself some cute little kid dropped a can of soda.
Suffice to say there are plenty of dogs here. Why, I’m not sure. I would never live in a city with a dog. It seems cruel. They apparently serve two purposes: to help you meet people, and to accompany you shopping at Barney’s. I saw no fewer than four little ratty dogs tucked under the arms of their owners, like animated footballs, this weekend while at Barney’s. Why you’d take a small animal out with you while you shopped for an overpriced sweater is beyond me.
But, many cityfolk don’t agree. They love their dogs. They love shopping with their dogs, And they love to dress their dogs in overpriced dog sweaters and walk them on rhinestone leashes. That brings me back to my premise that dogs are very important to our economy.
In my neighborhood I can think of three businesses that cater to dog owners by selling them what you’d call upscale pet goods. These are places with designer doggie beds, doggie dishes and all the fixings so you can drag your mutt all over the city with his head jutting out of a Gucci doggie tote. These are very new businesses too, mind you, which to me would seem to indicate the economy is doing well. What better indicator of the city’s financial health could be better than the Dog Shop Economic Index? Certainly these things go out of business during real recessions or depressions. The fact that there are stores in my immediate vicinity where I can purchase an absurdly priced piece of dog clothing would seem to indicate that the economy is on the rebound. Maybe Bush’s tax cuts worked after all and folks opted to spend their $300 on a designer leash.
But that’s not the only dog-oriented establishment. There’s a dog spa down the street, and another not too far. In fact, I pass dog spas and hotels all the time. You can treat your dog to a day at the spa while you’re off working to pay for your dog’s lifestyle. If you’re called out of town, and presumably have no friends or family to watch your dog, you can put him up at the dog hotel and insure he’s well looked after. Then head out of town on your business trip – again, earning money so that your dog can live a life of leisure.
Pet walking services are in abundance as well. These are actually one of the greatest sources of under-the-table income for individuals needing to make extra money; actors, for example. I know several actors who have walked dogs, are walking dogs, or are talking about walking dogs in the near future. Walking dogs takes no perceivable talent, really. All you need are some flyers and scotch tape to start your business. If you’re fine with the poop-picking-up part then you have overcome the main obstacle.
I tend to think you shouldn’t have dogs, or children, if someone is not going to be around to take care of them, but I guess I’m old fashioned.
There are different levels of dog walking. The cheaper services are pack walkers who take several dogs out at the same time. I have also seen advertisements for “no pack walks” in the event your dog is above walking around with other dogs. This would seem to cater more to the ego of the owner than the dog, as I don’t think dogs really care if they walk in a pack or not. In fact, a pack offers more asses to sniff, so why wouldn’t they want a pack walk? I saw a flyer advertising dog walking services for $15 a day. Not being a dog owner I don’t know if that’s considered reasonable or not. But I think it’s totally insane, pack walk or not.
And so, in the midst of all this dog poop and urine, I have done something that I don’t normally do: I found the bright side. Now, when I look down and see a brown smear or trail of Schnauzer pee, I see dollar signs. I see a strong economy. I see entrepreneurial gay guys opening stores selling Prada for poodles. I see actors scraping up rent money.
And when I see a wrinkled woman with too much makeup, Jackie-O sunglasses and a sweater-clad Shih Tzu tucked under her arm, I no longer think she’s a freak show. I think she’s a freak show who is contributing to the economy and helping to make this city a great place to live. As long as you keep looking down.