gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

If I didn't know better, I would have thought Tom Alday was actually an operative on the Republican Party's payroll. As it turns out, he, like so many other bloggers, is a political nobody. Maybe the Republican Party should recruit him as a cadre member?

Monsieur Alday recently decided he'd pick on me because I decided to respond to his trumpeting that terrorist attacks on American soil have not happened since September 11th. And that's supposed to mean that America is now a safer place than it was before September 11th. Now, it's possible that is true, but in the face of reports that measures to step up security have fallen way below recommended levels, you could either claim that the recommendations were way excessive and the few hundred officers patrolling the US-Mexico border are adequate, or concede that more could be done, America is not really that safe, and the terrorists have just decided to give it a pass for now.

I happen to think that the latter is true, that the terrorists are just waiting, or are analyzing America for weaknesses and deciding how to exploit them to the full. As long as the terrorists remain at large, that's exactly what they will be doing. Terrorists fight using guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics, but it is not merely so primitive. They're not about to make random hits that may yield little damage if they could choose instead to make one monster hit that will shock the world. And that need to pick and choose is further driven by the fact that terrorist activities cost money.

So terrorists have not hit America again in the last four years. That's not bad. But does that mean America is now out of the terrorists' crosshairs? Most people would say no, or a tentative, improbable maybe. They've come and gone, and they may come again, until and unless the tangled mess that is Arab-American relations gets resolved satisfactorily for both sides. And even then that may not yield permanent security that doesn't need to be tended to and cared for. Until that day comes, America remains a target, and it needs to be vigilant. The terrorists have proven to be quite resourceful when it comes to new ideas on how to carry out their attacks, so it would be unwise to underestimate them and think the danger is over.

And that was my point. Terrorists will wait for a good moment to strike. Opportunities may abound now, but they're waiting for something better - whatever that will exactly mean, only they know - and that's not the same as saying they've given up and gone somewhere else. Because in all probability, maybe they haven't. And if indeed they haven't, and they find a sweet spot to hit anytime in the future, that would mean more American lives lost. And one casualty in the hands of terrorism is one casualty too many for anyone to ignore.

Of course, Monsieur Alday, ever so willing and ready to discredit anyone who isn't on his side by using a personal line of attack, decided I was in his crosshairs. To be fair, given I'm loosely on the same side as Ian McG (another guy who gets on Monsieur Alday's nerves) and Zac (whose blog has to endure so many comments of the same make from Monsieur Alday), I've come to expect it. And frankly, I don't really care if he likes to believe that I hate America just so it'd give him an excuse not to intelligently process my comments.

Because I know that I don't hate America. Nor do I love it with all my heart. I just don't feel that much for it, which is no surprise given I don't hold US citizenship, and I'm not in a hurry to apply either. But then that's a third state, and in the dichotomous black-and-white world of myopic bigots, everything's in strict binary, and third states - even 'uninitialized' states - are not permitted, because that'll overcomplicate things.

So Tom, here's something for you. For the purposes of all conversations between you and I, it may be assumed - nay, it must necessarily be assumed - that I hate America with all my heart, and I want the terrorists to win yesterday, today and tomorrow and turn this world into a fundamentalist Islamic state.

That, even though I am fiercely agnostic and enjoy eating roast pork.

gambitch [ 5:36 AM]

Friday, July 08, 2005

The big news of the moment, of course, is the series of explosions ripping through London. This, on both the morning after the city won hosting rights to the 2012 Olympic Games and the morning of the G8 summit - ironically hosted in northeastern Scotland, though Tony Blair chairs this summit.

With no one owning up for the dastardly deed, and not a phone call to the police in London, it is actually unclear which of these two events this terror attack was aimed at. Had London not won the Olympic bid, at least it would be easier to tell. But it does allow for some shuddering possibilities, chief of which is that if this was aimed at the Olympics, then the swiftness of the attacks can only mean that the plotters were ready to activate any of five sets of bombs. London was lucky it had been prepared, even if the explosions could not be prevented on this occasion. Think what it'd be like if it hit Moscow!

(Update: A new group linked to Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility on its website. This remains unverified at the moment.)

The bombing happened in the northern and western sections of London, not the East End where the Olympics are planned to be held, so unfortunately they aren't doing the Brits a favour the way the IRA bomb in Manchester inadvertently led to a rejuvenation best symbolized by the Urbis building. But few can doubt that the London Olympics team and the IOC will draw upon the moment and further steel their resolve to make the London Games a success. Good for them, and good for the Olympics.

Similarly, Blair has already released a statement condemning the attacks and vowing the G8 will not be scared into submission. And while we can justifiably believe George W. Bush won't be doing much more than shout out his utterly empty rhetoric, Europe will likely be stirred into properly doing something. Yes, even Blair, the so-called lapdog of the Yankees, can be expected to seriously hold his convictions and actually do something to tighten up security against terrorists. After Madrid, and now this, how can we possibly expect nations in Europe not to unite in their efforts to combat such acts of terror?

London mayor Ken Livingstone made a strong condemnation of whoever did this. "This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary working class people." Everyone was hit, regardless of race, religion and social status, bang in the heart of the city while people were commuting to work. This wasn't done next to Downing Street, or for that matter in Gleneagles, Scotland. This was aimed to maim and kill ordinary civilians.

Fortunately, because it was happening in subways and on a couple of buses, the extent of damage to the city's buildings is actually rather small. This should point to a quick recovery in all areas except probably public transportation. This isn't good news for London in particular, given how notoriously overworked the public transport system is, but we will have to see how London gets around losing the tube for a couple of weeks. I believe the British can, mostly because they have to.

gambitch [ 12:03 AM]

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Local journalists have suddenly discovered that dodgy massage parlours have found their way into public housing estates and within easy reach of all manner of customers. I say suddenly, because the blunt truth is that this is not at all a new phenomenon. Indeed, one article admits that one shop they checked out has already been open for a year. And the reports are making their way into the local press only now?

I should also say that the print media is lagging some way behind television, for a television programme did an expose on Chinese women doing massage jobs on the side - their main job is supposed to be taking care of their children, who are actually studying overseas, not in China. And this was easily six months ago, probably much longer. The print media sure took very long to pick up the story.

That is, depending on which papers you have been reading, and in particular what language those papers are written in. For surely one of the seldom-realized facts of the journalism business in a multilingual society is that the language of the paper has a direct link to the kind of news issues that get coverage. Sure, major national issues make their way into newspapers of all languages at the same time, with little difficulty. But ground issues reflective of the way society is moving don't all get the same coverage. On this occasion, the Chinese language press has probably been streets ahead for the simple reason that a major group of protagonists happen to be women of various ages who are from China. And since their clientele never really included people of other racial and language backgrounds, other newspapers have not quite picked up the story.

But this digresses from what I really wanted to talk about. And that's the sheer shock at how long it took for these intrepid rookies to realize that this thing has been going on for quite some time, and I'm not talking six weeks. If these things were happening right in the suburban heartlands, and not some well-tucked corner among the trees - there've been stories of those in the past, too - surely they ought to have known about these things much sooner?

A few logical conclusions may be drawn. One possibility is that journalism today involves sitting behind office desks and waiting for people to call your news hotline, with little to no real frequent effort to take a tour around the neighbourhood, unless your definition of the 'neighbourhood' is limited to prime landed property, and you do all your shopping at some expensive downtown supermarket chain rather than the local outlet. In short, the journalists don't know their land enough to spot the strange developments, like vice or abandoned old folks.

Which is partly why I enjoy my current status as someone who isn't office-bound five days a week. I use that free time to, among other things, tour the ground. It can be surprisingly informative when it comes to just what's going on in the neighbourhood. And if one day I should ever enter the world of conventional journalism, I'm hoping to retain that touch so that I can break a story much sooner than these guys do.

But not every news article makes it to print. Which brings me on to the second possible conclusion - that editors, for any number of reasons, didn't take up the story in the past, despite the shock and horror potential this story had in terms of people suddenly feeling morally threatened. Those reasons may include space constraints - which is kinda dumb, because we're not in the business of publishing 200-page newspapers anyway - or just a lack of editorial interest. But this is one of those instances where the reason isn't sinister and doesn't feed the imaginative minds of conspiracy hacks. No, the reasons aren't usually nasty, just plain dumb.

Maybe some of these journalists actually go to such seedy massage parlours. Shame on them, sure, but they're ordinary journalists, not Dan Rather. We can shame them, but we don't have to shame them out of a job. This is not that big a deal to the point where not reporting it actually benefits the journalist, or editor, or whoever's up there.

There is a particular strain of journalism that really enjoys telling stories about ordinary people and their ordinary lives, bringing to our attention conditions like alopecia, or plights of specific poor individuals who haven't had water and power access for years because they haven't paid the bills. That's good journalism of another order, different from reporters who cover political and business news, but there's something a little off about journalists covering stories of the old beggar who uses the money to buy alcohol, but miss out on the whole dodgy massage parlour story.

But enough of my whacking of the press for now. Let's turn to the issue of dodgy massage parlours itself. Like I said, it isn't actually all that new. These joints have been around in the last three to five years, maybe easily longer, and their encroachment into heartlander territory isn't something that has gone altogether unnoticed, even in the press. Indeed, if you bother to go through the classified advertising sections, you'll see some of these massage parlours putting up little ads in the papers.

Quick filler for non-Asian readers: In this part of the world, lower- to middle-class residents generally live in some form of apartment housing, rather than owning a house in the suburbs. And in many cases the residents actually own the apartments. It can be a bit cramped sometimes, but it's not all bad. The main point to be made about concentrated high-rise residential housing is that the high population density leads to a need for close access to basic retail space, like groceries or cheap diners. Having previously stayed in a French town for a month, I am aware that low-rise European towns (not big cities, but mid-sized towns) are laid out rather differently. Among other things, you don't have the convenience of running downstairs to get access to 7-Eleven.

So why are these people so upset about these dodgy massage joints? Much can be made about their moral conservatism, as is normal in self-styled 'Asian societies'. We don't talk about sex much, except in the context of having children. Sex for its own sake isn't something we're supposed to talk about, even though nowadays, we actually do. And I'm not just talking about young people. But there's still something taboo about discussing sex-related stuff.

But it is not just about moral conservatism itself. Hong Kong has long been familiar with the presence of prostitutes working out of apartments, with bright signs touting their services. They're a public nuisance that normal residents in the area have to live with, but live with it they do. Why can't we?

Part of it is because the sex trade over here is supposedly very well-managed, if that management is done so effectively it becomes rather un-obvious. While prostitution remains not a fully legalized trade, and local girls generally aren't particularly motivated to go into the line, the local government actually does allocate small areas for brothels to set themselves up. It's basically a concession of the fact that you can't stamp out the sex trade altogether, because like the food industry, there'll always be buyers and sellers. It's not a luxury the way, say, hobby fishing is a luxury. And although calling non-marital sex a necessity may sound inappropriate, in light of this necessity-luxury dichotomy it is difficult to think of a third description that fits decently in-between.

But while that concession - which a really morally strong society would rather not make - has been made, in doing so the government has decided to settle for what they believe to be the next best thing, namely, provide tight management through clearly demarcated red-light districts. Nothing too complicated there, just zoning policies reflective of this government's trademark penchant for organization and management efficiency.

A by-product of such zoning arrangements is that it leads the locals to think, "Right, you're looking for some hanky-panky? Go there. Now leave the rest of us alone." Because a special parcel of land has been specifically zoned for sex-related businesses, it leads to the corresponding mapping in the reverse direction, particularly for the sex industry, which over here in Asia is generally a stronger residential NIMBY (not in my backyard) than it is in Europe and America.

The problem is, when you've got a government that is both supposedly morally conservative (that seems to have changed in the last 15 years in increasingly unsubtle ways) and well-known for being organized, residents are more hopeful that the authorities can do something to wipe out encroachments defying the zoning arrangements. That's why they shrugged their shoulders and learnt to live with it in Hong Kong. Here there's the belief that the irritant will eventually be removed by a government known the world over for its incredible levels of efficiency.

But why do these dodgy massage joints mushroom up in the first place?

Firstly, of course, there is demand. It's the sex industry, for crying out loud. And then there's the rising population, which only adds to the demand, and doesn't subtract from it. When demand goes past a certain critical mass, people will want to start supplying to that demand. And we're long past that stage.

As for supply, that's rather easy. Massage is probably one of those things that are easy to learn, though not easy to learn well. I'm guessing, because I've never actually read any books on the subject. But to be able to do a proper massage that is seriously effective in relieving stress and soothing the body requires, among other things, a combination of sheer physical strength and decent technique that applies that strength in the right doses at the right points. Otherwise you might end up having a less-than-properly effective massage. That's why nowadays there is a certification process of some kind for wannabe masseuses.

Thing is, if you're really a sex establishment operating under a different guise, you would suppose the vast majority of customers aren't going to fuss about getting a less-than-proper massage because that's not what they're looking for, and the few that actually aren't looking for sex either can't tell the difference or won't report you to the authorities because that's just too much hassle. They probably won't come back either if they want to look for a proper massage that actually gives them relaxed muscles, but that loss of business isn't going to be particularly crippling. In short, you don't have masseuses of a certifiable standard? That's probably okay with you, and with the customers, who are after something else anyway.

And there are people willing to do the job, if it pays well enough. Which of course links up to the whole exchange rate and standard of living thing. Not that I've to go through this particular point at length, suffice to say strong exchange rates make it lucrative for people from relatively impoverished places to go elsewhere to do something that is morally dubious, even if it's just another form of prostitution. (And we've been there before some months ago when I talked about Chinese prostitutes soliciting in neighbourhoods, even though I didn't point this out so explicitly that time.)

Which leaves us, then, with the final aspect - how do these guys get to set up shop right in the heartlands? The answer, rather simply, is a sustained depression in retail space occupancy, brought on in part by those ubiquitous shopping centres featuring supermarket chains and lots of retail space inside them boxes. Of course, rising rental rates collected by the authorities for rental space is also a contributing factor. These shops tend to run on small profit margins, mostly with the aim of keeping the family fed. Or have you forgotten the old days when lived on a street where each family owned a shop and ran a business, like confectioneries, groceries, or dairies?

With these old-style shops increasingly shutting down or barely clinging on, suddenly we're looking at retail space that isn't used, and just because it isn't being used, it doesn't mean it will conveniently go away. Remember, I mentioned earlier this is high-density housing we're talking about, and the retail space often occupied the ground floor, and sometimes the second floor too. We can't just knock those buildings down and turn them into parking lots. So we're looking at lots of empty shop space. Enter the massage parlours to fill the void.

And, frankly, they could be so profitable that they're not going to want to leave in a hurry, unless we see other, morally more legitimate businesses coming in to take their place. The alternative is a tightening up of management and policing by the authorities, but while that will possibly chase them out, they will also leave the retail space unoccupied. We might never succeed in totally eliminating those seedy massage parlours, but in a way that's not what public housing residents really want. They just want them out of their neighbourhoods. So the trick is, quite simply, how to get someone else to move in. Then let existing zoning policies do the rest.

gambitch [ 12:15 AM]

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

In a matter of hours, the five bids for hosting rights to the 2012 Olympic Games will be presented, and the votes will be cast. Strangely enough, for an event that routinely gets plenty of hype, I'm not excited. And I'm a sports fan!

Maybe I'm not watching enough news to feel the excitement, or maybe it's just that the boring thing called life has just sucked it all out of me. Whichever city gets it doesn't really make any difference to me. It'd be too expensive for me to think of doing an Olympics holiday, especially after hearing how Greeks were shipped out of Athens so that last year's homecoming Olympics would run smoothly. The authenticity just isn't going to be there when that kind of thing happens, or when commercial activities like roadshows or big tent parties are going to spoil the sweetness.

Maybe it's also the fact that the five bidding cities are all clustered in the West. Although, practically speaking, that's almost to be expected, after Athens last year and Beijing in 2008, we had to be moving back to a First World city pretty soon. Not to mention how most Third World cities may have a problem affording an Olympics. Yes, I know, various Third World countries have put in lots of money to host a Miss Universe pageant, but the Olympics are in an altogether different league when it comes to the amenities required. You can't just use an existing hotel.

Who do I think will get it? I haven't made time to think much on the issue. However, looking beyond the hype and star power being summoned to back the bids, there are one or two useful observations.

They're all saying Paris are the hot favourites. Pardon me, but I really don't know why. Maybe I'm not reading the papers much, so I don't understand the strength of the French bid. I don't actually know much about any of the bids anyway, so you'll have to pardon my puzzlement.

New York is a good choice, if for no reason other than the powerful symbolism that it will generate about recovering from Sept. 11 and stuff like that. Fortunately, the event is in 2012, well after Bush ends his presidency - unless he changes the rules. Unfortunately, 2012 is also an election year in the US, so I would have concerns over the state of the nation at that point, at least politically.

I'm not keen on the London bid, mostly because I don't know what their selling point is. Well, sure Wembley will be re-opened by then, but it's not going to serve as an all-purpose stadium now, is it? And I think we'll be seeing massive interruptions to the football calendar if London does get it. To be fair, Paris and Madrid may run into the same problems, but there might be some way to sort that out. But that's such a small facet.

Moscow is claiming the advantage of the lowest costs. I don't necessarily think that's going to earn it the delegates' nod. It's a good bet for a first-round exit, because apart from the cost advantage I'm struggling to think of reasons to go with Moscow. The city is not exactly safe - Russian mobs, Chechen rebels, the lot, all pose problems. And as exotic as it is, people may have reservations over how Anglophone or Francophone the city is. Petty reasons perhaps if you're not a tourist going there to watch the games, but delegates might use that excuse to justify to themselves not to go with Moscow.

I actually think Madrid have a decent chance, despite the recent ETA bomb incident. The Basque separatists are probably disciplined enough not to make trouble for their Spanish compatriots during the Olympics itself. Otherwise it's going to work very badly against them. Oh, and Barcelona hosted a pretty successful Olympics previously, haven't they?

Then again, like I said, it's not going to make any real difference for me. It can be any city for all I care. I'm probably not going there anyway. So what's the fuss?

gambitch [ 6:37 AM]

Sunday, July 03, 2005

There's something surreal and perhaps a little joyful when you realize that Lawrence O'Donnell, credited as someone who previously worked on The West Wing, is now a political analyst with MSNBC, and in particular has a role in identifying Karl Rove as the big bad guy based on his reading of the Cooper e-mails.

In case you missed the news, Time Inc. reporter Matt Cooper has turned over some correspondence, and some of Cooper's sources have been identified. And O'Donnell believes Karl Rove is one of them.

Go get the bad guys, Larry!

gambitch [ 10:48 AM]


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