Friday, January 30, 2009

HECTOR'S BALI TIMES DIARY [for Jan.30]

The Bali Times is at www.thebalitimes.com


Hector Gets a Makeover
THE Diary looks a little different this week. That’s because globally syndicated Australian cartoonist Sean Leahy – he has known your diarist for years, poor bloke! – kindly agreed to create a caricature to give the scratchy old bird a bit of a buff.
We like it. We hope you do.

Leahy (that's him in the "Leahy by Leahy" sketch here by the way) draws daily political cartoons for the Courier-Mail newspaper in Brisbane, Queensland, and other News Ltd papers and creates the Beyond the Black Stump cartoon strip that is syndicated Australia-wide. Originals of his cartoons are held in private collections including at the Vatican and by filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

But his best qualification from The Diary’s perspective is that he knows our island, has explored it in detail, and loves Bali’s friendly people. We look forward to seeing him back here. If you’d like to look at more of Leahy’s work, visit his website: www.leahy.com.au.

Psst ... Anyone Want to Buy an Airport?
IT’S fascinating to watch the developing dogfight over the future of Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport and the proposal to build a second airport in the north of the island. Vice President Yusuf Kalla has ordered that expansion of Ngurah Rai must move ahead and be completed by 2011. Well, he is one of Indonesia’s richest men. So perhaps he’s going to put some of his own money into the project. Governor Made Mangku Pastika, in contrast, has announced that development of a second airport – probably in Buleleng, handy to Lovina and the embryonic tourism prospects in the north and north-west of Bali.

The Veep – reasonably – is coming from the position that Ngurah Rai is at capacity and on growth forecasts needs to expand its terminal space. The larger problem is that the runway cannot handle fully loaded jumbos carrying full fuel loads. It isn’t long enough and cannot be extended. The Governor – also reasonably – suggests that tourism development and thus economic benefit is denied to north Bali because of the focus on the south.

It all needs money, of course. Maybe that’s not a problem? It also needs services – particularly power, PLN’s particularly special area of “inexpertise” – and infrastructure. Oddly enough, that needs money too. And everything depends on tourism growth. At least in the short term – we hope not for longer – things don’t look all that bright there. The Bali branch of the Indonesian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (ASITA) is tipping a drop of between 30 and 40 per cent in American and European visitors to Bali in 2009, because of the global financial crisis. In 2008, ASITA says, an average of up to 5000 Americans and 40,000 Europeans a month came here for holidays. Take 40 per cent off those figures and things look rather dicey. On the other hand, there is a silver lining. The vastly reduced supply of wine and spirits available under the Jakarta-inspired let’s-go-dry plan might be better able to cope in circumstances of lower demand.

The Bali Tourism Authority, by the way, has seen the red light. It has reduced its forecast total visitor numbers for 2009 from a super-optimistic 2.1 million to a merely optimistic 1.8 million. In 2008 total foreign visitors were a record 1,968,892.

Out on a Limb
THE more perceptive among the Bling and Bolly Brigade – as well as the more rat-cunning – will have experienced a shiver of something less than delight over the future of Bali multi-dwelling properties in the new global economic circumstances when they heard the new terms on which the Outrigger MC2 property at Seminyak is proposing to market its product.

It’s basically cutting entry prices to its timeshare condos by half, doubling the time owners can stay there each year, trimming charges for doing so, and still promising a return on investment rate that’s high (though no more so than others) and full ownership of condos in 10 years.

According to the property website Property Report Asia the developers are calling it the FIFTY50 Investment Opportunity, That’s a marketing ploy and good on them. As is the Hawaiian chain’s pitch that the time to buy is now because of price increases built into their development plans for both the MC2 project and the Outrigger Panorama Resort and Spa on the Bukit.

But they should not be surprised if some people decide it’s too good to be true. The sound rule of caveat emptor dictates that something that looks too good to be true probably is.

Cop an Eyeful for Life
THE Diary’s eye was caught the other day by a news report that suggested ogling women’s breasts was good for you. That’s in the medical sense, apparently. A survey indicates that staring at breasts improves men’s health and makes them live longer. And even better, a 10-minute ogle beats half an hour at the gym as a health improver. Indulging in this time-honoured practice lowers blood pressure, slows heart rates and reduces the risk of cardiac disease.

And that’s not all (it just keeps getting better!): if men do the ogle thing regularly, they can extend their life by up to five years. That’s according to the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (not your usual voyeur’s newsstand pick), which reports results from a five-year study of 200 German men.

No word on whether having their breasts regularly ogled does anything for women, though.

Unlawful Polemics
THE Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, whose objectionably peculiar right-wing sentiments apparently persuaded him there was value in making a short propaganda film accusing the Koran of inciting violence, faces prosecution after an Amsterdam court ruled he should be tried for inciting hatred and discrimination.

Wilders is one of those strangely blighted characters who can look at life only through shattered glasses. He’s not alone there. Many of the more intemperate Islamic critics of the west suffer the same affliction. Equally strangely, as a lawmaker, Wilders has expressed surprise that Dutch law provides for the prosecution of nut-headed hate mongers.

His film, Fitna (a Koranic term sometimes translated as strife), intersperses vision of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and other bombings with quotations from the Holy Koran. The Diary declares an absence of interest – in seeing the film or wasting time on hateful polemic masquerading as reasoned analysis – but it does seem extreme to prosecute someone for having a defective grasp of religious matters and a singularly divisive understanding of fundamental human values. But then, such sanctions are not unique to Dutch laws that mandate prosecution of silly politicians, are they?

On the Wrong Track
MICK Dodson, the affable Australian academic and Aboriginal activist who has been named Australian of the Year 2009, used the occasion of his award to call for his country’s national day – Australia Day, January 26 – to be moved to another date because for Aborigines it constitutes the anniversary of what he terms the end of their world. It celebrates the beginning of European settlement with the arrival of the First Fleet – that’s the one that carried the first load of transported convicts from Britain – at Sydney Cove in 1788.

There is no chance Australia Day will be moved; even less, probably, than there is of changing Australia’s national flag to remove residual confusion with that of Britain or misplaced assumptions that the land down under – where women glow and men chunder, as that old sing-along by the Australian rock group Men at Work delightfully puts it – somehow remains a British dependency, like the Falkland Islands, perhaps.

No one who reads history would fail to understand that the Aborigines were dispossessed, subjected to discrimination and worse, and that they remain the country’s most disadvantaged community. But Australia in recent years has made great strides in accommodating the Aboriginal presence – a movingly spiritual one in the ethos of the land – and in recognizing and honouring Aboriginal myth. There’s a lot of work to be done before the Aboriginal community as a whole can rightly be regarded as having an appropriate place in Australian society and in its economic and social future – but none of that will be advanced by fiddling with history.

A Bit of a Purple Moment
Mark Lynch, who blogs at the excellent Foreign Policy website, writes this of the Big Bunfight, Obama Day, in Washington last week:

A reported two million people watched Barack Obama's inauguration today. I, unfortunately, wasn't one of them ... See, I went to the show with a few friends who received excellent Purple tickets as a reward for untold hours volunteering as foreign policy advisers for the Obama campaign. We got down to the security checkpoint for the Purple section bright and early (I left home at 4am), and were guided into a long tunnel which had been closed to traffic. We waited in line for nearly four hours, in a claustrophobic tunnel with no porta-potties, no food or drink, and not a single official or volunteer in sight. Finally, we got within sight of the Purple Gate -- only to find that it had been closed. Thousands of people in front of us hadn't gotten in (not that anyone bothered to tell the people languishing in the tunnel that the gate had been closed, mind you). Thousands of purple ticket holders were behind us. It's remarkable that there wasn't a riot. I rode the metro home with a lot of people who had been turned away, including an elderly African-American woman muttering over and over to herself that it had been one of the worst experiences of her life.


Point of Ordure
AND here’s U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making a useful point as she arrived for work on her first day at the State Department, about American foreign policy under the new regime: “There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy: defence, diplomacy, and development. And we are responsible for two of the three legs. And we will make clear, as we go forward, that diplomacy and development are essential tools in achieving the long-term objectives of the United States. And I will do all that I can, working with you, to make it abundantly clear that robust diplomacy and effective development are the best long-term tools for securing America's future.”

That sounds good. But she might want to avoid stepping on that stool.

Neighbourly Links
ALONGSIDE the high profile, high news value elements of the symbiotic relationship between Indonesia and Australia, many practical things bubble along nicely, essentially out to view to all except those directly involved. So it is with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which has just marked 25 years of engagement in improving Indonesia’s agricultural output and thus reducing poverty.

Indonesia is Australia’s largest partner in ACIAR. This year ACIAR is investing A$11 million (Rp 8.25 billion) in projects and training activities. On Jan. 19, Australian ambassador Bill Farmer hosted a reception to mark the 25 years of cooperation – and presented ACIAR Indonesia’s long-time stakeholder manager, Mirah Nuryati, with the Australian Public Service Medal. Ms Nuryati has been in the job for 17 years.

Just Too Handsome for His Shoes
CARICATURISTS are said to be worried. President Obama is judged too good looking to provide inspiration for cartoons in the way poor Dubya, who was democratically dethroned on Jan. 20, served as fodder for some of their most biting commentary. A Belgian caricaturist, Pierre Kroll, said this: “It's never a gift for a caricaturist to draw a handsome man.”

The Diary harbours no such doubts. We’re sure caricaturists everywhere – including in Belgium, home of comic book culture including the incomparable Tintin – will soon find a tall-poppy-chopping way to depict The Man. One we know of discovered the secret long ago: Australian cartoonist Sean Leahy (see item one) produced this cracker way back in August.

Friday, January 23, 2009

HECTOR'S BALI TIMES DIARY [for Jan. 23]

The Bali Times is at www.thebalitimes.com

Top of the Pops
THERE was a British television drama series once called The Singing Policeman. It was quite good, even if the plot was a little stretchy. Later the Australians produced a drama called Changi (about the WW2 prison camp, not the airport), in which a similarly cerebral flashback singing format was used. The script muddled the history, but the series was entertaining and occasionally tuneful.

Closer to home, we have the Singing President. SBY has done this before, of course. Perhaps our first directly elected president didn’t really want to be a general and would have preferred to strut about the boards at entertainment centres, amid all those Dangdut stars. No matter. What is important is that he has decided to become a serial offender, musically speaking. He has launched his third music album featuring 10 original songs.

Of course, politics is all about making a song and dance of things. We quite like the concept of one of the songs SBY has created this time, titled “Selamat Berjuang”. That’s “Good Luck with Your Struggle”. Maybe he sings it to himself in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning. He does have that presidential election coming up in July.

Flagging a Problem
SPEAKING of elections, it’s good to hear that the Bali chapter of the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agents (ASITA) has called on the provincial government to beat back the littering of the island by the flood of posters, flags and billboards associated with the national legislative elections due in April. According to chapter chairman Al Purwa, these things are polluting Bali’s famed and tourist-attracting vistas with scant regard for their aesthetic impact.

He asks (good on you, Al!): “How is it that one person can place thousands of photographs all over the place? What for? If someone wants to campaign let them do so by sharing their opinion on how to repair Bali, not by putting up pictures that are unfriendly to the environment.” It seems tourists have made some sour comments about this uncontrolled blocking of the views they’ve come to see. Fair point.

Points for Frequent Flights of Fancy
YOU’VE got to hand it to the notional flag-carrier, Garuda. It says it expects a 30 per cent increase in profits this year with the launch of new domestic and international routes (not including its trumpeted return to Brisbane which it announced and then forgot about when it found its seats were unsellable because everyone was already flying Jetstar and Pacific Blue).

Its forecast is on the basis that the 18 new domestic and four new international routes it is starting up this year will help it towards a net profit of $US70 million (Rp765 billion, up from Rp589 billion last year). Garuda is also introducing 14 extra Boeing 737-800 aircraft to its fleet in 2009.

Obviously their notional planners aren’t taking the same market reading as other airlines around the globe, which are preparing for empty seats throughout their flying metal tubes and a virtual collapse of the high-end, high-price, business travel sector.

By the Lord Harry!
ASSORTED Bules of a liberal bent everywhere (Bule is a not-terribly-polite Indonesian word for someone of a naturally paler hue than is normally seen within the kampung) are said to be outraged over allegedly racist remarks by Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, says he thinks Prince Harry knows the comments – made in a private video recording three years ago when the Prince, then a cadet at Britain’s Sandhurst military college, was in post-training wind-down mode in Cyprus – are unacceptable. There’s an element of the mealy-mouth in that assessment, but after all, Gordon’s a pollie under some personal pressure at present. And he did add that the Prince’s apology when his lapse of judgment came to light was genuine and that in view of this and his service in Afghanistan (where your enemies use bullets, not words) he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Harry, now an officer in the Household Cavalry, was shown in the video asking “Where’s our little Paki?” of a fellow cadet – now an officer in the Pakistani army and a popular high-flier while at Sandhurst – and telling another cadet that the camouflage scarf he was wearing made him look like a Raghead, a derogatory term for Arabs in modern Britain’s ugly patois, but a word British troops customarily apply to the Taliban who shoot at them in Afghanistan. Even worse, it seems, he was videoed making a spoof telephone call to his Gran back at Buckingham Palace in London. Now that really is too much. Everyone knows it’s impossible to get past the switchboard operators there, especially if you ring up pretending to be Prince Harry.

There’s no doubt the young Lieutenant Windsor was in grave error. The chump clean forgot that nowadays you cannot joke at all, lest someone (it’s rarely the person who is the subject of the jest) becomes offended. Perhaps he was reminded of this significant fact when he fronted his commanding officer, which he had to do recently because of the silly row that erupted when the video found its way to the yellow press and got the egg-beater treatment.

Incidentally, one of Prince Harry’s fiercest critics was a gentleman called Keith Vaz, chairman of the British parliament’s home affairs committee and frequently described – doubtless to his entire satisfaction – as one of the country’s most prominent Asian MPs. He attacked as out of touch those people who had defended the Prince. “You cannot use language like that even in jest,” he said. “[The Prince] is third in line to the throne of England, he is a role model.”

Mr Vaz, by definition and residual hue, is not an ignorant Bule. But he is nonetheless apparently deficient in the knowledge department. Being a prominent parliamentarian, he should know that the monarch he serves (we hope loyally) is Queen of the United Kingdom. England is one part of that historic union. Perhaps, though, we should give him the benefit of the doubt too. It may be that in an emollient effusion of limelight-induced enthusiasm he quite forgot himself. It happens.

There’s a Local Whine Too
IT’S interesting to see that local wines – as in table wines bottled and partly grown in Bali – are not immune to the spiralling price of alcoholic beverages in pre-election Indonesia. Hatten wines, produced here, used to retail for just over Rp60, 000 a bottle. Now you can pay up to Rp160, 000 (although the Diary found some in a Sanur wine shop the other day for Rp81, 000).

Some of what goes into these wines – they are quite decent really, especially on a cost comparative basis – has to be imported and paid for in US dollars. But we hadn’t noticed a 100 per cent rise in the dollar against the rupiah in recent times. There’s inflation to take into account, to be fair. And the ruinous duty on alcoholic products, now seemingly being paid rather than evaded. But at the same time, when we uncork this little bottle we catch a whiff of an opportunistic nose.

Smile Along with Dubya
FORMER U.S. President George W. Bush, now quietly back at home in Crawford, Texas – where we assume that, as promised, he is re-learning the art of making coffee for former First Lady Laura – had to put up with a lot during his eight years in office that ended on Jan. 20. He particularly enraged the commentariat – worldwide – by his steadfast refusal to accept that terrorists (of any stripe, but particularly Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 crowd) are, like Brian in that delightfully sacrilegious Monty Python film, just very naughty boys. Instead he held firmly to the antediluvian view that they are maniacal mass murderers. He was further condemned for consistently failing to accept that the West alone is responsible for all the world’s ills.

As he left office, the Israelis and Hamas were again proving that politics in the Middle East are just a little bit difficult. Very few of the world’s problems can be immediately solved by accepting the advice of the Ernests and Ernestines who fell whole forests to fill the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and sundry other newspapers and journals in other liberal places with fulsome and often fatuous opinion. Or for that matter by Bono, who knew Frank Sinatra, as he told us in his New Year debut guest op-ed piece in the NYT.

The former President, however, while he made horrendous mistakes in office (and publicly accepts this, which alone is a breath of fresh air in modern politics), is saved as a man – and on balance as a historical figure, despite his hysterical record – by his ability to laugh at himself. Would that some of his perennially brow-furrowed critics could do the same.

Take his last media conference at the White House – it was on Jan. 12 – just for example. He told the assembled press corps that he proposed to find something quickly to get busy with when he left office (aside from making the coffee). “I just can’t envision myself, you know, with a big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, sitting on some beach ... particularly since I quit drinking.”

The better points about GWB are consistently missed by his critics. Also absent is any real recognition that – whatever the rhetoric – 9/11 really did change the world. It was rather sad to see Boris Johnson, one of Britain’s more enterprising Tories, joining the “Dubya was Dumb” brigade for the poisoned valedictories. Boris, now Lord Mayor of London, is best known for his incautious habit of celebrity bonking and his deep appreciation of the tart – in all the senses of the word. It is always as well to examine the mote is one’s own eye before pointing out those in others'.

Hard-wired on Instant
COFFEE freaks (like The Diary) have been warned. Consuming the caffeine in seven cups of instant coffee a day leaves you more likely to see, hear and smell things that aren't there. This is according to British researchers who, as part of a study designed to examine nutrition as a factor in hallucinations, found that people who drink at least 330 milligrams of caffeine (a stimulant) a day are three times more likely to have see things than those on less than 10 milligrams a day. Disembodied voices – perhaps it’s the Editor, asking himself why he hasn’t got the column yet? – are said to be a feature of caffeine induced hallucination, as well as seeing things that aren’t there and sensing the presence of dead people.

Points for Originality
IN the Wall Street crash of 1929 failed or malfeasant tycoons jumped out of windows (well very few did in fact, but like many Hollywood inspired fictions it’s now accepted as fact). In 2009 they do it differently – or at least, one of them has tried to. A fellow called Marcus Schrenker, some sort of junior Bernie Madoff according to the American press, attempted a particularly spectacular getaway as his life of scheming and defrauding crumbled around him. He hatched the idea of faking his own death in a plane crash.

Flying from Indiana to Florida – that’s about the same as from Bali to Jakarta, just incidentally – he radioed a distress call from his single-engine plane, telling air traffic controllers a cockpit window had imploded leaving him bleeding profusely. He then put on a parachute and jumped from the plane at 750 metres. Waiting for him not far from where he landed in a desolate area was a prepositioned motor cycle.

Sadly for him this scam – like his other ones – turned sour. Military jets scrambled to intercept his plane in the hope of providing assistance to the injured pilot reported it empty with the cabin door open. The man without the golden parachute was nabbed by a local sheriff a day or so later.

It’s a Bugger, Isn’t It?
LEADING independent Australian economic analyst Chris Richardson, director of Access Economics, speaking on ABC National Radio on Australia’s immediate fate as a result of the global economic crisis, brought some typically forthright and coarse Aussie lingo to the debate when he said the Australian budget was “buggered”. He explained: “A lot of things are buggered because the global economy is in real trouble. Four years of boom has collapsed in four months of chaos.” We note Australian Treasurer (finance minister) Wayne Swan immediately disagreed with this assessment. He said while it was true the budget was headed for deficit, it wasn’t buggered. We’ll see. Perhaps it’s just upside down in the swamp with its wheels in the air?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

HECTOR'S BALI TIMES DIARY [for Jan. 16]

The Bali Times is at www.thebalitimes.com

Barry’s Big Day is an Indonesian Event
WHEN former Jakarta schoolboy Barack (Barry to his Indonesian school chums of yesteryear) Obama takes the oath of office as America’s President on Inauguration Day (Jan. 20), history will be made. He will become the first American President with a real live Indonesian connection. That makes the circus outside the Capitol Building a kind of step-Indonesian Event.

To some people, he’s the FAAP (First African American President). To others he’s the NAC! (Not Another Clinton!) and to most he’s the NTOG! (Not That Other Guy!). To himself, he is the First Mutt: a delightfully self-deprecating way of pointing out that he is of mixed race. Race seems to be so important to many people. Most sensible people – oh, OK, apparently that does seem to rule out around 99.9 per cent of the world’s population – think character is much more vital statistic.

Never mind. In Washington this coming Tuesday the historic occasion will be observed first hand by the husband and one of the cousins of Yana Trisulo, a niece of Obama’s step father-in-law, Lolo Soetoro. How close a connection is that? Yana was invited but cannot attend because her father is in poor health. Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, moved to Indonesia and married Lolo after Barack’s dad fled the nest in Hawaii and returned to Kenya. She and Lolo had a daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng.

The Indonesian interest doesn’t stop there. Actress Ayu Azhari will also attend the big show. It seems her husband, Mike Tramp of the American musical group White Lion, has ties with the people organising the Obama Occasion. Officially, Indonesia will be represented by Ambassador Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat. Teams of American protocol people have been working on that name-tag and pronunciation.

Meanwhile, the real interface of Indonesian-American relations is potentially facing some strain because of the newsworthy – if highly impractical, profoundly unhelpful and irredeemably stupid – desire of several thousand Indonesians to rush off to Gaza to fight the Israelis and the not unconnected political need, locally, for leaders heading into next year’s national elections to flourish their Islamist credentials.

The deadly complexities of post-1948 Middle Eastern politics have ever since bedevilled the world. That history, briefly, has consisted of the Arabs scoring own goals and the Israelis moving the goal posts: the faults are fatal and ubiquitous on both sides. It’s hard to see any reason to provide Hamas, which has been busily screwing the Palestinians who have the misfortune to live in Gaza, with even more self-detonating bombers or rocketeers. Or how presenting the Israelis with yet more targets to justify their policy of aggression as self-defence is in any way a good idea. The Palestinian people, as always the meat in the sandwich, need practical help. They won’t get that from lengthening the already exhaustive list of convenient excuses the Israelis have concocted to justify disproportionate military action or from adding to the rollcall of Jihadist martyrs.


Chazza the Grabber Shows How it’s Done
THERE will be a mind-boggling oversupply of visual imagery about in Washington next week when Barack Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States. It’s just so important these days to get that body language right when you’re making a point.

Ahead of the game – and that’s definitely where The Diary likes to be – here’s a photo that caught our eye. It might be a dodgy photo. That’s as in a doctored one: we didn’t ask; we didn’t want to; it’s just too good to miss. Visually speaking, it has it all: clear intent; inclusive motion; evident enthusiasm; and its message is right on the button (or very nearly!). Britain’s Prince Charles tends to get a terrible press. But Chazza is an old pro at the PR game even if – speaking only ornithologically of course – he’s apt to make a tit of himself from time to time.


Do Drop in for a Big Pitch
THE Ramachandra development on the Bukit – the hilltop site near Balangan now cleared of both bush and wild dogs where the company proposes to build dream homes with sweeping views for the foreign moneyed classes – put on a big show in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 14 and 15. It sent round an e-circular to its list of contacts suggesting that those who still have the spare dosh should consider a New Year resolution to take more holidays in Bali, preferably in “an affordable luxury home in one of the best international destinations in the world.”

We wouldn’t argue with that assessment of Bali’s charms and place in the world. And despite the fact that marketing success for Ramachandra could mean car-loads of Malaysians will add to the round-the-clock chaos at the Nirmala crossroads on the road to Pecatu and Uluwatu, it’s a development to be welcomed. Maybe one day the nutheads who some months back destroyed the development’s expensive promotional signpost on the Balangan road will think so too.

They’re LOHFE-ing Again
CONVENIENCE stores are meant to be convenient, right? They’re there to provide the passing trade with the kind of things people tend to run out of at inconvenient times: milk, biscuits and chocolate; and even cigarettes, if you can bear the stares of the Smokeless Ones. That’s at a handy little mark-up of course. Sadly, as The Diary has noted before, these are the very items that one is likely to find oneself putting on the LOHFE list – the List of Hard to Find Essentials.

Thus it was that a visit to the Circle K store on Jl Raya Uluwatu near GWK on the hill at Jimbaran was such a disappointment for a Diary spy the other day. UHT milk and Dunhill Blue were required. So sorry, no have. Apa problem? Shrug. Great service, guys.

Luckily for him, our spy wasn’t in there for anything else that might once have been on the nearly-empty shelves.

Ooh La Laarrgghh!
HERE’S American commentator David Rothkopf on the frighteningly unknown kinetic qualities of the American economic collapse: “This is a particularly worrisome scenario because whereas a friendly downturn, like a friendly can-can dancer, shows its bottom early, this has been a very unfriendly downturn. No one can honestly say they know where the bottom is. The problem is made worse by the fact that in one key respect, an unfriendly downturn is also like a can-can show, because before it is over it may show a lot of bottoms.”

Speaking of Bums
WELL if it’s OK for car makers, why not the porn industry? America’s princes of prurience, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and Girls Gone Wild video series creator Joe Francis, have asked the new U.S. Congress for a bailout – to “rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America,” which they claim has been sagging of late. Francis said in a statement: “Congress seems willing to help shore up our nation’s most important businesses, and we feel we deserve the same consideration. In difficult economic times, Americans turn to entertainment for relief. More and more, the kind of entertainment they turn to is adult entertainment.” Flynt and Francis, who admit the US$13 billion a year filthy pictures and video industry is not totally pointing south, sought a US$5 billion bailout from lawmakers.

Yes, well. No need to guess what two-word response was going to meet that pitch. We’ve all heard of the Continental Congress that set the United States on the road to independence from Britain in the 18th century. But a Sexual Congress is unlikely. Libidinous lawmakers everywhere invariably assert, when caught in indelicate circumstances, that sex is a private business.

The Blair Which Project
ALL has been revealed. The reason Barack and Michelle couldn’t get rooms at Blair House, the official government guest house in Washington, until Jan. 15 – only five days out from that big bash where Barack gets to say the pro-forma words required of a president at his inauguration, the crowd gets to go wild, and then everyone gets down and grooves, was that the former Man of Steel, ex-Australian PM John Howard, was in town to collect a gong from Dubya. Apparently he had lost his notes, and thought he was the Man of Steal. It seems the White House, for some reason similarly forgetful of other priorities, invited the ex-Australian PM to check in at Blair House instead of at any one of the over-supply of super-plush hotels somewhere else in town. Howard did so of course, overlooking the inclement fact that in western democracies former leaders pack about as much throw-weight as kitty litter while being of marginally less utility.

The fatuous little row that then erupted, chiefly in Australia where all sorts of summer-season commentators leapt at the chance to aim another kick at the country’s No Longer Dear Leader, but also among the more rabid of America’s media mouths-for-hire, has been entertaining in a mindless way. Although this New Age habit of giving out gongs just for turning up for work is itself a little tiresome. The Diary proudly bears the post-nominal NG (No Gong).

Howard was one of three dear leaders (two former, one current) who lined up this week to get the Medal of Freedom from soon-to-be kitty-litter George W. Bush. His companions were that other forgotten war-gamer, Britain’s ex-PM Tony Blair – no prizes for guessing why he opted for a Washington hotel instead of the official guest house: it’s never a good idea to confuse the doorman – and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez.

A Plague on Unromantic Scientists
LOVERS the world over will be saddened to hear that the veteran British rocker Bryan Ferry was right on the money when he sang that love is a drug. So much for Shakespeare, you might say. Or maybe not: the rejected Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” does suggest in her soliloquy – so OK, self-servingly – that “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.”

Scientists, of course, are not romantics. They find out all sorts of terrible facts and then blab out the horrid details, regardless of our feelings, or whether or not we would rather dream on. Now one of them, an unromantic fellow called Dr Larry Young, a neurobiologist at Emory University in the United States, has worked out – and told us (damn him!) – that love is simply a chemical reaction, a combination of circuitry and neurochemicals. How boring is that?

It was much better when it was the mysterious subject of most music and art; when it was left unfettered to consume people's narcotic-free waking moments; and when it created a gapingly inexplicable hole upon its precipitous departure. Where is the magic in learning that love is not a many splendored thing at all, but just an evolutionary event, something chemically induced to keep pairs together? Dr Young has a lot to answer for. He says – wet blanket that he obviously is – that what we know as love is really just something that comes about “through a series of chemical reactions that happen in the brain, so a certain number of chemicals reacting in certain parts of the brain."

And the news gets worse. He made this entirely regrettable – and thoroughly forgettable – discovery while working with North American prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster), which habitually cohabit in volishly loving pairs. Prairie voles? For goodness sake! The good doc should get a life. And he might even keep it for a while if he stays away from his little mates. The chief impact of prairie voles, cross-species speaking, is that they are a leading reservoir in North America of pasteurella pestis, the unpleasant micro-organism that causes plague in all its several nasty forms.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

HECTOR'S BALI TIMES DIARY [for Jan. 9]

The Bali Times is at www.thebalitimes.com

Perhaps Not Tonight, I’ve Got a Headache
ACCORDING to the Bali AIDS Commission, the proliferation of “kafe” outlets (small, generally suburban and rural places that serve up gutrot alcohol, eardrum-destroying music and dangerous sex) is putting Bali at risk of an HIV epidemic. The commission says many of these places employ willing waitresses who will put out for a modest (perhaps that should read an immodest?) emolument and don’t bother with sensible things like condoms. But then their clients don’t bother thinking with their brains either, and therein lies the problem.

It beggars belief – well it would almost anywhere else than in Indonesia, perhaps, where turning a blind eye to illegality in return for corrupt considerations or payment in kind is a political and bureaucratic art form – that such places are permitted to exist unchecked. At the very least, it is a public health issue and – as the commission says – operators who propose to profit from prostitution should be made to provide condom vending machines.

Such machines are ubiquitously found in places of entertainment all over the world. In Britain, you can’t walk into the lavatory in a pub without running into Latex Lane. Some machines are apparently multi-role. A Diary spy in the UK reports sighting a vending machine at one alehouse where buttons one-to-three and five-to-eight give you – for a fee far deeper than the short pockets of most Indonesian sex-seekers – a range of products that promises protection as well as unlikely enhancement of your forthcoming experience. Button four gets you Nurofen tablets.

Days of Whine and Ros├ęs
FRESHLY back from a brief trip to Britain where, according to Michael Burchett, general manager of the Conrad Hotel at Nusa Dua and chairman of the Bali Hotels Association, a glass of wine costs 20 to 30 per cent or even 50 per cent less than it does in Bali (it was nice too!), The Diary returns to the topic of Indonesia’s Sick Joke de Jour, the ridiculous liquor situation.

We’re all in favour of stamping out corruption – goodness, The Diary even has that special anti-corruption hotline number on speed dial in the mobile phone, just in case some nattily-uniformed whistle-blower tries to get heavy – but there’s more to the drink drought than a commendable (if shinily new and arguably tinny) focus on malfeasance.

Burchett, interviewed on the Australian ABC radio programme “AM” back on December 19, had this to say about the situation: “The challenge we have now in Bali is that a glass of most wine will cost you, you know 20 to 30 per cent, maybe even 50 per cent more than what you'll pay in London or New York or Moscow and that doesn't make sense for Bali so we need to fix that and fix it quickly.”

That’s it in a nutshell: It simply doesn’t make sense. And we need to fix it quickly. If the real issue is the immorality – Koranic or otherwise – of drinking alcohol, then those who think so should front up honestly, gird themselves with the courage of their considerable convictions, and say so. But as Burchett says – and we’re sure responsible drinkers, resident and visitor alike, would agree – it just doesn’t make sense for Bali.

We need to put out an urgent all-points bulletin: Find common sense! Quickly!

Cursors! It’s Done it Again
THE lords of cyberspace, those irritatingly unreachable entities who govern matters such as whether your internet connection works or not, have a horrid way of blighting one’s life. You go away for a week, leaving your expensive wireless gizmo wotzit thingo at home for a rest. You come home and try to connect, only to discover that not only has your fair-weather friend Wifi had a rest, but has apparently left the building.

Well, no. It’s physically there. It’s just that while the lights are on, there’s nobody’s home. They blink at you, just as they are supposed to do. But you find that in your absence you have become “local only”. That’s just fancy computer talk for “you’re cactus.” You interrogate the network setup. It tells you that you cannot communicate with your DNS. As any internet user can tell you, without access to your DNS, it’s as if you’ve never been born. You wonder why (well briefly, because there’s no point – you know this from bitter experience – questioning the behaviour or motivation of cyber thingies). You do what your ISP always tells you do: basically disconnect, count to 10, and reconnect before you blow your own fuse. You try this several times. And the little blighter still doesn’t work.

You’re paying a mint for this premium service. A whole circuit, let alone a fuse, is about to blow about that. You ring up the help line operated by your pricey provider – though clearly unwillingly, only 9-to-5 Mon-Fri, and strictly on the basis that anyone who calls must be a mental defective – and they tell you to disconnect, count to 10, and try again, because everything looks fine at their end. Been there, done that, you cry in exasperation. Why would I put myself through the agony of calling if I hadn’t already tried to fix it, you clowns, you feel like saying; but of course do not.

Your laptop computer has been away on your trip with you. It worked perfectly. You fiddled with nothing. You certainly did not change any “parameters” (whatever they are). Although you did use other wireless networks. Is this the problem? Is your Wifi sulking because it thinks you’ve been seduced by some other comely little gizmo?

It’s Not on the Cards
WE HEAR that on one Pacific Blue flight from Bali to Perth – pre-Christmas, prior to the holiday rush, and on a fortunately less than full plane – someone forgot a crucial essential: the immigration cards you have to fill in on board before the fearful Aussies will even do you the honour of confiscating your peanuts. Not the sort of thing that the upfront Brit entrepreneur Richard Branson, chief of the Virgin Empire of which Pacific Blue is a small antipodean part, would like. At all.

A Whole in One?
GOLF has always been a mystery to The Diary. It is a mystery deepened by the fact that whenever – and this has been very rarely – a golf club has been wielded (always in jest, never in anger), the ball flies straight and true off the tee: That is, for 50 metres before it turns sharp left and disappears forever in the thickets that line the fairways.

So it was interesting to hear from an old friend recently who told us a delightful little tale about the game the Scots claim to have invented (their weather being so foul you have to lash out madly at it with sticks). He says he was asked to play in a golf tournament and at first said “Naaahhh!” But then, he says, the organisers got on to him and told him: “Come on, it’s for handicapped and blind kids.” He adds: “Then I thought: I could win this.”

The Lady had Bite
NEARLY 50 years ago, when apartheid (“separate development”) was at its most horrid heights in white-misruled South Africa, the quiet courage of Helen Suzman became a beacon, an emblem of decency and hope, for all those who opposed the concept that one race should lord it over another and who were horrified that this pernicious denial of human rights was being meted out by the closed (and small) minds of the Afrikaner community.

She was one of a small number of white South Africans who publicly criticised the apartheid dreamed up by the Afrikaner community, Africa’s only “white” tribe, to protect themselves from economic and political domination by black South Africans. Sadly and sourly, it was a dispossession too many English-speaking South African whites happily acquiesced in as a means of securing their own short-term advantage. Apartheid was and remains the direst taint upon the whole 500-year history of Europe’s global diaspora.

For 13 years (1961-1974) Suzman was the only Progressive Party member in South Africa’s whites-only parliament. Through this time she never failed, as far as possible, to investigate the often tragic consequences of apartheid legislation. Although she represented an affluent white constituency, she saw herself as an “honorary ombudsman for all those people who have no vote and no Member of Parliament.” Within months of her retirement in 1989, she had the pleasure of witnessing the collapse of apartheid and the introduction four years later of parliamentary democracy.

So it was sad to learn she had died on New Year’s Day, aged 91. A light has passed from the world. But Suzman’s legacy, one shared with the gallant band of white South Africans who stayed to confront the Apartheid regime at home rather than running for the safety and comfort of overseas exile, exists in the free South Africa of today. The country is governed by the African National Congress – though perhaps not for long since true democratic freedoms have now generated new and competing political dynamics – in a deliciously enlightening riposte to the Afrikaner dinosaurs who ruled their own particular bit of Earth for far too long.

Suzman was a liberal in a South Africa that, in those days, routinely punished and even terrorised such soft thinking. She was a parliamentarian whose uniqueness was not just that of her own strength of character, but also of her friendless singularity in what should have been the people’s parliament. It was the Jewish Suzman in parliament, as it was the Anglophile Donald Woods in the media and the Jewish activist Joe Slovo in the “terrorist” African National Congress, who kept alight the flame of decency and who gave the lie to hardline Afrikaner myopia. There were many others – pre-eminently ANC leader Nelson Mandela from his Robben Island prison but, let it always be noted, Afrikaners among them – who similarly worked to ensure that the “Afrikaner putsch” finally ended.

It’s not just today’s South Africans but the world that owes each of them thanks for courage, conviction and commitment to humanity far beyond the call. They all bit the Afrikaner dog. And Suzman, paradoxically perhaps because of the essential gentleness of her nature, bit it hardest of all.

Our Macaques are Little Sweeties
RESEARCHERS say studies indicate female macaques utter 13 times more friendly communications (with other macaques) than males, in a further advancement of the cause of feminism (primate branch). That’s good to know. The Diary will be sure to let Angelo Sanfillipo and his little friend Lulu at Dream Village on Lombok’s lively Gili Trawangan in on the secret. Especially Lulu, whose friendly macaque habits include rapid-reaction raids on lady’s handbags. Cigarettes and lighters are a favourite target. We think she thinks she’s Marlene Dietrich.

Incidentally, we’re indebted to that earnest English journal for worry-wort chatterers, Prospect, for this essential update on dinner-table conversation topics.

What a Blast
NOW here’s something that helps put the global financial crisis in proper perspective. A team of astronomers in Western Australia is cock ‘a hoop because they’ve just captured an image of the explosion of a star 11 billion years ago. That’s how long it took the flash of light from the event to reach us here on the third rock from the Sun. At that rate, Earth’s problems seem infinitesimal indeed.

There’s an interesting sidelight to the story, too. The team’s expensive computer-controlled digital camera system, integrated with the telescope, went on the blink at precisely the wrong instant in intergalactic time – so they had to record the show on a video camera.

A further thought occurs: This event would doubtless completely mystify the one in five students who took the basic science British GCSE exam last year who believes the Sun orbits the Earth (and who cannot even have heard of Galileo). Not to mention the similarly challenged one in 10, sitting the same senior school exam, who did not know that a rechargeable battery could be used more than once.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

HECTOR'S BALI TIMES DIARY [for Jan. 2]

The Bali Times is at www.thebalitimes.com


Some Handy New Year Advice
THE Diary does not believe in New Year resolutions. They are self-indulgent recipes for disaster. Born of unfounded hope, they are almost invariably destined to die of neglect in three days. Instead, we like to focus on keeping safe, being nice to the neighbours – in the broadest sense of that term – and having fun.

So here’s some handy New Year advice for those of you who have to drive on Bali’s roads – at random, which is how most drivers in Bali do it; or regularly, therefore making mandatory the practice of clasping some favoured protective talisman tightly to your chest.

1. Indonesia notionally drives on the left. Always veer left if approached from any direction by a yellow truck, a petrol tanker or a bus driving at speed and maniacally. Unless it’s on your left, in which case you’re toast. And that’s if you can see it in the cloud of black smoke all trucks and buses produce so that potential victims cannot identify the registration plate or the driver.

2. Indonesians actually drive all over the place: wherever comes to mind is the rule. This is especially so with motorbikes (see below).

3. White lines have nothing to do with keeping left or even (what a concept!) in lane. They are driver testing devices: you get brownie points if you can keep your vehicle centred over the white line.

4. Most Indonesians ride motorbikes: On your right; on your left; up your clacker. Motorists are supposed to know the road rules (we think). Motorbike riders are exempt from this requirement.

5. No one turning out onto busy roads ever looks right. They might see the approaching traffic. Nor do they stop. That could cost them valuable points in the highly popular national Shit-That-Was-Close near-miss competition. (There’s a tour drive company in Bali, clearly an honest one, whose fleet of people-carriers is proudly decaled Naramis Transport.)

6. On the open highway (ha!) a vehicle flashing its right-turn indicator (a) may be turning right, though this is highly unlikely; (b) might be saying it’s safe to pass (it never is); (c) could have a driver who has activated the indicator by mistake while sending text messages on his mobile phone; or (d) may be thinking about turning left, eventually; say in 10 km or so, or perhaps next year.

7. Traffic lights in Indonesia go amber before they go green (if they’re working). All Indonesians have an undetectable chromosome that compels them to hit the hurry-up-in-front horn before the light goes amber. The further back in the queue they are, the more ahead of the game.

8. Most intersections have free left turns on red. Don’t stop there if you’d planned to go straight ahead. You will spark a riot and a policeman will materialise from nowhere and demand large sums of untraceable currency.

9. Everyone goes straight ahead from right-turn lanes at traffic lights. That is, except for the buzzing cloud of motorbikes on your left, and an occasional yellow truck: these will turn right, across your bows, as you pull away. Use your hazard lights to indicate straight ahead. It never means you’ve broken down (most Indonesian vehicles are beyond repair anyway).

10. If you hear a siren, it may be an ambulance out trying to run down some customers, or it could be a huge police escort for the shiny new Mercedes limo of the acting deputy assistant under paper-shuffler in chief. If the latter, assume that the unintelligible high volume staccato you’re hearing from those loud-hailers means “get out of the way NOW” and do so. The difficult bit: guessing which point of the compass they will come from.

George, You Were a Shoe-In for a Laugh
PRESIDENT George W. Bush, who vacates the office on Jan. 20 but keeps the title for life because Americans, whose Constitution officially denies them the dynasties they crave, need to venerate their former elected kings, got a bad press for most of the past eight years – no, make that all of the past eight years – and in many instances quite unfairly. But then again, he had this habit – we’re sure it’s a Texas thing – of making himself a target, although only lately for irate Iraqi journalists with throwaway shoes and masochistic desires to investigate rumours that the “New Iraq” police might have changed their long-standing policy of beating up miscreants.

Dubya, as the header gabblers of the media dubbed him for his mangled middle initial, often generated irritation of shoe-throwing levels. The Diary got heartily sick of hearing him say he was going to bring people to Justice – we checked, thinking this must be in Colorado; but it’s actually in Mingo County, West Virginia – when he meant Gitmo (as in Guantanamo Bay, site of America’s eternal shame). Never mind, shortly he’s off to Truth or Consequences. That’s in New Mexico, by the way. It’s just a short taxpayer-funded Former POTUS plane ride away from his home at Play Ranch, Texas.

He was provoked of course. No one can ever forgive that certified nutcase Osama bin Laden for being such a sour little rich Saudi frat boy that he went off and founded his own chapter of MMA (Mass Murderers Anonymous), or that silly Saddam for not seeing the writing on the wall or even that Mars Bar on the night table in his funk hole.

Bush did bring so many of his problems on himself. But never mind. He also gave us a laugh, and not just because as a Harvard MBA he would never have spotted that American-generated global meltdown coming, or the Wall Street crooks behind it all. Here at The Diary, we’re still rolling around the floor at his Dec. 16 statement on same: “I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.” We are indebted to Slate Magazine’s “Bushism of the Day” chuckle corner for the reference.

At the same time, in the fatuous fashion of modern politics, it has become the custom of the commentariat to focus on what they hate without retaining the objectivity to see beyond their own moral blindness. Bush has a self-deprecatory sense of humour that many people – and especially his blinder critics – could usefully emulate. His gag at the Dec. 19 unveiling of his presidential portrait (see photo) is a case in point: “I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging.”

We’ll miss you, George. And anyway, we’re fresh out of shoes.



Exit Stage Left
HAROLD Pinter, the English playwright, actor, political activist and Nobel Prize winner, who has died aged 78, was a man who played many roles over the years. That he was a focus – and of course thought himself the locus – of Leftist mindset was never in doubt. His plays were compelling; his social and political arguments less so. That’s not a partisan judgment: human society advances through the arguments put forward by great minds and Pinter was, if nothing else, a great mind.

Unfortunately, like many on the Left, he would brook no argument with his positions. The Left was right. The notion that the good thinkers of the collective soft Left could ever be wrong was never one that entered his brain. He said in his Nobel acceptance three years ago that “the crimes of the US have been systematic, but few people have talked about them.” For cant and total rubbish, not to mention a complete absence of historical perspective, you can’t beat that comment for plain stir-crazy.

He was a better commentator when thinking out loud about the trade that he practised with such compelling talent. He said – again in his Nobel speech, a masterly presentation – that “a writer’s life is an almost naked activity. You are out on your own, out on a limb.”

He also said – in a moment of naked honesty whose fundamental irony, given it came from him, that he likely missed – that language in art is “a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool that might give way under you, the author, at any time.” So true: And as he also said, “the truth is illusive, but the search is compulsive.” Quite so: It’s essential, too. Playwrights with searing talents like Pinter are very rare. Fellow-travelling political guerrillas like Pinter – unfortunately – are two a penny.

Deep Throats
TIME and tide, as that inescapable aphorism puts it, waits for no man. Numbered in the clutch of notables who left us at the end of the year – Pinter above, Eartha Kitt (of whom more below) among them – was Mark Felt, who died at 95 on Dec. 19. Felt was not an entertainer, although he was responsible for Richard Milhous Nixon, prissy-faced president and foul mouth extraordinaire, being even more inventive than ever with his strange hobby of cussing on tape. He was Deep Throat, the man who arguably did more than anyone else to protect democratic values in America in the 1970s.

It is a tribute to his unimpeachable honesty and uprightness that he told friends six years before he finally revealed himself in the pages of the magazine Vanity Fair – decades after the event – that he was ashamed of being Deep Throat, the man who exposed the Watergate scandal by doing what grubby little politicians – like Richard Nixon – never want people to do except if to their benefit: by leaking to the media. He had no reason to feel ashamed.

Another deep throat who assuredly was an entertainer was the American Eartha Kitt, the singer Orson Welles once described as the most exciting woman in the world. She was 81. Kitt rose from poverty to become not only a singer but also a dancer, actress and self-professed “sex kitten”. She made herself one of the most remarkable and distinctive entertainers in the history of cabaret and the light musical stage.

Matt’s Place is a Great Spot
THE Diary spent Christmas and the week up to New Year in Darkest Old Dart, aka Britain, which Indonesians know as Inggris because – as the regrettably non-dominant non-English native cultures of the British Isles know only too well – the English have always been a tad confused about their real place in the world.

The temporary domicile was the area of Lincolnshire on the east coast known as South Holland (it looks like it; it just lacks little boys showing commendable willingness to stick their fingers in dangerously leaky dykes). This was the home of Matthew Flinders, the British explorer-seaman who did everyone a favour in the early 19th century by charting much of Australia’s coastline and proving to early Aussie travel agents that development of a mass holiday market for Australians in Bali would have to wait for the invention of the aeroplane, because of that bit of water in the way.

The weather was on a cool side. Try 3C for your day’s maximum temperature and see how you like it. Getting back to Bali was a treat in every respect! But there were compensations, aside from the fact that if you’re a natural night owl, midwinter Britain is the ant’s pants: it’s dark until after 8am and dark again by 4pm. A better compensation was to find the Flinders Bar at The Black Bull in Donnington – it’s just over the road from The Black Swan, so Matt obviously got about his birthplace on his return from the antipodes with tall tales and true about the strange creatures he had seen there. How could a passing Aussie fail to drop in at the Flinders Bar? Well, this one couldn’t. And it wasn’t just because his favourite Scottish brew, Carling ale, was handily on tap.

OK, Holiday Over
THE Diary, as noted above, is pleased to be back home in Bali. The holiday’s over. It’s time for that other annual ritual: standing by with the mop and bucket for the monsoon rains with which the Island of the Gods traditionally greets a new year.