Archive for September, 2009

24
Sep
09

Dan Brown’s Lost Syntax

 

O.U.Red.1.2.?

O.U.Red.1.2.?

At first I had a nice chuckle at this column, tearing into Dan Brown for crafting some awkward sentences.  

The Da Vinci Code, opening sentence: Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Angels and Demons, opening sentence: Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Deception Point, opening sentences: Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.

Professor Pullum: “Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence”.

 It does come off a little bit harsh and pedantic (especially the number one reason mocking Brown because Da Vinci was not Leonardo’s real last name…well duh, that’s how everyone knows him).  If you are a literary snob, it is not like you need any more evidence of why Dan Brown is a shitty writer.  He is no Thomas Pynchon, where literary critics breathlessly analyze every sentence to decipher layers of meaning, and he is also not as gifted as John Updike was with prose, but there is no doubt Brown knows how to spin a yarn.  Find me anyone who sells 80 million books, and you will find a sizable population of haters.  Thankfully, the internet allows them to share their mutual abhorrence, anonymously and vehemently.

 What I always say is hey, at least people are reading.  So maybe people won’t jump straight from Brown’s latest bestseller Lost Symbols (or Twilight or Harry Potter) into Ulysses.  But (hopefully) it might turn into a habit, maybe a copy of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.  Then maybe Blink or Watchmen.  Eventually they are flying through Hemingway and Vonnegut and the Brontë sisters, before tackling weighty tomes like Infinite Jest and Three Kingdoms.  Hopefully.

 Now if you insist on hating an author, I offer you Tom Clancy.  I admit to having read some of his books (Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October were quite entertaining) but as it became more evident how he held Asians in such low regard, I say: “Go to hell, Tom Clancy.  And take your half-billion dollar empire with you.”

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21
Sep
09

Watch Out For (Digital) Pickpockets

It Could Happen To You

It Could Happen To You

In this IT-intensive era, it is easier than ever to prey on the unwitting and too-trusting.   Risk vs reward makes the glory days of good old-fashioned bank robbery obsolete, when all you need these days is a fast computer running password cracking applications to embark on a new career as an information-super-highwayman.

In my opinion, identity thieves should all go to prison and be cast down with the Sodomites, so they know what it is like to be humped by a train.  But there are a few easy ways you can help protect yourself from losing your savings and good credit to a wannabee Morpheus in Shenzhen.  Or even worse, to your trusted personal assistant.

More Secure Passwords

 One of the easiest and best methods of creating a super-secure password is using a mnemonic device.  Take a sentence incorporating numbers that is easy for you to remember, and use the first letter of each word for the password.  For example, if you have a yahoo mail account you might say “Yahoo! It’s been 5 years since I quit smoking heroin” and translate that to yib5siqsh.  It is also a good idea to change your password every few months.

 Also, if you set up a security question, make sure you make it difficult for anyone to guess.  Would-be identity thieves can probably figure out where you went to elementary school and your favorite pet through your Facebook profile.

 Beware of Phishers

 Aside from emails promising longer, thicker cocks for your woman or asking for help getting millions of dollars worth of dubious funds out of Nigeria, a popular scam is phishing, or sending an email which appears to be from a bank or websites like eBay or PayPal asking you to confirm your account, usually asking you to enter your password and personal information.  

 In the beginning, these emails were very amateur, with dodgy spelling (like from Bonk of Amerrica) and slapdash format that made it easy to tell right away.  But nowadays, phishers are getting really clever.  When you hover the cursor over the link they ask you to follow, it might say www.bankofamericasecuritysite.co.tv or something official looking, but NEVER click on those links.  Besides directing you to a legitimate looking site designed to fool you into entering sensitive private information, it might try to upload a worm or spyware onto your computer. 

 The rule of thumb is this:  any email that asks to to update your account information by directing you to another site is probably a scam.  If in doubt, pick up the phone and call the institution in question about what they want from you.

Sharing is Not Always Caring

If you log onto a shared computer (say, at an internet café or hotel) to check your email or Facebook, be wary that a dastardly program called a keystroke logger might exist.  This embedded program records everything you type and could be used to mine sensitive information.  

To guard against this, you can add another layer of security when logging in.  If you are using a computer running Windows XP, you can open what is called a virtual keyboard, which pops up on screen and allows you to enter information with the mouse (which is much less likely to be tracked).  To access it:

 On the Start menu, Go to All Programs, then point to Accessories, then point to Accessibility, then Select On–Screen Keyboard.

 If there is no onscreen keyboard, a quick-and-dirty solution is using the Notepad application.  Open this and start typing a string of random characters which you can cut-and-paste into the password field.  As an example from our previous Yahoo heroin password example (yib5siqsh), you can type something like:

 fkas0Aas31yib5fb34nyfuckuidentitythievesiqshfs345fhellood

 Then, cut and paste your password from the gibberish (I broke it up here into two blocks to make it even more difficult).

 When you are done, you can also go into the browser menu and delete your browsing history (Delete Browser History under Tools for Internet Explorer, click ‘Clear Now’ button in the Private Data section under Options).

 Social Security is Not So Secure

For Americans, a unique social security number is still the most popular means of confirming identity when filling out official documents.  In reality, this nine-digit number was not meant to be a panacea for identification, and might even be guessed based on an algorithm of when and where a person is born. 

 That being said, it is the best they have for the time being, so be careful to whom you give this information.  It is often surprising how often you are asked for your social security number (or identification card number) when filling out questionnaires.  If it is not a financial transaction (like applying for a loan or credit card, or opening up a bank account) why would they need that?  Leave it blank, and if it turns out they really need it, they can call you and explain why they need this information just for a discount card at Sam’s Club or when opening a VIP membership at Poseidon.

 Secretary of (your) Treasury

 Having a secretary or personal assistant can be a boon, helping make your life more efficient and convenient.  Working with someone a long time, eventually a level of comfort and trust builds up where you might ask them to perform financial transactions on your behalf.  Speaking with many people who have been burned by such associations, it is clear you should NEVER completely trust an employee, especially when they have access to all your personal information.

 Here in Thailand, this kind of abuse is more common than you think.  A personal assistant can be hired for as little as 10,000 baht per month, and despite being given regular bonuses and raises in salary, there is often too much temptation for these employees not to exploit a generous and trusting (or oblivious) boss.  Just to illustrate, a very well-known Thai politician was unknowingly swindled for hundreds of thousands of baht when it was discovered his housekeeper stole an ATM card and had been withdrawing money from his account over several years, and I know a prominent businessman whose found out his assistant would take out a little something extra for herself whenever he asked her to make a withdrawal.

 What can you do to protect yourself?

 

  •  First, NEVER allow anyone to sign anything on your behalf.  Yes, it may be convenient to have your assistant withdraw money from the bank to take care of the bills if you don’t have time or if you are out of town, but if they start practicing your John Hancock, you never know where it will stop.

 

  •  Periodically check with the credit bureau.  Make sure someone has not been applying for loans or credit cards under your name.  There are too many credit card companies that offer easy credit to anyone who can provide the bares minimum correct personal information.  And who is liable for all that debt your cheating employee accrued?  If you cannot adequately prove a fraud occurred, then you are.

 

  • Make sure all your credit card and bank statements come to your home address and not your office.  If you are very busy and need someone to help take care of your bills, this way you can take a look at them before delegating, taking note of suspicious transactions.  Another option that is popular in the USA that will eventually become standard practice here in Thailand is paying bills directly online.  In the meantime, if I can not pay a bill directly, I often take care of it myself through my bank. 

 

  • Keep a tight leash.  Make sure you have all the relevant personal information of your assistant on file.  This includes a copy of their ID, home address, and registered residence.  If you have to go to the police to track them down, then all this information will come in handy.

 

Thai police can be deliberately obtuse and lazy, especially if you don’t have juice through family connections with politicians, police, and army.  The sad reality?  If you walk into the police station expecting them to help you because it is their job, then you will be a sorely disappointed citizen (who will probably waste most of your day waiting for help).  Pull whatever strings you have to and make it clear from the start it is in their best interest to put down that doughnut and help you expediently.

Another tip, if you are able to convince your wayward assistant to go to the police station with you when you file a report, great.  Even if you have them sign a confession, make sure you have them also initial the police report.  Also gather whatever hard evidence of fraud you can through the bank and/or credit card companies.  The chances of recovering stolen money may be slim, but if you want justice to be served, sometimes you have to spoon feed our boys in brown.

 

Any other suggestions?  Please leave them in the comments section below.  Thanks!

16
Sep
09

The Endangered Class

 

Jon Minus Kate is Great!

Back before he sold Jell-O pudding and became the patron saint of black gentrification with The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby hosted Picture Pages and was the creative force behind Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.  He did all the voices of the kids, including one little wannabee pimp named Rudy.  When he disapproved of someone’s behavior he would come up with a rejoinder “Man, you are like school on Saturday.  No class.”

Classiness is an endangered species these days.  Some of us were foolish to believe that the recent election of a cerebral president who thinks before he speaks, weighing his words carefully, always with the big picture in mind, would usher in a new era of politeness.  But alas, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is yet another false dawn.

Look around the world of sports.  Over the weekend, former Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor scored a goal for his new team Manchester City over his old team.  Following longstanding tradition, players do not usually celebrate goals against former teams, at least not overtly.  Instead, Adebayor broke with tradition by running the length of the field to taunt the Arsenal away fans, inflaming an acrimonious situation.  And for the record, delibrately stepping on an ex-teammate’s face isn’t going to win him any Lady Bing trophies either.

In college football, you have University of Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin trying to rouse his fanbase (and unsettle his rivals) by accusing University of Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating (when he, uh,  didn’t) and boasting about how he looked forward to singing Rocky Top all night long after beating the Florida Gators at their home stadium (before he has ever coached his first game).

Michael Jordan is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and gives a speech dripping of egotism, basically saying “Fuck You!” to everyone who didn’t believe in him, somehow missing the point that he is widely celebrated as the greatest athlete of all time.  As I was born in Chicago, I am appreciative of everything he has done to lift the city’s spirits as a sports town, and while I admire him as the preeminent basketball player in history, for all his charisma he doesn’t strike me as very likeable.

The gentile sports of tennis and golf are not immune.  At the U.S. Open Championship, Serena Williams threatens a line judge with bodily harm, in the process forfeiting a semi-final match.  And whenever Tiger Woods hits a bad shot, you should probably tell your kids to earmuff it.

Not that the world of showbiz is a place to look for ideal behavior, but look at what has transpired over the past few months.  With Kanye West’s outburst, everyone was shocked, but it became front page news because he raised the bar on unacceptable behavior.  I think a lot of people, even as they shook their heads, were secretly thrilled to take notice of something notable over the mass media cacaphony.

These days we cannot even expect our leaders to behave, as the right-vs-left internet proxy war has bled into the halls of Congress, with Joe Wilson yelling out “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to the nation regarding health care.  Rational argument has taken a backseat to polarizing soundbites, while circus barkers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck command more attention than sedate eggheads like David Brooks, and they are not above calling the President everything from a socialist  to a racist.

We in Thailand don’t really have much room to criticize, having elected the combative Samak Sundaravej as a Prime Minister and massage parlor kingpin Chuwit Kamolvisit to the house of representatives, while strongman Chalerm Yubumrung is still big pimping as House minority leader.

What happened?  Is there really more of a lack of good manners or does it just seem that way because of the immediacy of today’s media?  Only a decade ago, the story of John McCain making an insulting joke about First Daughter Chelsea Clinton died like a fart in the wind.  Today, elements of the blogosphere and Twitterati regularly magnify molehills into the Mount Everest of the day through sheer hyperbole and fiery rhetoric.  Are we just more sensitive?  Has political correctness evolved (or devolved) into a disingenous sense of moral outrage?

Perhaps it is media attention itself that makes people go mad.  Maybe Jon & Kate’s marriage was on shaky ground to begin with (statistically speaking, parents of multiple births are more likely to divorce than one-at-a-timers), but the media microscope has focused the public’s scrutiny like the sun’s rays, frying their little ant brains. 

Look on any comments section of a newspaper story, where a chance to comment on a story usually degenerates into name calling, political backbiting, and ad hominem attacks on the writer and other posters.  Barely veiled racism and sociopathic rants are fair game within this anonymous realm.

There are a few glimmers of hope for our species. Beyonce inviting Taylor Swift up to the stage to finish her acceptance speech.   Ludacris quietly gives away 20 cars to people in need.  David Robinson, inducted in the same year as Jordan, gives a heartwarming speech that shows a man whose greatness at the game of basketball was only a glimpse of his true character. 

As long as these instances of kindness and generosity are the exception and not the norm, and as long as we prefer boorishness to lead the news, society will get worse instead of better.  This is not something we can legislate or donate towards, it is even harder because we have to do it ourselves.  After all this I don’t feel like I am preaching to the choir, only talking to a chair.

I always end my broadcast on MET News Report with “Stay Classy, Bangkok.”   At first it was a joke, an homage to The Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy.  But what started out as funny has become more of a plea.   I sincerely hope that something changes, before we irrecoverably take the civil out of civilization, and as Rudy might say, school is out forever.

***

I hate to end on such a downer, and with the sad news of Patrick Swayze succumbing to pancreatic cancer, let’s end with a tribute.  Here’s a nice eugoogely from The Guardian.  And when it comes to male striptease, the classiest gang around are the boys of Chippendale’s.   Here is possibly the greatest Saturday Night Live skit of all time starring Swayze and the late Chris Farley.

Stay classy, everyone.

04
Sep
09

Glam, Bam. Thank You Ma’am

 

A version of Cracker Jacks prizes finally make there way to China

A version of Cracker Jack's prizes finally make there way to China

Well, I guess I have been a bad boy.  Not that I have been out doing anything untoward (unless you count eating a whole can of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles in one sitting, but that’s the exciting life of a retired playboy), but i’ve been far too long without updating my blog.  Apologies, faithful readers…

So the headlines are dominated lately by the right-wing displeasure over Obama’s intended broadcast to students across America.  His blasphemous message?  “Stay and school and be good.”  HOW DARE HE!!!  Doesn’t he know that Presidents have no place in the classroom?  Well, except for the time Ronald Reagan and his Presidential Fitness Challenge  mocked my sedentary lifestyle.

The sad thing is that the Right Wing has forgotten how kids usually respond to such pandering, and if you can’t get them to clean up their rooms  (and stop having unprotected sex) then gently asking them (via talking box) to do their homework (or adopt a socialist ideology) is virtually pointless.  If you are going to attack him, do so because Obama is being a square and a total bummer.  Oh wait, you did?  Nevermind.

Our own Prime Minister is under fire from some elements of the press, for allowing a stateless Burmese boy, Mong Thongdee (no relation, probably, to Todd Thongdee), permission to travel and represent Thailand in an origami airplane competition in Japan.  At first he was given permission, then told he was not allowed to go, because it would set a “dangerous precedent” for kids born in Thailand to illegal immigrants.  How dare he!  So the Thai press, touched by his temerity, devoted column inches and face time to the poor boy, whose dream is to go to Japan with his paper airplane that stays afloat for 12 minutes.  And now, our Prime Minister has buckled to his sad moon eyes and allowed him special permission to go to Japan.  I guess that means when the opposition Puea Thai makes a motion in parliament, their wild card will be their newly appointed party leaders, the Htoo twins.

Htoo Talking to Me?

Htoo Talking to Me?

(On a side note, I’m surprised there is not as much of an uproar about this kid’s talent.  He can fold a paper airplane that can stay in the air for 12 FUCKING MINUTES???  Imagine lil’ Mong, tossing his plane in the air, putting on Desolation Road, handrolling and smoking a couple cigarette, and still having enough time to sit and watch his anti-gravity marvel settle down to earth.  Consider that the Guiness Book of World Records recognizes an engineer Japan for his plane, which stayed aloft a mere 27 seconds, and we either got a kid that is going to come back from Japan with a formula for cold fusion (using a toilet paper roll, a cork screw, and some tin foil), or we are all going to look like rubes.

***

On a mysteriously (and tenuously) related note, during one of my saturated-fat fuel binges a while back, I felt a craving for junk food for my brain, and came across this lurid story of a British bar hostess murdered in Japan.  I remembered this exact same incident reported in Time.  Now The Daily Mail is known for appealing to the baser elements of British society, with xenophobia often the special du jour.  (I like the football page for their noble stance that all rumors, no matter how unfounded, are fit to print).  If nothing else, an interesting example of the Rashomon effect; two versions of the same story, with the actual truth an unknown quantity.

Tomorrow, I will be off to help host the Prom for Charity at Fallabella, benefitting the Foundation for Mentally Handicapped Children at Pakkred.  I’m still looking for a powder blue tuxedo with ruffles, and if I find one I promise I will post photos.  Do you remember your prom?  Was it as magical an experience as mine?  I skipped the State Academic Team Competition to go to mine, where I got drunk on Boone’s Farm, while my date took off early because she had a soccer tournament the next day.  But this year, I’m going to be slow-dancing Booger-style for sure.  Bring on the Boyz-II-Men!!!

Hopefully it won’t end like this though…