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Friday, February 15, 2008

Taxis in Thailand

Taxis in Thailand sure can be a pain.

At least I live in Bangkok, which has taxis; if you aren't familiar with the country, you would be astonished at how many cities don't, even those whose economies are heavily dependent on tourism. (In those places, you have to depend on tuk-tuk's (three-wheeled motorcycles with a passenger area behind the driver, open sides, but a roof), motorcycle taxis, or so-called "baht buses," which are basically pick-ups with a top but no sides and a bench down each side.

But I'm talking about real taxis, as in a four-wheel automobile.

Just recently I read that Bangkok has around 10,000 taxis (a number easy to believe in a city some estimates put at having as many as over 15 million residents). I rarely have trouble seeing taxis in the neighborhood I live, and most of the time flagging one down is easy.

But just often enough to irk thunderation out of me it happens that the driver will pull up, all four doors locked, and crack his window to ask where you're going. And if your destination isn't one with which he (or, on extremely rare occasion, she) wants to bother with -- zoom! Off the taxi goes, leaving you standing there, irked.

Especially since the law specifies that a Bangkok-based taxi has to take you to any Greater Bangkok destination.

Another problem with taxi drivers here (and other workers in service industries such as hotels and the like) speak not only little or no English (which most Western tourists and foreign residents here speak well to native), but also no Korean, no Mandarin or Cantonese, no Japanese, and certainly no other Western languages. And people visiting, living, or doing business here from the places those languages are spoken are a large component of the foreigners who show up in Thailand.

These days, all taxis in Bangkok have meters, and are required by law to use them. But sometimes, especially if your coming from one of the airports, the driver will want to quote some ridiculous price instead of using the meter. For instance, in average traffic it costs me about 220 baht to travel from the international airport to my home. And 50 baht of that is for not having to find a taxi by myself -- there are desks outside where you can get in line and the staff will call you when your turn is next and a taxi is available (rarely a long wait). If you want to travel via a motorway (toll road), that's extra, of course. In my case, about 80 baht.

So, in all, I pay around 300 baht.

But even getting a taxi at the official desk center is no gaurantee the driver will stick with the meter. Sometimes the driver will pull away, then hesitate as he's about to start the meter, asking, "800 baht, no meter?"

And he's got a strong motive: The folks back at the desk have a record of which taxi is dispatched to which destination, but they collect nothing from the passenger; you give the 50 baht together with the fare -- but they apparently don't check the meters. So, the driver can turn in whatever the average cut for a particular trip is, pocket the excess, and almost certainly remain undetected. (At least drivers who work the airport almost all speak enough English to get by.)

"The Rounds" from February 15, 2008

Headlines for the February 18, 2008 Edition of “The Rounds”

Plumb Forgot All About Valentine's Day!!! A Model for the BMA (Bangkok Metropolitan

Authority)? Take a Hike! -- To Charge Your Hand Phone, That Is Travel and Medical
Evacuation Insurance

Google Earth and Washington Square

Visas -- Online!

Minister Proposes 3,000-Baht Computers for Farmers

Thai Police Sent to School to Learn How to . . . Laugh

Washington Square News

A Word of Caution: Don't Try to File a False Property Claim with Hotels in Ayuttaya (or Elsewhere, For That Matter)

Thai and Other Asian Restaurant Workers To Be Barred from Working in Israel's Restaurants from the End of the Year

The Big, Bad Three Intellectual Property Rights Violaters: Russia, China, and -- Canada???

Musings Regarding Public Roles for Women

Reasonably Nice Weather Is Still Here

Political Uncertainty May Be Developing

The Economic Picture

Air Travel News

Update on the Smoking Ban

Darts News

The Office Bar & Grill Weekend Sports Broadcasts

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Plumb Forgot All About Valentine's Day!!!
Yesterday afternoon I was in Washington Square with some friends when one mentioned something about Valentine's Day, and it struck me I had utterly forgotten about the Lovers' Day while writing last week's edition of this column.

For that reason, I'm tentatively planning to try to get this week's edition up by either very late Wednesday night or very early Thursday morning.

Midday Thursday: Well, I'm already past the time frame I had aimed for, but I hope everyone had a nice Valentines day anyway.


Happy Valentine's Day -- Late!

[Sunday, February 10, 2008]

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A Model for the BMA (Bangkok Metropolitan Authority)?
London is the largest city imposing rather expensive fees on motorists, and now the authorities there are upping the ante.
Trucks over a certain wait that don't meet EU standards for pollution emissions will have to have a fee equivalent to US$400 per day to enter the city center, largely an area encompassed by a motorway running around the city. The fee will be phased in over the next two years to other vehicles, though ordinary cars and motorcycles are exempt.
Representatives of the trucking industry are in an uproar, saying the requirement will impose a huge cost to the industry without bringing any significant improvement in air pollution, adding that it makes little sense to exempt cars and motorcycles. They also claim that the strict EU standards were leading to equipment upgrades already, a process that won't be speeded up by the new fee.
By the way, any vehicle entering central London on weekdays during office hours already carries a fee equivalent to US$16 per day. Over the few years that fee has been in effect, proponents claim traffic congestion has been reduced and that more people are using public transport, riding bicycles, and walking than before.
The new fee depends on traffic cameras that will photograph the license number of vehicles as they enter the green zone and automatically compare them to an EU database.
Neither story I read said just how the authorities will go about notifying the owners to register the truck and pay the fee. Maybe regular mail, e-mail, or a phone call.
Anyway, a further, um, "encouragement" to comply is found the the 1,000 pound (US$2,000) fine for failure to comply. That's enough to make most of us sit right up and pay attention.
While the amounts London authorities are introducing are almost certainly far too high for Bangkok, the concept could be useful to the BMA -- especially if the fees were applied to all vehicles, including ordinary cars and motorcycles (and tuk-tuks!). And the BMA itself could lead the way by retrofitting existing city buses and other vehicles with the equipment for those vehicle meet some standard that would need to be established (if it hasn't already).
While such a "pollution fee" might prove to be highly controversial here, the pay-to-enter certain areas ought not be -- after all, motorists already pay to use a number of the Kingdom's major motorways. Initially, implementation wouldn't require additional manpower or other expense -- just designate an existing toll plaza as a place to collect an entrance fee in addition to the existing toll fee.
There is one angle that would need considering: people who live within the designated area who have a motor vehicle of some sort. Since they are in the restricted zone all the time, perhaps a special rate should apply to them. Let's just say the fee for vehicles coming into the zone is set at 50 baht per entry (or per day). That's not a lot, but it sure adds up over a year's time -- 18,250 baht, to be exact, if it's charged seven days a week. Maybe resident vehicle owners could pay a flat annual fee, based on type and size of vehicle -- a stretch limo would carry a higher fee than a small motor scooter, for example.
It's true the traffic situation has improved fairly substantially since the Skytrain and subway went into operation, but congestion can still be bad far too often. Of course, one contributing factor to that is the unreliability of buses; some drivers speed right past bus stops, leaving waiting would-be passengers stuck and riders wanting to get off there trapped until at least the next stop -- assuming the driver can be bothered to stop even there.
Transport is one area I give every government that has been in power during all the years I've been here a lot of credit. A number of new highways have been built in addition to the opening of the Skytrain and subway, with more roads planned and extensions to the Skytrain and subway in the mix. Fees modeled on London's could help improve the overall picture even more -- and help fund the road and public transport expansion.
This sort of action is catching on. Not long ago I was reading about dramatically improved public transport in the area in Texas where I grew up, an improvement fostered by several smaller cities than joined together, using some of their own funds together with money from the state and federal governments. One part of the improvement is a light railway, one that will eventually tie up with one in Dallas. And people where I grew up aren't noted for being tree huggers, though they, like almost everyone else, aren't dumb -- they've become much more concerned about such matters if for no other reason than rising fuel prices.
Getting back to Bangkok, the traffic has effects you might not expect. For instance, whenever I am planning to fly somewhere, I take pains to schedule my departure and return for times the odds are the traffic will be at least okay. Of course, a single accident can tie up traffic for many kilometers, so there's always a chance of getting stuck, but on average, I've been lucky by such planning over the years -- though Bangkok is the only place I've ever missed a flight -- twice! -- because of traffic being at a standstill.
If the Skytrain or other such transport is ever expanded all the way to Suvarnabhumi International Airport (and, one hopes, Don Muang Airport), I'll certainly use it rather than risk getting stuck in traffic, particularly for the outbound trip. (Coming back isn't much of a problem. If a friend wants to know when I'm coming back so we can hook up, I tell him the scheduled landing time and promise to call when I get in a taxi and again when I'm about back to the area of the Square. Everyone understands why.)
Of course, the high and mighty will undoubtedly be aghast at the idea of paying any fees for their vehicles, even those who have jillions of baht so can easily afford such fees.
By the way, when, oh when, are the authorities here going to get in the business of auctioning vanity license plates? Hongkong does. Abu Dhabi just held an auction for a plate with the number "1" on it -- just the single digit -- and the pre-auction estimates were the plate would go for somewhere in the range of US$500,000. Nice little chunk of change for the public coffers.
[Sunday, February 10, 2008]

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Take a Hike! -- To Charge Your Hand Phone, That Is
Ran across a fascinating story on the excellent LiveScience.com website headlined "Charge Your Cell Phone Just By Walking."
Scientists at the Locomotion Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Canada have developed a device that straps to your knee that generates electricity while you walk. In treadmill tests with six volunteers, the scientists found out a person generates about five watts of power, or enough to power 10 hand phones at once.
The article didn't say how long it would take to recharge a phone, though it does start off with "Charging your cell phone might soon be as simple as taking a walk around the block." If that's literally true (or nearly so), it sure will be a boon for anyone unable to get to an electric outlet.
The device essentially captures energy created by some of the motion of your knee; it kicks on only during one phase of a step. The article says that's so someone wearing the device won't be overtaxed.
It weighs about 1.5kg/3.3lbs in its current incarnation, but I'll bet when it's commercialized, it'll be in a smaller -- and more comfortable -- form. Perhaps it will also generate more power.
The article briefly mentions a backpack a scientist invented a few years ago that also generates electricity, and like this device, it utilizes the movement of the backpack caused by a wearer walking. Another LiveScience.com article from September, 2005 called "High-Tech Backpack Creates Electricity As You Hike" gives details about this backpack. You might also be interested in the site's story from this past November called "Fashion Preview: Tomorrow's High-Tech Clothing" about ordinary, everyday clothes Australian researchers are working on that not only generate electricity, but also -- get this -- stay clean for weeks without washing.
I read another story a few weeks ago about someone inventing a comparable device, one that works on wind power -- a mini-windmill of sorts. But that story didn't say you could get enough wind just by walking along with the device: it works when you hold it out a window of a moving vehicle. I suppose you rig some sort of mount for it on the outside of your car. The inventor specifically designed this device to recharge notebook and laptop computers, though of course it could be used for any battery-powered consumer device.
It's easy to envision all sorts of people who could use the knee-worn device. For instance, students who forgot to recharge the hand phones the night before might stroll around campus a little while to boost the batteries. Another large group is that of workers whose jobs involve an appreciable amount of walking. Come to think of it, anyone caught in a lengthy blackout could use one, and not only for a phone -- maybe rechargeable lights to use at home or work while the power's out.
Right here in Thailand that are still places without access to the Kingdom's electrical grid but that do have people living in them. While using this device wouldn't be practical for trying to power an entire house -- there's a bunch of research being done all over the world on green technologies for that and bigger needs -- those people farming could use them to keep their phones charged.
The article gave no indication of when such a device might come on the market, but if it works as well as reported, surely someone will jump at the chance to get it out for sale as soon as possible. By the way, I don't know if the backpack or mini-windmill I mentioned are commercially available yet, either. If not, I bet they will be before long.
By the way, the following story is one that makes you smile when you see the headline, but the story it introduces is serious science:
[Monday, February 11, 2008]
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Travel and Medical Evacuation Insurance

Just ran across a most useful story at the excellent website Aviation.com titled "Air Medical Evacuation Coverage Can Be a Life-Saver" that anyone traveling any appreciable distance from home should read (and explore the links the story contains).
I'm thinking, of course, particularly of people traveling between Thailand and remote parts of the world, whatever their purpose for traveling.
Though this article focuses chiefly on medical evacuation insurance, it does mention ordinary travel insurance as well. Perhaps your insurer in your home country has an option for foreign travel. Or perhaps one or more of the issuers of any credit card you might have does. Both these sources sometimes have medical evacuation coverage as well. Various airlines offer some insurance as well.
Though medical care is relatively inexpensive in Thailand, even in top private hospitals, compared to places such as the U.S., it can still run right up there if you have something truly serious happen to you and/or if you have to remain in hospital more than a few days.
But the real problem is being evacuated to your own country, which can be a bankrupting possibility. Even if you are going to have to go right back into hospital when you get home, most of us would prefer to be close to family and friends rather than right around on the far side of the planet. And that's true even if you make someone like Bill Gates look poor.
It's worth taking some time to explore possibilities. A good while back I ran across some insurer headquartered somewhere in Europe (England, I think) that offers global coverage, on a sliding scale. That is, the cheapest option for me was to get straight medical coverage with no evacuation insurance at all. The next cheapest was to buy a plan that included medical coverage and regional evacuation -- with medical coverage there. At the top of the expense list was the option to be evacuated to the U.S. and have medical coverage. The company also offered varying levels of medical coverage to help you control your premiums.
I personally don't know the expenses incurred by someone I've known who got sick or hurt and returned to their home country via medical evacuation, though I have known such people. I did, however, know a man long resident here originally from Holland who got hurt in a fall during a holiday in Vietnam. Initially, he had to stay in a hospital there until he was well enough to be moved here. But he wasn't getting any better here, so his wife decided to medivac him back to Holland. (Sadly, he died shortly after reaching a hospital there.) While I don't know the breakdown on what was spent where for which purpose, I did hear from mutual friends that his wife spent well over a million baht beyond insurance coverage he had.
Now, is it worth it if you're going on business or a holiday just an hour away by air? -- probably not (though that's not certain, of course). But if you travel, for example, between Texas and Thailand, as I do on rare occasion, it's definitely a good idea.
Not a pleasant subject, I know, but one any globe trotter needs to consider.
By the way, Aviation.com is positively loaded with all sorts of good information -- and much of it happy news and information, not doom-and-gloom stuff. I don't visit it as much as I would like for the simple reason I can end up nosing around it for hours on end! There -- I did my editorial duty and gave fair warning! ;-)
[Monday, February 11, 2008]
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Google Earth and Washington Square
A friend asked me last night if I'm familiar with the popular Google Earth program, which I am -- I've written about it here in the past. I told him I was, and that I had a number of "map pins" for various places, including both my Mother's and Sister's homes, my condo compound, my neighbor's Mother's home upcountry -- and, of course, Washington Square.
Now, if you've never used this program, let me tell you: it's absolutely amazing. Google has put together an untold number of satellite photographs of practically the entire planet (maybe all of it by now), enabling you to look at, say, your own home.
You need to download the Google Earth program and install it first. On the linked page there's a box you can tick to receive "The Sightseer," Google's monthly newsletter about Google Earth. Before you download it, take a look at the minimum and recommended system requirements as listed on the Google Earth FAQ Page that I've copied below:
System requirements for Google Earth on the PC
The Google Earth client requires certain system configurations in order to run smoothly.
Minimum configuration:
· Operating System: Windows 2000, Windows XP
· CPU: Pentium 3, 500Mhz - System Memory (RAM): 128MB RAM
· Hard Disk: 400MB free space
· Network Speed: 128 Kbits/sec
· Graphics Card: 3D-capable with 16MB of VRAM
· Screen: 1024x768, "16-bit High Color" screen
Recommended configuration:
· Operating System: Windows XP
· CPU: Pentium 4 2.4GHz+ or AMD 2400xp+
· System Memory (RAM): 512MB RAM
· Hard Disk: 2GB free space
· Network Speed: 768 Kbits/sec
· Graphics Card: 3D-capable with 32MB of VRAM
· Screen: 1280x1024, "32-bit True Color" screen
System requirements for Google Earth on the Mac
The Google Earth client requires certain system configurations in order to run smoothly on the Mac.
Minimum Configuration:
Operating System: Mac OS X 10.4
CPU: G3 500Mhz
System Memory (RAM): 256MB RAM
Hard Disk: 400MB free space
Network Speed: 128 Kbits/sec
Graphics Card: 3D-capable with 16MB of VRAM
Screen: 1024x768, "16-bit High Color" screen
Recommended Configuration:
Operating System: Mac OSX 10.4.8
CPU: G4 1.2Ghz
System Memory (RAM): 512MB RAM
Hard Disk: 2GB free space
Network Speed: 768 Kbits/sec
Graphics Card: 3D-capable with 32MB of VRAM
Screen: 1280x1024, "32-bit True Color" screen

The program does demand a lot of your computer's operating system. Mine's weak point is RAM memory; it has 256 megabytes. Yes, that's double the minimum shown above, but having more would undoubtedly help speed the program up.
Now, to get down to particulars. Once you have downloaded and installed the program -- it's a huge download, 12.7 megabytes -- open it. the default view is centered on North America from out in space. On the left is a menu of options, one of which is to input a place's name or geographical coordinates. Typing in "Washington Square" won't do you any good as far as getting to my Washington Square, so let's start by typing in "Bangkok" -- for some reason, putting in the precise coordinates didn't work when I just tried, repeatedly, experimenting with the format shown and other formats.
The particular spot the program takes you to is several kilometers away from the Square, so I'll tell you how to find it.
You'll see the word "Bangkok" squarely in the center of the viewing screen. Set your eye altitude to 2.64 kilometers using the slider in the upper right of the screen (so you'll be seeing the same thing I am). The altitude is shown in the extreme lower right-hand corner of the screen.
There's a star immediately to the left of the word "Bangkok." Left-click on the star, and while keeping the mouse button depressed, drag the star to the left edge of the screen. Release it and allow time for the view to refresh. Once it does, if you look in the lower half of the screen, you'll see Surawong Road, Silom Road, and Sathorn Road (though Google spells it "Sathon"). Rama IV Road is marked, and runs from about a quarter of the way down the left edge diagonally across to about a quarter of the way up the right edge.
By the way, for the curious, Patpong is just to the left of the center of the screen in this view; slightly above it and to its right is Thaniya, which you can think of as "Japanese Patpong."
Follow Rama IV Road to the lower right edge of the screen. Position your pointer there, then left-click, hold, and drag it towards the upper left, at the same angle Rama IV runs.
Now we're getting warm; my compound is near the center of this view.
Grab the center of the screen and pull it straight down to the lower edge of the screen. Almost dead-center you'll see Ratchadaphisek (written sideways, up and down); not far to the right you'll see Sukhumvit Soi 22. Follow Soi 22 up to its intersection with Sukhumvit Road, which Google has labeled "National Highway 3." Which it is, but no one calls it that in town.
Now you're practically on top of the Square. Grab that intersection and drag it to the center of the screen. Now zoom in by clicking several times on the "+" button at the top of the slider bar. Stop at 928 meters. At the bottom, about a third of the way from the right edge, see that pond? That's the pond (or small lake) in Queen Sirikhit Park. Slightly right of it you'll see the top and part of one side of The Emporium, admittedly at a strange angle.
At this altitude, the program wrongly identifies the short, dead-end soi behind the Square as Sukhumvit Soi 22 -- Soi 22 is the road running up and down immediately left of the "S" in "Sukhumvit." Look at the width of the pond; the Square is roughly that distance up and to the left from the northwest (upper left) bank of the pond.
See the three buildings cheek-by-jowl, tilted to the right? The middle one is home to Mambo Cabaret and Soi 22 Bar. Grab the center of the top of Mambo and drag it to the center of the screen.
You can zoom in quite a bit closer; I don't see any detectable image degradation until I get down to about 380 meters. You should see several camera icons; clicking on them opens pictures of some places someone has uploaded so anyone can see. Each opens in a separate window. For instance, clicking on the icon at the upper end of Mambo opens a picture of the front of it, taken from the entrance from Sukhumvit Road.
Want to mark the Square (or any other spot) so all you have to do is click on its name to go directly to it? It's easy to do. Click the "Add" button at the upper left, then click "Add placemark." A dialogue box will open, and you can name the placemark. There also are boxes for the location's latitude and longitude, right down to the hundredth of a second. You can position the cursor over the flashing yellow square you see then move it around to exactly where you want it. Click, then close the box, and you're set.
I should add there's a lot more you can do, such as adding a description, setting the default altitude, and a lot of other things.
This is an extremely powerful program. In the case of some countries, you can type in a street address and go right to it. I was glad to see this morning when I opened the program and zoomed to the Square the street names are now in English -- when I first got the program, they were in Thai, which I can't read (and which complicated my locating places I wanted to mark).
The image quality varies. Google tries to get the best satellite imagery available, but that varies. Some places are extremely clear, others less so. For instance, if you look at, say, Tibet, the images aren't all that great. Google does update, but there's no set schedule -- they update when new imagery is available.
Also, it's important to realize these are not real-time images; they're typically one to three years old. And in the case of the U.S., the government limits the resolution the company can show. It's never been clear to me how much, if any, attention Google pays to gripes from other governments. (And a number have downright howled in protest.)
The program is constantly being refined. For instance, the first time I used it I typed in "White House" -- and the program showed me some place in Missouri! Now I get some options, including the White House where the U.S. President lives.
Perplexingly, sometimes -- but not invariably -- buildings will appear whited out. Once I found the Pentagon, which I recognized from its distinctive shape, but that's all I could see -- a five-sided white blob. The following day I was showing a friend, telling him about that, but when I zoomed to the Pentagon that time -- it showed up nice and clear. I could even see people walking in the park-like area the building encircles.
Another point is that not every single village, town, or city name in the world is in Google's database, not yet anyway. When I tried to find my neighbor's Mother's home, I started by typing in the town name (one of those Thai names a mile long), but came up empty. My neighbor knows up and down, but cardinal directions? -- forget it! She (my neighbor) was here, and it took over three hours for us to find her Mom's place -- because Sweetie pie insisted it was northwest of Khon Kaen, whereas in fact it's southeast. (I remind her of it once in awhile.)
The same is true of street addresses in those places they're theoretically available. My Sister's produced no results last time I used this program a few months ago; this morning it zeroed right in.
There are a great many features this program has I've not even mentioned. There's something of a learning curve if you want to get really proficient, but basic cruising around the planet is pretty straightforward.
There is the website Google Maps that's much simpler to use but is also not nearly as powerful. In the case of Thailand, everything's in Thai, handy for anyone who can read it, but not for me.
[Tuesday, February 12, 2008]
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Visas -- Online!
Don't get too excited, though -- they're not here yet.
Thailand's finally moving into the 21st century, as evidenced by the beginning of a move by the Immigration Bureau into some -- but not all (yet) -- Online Immigration Services for visa services online. That link is to the start page. Even clicking on the English option doesn't produce the entire page in English, but the stuff you need to know is.
From there you click through to the Application Submission Page to actually get started. Yeah,
right, ha-ha-ha.
Do so and you get a "Page not found" error. I tried repeatedly in both Internet Explorer and Firefox, but no joy.
In any case, if I'm reading this right, you still have to go to Immigration, but you can initiate (or will be able to) the process online and go through a special line for people who've done so.
Interestingly, one service I saw in a drop-down menu was for webcam service. I wonder if that means eventually maybe the entire process can be done electronically, eliminating any need to physically go to Immigration.
[Tuesday, February 12, 2008]
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Minister Proposes 3,000-Baht Computers for Farmers
The ICT (Information and Communication Technology Ministry) has made an ambitious proposal to make inexpensive computers available to Thai farmers, who remain very much the backbone of the Kingdom.
I read the story online last night, but before I could get the link to it, my computer locked up and I had to reboot (this morning). By the time I got Firefox to restore the previous session, the story was no longer available.
Anyway, the minister hopes to seek assistance from China, which has advanced rapidly in computers and is able to provide computers at relatively low cost. Apparently the idea isn't to out and out give computers to individual farmers to to outfit post offices around the country with them, and for personnel at those post offices to help farmers learn how to use the computers and surf the Internet.
The minister's hope is that farmers can be far better informed about matters such as weather forecasts, market prices, and other relevant information to determining just what crops to plant, when to plant them, and how much to plant.
If farmers respond (assuming the ministry can find such low-cost computers), this could be a helpful program. The story I read didn't say how many computers will be sought, but presumably quite a few. That raises the question of paying for them, cheap or not.
It'll be interesting to see how this comes out.
[Wednesday, February 13, 2008]
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Thai Police Sent to School to Learn How to . . . Laugh
Had Channel News Asia on yesterday afternoon while working on this column and heard a light-hearted story about the Boys in Brown, the Royal Thai Police. I tried to find the story on the network's website, but had no luck.
I missed the beginning of the story, but apparently folks at the top feel police officers need to learn to lighten up, not only for their public image but for their health.
One way to achieve this is to learn to laugh -- literally. The broadcast showed a bunch of officers in a large room being led by a teacher who was laughing, right from the belly. And the officers were imitating the teacher.
While it's true the police bring much of their grief on themselves, it's also true they're poorly paid and sometimes work very, very long hours. The most visible officers are also said to be among the most stressed out and at risk for health problems: traffic police.
I sure wouldn't want to stand in some busy intersection for hours on end, especially during the hot season or anytime there's a downpour. Such an intersection must have one of the highest levels of air pollution around -- all just waiting to be breathed in by the hapless officer.
Laughing won't help officers deal with the effects of breathing polluted air, at least not directly (though doctors have long known a positive outlook can aid a patient's recovery). But it has been shown to alleviate stress. Given that being a police officer is inherently stressful, any relief is to be welcomed.
I worked a short while as a policeman and a much longer while as a security patrol officer, both positions involving wearing uniforms and being armed. Though I enjoyed the work immensely, at least when it involved do-good, feel-good stuff, the stress was constant. I didn't even fully realize just how much stress there was until I had been out of uniform for good for quite awhile -- and then it hit me I no longer had, for instance, being a possible target of some nut at the edge of my consciousness 24/7 -- yes, I used to dream about that sort of thing, sometimes.
There's a lesson for all of us in the training the Thai police are undergoing, despite the smile the broadcast brought to my face. (In fact, watching one portly officer start out laughing with a frown -- clearly not wanting to be there -- end up guffawing and beaming as he got into the swing of it made me laugh right out loud in turn!)
I spend a lot of my Internet time reading upbeat and funny stories. I enjoy them, and I reckon they certainly can't hurt my attitude. Many of the news sources online have a section of odd, funny, or strange news. Some periodicals do, too, such as Readers Digest and its "Laughter, The Best Medicine" regular feature.
A smile on your face can help others, too. Once in awhile my neighbor gets into a black mood, as we all do. I've learned to listen quietly as she pours out her tale of woe, and when it's appropriate, I'll just smile. When she finishes, she of course expects some response, but I've found over the years if I simply keep on smiling -- and quiet -- she'll eventually started smiling, then giggling, and finally laughing -- and pooh-poohing her own complaint!
And even if I do have something worth being upset about, there's no reason for me to burden others with a dark, frowning expression, now, is there?
[Wednesday, February 13, 2008]
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Washington Square News
Heard a rumor regarding George Pipas yesterday that we sure hope turns out to be true. A friend told me another Squaronian had told him the second guy had been to see George in the hospital, and reported George can now talk some. Tubes had been keeping him from doing so, I heard from various sources over the weeks, so I guess perhaps the doctors decided it was okay to take them out (assuming they did).
I do want to stress I have not verified this directly, though I have no reason to doubt my source accurately passed along what he was told.
The Minnesota Mob are all in town now, and we're all mighty glad to see them, if sorry Bubba had to cancel his trip. This is Chris K.'s first visit to Bangkok in five years, so you know he's reveling in being here. He also brought a friend of his (whose name escapes me at the moment -- I'm terrible about names) who used to come around some years back but whom many, maybe all of us, had never met. Seems like a great guy. Charlie W. and Mike F. are very much in their element. All of them will be staying here in the range of two weeks, though just as they came into town in three waves, they'll be departing at different times.
Roger C. is in town again; the man is positively addicted. (He's the Father of Kent, George's partner in the Texas Lone Staar.) I've caught up with him just once, and then only briefly, but I think he's going to be here a few more days before he has to wing his way back across The Big Pond.
"Madagascar" Larry left town yesterday to return to Canada for a couple weeks before returning to work in the rather peculiar and certainly unique in many ways island nation. "Big" Mike, also of Canada but who worked in Karachi until some weeks ago, told me yesterday he's lining up to also go work in Madagascar. "Canadian" Hugh is looking to return to Canada in about a week to wind up affairs regarding his employment in Karachi, where he worked with Mike. (Foreign nationals were evacuated from their project after locals attacked their complex.)
"Maori" Art from Vancouver has dropped right off my radar screen; last time I saw him he was off to Pattaya for awhile, but I thought he was due back before now, and that I would see him as he said he would be here two or three days before returning to Vancouver.
Ba Burt has been into town and come to the Square a couple times the past few days, and I managed to catch up with him two days ago. He's well, and told me his daughter, Jan, the Adopted Niece of all Squaronians -- many of whom have been around long enough to remember her as an infant -- finally moved to her new home sometime over the weekend. Her birthday is in about 1½ weeks, and this year her Dad and I have already decided we want to do something with her; I spoke with her by phone just a day or two ago to let her know. She'll be away on her birthday, but maybe we can get her to the Square late in the month. (I missed getting to do anything with them last year.)
The various bars are doing anywhere from okay to pretty good. The ones that seem to be the busiest are Silver Dollar, Hare and Hound, Cheers, and New Square One Pub. Sure, all the bars, including those, have dead times; that's normal anytime of year. Of course, I don't know the numbers, so my impressions based on seeing people may have little correlation with how much money the places are bringing in, but I do know some of the regulars are pretty generous in their spending, at least when I've seen or been with them.
I had occasion this past Sunday to go to the pharmacy (chemist, for our Citizen of Empire friends) on Sukhumvit Road a little west of the road's intersection with Soi 22, and walked back to the Square, electing to walk down Soi 22 to the back entrance. I hadn't walked that stretch in a long while -- probably a couple years -- and rarely travel it even in a taxi. I noticed two travel agencies and a Thai restaurant I've never seen before in that short stretch of maybe 100 meters, all three on the left. Haven't heard anything about either of the travel agencies, so have no idea if they're good agents or not. The restaurant looked quite nice, and had a menu outside (though I was in a hurry so didn't stop to look), and rather unusually for this neighborhood, a greeter outside, a lovely Thai lady in traditional Thai dress. Will check it out sometime soon.
Two kinds of businesses sure do seem to thrive in the Washington Square area: massage parlors and travel agencies. Last time I counted, along the stretch from my front door out to Soi 22 then up the soi to Sukhumvit Road, there were 20+ massage parlors. Just two days ago I paid a little attention (though didn't count) and I think they're all still in business. As for travel agencies, there's one in the Square, the two new ones on Soi 22 I mentioned above, plus one more in that same stretch, one in Queen's Park Plaza, and one in the Imperial Queen's Park Hotel. And there are several others within a couple blocks.
As for me, I'm fine. Haven't had to use a cane in several weeks, though I can still feel a tiny bit of pain sometimes, especially if I put a lot of stress on my leg. My guess is I had a really small fracture -- but I'm such a sissy about pain that even a small injury makes me whine and moan!
I am beginning to seriously look at the possibility of going back to work teaching somewhere; just a few days ago I e-mailed a friend in Cambodia to ask about possibilities in Phnom Penh. And about two weeks ago friends from Macau were in town, and they told me there's an ongoing need for English teachers, and I asked them to check into that for me, though I've not heard from them yet. I also am looking to see if there are possibilities of interest in places such as Malaysia, Laos, and mainland China, and maybe Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Some people ask me why I don't look into going to the Philippines, Taiwan, Hongkong, Japan, or South Korea. I've heard numerous stories of teachers who could barely get by on their salaries in those places, especially Japan and South Korea. There are also countless horror stories about teachers going but then not getting the promised salary, or maybe no air ticket, or inadequate housing that fell short of what was promised.
We'll see.
Taffy and his family managed to get away a couple days (as I recall -- maybe it was one day, or three) recently, and they all enjoyed that immensely. Both Taffy and his wife are hard workers, putting in long hours, so anytime they can manage a little getaway is nice.
[Thursday, February 14, 2008]
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A Word of Caution: Don't Try to File a False Property
Claim with Hotels in Ayutthaya (or Elsewhere, For That Matter)

Have seen a couple news report about foreign tourists turning the tables on Thai hotels by running their own scam.
In recent weeks, there have been at least 10 cases of foreign tourists (mostly from East Asia) turning in false lost or stolen property claims at the last minute, then demanding not only compensation but a "payoff" in the form of not being charged for their hotel stay -- then adding a threat to file a report with police in their own countries if the hotel staff refused, according to the Ayutthaya police quotes in news stories. A number of hotel staff members have given in to avoid what likely would be an ugly fight.
As a result, the police are keeping a close eye on things. While I didn't read anyone's names, the police are investigating and say if they're convinced the tourists are guilty, they'll recommend to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the tourists be blacklisted. There was no indication if such a blacklisting would be permanent, but that certainly would be an appropriate minimal response.
I've never had the dubious pleasure of experiencing being a guest of the state in one of the Kingdom's jails or prisons -- thank goodness. But I have known people who did, and the reports are 100% consistent: "Don't go there." That consideration alone -- pure, naked self-interest -- ought to be enough deterrence. (I did have occasion to visit a friend who ran afoul of the Immigration Police some years ago in the International Detention Center at Immigration Headquarters here in Bangkok, and while it wasn't a scene from hell, it clearly was pretty miserable.)
Then there's the plain moral and legal considerations: this sort of scam is out-and-out theft. It's wrong. It's against the law.
The vast majority of tourists are honest people seeking no more than an enjoyable time, but just as it tars all Thais when a Thai is exposed as cheating foreigners, the reverse is also true.
There's a variation of this scam I learned about long ago -- and so did the police. Tourists from poorer countries (poorer then, if not now) would book a room for, say, two people. The two would turn up and check in with much fanfare, making sure they were seen entering the room. Then, under the cover of darkness, they would let fellow nationals sneak into the room and stay -- without paying the hotel.
Odds are the police are just as incensed as the hotel folks are up Ayutthaya way, so those very few people who might be inclined to such activity should be aware they're likely in for a rough time if they get caught. And a well-deserved rough time.
[Thursday, February 14, 2008]
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Thai and Other Asian Restaurant Workers To Be Barred
from Working in Israel's Restaurants from the End of the Year

According to many news reports over the past day or two, the Israeli government has decided not to issue any more work permits to foreigners working as chefs or other kitchen employees by the end of 2008.
I saw that Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian restaurants have grown to account for about 10% of the food bought in restaurants in the country, and of course, those restaurants employ many people from the appropriate country.
It's true that anyone can learn to cook an ethnic or national cuisine, and learn to do so very well, given enough time and practice.
But if the reports are accurate -- and the several I've read or seen on television all say the same thing -- the Israeli government is badly mishandling the move.
First is the training program it has set up for Israelis to learn how to cook foreign foods. Apparently, not many Israelis are interested in it, suggesting a shortage may be looming.
Second, even if a sufficient number of Israelis were to start training today, there is less than a year for them to learn how to cook, say, Thai food.
A spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Trade (which regulates work permits there) has been quoted as saying, "We feel an Israeli can hold a wok as well as a Thai or a Chinese person."
Well -- yes. I guess I can hold a wok as well as a Thai or Chinese (not to mention Indians and Japanese, who didn't get even a mention). However, I've never tried to cook Thai food at all, not a single time. Given the regional variations in Thai food and the extensive dishes Thai food encompasses, I don't think there's any way on earth I could become a competent -- never mind excellent -- chef to prepare Thai food in 10½ months, probably not even of just one regional cuisine.
I'm not very familiar with Japanese food, so don't know if there is a lot of variation among the country's different regions or not, but anyone even slightly familiar with Chinese and Indian cuisine know they encompass a great many locale-specific dishes and local variations of national dishes.
While anyone understands any government's first priority is to tend to its on citizens' interests, the way the Israeli government sure comes across as heavy-handed and ham-fisted, at best, and racist, nationalistic, or worse still, both.
If the amount of news coverage this development is getting is any indication, odds are we won't be hearing the end of it any time soon. While the number of non-Israeli employees affected is fairly small, at a reported 900 or so, any affected employee would have a right to ask his government to at least make a mild inquiry of the Israeli government. Of course, such workers likely aren't influential in their home countries, so might not get any response even from their own governments.
This is much different from the issue of legal immigrants anywhere who are employed doing something that is done the world over: anything to do with construction, farm labor (as distinct from being a farmer, which not everyone knows how to be), unskilled work in shops, warehouses, and so on. If the nationals of any country are indeed being crowded out of jobs by foreigners, even legal ones, that's something to consider.
But being a chef involves far more than just to be able to "hold a wok." (No, I'm not a chef, but I have known a few professional ones, some of them formally trained -- over a period of years, not months. And the more different the cuisines of a chef's home country and the country in which he works, the longer it will take a national of the host nation to master the chef's homeland's cuisine.
When I first became aware of this story, one of my first musings was, "I wonder how an Israeli with a legal work permit working as a Jewish-food chef in a Jewish deli in the U.S. would feel if my government were to tell him, or her, to get ready to pack up and hit the road since an American can, say put sliced cheese on a pastrami sandwich as well as an Israeli." I bet that individual would scream bloody murder, and rightly so, at least considering the relatively short time frame the Israeli government has in mind.
And I bet the deli owner, especially if not at least Jewish or in some way intimately familiar with Jewish cuisine, would scream, too, as restaurant owners in Israel are.
Sigh. I guess I should specifically and emphatically state I am not anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli. Were the situation reversed and Israeli chefs were, in essence, being ejected from Thailand because any Thai can pour water into a pot as well as an Israeli, I'd feel exactly the same, just the the roles reversed.
This is gonna be one interesting story to follow. . . .
[Thursday, February 14, 2008]

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The Big, Bad Three Intellectual Property
Rights Violaters: Russia, China, and -- Canada???
The Bangkok Post has a story headlined "Three big pirates" reporting that according to U.S.-based industry group International Intellectual Property Alliance that a big shock in the group's report puts Canada alongside China and Russia as being among the worst thieves of intellectual property.
Frankly, that's rather hard for me to believe, especially considering that (1.) Canada is a prosperous, modern, developed nation, (2.) the Canadian dollar has soared against the U.S. dollar in recent years, (3.) The U.S. and Canada share an extremely close relationship in just about every sphere, including commerce, and (4.) no one I know of trips "Canada" out when asked which country is a big thief of such stuff. But, then, neither do I know.
No doubt the Canadian government, and the citizenry of that country, have sat right straight up, wide-eyed. (I sure did!)
The short version is the group urges the U.S. to keep the Kingdom on the priority watch list, maybe even elevate it to the most serious category. The newspaper story says it's unlikely the U.S. government will lower Thailand's standing because of the return of an elected government, but adds it also is unlikely to concede to the Thai government's request to move it down the list to less serious status.
Canada's inclusion wasn't the only surprise. On the lowest-level watch list Sweden and Israel (and a bunch of other countries) were named. I have long known that Israel conducts a vigorous industrial espionage operation (among others), but as with Canada -- and Sweden -- it sure isn't one of the countries that most readily spring to my mind.
Returning to the subject of Thailand, I've long wondered why the government, business, and educational sectors haven't, as far as I know, launched an all-out effort to support Linux, the open-source software. As time goes on, more and more software is being written that works with the Linux operating system, and any country could save buckets of money if Linux gets to the point it can really go head to head with both Microsoft Windows and Apple's Mac. Doing so would avoid the huge controversy surrounding the compulsory licensing of medications the previous government introduced, much to the outrage of pharmaceutical companies abroad. (No, I'm not going to get into that argument.)
Then groups such as the IIPA wouldn't have a beef; you can't steal what's free for the taking.
[Thursday, February 14, 2008]

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Musings Regarding Public Roles for Women
I just finished watching an interview with a former Defense Minister of Japan, and was struck that she's a woman. (I didn't tune in soon enough to catch her name.)
But it started me thinking. Women have held various high positions in Thailand, the Philippines, China, and Korea, to name just a few from this part of the world. Positions in commerce, industry, government, education -- pretty much across the board.
Yet the societies of those countries are widely perceived to be rather sexist and male-dominated.
Then I thought about my home country, the U.S. Yes, we have and have had women in high office, both public and private. But I wonder if proportionally we have had as many as some of the places I just listed have? In other words, I wonder if we're quite a liberated as we like to think -- and proclaim -- we are.
Then I remembered a conversation I had a couple of days ago I had with a friend, also a Westerner but not a U.S. citizen. We were talking about the current campaign in U.S. ahead of this summer's party nominating conventions and the general election in November, and were talking about the three leading candidates, African-American Democratic contender Barack Obama, his fellow contender the former First Lady, Hillary Clinton, and, on the Republican side, John McCain.
It came as no surprise when he said were he eligible to vote, he would choose McCain, which is what he should do, given his views. (And no, that's no criticism; I respect his thoughtful, intelligent comments, even those I may not agree with -- though I sometimes do agree.)
I asked him what he would do if it became clear the Republicans weren't going to win, and without hesitation, he said he would vote for Obama, adding there was no way he would ever vote for Clinton. He said it so strongly I was intrigued so asked him why.
His reply? He would prefer just about any man running against a woman, adding that for that reason, he sure hoped Obama wins the Democratic nomination. I pressed a little, asking if he disapproved of her past performance as First Lady (both in Arkansas and the White House, or her performance as a Senator, or her campaign proposals. Or some combination of the three.
He said he did have problems with her in all those areas -- but that even were she to have no baggage at all in his view and even if he genuinely thought she had considerable ability, no woman could ever do the job as well as a man.
Now really interested -- this stance startled me greatly -- I asked if she had been a man how he might view her. He did have to consider that a minute, then said he would still have more problems with her than with Obama, so still would prefer him over her (or also "him," in this scenario), but reiterated he really hopes to see McCain win.
I never have had a problem with the idea of having a woman boss just because of gender. Sure, I've had women bosses and colleagues I didn't exactly care for, but not because they were women. I also have had any number of women bosses and colleagues whom I really, really liked and felt did excellent jobs. Most of the bosses were here in Thailand; in the U.S., I had exactly two women supervisors (neither one herself very senior) and knew one woman patrol sergeant in security -- but she wasn't my sector sergeant, so wasn't directly my boss. (And she was one helluva sergeant and street officer, by the way.)
Anyway, maybe there's a lesson from these societies we might note. . . .
[Thursday, February 14, 2008]

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Reasonably Nice Weather Is Still Here
Sometimes in the first part of the afternoon it has been getting pretty hot, but rather surprisingly, not as much as you might expect this time of year. For instance, a few minutes ago, at about 2:25 P.M., I checked online and saw Bangkok reporting a temperature of a relatively mild 30°C/86°F -- and there's a nice breeze coming through my apartment. I have to use my air-conditioner very little, really.
This is partly due to the unusual amount of cloudiness we've had the past several weeks. (Note: It's now Friday morning and the sun's shining, but I woke up about 4:00 A.M. and was faintly surprised when I realized there was a moderate rain shower at the moment.)
Of course, that's sure to end sooner or later, probably sooner as we drift right along towards the hot season.
I suppose the unusual snow storms in southwest, south, and east central China recently might have held temperatures down around here a bit, as a strong northerly wind brings the cool air our way.
Whatever the explanation, it's neither too cool at night, at mid-20's C and mid 70's F, nor too hot quite a few afternoons. But it probably won't last long; we're just a few weeks from see Sol move into the northern sky. (Took me a long time to get used to that!)
Anyway, now's a nice time to visit Thailand.
[Thursday, February 14, 2008]
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Political Uncertainty May Be Developing
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a sub-committee of of the Thailand's Election Commission has accused newly-installed House Speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat of electoral fraud and forwarded its report to the full EC.
For now, the Speaker will remain in office and perform his duties while the EC considers the case. If the full commission endorses the sub-committee's findings, the report will be sent to the Supreme Court's section dealing with electoral fraud. Once the report is sent to the court, the Speaker would be suspended (though his earlier official acts would remain valid). Further, despite his suspension in this scenario, the post of House Speaker would be left vacant, reserved for him in the event the court clears him, at which point the suspension would be lifted and he would resume the post.
However, if the court finds him guilty, he would be banned from politics for five years. It doesn't stop there, though. The EC may decide to open an investigation into whether Yongyuth acted as an executive of the People's Power Party (PPP), the main party in the current government, and, if so, whether the party benefited from his alleged actions.
It's here that the uncertainty goes from just some to major. If the PPP is found to have benefited, the EC has the authority to dissolve the party, and as I understand it, that automatically would end the tenures of all the PPP representatives in government, at least the elected ones. (I have no idea what might happen, if anything, to PPP members who hold appointed posts.)
Those are uncharted waters, as there's apparently no precedent here. I've read several news stories and watched some on television, and most of those have mentioned that the EC probably wouldn't call for a nationwide general election but for a regional one in the North, where the sub-committee claims the alleged wrongdoing occurred, should its members endorse the sub-committee's report. But if the entire party is dissolved, then what about representation from areas outside the restricted area?
I've been following this closely ever since the general election was announced, and if there is a mechanism in place to accommodate such a scenario, I've not read about or heard of it. Of course, I'm no expert -- but much of what I've read was penned by local experts and knowledgeable foreign observers, and the drift of their writings is they don't know.
Guess we have to take them at their word.
Of course, should the EC not endorse the sub-committee's findings, then the uncertainty vanishes, at least for now. And even if it does endorse it and sends the case to the Supreme Court, if the court finds Yongyuth not guilty, that would, I presume, negate any EC investigation into whether or not the PPP benefited from actions the court would be saying didn't happen, or at least weren't substantiated. In other words, no action, no benefits to investigate.
Not many Thais I know care much about politics, other than an almost universal like of the populist policies the dissolved TRT party founded by ousted then-PM Thaksin that the PPP has promised to revive. The few who do care have been wondering what's going to happen should things go against Yongyuth and the PPP.
Another point I don't know about is the time frames for either the EC or the Supreme Court -- does the EC have a statutory time limit to decide? Is the Supreme Court expected to act within any particular time limit? If the answer is "yes" to either or both, what is it or are they?
One more point deserves stressing: Yongyuth is protesting his innocence, claiming someone is setting him up. Given the nature of politics here, there's no way for an outside observer lacking access to the hard facts to decide, so the man deserves a presumption of innocence while the case moves forward.
[Friday, February 15, 2008]
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The Economic Picture
More uncertainty on this front, influenced, in no small measure, by the political uncertainty.
Even more uncertainty enters the picture when you look abroad and economic woes besetting a number of the world's major economies, especially that of the U.S.
A number of Asian nations governments are seeking to decouple, economically, from the West (especially the U.S.) plus countries such as Japan, a behemoth in its own right. Every time the U.S. coughs, a lot of other countries sneeze -- violently, if their economies are heavily dependent on exports to the U.S.
Foreign friends here with strong contacts in both the foreign and domestic business communities say the situation is very unclear to those circles. Domestically, there's increasing head-scratching at the strength of the baht despite the country's own economic concerns, resulting problems in its largely export-oriented economy (with the U.S. being a major trade partner), continued uncertainty over the future of capital control requirements, and rising -- in some cases, soaring -- residential and commercial rental and sales prices.
None of these worries are unique to Thailand.
Today the Singaporean government is set to release a plan to help Singaporeans deal with skyrocketing prices of everything from prime office space to food. One story I saw a television earlier this week said in 2007 alone, prime office space prices increased a stunning 23% -- and Singapore was already very expensive. That same story reported that Hongkong's prime office space prices had moved into the unenviable second-most expensive in the either the region or world -- I saw the story twice, with one using "region," the other using "world."
You can pretty much say ditto, in broad terms, for most countries in South and Southeast Asia, from Indonesia to China and Pakistan to Japan.
On the personal level, a close Thai friend has basically stopped smoking and drinking alcohol, not because prices of her favorite beer and cigarettes have gone up, but because so many other consumables she needs for her business and daily life are getting more expensive by the day, but those are things she can't give up. So, she's cutting expenses where she can.
And she's just one example.
I, too, have reduced certain discretionary spending, and have been for quite some time as the baht strengthened and inflation persisted. So have plenty of other folks, Thais and foreigners, whom I know.
Reports regarding foreign investment in Thailand not only vary, but sometimes contradict each other. Even so, it seems fairly clear that at least some potential foreign investors have either cancelled plans or put them on hold -- one businessman told me just a few days ago that his company's headquartered had notified the country manager here they were moving a planned major investment on the back burner.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the U.S. Just this minute I heard on television that bourses around the region are reeling after the drop on Wall Street last night (our time) and the gloomy forecasts from the Fed. In the case of Thailand, other countries are worrisome, especially China. And the Kingdom is becoming increasingly less attractive for outsourcing operations as Vietnam becomes increasingly more attractive.
Sure hope we're not in for another "Asian Flu" crash on the 1997 model -- especially not one on a global scale. In my ignorance of the details of just how this stuff works, all I can do is the same as a lot of other folks: keep my fingers crossed.
[Friday, February 15, 2008]

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Air Travel News
There's some good news for air travelers in this part of the world.
First regards fares that will be showcased at the Malaysia Travel Fair February 22-24, 2008 in eight locations around the country, including well-known (and nearby, for folks here) Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
I ran across a story at Business Times Online headlined "MAS eyes RM160m sales from travel fair" that reports that there will be a great many deals, ranging from zero fare (but don't forget taxes and other surcharges) to discounts as great as 70%. It just dawned on me that some readers might not recognize the acronyms in the headline, so I'll decipher them here. "MAS" is the official airline code for Malaysia Airlines, and "RM" is the official currency code for the currency of Malaysia, the ringgit. By the way, the headline is a little misleading; the airlines expect to generate that much in sales each day of the fair, not combined. In baht, that's somewhere upwards of 1.6 billion, and in U.S. dollar terms, something around 50 million. Quite a sale.
When I say "a great many deals," that's just what I mean: 6,000,000 -- yep, six million, that's not a typo -- seats will be available in the promotion, and not just on flights in Malaysia, but also to regional and international destinations.
Further, not only is that huge number of seats available, but they cover a seven-month window beginning March 1st and running through September 30th, an extraordinarily generous time span for such bargains.
And there's even more: in some cases of tickets that do include some fare, you can get a further discount by booking online.
See the story for further details, and if anything catches your fancy, you can follow up the several links shown there.
Spotted another story, also Malaysia-related, in the sidebar I followed up headlined "New investors to help AirAsia X gain Mideast foothold" reporting that a Saudi investment group and an Irish investor are taking up shares in the airline, affiliated with Air Asia (and, therefore, with Thai Air Asia).
AirAsia X is the long-haul brother of Asia's discount carriers, seeking to bring low fares to the long-haul market the numerous budget carriers have brought to this region, as, indeed, comparable carriers have done or are doing right around the world.
It's getting more difficult to keep up with developments and offerings -- I manage to regularly miss some of both -- but for travelers, especially frequent travelers, these changes are sure a financial boon. More and more corporations who fly their executives hither, thither, and yon are wising up to paying published fares and instead seeking cheaper alternatives. (Who can blame 'em? They're supposed to make money for their owners or shareholders, not waste it!)
Heck, I'm even having trouble keeping up with new budget airlines; I was unaware of Malaysia Airlines' two discount carriers it owns until I read the first story above.
Next, while I was writing this story, I heard a television news report that Richard Branson's Virgin Air's operation in Australia are set to begin flying to the U.S. by the end of this year, going into head-to-head competition with Down Under flag carrier Qantas. That story didn't get into fares, but where there's a Branson, there's a break, as his long (and colorful) history amply demonstrates. It was a brief piece, and that's about all I gleaned from it.
Lastly, drop by the Bangkok Air website at http://www.bangkokair.com to explore their frequent flyer program, a current contest, and specials. As I've written before, this is a GREAT boutique airline, as their PR people have positioned it, especially in having airport lounges for ALL passengers, not just those paying big money.
I do need to throw in one bit of downside news: read a story the other day online about several U.S. carriers reducing the attractiveness of their frequent flyer programs, in various ways. One is to reduce the time period within which miles can be redeemed. Another is to increase the number of miles required to purchase a particular product or service. Yet another is to further restrict the flights for which you can redeem miles. Other U.S. carriers are considering doing the same. While the story was restricted to U.S. carriers, it would be startling were carriers based elsewhere that have such programs not to be doing or considering the same sort of moves.
Still, current news is way more up than down. . . .
The world of air travel here today is sure vastly different from what is was a few short years ago, when budget carriers began sprouting up right, left, and center.
[Friday, February 15, 2008]
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Update on the Smoking Ban
This is a pretty short story.
The short version is that (1.) everyone, including, apparently, the police, is confused, and, (2.) the ban is not uniformly observed.
There has been so much contradictory information floating out there, including in the news media, about when the ban was to come into effect, who is covered by it, what exceptions (if any) there may be, and so forth.
A few days ago I bumped into one bar owner at a bar not his, and asked him about his bar. He said he went to the trouble to ask the police to visit to advise him where, if anywhere, people could smoke on his premises. They looked around, and of the three public areas in the bar, each able to be isolated from the others because of walls and doors, the said "Well, this place and this place are fine for smoking" -- but I gather they didn't make any assessment of the remaining place.
I happened to be sitting outside a bar where the ban was being enforced; the manager had told me the police had been around and verbally told her the ban was to start this past Monday -- but they didn't give her a letter, which is normal procedure in some situations. I told the other bar owner, and he went in and asked the manager to call the local police station and point-blank ask someone there. She was told the police themselves are quite unclear about the entire matter -- and that in any case, no police enforcement would take place until June 1st, if then.
I personally have no problem with a smoking ban, even one not required by law but imposed by the owners of an establishment. After all, if I just can't wait, I can always walk outside. (For now, anyway, until we get some real, homegrown, "Nico-Nazis" here -- you know, the folks who would like to ban smoking throughout the entire Universe.)
Is the information contained in this story definitive? No, it's not. Except the part about some places are allowing smoking -- I've been in some.
For now, all you can do if you're a smoker is to ask, or look around to see if there are ashtrays around.
[Friday, February 15, 2008]
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Darts News
Apologies for not posting this last Friday; I received it Thursday, and I managed to forget it, too. If your a dart player or fan and are in Thailand, this is a great monthly newsletter to read.

Hello All,


The February Newsletter is finally up online. Some late arriving stories, latest one
just yesterday. Please have a look at our one year anniversary issue.

Darts Thailand http://www.dartsthailand.bamboosiam.com/

John Lowe in Phuket"A Line or Two From Lowe" by David Brook

"Interview with John Lowe" by Stephen Fein

Dartoid in Bangkok

Interview with Jayke

Bangkok Dart Leagues Update

Hua Hin Dart League Update

Xmas Invitational Knockout

Flaming Moe's Feb 501 Knockout

Down Under Bistro Fun Feb Knockout

Darrell Fitton, Gary Anderson and Gary Robson in Pattaya

Jayke's Take: Jocky Wilson, Bullseye and the Slaughtered Lamb

Darts Thailand Rumor Mill

THIS MONTH"S DART BAR Lazy Daze Bar Hua Hin

DARTER OF THE MONTHThe Captivating Miss Mou


Draught Beer Time.

Johnny

Darts Thailand Darts Bars Listing / Darts News & Photos
http://www.dartsthailand.bamboosiam.com/

[Friday, February 15, 2008]

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The Office Bar & Grill Weekend Sports Broadcasts

Yes, I know, I know -- since I'm not going to get this uploaded until after some of the broadcasts have ended, some of the matches will have been broadcasts before this is online. You might want to bookmark the bar's website at this URL:

http://www.theofficebkk.com

Event guide page:

http://www.theofficebkk.com/eventguide.php

Fri, Feb 15
Cricket
NZ v England ODI LIVE
11.30

Fri, Feb 15
Cricket
Australia v Sri Lanka ODI LIVE
11.30

Fri, Feb 15
Rugby
Crusaders v Brumbies LIVE
13.35

Fri, Feb 15
Rugby
Reds v Hurricanes LIVE
16.05

Fri, Feb 15
AFL
Bulldogs v Kangaroos LIVE
17.00

Fri, Feb 15
Rugby
Sharks v Force LIVE
23.59

Sat, Feb 16
AFL
Geelong v Melbourne LIVE
11.30

Sat, Feb 16
Rugby
Blues v Chiefs LIVE
13.35

Sat, Feb 16
Rugby
Waratahs v Hurricanes LIVE
15.40

Sat, Feb 16
Soccer
Bristol v Southampton LIVE
19.30

Sat, Feb 16
Rugby
Bath v London Wasps LIVE
21.30

Sat, Feb 16
Rugby
Stormers v Bulls LIVE
22.00

Sat, Feb 16
Soccer
Liverpool v Barnsley LIVE
22.00

Sat, Feb 16
Soccer
Chelsea v Huddersfield LIVE
22.00

Sat, Feb 16
Soccer
Celtic v Hearts LIVE
22.00

Sat, Feb 16
Rugby
Cheetahs v Lions LIVE
23.59

Sat, Feb 16
Soccer
Man U v Arsenal LIVE
23.59

Sun, Feb 17
Cricket
Australia v India ODI LIVE
11.00

Sun, Feb 17
AFL
Hawthorn v Sydney LIVE
11.30

Sun, Feb 17
AFL
Fremantle v West Coast LIVE
16.30

Sun, Feb 17
Soccer
Sheffield v Middlesbrough LIVE
21.00

Sun, Feb 17
Soccer
Preston v Portsmouth LIVE
23.00

Tue, Feb 19
Cricket
Sri Lanka v India ODI LIVE
15.00

[Friday, February 15, 2008]

Friday, February 8, 2008

"The Rounds" from February 8, 2008

My New Blog: Will Have This Column and Other Entries

Actually, the headline might turn out to be only partly true, later. Naturally, I do want people to visit this website, but I'm initially going to experiment with posting this entire column each week at Blogger.com. Here's the URL:


http://squaronians.blogspot.com/

(Don't be confused by the domain name "blogspot." Blogspot was a separate website, but got acquired by Blogger, which in turn was bought by Google.)

I'll be watching the number of visitors here, and depending on how that plays out, I may continue publishing "The Rounds" in full both here and there, or I may switch to publishing just the first few lines of each story at Blogspot with a link to here.

I'm also reproducing the column in other places: MySpace.com, Facebook.com, and Bravenet.com, and may add it other places as well.

There are reasons.

First, I'm seriously trying to monetize this site -- without charging you, Dear Readers, a single baht. There are specialized search engines that search the blogging websites -- but they don't recognize BangkokAtoZ.com as a blog, so they don't pick anything on it up. By posting "The Rounds" on recognized blogging websites, it will (I hope!) be picked up by those specialized search engines, which should, in theory, lead to more visitors to BangkokAtoZ.com.

Second, you probably have noticed the Google ads on this and other pages. I've let those sit idly the several years I've had them, and made practically nothing so far -- a bit over US$70.00, not even enough for Google to pay me yet, which they do at a minimum level of US$100.00. On one page, I also have an AllPoster.com logo; I'll be adding it to other pages as time goes by; it works along the some lines as the Google ads do. Ditto Amazon.com.

In the past, Google Ads were frustrating. Their computer program was meant to place ads relevant to the contents of this page -- specifically, the text area. (technically, the stuff across the very top, down the left margin, and cross the very bottom are on three different pages, with the text area on a fourth one.) Most of the time, the ads were either irrelevant -- "Click here for thousands of jobs in the UK!" or some such -- or partly relevant but still off the mark -- "Hotels in the UK!" But they've improved the accuracy, and starting with last week's column the ads, while fewer in number, are far more relevant -- so far.

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Such a program is called an "affiliate program." In the case of Google, Google itself isn't selling the services and products shown in their ads; they're selling the advertising. If someone clicks on an advertisement then makes a purchase, Google gets a commission (as I understand it) and pays me a cut of that when the person came from my page -- or Blogspot blog.

In this way, I can avoid asking readers to pay a subscription fee, something I've sworn I'll never do. When Dennis and I first started this website, we decided right at the onset we didn't want to ask people to pay just to be able to access it, and I still believe that's the best way to go. Sure, there are specialty websites that have legitimate reasons to charge membership or subscription fees. But unless I change the very nature of this site rather drastically, I don't see any reason to charge for it.

In a way, the strengthening of the baht relative to the US dollar has led me to get serious about this. After all, compared to when the baht was 58 to the dollar instead of the current 33 to the dollar, my actual purchasing power has dropped by over 50%, once one factors inflation into the equation. That's right: over half. And you can darned sure bet nothing has gotten cheaper. The baht weakens -- prices go up. the baht strengthens -- prices go up. The baht holds steady -- prices go up.

So far, the only website that allows me to get cut in on the deal is Google; the others have ads, but bloggers on them don't get any commission. that might change; several of the major outfits are openly considering shifting their business model as they discover that some of their members are hugely popular, and some of those members are clamoring for a piece of the action -- and rightly so. I read about one blog that has something like 1,000,000 unique visitors monthly. That blogger's hosting service has ads on all the blogs, and for reasons no one seems to understand, this blogger's blog's ads get an astonishingly high click-through and purchase rate -- so of course the blogger is asking to be brought into the program.
Even if you don't click through and buy, at least wish me luck!!! ;-)

[Sunday, February 3, 2008]

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Time for a Post-Plastic Bag Era in Thailand?

You might take a look at this website before reading this article:

http://reusablebags.com/

A little while earlier, I went across the drive and bought a bottle of beer, which the lady helpfully handed me in a plastic bag, for ease of carrying the 8-10 meters back to my desk. Then I started reading an article about practically bag-free Dublin, Ireland, where people pay US$.33 per bag for a plastic bag in the form of a tax, which the government collects in full. Further, an aggressive Environment Minister pushed through legislation not only making it illegal for shops to pay for the bags on their customers' behalf but also adding a tax for paper bags as well, should shop keepers seek relief by switching back to those.
Got me to thinking.

From where I sit at my desk, I look out my front door and front wall -- both of which are clear glass. I glanced up. There across the drive was my neighbor, eating her lunch -- which she bought from a street vendor, who had put it in a plastic bag. A friend of my neighbor's stopped with her son to chat to Neighbor and a couple of other neighbors seated there. The lady had three plastic bags, and her son had one. And as I type these words, I see another two ladies walking buy, each carrying two plastic bags of stuff.

To say plastic bags are ubiquitous in Thailand -- as they are elsewhere -- is the understatement of the year.

It's always faintly surprising to me to consider how many people don't even know that the majority of plastic bags never degrade. i.e., they're not biodegradable. They break apart, yes, ultimately into teeny, weeny, maybe even invisible bits -- but they're still plastic.
And it always comes as a rude shock for me to be reminded about this, since I do know, and have long known, that plastic bags are bad news.

Even Bangladesh is making moves to control, maybe eliminate, plastic bags. The country's sewage system is fragile, at best, and easily clogged by plastic bags. One doesn't think of Bangladesh as a leader on environmental issues, but the government there is taking this seriously.

The complex in which I live doesn't have a rubbish bin, the type that a garbage truck can lift and dump into its trash-storage bed. Instead, it has a dedicated room with a metal door. the door is in halves, and when I have trash to toss -- in plastic bags, of course -- I open the upper half and toss it in, where the bags join their brethren, resident there in droves.

I was surprised to read awhile back that China is tackling this issue; when I lived in China in the 1980's, plastic bags were a rarity; everyone had their own cloth or string bags, the latter something like fishing net. I had them -- most shops didn't have plastic or even paper bags, so if I wanted to buy more stuff than I could carry in two hands, it was either do without or carry along my own bag.

The Thai government, like many others, just loves to tax (except the rich people, of course, who control the country anyway). And a tax on plastic (and paper) bags would be right up
Parliament's alley. US$.33 -- about 11 baht at today's exchange rates -- might be a bit too much (or maybe not), but a somewhat lower rate should be effective, given the generally low incomes here. Maybe, oh, say -- what? Five baht? You can sure bet I would either re-use the bags I already have (scads of them) until they broke down or would rush to some shop to by a cloth or cord bag.

I know, I know -- the cord bags in China are themselves made from plastic, but they don't have to be. Besides, though they are made of plastic, they last forever and a day. Ditto the solid carrying bags that often have a convenient zipper top. Meaning that when they finally do wear out and get tossed, they contribute way less non-biodegradable material than would have been the case had their owners used ordinary plastic bags during the same period of time.

Hmmm. The wheels are turning. I hope the Thai government does outlaw plastic bags, and enforces the ban with a vengeance. If they do, I'll buy a display rack and a supply of cloth bags to sell! Of course, I can't legally work, so I'd set the rack up in front of my neighbor's place and we'd work out some sort of split on the income! After all, our compound includes two nine-storey building, each containing 80 apartments plus ground-floor shops, and one five-storey building, with how many apartments, I don't know. Never been in it.

Maybe a franchise operation is in the future. . . . !

[Sunday, February 3, 2008]

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Lunar New Year on the Chinese Calendar

Though Thais celebrate their version of the New Year in April during the annual Songkhran Festival, the Chinese New Year is also widely celebrated here, especially in places such as Bangkok's Chinatown.

Today marks the start of the Year of the Rat, the first year in a 12-year cycle, a cycle itself part of a longer 60-year cycle. (I don't know when the current 60-year cycle ends; looked at a couple of websites but found no answers.)

It's still somewhat early in the morning as I write, so there's time for celebrations to take place in my neighborhood, as they did last year both on the eve of the Chinese New Year and the day itself. rather to my surprise, I saw no sign at all of celebrations yesterday, neither at home, nor along Soi 22, nor in the Washington square area.

Something just this second struck me: Thailand's new government is finally complete; PM Samak presented his cabinet to the King yesterday, then they were sworn in -- and I'll bet they're taking time off for the New Year! Now that's a great way to start at a new job -- a holiday!!! ;-)

[Thursday, February 7, 2008]

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New Places in Washington Square


There are three new places around the Square I want to mention.

Though I haven't gone in yet, there is a new small open-front Thai restaurant immediately next door to the Texas Lone Staar (in the space previously occupied by a Japanese restaurant to the left as you face the front). Depending on just what it stocks, it might be a useful addition to the Square, as it's the only such store inside the Square itself, though similar shops, a Family Mart, two 7-Elevens, and Villa Market are all very nearby.

Around on the back side of the Square is where the other two places are.

The first is Minocue's, which occupies the premises formerly home to a Japanese bar. When I stopped in I was the only customer and three-four ladies, counting the bartender, with whom I spoke. She told me the bar opens at 4:00 P.M. every day. I was a little struck by the limited seating, with a single table, and a few bar stools at the bar. However, I have glanced in while passing, and have seen quite a few people there. The pool table is sure to be something of a draw, given the popularity of the game here.

Next up, a few doors away, Rolling Stone Bar is open in what used to be The Oak Club (a Japanese karaoke). Rather to my surprise, some of the seating in the small downstairs area has been removed, and the lights were bright. I didn't check out the upstairs, but I assume the pool table -- are was it tables? I forget -- remains.

Both these bars are following the widening practice of charging somewhat elevated prices for some drinks, considering the area. For instance, some of the cocktails at Rolling Stone were in the range of 150 baht, and the highest in the Square except for The Dubliner and Bourbon Street, both of which draw quite a few business, government, and diplomatic people who sometimes are on expense accounts. While there was no indication of a Happy Hour at Rolling Stone, when I paid for my beer, listed at 80 baht, the check was for just 60 baht, which is very reasonable. It wasn't appropriate for me to take any interior photos that particular night, but here's a shot (also clickable) of the front:

I understand a very affable Westerner owns Minocue's, though he wasn't in when I dropped by. Don't know who's behind Rolling Stone.

[Friday, February 1, 2008]

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Thai and US Politics


The new Thai government, led by PM Samak, is finally fully in place after the PM and Cabinet were sworn in earlier this week by His Majesty the King.
As usual, there was considerable horse-trading before the cabinet line-up was announced. (That's not a criticism; the exact same thing goes on in the US, Australia, and many other countries.)

The cabinet posts drawing the most attention, it seems, are the Defense Minister and the Finance Minister.

PM Samak decided to do double-duty and assumed the Defense portfolio himself. This reportedly stirred some reactions among the military, who are said to prefer one of their own serve in that position.

Dr. Surapong Suebwong, the new Finance Minister, is being scrutinized because of his lack of any proven record in this field. He is a medical doctor by training, though he did serve as Minister of Information and Communication Technology, so he's not new to government.

Dr. Surapong is likely to have his hands full. Reports say that during the military rule domestic spending dropped. And now it seems increasingly likely the US is entering a recession -- and the timing couldn't be worse for Thailand, given that the US is its leading export market. In fact, it has been the export market that has offered a bit of light over the past year or two, despite the strengthening of the baht compared to the US dollar.

Just what will happen regarding Thaksin Shinawatra remains very unclear. PM Samak, who campaigned openly as a Thaksin proxy, has said the government needs to consider amnesty for the deposed PM -- in two years or so. Just this morning, however, I heard a report Thaksin may return to Thailand in about a month -- but I've heard that, and late May, and this coming December, so his return date is, I guess, still up in the air. What happens regarding Thaksin and what he himself may do (or not do) is likely to have some sort of effect here.

Across The Big Pond in the States, it appears that Senator McCain has a lock on the Republican nomination to run for President. His leading opponent, Mitt Romney, has dropped out of the race, as have a number of candidates on the Democrats' side. The only serious contenders for the Democrats are Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, who are pretty much in a tie after Super Tuesday's numerous primaries and caucuses. I don't know any of the three chief candidates' stands on matters of interest to Thailand, though I assume there will be some shift after a new President takes office in January, 2009.

Meanwhile, the US has announced a resumption of military aid now that a democratically-elected government is in place. Such aid was suspended in the wake of the September, 2006 coup. That's got to be good news to the Thai military. After all, Thailand is by far the US' oldest treaty partner in Asia. And it's good news for the US, given all the good offices Thai governments have provided it over many decades.

[Friday, February 8, 2008]

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Squaronian News

There's not a whole lot of news regarding Squaronians who live in Thailand fulltime. What there is remains centered largely on George Pipas, proprietor of the Texas Lone Staar, who remains hospitalized. I've not been to visit him myself, something I may do in the near future, but others who have visited have reported he is stable. George's many friends are hoping he recovers and is able to be released from hospital at the earliest possible date.


Some of the Minnesota Mob are here or coming. Big Charlie arrived first, hitting town in the wee hours of yesterday morning. He'll be followed my Mike F., also of Minneapolis, let's see, this coming Sunday I think, who in turn will be followed next week by Chris K. and a friend of Chris'. Chris is now living in Seattle, but is part of the Mob. Bubba, also of Minneapolis, has had to change his plans and won't be coming after all, and when he might reschedule is uncertain.
I keep hoping Burt Nestle will call me or that I'll bump into him, as I lost his telephone number (along with his daughter's and everyone else's in my telephone), but neither has happened so far. Maybe I'll see him today, as I plan on going to the Square in search of him and some other folks in a few minutes.

Learned yesterday that Big Joe of Phoenix (these days) may be back well before the two months he said he would be gone just before he departed. Seems his project in Las Vegas is going much more quickly than he had anticipated.

The rest of the lot, both year-round and in-and-out Squaronians, are all well, as far as I know, including Yours Truly.

Late Update: It's now Saturday morning, and I want to add I learned yesterday afternoon that Burt was at the Square Thursday, though somehow we managed to miss each other. Anyway, he's fine. Also, Roger, Kent's (of the Texas Lone Staar) Father is back in town, and I bumped into him for awhile yesterday as well.

The Square was surprisingly -- and pleasingly -- busy yesterday afternoon and evening. Silver Dollar, Texas Lone Staar, Cat's Meow, Hare and Hound, Cheers Pub, and Square One all had good business. In fact, when I first entered Cheers, I actually had to wait a few minutes for a place to sit to become available. Needless to say, the various owners and managers were all well pleased!

[Friday, February 8, 2008]


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Enough for one go . . .

Until next time --

Mekhong Kurt