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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

The Doctor's Consultation

Agony Column

Camera Class by Snapshot

Money Matters

Life in Chiang Mai

Let's Go To The Movies

REFLECTIONS

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

Bridge in Paradise

The Doctor's Consultation:  by Dr. Iain Corness

Do you need insurance?

I have just renewed my medical insurance, for myself, my wife and the children. Whilst I hate giving anything away (my Scottish heritage comes forth at times when I have to open the wallet), I have to say the premium was not expensive, and far less than I would pay in the western world.
However, if you haven’t upgraded your cover recently, then you may be in for a nasty surprise. Unfortunately, everything, be that petrol, bread, or baby’s nappies has gone up in price in the past 12 months. If you haven’t upgraded there could be a shortfall, which you have to find (or fund), not your insurance company.
I have also been very lucky with my choice of careers. Being a medico does have advantages. If I couldn’t fix my skin rash or whatever, I could always ring a classmate who could (or should) be able to. Medications and drugs? Again no worries, just a quick raid of the samples cupboard in my surgery and I had everything I needed. Insurance not needed. (One of my medical friends used to say that after diagnosing some condition in his family, he would go to his samples cupboard. If he couldn’t find what he wanted, he would change the diagnosis to use some medication he did have! True.)
What about hospital in-patient insurance? I passed on that one too. After all, the only foreseeable problems that could stop me working were massive trauma following a road accident or suchlike, or a heart attack. In either case you don’t care where you are as long as there are wall to wall running doctors and plenty of pain killers. In Australia, the “free” public hospital system is fine for that.
So I blithely carried on through life insuranceless. I did spend one night in hospital with a broken leg 30 years ago, so as regards personal medical costs versus proposed insurance premiums, I was still miles in front.
And then I came to Thailand. Still I blithely carried on, after all, I was ten foot tall and bullet proof. Then a friend over here had a stroke and required hospitalisation. Said friend was four years younger than me and I was forced to review the ten foot bullet proof situation to find I was only five foot eleven and my anti-kryptonite had expired. Thailand was a completely new ballgame.
Enquiries as to hospital and medical costs showed that they were considerably less than the equivalent in Oz, but, and here’s the big but, there’s no government system or sickness benefits to fall back on. Suddenly you are walking the tightrope and there’s no safety net to stop you hitting terra firma.
So I took out medical insurance. Still it was no gold plated cover. But it was enough to look after me if I needed hospitalisation, and that came sooner than I imagined. I had always subscribed to the “major trauma” theory, but two days of the galloping gut-rot had me flat on my back with the IV tube being my only life-line to the world. We are only mortal - even us medicos.
Do you have medical insurance? Perhaps it is time to chat to a reputable insurance agent! Yes, reliable insurance agents and reliable insurance companies do exist, but you need help through the minefield.
You also need help when it comes to filling out the application forms, in my opinion. And you also need to be 100 percent truthful. Yes, insurance companies will check on your records, and if it is found that you have been sparing with the truth over pre-existing conditions, expect a shock at settling up time at the cashier’s desk.
Remember too, that just because you have an insurance card does not automatically signify that ‘everything’ is covered. This is why private hospitals will ask you for a deposit on admission. If the insurance company later verifies that you are indeed covered for that ailment or condition, then you’ll get it back, but you have to prove that you are covered, not the other way round!
And remember to check out your insurance agent.

 

Heart to Heart  with Hillary

Hello again Hillary,
After your Kaneedur, I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to write again, but you and your reader gave me no choice. I often see that you comment on your writer’s letters grammar and/or spelling. Well now I shall have to comment on your inferences and assumptions.
You assume I am an antipodean, why? What exactly does this mean? The opposite side of the globe? So you think I am an American? Not me Guv (sic)! I presume you mean Australia or NZ?, sorry Hillary, wrong again!
You wrote that I have perfect intonation when I speak Thai and/or Laos. Where did this statement come from? Who said this? I certainly didn’t. I think I stated that Thai people comment on my speech as being very clear.
By making your inference public you have also now misled “I can’t be bovvered either”, although if he had bothered to read my initial missive correctly he would have spotted your error. I am another Einstein, well thanks, it’s appreciated of course, I do have an IQ of 130 but that’s surely not enough... Is it? To be very clear about this, I do think that my Thai and especially my Thai-Issan is very acceptable as I can communicate with little problem. However, I do consider the Thais tend to overstate their praise.
When I first started speaking Thai I was often met with a puzzled look and told that my pronunciation was “mai schut” or not clear. I have not heard this for a long time now. Recent examples: I was speaking with a teacher from Sisaket. Her actual words were “How can you speak Laos so well, it sounds like you are a native from Isaan.” This must be a joke, but that is what she said.
A lawyer (very pretty, I know it’s irrelevant!) ran to get her Mother who hailed from Udon, just to converse with me. In a restaurant, after I ordered food and started openly chatting in Thai, the cook ran over with a big smile and asked why I could speak Thai so well and as clearly.
Is this showing off? I am simply passing on local Thai sentiments. From my perspective I actually don’t think my Thai is that good. However, I am not qualified to comment.
I am sure that you and your readers have understood the real meanings behind these e-mails and they are nothing to do with how well I can speak a language. As you implied Hillary, when in a bar, there is no need to even ask the bird’s name. The purple persuader is usually enough to ensure that they ‘like’ you, although a different color bill may now be required.
It speaks volumes that the normal everyday Thais are very happy when I speak their language, it’s only the things in the bars that have a problem with it.
As for whether I am bovvered or not, I let my sign-off speak for itself.
Regards
“I really ain’t (sic) bovvered (sic), I really ain’t” (sic)
Dear I really ain’t bovvered,
I still don’t believe your nom de plume, you seem very hot and bovvered to me, Petal. Not only do you have an ornithological problem (“birds” Mr. IQ 130) but are bovvered about the way you come across. May I remind you of your first letter which had, in part “I reply in Thai-Laos as I can speak this quite fluently. Using English text as I have no Thai keyboard, “Man U, Koi U poodio, bor me poosouw.” If they are from elsewhere in Thailand I respond in Thai, as I can also speak this. Maybe something like “Khrap pom, U kondio khrap, pom ben-sod.” Maybe my accent or tones are suspect except that I am told by other Thai people that I speak their language very clearly.” So who inferred you are the cunning linguist? You, Petal. I might even call in the teacher from Sisaket and the pretty lawyer’s mother from Udon, or the unnamed cook in a Thai restaurant to back me up.
You asked what is an antipodean? Common usage has it as people from Down-Under. I explained that in my first reply where I wrote, “I also get the distinct impression that you are an antipodean with that quaint way to refer to the bar girls as birds.” However, you do spell color in the British way (colour) and denied vehemently that you were American, and also used the phrase ‘Guv’, so I presume you are a UK chap. So be it. It doesn’t matter, what matters is merely the fact you don’t seem to be able to find a ‘frock’ in a brothel with a first full of five hundreds.
Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to discuss your sorrows with the teacher from Sisaket or the pretty lawyer’s mother from Udon or even the short order cook in Thai, or Laos, as you did state above “I do think that my Thai and especially my Thai-Issan is very acceptable as I can communicate with little problem.” I’m glad. Keep on having fun, even if you ain’t really bovvered!


Camera Class:  by Harry Flashman

Tricks that make photography easier

A friend of mine, a true professional photographer, dropped me a line with a brief Q&A attached. “Q: Definition of a free lance photo journalist. A: A bloke with three Canons round his neck and a wife that works!” There is more than a grain of truth in that!
However, have you ever stopped to wonder just what pro shooters have in their very large camera bags? Well, for starters there will be a choice of lenses, two or three camera bodies, and a whole host of non-photographic items that makes photography much easier.
Want to take a photo of Rover? The one item that all dog photographers should have is a box of matches. One little rattle and Rover pricks his ears up and looks intelligent. Or as intelligent as Rovers can look. This even works for children (but take my tip and never be conned into photographing pets or children!).
So after the box of matches, what else should you have? For my money it is a torch. Any photographer who takes his camera out at night will need one. Even if just to see what way up the batteries go in the flash, which always runs out of volts just when you don’t need it. Setting shutter speeds in the dark can also be difficult. Or even seeing what aperture you are selecting on the lens barrel.
Another small, but definitely handy item is a remote release for the shutter. Any time you are trying to do a time exposure, it becomes very difficult holding the button down and not making the camera tremble - especially with long exposures. Cheap, does not take up much space, and very useful.
While talking about time exposures, another useful “camera bag” item is a miniature tripod. I have one that was made by Polaroid a few years ago which folds up small and even fits into the side pocket on the bag. With something like this you can mount the tripod on the roof of the car and take five minute moonlight shots if you need it. Often called table-top tripods. There are some I have seen with “springy” legs but they are not much good. Get one with solid legs.
Now the next one is not so easy to get here, but you can always get someone to bring you one in from overseas. With the bright sunlight here, the magic brain inside your camera that sets the exposure settings can get confused. The answer for consistently correct exposures is an 18 percent grey card. This you place beside the subject and take a meter reading from it. You then set the camera to that f stop and shutter speed and you have the correct exposure for the main shot. If you are serious about getting the correct exposure, and particularly if you shoot slides, one of these is invaluable. You can just fold it up and slip it in the camera bag very easily. However, another trick is to select an 18 percent grey camera bag, and you just take your reading directly from there.
Not a ‘pro’ but an enthusiastic amateur photographer is Ernie Kuehnelt who keeps a plastic shower cap in his camera bag. Great for keeping the camera dry in the rain. I have one too, after Ernie showed me.
In today’s digital age, your camera bag should also have a fully charged camera battery and a 1GB memory card. Serious digital photography eats those items like your kids eat ice cream.
The last item that is really almost mandatory if you are a serious photographer, and that is a battery charger for the batteries in the off-camera flash. You will go through heaps of batteries if you are shooting regularly, even just fill-in flash. This gets expensive. Buy two sets of the rechargeable batteries and the charger and your photography expenses will be a lot less.


Money Matters:  Paul Gambles MBMG International Ltd.

Sovereign wealth funds - friend or foe?
 

Country Name Assets* $bn Inception year
UAE: Abu Dhabi Investment Authority 875.0 1976
Norway: Government Pension Fund - Global 380.0 1996
Singapore: GIC 330.0 1981
Saudi Arabia: Various 300.0 na
Kuwait: Reserve Fund for Future Generations  250.0 1953
China: China Investment Corporation* 200.0 2007
Singapore: Temasek Holdings 159.2 1974
Libya: Oil Reserve Fund 50.0 2005
Qatar: Qatar Inv. Auth. 50.0 2005
Algeria: Fund de Regulation des Recettes 42.6 2000
US: Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation 38.0 1976
Brunei: Brunei Inv. Auth. 30.0 1983
Other 171.4 -
Total 2876.3 -
Of which oil-and gas-related 2103.4 -

After years as the fall guy for Europe’s trade unions and some politicians, private equity firms can breathe a little easier now that their status as the scary face of capitalism has been usurped by state investment funds. Despite having been around for a long time, these funds have suddenly achieved major prominence and we’ve been inundated with questions about them. Here, with the help of Joanne Baynham of Miton Asset Management (the advisors to MBMG International’s range of private client portfolios) are some answers.
Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) have existed for at least 50 years, but their total size worldwide has increased dramatically over the past 10-15 years. In 1990, SWFs probably held, at most, $500 billion; the current total is an estimated $2-3 trillion. (See table for a breakdown of this amount)
That sounds a lot, but how much really is $3 trillion?
U.S. GDP = $12 trillion
The total value of US$ denominated securities (both debt and equity) = more than $50 trillion
The total global value of all traded securities = $165 trillion.
In that context, $3 trillion is significant but not huge. However…
The total value of securities markets in Africa, the Middle East, and emerging Europe combined = $4 trillion. That’s also roughly the size of the markets in all of Latin America.
Simon Johnson, the IMF’s chief economist, thinks SWFs will be worth $10 trillion by 2012, based on the likely growth rates of current accounts. Stephen Jen of Morgan Stanley has pencilled in $12 trillion for 2015 (just to remind you, that’s the size of the US economy today).
Given this as a backdrop, it’s not surprising that investors wish to woo them and politicians fear them at the same time. There can be no mistaking that their money has been sorely needed of late, with rich-world financial-services groups having been administered nearly $69 billion-worth of infusions from the savings of the developing world in the past ten months to January - according to Morgan Stanley.
However, the relatively friendly welcome SWFs have found, may turn out to be temporary. Before the credit crunch American politicians objected to Arabs owning ports and Chinese owning oil firms. In January Hillary Clinton said: “We need to have a lot more control over what they [SWFs] do and how they do it.”
Once the emergency has passed, foreign money is often less welcome.
Politicians are concerned that the managers of these funds have little accountability to regulators, shareholders or voters, and thus are felt to be a potential breeding ground for rogue traders. So far there is no evidence of such “mischievous” behaviour (as the German government calls it) and weighing the risk of such eventualities against the rewards of hard cash, on the table, right now, makes it clearly daft to raise too much of a stink.
Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute highlights the fears that governments have with the following examples. Suppose the Chinese Fund were to buy Citigroup. What if America sought to take sides in a conflict with Taiwan? Would China then threaten to shut the bank down? Alternatively, from a more commercial point of view, suppose that Venezuela bought Alcoa and set about closing its aluminium smelters in the United States in order to move production to Latin America, as part of a strategy for development. And what if a country’s investment fund ran an active trading operation and - George Soros style, when he brought down the Pound - decided to launch a large-scale speculative attack on another nation’s currency?
Although the risk that the funds may abuse companies and markets is theoretical, the danger of financial protectionism is all too real. The idea that secretive foreign governments are up to no good exerts a powerful hold on the collective imagination. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, have both issued warnings. A former American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that Washington is even now in a state of “high alert”. Yet, for all these imagined fears, it is hard to find examples of SWFs abusing their power.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mohamed Al-Jasser, vice-governor of Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, complained that SWFs were being treated as “guilty until proven innocent” by politicians suspicious of possible ulterior motives. Yet more SWF managers proclaimed that their intentions were pure; they were investing for the long-term, and had a total hands-off approach to the management of the companies they buy.
“Our fund started in 1953,” said Bader Al Sa’ad, the managing director of the Kuwait Investment Authority. “Kuwait has been a Daimler shareholder since 1969… BP shareholder since 1996, we are one of the most stable shareholders of these companies.”
Stephen Schwarzmann, chief executive of private equity giant Blackstone, described the funds as “model investors”, and “smart, highly professional, simply looking for the best possible return for their money” and derided the notion that these funds were a threat:
“It’s almost amusing to see pools of capital that we’ve always dealt with now have a new name, SWFs, and are seen as an inherent threat. When the Chinese investment fund took a 9.5% stake in our company there were questions in the press: ‘why do they do this, what are their motives?’” Schwarzmann clarified the situation, “Well, it’s a non-voting investment, that was important for them ... they said they don’t want to vote.”
In politics, fear usually sells better than reason, but it would be rather hypocritical to erect barriers to foreign investment while demanding open access to developing markets. Most countries, for example, limit who can own banks, because governments often guarantee deposits and because confidence in banks underpins the financial system. Similarly, most countries curb ownership of defence technology and utilities. You do not need a handbook of new restrictions. And you do not need to make SWFs a special case: instead, you should have clear, predictable rules that apply to everyone.
One concern is that generally governments can’t ascertain what a SWF’s objectives are, precisely how much money it manages and where it invests. SWFs tend to cover their tracks further by using a full range of investment structures, such as hedge funds and private equity.
Criticism of SWFs’ investments has by no means all come from recipient countries. China’s CIC seemed to have scored when it paid $3 billion for a stake in Blackstone, a private-equity group that listed its shares. Today its holding is worth closer to $2 billion and CIC has been severely criticised in Beijing.
The motives of the funds vary, and they don’t always make sense. Consider Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, which wanted to save their oil endowment for future generations, an admirable goal. But today they don’t look as clever as freewheeling Dubai, which has much less oil. Because the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait centralized their nations’ wealth in the hands of the state, their state sectors stifled their economies. Abu Dhabi’s fund may be impressive but the entrepreneurial spirit of Dubai has done a far better job of putting sustainable wealth in the hands of his citizens - even before discussions about whether it makes sense to buy Liverpool FC!
In truth, such funds are nothing for Western politicians or voters to fear. If anyone should worry about them, it’s the citizens whose governments are amassing them - governments tend to be terrible at managing money that it is best left in the hands of private citizens.
Maybe that’s why SWFs are popular with semi-authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, which aren’t answerable for the consequences when they make poor economic decisions.
At the end of the day, whether SWF are to be feared or loved really depends on your point of view. Western Economies find themselves in a ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ situation at the present time and it is unlikely that this is going to change any time soon.
Governments may distrust SWFs, but until the East and West even out the surpluses and deficits in their economies, SWFs will not go away.

The above data and research was compiled from sources believed to be reliable. However, neither MBMG International Ltd nor its officers can accept any liability for any errors or omissions in the above article nor bear any responsibility for any losses achieved as a result of any actions taken or not taken as a consequence of reading the above article. For more information please contact Paul Gambles on [email protected]


Life in Chiang Mai: by Mark Whitman

There’s none so deaf as those who don’t wish to hear…

And thoughts on the concert at the Kad Theatre

By the time these words unscramble on to the Mail’s pages, the latest Olympic Games will - happily - be a fading memory. Jade medals will have been given out (where did they come from I wonder? Just who produces jade in abundance using slave labour?). Only the Chinese authorities and bigwigs will be mulling over the acres of newsprint and masses of radio and TV coverage, speculating as to whether they won the propaganda battle that was their main aim.
Obviously they had two main aims. To win the most medals. Almost certainly achieved since they are the biggest country represented and they invested the most money in training and ‘programming’ their unfortunate athletes. Secondly they will have hoped to have brainwashed the watching millions into forgetting their human rights record (are they as proud of the number of executions as the number of medals?) and their actions in Tibet and in support of oppressive regimes in Burma, Zimbabwe and the Sudan.
What surprised me most about the response was any surprise on the part of viewers - especially of the opening event. I was repeatedly told that it w as spectacular or remarkable. I don’t doubt it. No one has ever disputed their ability to produce stunning technical shows. Nor the amount of money, time and energy they will spend in trying to impress the world - without understanding that what really impresses people is a level of heartfelt commitment to a project not simply a desire to be number one. The over-weaning desire to produce ‘the most’ is another side of the same coin. And the result is lead filled toys, dangerous and even lethal fireworks, shoddy shoes, second rate goods in all shapes and sizes - including inferior arms for the Burmese army.
They miss the point. And in terms of public relations do nothing but harm simply because they appear to listen but do not hear. The mind set, the bureaucracy, the fear of departing from a narrowly perceived nation of perfection and above all an inbuilt censoriousness means that inflexibility remains a core ‘value’.
The sad tale of the two little girls who ‘shared’ the opening night ceremony to sing an ode to the motherland (changed from hymn) is a case in point and will remain - I believe - a symbol of the games for China long after the medals and records are forgotten. You’ll probably recall that sad event. The singer chosen was deemed not to be ‘perfect’ enough to appear on screens and she was obliged to provide the voice behind a moppet chosen because she looked like a refugee from a commercial for shampoo. All gloss and immaculate presentation.
In the subsequent (very adverse) publicity the real little girl was shown in a scene worthy of the climax to that musical masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain, where the subterfuge is exposed and the studio bosses (bureaucrats) are made to look very foolish indeed. Fooling some of the people some of the time may be possible. All of the time it’s not. I wonder what stops a great country having the imagination to see this. To stop and think of the broader picture. They have for example some great film makers but most are stifled by censorship. The result is lack of exposure for artists who would impress the world but who do not ‘conform’. Until this is realized they will never be respected anymore than a bully in a school yard.
I had a good time at the Soundtrack concert on Saturday (reviewed elsewhere in the Mail). It was given by the excellent Chiang Mai Philharmonic Band (they were recently re-formed with an orchestral section) and took place at the Kad Theatre. Sadly there was a better concert - or event - fighting to get out from the mammoth, overlong and indulgent evening which was forced upon the energetic players.
Someone had the idea of surrounding the performance with interminable chat and together with a very late start this meant that we had heard just three short pieces of movie music by 8 p.m. - after an advertised start time of 7 p.m. Less than 20 minutes within the hour.
By the time of the interval many people were ready to leave and missed the more lively second half, which got off to a bright start with the Voice Studio Chorus - a highly professional small group. The second half also contained some of the better scores - including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and it made me wonder why of the twelve chosen so many were of second rate music.
All that criticism aside, the Band acquitted themselves very well and made for a lively show by dressing up to represent famous films and characters. More importantly they play with enthusiasm and undoubted skill. They are a credit to the schools and colleges they represent and I look forward to their next show - without a running commentary and side show and preferably starting no more than - say - fifteen minutes late.


Let's Go To The Movies: Mark Gernpy

Now playing in Chiang Mai
The Coffin:
Thai Horror - Ananda Everingham as a claustrophobic architect who nevertheless participates in obscure coffin rituals.
Made of Honor: US Comedy - A piece of fluff about, what else, love problems, with the appealing stars Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan. Generally negative reviews.
Mheejou: Thai Drama - About a perky little Akha hill tribe girl from Thailand’s most northern region, and a youthful NGO who arrives at her village to build a small community TV station.
WALL•E: US Animation/ Comedy/ Family/ Romance/ Sci-Fi - A work of genius from the first frame to the last. Robot love in a dead world, and the cutest love story in years. There’s virtually no dialogue for the first 40 minutes; you’ll be enthralled. And the brilliant animation continues throughout the closing credits, as we’re treated to a continuation of the story in a series of historical art styles, from cave painting to Van Gogh. Reviews: Universal acclaim
And, as a bonus, there’s a terrific Pixar cartoon before the feature.
Where the Miracle Happens: Thai Drama - A powerful plea for compassion towards neglected segments of Thai society - the uneducated and exploited people, many hill-tribe, that are not really citizens of Thai society. It’s a plea for giving everyone living in Thailand at least the opportunity for education and health care, and freedom from exploitation.
Produced by Her Royal Highness Princess Ubolratana, this film is a drama adapted from a story in her book, “Short Stories from My Thoughts.” Her Royal Highness also stars in the film as a successful businesswoman who loses her daughter in a car accident. To fulfill the philanthropic wishes of her child, she travels to a remote school in Chiang Rai (the film was shot in Chiang Mai) and tries to help the rural teachers rebuild their school.
The message is clear: those who have the means - the riches from the Thai economy - need to take a paternal interest in the country as a whole. It’s one’s responsibility, and is simply the decent thing to do for a country that has been good to you. This film is a part of HRH Princess Ubolratana’s “Miracle of Life” project, which aims to provide education to underprivileged children in Thailand.
It’s a heart-felt plea, told in basic and simple dramatic terms, with the standard ingredients of Thai drama and comedy fused into a quite moving film. HRH Princess Ubolratana acquits herself beautifully as the prime actor of the film. The production values are top rate - the photography is luscious.
If you relax and let yourself be drawn into the story, there’s no way you won’t be very affected at story’s end - I admit it, I was in tears.
Rogue: Australia/US Thriller - An American journalist on assignment on a tourist river boat in the Australian outback which encounters a man-eating “rogue” crocodile. A modest and effective thriller, with some extraordinary shots of the breathtakingly-forbidding Australia harshness, accompanied by some quite excellent music throughout by François Tétaz which captured for me the beauty and danger of the location, and which includes in its mix aboriginal vocals and didgeridoo droning. The whole is a sort of study of crocodiles and crocodile lore by the director/writer Greg Mclean, who seems to really love the subject, and who seems very fond of the Northern Territory landscape. Rated R in the US for language and some creature violence (some of which has been clipped by the paternalistic Thai censors). Early reviews: Mixed or average.
Death Race: US Action/Thriller - The most twisted spectator sport on earth as violent criminals vie for freedom by winning a race driving monster cars outfitted with machine guns, flamethrowers, and grenade launchers. The previews are the most repulsive imaginable. Rated R in the US for strong violence and language. Early reviews: Already considered the worst film of 2008
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor: US/Germany/Canada Action /Fantasy - What a shame! All the talent, all the fantastic attention to detail, wasted on a mess of a movie that is nothing but one bang after another, one explosion after another, one bloody fight after another, all to no purpose. Ignore this one, unless of course you like mindless action, and the rest. Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello play retired British aristocrat-adventurers who head East for adventure and meet their grown son. There the three unearth the mummy of China’s ruthless Dragon Emperor and his vast terra cotta army. Generally negative reviews.
Hanuman: The White Monkey Warrior: Thai Action - Utter trash, and the biggest argument yet for imposition of censorship, let alone a rating system. Not only not fit for kids; not fit for adults either. Detailed beheadings with close-ups of the surprised looks on the faces of the decapitated heads, loving depictions of skin being slowly ripped off of humans, and worse. All involved should be heavily fined, and jailed.


REFLECTIONS: by William Parham

Fakin’ It

Let’s pay our dues right at the outset, no hold-back, no whinging. The Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing was rapturous. At least that’s what most international audiences thought as they looked at photos on the net. But some home folk braved the blogs to comment that the show looked stunning but the content was vacuous. It did have a Busby Berkeley musical feel about it, no? With 16,000 performers in the opening act, ‘that certainly showed China’s unique character’, said one Chinese blogger, ‘namely, that we have 1.3 billion people.’ A little sarcasm, no matter..

Yang Peiyi, actual singer (left);
Lin Miaoke; lip-syncher (right).

Criticism that had dogged the Olympics since the ill-fated torch relay didn’t abate with the opening extravaganza. Now, China got hit with charges of manipulating images - ‘shopping it’ in digital age parlance. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, the results of ‘shopping it’, (using Photoshop), was expressed decades ago by the rubric ‘is it live or is it Memorex?’ In other words, is it a ‘real, true’ image or has it been altered, thereby making it, well, what? A fake?
Picture this: Giant footprints outlined in fireworks marching gloriously in the air from China’s heart, Tiananmen Square towards the Bird’s Nest Stadium. This scene ‘really happened’ outside the stadium. But inside on giant screens, the audience saw a computer-generated prefabricated version that had been a year in the making. Optical illusion.
Just as meticulously as you would ‘shop’ a photo of your house to send to a prospective buyer, the head of Olympic visual effects even inserted a slight camera shake effect to simulate the idea that the footprints were being filmed in real time from a helicopter. He said, ‘most of the audience thought it was filmed live - so that was mission accomplished.’
Last week, in the New York Times, an American award-winning filmmaker, Errol Morris, discussed the issue of photographic manipulation using the recent example of a doctored photograph originating from, of all places, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The photo in question was an image of three missiles firing, manipulated to actually show four. Meticulous analysis indicated it had indeed been ‘shopped’. For what purpose? To hide the fact that one missile didn’t perform, thereby compromising Iran’s much-touted weapons demonstration. But what are we supposed to infer from this doctored image? We are to understand that Iran is a powerful sovereign state, and that the US should think twice before issuing threats to it. It’s all about sending a message. But let’s go up one level, it’s really all about the desire for governments to maintain control over information, to control the power of visual imagery.
Why are visuals such a big deal? Traditionally, we have always had a trusting attitude toward images, ‘seeing is believing’ goes the old saw. But the avant-garde art movement in the first quarter of the 20th c. broke the uncomplicated relationship between ‘truth’ and image. Now, most of us, if asked to really think about it, understand that images not so much represent reality as actually construct it. And on the street level, our present tech savvy generation routinely sees doctored images all the time, everywhere.
But photography, as opposed to manipulated adverts, has always had a special relationship to seeing. The presumption behind a photo is that ‘someone actually saw this, exactly this way.’ At the outset, we unwaveringly believe in its authenticity until proven otherwise. And context matters. As in the Olympics footprint manipulation, all other visuals were happening real time, except this one. Thus, spectators had a contextual reason to believe unquestioningly that all of the visuals were ‘real.’
Errol Morris goes on to say that when encountering manipulation, if not prepared for it, we’re angered because we’ve been lied to. ‘The problem is not that the photograph has been manipulated, but that we have been manipulated by the photograph.’ The real issue is actually the intention to deceive.
At the same time the footprint scandal was making ‘faking’ headlines in international news, the Chinese media itself broke a new story: the charming young girl who sang the patriotic ballad ‘Ode to the Motherland’ was a composite performance, so to speak. As the child sang, her father noticed ‘that the voice was a little different from hers,’ but assumed, in trusting fashion, ‘that the difference might be caused by acoustics.’ It wasn’t. Another little girl’s voice sang, while the cute pigtailed one up front, dressed in emblematic red, lip synched. A two for one event. Did China intend to deceive? Big time. But for what purpose?
A full quote is in order from the musical director, Mr. Chen: ‘The reason was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression.’ The pretty girl’s voice was not suitable, and the best singer was deemed to be not cute enough with her happy round face and imperfect teeth. ‘Everyone should understand this in this way,’ Mr. Chen commented, ‘it is the image of our national music, national culture, especially during the entrance of our national flag. This is extremely important, extremely serious matter.’
Many have rightly pointed out that lip-synching and altered imagery are everyday stuff. So, get over it. But what makes me pause is not so much the substitutions themselves, but the context within which they were executed: a bald-faced, unapologetic intention to deceive for the purpose of an intensely felt nationalism. Read Mr. Chen’s quote again. Let’s take him at his word that it was an ‘extremely serious matter.’
In a recent issue of Newsweek, Orville Schell, a half-century long China observer, reminds us that ‘the most critical element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners.’ And that this perceived humiliation has been institutionalized in every Chinese mind. So much so that, in 2001, the government passed a law proclaiming an official National Humiliation Day. Seriously serious stuff.
Schell reminds foreigners to be mindful of this complex psychology as we criticize China. ‘We tend to forget just how deeply implicated we are in how China came to experience and view the modern world.’
And as we wonder about how the round-faced child with imperfect teeth - the one who sang but was not shown - might be personally hurt by this, I suppose we need to understand a very uncommon fact for us Westerners: that for Asian culture - generally speaking, of course - some things take precedence over individuality. In China’s case, national pride is one of those things. Can we bridge this cultural divide? Probably not, but it does behove us to try to understand it.
Recall in 2003 that former US Secretary of State Colin Powell exhibited allegedly mis-captioned photos of Iraq’s nuclear installations before the UN Security Council. This was done under pretenses of US ‘national interest’ but, nevertheless, the photos were misleading. As it became evident that these photos might not accurately represent conditions on the ground, criticism emerged, (albeit mostly muted), presumably because deception is unacceptable in our ideal mind.
Of course, deception is an integral part of realpolitik, only to have history condemn it later, after irrevocable damage has been done. But all deception - justified or not - has consequences. Long ago in a land far away, there were once bumper stickers that read Question Authority. I suppose we could do worse.


HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?: Stuart Rodger

The most gorgeous Lily of them all
Maybe you didn’t know that there is a lily which only grows in the tropics? If that’s not unusual enough - these lilies are climbers! The tip of the leaf extends its central kein into a tendril, which curls around the host plant in order to hoist the spectacular flowers up into the sunlight. So wonderful are these flowers that botanists named the genus Gloriosa. Of all the marvellous flowers that were grown in the Victorian store house, these were by far the best. New varieties this rare and spectacular were purchased for king’s ransoms in auction frenzies so that the proud owner could show off his new acquisition to all his fellow enthusiasts. Thus, one of these lilies acquired the accolade of having been named after the richest family of bankers in the world, the Rothschilds. Gloriosa rothschildiana has recurved red petals edged with yellow which lick upwards in points, giving the appearance of a plant engulfed in flames. To suddenly turn a corner and come face to face with this plant in full flower amongst the exuberant and contrasting greenery of a tropical store house must have taken the viewer’s breath away!
The plant hails from Africa, but here in Thailand and all along the coast as far as Sri Lanka and India where it can be found growing even in the sand of a beach. Gloriosa superba has smaller orange and yellow flowers than its magnificent cousin, but its flowers are still very showy.
Happily, these plants are easy to grow from their finger-like roots, and have a dormant period which sees them safely through the dry season. When sufficient time has passed, a small pea-sized white growth will appear on the growing tip. This is the time to quickly plant the root horizontally just below the surface of the soil. This pea will develop into roots and a shoot which swiftly grows upwards and will soon require trellis or a plant support to climb. The shoot eventually divides into 3 separate shoots, each of which will produce a number of flowers when about 3-4 feet high. The root will give up its energy to create this rapid growth but eventually several more “fingers” will be produced striking directly downwards so that each year they are buried deeper and deeper in the soil and safer and safer from harm.
Leave the plant to mature naturally after flowering to give it time to photosynthesise and build its new roots for next year’s flowering. Take care whilst handling - the seed is poisonous, and even favoured as a means of suicide in Sri Lanka! Another all yellow variety - Gloriosa lutea - has smaller flowers. All these lilies do well planted along a hedge to give the slightly boring “clipped” growth a seasonal display of colourful pyrotechnics in June each year.

Tip of the Week
Don’t cut lilies back after flowering, even although they look ugly and start to yellow. The leaves must remain to build a new bulb big enough to flower the following year. They must be grown in well drained pots; this will allow them to be placed after flowering in a nursery where the dying upper parts of the plant are not an eyesore!


Bridge in Paradise : by Neil Robinson

Last week I wrote about playing in the annual individual tournament at the Som-mut club. I was doing well up to the last round. My partner for the last two hands was my old friend Robert the Rules. His nickname comes from his love of rules, at the bridge table and in life. He used always to play third hand high. Now, when there is an honour in dummy, he adopted the new rule that I taught him - keep an honour to beat an honour in dummy. Unfortunately, in last week’s hand, he applied the rule without thinking first. The result was such a disaster that I needed a really good last hand to stand any chance of winning the tournament. This was the deal:
No one vulnerable, South dealer

  S: K73  
  H: AQ  
  D: AKQJ4  
  C: 764  
S: J1096   S: A85
H: K3   H: 862
D: 10862   D: 9753
C: K93   C: AQ10
  S: Q42  
  H: J109754  
  D: -  
  C: J852  

This was the bidding:
East (Robert)    South    West (me)   North

 -                             2H              P                   2N
 P                            3C              P                   4H
 All pass 
South preempted with a (very) weak 2 heart call. North bid 2N, which was asking South for more information on his hand. South responded with the Ogust bid of 3 clubs, a conventional bid meaning nothing about clubs but showing both a poor suit and a poor hand. North, with good support for hearts and a 19 point hand, bid 4 hearts. Now cover up the other two hands and look just at dummy and East’s cards. The lead was the jack of spades and dummy ducked. What card would you play from the East hand?
Robert, seeing the king in dummy, ducked. South took the first trick with the queen of spades and led a trump to the queen of hearts. The ace of hearts then felled my king. He led four rounds of diamonds, throwing all his clubs. He ruffed a club in hand, pulled the last trump and claimed 11 tricks, losing only two spades.
Robert was pleased with himself for remembering to keep an honour to beat the one in dummy, but his mood changed when he saw my face. I pointed out that he knew declarer had six trumps from the bidding. If I had the king, it was dead, with the ace and queen over it. So that meant six certain heart tricks. Dummy has four certain diamond tricks after my trumps are pulled. So our only possible chance of beating the contract was to take club tricks before they went away. He had to take the ace of spades immediately and switch to a club. Then we get the first four tricks. So, what card did you, gentle reader, play from the East hand? I am sure it was the ace.
I tried as hard as I could to persuade Robert that in bridge (as in life) thinking was much more important than blindly following a rule. But it was a hopeless task. For him, as for some other players (but not you, gentle reader) the lure of a simple rule was too strong.
After this hand, I refuse to tell you how I finished in the tournament. Suffice it to say, I was not first! Please e-mail me your favourite hands to [email protected]