I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards. I was in Liverpool at the time, and my friend said that if I didn’t mind he would get me to take them back with me to London, as he should not be coming up for a day or two himself, and he did not think the cheeses ought to be kept much longer.
“Oh, with pleasure, dear boy,” I replied, “with pleasure.”
I called for the cheeses, and took them away in a cab. It was a ramshackle affair, dragged along by a knock-kneed, broken-winded somnambulist, which his owner, in a moment of enthusiasm, during conversation, referred to as a horse. I put the cheeses on the top, and we started off at a shamble that would have done credit to the swiftest steam-roller ever built, and all went merry as a funeral bell, until we turned the corner. There, the wind carried a whiff from the cheeses full on to our steed. It woke him up, and, with a snort of terror, he dashed off at three miles an hour. The wind still blew in his direction, and before we reached the end of the street he was laying himself out at the rate of nearly four miles an hour, leaving the cripples and stout old ladies simply nowhere.
It took two porters as well as the driver to hold him in at the station; and I do not think they would have done it, even then, had not one of the men had the presence of mind to put a handkerchief over his nose, and to light a bit of brown paper.
From Crewe I had the compartment to myself, though the train was crowded. As we drew up at the different stations, the people, seeing my empty carriage, would rush for it. “Here y’ are, Maria; come along, plenty of room.” “All right, Tom; we’ll get in here,” they would shout. And they would run along, carrying heavy bags, and fight round the door to get in first. And one would open the door and mount the steps, and stagger back into the arms of the man behind him; and they would all come and have a sniff, and then drop off and squeeze into other carriages, or pay the difference and go first.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
February 15, 2014
January 31, 2014
With so much talk about the NSA and GCHQ using every electronic means at their disposal, it was inevitable that some of the documents being released by Edward Snowden would implicate Canadian intelligence in similar activities:
A top secret document retrieved by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden and obtained by CBC News shows that Canada’s electronic spy agency used information from the free internet service at a major Canadian airport to track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the terminal.
After reviewing the document, one of Canada’s foremost authorities on cyber-security says the clandestine operation by the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) was almost certainly illegal.
Ronald Deibert told CBC News: “I can’t see any circumstance in which this would not be unlawful, under current Canadian law, under our Charter, under CSEC’s mandates.”
The spy agency is supposed to be collecting primarily foreign intelligence by intercepting overseas phone and internet traffic, and is prohibited by law from targeting Canadians or anyone in Canada without a judicial warrant.
As CSEC chief John Forster recently stated: “I can tell you that we do not target Canadians at home or abroad in our foreign intelligence activities, nor do we target anyone in Canada.
“In fact, it’s prohibited by law. Protecting the privacy of Canadians is our most important principle.”
But security experts who have been apprised of the document point out the airline passengers in a Canadian airport were clearly in Canada.
CSEC said in a written statement to CBC News that it is “mandated to collect foreign signals intelligence to protect Canada and Canadians. And in order to fulfill that key foreign intelligence role for the country, CSEC is legally authorized to collect and analyze metadata.”
Metadata reveals a trove of information including, for example, the location and telephone numbers of all calls a person makes and receives — but not the content of the call, which would legally be considered a private communication and cannot be intercepted without a warrant.
“No Canadian communications were (or are) targeted, collected or used,” the agency says.
In the case of the airport tracking operation, the metadata apparently identified travelers’ wireless devices, but not the content of calls made or emails sent from them.
January 27, 2014
Emma Elliott Freire explains why she and other Americans living and working in other countries feel like they’re being treated as “toxic citizens”:
The [travel] books tend to emphasize romance and adventure. As an American who is actually living abroad, though, I’ve found that the reality is quite different. My fellow Americans back home sometimes regard me with suspicion, and I feel like my government considers me a “toxic citizen.”
The US is one of two countries in the world that taxes its citizens on the income they earn while living abroad. The other is Eritrea. Every single other country bases its taxation on residency, i.e., you only pay taxes where you live and work.
Americans are required to file an annual tax return with the IRS when they’re abroad — even if they don’t owe any money. They’re also required to file a form called an FBAR to declare their foreign bank accounts. An undeclared account incurs a $10,000 fine.
As you might expect, international tax accountants get a lot of business from Americans. One tax accountant based in Amsterdam told me his American clients take their filings very seriously. “If they get the IRS going after them, they have a real problem,” he says.
His clients are the savvy ones, though. In my experience, many Americans who move abroad are not aware that they need to file. The US government does precious little to inform its citizens of their obligations in this area. Over several years, I’ve been informally asking Americans I meet abroad if they file their US taxes. Most of them told me they don’t. They only file and pay taxes in their country of residency. They assume that’s enough. But, in fact, they have unwittingly become lawbreakers. If they move back to America, they could find themselves in quite a bit of trouble.
The IRS is enforcing new rules passed in 2010, which extend US taxation laws to non-US banks that deal with American citizens. To no great surprise (except perhaps to the legislators themselves), a side-effect of this is that many banks are closing existing accounts and refusing to accept new business from American would-be customers:
The IRS is currently implementing a new law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Basically, FATCA requires every bank in the entire world to report the account information of its American clients. So every bank in the world is becoming an agent of the US government. It’s still unclear how FATCA can be implemented because in some countries it violates national privacy laws. However, FATCA stipulates that any foreign bank that fails to comply will be subject to a 30 percent withholding tax on its US income.
December 24, 2013
Published on 23 Dec 2013
As travelers board planes this holiday, please be aware of 12 actual banned items from the Transportation Security Administration.
The Indian government has been attempting to restrict the domestic gold market, but there’s a big loophole in the rules that many travellers are taking advantage of while they can:
Faced with curbs on gold imports and crash in international prices leaving it cheaper in other countries, gold houses and smugglers are turning to NRIs to bring in the yellow metal legally after paying duty. Any NRI, who has stayed abroad for more than six months, is allowed to bring in 1kg gold.
It was evident last week when almost every passenger on a flight from Dubai to Calicut was found carrying 1kg of gold, totalling up to 80kg (worth about Rs 24 crore). At Chennai airport, 13 passengers brought the legally permitted quantity of gold in the past one week.
“It’s not illegal. But the 80kg gold that landed in Calicut surprised us. We soon got information that two smugglers in Dubai and their links in Calicut were behind this operation, offering free tickets to several passengers,” said an official. The passengers were mostly Indian labourers in Dubai, used as carriers by people who were otherwise looking at illegal means, he said. “We have started tracing the origin and route of gold after intelligence pointed to the role of smugglers,” he said.
Reports from Kerala said passengers from Dubai have brought more than 1,000kg of gold in the last three weeks. People who pay a duty of Rs 2.7 lakh per kg in Dubai still stand to gain at least Rs 75,000 per kg, owing to the price difference in the two countries. Gold dealers in Kerala say most of this gold goes to jewellery makers in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
December 3, 2013
Wendy McElroy thinks that the outrage over the new exit pods at Syracuse Hancock International Airport is misdirected:
There is yet another reason not to fly into or within the US. “Nazi-style detention pods” — that’s what opponents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have called the new “exit pods” being tested at the Syracuse (NY) airport. But the pods are not primarily a rape of civil rights. Their import is equally ominous but more subtle. Their main purpose seems to be profit rather than the flexing of arbitrary power, although the two are closely related.
A major change is occurring in one aspect of airport security. The change? The TSA will no longer be monitoring exit lanes at one-third of American airports; the TSA withdrawal is likely to extend to all airports over time. Exit lanes are the means by which passengers who have completed their travel leave the airport terminal. TSA agents had been policing the lanes to prevent passengers from walking the ‘wrong’ way and re-entering the terminal. Now that task is left to airport security because, as TSA deputy administrator John Halinski explains, ”We firmly believe that exit-lane monitoring is not a screening function, but rather an issue of access control.” Apparently, Halinski believes the ‘S’ in TSA stands for “Screening” because “Security” definitely includes access control.
The economics of the pod construction make sense only in two contexts. First, the airport wants to avoid or divest itself of unionized employees; unions have been a source of conflict in all areas of airport and airline operations. Second, crony capitalism. This is the faux capitalism by which profits do not result from productivity but from political connections, which often include bribes or kickbacks. The Syracuse Hancock International Airport official “sneak preview” of the security overhaul listed 17 local firms that will profit richly from the construction. Who do the firms know? With what financial incentives did they ‘purchase’ their contracts?
November 25, 2013
As I’ve said several times before, long distance passenger rail service is an economic dead-end, and the latest story on Amtrak’s financial situation just reinforces that:
As any popcorn-stand profiteer posing as a movie house operator can attest, captive eaters create golden opportunities to supersize profits. But on the Southwest Chief — and Amtrak trains in general — food and beverages are a financial drain. Last week, the inspector general revealed at a congressional hearing that Amtrak lost $609 million on its meal services over the past six years, citing all kinds of eye-popping details about giveaways to staff, spoiled food, and service workers earning about four times the standard industry wage. Defenders of Amtrak argue that the report was just a headline-grabbing jab that distracts from the larger story of the organization’s resurgence.
But the food service fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg. Amtrak has a chaotic management culture, routinely misappropriates funding, and is hamstrung by insane union work rules, as has been described in great detail by its former president, David Gunn.
Amtrak’s been running red ink since its founding in 1971, and tales of its financial imprudence are nothing new. But the 2008 law that authorizes it to operate is set to expire, so Congress is once again mulling what to do with this rolling money-gusher. The Brookings Institution has come out with a major study claiming that in the last five years Amtrak has finally gotten on the right track. The study, titled A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail, characterizes the 2008 legislation as a success that should be tweaked and renewed.
By glossing over facts, the Brookings report obscures the real story. In the last five years, Amtrak has grown increasingly reliant on public subsidies at all levels of government. Between 2007 and 2011, it received a record $8.4 billion in federal funding — a 50 percent increase over the prior five-year period. States have now become major contributors to Amtrak’s bottom line, kicking in an additional $842 million over the same timeframe. Amtrak’s ridership gains in the past few years are a nearly undetectable blip when placed in the context of the larger U.S. transportation network.
I’d often heard that the only profitable portion of the Amtrak network was the Northeast Corridor, but even that heavily used section is only profitable if you play accounting games:
So what about the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which is the busiest section of rail in the U.S.? Contrary to Brookings’ assertions, the NEC is also a giant money pit. The study claims the NEC generated a $205.4 million operating balance in 2011, but that figure was arrived at using Amtrak’s own selective bean counting methods. In violation of generally accepted accounting practices, routine maintenance expenses are counted as capital expenditures, according to O’Toole, while real capital expenditures never appear on Amtrak’s books because the federal government picks up the tab. According to calculations arrived at by Andrew Selden, an attorney and vice present of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, the federal government has poured roughly $40 billion into capital projects for the NEC since 1975. Now Amtrak says it needs another $151 billion to bring high-speed rail to the corridor by 2040.
September 23, 2013
Caleb McMillan has a brief history of the Canadian city after World War 2:
The end of World War 2 marks a good beginning point for this history. North American society went through some big changes and the cities reflect that. In Canada, The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation was created and with it came the regulatory framework that vastly increased the government’s presence in housing. Government intervention — however — always has its unintended consequences. Post WW2, the Canadian government expanded its highway system, got involved in the mortgage business, and allowed provincial and municipal governments to plan and amalgamate city communities. Through monopoly power, central plans have a tendency to hollow out downtown cores that serve the interests of the market. The “Suburban City” is the result of government control over zoning laws and highway construction. These types of communities are sometimes very different from ones created by market means.
While high urban density can be viewed as good or bad, in terms of city functionality, density is a prerequisite for prosperity. City downtowns are market centres. Resources from the periphery are brought to market centres for trade, and within these centres live the people who deal with this market everyday. It has always been the rural farmers and trappers who were the ones on the edge of poverty — surviving the bare elements of nature to reap the rewards later in the city. The city was the centrepiece in the division of labour; a place to go to make a name of ones self. “Simple country living” that suburbia is supposed to reflect was always a Utopian dream. That somehow one could live out in the boonies yet receive the luxuries of a city.
The very idea of “simple country living” was probably an aristocratic notion that somehow took hold of the middle class imagination, because until the 20th century, only the upper classes could afford the luxury of maintaining a residence well outside the cities, yet still well-supplied with the comforts otherwise only available in the city.
This Utopian dream became a reality with the advent of the car. And with government roads, the possibility of suburbia became technically possible. But just because something is technically possible, doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be done. Market signals are the best means of discovering this information. Individual prices revealed through exchange embody information entrepreneurs use to discover consumer demand and determine scarcity. A major factor in Post WW2 Canada was exempt from this process. Roads, and the whole highway system, were already monopolized by the centralized state. The sudden profitability found in developing rural lands for residential purposes was aided by the non-market actions of building government roads.
Critics of suburban life (usually urban types themselves) are at least somewhat correct in their criticism of the suburbs:
But markets in the Suburban City are, in a way, non-existent. For many, the suburban home is an island of private life surrounded by other private islands. Everyone commutes somewhere. The suburban neighbourhood offers nothing more than residential homes, ensuring that streets remain empty and void of commercial activities. Children may play in the streets, but there is no natural adult supervision. Contrast this to a city neighbourhood, where the streets are the best places for children. With a mixture of commercial activity, residential homes, apartments and other city neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to either side — the presence of people is always guaranteed. There is a natural “eyes on the street,” where people ensure law and order through their everyday actions.
September 16, 2013
Does speed really kill? Sometimes, yes, but when the speed limits are set artificially low, and enforcement is targeted to those areas where the limit is far below traffic speed, then all the speed kills campaign does is keep drivers complacent about paying fines that don’t improve safety.
In this video, I investigate the culture and science surrounding speed enforcement in BC, coupled with my trademark Simpsons, Supertroopers, and Family Guy references.
August 19, 2013
The British government sends a message:
The partner of the Guardian journalist who has written a series of stories revealing mass surveillance programmes by the US National Security Agency was held for almost nine hours on Sunday by UK authorities as he passed through London’s Heathrow airport on his way home to Rio de Janeiro.
David Miranda, who lives with Glenn Greenwald, was returning from a trip to Berlin when he was stopped by officers at 8.05am and informed that he was to be questioned under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The controversial law, which applies only at airports, ports and border areas, allows officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals.
The 28-year-old was held for nine hours, the maximum the law allows before officers must release or formally arrest the individual. According to official figures, most examinations under schedule 7 — over 97% — last less than an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours.
Miranda was released, but officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.
Since 5 June, Greenwald has written a series of stories revealing the NSA’s electronic surveillance programmes, detailed in thousands of files passed to him by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Guardian has also published a number of stories about blanket electronic surveillance by Britain’s GCHQ, also based on documents from Snowden.
Labour has called for an urgent investigation into the use of anti-terror powers to detain David Miranda, the partner of a Guardian journalist who interviewed US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said ministers must find out whether anti-terror laws had been “misused”, after Miranda was held for nine hours by authorities at Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act.
His detention has caused “considerable consternation” and the Home Office must explain how this can be justified as appropriate and proportionate, she said.
“The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, has already warned of the importance of using schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act appropriately and proportionately. The purpose of schedule 7 is to determine whether or not someone is involved in or associated with terror activity. The Home Office and police need to explain rapidly how they can justify using that purpose under the terrorism legislation to detain David Miranda for nine hours. This has caused considerable consternation and swift answers are needed.
“The police and security agencies rightly work hard to protect national security and prevent terrorism. But public confidence in security powers depends on them being used proportionately within the law, and also on having independent checks and balances in place to prevent misuse.”
August 7, 2013
In the Wall Street Journal, Larry Schweikart and Burton Folsom correct the misunderstanding that development and growth will follow infrastructure:
History says it doesn’t work like that. Henry Ford and dozens of other auto makers put a car in almost every garage decades before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956. The success of the car created a demand for roads. The government didn’t build highways, and then Ford decided to create the Model T. Instead, the highways came as a byproduct of the entrepreneurial genius of Ford and others.
Moreover, the makers of autos, tires and headlights began building roads privately long before any state or the federal government got involved. The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway for cars, pieced together from new and existing roads in 1913, was conceived and partly built by entrepreneurs — Henry Joy of Packard Motor Car Co., Frank Seiberling of Goodyear and Carl Fisher, a maker of headlights and founder of the Indy 500.
Railroads are another example of the infrastructure-follows-entrepreneurship rule. Before the 1860s, almost all railroads were privately financed and built. One exception was in Michigan, where the state tried to build two railroads but lost money doing so, and thus happily sold both to private owners in 1846. When the federal government decided to do infrastructure in the 1860s, and build the transcontinental railroads (or “intercontinental railroad,” as Mr. Obama called it in 2011), the laying of track followed the huge and successful private investments in railroads.
In fact, when the government built the transcontinentals, they were politically corrupt and often — especially in the case of the Union Pacific and the Northern Pacific — went broke. One cause of the failure: Track was laid ahead of settlements. Mr. Obama wants to do something similar with high-speed rail. The Great Northern Railroad, privately built by Canadian immigrant James J. Hill, was the only transcontinental to be consistently profitable. It was also the only transcontinental to receive no federal aid. In railroads, then, infrastructure not only followed the major capital investment, it was done better privately than by government.
August 5, 2013
Elizabeth sent me this link, saying “this video kind of gives a feel to the whole experience”. I asked her to write a bit about her trip on the Pushkin:
I’ve never visited a communist country but I got a real feel for it while travelling on this ship. I was twenty-two and going to live in England for a year.
Before embarking, I was given labels to put on my baggage. Cabin luggage was to be marked “Cabin” and other stuff was to be marked “Storage”. As I already had my storage stuff delivered earlier in a steamer trunk, the only luggage I had was marked “Cabin”. Imagine my surprise to find no luggage in my cabin. A tiny cabin with a small toilet/shower and handbasin with a porthole blocked by a ruddy great North American car. I went down to the Purser’s Office to enquire on where my luggage was. A grim looking pair were managing the booth and after checking the records the conversation went thus:
Them: “Your luggage is in hold”
Me: “But I had it marked ‘Cabin’”
Them: “No, it marked ‘Storage’”
Me: Can I have it delivered to my cabin?”
Them: “Is impossible”
Them: “Hold cannot be opened when ship is sailing”
Me: “All my clothes are in there”
Me: “What am I going to wear?”
Them: (more shrugs, waves me off)
I spent nine days wearing two sets of clothing and three pairs of underwear. Luckily, a kind young lady at the same dining table lent me a sweater and spare underwear and even more luckily I had a washroom in my cabin to handwash through the clothes I had just worn (most cabins didn’t have attached washrooms).
The ship was full of students going to Europe to study. The crew of the France had gone on strike and had forced many of the students to take the Pushkin instead. The crew hated us. We were a ship full of under-thirties who drank, played cards and liked rock’n'roll music — everything the Russian crew were not allowed to do. Three days out on a nine-day journey, the booze ran out. As the students were not real heavy drinkers and still getting their sea legs (the smell of vomit on the lower decks was awful), I suspect the crew or the senior officers had absconded with the alcohol.
We had a “talent” night where we had to listen to the crew perform Russian dances and folk songs. When it was the students turn, four or five had brought their guitars with them and started playing rock music. The audience was getting right into it singing along, clapping and dancing to the music when the Russians stomped onto the stage with “enough!”, “no more music”, and shut the performance down.
While playing pinochle one day, I met a young Scotsman from Long Niddry. He had just spent the last five years in the lumber camps of B.C. and to prove to his father that he wasn’t a layabout, he was bringing his car back to Scotland as a trophy of his success. Yes, it was his huge North American car strapped to the deck outside my porthole. How he proposed to drive it around the streets of Edinburgh, I have no idea.
And so, we spent nine dreary November days going from Montreal to L’Havre and then to the Tilbury docks in London. If the students had had rotten fruit they would have thrown it because on docking at L’Havre we were berthed alongside the France. The boos and catcalls were loud and I’m sure the people on the pier were wondering what the problem was.
This is my personal recollection of sailing on the Alexandr Pushkin. So much for the “queen of the Russian cruise ships”.
July 27, 2013
While I haven’t been travelling much in the last few years, I always appreciate the chance to sample the local wines and beers in the regions I visit. Wired Mapland looks at some mapping projects to make that even easier (for craft beer, anyway):
Researching a recent business trip to San Diego (okay, not entirely business), I checked out two of them: The Beer Mapping Project, and Brewery Map. Both utilize Google’s map API (short for application programming interface, the set of programming instructions that enables developers to build new websites and apps that tap into an existing website’s data and functions), and they’re both easy to use: type in a location, and a map and list appear telling you what’s nearby. Brewery Map has Android and iPhone apps; several independent apps use the Beer Mapping Project’s API.
“The big reason we do what we do is we think it’s important, especially with the craft beer culture that’s growing, that people get out there and connect with the beer they like to drink, and help promote small businesses making craft beer, and meet the people who are making the kind of beer they like,” said Jason Austin, one of the trio of beer-loving developers behind Pint Labs, which created Brewery Map and the database behind it, BreweryDB.com.
Both sites rely on users to enter data, from plugging in the addresses and hours of existing brewpubs to adding new ones as they crop up. That means the sites are more useful in areas with more craft beer drinkers and can be a bit spotty elsewhere. It also means the more people who use them, the better they’ll get.
Here’s a brief review of their relative strengths and weaknesses:
The Beer Mapping Project. WIRED: Lets you filter search results by type, making it easy to distinguish breweries from brewpubs, bars, and stores that sell microbrew. Click on a pin, and a window pops up with the official website, as well as links to reviews on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. You can also look up homebrew stores. There are international maps too. TIRED: Beer trip planner isn’t very intuitive. Or maybe it doesn’t work. I got tired of trying to figure it out.
Brewery Map: WIRED: Great beer trip planner. Plug in two destinations and use a pulldown menu to indicate how far out of your way you’re willing to go for microbrew (see map above). TIRED: Designated driver not included. All the pins look the same, so if you want to find, say, a brewpub that serves food, you’ll have to do some extra Googling.
Should I decide to drive all the way to Minneapolis to catch a Vikings home game, here’s the high-level view of my trip according to BreweryMap:
If I’d already arrived at my destination, the Beer Mapping Project comes to my thirsty aid:
July 24, 2013
In this month’s Reason, Michael Malice recounts his tourist trip to the Hermit Kingdom:
As background reading for my trip, I devoured several books about the nation (though Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick should be sufficient for anyone planning a visit). Like most other don’t-call-me-a-hipster New Yorkers, I also watched The Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube, in which Vice honcho Shane Smith claimed that in North Korea, “there’s nothing normal that happens ever.”
My experience ended up being completely different from Smith’s — about the only thing we shared in common was that we coincidentally ended up staying in the same hotel room. I witnessed vast amounts of human normalcy in the most abnormal society on Earth. When I waved to teenage girls, they giggled. When I smiled at toddlers, their grandmothers beamed with pride. The people on the streets of Pyongyang are often alleged to be actors staffed for the benefit of tourists, but there is no amount of training in the world possible for a theater production of that scale.
The first step to entering North Korea is getting debriefed by the Western tour agency that acts as your liaison. I expected a long litany of do’s and don’ts from Phil, our Western guide in Beijing, but his advice was actually quite relaxed. “The North Koreans really like and admire their leaders, so we need to respect that. We will be laying flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung and bowing before it. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one did. “That’s about it. Just don’t be a jerk and everything will be fine.”
We tend to think of North Korea as being stuck in time, but that is an incoherent description. One can get stuck in traffic or in line at the airport, but “time” is a very big place. In the parking lot encounter, for example, the soldier was dressed in a 1950s military uniform. The woman wore the sort of cringeworthy 1980s pantsuit that a fresh-off-the-boat Soviet immigrant might view as the acme of style back home. Both were “stuck in time,” in different times, like a flapper talking to a hippie.
So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs — the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies. The army is stuck in a Cold War rut, while the black marketeers — more often than not female — become “wealthy” and powerful by flouting the laws and bribing whoever they need to bribe. It’s capitalism de facto, not de jure. And it’s growing, as the poverty-stricken government becomes increasingly unable to feed its enforcers.
Although North Koreans are kept ignorant of much that happens outside the state — and just as much that happens inside it — they’re not completely isolated:
I couldn’t figure out how to ask Kim about world events or history. I knew this would be a touchy subject leaving for little back-and-forth. Picking her brain would easily come off as arguing, and would cause her native paranoia to kick in. I wanted to ask about the Holocaust, but knew World War II was an extremely sensitive area. I thought of the most world-famous event I could that would have little bearing on North Korea, and so at one point simply asked Kim if she had heard of 9/11.
“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes at my obtuseness. “We saw it on the television.”
Her reaction was telling. She clearly felt that, though the media might be biased, it wasn’t particularly censored. In her view, the state media wouldn’t keep such major world events a secret.
I still remain quite surprised that they played the actual video. Despite the obvious reveling in America taking a hit, one can’t show 9/11 footage without showing something that most of us no longer register in those shots: the New York City skyline. The closest thing in Pyongyang is the 100-plus story Ryugyong Hotel (“The Hotel of Doom”) a never-finished monstrosity that’s been dubbed the worst building in the world and usually excluded from official photos. The comparisons between the wicked New York of their propaganda and the glowing skyscrapers, calling to immigrants like sirens of myth, could not be any greater.
July 11, 2013
BBC News Magazine collects a few euphemisms for bribes:
If you are stopped by traffic police in North Africa the officer may well ask you to sponsor his next cup of “kahwe“, or coffee. In Kenya you might be stopped by traffic policemen and asked to contribute to “tea for the elders” (“chai ya wazee” in Swahili). But in Turkey, the police would rather you give them “cash for soup”, or “chorba parasi” — soup is traditionally eaten at the end of a night of heavy drinking.
[. . .]
The phrase “a fish starts to stink at the head” (balik bashtan kokar) comes from Turkey, reminding us that petty bribes at street-level are often matched by greater corruption at the top of organisations and institutions. Mexican officials looking to earn a kickback for arranging a business deal will demand they are given “a bite” (una mordida), while their Columbian counterparts are said to “saw” (serrucho) off a part of a government contract for themselves.
[. . .]
Large-scale corruption has its own vocabulary, often created by the media. The “cash for questions” scandal involving British politicians comes to mind, as well as the Italian “tangentopoli” (“bribesville”) scandal in the early 1990s. Combining “tangente” meaning kickback, and “-poli” meaning city, the term referred to kickbacks given to politicians for awarding public works contracts.