Sunday, 20 November 2005

Hiatus

We were going to post the other day to say that we are going up to the north of Laos for a week and a half and will be not posting so much (or at all really) for the duration of the trip.

Since we didn't actually write that post, here it is, coming your way from the beautiful Luang Prabang.

Photos and lots of posts to follow in the nearish future. Sooner if we get bored, so most likely later.

Friday, 18 November 2005

WSIS does little, pats own back for it

The World Summit on the Information Society wrapped up today in sunny Tunisia, that bastion of information freedom, and predictably, not a lot happened.

The US still has control over the management of the net, which (and I'm surprised I actually agreed with The Economist) might not be such a bad thing.

Interestingly, everyone at the conference seems to think that maintaining the status quo was a coup and everyone is now sitting around heartily congratulating them selves on a job well done. What job?

The Digital Solidarity Fund, agreed to in a very watered down form at the first phase of the Summit a year ago, has so far managed to raise just over 6 million dollars with which to close the digital divide. So much for digital solidarity.

The one interesting thing to come out of the Summit was an announcement that MIT's Media Lab is intending to put $100 lap tops into production which will be distributed to children in developing countries around the world. I have a few issues with the idea but, all in all, its pretty nifty. They even have a hand crank for emergency battery recharge - I wish my lap top had a hand crank.

The machines will run as well as the $2-3,000 we all love, but won't have as much storage space. They will even form their own wireless network when two or more of them are in the same vicinity.

So WSIS, as a process, seems to have been a tremendous waste of time, but provided a good launching pad for the $100 lap top (which will apparently cost about $110 to manufacture, but let's not quibble) and several other interesting innovations looking to connect the poor world to the digital age.

Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Japanese princess quits palace to marry commoner

C posted about the insanity of the Japanese Imperial family, and one particularly sexist royal uncle, a little while back at LP and seeing this in today's Guardian made me smile.

Right when they are debating hotly about whether to let her ever become Empress she ups and jumps ship, so to speak.

Nice work Princess Sayako (no longer).

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

The week that was

I haven't posted in over a week, because things have been feeling a little hectic around here (yes, even in sleepy old Vientiane).

First, there was my birthday, which P., being a wonderful human being and husband, turned into a lovely day filled with foot massages, facials, expensive dinners and the complete series of Sex and the City on DVD (yes, all 94 episodes).

Friday was the dismissal bonanza over at LP and a day to dwell on the dismal state of Australian politics. That night, we had a small party (for my birthday, not the dismissal) and I spent far too long making a chicken shaped pinata (so that we could all have a bit of a go at bird flu). Turns out the virus is pretty strong (or I just added way too many layers) and we ended up having to hack it apart with a pocket knife to access the lollies.

On Sunday morning my dad and step-mother arrived in town and we spent the day showing them around (or, actually, taking them to good places to eat and for a swim at the pool). That evening, the That Luang Festival was in full swing, so we wandered over there to check out the action and the Lao hip hop show (the entire crowd stands stock still instead of dancing to the music - it is the weirdest thing).

Last night, we were invited over the the Ambassador's place for an informal dinner with Milton Osborne and a range of people concerned with Laos and the Mekong. I never actually got to speak to Mr Osborne himself, but got to meet a range of really interesting people. Had this event been a few months ago, I might have even found a way to get official permission to do some proper field work in Laos - I met the former Justice Minister, now special advisor on Lao law, who told me that he would be happy to help me with my research. bother bother bother...

Finally, today there are protests being held across Australia over the proposed IR changes. I only wish that I believed that Howard would take even a moment's notice...

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

It's her birthday and I'll pretend we rode in a balloon if I want to

It's C's birthday today and there's no one here but me, so I'll have to make sure I love her enough for everyone else who loves her too.

That's a lot of lovin' but I think I'll manage.

That's me in the birthday cake balloon I had shipped over especially for the occasion.

Actually that's not true. I'm still in my pj's and trying to type this before C gets out of the shower. Still, the balloon is pretty, don't you think.

Happy birthday beautiful C.

Time for presents!

Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Membership of a "banned" organisation

After all the hype of Howard's "big swoop", I think that it is worth pointing out that the majority of the nine men arrested in Melbourne were not charged with planning any kind of terrorist act. Rather they were charged with being members of a "banned organisation". Here I can quote their lawyer, Mr Stary:
This is important - they're not charged with any covert conduct. In other words, they're not charged with engaging in planning or preparation of any terrorist offence; they're simply charged with membership offences.
The men arrested in Sydney have been charged with conspiring to prepare for a terrorist act - essentially to manufacture explosives. If the men in Melbourne are not being charged with anything similar, why are they being lumped together with the Sydney guys in all of the media releases, etc? There is surely a huge difference between being a member of an organisation and actually taking part in activities related to planning a terrorist act? Is there evidence to lump these people together, or does their simultaneous arrest simply make better headlines and generate more hype for the Howard spin machine?

My guess is that by the time we know the answers, attention will be focused elsewhere...

BTW - Do drop over to Ms Fits' site for her photo series on these events (although not if you can't gloss over a few expletives).

Saturday, 5 November 2005

Gun conviction is 'ruse' to silence blogger

Associated Press in Cairo
Saturday November 5, 2005
The Guardian


A blogger who criticised the Libyan government online has been imprisoned for 18 months, according to Human Rights Watch. A Tripoli court convicted Abdel Raziq al-Mansuri of illegal possession of a handgun, the New York-based rights group said.

Mr Mansuri had published around 50 articles on a UK-based dissident website. The Libyan security services denied that Mr Mansuri was arrested for his writing.

However, the Middle Eastern director of HRW, Sarah Leah Whitson, said: "The gun charges are a ruse. The authorities went after al-Mansuri because they did not like what he wrote."

So goes a story in today's Guardian. It's amazing the lengths some "governments" will go to in an attempt to silence dissent. Our thoughts are with Abdel Raziq al-Mansuri, in jail for typing his mind.

Money, bag loads of it

I've been meaning to post about this for a while but forgot until yesterday when I saw it happening again! Somehow I thought that what I'd seen may have been an isolated incident, but nope, just the norm.

The Lao Kip is not worth very much on the international market. One US dollar will get you almost 11,000 kip, and you can't exchange it outside the country, in fact you're not legally supposed to even take it out of the country - not that you'd want to, since it's worthless and all.

The depressed (or hyper-inflated, I can never remember which one it is) state of the currency means that you end up carrying around wads of the stuff, since you can't buy much for less than a few thousand kip. The lowest denomination bill is a 1,000 kip note and the highest is the new 20,000 kip note.

Every couple of weeks we change some money and to save time and effort we usually change about US$100, which turns us into instant millionaires. The only problem is we have to carry all that paper around in our pockets until we can get home to stash it. Still, while we think we have problems transporting money, we're nothing on the banks.

About a month ago I was siting in line in a Thai bank downtown when the door opened and two guys in uniform walked in carrying large rice sacks (you know the kind that sit about knee high when full - my knee, not Cristy's). They dumped the sacks at my feet, turned around and walked out again, only to come back a minute later with another two sacks, which also landed unceremoniously at my feet. No one in the bank, other than silly old me, was paying the slightest bit of attention to this process. It took me a couple of trips to figure out that the sacks were full to bursting with Kip and that these guys were the money delivery boys.

Not that I'm advocating bank robbery as a viable career path, but if you were looking to get into it it would be worth starting in Laos. Not that you'd get millions of dollars out of those sacks, but as long as you were planning on staying in Laos you'd be pretty well off from one heist.

The "guards" who were responsible for delivering the cash weren't carrying guns and when I looked out the window there was a pile of cash sacks lying in the car park that the two guys were slowly moving inside. No one was watching it and no one seemed perturbed in the slightest.

It seems this was nothing unusual.

The delivery guys finished hauling the cash into the bank and, leaving it in the middle of the floor, mostly at my feet, they left. The cash was still lying there when I'd completed my transaction and left the building. Quite amazing really, when you compare it to similar activities in other parts of the world. Australian money delivery companies are armed to the teeth and particularly paranoid. They never let the cash out of their sight and, as I understand it quite a few of them are ex-cops with itchy trigger fingers. They've got nothing on China though. When we were in Shanghai we saw an armoured truck, almost a tank, painted military green roll up to a McDonald's in the heart of downtown (don't worry we weren't in the fast food behemoth, just walking by). Several men in full riot gear, including bullet proof vests, armed with machine guns jumped out of the tank and proceeded to unload several small bags of change for the store. Overkill? Maybe, but I wouldn't have wanted to be thinking about robbing them.

Yesterday's episode was even more impressive for its relaxed nature. The bank we normally change money at sits on a fairly main road that is always busy, it's also quite narrow and generally fairly crowded. I was walking back from lunch when a ute (truck) pulled up in front of the bank and two guys (not in uniform this time) got out and started tossing cash sacks from out of the back of the open air tray onto the side of the road vaguely near the bank. They then set about hauling the sacks inside one by one, leaving the pile outside unattended. Once again on one even blinked.

I wonder if the fact that bank robberies seem to never occur here is testament to the honest nature of the locals or to how terrified of the government they are. I must confess that with the amount of poverty and desperation there is here I'm surprised no one tries it. This city could do with a Robbin Hood type figure. Not sure if the green tights would help them blend in though...

"I'm proud as an Argentine to repudiate the presence of this human trash, George Bush"



I suddenly have a new found respect for Diego Maradona

Thursday, 3 November 2005

Deported peace activist blameless

I was alerted to this article in The Age, by the Friends of Scott Parkin. It seems that ASIO have acknowledged that Scott Parkin was "not involved in any dangerous or violent protests in Australia". I wish that I could be so naive as to ask whether they will be issuing him with a formal apology or refunding his deportation bill for $11,000, but really, I already know the answer...

Full Article:
Deported peace activist blameless

AN AMERICAN peace activist deported from Australia on the grounds he was a threat to national security was not involved in any dangerous or violent protests in Australia, ASIO revealed yesterday.

Scott Parkin, 36, from Houston, Texas, returned to the US in September after his visitor's visa was cancelled on the grounds he posed a national security risk. He was kept in solitary confinement by Australian Federal Police in Melbourne following an adverse security assessment by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

ASIO chief Paul O'Sullivan denied his agency was pressured by the US into making the adverse assessment. Asked if Mr Parkin had been violent in Australia, Mr O'Sullivan said he had not.

Feminism and workplace relations

First of all, I should highlight for those who missed it that the second Carnival of Feminists is up over at Personal Political. Suzoz has done an amazing job, and she even included a post from me - very exciting! Its worth a read (the Carnival, not my post), but set aside some time because you may find yourself getting lost in a sea of fantastic posts from around the world... I have told myself to wait until the weekend.

Secondly, I wanted to link to Rob's post on Workchoices over at Red Rag. I love the parodies, although the central message is not remotely funny. This piece of legislation is deeply scary and, if passed, will turn back the clock by about a century for workplace relations in Australia. Many of the gains that unions have made for worker's rights, decent pay and decend conditions will be wiped away. Coupled with the proposed Anti-terrorism laws, Howard's frightening vision for Australia is really starting to become a reality and it may take us decades to ever recover something resembling a decent society if he succeeds.

Now, to justify my decision to combine these two issues, I might also link to Kate's post, over at Moment to Moment, on the impact of AWAs on women - who are generally socialised not to be very effective negotiators in situations where the other party may not have their best interests at heart (i.e. in the workplace). Already it is women who form the majority of the casualised, informal workforce, and we can expect that this will only increase under these new laws.

If you are in Australia and feel strongly about the proposed Workplaces Relations Amendment Bill, you may want to answer CS' call over at LP to attend a community protest on the 15th of November at 9am (his small flight of fancy is also worth a read). I'll be there in spirit.

OK, that's all. I am going to get back to work now!

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Walmart: the high cost of a low price

I've been meaning to mention for a while now that the new movie from the folks who made Outfoxed is out and can be bought on DVD or you can attend a local screening if one is being held near you.

I loved Outfoxed. It wasn't as though I thought very much of Fox before watching the film, but they put all the evidence together so well that the weight of it was just so much more apparent to me by the end of the film. I expect that the same thing will occur with the Walmart film - I already know that it drives small shops out of business, turns town centres into strip malls, and pays disgustingly low wages, but no doubt by the end of the film I will have even more reason to dislike the company.

Apparently the film is having an impact on Walmart too. They have been spending quite a bit of time defending themselves and making personal attacks on the film makers, so they must be fairly worried about the potential impact on their image and profits. Excellent!

Now I'm just waiting for a documentary on Coke - particularly regarding their workplace practices in Colombia and water depleting activities in India. Actually, I'd also like to see one on Monsanto. And Vivendi, Bechtel, Suez...

If only I had the time, money and talent to make them myself...

The Melbourne Cup

First of all, let me say that I have never really liked the Melbourne Cup. I think that horse racing is cruel (although, I'm not sure that I would go as far as these people to make my point). I really don't like gambling - it generally preys on the vulnerable sections of society and causes enormous social problems. The conspicuous consumption at the Cup, and Derby Day etc. is also pretty gross.

However, I have to be honest and say that today I feel a bit sad that I am home alone on Melbourne Cup Day. First of all, I do like the idea of wearing a silly hat. But more to the point, the knowledge that people all around Australia just got together for bbqs and office parties, makes me feel a little isolated here in Vientiane. Instead of partying, I just made myself a cup of tea and some toast and turned on ABC Asia Pacific after the race was already finished.

On the plus side, since Makybe Diva was the horse drawn for me in P.'s family sweepstakes, I get to donate something to Oxfam's Kashmir Quake fund.

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