Saturday, August 9, 2008

Why I'm Not In China

If you can't quite see behind the glare, that was the odometer reading on my car last night when I got home to watch the Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. 88088. On 8-8-8. I am not religious and I am not usually superstitious except for one small illogical fondness I've always had for the number 16. I was born on one and a zillion other things have coincided with the number. And all those 8s that add up to all those 16s...well... whatever.

I've been quiet on this blog for the past couple of days in part because I'm a bit depressed. As I wrote recently, in what seems like another life I lived in Beijing and I had the thrill of dictating my story to USA Today from the madness in Tian'anmen Square on July 13, 2001, when the Chinese were awarded these Olympics. That night, I promised myself I'd find a way to make it back there to cover the Games and then, in this fantasy, I would take the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia and fly home from Paris.

Then my life happened. I returned to the US in 2002, broke up with my first partner and decided to apply the same skills I discovered I had while I lived in China for finding interesting stories and selling them to the national media to a freelance career in Las Vegas. And it has been a richly rewarding decision for many reasons, most importantly because in the process I met Miles and the stability of our life together.

I also slowly but surely lost my grip on what I knew about China. I went back to Beijing a few times, covered SARS for USA Today and did some travel and feature writing, but if I had wanted to remain a go-to journalist on this topic I would have gone over periodically and found some good stories to remain sharp and stay in touch with editors who might later have turned to me for Olympic coverage. I decided after considering it not to further study the language because of the time commitment that would involve, so I'm left with a shadow of the small bit I once spoke confidently.

What's more, with Las Vegas being my primary interest, the part of China that became more valuable for me to pay attention to was Macau, where I've been twice in the past three years. I've not been back to Beijing at this point in almost four years and I hardly recognize it on TV, so great has the transformation been. It's not unlike Las Vegas, a fast-growing and constantly changing place that is best understood from close range. If I left Vegas for four years, I suspect I'd be similarly bewildered and disoriented.

I did toy with the idea of going over for the Olympics anyway. I had Miles' blessing. A friend there offered his couch. I suspected I could've placed myself there and gotten the papers I work with regularly to take some of my material. But the airfares were very high and, on a social level, I suspected all of my friends over there would be madly busy as well.

The amount of resources I'd expend was risky and, unlike those earlier days, I have responsibilities now to my partner as well as my debtors! The secret of my success is a very simple formula: Find a place where there's loads of interest but very few qualified, versatile, industrious freelance writers or bureaus of major news agencies. It worked in China earlier this decade and it works today in Las Vegas as well. This month in Beijing? The whole world is there. Everyone's sending people. Even that stooge Ed Graney from the Review-Journal whose blog posts and snarky news stories are driving me bananas with his juvenile observations and Western ignorance.

But that's another thing. The Beijing Olympics was primarily a geopolitical story until last night's spectacular opening at the Bird's Nest. But as of today, it became primarily a sports story. I'm sure Ed will be great covering what he understands, which is sports and not complicated foreign cultures and international politics.

So I'm sad. I watched last night and saw Yao Ming, who could now speak English but was young, nervous and fearful when I met him as the first Western journalist to profile him in early 2001. As I watched, I knew that this is where I ought to be, in this life working on these stories and spending my time and resources on this family. And it was foolish of me, knowing how uncertain my life was back in 2001, to imagine I'd know where I'd be or with whom I'd be involved seven years later. Miles was patient and understanding and brought in Chinese to make it an occasion. He even let me commandeer the TV for four hours, which is a supreme sacrifice!

Had I known where I'd be now, I'd surely been pleased both personally and professionally. In both instances, I am far more confident and comfortable with my direction. I've got a big piece in tomorrow's New York Times examining Northwest Arizona as the next bedroom region for Vegas and significant pieces due in coming days on politics in both the Times and the Washington Post. And, of course, I'd not be able to participate in the Vegas Podcast-a-Palooza next Saturday if I were among the hoards of journalists all writing the same stories.

But even today, my heart strings were tugged. The stabbing murder of an American tourist occurred at a site, the Drum Tower, that was once a common landmark in my life, where I'd tell taxi drivers to drop me off because there was a tiny bar that my friends and I would relax along a small lake a few winding alleys away. Last I heard, though, the adorable little bars and homes were razed to make way for wider thoroughfares, so I suspect the Beijing I knew in 2001-04 is also significantly less quaint and charming.

I also felt incredibly sad for the Chinese. Yes, I feel sad for the victims. But they were victims of something bizarre and excruciatingly unusual in China at precisely the wrong time. In all my years of following this country, I'd never ever heard of a foreigner even being pickpocketed, let alone suffer a violent crime. That may be a function of what the official police will report and/or acknowledge to the public, but a murder of an American tourist overseas would be something even the masterful Chinese couldn't conceal.

I know I've written some bruising criticism of the Chinese as recently as last week in my Philadelphia Inquirer essay. But that's because I despise the authoritarian rule and the West's willingness to sell the Chinese people short by legitimizing it. But I still want people to go, to witness some of it's majesty, to learn about a place so important and vibrant. And now the brilliance of the Opening Ceremonies, which might have made millions in the West the idea that maybe they might go see the amazing country that can create such extraordinary displays, may be replaced by a fear for tourist safety.

I'd go in a heartbeat. But I'd go when the cost isn't prohibitive and when I can introduce Miles to the people and places that transformed me and led me to him. And these two week in August is just not that opportunity.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Show is UP: Calling A Spade

Here we go, everyone! If you downloaded the earlier, non-stereo file, do it again. It's fixed. Click on the date to hear it or right-click to download the show and listen whenever you want. Or subscribe via iTunes here or via Zune here:

Aug. 7: David Spade

On paper, David Spade wouldn’t seem a likely to become a star, let alone a ladies’ man. And yet, more than two decades after he got his start in comedy clubs and was guided by Dennis Miller to a role on Saturday Night Live, Spade is a staple of American TV comedy as star of such hits as Just Shoot Me, 8 Simple Rules and Rules of Engagement. Spade, who usually performs his stand-up twice a month at the Planet Hollywood spoke to Steve about being the surprising object of affection of many a hot babe, about the tragedies that surround him and about the difficulty of mocking Barack Obama.

Plus, Vegas nightlife guru Jack Colton of JackColton.Com explains the noisy club scene, Steve Wynn's hooker tangle and why Alan Thicke will never be on this program.


Get tickets to see David Spade at Planet Hollywood Aug 30-31 here
David Spade's website is here
For all things Vegas nightlife, check out JackColton.Com here
Read why Alan Thicke is a liar here
Steve's column about the would-be 9/11 discount is here
Steve Wynn's hooker adventure can be read about here
See Wynn's puzzling carpet-bombing advertising blitz here
The Michael Jackson "scoop" from Parade Magazine is here
Steve's piece on David Spade from the L.A. Times is here

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Glory Be! The R-J Gets RSS!!!

Since I just took my customary shot at the R-J for their lack of RSS feeds in the last post, I feel compelled to withdraw the snark and congratulate them for finally figuring it out. You can click here to see all the features they've got set up for feeds.

Oddly, though, it's like this carefully held secret on the site, with nothing indicating any RSS feeds on the hideous home page. Nowhere is that familiar orange RSS logo present, just a tiny thing atop each story that's odd because, unlike the other choices (email, save, print, comment) this has nothing to do with the specific article you're staring at. It's so small, in fact, that a screenshot comes out like this:

Also, not all the feeds work as seen below:

But the other oddity is that the only blog set up for RSS is an intermittent one by an obscure local political columnist. How come no RSS for the consistently updated and interesting Vegas Voice blog or their marquee columnists Norm Clarke, John L. Smith, Erin Neff and Howard Stutz?

Ahh, well. Rome wasn't built in a day. Vegas sort of was, relatively speaking, but whatever. I'm sure they'll work out the rest of it. And I do like the RSS for "most popular" under various headings that allows you to choose from four different forms of popularity. That's a nice touch.

Now, how about some embed codes for the video...

Drunky McDrunks Building CityCenter?

These guys are SO about to lose their jobs...

...because the Review-Journal's Arnold M. Knightly, John Gurzinski and Michael Quine caught them imbibing during breaktime between shifts on the Death Star. Click here for the lengthy, excellent investigative story from the paper or on the image above to watch the 2-minute video and photographic evidence. It's brutal and I think it's terrific that the R-J provided some multimedia action for a story that really needed to be told this way. (Too bad their Web folks are still so utterly clueless they haven't yet learned to offer embed codes for video like every single other news outlet and Web site on the planet. Here's how! Oh well. Maybe they'll get to that after they figure out RSS.)

While we're surveying today's media, Steve Wynn is sounding more and more like my late Jewish grandmother ("My staff is delicious! Absolutely delicious! I could eat them up on a cracker!") in Liz Benston's Las Vegas Sun story on whether dealers from other properties will defect to Encore.

And I've got a piece I had a great deal of fun working on in today's New York Times about the political memorabilia collector's convention here this week. Don't miss this very artfully done photo essay done for the Web from the conference by Las Vegas Sun photographer Tiffany Brown, making her debut as a Times stringer.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Strip Is Live Tonight At 7 PM PT!

The Strip is LIVE tonight at 7:05 p.m. PT with funnyman David Spade, who performs at Planet Hollywood on Aug 30-31 and, in general, twice a month. We'll also be chatting about the hooker that slapped Wynn, the pause that will refresh Echelon and why, oh why, people go to Vegas nightclubs.

Come into the chat room at LVRocks.Com at 7 p.m. or wait until later in the week for the podcast version. Your call.

Wynn Paints The Town Red -- But WHY?

(Before I get into this, I need to point your Wynn-related attention to a bizarre piece in today's R-J in which a hooker allegedly slapped Wynn. Read Richard Abowitz's amusing take on what he calls the Dumbest Working Girl in Vegas.)

The economy's in the toilet. Unemployment is up -- to historic levels, if you believe the weird press release the Wynn folks put out upon announcing the start of hiring for Encore. So why, why, why, must Wynn waste so much capital buying ads all over the place to pimp the fact that they're hiring. The front-page piece in the R-J, a huge NYT feature and the lead position on the news wasn't enough? Don't these things travel through word-of-mouth anyway?

And it's not just that they're buying expensive full-page full-color ads in the Review-Journal day after day. These ads are popping up where you least expect them, like a full-page one in the current issue of Q Vegas, the local GLBT publication. And all over bus shelters like this one, which I spotted on my way home from covering the plea in the ricin case for the NY Times yesterday:

Also, evidently unaware what a yutz he is, the Wynn folks paid Michael Politz to shill this in an e-mail blast yesterday.

Am I missing something? Is he really going to have trouble finding good applicants in a down market?

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Fine, Fine Blue-Haireds of The Palms

I now have yet another reason to love the Palms. It's not enough that owner George Maloof is the most media-savvy owner in quite possibly American business today, that they have such neat facilities or that they're hosting the Vegas Podcast-A-Palooza.

Today, I found out what good people their customers are, too.

I was over there scouting a new assignment idea I had and decided to pop $1 into one of those multi-hand video poker machines. Once it was gone, I hopped to The Lounge to shoot some photos of the space where the Palooza will occur. Here's what it looks like:

God help us fill all that space, but it's a pretty terrific room anyway.

So after I snap these shots, I'm about to leave and I realize I'm missing my wallet!!! Holy crap!

I go back to the machine I played, walked aimlessly around The Lounge, unpacked my pockets and my messenger bag repeatedly. Nothing. WTF? Beyond the agony of having to replace all the items in the wallet was the fact that the wallet itself is worth a lot. It's one of those designer things that Miles insisted on giving me and now I live in perpetual fear of losing. For good reason, evidently.

Finally, in the meekest, saddest voice I've probably ever made, I found an employee near to the machine I had played. "I think I lost my wallet," I squeaked, nearly crying.

She brightened! A kindly old woman had found it on the seat where I had been playing and brought it to security counter! "She said that's what she hoped someone would do if they found her wallet," this lovely lady told me. Then, as I heaved a sigh of relief that my brief stint of terror had passed, the lady walked me to the security desk literally by the hand, soothingly repeating, "It's OK, baby boy. It's OK."

Baby boy?!? But, anyway, I got it back! I was so gleeful! And it made me wonder. The old ladies at the Palms during the day are almost always locals. Would the old ladies at, say, Caesars Palace, have been so civic minded?

I supposed it just depends on what individual finds the thing. I'm just so unbelievably relieved.

Las Vegas, Environmentalist Mecca?

OK, I'm sure to come under a bit of mockery for my piece today in USA Today. Already, the USAT message boards are overflowing with commentary about how Vegas can never been seen as environmentally sensitive because its very existence defies the laws of the environment.

It wasn't my intention to claim that this is the center of sustainability. But it is instructional that these massive resorts are doing all of these things to become LEED-certified, albeit my discussion of their financial benefits thanks to huge state tax breaks was curtailed.

Bottom line is that all of this green building is going on where you'd absolutely least expect it. And the LEED people themselves see a greater good in being able to say, "If a Vegas resort can do it, so can you" to the rest of corporate America.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Alan Thicke is a liar, I think

Norm Clarke caught up with the esteemed former star of "Growing Pains" yesterday, according to today's paper. Thicke played dumb. He told Norm he was unaware of any commitment to meet with the media on Friday.

So let's consider the choices here.

Choice A: A diabolical East Coast publicist, John Passuth, arranges interviews with a low-level celebrity for several Vegas journalists knowing all the while that the celebrity himself won't be available. He even calls one journalist -- me -- minutes before the interview to ensure that I arrive at the precise location I am needed. But really, it's all a big bait-and-switch. When I arrive, the low-level celebrity is said to bolt exactly when he is to conduct the interview. Passuth says the celebrity's people have canceled all his appearances for the rest of the day because of an incident that occurred. This, the publicist believes, will engender good will among journalists and help get coverage for his product, the electric BMW car.

Choice B: Alan Thicke is a very bad, very peculiar liar.
Also, a prima donna well beyond his station in celebrityland. (See Norm's mistake yesterday as to which 1980s sitcom he was on.) Also, he's got no class. Because even if he is telling the truth -- which is extremely difficult to imagine and requires large-scale deception for no tangible purpose on the part of several other people -- but even if he's telling the truth, then he's just got no class. Because busier, more important and smarter celebrities than Alan Thicke wouldn't have gotten on the bus and left knowing that a reporter had been promised an interview and was on site. At the very least, they would arrange for a raincheck. But, anyway, what was Thicke's big rush if he wasn't deliberately ditching us in a fit of pique? Did he have a prayer session with Kirk Cameron to get to?

Those are the choices, anyway. Pick one!

China's Other Games

So after I reposted my 2001 essay on why China should not have been awarded the 2008 Olympics, my editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer invited me to revisit the topic on the eve of the Beijing Games. Here's what runs today in the paper's Op-Ed section...

China's other games


One especially cold week in early 2001, inspectors for the International Olympic Committee were in Beijing poking around in advance of making a recommendation as to whether the Chinese deserved to host the 2008 Summer Games.

It was the heart of a particularly bitter winter, so the dead grass outside the hotel of the IOC emissaries could be forgiven. Still, cameras for CNN caught workers spraying some green substance in the middle of the night to make it seem unseasonably lush. The China Daily would later refute that charge, denying it was paint, calling it, instead, a "color-enhancement substance."

Moral: Nobody should be surprised, as we peer ahead to this week's opening ceremonies for the Olympics, that things are not as the Chinese promised they would be. Painting the grass was only the most ridiculous and unnecessary lie they told to get this far, but it also symbolized just how absurdly far they'd go to secure this honor.

There were more than enough reasons in 2001 to know that this nation - operated by a brutal, greedy autocracy, more adept at stirring up nationalistic fervor than any since the Nazis - was faking its way to the altar with legacy-seeking IOC chief Jacques Rogge and the rest of his gang.

In fact, I listed several of them in these very pages on July 23, 2001. "When the free champagne stops flowing," I wrote then, ". . . those who were swept up in rooting for this accomplishment may wake to the reality that this could be a huge fiasco."

Honey, the alarm clock's ringing.

Read the rest HERE