Let’s Talk about Nukes (Baby)

Homer rides the bomb

There’s been so much interesting communication surrounding North Korea’s possible H-bomb test that I decided to save it all up and cover it in one long, rambling, semi-coherent post.

You’re welcome.

Firstly, was it an H-bomb? Probably, strictly speaking, not. It should have been far bigger if it really was an H-bomb, whereas in fact, this test appears to have been slightly smaller than the previous one. There’s a good reason that most countries prefer to test their H-bombs at sea.

According to analysts, this was not the only WMD-related bit of trickery on display either. It seems that recent videos of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launches may have been strategically edited to make them look more impressive than was, in fact, the case.

In short order, the 24-hour rolling Chinese whispers media turned this into North Korea “faking video footage” and then into “North Korea ‘Hydrogen bomb’ test was FAKED using footage of old Scud missile launch, experts claim“.

Meh. These are journalists writing to a deadline. You can’t reasonably expect them to understand that a nuclear bomb is a different thing from a missile (crash course: the latter can potentially be used to transport the former), and that North Korea tested both in quick succession.

However, while we’re on the subject of maximising the intimidation factor of possibly underwhelming weapons, this is worth listening to. Some guy has converted the seismic signatures of the North Korean nuclear tests into sound files, and they’re incredibly eerie to listen to. If you need reminding why this should scare the hell out of us, have a listen.

But why did North Korea choose to test its bomb now? Well, anti-regime news outlet, the Daily NK, reckons it was to give Kim Jong Un a legitimacy boost ahead of the forthcoming WPK Party Congress, and various other writers – plus Russiahave pointed out that North Korea really has very little to lose by continuing nuclear tests, what with no other country being prepared to go upside Kim’s head with anything more than token sanctions (we’ve covered the symbolic vocabulary of international sanctions here before). However, it seems to be Andrei Lankov who has really nailed it.

Not only does he point out that any from-scratch nuclear programme requires much testing as a matter of course, (any idiot can build a bomb – here you go – building a better bomb, however, requires huge amounts of test data), but he notes:

The diplomatic damage could be easily have been neutralized, had the North Korean diplomats been ordered to be less active last year. It would make much more sense to wait for the test which, as the North Korean government knew, was coming, to weather the predictable diplomatic storm and then start sending delegations across the globe with peaceful initiatives and sweet talks of cooperation and investment. Cynically speaking, a little nuclear test would probably help to advance the message of peace, love and aid. It is always advisable first look menacing and then talk sweet. But the North Koreans did exactly the opposite.

Worse still, it seems to be a pattern, since we have seen this before. In 2011-12 North Koreans negotiated the so-called “Leap Day Agreement” with the U.S. (signed on February 29, hence the name). This agreement implied that North Korea would receive regular shipments of the U.S. aid in exchange for its willingness to refrain from nuclear tests and missile launches. From the North Korean point of view, this was a good agreement, since the American diplomats, often working against the mood which at the time prevailed in Washington, essentially agreed to pay Pyongyang for temporarily freezing its nuclear and missile program.

However, the 2012 Leap Day Agreement survived for merely a fortnight. In mid-March the North Korean government told the world that soon North Korea would launch a “satellite,” essentially testing long-range missile technology, and the agreement collapsed, leaving much bad feeling behind. Even now, four years later, all talks in the U.S. State Department about negotiating with the North are bound to be met with a reminder about the failure of the “Leap Day Agreement.” Essentially, this debacle made negotiations impossible for years to come.

Once again, had North Koreans back then decided to wait, and have a missile launch first, only to negotiate later, they would probably secure a great supply of free food for a promise (admittedly, rather shallow) not to do this again. So, it was an easily avertable problem. The only reason why it happened was the inability or unwillingness of the North Korean top leadership to coordinate the actions of the diplomats with the plans of its military-industrial complex. Had Kim Jong Un or somebody with sufficient power just bothered to order diplomats to remain quiet for some time, the 2012 debacle would not have happened.

Back then, the situation could be explained by the hectic nature of the power transition period: The negotiations and launch coincided with sudden demise of Kim Jong Il. However, this time, when similar mistake happened again, such excuses are rather difficult to make: Kim Jong Un is in control of his realm.

The conclusion is not very encouraging. It is possible that, at least in some cases, North Korea might resemble a ship without rudder – or, perhaps, a ship whose captain spends too much time entertaining his guests. This is dangerous in many regards, but let’s hope that Kim Jong Un and his advisers eventually learn from their mistakes.

Link.

(We’ve also covered the fact that North Korea’s various state organs increasingly seem to be working at cross-purposes, and speculated on the possibility of an autocracy without an autocrat before.)

This certainly seems consistent with North Korea’s post-test diplomacy, which has focused on the argument that the nuclear programme is a necessary defence against US threats. In one of his increasingly frequent interviews, Ambassador to London Hyon Hak Bong pointed out relatively mildly that “We develop nuclear weapons not to threaten the world with war but to protect our independence. We want peace, but our nation has been victimised for centuries by one invader and then another.”

Meanwhile, in an oddly touching follow-your-dreams piece in the Pyongyang Times, a local university student wrote about how the nuclear programme can be understood as a victory for juche (“self-development”).

In a rather more forthright declaration, KCNA announced that “strategic patience” had been “completely defeated” and cited Iraq and Libya as examples of the fate that awaits nations that don’t have a nuclear deterrent. And, well, the least you can say is that they’re not actually wrong…

Interestingly, China seemed to back this argument up via a Xinhua thinkpiece, which was more or less equally pissy with both sides, criticizing the US and the DPRK in roughly equal proportions.

South Korea, for its part, returned to a tried and tested riposte: blasting K-pop across the DMZ at ear-shattering volumes, this having been proven to drive the North Korean leadership into a steaming rage. This time around the hits include Apink’s “Just Let Us Love” and G-Friend’s “Me Gustas Tu”, which is rather sweet. North Korea responded by air-dropping flyers calling President Park a bitch.

The US response, by contrast, veered half-heartedly in several different directions before settling into pffft-let-the-next-guy-deal-with-it indifference.

The initial response, tweeted in the immediate aftermath is quite impressively disinterested:

Which is moderately interesting in itself. We’ve apparently reached a point at which the appropriate response to an H-bomb is ennui. Say what you like about modern civilisation, but we’ve come a long way since the 60s.

As one Twitter user commented:

With time it became apparent that something more was needed. The aforementioned additional sanctions were rolled out, to the eternal Soviet cynicism of Lankov:

In the next few weeks we will see a repeat of the same cycle we have seen so many times over the past 10 years.

The UN security council will have an urgent meeting that will introduce sanctions targeting North Korea. Such sanctions will allow politicians to explain to their voters that they are punishing a rogue regime in all ways imaginable – for instance, depriving the leadership of Hennessey cognac and Godiva chocolate. Credulous voters will agree and feel placated, but in actuality, such measures will make little if any difference.

Even if sanctions were to inflict damage on the North Korean economy – which has exceptionally low dependence on foreign trade – the only victims will be common North Koreans, who will just suffer more.

Of course, the top leadership might lose access to champagne, but in their eyes, this is a small price to pay for escaping the fates of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Link.

Also, one of the Guam-based B52s was given a bit of an airing, though Van Jackson pointed out that this gesture could well end up being misinterpreted:

What’s the point of perpetuating high-friction hostilities with North Korea if it just encourages North Korean provocations that chip away at the credibility of our extended deterrence commitment to South Korea? Do we actually intend to wage nuclear conflict in North Korea over a nuclear test or a small-scale act of violence along the DMZ? I don’t think so. It’s wholly incompatible with a history of risk averse policy on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes it inherently incredible.

But what if U.S. risk propensity really has changed? What if we are willing to get tough with North Korea the next time it engages in violence or does something more provocative than a nuclear test, despite a history that suggests the contrary? I’ve often advocated a more muscular approach to North Korea. If the United States is committed to firm retaliation and matching North Korean escalation move for move, the B-52 isn’t what’s going to convince North Korea of that.

One reason is that the B-52 is a routine signal that we’ve trotted out many times; it’s part of our history of backing down followed by muscle-flexing. There’s no way for North Korea to know that this time is different, which means we’re inviting a war by permitting North Korea to think we won’t retaliate even though we will. We want North Korea to interpret the B-52 as “We really mean it this time,” but they see it as “business as usual.”

Another reason the B-52 overflight fails to convey resolve is the very fact that it’s not really much of a signal at all. In Robert Jervis’s most underrated work, The Logic of Images in International Relations, he draws a crucial distinction between signals and indices:

“Signals are statements or actions…issued mainly to influence the receiver’s image of the sender…They do not contain inherent credibility…Indices are statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct because they are believed to be inextricably linked to the actor’s capabilities or intentions.”

Unless signals tie the hands of the sender through some reliable mechanism that forces it to commit, signal “receivers can be expected to at least partially discount them…” Add to this a Korea context in which U.S. nuclear signals have been part of a pattern of both hostility and irresoluteness, and you have a feckless symbol of U.S. and South Korean antipathy toward North Korea, not resolve.

Now I’ll grant that nuclear signaling with the B-52 does serve one constructive purpose: assurance of a South Korean ally that in recent years has grown to question the reliability and utility of the U.S. extended deterrence—that is, “nuclear umbrella”—commitment. The South Korean government clearly supported the B-52 deployment; it was, after all, escorted by South Korean fighters, which hasn’t always happened during past B-52 overflights.

But the B-52 is also problematic from an ally assurance perspective. Unless we plan to initiate a new program of constantly sending the B-52 to Korea—creating new indices, in effect—its deployment is too temporary to shift South Korean perceptions of U.S. reliability.

Link.

This was swiftly followed by a new OPLAN stating that in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, the US will strike North Korean nuclear and missile bases.

US RoK oplan

Also, a plan for a joint US-RoK exercise simulating a nuclear attack on the North.

Unfortunately, all this good work was immediately undone when President Obama omitted to mention the nuclear test in his State of the Union Address. According to the White House this was to avoid giving North Korea “attention” (It being well-known that North Korea disappears if you don’t look directly at it. Always use a pinhole camera or special goggles.)

Naturally, this being Obama’s last SOTU, he wanted to end on a high note and not bring downer subjects like North Korea into the equation. The South Koreans did not see it that way, however, with the Chosun Ilbo producing a we’re-not-angry-just-disappointed op-ed entitled “Obama Speech Shows He Cares Little About N.Korea”.

Almost immediately, several opinion pieces came out hinting more or less openly that South Korea should acquire a deterrent of its own, despite this idea being so taboo that the Daily NK felt obliged to preface its own article with a trigger warning.

In the end, however, the South Korean government settled for dropping some pretty heavy hints about deploying the US-made THAAD missile defence system on its territory, an idea that China hates enough that the threat alone was apparently enough to convince it to throw its support behind additional UN sanctions.

Brand Identity Theft

山寨 (shanzhai) is a Chinese word for a particularly Chinese product: knock-offs. They look pretty much the same, but there’s generally something ever-so-slightly off.

Shanzhai Lamborghini

Seems legit.

Well over the past year or so, CCTV’s foreign social media has gradually been turning into a shanzhai version of Russia Today. We’ve observed this before, but one particular facebook post made today seems like a milestone in the transformation.

As part of the RTification of CCTV we’ve tended to get a lot of footage from Chinese tv talent shows. This is because the Chinese authorities would love to be able to mobilize the viral video phenomenon in the same way that RT did. However, while RT had the balls to play up to national stereotypes by making itself a go-to source for meanwhile-in-Russia videos, the powers that be ruling CCTV are less willing to take risks, and hence wary of posting videos that might make China look bad. Or, more realistically, wary of posting videos that a 60 year-old CCP cadre might think might make China look bad.

So we get Cultural Artifacts, weird stuff happening abroad that has nothing to do with China, and the aforementioned talent shows. Lots and lots of talent shows.

And it’s moderately interesting – certainly compared to actually watching CCTV News in Chinese – but it’s no bear-riding-in-a-taxi.

Meanwhile in Russia

Meanwhile in Russia…

Today, however, they seem to have taken things a step forward:

CCTV Facebook

Link.

The only reason the post embedded above stands out is because it’s moderately sarcastic. It’s not actually sarcastic, obviously, but they’re clearly testing the waters. CCTV’s transformation has been much more gradual than RT’s was, and it appears that the authorities will only allow daring experiments such as this at very widely spaced intervals. Nevertheless, it is happening. When you compare CCTV now with what it was just a few years ago, the difference is impressive. It’s grown more open, but it’s also grown far slicker. Which raises the question: which is better, propaganda that can easily be seen through or real news content presented in such a way as to manipulate the audience?

Interestingly, I happened to mention the RTification of CCTV to a friend who works in the Chinese media. He replied, “Oh yes. The CCTV executives go to Russia every year for training.”

Russia Today: dangerously enjoyable

Remember when we deconstructed this puerile-but-amusing gag from Russia Today, involving adding the Pink Panther theme to footage of an awkward guy trying to eavesdrop on a private conversation between Obama and Putin?

Awkward spy

Turns out we weren’t the only ones in stitches. It was picked up by Have I Got News for You (fast forward to 9:06). Check out the BBC and RT logos in that screengrab above.

If you don’t know what Have I Got News for You is, it’s kind of like the British version of the Daily Show but more politically neutral. It’s extremely popular and very influential.

This is all the more interesting because the show has regular digs at Russia in general (later on in that episode they get a good five minutes’ worth of material out of a story about cheating Russian athletes). The lesson for any PR professional is clear: no one can resist funny internet videos. No one.

If the Russian team had complained about poor security at the G20, mostly no one would have listened, maybe one or two people would have accused them of paranoia. Putting a gag video on the internet makes sure everyone knows.

Here’s something confusing for a Monday morning

Putin gun

Sure, but what’s the margin of error?

Here’s an odd little tale. Just recently this story has popped up in the Russian media:

Early in the morning , I heard an intriguing piece of news on Russian state TV: America loves Putin even more than Russians do themselves! He enjoys an 88 percent approval rating in Russia, but the figure is higher in the United States, the report on Rossia 24 television said.

“A lot has already been said about the incumbent [U.S.] president’s low ratings, a night news anchor said. “He has just been dealt a new below-the-belt blow. An opinion poll by the popular New York Daily News shows that U.S. citizens liked Vladimir Putin’s speech at the General Assembly session better than [Barack] Obama’s speech. Ninety-six percent voted for the Russian president and, accordingly, only 4 percent voted for the American president.”

Link. (I’m not entirely sure why it’s suddenly gained in popularity now, since the original poll and the initial reports on it came out over a month ago.)

If you want the RIA Novosti version, you can find it here.

The story has been picked up by various US right wingers:

Though some sites both in the US and Russia have been more cynical, speculating that the win may have been the result of voting by Russian 50 cent parties or even that the whole thing was a fabrication. Meanwhile, the armchair generals of Reddit have congratulated themselves soundly on seeing through the propaganda.

This is intriguing for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it’s interesting to see the different spin put on the information by the different media outlets, largely because it reflects the way in which Russia’s PR guys take care to modify their message based on the kind of audience they’re targeting. For instance, while domestic and foreign media use similar techniques and have a similar ethos behind them, the aesthetics and the tone is entirely different. Domestic PR appears ridiculously unsubtle to foreign eyes but in fact plays relatively well to the sort of domestic audiences on whom the sly nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of something like Russia Today would be largely lost.

If what the blogger says is correct, Rossiya 24 was reporting this as a straight-down-the-line popularity poll, which it obviously isn’t. They can get away with it, however, because they know that 99.99% of their audience isn’t going to go online and check. By contrast, Ria Novosti – which tends to target a more serious, grown-up audience – has given one of the more restrained versions of the story, sticking to the facts without trying to make it sound more than it is. Nevertheless, it has reported it – something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a serious, grown-up news agency to do for every tinpot little online survey. Perversely, RIA Novosti manages to give the tale more credibility by the mere fact of covering it, even while Rossiya 24 is doing the exact opposite.

Secondly, its an excellent example of how Russia’s soft power strategies have developed under Putin. (Soft power is an over-used term;Russia’s media strategy in recent years is one of the few phenomena that merits it.)

Usually, when you are running a PR campaign you decide on a message you want to put across and then look for the best way to do so. The Russians have not taken this path. Instead they provide us with dozens of different possible messages, theories, conspiracies and hints and allow us to pick the one we like best, while nevertheless leaving us uncertain as to whether or not we have picked correctly.

Even the green-black-and-silver aestehtics of the RT site are borrowed straight from The Matrix, something which its intended audience will definitely register at least on a subconscious level, purely because it is such a familiar part of the demographic’s visual vernacular.

Russia Today aesthetics

There is no spoon

As a strategic response to the widespread perception that the “Washington Consensus” has imposed a single narrative on the world, it is a stroke of genius – like something made up by Umberto Eco (or, more probably, by Vladislav Surkov). They’re just providing alternatives: who could possibly object to that? Their slogan is “question more” because they want us to do just that: ask questions, not come up with answers.

The other side of the coin, obviously, is that when all truths are possible, no possibility is definitively true. The cat is both dead and alive at the same time. In other words, the same strategy works equally well to legitimise alternative narratives as to sew confusion.

Moreover, this is approach to mass communications is not simply a sort of invisibility cloak to conceal whatever is really going on inside the Russian state. It is what is going on inside the Russian state. The maintenance of perpetual uncertainty is central to the current government’s management strategies.

To pick one example: the rumour that Putin funds his own opposition has been doing the rounds for ages. It could be entirely true (it’s what I’d do if I was an autocrat, and if I’ve thought of it then he certainly has), or it could be made up to induce paranoia at a relatively low cost.

I’ve even heard from people who should know that Putin’s PR team has, in the past, pressured polling organisations to reduce his popularity scores to make the numbers more democratically plausible. It could well be true, or they could be putting the rumour about purely in the hope that incorrigible gossips like me will repeat it as widely as possible. Either way: mission accoplished.

Slick moves

Watch this video with the sound on. It’s worth it.

It’s difficult to overstate how much I, as a connoisseur of fine PR, enjoy RT’s work.

I assume that this guy genuinely is a spy of some variety. Not just because he has the too-clean look of a secret policeman (he also looks like he’s openly wearing an earpiece, so he’s probably someone‘s security guy to start with, just going the extra mile with the aid of a retro manbag full of directional microphones), but also because I’m not convinced that RT would decide to out a complete stranger just for the hell of it – for all they know he could well turn out to be a Russian spook collecting audio of a supposedly off-the-record meeting.

Also let’s face it, most of the people in that shot look pretty shady to begin with. You could add the Pink Panther soundtrack to footage of any one of them and end up with something almost as hilarious. If they’re picking on this one individual, we can only assume it’s because they know who he is and want to fuck with his employers.

The power of narrative

Putin's daughter

Here’s a strange article:

Since Vladimir Putin began cementing his grip on Russia in the 1990s, many of his friends have grown famously rich.

Not so the president himself, say his supporters, who insist Putin is above the money grab that has marked his reign. His public financial disclosures depict a man of modest means. In April, Putin declared an income for 2014 of 7.65 million roubles ($119,000). He listed the ownership of two modest apartments and a share in a car parking garage.

His daughter Katerina is doing considerably better, supported by some of the Russian president’s wealthy friends, a Reuters examination shows.

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity, a senior Russian figure told Reuters that she uses the surname Tikhonova. Andrey Akimov, deputy chairman of Russian lender Gazprombank, said he had met Katerina when she was little and more recently, and that Tikhonova was Putin’s daughter.

Reuters has also learned that earlier this year Katerina, 29, described herself as the “spouse” of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a longtime friend of the president. Shamalov senior is a shareholder in Bank Rossiya, which U.S. officials have described as the personal bank of the Russian elite.

As husband and wife, Kirill and Katerina would have corporate holdings worth about $2 billion, according to estimates provided to Reuters by financial analysts. That wealth stems mainly from a large publicly disclosed stake in a major gas and petrochemical company that Kirill acquired from Gennady Timchenko, another longtime friend of Putin…

(It goes on at some length, for the rest, follow the link.)

So what’s strange about it? Surely a story about a despot in some shonky foreign land enriching his family by corrupt practices is the sort of thing you read every day?

Well that’s what’s strange about it. Given how many things there are to dislike about the Putin government, picking on the showbiz lifestyles of his children seems rather like complaining that there aren’t enough photos out there of him engaging in manly outdoor pursuits semi-clothed. It may well be your considered opinion, but I’m going to look at you in an odd way nevertheless.

wtf dog

The fact is that the family as a whole has consistently strived for anonymity in a way that – if you or I did it – would amount to something close to paranoia. Oddly, and extremely frustratingly if you work in the media, barely any information exists about the daughters, who both hold somewhat humdrum jobs under false names and almost never appear in the press.

In fact, even the Reuters article recognises this much:

After unconfirmed media speculation about Katerina’s identity… There is no indication she has made any personal financial gain from this work… Katerina, Maria and  Kirill Shamalov all declined to comment for this article… We have no information whatsoever about the personal life, family connection… Katerina has largely escaped public attention… Little else was known about her adult life…

But wait, there’s more: “under the name Tikhonova, she is listed as an author, along with other academics, of a chapter in a maths text book and at least six scientific papers”.

It’s like the last days of Rome.

So, in conclusion, both daughters lead disappointingly ordinary lives as academics, probably helped somewhat by family connections but almost certainly to a lesser extent than is commonplace within the former USSR. But you’d really need devote some time to deconstructing the article to work that out. The overarching narative is one of decadence and corruption, to the extent that you really have to make an effort to notice that there’s no actual decadence and precious little corruption (take no notice of those network diagrams – I can produce similar ones for the elite of any country you care to name; that is how elites work).

And this is not necessarily because Reuters is an evil anti-Russian propaganda organ of the US authorities. More likely, it’s just that when you investigate the families of the Russian leadership you go in looking to find decadence and corruption, and if it turns out that they’re actually extremely discreet and – frankly – a tad boring, well that just proves that they have something to hide, doesn’t it?

If you want to criticise Putin for running an oppressive police state, destabilising his neighbours and presiding over a country-wide web of corrupt local fiefdoms, be my guest. If you want to criticise his kids’ lifestlyes, however, you should probably take a look at what people like Chelsea Clinton and Euan Blair have been up to lately first.

See also under: “that’s just not what crime does

Truth is a Slippery Animal

There’s a passage in a British political autobiography (I think it’s Julian Critchley’s A Bag of Boiled Sweets, but I couldn’t swear to it) in which an old stager warns a younger colleague on the campaign trail that one should never tell voters that crime is falling, even if it is, because you won’t be believed: “that’s just not what crime does.”

Similarly with these US tales of Russian airstrikes in Syria hitting some hospitals. There’s every possibility that they’re entirely true; the Russians have certainly never shown or laid claim to any great passion for pinpoint accuracy in their military operations. Nevertheless, coming immediately after US strikes did verifiably hit a hospital, the announcement becomes unconvincing ex officio.

Suppose you toss a coin five times. The first four times it comes up heads. Of course, the chance of it coming up heads the fifth time you do it is still 50:50, but even knowing that your mind rebels and tells you that the probability of getting heads a fifth time must be massively reduced.

Similarly in this case. The probability of Russian airstrikes hitting a Syrian hospital has not changed, but the story nevertheless looks far less believable coming immediately after the US really did bomb a hospital.

Look at the comments from the video above:

cctv comments thread

Granted, people who follow CCTV on Facebook are unlikely to constitute the most pro-US audience out there, so let’s try an alternative source. Reddit is an always-reliable furnisher of lowest common denominators opinions that tend to be pretty evenly spread across the spectrum:

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Link

So here’s a handy hint for the State Department: whether it’s true or not, next time just say it was a fucking orphanage or something. It’s not as though the Russians are going to come forward spluttering and saying “I think you’ll find it was actually a hospital…”

Nailing it

New York Times nail salon protest

The grand tradition of extremely punctillious Asian protests continues

The English language press has a long tradition of poor quality reporting when it comes to anything that depends foreign language skills. From the perennial mispronunciation of Beijing, to the cheery reporting of made-up names, to the acceptance of obviously satirical stories as real.

It’s not even limited to exotic Asian languages. I have never heard an anglophone newsreader pronounce Nicholas Sarkozy’s name correctly, and he’s from a country whose language most of them studied at school and which shares a large amount of its vocabulary with English. (Hint: the stress falls on the first and third syllables, not the second.)

It’s not purely an English language phenomenon – journalists everywhere are busy people, after all, and it can be difficult to find a native speaker to check your work when you’re on a deadline. However, in many countries the mistakes will be spotted and widely ridiculed until the error is fixed and/or apologised for.

It seems as though things may be changing, however. A while back Sarah Maslin Nir published an “exposé” in the New York Times about the poor pay and conditions in nail salons, which – coincidentally – are mostly run by Asians.

However, it didn’t stop there. Richard Bernstein, a former NYT journalist, has a Chinese wife who happens to own several salons, and the claims in the articles did not sound believable to her. So Bernstein and some journalists at Reason got to work looking up the original help wanted ads upon which Nir had based a many of her claims.

Lo and behold, it turns out that the ads had been misconstrued or mistranslated. This ad:

Nail salon help wanted

Was translated as offering a salary of $40 per day. In fact, as anyone capable of reading traditional Chinese will tell you, it gives the cost of a mani/pedi at the salon in question as $40 (thus implying the availability of high tips).

This ad was quoted as offering a salary of $10 per day:

In fact, it appears to be offering a stipend of $10 per day for trainees wishing to study with qualified nail technicians after school (if you look at the magnified version, it’s not terribly clear but you can just make out “learn on the job” and “3pm onwards”).

Rather outrageously, the NYT then apparently tried to take advantage of the language barrier one more time by editing one of the salon owners’ letters it received protesting against the coverage to make it appear as though he was acknowledging the truth of Nir’s claims.

So while this may seem like another depressing incidence of a wannabe white saviour screwing things up for the people that she was aiming to help, it’s also a positive sign. Until relatively recently it’s unlikely that anyone would have gone back through the original Chinese small ads to check the truth of it. Right now there are at least three different journalists working on it (the third is Elizabeth Nolan Brown, also with Reason).

And if you want to help right these wrongs by becoming proficient in an Asian language, there’s some good news. A friend just emailed me a link to a BL-themed iPhone app for studying Japanese. Because I know I’ve never looked at a Japanese textbook without thinking “This is good, but it needs more gay porn.”