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Unplugged in Gadget Mad LA

Los Angeles has it all, from celebrities to the iPad obsessed Evil Neil

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America has gone iPad crazy. I know. I'm here witnessing it first-hand. No clever observances about Thai life this week. It's hard to write a breezy column about the nuances and idiosyncrasies of Thai life when the country is descending into anarchy and mob rule. 

I guess I could try - if the Americans could make Hogan's Heroes only a decade or two after the atrocities of World War Two, why can't I make light of what is happening at Ratchaprasong and the Phan Fa Bridge?

Because I'm not there, that's why.

That's right, dear reader. I write this from my temporary home on Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, where I am spending time away from Thailand in order to write a book. Ah, and there you were thinking I was a parochial little columnist confined to musing about life in Bangkok!

For the first time in 21 years I have left Thailand for an extended period abroad, back in western life, far away from Thailand and thus having the strange but liberating freedom of wearing whatever coloured shirt I damn well want.

It's a big move for me, and for the world in general. Surely it is no coincidence that Thailand began its plunge into chaos the day I left, and Los Angeles suffered a 7.2 Richter scale earthquake the day I arrived. But not even an earthquake of that magnitude can stop Americans rushing to their nearest Apple store to secure the latest must-have gadget - the iPad.

Not me, though. I wasn't born with the gadget gene and thus enjoy my life even when it's devoid of apps and iPads. Besides, look at where I'm living! My home is two blocks from Melrose and two kilometres from Hollywood. A hop skip and a jump down adjoining Wilshire Boulevard and you're in Beverly Hills, about the same distance my house was from Sunnybank Plaza when I was growing up in Brisbane - and did I make history by being the first writer to ever mention Sunnybank Plaza and Beverly Hills in the same breath?

It seems everybody knows somebody who was once on TV or in the movies. I am told my next door neighbour's brother's sister-in-law had an almost-recurring non-speaking role on Good Times. Two minutes away is the house where they filmed What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, and Highland is where they shot the opening credits to My Mother The Car - is there anybody alive who even remembers that show (besides me, of course)?

One block towards Hollywood and it's the scene where Will Smith tears up a street in Hancock. My American brother works in the building that was used for the first Diehard movie. I go to a gym in the Variety magazine building. I have died and gone to Popular Culture heaven.

And in the midst of that heaven is the iPad. The Thailand riots have been in the news here, though overshadowed by the death of the Polish president in a plane crash. Both stories pale away to nothing with the release of Apple's iPad. Billboards across LA show whimsical pics of relaxed Americans tapping away on their iPads. Everyone's talking about them in coffee shops and boardrooms. As I write this column, a half a million of the things have been sold in a matter of days.

What serendipity, then, that the first visitor to LA after my arrival is none other than Evil Neil, my dear friend with whom I have worked for years, whose unnatural desire to have every new gadget and cellular device regardless of cost or functionality verges on kinky. Regular readers of my column know about my friend Evil Neil; he's the one who is in discussions with Bumrungrad Hospital to graft a cellphone onto his left ear.

His behaviour when using such gadgets is deplorable and would make Miss Manners turn in her grave if she is indeed dead. He uses these devices in the middle of conversations, cutting you off mid-sentence because these gadgets have somehow assumed a life of their own, and it's a life that has more importance that yours. Or mine. The last thing Evil Neil needs is a new device.

Being a loyal friend, I went to LAX - oh I'm sorry, Los Angeles International Airport for you non-LA types - to pick him up. As he emerged from customs he was pushing his trolley with one hand and speaking on the phone with the other, leaving me standing there admiring the fine metalwork of the LAX trolleys for three minutes. Finally he hung up and I said: "Welcome to America."

"I need to get an iPad," he said in a tone of voice not dissimilar to a Pattaya paedophile or a Klong Toey junkie. Interestingly, on that day (three days after they went on sale) crack might have been easier to find than an iPad.

"You don't need an iPad," I said. "You already have an Apple laptop, not to mention the army of gadgets stuffed into your suitcases and bags. What you really need is to relearn how to communicate with people without such machines."

"Listen to you. You're so judgmental," he said. "We'll go get one first thing in the morning. Oh, and we should go celebrity-spotting as well."

"You want to do that?"

"Sure," he said. "We're in LA after all."

Tragically for Neil, the next day we went shopping, but they had all sold out. That put him in a terrible mood. "I can't go celebrity-spotting if I don't have my iPad," he said, a sentence that wouldn't win any prizes for logic.

What is it about people like him? Here I am in an entire country of Evil Neils; people who somehow can't continue their lives if they don't spend US$500 ( about 16,000 baht) on a new gadget we never thought we needed (or knew about) a few months ago. I suggested waiting a few months until Apple ironed out the inevitable bugs in the machine, but I may as well have suggested hatcheting to death his immediate family.

"Instead I can take you to see the house where they filmed What Ever Happened To Baby Jane," I said, but he'd never heard of that movie. I didn't dare suggest the street they filmed My Mother The Car in then.

We did find a shop selling iPads the next day. I spent a half hour playing with it, and to me it was just an over-sized iPhone. I didn't tell Evil Neil that lest he hit me over the head with a heavy object. You should have seen Evil Neil's eyes glaze over when he was finally able to fork over 500 US bucks for his very own iPad. I could just see him back in Bangkok the following week, whipping out his iPad at meetings with the same gusto John Holmes was whipping things out back in the '70s and '80s. The gasps from adoring, envious Thais would be music to his ears.

Last night Neil and I went to a very nice restaurant in Beverly Hills called Bouchon. I managed a little conversation with Neil in between cell phone calls, but it was largely a solitary dinner for me. Then, at the end of the night, as Evil Neil was chatting away on his cell phone to his staff in Thailand, I looked up to see two other patrons walking past us to leave the restaurant.

David Beckham and Posh Spice.

That's right as we sat there, Becks sporting a pair of crutches, and skinny Posh sporting her usual dour unattractive look. Right beside our table!

"That'll teach him," I thought. "Thanks to his obsession with all things gadgety, he has missed the one opportunity to see real LA celebs." I was triumphant in my victory when he put down the phone.

"You'll never guess who just walked past while you were chatting away on one of your gadgets," I announced.

"Posh and Becks," said Evil Neil. "I multi-task, you know."

Of course you do, Neil. Just like I need an iPad.

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