[This email refers to Michael Braun's novel exerpt]

Michael, it is "Hilda-BEASTS" actually; and I'm not sure it is meant as a compliment. I am trying hard to supress the urge to defend my poor little Alma Mater; according to Oxford tradition we were supposed to be the "jolly" ones; the beautiful and stupid went to LMH.


Well, I had to do something. What with Charles Clover dodging mujahedeen assassins and Tom Jacobs consorting with mystics obsessed with enemas, I decided it was time to do something dramatic. Something with flair. Something really stupid. I went to Cambodia.

My Lonely Planet guide, friend to the independent traveler, was not a consolation. The phrase book translated reassuring phrases such as "Help! I'm being robbed," "I'm having trouble breathing" and "Are there any landmines in this area?" April, I learned, is the hottest month. Watch out for the poisonous snakes, it advised. To make matters worse, Cambodia's disparate leadership chose the same weekend to convene at Siem Reap, the town near to Angkor Wat, for a political pow-wow. These things have a tendency to attract grenade attacks.

Still, I admit to secretly coveting the notes of concern my impending trip prompted from friends and family. Finally, some street cred!

Unfortunately all I encountered were friendly people, good food, an excellent Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh that served dollar Angkor beers and played a mix of Pretenders, Tammy Wynette and Serge Gainsbourg, an amazing but undangerous architectural ruins experience and lots of dust. I did get to pay my first bribe, to some bored police at a rural checkpoint, but it felt more like a toll and lacked the verve I hoped for in highway robbery. Tourist numbers are woefully down but I was hardly alone. Even the heat (in the 40s celcius) and the harsh sun were blunted by noontime naps. It was great. You should go, but only if you're looking for something relaxing.

What is it about brushes with greatness? Why do we seek out the famous and the powerful? Well, stock tips, for one thing. Just remember, you heard it here first. I attended an investors conference this morning thrown by Credit Suisse First Boston. At one point I listened in on a muted conversation between Paul Krugman and Richard Holbrooke (economist superstar and Bosnia mediator/CSFB exec, respectively). Krugman, who had just given a speech which included a not terribly oblique reference to Johns Hopkins' Steve Hanke (Suharto's currency board advisor and audience member) as a "snakeoil salesman," was telling Holbrooke that the U.S. stock market is extremely vulnerable to sentiment changes following a likely if modest rise in inflation over the next year. Perhaps I shifted feet; something caught their eye and they suddenly noticed the third wheel with its bright orange press badge. I smiled, extended my hand, said "Hel--" and they turned and walked away, scowling. Is it name-dropping if they completely blow you off?