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    Posted by Sean at 17:47, June 28th, 2005

    I saw Susanna had done this the other day, went and took the survey, and copied the button into a post; and then the kettle started whistling and I didn’t post it. Anyway, if you haven’t encountered it elsewhere, this MIT survey asks questions about blogging and blog reading in some interesting ways:

    Take the MIT Weblog Survey

    The title, BTW, is a version of the famous Japanese proverb usually translated as “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down,” which seemed appropriate for a post that jokingly refers to the bell curve.

    I’m disadvantaged, you’re disadvantaged

    Posted by Sean at 12:56, June 28th, 2005

    You’d think this kind of crap wouldn’t get me exercised by this point, but it does:

    The National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce entered into an agreement this month with the Department of the Interior Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization to increase outreach to gay-owned businesses and to educate gay business owners about contract opportunities.

    “The agreement says it’s OK to be who you are,” said Justin Nelson, co-founder and co-executive director of the NGLCC. “[The Department of the Interior] wants to do business with gay firms in a public manner.”

    The federal government should be impartial; an announcement from the Department of the Interior that federal contracts are available to businesses regardless of the sexual orientation of those who run them would be great. But we all know that’s not what “outreach” means. More on that in a second.

    What really jerks my chain, naturally, is that “The agreement says it’s OK to be who you are” BS. Can we please, at least every third Thursday or so, not offload our own responsibility for self-definition on the government? Please. And anyway, how exactly does being officially defined as “disadvantaged” make what you are okay, of all things?

    The assumptions underlying the program are hardly flattering, after all:

    Nelson said that many gay-owned businesses shy away from working with the federal government, because of the perception that the Bush administration is anti-gay.

    “Our community is very apprehensive about finding out about opportunities [with federal agencies],” he said. The NGLCC wants to tell gay-owned businesses that, “there’s a separation of the policies of the administration and opportunities they should be afforded.”

    I apparently missed the speech in which the President informed America that gay-owned enterprises should be boycotted until they go out of business. I also wasn’t aware that “apprehensiveness” in an entrepreneur was a trait to be indulged rather than outgrown. Aren’t business owners supposed to be go-getters? If they want to know what kinds of contracts might be legally available to them as gays, they just need to ask one of their corporate lawyer friends. All of us coat-and-tie queers know twelve lawyers if we know one; for Pete’s sake, I sometimes feel like the only middle-class fag in the entire developed world that didn’t go to law school.

    This nettles me even more than usual because a book I just got around to buying and reading spurred me to go back and revisit some sections of Geraldine Brooks’s fascinating Nine Parts of Desire. Here’s one passage that sticks in the memory, about a family in Saudi Arabia:

    Basilah had invited a woman friend who helped her mother run a successful construction company to join us for tea. When her father died, she and her mother had expected his male relations to run the business and provide for her and her children. But they were lazy and incompetent, and it seemed that everything her father had worked for was going to be destroyed. “Finally my mother took over,” the woman explained. “She went to the Ministry of Construction with the papers that needed official approval. No woman had been in there before. The officials ordered her out. She refused to go. She sat there, and sat there, until they were forced to deal with her. She turned out to be a very good manager, and she saved the business.”

    Fine, the analogy isn’t perfect. Still and all, it does seem that if a woman in Saudi Arabia can stand up to a room full of male bureaucrats in order to do what she needs for her company (presumably against her male relatives’ wishes), free American gays who run the kinds of firms that the government contracts with could figure out how to pursue jobs without having their hands held.

    控訴 a no-go

    Posted by Sean at 11:58, June 28th, 2005

    Sometimes the rigidity of Japanese gender roles can be very darkly amusing–even multiple-murderers play along. This week, two sentences in notorious late-90s murders were upheld. One was the death sentence of the woman convicted of poisoning several acquaintances at a summer festival in 1998:

    The Osaka High Court on Tuesday dismissed a woman’s appeal against a lower court ruling that sentenced her to death for killing four people at a festival by lacing a curry stew with arsenic.

    The appeal trial focused on the credibility of Masumi Hayashi’s not-guilty plea over accusations that she put arsenic into a communal curry pot during a summer festival in Wakayama in July 1998.

    The Wakayama District Court, based on witnesses’ accounts, ruled in December 2002 that Hayashi was wearing white clothes and acted suspiciously when she opened the lid of the curry pot.

    The district court also ruled that Hayashi had known that people would die from the poison and therefore sentenced her to death.

    The Osaka High Court also found Hayashi guilty in several other attempted murder and fraud cases, supporting the Wakayama District Court’s ruling that Hayashi attempted to poison her husband and a male acquaintance for insurance benefits.

    Hayashi said that her husband and the man drank arsenic by themselves to obtain insurance money and therefore, she didn’t try to murder them.

    Homicide for the purpose of getting life insurance money is common in Japan.

    The man whose death sentence was affirmed was having none of that slow-acting, within-the-family-circle stuff:

    The Hiroshima High Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court death sentence handed to a man for killing five and injuring 10 others when he went on a berserk rampage at JR Shimonoseki Station in 1999.

    Yasuaki Uwabe, 41, was convicted of driving his car into the concourse of the station in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture in September 1999, and hitting three people, killing two of them.

    Jumping out of the vehicle, Uwabe then began attacking innocent bystanders with a knife. The slashing spree left another three people dead.

    When Hayashi and Uwabe are executed, it’s likely to happen without advance warning (even to their families) and may be timed to reassure the public that the justice system is dealing effectively with crime.

    Japan Post reform provisions accepted by Koizumi

    Posted by Sean at 11:44, June 28th, 2005

    A few nights ago, Atsushi reminded me in our nightly conversation that the property tax was due by the end of the month. Monday’s a day off for me, so I figured that while I was heading to the post office anyway, I may as well mail some other stuff: I took care of a friend’s wedding present, letter to my grandfather, few other things. Need I tell you what, when I was halfway out the door and feeling all smug and accomplished, I realized I’d forgotten to do? Personally, I blame the fact that Japan Post hasn’t yet been privatized. After all, a private corporation accountable to its customers would develop an array of services more responsive to their needs and…uh…thus…you know, more…memorable. (Don’t worry, A., I went back in and paid it.)

    Anyway, the privatization bill is still being haggled over. Latest news is:

    On the evening of 28 June, the LDP agreed to a review of the Japan Post privatization bill that included the revision of 4 items. The central revision was that, as one of the functions the window-services corporation will be allowed to perform, “the work of a bank or insurance agency” is given as an example. Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi assented to the revision. In accepting this resolution, which had been a sticking point through the debate over revisions, the LDP executive body aims to see the bill passed by the Lower House by the beginning of July. Opposition to the bill is still deep-rooted even among some in the party, however, so there are still many issues that stand in the way of its approval.

    This is the same Koizumi who was saying yesterday that he would accept no revisions; he said tonight that his position had not changed. Okay, whatever you say. Perhaps the new provisions don’t strike him as neutering the reforms. Along those lines, it remains unclear whether mochiai (mutual shareholding) will be explicitly permitted; some in the LDP were pushing for such a provision yesterday.

    Blasted with both barrels

    Posted by Sean at 04:42, June 27th, 2005

    Apparently, the du Toits looked across their dining room table at each other this past week and said: “You know, darling, people are really stupid sometimes. More Yorkshire pudding?” “They certainly are. Wish they’d knock it off. And no thanks, I’m full.” Their posts come at it from different angles, but they’re essentially on the same topic: critical thinking.

    By that I mean the good kind: questioning and investigating not only the information presented to you but also your own assumptions. It’s necessary to specify that, because what’s often referred to as “critical thinking” nowadays seems to consist of little more than the ability to write a five-paragraph essay that’s consistent within its own hermetically-sealed logical framework. (I’m hardly the first person to say this, but that’s my main gripe with many libertarians: their arguments have the internal purity of rock crystal but are useless for a country of 300 million strong-minded people who all have to live with each other.) Anyway, good reads both.


    Posted by Sean at 05:35, June 26th, 2005

    Oh, I think I’ve forgotten to mention this:

    The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry says it has a slush fund of 31 million yen amassed from setting aside some research expenses to be paid to an affiliate organization.

    Vice Minister Hideji Sugiyama also said at a press conference Thursday that Taizo Nakatomi, former head of the planning office at the minister’s secretariat, misappropriated part of the fund for his private stock transactions.

    Nakatomi, 48, was dismissed on June 6.

    The ministry had withheld information related to the slush fund because investigators asked the ministry to keep it confidential.

    This was the topic of the Nikkei‘s main editorial yesterday morning:

    Another former official at METI has just recently been charged with insider trading, after all. If we add this new slush fund problem, is it not apparent that there’s an institutional lack of vigilance that doesn’t end with just one individual? Minister of ETI Nakagawa has resolved to establish an investigative committee made up of outside lawyers and other experts; what he must go on to do is to make sure the facts of ministry doings are brought to light and then cut out the rot.

    Do the problems really stop with METI? Or do the same problems exist in other Kasumigaseki ministries and government bodies? The issue cannot be settled by targeting the one person at one ministry involved in this particular instance of malfeasance; it is necessary to make the flow of money through the entire government thoroughly transparent, including that involved in relationships among federal ministries and semi-governmental corporations.

    I used “cut out the rot” because that’s the way we’d usually put it in English. For anyone who’s interested, though, the more evocative Japanese metaphor in the original is 膿を出し切る (umi wo dashikiru: “drain all the pus”). Whatever we’re calling the infection, obviously, there’s a reason the questions at the beginning of that last paragraph are loaded, and everyone in Japan knows it. That doesn’t mean the government’s moves toward transparency aren’t working–the reason we’re discussing these cases is that they’ve been exposed, after all–but they are working slowly.

    Still life with petroleum and area rug

    Posted by Sean at 04:32, June 26th, 2005

    Machiruda, who does a better job of paying close attention to the China-Japan competition for natural resources than I do, links to a Financial Times series on China’s energy ambitions. Good reading, even if the formatting is clunky to negotiate. An article that’s not specifically related to fossil fuel procurement is on page 7: “Chinese learn to talk contracts, not contacts.” As you probably figured from that headline, it’s about how Chinese businessmen are adapting to the Western model of contractual obligation rather than cronyism.

    On a different note, Machiruda also went to Nikko earlier this month and posts a photograph of one of the shrine entrances. It’s very elaborate, and reminds me of something I’ve always thought was a shame. When you mention “Japanese architecture” or “Japanese furnishings,” Westerners tend to picture, you know, like, Ikea with rice paper. Of course, that’s not inaccurate, especially nowadays, with the mass-produced buildings and furniture that are artifacts of Japan’s economic efflorescence after the war. Unstained wood, rice paper, and bamboo; low-lying pieces of furniture that seem to hover horizontally over the floor; austere lack of detailing–those are all elements that are genuinely traditional.

    But Japan has its rococo strain, too–a bequest of the Momoyama Era. People are often surprised at that, because it’s not the “Japanese aesthetic” that influences Western designers. You also don’t see much complicated design or bright color in contemporary Japanese houses, with the exception of red lacquer. Rooms are small here, and colorful patterns can get claustrophobic. The tendency to shove brightly-colored cartoon animals, giant lit-up signs, and ornately fugly tile patterns (the station in my beloved Shibuya has at its south exit one of the worst offenders I’ve ever seen, but it has plenty of competition) in our faces outdoors seems to be the modern outlet for the Japanese instinct for lavishness. The combination of that garish overlighting and obnoxious vanity-project architecture outdoors means that it can make the nondescript blandness of the average Tokyo interior something of a relief.

    But only something of. We need a new rug in the living room, and I told Atsushi that I was thinking of something in maybe navy blue or wine red. I figured this would go over well: he’s very conservative about his colors. (I also figured the red might be useful for when our dinner guests have had a few.) But his reply was, “Hmm. Won’t that make the room too dark?” At this point, I laughed. It wasn’t nice, but I couldn’t help it. I was like, “Dearest, we have beige vinyl walls, beige curtains, blond wood flooring, and white woodwork. Put a mesh bag of dodge balls in the corner and this could be a nursery school gymnasium. There is no way we could make this place too dark unless we unscrewed all the light bulbs.”

    Wow. Was I making a point somewhere? China’s mad for fossil fuels, it’s a shame Japanese rococo isn’t better known, and I’m going to have to wear Atsushi down to get a rug that isn’t beige into the house. Yeah. Hope everyone’s having a good weekend.

    Nakasone’s repellant pragmatism about the Yasukuni Shrine

    Posted by Sean at 01:52, June 26th, 2005

    Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, whom fellow Reagan fans will remember, weighed in on the Yasukuni Shrine issue this morning:

    Speaking on a Fuji Television program on the morning of 26 June, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone emphatically voiced his opposition to the construction of a secular facility to commemorate Japan’s war dead in place of the Yasukuni Shrine: “I’ve been against it all along. We absolutely need to avoid letting the Yasukuni Shrine, where those who died for our country are honored, be abandoned.”

    Of Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s visits to the shrine, he indicated that “[At this point] they’re not in the best interest of the nation. If the Class A war criminals cannot be enshrined separately, I think he should leave off visiting.” On the topic of the Tokyo Tribunals, he stated, “I don’t concede [that they were just]. Not in the least do I believe that those convicted of Class A war crimes were criminals.”

    Well, that’s unequivocal. Of course, context would help. (I wasn’t watching the show.) The belief that many were imprisoned or executed simply for losing the war is understandable in some cases. However, “some cases” does not include those involved in orchestrating a war that included the Rape of Nanking and the comfort women system, which is what we’re talking about when we use the bland designation “Class A war crimes.” And considering what used to happen to the vanquished in less enlightened times, the punishments meted out to the Germans and Japanese were relatively mild.

    Coming around again

    Posted by Sean at 05:56, June 24th, 2005

    For those who, like me, check every now and then but haven’t checked in the last week or so, Alice and Connie are both back blogging. Cool!

    We’re all renters now

    Posted by Sean at 20:05, June 23rd, 2005

    Damn. So that’s how this ends.

    “I have to look out for the city as a whole, not just a few people,” says Mayor Ernest Hewett, who vacillates between “feeling the residents’ pain” and disparaging the neighborhood, which houses a waste water treatment plant. “People were running from the Fort Trumbull area two or three years ago because of the smell. No one would actually buy a house in the Fort Trumbull area.”

    Yet that’s just what Susette Kelo and her husband did in 1997. Not far from Wilhelmina Dery’s place, they purchased a delightful pink two-bedroom house on the southeast corner of East Street, that boulevard of broken dreams with a dangerously insufficient radii. Kelo enjoys a view as lively and varied as this traditionally immigrant neighborhood once was, with its auto shops, corner store, factory, café, construction companies, and social club. (As the government lawyers point out, such a mixed-use neighborhood no longer conforms to the city’s code and therefore is truly a thing of the past.) In one direction, she can watch ferry boats head to Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island. In other directions, she can gaze at petroleum tanks, the stacks of a factory, sailboats parked in a marina, and even the tip of Long Island. The earth-tone-and-glass Pfizer complex is also in view. From her back porch, she takes in the roof tops and thick green foliage of New London.

    Kelo arrived home the day before Thanksgiving in 2000 and saw something else: eminent domain paperwork stuck to her door. It gave her until March 2001 to leave the home she loves behind. In the meantime, it demanded she pay rent of $500 a month (in Connecticut, the government technically owns the property once they serve eminent domain papers). The lawsuit, which bears her name, is holding off her eviction for now. But if she loses, she’ll be a victim whose dreams have been paved over by progress, government style, in which the rights of citizens to their homes are trumped by the pressing need for increased corner radii.

    Read the reasoning behind the New London city government’s move to confiscate the Kelos’ property. You’ll no longer wonder why some people snap and become loony libertarians.

    Added on a tea break: I think I’ve snapped and become a loony libertarian. You know, my parents rented a very small townhouse the whole time I was growing up. We lived comfortably, but our means were straitened.

    By saving and planning, they were able to buy a pretty spacious house a few miles outside of town. It was solid and had an acre or two of property with it, but it had been abandoned by tax evaders and not tended to for a few years. In the interim, it had also been broken into by pranksters who spraypainted the place and started a fire in one of the showers and dumped things on the carpets–the sort of non-structural damage that just needs a lot of sweat equity. Nine years of sweat equity later, the place is very nice, filled with furniture my father built (his hobby) in the garage, and well-maintained. So, having grown up in a family that was rising into the middle class, I feel a special sadness and anger in knowing that the door has been opened for a lot of people’s fixer-uppers to be treated as, effectively, single-unit public housing.

    Of course, if you’re a random American, the probability that your property will happen to catch the covetous eye of a “development”-minded municipal official is likely to remain low, no matter how bad the orgy of confiscation that’s almost certainly coming actually gets. But that’s just statistics. Once you’re living in a state in which every county has decided to commandeer just a few homeowners’ properties for some cockamamie plan or other, you’re not likely to be motivated to fix up a usable but ramshackle old area house, especially if you’re in a modest income bracket and will be doing most of the work yourself and on a limited budget. It’s neighborhoods of people who aren’t rich or influential that tend to get hit with these things, and those who live in them know it.