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    Side effects of the Sumatra earthquake

    Posted by Sean at 13:38, December 28th, 2004

    One of the nasty things about a natural disaster such as this weekend’s earthquake + tsunami is that the danger doesn’t disappear with the waves. Sanitation and hygiene aren’t at the highest levels in South and Southeast Asia at the best of times; with decaying organic matter lying around all over the place and iffy access to food, water, and shelter, people in afflicted areas are at much greater-than-normal risk of serious infections. According to WHO projections, the number of deaths from malaria and Dengue fever, among other stock tropical menaces, could be twice as high as normal in the aftermath of the tidal wave. In some places, the figure could rival the death toll from the tsunami itself.

    Of course, these are projections. If the immediate effect of this sort of disaster is to show how physically fragile civilization is in the face of nature, the long-term effect is often to demonstrate how resilient people can be in the most appalling circumstances. At the same time, as the Nikkei report notes, Aceh Province in Indonesia was already famous for its recent violent infighting. That’s not the sort of environment in which efficient, need-based distribution of aid is going to be easy. In comparison, Sri Lanka, itself known until very recently as the site of one of the fiercest civil wars going, looks like a cakewalk. Fortunately, the greatest risks are right now, in the first few weeks after the tsunami, when the situation will still have the world’s attention.


    Posted by Sean at 13:13, December 28th, 2004

    Ooh, Tokyo is getting its yearly day of schnee. Of course, it’s just fluffy, wet stuff that disappears on contact with the (non-frozen) ground. The nice thing about a third-floor apartment, though, is that if you stand back a bit from the window, you just see the snow falling, not meeting its premature end. Atsushi comes in tomorrow. Unlike me, he hasn’t just gotten back from 2.5 weeks of lolling at the homes of parents and various friends; and banks are, of course, the sorts of environments in which the end-of-year crunch is especially intense. He apparently hasn’t even had time to write his New Year’s cards.

    The New Year is a big deal in Japan, in a way that sort of combines the meanings of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations at home. You’re supposed to pay your debts (a dark joke in this economy of massive household debt, but charming as a traditional ideal nonetheless), right wrongs you’ve committed and seek forgiveness, and reflect on your good fortune. To my very American palate, the festival foods–a select group of crustaceans, mollusks, and piles of fish eggs–are somewhat less yummy than Thanksgiving dinner; but the symbolism of good fortune and longevity is nice. And I like the oranges and glutinous rice.

    Ornate expressions of gratitude are woven through all Japanese social forms; but around this time of year, things get positively orgiastic, with gifts of beer and tea and cakes and other goodies to be sent to and received from clients and suppliers. The Japanese have not forgotten that their country’s staggering riches are of recent vintage, and the last 15 years of economic shake-up have reminded them that prosperity is fragile; the formal expressions of goodwill that can feel merely dutiful at other times of the year have extra power now.

    This is a good time to thank everyone once again for visiting here. When I asked Dean to set this site up in the spring, I was primarily looking for something to play with as a distraction from self-pity over Atsushi’s being transferred to Kyushu. I’d enjoyed commenting on other people’s blogs–yes, I’m aware that this is getting to be an old story–but frankly, I wasn’t eager to set up my own because of trolls. The decline in American civility gets me down enough so as it is. 200 visitors a day is a very modest amount of traffic, but it’s certainly enough to be trolled. The courtesy people have shown in their comments here and e-mails to me has reassured me a lot. I mean it. Thank you. And once again, Happy New Year.

    Niigata earthquake resurrection

    Posted by Sean at 20:54, December 27th, 2004

    Apparently jealous of all the attention those fault lines in the Indian Ocean are getting, the ground below Niigata decided to twitch at its beleaguered inhabitants this evening. It wasn’t really all that dangerous: 4.9 M, and a weak 5 on the JMA scale. But that’s the kind of shaking you definitely feel, and the disaster a few months ago involved multiple strong quakes and weeks of aftershocks. This morning’s quake was also strong enough to cause delays in the bullet train schedule, not because there were accidents but in order to conduct inspections. Just the sort of thing to get everyone back on edge just as things were returning to normal.

    Not quite government’s end

    Posted by Sean at 12:01, December 27th, 2004

    I was disappointed by Jonathan Rauch’s book Gay Marriage , which I thought made uncharacteristically spotty arguments. (Uncharacteristically for him, I mean–not, more’s the pity, for gay marriage advocates.) Being a sensible person, he knows how to confront reality, though; and with his new op-ed, he ends the year much better than he began it. Well, you have to roll yours eyes and move quickly past the loan shark analogy near the beginning. Part of his main point is this:

    The consensus has shifted rapidly, meanwhile, toward civil unions. The 2004 exit polls showed 35% of voters supporting them (and another 25% for same-sex marriage). Particularly after the Nov. 2 debacle, civil unions look to many gay-rights advocates like the more attainable goal. It is not lost on them that Vermont’s civil-unions law and California’s partnership program have proved surprisingly uncontroversial. For their part, social conservatives increasingly, if grudgingly, accept civil unions as deflecting what they regard as an attack on marriage. John Kerry endorsed civil unions, and in October Mr. Bush accepted them, saying, “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do.”

    This year may be remembered as the time when civil unions established themselves as the compromise of choice. For an indicator, watch whether there is an outcry if state courts narrow the scope of the new amendments to allow civil unions and other partner programs. My guess is that few people will fuss.

    It’s been put to me that even civil unions wouldn’t be possible if activists hadn’t first gone the whole way and demanded “marriage rights” and then fallen back to what would then look like a more reasonable position. Maybe. It’s not possible to know. I myself think the collateral damage, as it were, has to be factored in: the fixing in the minds of Americans of an image of gay public figures as, yet again, screechy single-issue activists who think of nothing but themselves. It’s not fair to lay an equal share of the blame on moderate thinkers such as Rauch, but neither is it unfair to acknowledge that his influence was not always as salutary as it might have been. He’s still one of the best advocates we have, especially with Andrew Sullivan still off in Cloud-Cuckoo Land, and it’s a holiday treat (no one’s going to jump down my throat for not explicitly calling it “Christmas” now that it’s 28 December, yeah?) to see him coming around.

    (Via IGF)


    Posted by Sean at 11:25, December 27th, 2004

    I didn’t know this: the use of organs from brain-dead infants for transplants is not legal (I can only assume that’s what “not approved” effectively means). A Japanese national who works in Chile therefore had to send his 10-month-old son to Miami to get a multiple-organ transplant. It looks as if the surgery was successful.

    I heard you, but what did you say?

    Posted by Sean at 17:46, December 26th, 2004

    I’d prefer to keep my plans for self-improvement in the New Year private, but I’m perfectly happy to share the things I’d like you all to resolve to do for me. Since I like people with interesting vices, I’m not going to tell you to stop overeating, drinking, or smoking. What I would like everyone to stop over-indulging in are words–just three little ones that have rapidly become a public menace through their overuse by gays and our sympathizers.

    hate (used as n.) Oh, children, when your dotty gay Uncle Sean was in college ten years ago, we had many, many ways to accuse people of being intolerant. You could call someone “misogynist” or “sexist” if you thought he was keeping women down, “racist” if he questioned affirmative action, or “heterosexist” if he expressed any discomfort with homosexuality. If you wanted to imply that he was not only intolerant but pathological, you could call him “homophobic.” These pronouncements were shrieky and sententious, but rotating through the different charges at least preserved some variety of phrasing and subject matter.

    But, being busy people, we’ve dispensed with all that. Now hate is the word that slices, dices, peels, juliennes, and transforms ordinary radishes into professional-looking rose garnishes at the touch of a button. Just designate someone as “motivated by hate” and move on. The problem, of course, is that calling moral opposition (however misplaced we believe it is) an emotional reaction doesn’t make it one; Right Side of the Rainbow explained this beautifully.

    Fascinatingly, the venerable noun hatred is not abused this way. When you see someone mention “hatred of gays” or “hatred of women” or the like, you can normally trust him to confine his characterizations to people who really do want to infringe on our rights to self-determination without giving rational reasons. It’s a rare instance of more syllables = less airy pretension.

    second-class citizen (compound n., usually plu.) My objection to this one is less fundamental than my objections to the other two, so I have less to say about it. If second-class citizens were actually used in the process of making a thorough argument that marriage to the partner of one’s choosing is a basic human right, I wouldn’t mind so much; and occasionally, very occasionally, it is. Most of the time, though, it comes off as shorthand for, “Why don’t you love me?” It also tends to accompany coarse, overarching comparisons to the Civil Rights movement that, in my opinion, only hold up in very limited ways. The term has mutated into a buzzword rather than a concept useful for explicating one’s logic.

    self-respecting (adj., used esp. in negative construction “no self-respecting gay could possibly…”) I used to think I’d be overjoyed when the locution self-loathing dropped out of the queer public discourse. What a naif I was. The wording is gone, but it’s been replaced by a longer, more convoluted construction that is, if anything, more annoying. If I had a nickel for every time I read or heard the sentence, “No self-respecting gay could possibly vote for George Bush this year,” I’d be retired to a château with guys in loincloths dropping peeled, seeded grapes into my mouth by now.

    It was always obnoxious for one gay to call another “self-loathing” for deviating from the activist-approved list of political positions and life choices, but it was almost touching, in a weird way, in its suggestion that the addressee was just stuck in that denial stage on the way through coming out and it was making him behave like a jerk. Accusing someone of not being “self-respecting” goes the whole way and asserts that he’s a willful, reasoned-out jerk–in addition to implying that his sense of dignity is properly arbitrated by others.

    If I wanted to dwell on things that annoy me, I have no doubt that I could lengthen the above list without much exertion. If our commentators can start avoiding these terms, however–or at least being certain they’re using them to build and not substitute for argumentation–it will be a good thing for gay issues and for civility in general, neither of which has benefited from many of this year’s installments in the public discourse.

    Happy New Year.


    Posted by Sean at 11:45, December 26th, 2004

    I’d like to use this morning’s Nikkei to illustrate a point a lot of people seem to have trouble with:


    If I weren’t so lazy, I’d PhotoShop it, but the main headline (vertical, in reverse type at top right) says, “津波で邦人10人不明.” That translates to “10 Japanese citizens missing in tsunamis.” The subhead does say, “Over 8600 dead in 8.9 M quake,” and the story naturally makes it clear that the events happened thousands of miles away and killed mostly Southeast Asians, but because this is a Japanese newspaper, the main story is believed by the editors to be how the event affected Japanese people.

    My point is that, while people are constantly complaining about how provincial American media are, it never seems to occur to them that if they just spent, literally, a single day of the news cycle in another country, they’d see that the focus on local interest is universal. On 9/11 also, as well I remember, NHK and the other Japanese stations focused at least half of their coverage on the Japanese firms in the WTC complex and on whether all their personnel were accounted for.

    It’s been a day and a few hours since the first quake hit. The estimated number of deaths will probably keep climbing for a week or so; the busy winter holiday season has begun, and the resort islands and shores that were slammed were probably close to full. Luckily, on the other hand, there seem to have been a fair number of people who were on the beach, noticed the sea being sucked outward, and knew what was coming. On Phuket–a major, major, major tourist destination in this part of the world–there also seems to have been a convenient ridge behind which people could flee to safety. The awe-inspiringly efficient distribution network we enjoy means that aid is already coming into devastated areas, but it looks as if Colombo, Sri Lanka, is seeing unusually high tides right now; as always happens after an earthquake or tidal wave, people in the affected areas will be on edge for the next week or two.

    Added at 13:10: I should probably clarify something here, since this post and the one I put up yesterday may seem to contradict each other. What I was talking about last night was what stories get covered at all; what I’m talking about above is what’s emphasized in stories that do get covered.

    That old-time religion

    Posted by Sean at 19:14, December 25th, 2004

    And what would Christmas in 2004 be without a million and one attempts to bend it in pretzels to suit current ideological wish-lists? Larry King decided that the best panel to discuss the profundities of Christ’s legend and legacy included Deepak Chopra. I regard the fact that he and his studio weren’t zapped into ash on the spot as final proof that there is no God.

    Later, Atsushi and I watched part of another vile CNN special called The Two Marys. (Don’t bother with the jokes about how well audience and subject matter suited each other–way, way too easy.) This was narrated by theological eminence Sigourney Weaver, and it included a lot of talk about how Mary the mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene could have had roles in the early church that were much more official than the Old Boy Network currently dominating Christianity lets on. Oh, yeah, and in case no one’s told you, Christ was gay.

    Now, obviously, as an atheist and believer in the disinterested pursuit of historical truth, I have no objection to the good-faith efforts by skeptics to do what they must with any genuine scholarly lead. Sometimes new knowledge, or improved theories that fit the evidence better than the previous ones did, will indeed prove disillusioning. When that happens, we have to be strong-minded enough to abandon our old beliefs.

    I do find it worth noting, though, that those who cast Mary Magdalene as the lost first disciple always seem to be feminists by conviction. Those who say Jesus had one or a string of queer relationships (always the icky-sensitivo kind, too–as long as we’re embroidering history, couldn’t we put those rough-tough carpenter muscles to better use? I’m just asking) turn out to be–ta-dah!–gay advocates. And in presenting their findings in soundbites of the form, “I’ve discovered X, and therefore Christian sects will have to stop mistreating group Y, ” these researchers don’t seem to make much effort to hide that ideology is driving their efforts.

    None of this is a new problem, no; and the point could be made that it’s none of my affair. You could come up with demonstrable proof that Jesus was a real historical character who had more sex partners than a Falcon Video actor, and it wouldn’t change my life one bit. Nevertheless, religion used to show people how to take the good with the bad and to do their best with the proportion of the two that circumstances had dealt them. Now a lot of it makes the chirpy pretense that it’s all good. Something is lost for all of us when people push the line that reality has to be altered to show us in the most approving light before we can live meaningful lives.


    Posted by Sean at 18:38, December 25th, 2004

    Just saw Atsushi off. He did the dishes after dinner yesterday, so there’s not much cleaning up to do. Of course, the inside of my refrigerator looks like most people’s hall closets–leftover everything wedged in wherever there was still space. I’m going to be having sauerbraten sandwiches and fried potato dumplings for days, but it’s always worth cooking for Atsushi. Like all Japanese boys, he was brought up to believe that he’d live at home or in a company dormitory until about age 25. After that he’d marry and have someone to take care of him.

    The mouthy, hairy, oversexed American man he finally found to take care of him at 32 is not exactly what his acculturators had in mind, but, while he learned to do laundry and brew coffee while passing through his twenties, he fortunately remained innocent of cooking know-how of any kind. Thus, he still gets that priceless look of delighted surprise whenever I put food on the table: Wow, hon. How’d you turn those three bags of groceries into this?

    The only close call I had was with the dumplings. I didn’t try to cut corners by paring them before boiling, but I did kind of start making the batter before they’d been chilled really thoroughly. And we all know what happens when you don’t chill your potatoes thoroughly before you make your dumpling batter, don’t we? Your dumplings fail to hold their shape, that’s what. Luckily, they don’t taste any different as cumulus-cloud-like oblongs from what they would as perfect spheres, and with the breadcrumbs and butter mixed in and the meat and gravy and vegetables joining them, shapeliness was beside the point.

    With dessert we had coffee made in the coffeemaker that was half of Atsushi’s Christmas present to me. The other half is the much-needed vacuum cleaner I’ve been doing without. Yeah, I know, it sounds a little Fred-and-Ethel, but we’ve gotten into the habit of giving each other something practical for Christmas and something more romantic for our birthdays. Today is the last housecleaning day I’ll be faking my way to clean with a push mop between washings.

    This was a bad weekend for weather and other natural forces in multiple parts of the world, so I hope everyone was able to stay safe. Only three or four more workdays until Atsushi comes home for the New Year’s holiday, which is when life really stops for family-and-friends time in Japan. Best to everyone else who still has a few more days of the grind to go.

    Sumatra earthquake provisionally measured at 8.5 M

    Posted by Sean at 18:05, December 25th, 2004

    The earthquakes in Sumatra demonstrate how bad things can get when a natural disaster strikes at the perfect place to maximize damage: a central location in a Third World country, surrounded by other Third World countries, in the middle of tourist season. Tidals waves have radiated out in several directions, hitting Thailand and Sri Lanka and Maldives hard. The Indian mainland has seen damage in the southeast also. Of course, all of these places are either coastal countries or islands, so they’re not unprepared for maritime disaster; but the scope of damage is obviously immense. Additionally, developing countries are developing countries, and general medical and transportation infrastructure may accordingly not be up to coping with multiple emergencies.

    I know that weather has interfered with travel for a lot of Americans this Christmas, and the broadcasts from the States appear, understandably, to be devoted mostly to that, to the holiday itself, and to the most recent attack in Iraq. Problems in Southeast Asia–from the Bali bombing to Thailand’s hitman-style drug war to just about everything else–seem to get very little play in the American media even on a slow day, though. I hope the scope of the damage, which is still undetermined and likely to keep growing over the next week, isn’t downplayed.