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    Posted by Sean at 00:32, November 14th, 2007

    Joel at Far Outliers usually posts excerpts from books and articles that are not otherwise readily available online. He has a very good eye, so his blog is worth reading just for that.

    However, a few weeks ago when I wasn’t looking, he started posting pieces of his own writing from twenty-odd years ago when he was teaching English in the PRC. It makes for fascinating reading. Back then, despite Deng Xiaoping’s gingerly moves toward liberalization, most Americans didn’t get much information about China. The multi-part documentary The Heart of the Dragon , which aired on PBS in the States, was about as good as it got. (Things were similar with the Soviet Union–anyone else remember watching the “Comrades” series on Frontline?)

    One thing that caught my attention was a passage from this post:

    In China those who have tap water don’t drink it. Almost all the water and tea consumed each day by one billion Chinese goes through a kettle and thermos bottle first.

    There must be at least a billion thermos bottles. If each thermos bottle is emptied twice a day, then four billion liters of water pour out of the mouths of thermoses each day.

    Boiled water is the universal cleanser. Diners in China’s typically grimy eating places often rinse their tableware with hot water or tea before they eat or drink anything. Some roadside eateries reassure their customers by bringing out all the tableware in a large soup bowl full of scalding water. The customers can rinse everything themselves.

    Disposable eating utensils, like disposable medical supplies, are just coming into use in China. A recent China Daily letter to the editor lauded the growing practice of providing disposable chopsticks in restaurants in Beijing.

    How times change. By 2000, disposable chopsticks were ubiquitous in China and had started to draw fire because so many trees were being cut down to make them. Last year, the PRC started putting taxes on them:

    The disposable splints of wood, usually between eight and 10 inches long, have long been a target for Chinese environmentalists.

    In recent years, the government has actually encouraged their use, in a bid to reduce the spread of infectious illnesses by sharing eating utensils.

    A lot of China’s product has been exported here to Japan; I read somewhere years ago that over 90% of the disposable chopsticks consumed here came from the PRC. It’s been proposed that such exports be banned as early as 2008.

    Perhaps China has reached a stage at which the tradeoff involved in not making disposable chopsticks freely available in order to preserve the environment is a good one. It’s worth noting, though, that (as both Joel and the BBC mention) single-use utensils help close one path through which communicable diseases spread, which was no mean consideration in crowded, developing China.

    Be sure to read Joel’s other posts, too.

    Mental gymnastics

    Posted by Sean at 23:26, November 12th, 2007

    Rondi links to this piece by Bruce Bawer on “Norway’s answer to Ayaan Hirsi Ali”:

    Fortuyn’s murder should have put an end to the character assassinations of the advocates of freedom. Nope. Instead they’ve only grown more sophisticated. Nowadays when someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali assails Islamic fundamentalism, the clever thing to do is call her a fundamentalist–because she’s so uncompromising in her insistence on liberty, get it? In this spirit, a hijab-clad Dagbladet staffer compared Storhaug’s call for Muslim women to “take the hijab off and embrace freedom” to “the rhetoric of the bearded fundamentalists” – thus equating an advocate for the victims of forced marriage and honor killing with the perpetrators of these barbarities.

    As Dagbladet reader Hans-Christian Holm cogently put it, Norway’s media are engaged in “a sick tolerance competition, in which whoever tolerates the most intolerance wins, and the one who suggests that we perhaps should not tolerate so much intolerance is automatically branded as the most intolerant of all.” Storhaug’s own concern, as expressed in an email the other day, is that the relentless demonizing of persons like herself by those who are determined to suppress open liberal debate about these vital issues can only strengthen the hands of both right-wing nativists and Islamists.

    How difficult should it be to recognize that tolerance has to be reciprocal if a free society is to function? You can recognize people’s right to beliefs you find repugnant without recognizing their ability to force other people to bend to them. Or at least you should be able to.

    Like a little child

    Posted by Sean at 21:44, November 12th, 2007

    Eric posted yesterday about a case in southeastern Pennsylvania in which a newly married couple with problems asked successfully to have the marriage invalidated in court:

    In a York County case, a Common Pleas Court judge invalidated a 10-month marriage, finding that a friend of the bride’s who officiated at the wedding didn’t have the power to do so under Pennsylvania law even though he had been ordained online by the Universal Life Church. The judge ruled the friend didn’t qualify as a minister under state law because he had no regular congregation or place of worship.

    By 1885, Pennsylvania had clearly developed two types of marriage licenses. The first required a “minister of the gospel, justice of the peace, or alderman” to officiate. The other let a couple solemnize the marriage themselves (a self-uniting license) and register it with the county.
    Little changed until the legislature amended the law in 1953. While the law still allowed for both types of licenses, a reference to religious ceremonies was added to language describing who could obtain a self-uniting license. The law remains in effect.

    Since the commonwealth government is not the United States congress, I assume it has more leeway to limit freedom of religion; why it would want to do so in this context is beyond me, though. If you succeed in getting a marriage license, it seems to me, you’ve passed such requirements as the government deems fit. (Pennsylvania doesn’t even require a blood test, IIRC from hetero friends who have taken the plunge.) Who officiates, since legal marriage doesn’t require anyone to certify that you’re entering into the union mindedly or that you’re not likely to split up.

    Eric seems to feel the same; I like his idea for a new denomination, too:

    I think the sudden firestorm is grounded in the fact that ordinations can now be obtained online. Big effing deal. What makes one form of communication between humans more suspect than another? Suppose a religious-minded blogger decided to form the Divine Church of the Holy Blog, and decided upon a common set of beliefs, based on articulable principles known and understood and agreed to by all interested joiners. Why wouldn’t their congregation (“Holy Blogroll”) and place of abode be just as valid as any other? What business is it of the government to decide?

    I’ve been thinking about what makes a religion “legitimate” from a different angle over the last week or so, since a friend with whom I went to church growing up contacted me for the first time after a dozen or so years. I posted about this last week. Some consider the Worldwide Church of God a cult; others think it was a genuine Christian sect that got carried away on certain doctrinal points and was poisoned by a cabal of amoral leaders at the very top. (I’m speaking of the church up to about ten years ago; it’s now made numerous doctrinal changes that have brought it into line with mainstream evangelical Protestantism. I think. There’s something about converting to atheism that lessens your attention to theological points, so I may be overstating the case.) I think that this site does a real service in giving former members a place to read up on the inside dirt and share horror stories. The church was supposed to be the center of your life, and it’s perfectly understandable that many people who took that to heart have had real difficulties adjusting since leaving it.

    I do wish, though, that the people who posted were a bit more given to recalling that they freely chose to get involved with the WCG, in countries in which freedom of religion is protected. There’s a page that has a long, long, long list of bullet points for which the ministry ought to apologize—ways the enforcement of church doctrine and culture played havoc with people’s lives. Okay, point taken. But no one was forced at gunpoint to keep attending church, or to refuse to take her children to the doctor, or to fork over twenty percent of his gross income per year to church headquarters. Ministers are responsible for the destructive untruths they peddled, but they can’t be blamed for the unusual eagerness of many members to believe them. Much of the WCG membership comprised, in my experience, people who felt like misfits and were bad at running their own lives. My parents frequently had discussions with friends who were positively relieved to outsource their decision-making about jobs and marriage and childrearing to their pastors and church elders, even when the advice they were given flouted all logic and sense. With the exception of people who were brought up in the church and had been prevented by devout parents from ever knowing any other way of living, I find it difficult to view church teaching as something that was done to sympathetic, pure-of-heart dupes. Being weak-minded may help explain why you’re acting like a ninny, but it doesn’t excuse it.

    The couple in the York County case, similarly, was presumably aware of the difference between an experienced pastor of an established religion and a friend who obtained an ad hoc ordination as a clergyman. It’s ridiculous for them to argue now that they should be legally able to pretend it never happened just because they discovered too late that they weren’t compatible. I hope Eric’s right and that the current decision is “eminently reversible.”

    Added on 15 November: Blogger Ironwolf, who was brought up in the same church as I was, has posted about yet another lectern-thumper who wants us to know we’re all doomed. The specifics of how we’re going to fry aren’t all that interesting–social collapse, big-scary-nightmare empires established by the most populous Asian countries, nuclear holocaust–no one seems to bring much imagination to these things. (Just once, can’t one of these doomsayers jazz things up by predicting that the Satan will launch the End Times from, like, a village in Surinam?) I point it out only to give an indication of the sort of talk that was common coin at church services and among my parents and their friends when I was growing up.

    You make me invisible

    Posted by Sean at 00:45, November 12th, 2007

    Yes, of course, I’m in love (whoo!) with the new Kylie song and video–you had to ask?

    I suppose it does sort of sound like a Gwen Stefani song…or, rather, what a Gwen Stefani song would sound like if she weren’t the second-most ANNOYING PERSON ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH. Personally, I see “2 Hearts” more as accomplishing what she should have years ago with her cover of “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” which turned out murky and a little flat.

    Alice has seen the new Spice Girls video, in which most of the five have their scalpelicious assets on full display, and wonders why women stars in their thirties “all want to dress up as ladies of the night these days”? I don’t know–the inspiration has always looked more like stripping than like streetwalking to me. (I guess “ladies of the night” includes both.) The Flea manages to keep a straight face while proffering the argument that the girls’ message is that “you should be proud of yourself no matter what you look like,” even if you look like a bad boob job wrapped in electrical tape and topped with the head from a Rachel Roberts blow-up doll. Me, I’m not sure whether Baby looks like the spitting image of Bonnie Tyler through nature or art, but the resemblance is so uncanny it’s distracting.

    Anyway, yeah, slutty outfits and dance moves from pop stars. There’s no frisson left, really–witness the perfunctory clip for the lead single from Britney’s new album. You can practically see her thinking, Blah, blah…shake rear, gyrate, slide up and down pole, flip hair…yawn. It may be the single lamest attempt at titillation I’ve seen in my entire life, which is a shame, because the song deserves better. I think the Pussycat Dolls visual tropes will take a while to shake themselves out.

    Veterans Day

    Posted by Sean at 20:51, November 11th, 2007

    I had a busy weekend away from the computer, but I wanted to squeeze in a post before Veterans Day is over. Thanks to all those who have served. We haven’t forgotten.


    Posted by Sean at 04:24, November 9th, 2007

    It’s not just Wini that’s getting cops into trouble lately. A Nara Prefecture police officer worked out some of his on-the-job frustration by posting about it on Mixi (a Friendster-ish SNS):

    He replaced some of the kanji identifying the police station where he is assigned with symbols, but it was still clear that he was a police officer working at a station in Nara Prefecture.

    He reportedly also disclosed his gender, the area where he lives and his birth date.

    According to sources, at 12:22 a.m. on Oct. 2 he posted a message saying, “A certain police station’s special investigation task force finally obtained arrest warrants for a motorcycle gang group and will conduct a crackdown on them tomorrow, so I’m going to sleep soon because I have to go [to the police station] early tomorrow morning to provide backup.”

    In a message posted at 1:57 p.m. on Aug. 24, he wrote: “A rear-end accident occurred on National Highway Route 165!! The person in the car that was hit from behind was injured. The car that rear-ended the other one is reported to be on the run!! This is a hit-and-run…And there was a report that the suspect car was caught shortly after I left the police station in an unmarked patrol car. Damn, I missed out.”

    When the car’s driver was arrested without a warrant, the officer wrote: “Now I’m at a district court seeking a warrant. It’ll take some time to get it, so I’m waiting…Because of this, [I will lose] my consecutive days off…I’m crying.”

    The officer’s messages were accessible to all members, and the police received reports from some who read his messages, the sources said.

    The officer was quoted by the police as saying, “I thought only my friends could read my posts.”

    It’s possible to restrict visibility of journal entries on Mixi, of course, but you have to change your default settings. And anyway, did he really think it was okay to tell his friends about upcoming sting operations?

    Isn’t that special?

    Posted by Sean at 04:46, November 8th, 2007

    There really is nothing you can’t find on the Internet nowadays. I think I’ve mentioned, albeit only glancingly, that I was brought up in a super-conservative sabbatarian Christian sect that some viewed as a cult…yeah? Well, if not, I was. I figured out that I no longer believed in God’s existence about the same time I figured out that I no longer believed in Sean’s heterosexuality. The initial transition was rough, but I got things together, stopped going to church, was up-front with my parents, and really haven’t thought much about it since. One or two people I knew from my abortive semester at the affiliated Bible college contacted me a while ago–they comment here occasionally–but otherwise, the whole experience felt like a distant relic of childhood.

    Then a few days ago, someone I grew up with in church found my blog while Googling for something…”cynical Japan bitch postrel kylie libertarian,” presumably. She wrote very politely to say she’d like to get back in touch and indicated that there’s a website (of quite long standing, it turns out) for people who used to belong to the Worldwide Church of God and left. Who knew?

    I followed her link and was struck by a few things. For one thing, a lot of these people are really, really bitter about the effects of church teachings on their lives. I’m not sure what to make of that. My parents had financial difficulties at times–the ’80s weren’t kind to the families of PA steelworkers–and my little brother and I could be something of a handful. But they handled life fine without calling the ministers or elders in to put them on a budget or tell them point-by-point how to bring us up. Those writing in to The Painful Truth with horror stories about idiotic counsel that broke up families, turned parents into undemonstrative martinets, and destroyed relationships with non-believing family members are surely expressing bias. How could they not? But even if what they write is somewhat embellished, it’s plenty bad in the essentials.

    People in the church certainly noticed Herbert W. Armstrong’s (even all these years later, I feel bizarrely disrespectful for not typing “Mr. Armstrong’s”) naked social-climb-y streak and preference for a tacky, rube-ishly ostentatious version of the good life. My parents and their friends were all very devout, but they had a healthy sense of mischief and would joke about the Gulf Stream and the Mercedes at times. Their view of things was that even the highest living servant of God was only human, that he worked hard flying all over the place trying to get the gospel out, and that he’d earned a little understanding from laymembers about his creature comforts. (Having been reared Catholic, my mother found those working in the higher echelons at headquarters to be relatively abstemious.) There seem to be a lot of charges out there that Armstrong was not a mere pious fraud but a thoroughgoing huckster. I don’t know how true that is. Frankly, it doesn’t interest me much at this late date.

    But maybe it would still interest me, even twenty-odd years after his death, if my parents had gotten divorced or hit me with a belt or forbidden me to have friends at school under the orders of ministers in the church he ran. My first instinct, when reading some of these accounts, is to say that some people need to get a life and move on. After all, no one was coerced into buying into the cult of personality of Herbert W. Armstrong the way people were coerced into buying into the cult of Kim Il-sung. Maybe that’s too harsh, though. I recognize that my happy life has been enabled to a degree by unearned good fortune rather than by my own strong-mindedness. Having a homosexual atheist who lives in Tokyo as an elder son is not what my parents would have chosen, but they love me and have always recognized that adults are free to make their own way in life. When I got to college, my friends were mostly from comfortable, intact families (like mine, only far more prosperous). We all did our age-appropriate chafing against our parents’ expectations, and despite the occasionally major difficulties, we all got through fine. I don’t remember feeling that the religious-ness of some of my adjustment problems made them special. Everyone had things to work out with the family.

    The guy who runs this site (and this more current blog), who apparently ended up an atheist like me, says he feels a special kinship with people who went through the experience of being brought up in the church. Do I? To a degree, I guess I must. I attended services from ages three to twenty-three. That’s a long time. I just wonder whether the church was seriously screwing up the lives of people we knew closely in our congregation and I just didn’t recognize it.

    Thought experiment

    Posted by Sean at 05:53, October 31st, 2007

    I’ve never understood why more people don’t seem to do this kind of thought experiment (via Rondi):

    Imagine a woman – let’s call her Beth – who has been an unthinking atheist all her life, just because her family and her friends are too. One day, she decides to convert to Islam. As soon as she dons the hijab, her neighbours start to swear and spit at her in the street. A brick is thrown through her window; while she is sleeping, her car is torched. When she speaks out publicly, the death threats come. She is a “whore” who will be “raped to death”. All the other converts to Islam are receiving the same threats. Some have been beaten. Some are on the run. When they approach the police, they are wary-to-hostile. The officers ask suspiciously: what have you been doing to anger these Muslim-bashers?

    If this was happening this way, it would – rightly – be a national scandal. There would be Panorama specials, front page fury and government inquiries into Islamophobia. But it is happening – only in the reverse direction.

    Women like Mina expose a hole in the stale logic of multiculturalism. She shows that secularism is not a ‘Western’ value: she thought of it all by herself, in a rural village in Iran. Yet the attitudes that lead to the persecution of apostates are widespread even within British Islam, because we patronisingly assume it is ‘their culture’ and do not challenge it.

    I don’t agree with everything in Johann Hari’s piece. His “basic atheist truth,” that because holy books are in fact nothing more than the productions of flawed humans, they can be interpreted however believers please, overstates the case. Even taking into account the difficulties of understanding ancient languages and determining which passages “belong” in a sacred text, the resulting book says some things and does not say others. As civilization evolves and expands our understanding of the way life works, believers do stop taking some passages literally and repurpose them as metaphor or what have you. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t genuine, concrete wisdom in holy books that can’t be waved away as “superstition” that is infinitely “elastic.”

    I’m also, I must say, less hopeful than he that the “secular humanist” alternative will be alluring to many Muslims who are questioning their faith. I happen to think that belief in God is dodging unpleasant reality and that the wonder of life does not need to be legitimized by a transcendent, immanent personality—but that is not, to put it mildly, the way most people think, even those with a healthy level of intellectual skepticism. Judeo-Christianity at this point has a mature tradition of disinterested scientific inquiry, the separation of church and state, and tolerance of others’ beliefs that make it possible for citizens to debate our differences without knives being drawn. Islam as a political force hasn’t. In Western countries, conversion to Christianity is probably the obvious alternative for most Muslims who are alienated from the faith in which they were reared but don’t want to dump their belief in an Abramic-ish God altogether. Those who think Islam can be reformed from within are not helped by condescending dismissals of barbarous behavior as a defining feature of their culture that needs husbanding.

    It could be argued that Hari is wrong about the racism bit, too. There are white Muslims in the Balkans and elsewhere, after all. But I suspect that he’s far more right than wrong, given the prevalence of thinking like this (via Erin O’Connor):

    The [University of Delaware]’s views are forced on students through a comprehensive manipulation of the residence hall environment, from mandatory training sessions to “sustainability” door decorations. Students living in the university’s eight housing complexes are required to attend training sessions, floor meetings, and one-on-one meetings with their Resident Assistants (RAs). The RAs who facilitate these meetings have received their own intensive training from the university, including a “diversity facilitation training” session at which RAs were taught, among other things, that “[a] racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality.”

    The issue here is with a university in the United States, not with European social-democratic functionaries. Even so, the animating principle is the same: non-white people are underprivileged in some a priori way and should get a pass. If you question that, you’re the one with the funny ideas.


    Posted by Sean at 02:32, October 31st, 2007

    The recent revelation that shops near the Ise Shrine (one of the holiest places in Japan) have been fraudulently altering the production and use-by dates for their sweets is getting a lot of attention:

    At a press conference, [Ofuku-mochi president Masaki] Kohashi bowed very low and said, “I’d like to apologize deeply for having so stirred up the public.” However, he withdrew after less than five minutes, pleading poor health.

    Left to carry on after him at the press conference was the manager of the flagship shop Yoshihiko Morita (50), who explained, “We weren’t knowledgeable about much of the content of the JAS [Japan Agricultural Standards], with the result that [improper labeling] continued. I became aware that this was a legal infraction half a year ago, but I didn’t advise anyone of that.”

    Unsold products that had been pulled from shelves were “stored in the factory warehouse, then discarded as ordinary waste after the contents had been removed from the packaging,” he emphasized.

    Ofuku-mochi is not to be confused with Akafuku, a competitor that admitted not only to manipulating product date stamps but also to recycling products for sale after their sell-by date. (That’s why the Ofuku-mochi store manager went out of his way to mention that old stock was thrown away.) The Ise Shrine is a major travel destination, and the confectioners in question are venerable purveyors of the souvenirs you’re supposed to bring back for the homefolks whenever you go on a trip:

    One housewife of sixty, who’d come as a tourist to Ise from her home in Kita Ward, Kobe, said, “And here I’d thought it would be nice to buy Ofuku-mochi sweets instead of Akafuku as my souvenirs. They’re such an institution–you kind of feel betrayed.”


    Posted by Sean at 22:22, October 29th, 2007

    Japan’s Central Council for Education (CCE) is about to release an unsual report: one that backtracks on major proposed policy change that would have provided “breathing room” in education. (That’s essentially a euphemism for not keeping students spent with study and other organized activities from dawn through midnight, which is often what happens when private cram school is tacked onto regular public school.)

    Rearranging public school curricula and instruction to make cram school redundant sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately, when you look at the actual planks in the platform, you can see how trouble resulted:

    However, wave upon wave of criticism was leveled at the policy when the main guidelines were implemented. Due to the decrease in the number of classroom hours, “Students’ fundamental study skills suffered” and “The gaps among individual children’s motivation to learn widened.”

    The CCE report will cite the following points as failings it has identified: (1) The government had not been able to convey to instructors what “life force” referred to and why it was necessary. (2) The platform cited “cultivation of the ability to learn and think for oneself” as symbolic of “life force.” However, this signaled such respect for children’s autonomy that there was an increasing tendency on the part of instructors to hesitate to provide guidance. (3) The platform set up time for comprehensive learning, but how that was defined was not clearly communicated. (4) Classroom time was cut so drastically that there was no longer sufficient time for the acquisition of basic knowledge, and thinking and expressive skills were not cultivated. (5) The new guidelines were not based on the decreased ability of family and community to provide education.

    Airy, nice-sounding abstractions that couldn’t be implemented effectively because they weren’t grounded in concrete requirements–sound familiar? One thing it’s important to bear in mind is that that whole “life force” thing, which sounds as insubstantial as “self-esteem” when rendered into English, is by no means a New Age joke in Japan, where suicide among the young is high and researchers are constantly reporting that they meet a lot of exhausted and listless children. “Comprehensive learning” is also more than chic theory in an education system that has been known for feeding students lots of discrete facts but teaching them little in the way of how to synthesize them and weigh new evidence.

    It isn’t clear from the Yomiuri article how the CCE plans to move forward. It’s stated, without elaboration, toward the end of the article that the council plans to retain the “life force” guidelines while specifying more clearly how it’s to be guaranteed that classroom hours and moral/ethical education will be sufficient. It remains to be seen whether the revised guidelines will help teachers find the sweet spot between being authoritative and fostering inquisitiveness.

    Added on 31 October: The Yomiuri English edition actually had a version of the article cited above. There’s a follow-up today on the concrete proposed changes, too.