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    When will you make up your mind? (I can’t stand it)

    Posted by Sean at 07:28, October 13th, 2005

    Smiler of the day: Joe Riddle at Ex-Gay Watch on choice:

    We ought to begin every argument over gay rights on that footing: Do we choose to be gay? Absolutely! And we love it! Who the hell are you to tell us we can’t be happy?

    For context, it might be helpful to separate two entangled notions of “choice.” Do humans have a choice about who attracts us sexually? No, of course we don’t. Attraction is a chemical, biological phenomena, not subject to conscious will. Do we have a choice about whom we have sex with? Do we make choices about our sexual conduct and identity? Yes, of course we do. To say otherwise is silly.

    While it deserves to be pointed out that choice rhetoric is misused by gay activists, too–Virginia Postrel, when she was still editor of Reason, wrote a wonderful editorial on that subject–Joe clarifies things from the opposite direction. I think it’s great that programs exist for miserable people who want to change their behavior, but the mere fact that they’re using their sexuality for ill and pain doesn’t mean that more mature types can’t use it for good and joy.

    Off to Shinjuku for vodka and fag talk with a friend.


    Posted by Sean at 23:51, October 12th, 2005

    A friend e-mailed me about outgoing German Chancellor Schroeder’s making a weenie of himself in his farewell speech:

    He quickly composed himself, hitting his stride in a passionate defense of a strong German state and lashing out at “Anglo-Saxon” economic policies favoured in Britain and the United States, which he said had “no chance” in Europe.

    In an apparent reference to Hurricane Katrina, Schroeder castigated Washington for liberal, hands-off policies that left it exposed in times of crisis. The Bush administration was widely criticised for its response to the devastating storm.

    “I do not want to name any catastrophes where you can see what happens if organised state action is absent. I could name countries, but the position I still hold forbids it, but everyone knows I mean America,” he said to loud applause.

    I like the way Germans are now experts in hurricane management.

    BTW, one of yesterday’s Nikkei editorials on the subject contained the sort of play on words that diva-loving gay guys live for. I’m sure 1000 suit-and-tie fags on trains into the Marunouchi yesterday morning nearly died. I’ll give it to you with the set-up:

    The prospects for new Chancellor Merkel present a lot of difficulties. Her major mission will involve treating the country’s case of “German Disease,” in which high unemployment rates and slow economic growth have become chronic, in order to restore the nation to eminence as a major economic power. No prescription will be effective except structural reform with liberalization of the labor market, finance reform, and deregulation as its pillars.

    Could Merkel, as German Chancellor, have what it takes to forge ahead with reform, as the UK’s Thatcher did to earn the nickname “the Iron Lady”?

    As so often happens, the pivot word is impossible to translate well. Here’s the sentence in the original:


    メスを入れる (mesu wo ireru) literally means “plunge the scalpel in”; it’s used figuratively the way we would use, say, “bite the bullet” to refer to taking difficult but necessary action. But メス doesn’t just mean “scalpel”; it also means “female.” The kanji for “female” is 雌, but it’s frequently written in kana as it is above. The sense hovering in the above sentence, especially after the Margaret Thatcher reference, is that Merkel may need to thrust the implacable bitchitude of reform into the German economy. I’d love to see that, though the election gave the CDP nothing like a mandate and it’s not at all clear whether she has the stuff.

    Only some cats catch mice

    Posted by Sean at 03:04, October 12th, 2005

    Take a look at this Reuters report on economic dislocations in the PRC. (Links disappear from Reuters fairly quickly, so I’m citing quite a bit):

    The leadership in Beijing is deeply concerned there could be a wider backlash, threatening a decade of strong economic growth and the Communist Party’s grip on power, says Wenran Jiang, a China expert at the University of Alberta.

    “They have come to the conclusion that … the regime will not survive if they don’t address the growing wealth gap, and more importantly, the perception that the government only cares about economic growth and the urban rich,” he said.

    When China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ignited the country’s market reforms in the late 1970s, he espoused a trickle-down approach, saying: “Let some people get rich first.”

    Some have become gloriously rich. Next week, the Hurun Report, which tracks China’s wealthy, will issue its 7th annual China Rich List on which the average wealth for the richest top 400 is about $200 million. Seven are billionaires.

    To be sure, tens of millions of people have been lifted out of abject poverty since the party came to power 56 years ago. [How’s that for setting your time frame conveniently!–SRK]

    But the wealthiest 10 percent of China’s urban households now own 45 percent of the urban wealth while the poorest 10 percent have less than 1.4 percent, Chinese statistics show.

    Reporter John Ruwitch has a strange way of departing from the quotation from the University of Alberta’s Jiang. Jiang all but says outright that the CCP is primarily concerned with retaining power and that the benefits of economic growth to the Chinese people are little more than means to that end. Ruwitch makes some vague statements about attempts at relief that, combined with his human-interest portraits of desperately poor people living hard-scrabble lives in the booming coastal cities, make today’s PRC regime look like a bunch of well-meaning public servants saddled with unworkable twenty-year-old reforms and trying as hard as they can to patch holes wherever possible. Unfortunately, when you encourage entrepreneurship without providing reliable enforcement of contracts, protection of intellectual property, punishment for corruption, and other niceties of the rule of law, you cannot be surprised when many of the enterprises you’re facilitating are exploitative.

    BTW, speaking of the rule of law, Simon has been following the case of a group of villagers who entertained the fantasy that elected officials in the New China are supposed to be accountable to their constituents. They know better now. The story’s been developing for a while, but it’s worth reading from beginning to end.


    Posted by Sean at 00:35, October 12th, 2005

    The Nikkei reports on yet another initiative to curb government spending:

    The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications will establish an index of how much tax and other revenue prefectural and municipal governments are allocating to debt repayment and will introduce a system to limit regional bond generation (the issuing of new bonds) by those entities saddled with heavy liabilities. The regional government entities will be divided into three groups based on the proportion of their financial resources that goes to repayment of bonds; those deemed to be in financial health will be able issue bonds freely with the recognition of the federal government, and those whose figures are poor will be put under restrictions. The idea is to increase the number of regional government entities that can plug in to their economic strengths and finance themselves without relying on the federal government.

    Printing bonds like poetry slam fliers to cover bad debt is as endemic a post-war Japanese pastime as, say, pachinko. Under the new plan, regional government bodies in poor fiscal health will still be able to issue bonds, but they’ll be on their own when it comes to looking to the market for capital and to backing them.

    Japan Post privatization–take 2

    Posted by Sean at 09:05, October 11th, 2005

    No surprise here, but the Japan Post privatization bill package has passed the House of Representatives:

    On Tuesday morning, the Lower House special committee on postal privatization held deliberations on the bills presented by the government and those submitted by Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), the main opposition party. After receiving approval at committee level, the government-proposed bills were immediately sent to the Lower House plenary session for voting in the afternoon. Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner New Komeito supported the bills. Minshuto, along with the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the newly established People’s New Party and New party Nippon, opposed the bills.

    Of the total of 480 lawmakers in the Lower House, 17 are former LDP lawmakers who voted against the bills in the previous Lower House plenary session in July. Some now belong to the two new parties or are independent.Of those independent lawmakers, some, including former posts minister Seiko Noda, voted for the bills.

    See also this Yomiuri article on the shifting meaning of being a faction leader within the LDP. Of course, we’re still in the midst of the special Diet session, but it’s not surprising that the ripple effects from the Koizumi-led election victory in the summer are already discernible.

    Local knowledge in earthquakes

    Posted by Sean at 01:37, October 11th, 2005

    Virginia Postrel notes some factors that would have affected people’s behavior after this weekend’s earthquake in South Asia. She indicates yet more ways in which effective response to disasters requires local knowledge:

    In L.A., they also tell you to STAY INSIDE, but they also tell you that Central American immigrants are hard to keep inside during quakes, because if you live in a Third World country with bad construction, you’re safer outside. After the Northridge quake, which did relatively little damage to houses (CNN showed the same apartment building, which was practically on the epicenter, over and over again), one of the city’s big challenges was getting the Guatemalans and Nicaraguans to go back inside rather than camping out in parks.

    I wasn’t surprised that people living in mud-brick or unreinforced stone houses in poorer areas would be told to–or instinctively know they had to–flee outdoors. What I was curious about was that the collapsed building CNN was showing in Pakistan was part of a complex that was apparently home to many expats. Usually, foreign businesspeople and diplomats in Third World countries get the highest-quality built environments available. I kept straining to see whether there was rebar sticking out of the concrete, but I could never tell whether the visible dark stuff was that or just debris. (Virginia’s parenthetical struck me as darkly funny, since anyone who was watching CNN’s coverage this weekend saw the exact same footage of the collapsed Islamabad apartment tower again and again and again. Of course, being a 24-hour news network, CNN has to repeat things for those who are just tuning in. Still, every five minutes? It might have been more informative to have, every once in a while, NHK-style CGI of how earthquake waves pass to the surface and how different types of geological structures react to them. A lot of people outside earthquake zones don’t know that stuff, having studied s and p waves in eighth grade and promptly forgotten about them. I understand CNN’s predilection for human-interest angles, but there really wasn’t much pathos in the pile of white concrete they kept showing.)

    Of course, rebarred concrete is only one element of earthquake-resistant construction in the First World. Many buildings in Tokyo have a sort of Brutalist-lite style that shows off both the unadorned surface of the concrete and the diagonal metal bracing against shear. There’s also ground stability to consider. Atsushi and I are fortunate enough to live in a building that’s on relatively high, solid ground, but a lot of Tokyo is built over filled-in river and creek beds.

    Being a megalopolis that’s engulfed a broad seaside plain, Tokyo isn’t really a good analog for northeastern Pakistan. However, Japan did very recently have an earthquake disaster in an area that is, in fact, quite similar: last year’s series of strong quakes in Niigata Prefecture (here and here). Niigata, like most of Japan outside the Kanto and Kansai plains, is very craggy, with lots of people living in old-fashioned houses in remote areas accessed by narrow, cliff-hugging roads. The region also had the misfortune to be hit by earthquakes just after a particularly bad typhoon season had left a lot of ground waterlogged and unstable. There were many injuries and considerable property damage, but the final fatality count was, IIRC, below fifty.

    Japan not only has better construction standards but also bad-ass fire and rescue teams with high-grade equipment–not to mention educated citizens who know what to do in an earthquake or typhoon. Even though the Niigata quakes hit just after sundown on an autumn night, evacuation and rescue went as smoothly as could be expected. The scale of destruction in Pakistan is much worse than it was in Niigata, and it’s no wonder the government is having a hard time keeping up.

    On that subject, one final thing to note: Japan pledged aid in the form of equipment and manpower on the day of the quake, along with the US and the various Western European biggies. China, which not only has noisy pretensions to global leadership but is right next door to the affected region, took a full day to offer assistance, if the news outlets were reporting things in real time.

    No reason / Just seems so pleasin’

    Posted by Sean at 06:15, October 10th, 2005

    We’ve finally made the decisive transition to fall. The rain is chilly rather than just cool, and the sky is slate grey without that warmth around the edges that says it’s going to heat up again in a day or two. I’m glad Atsushi was here this weekend; it sucks when there’s a major seasonal change and I don’t get to go through it with him. Talking about it on the phone isn’t the same.

    I made another big transition this weekend: we finally rented Lost in Translation , so now, when the googolplexth person asks, “Tokyo, huh? So, have you seen Lost in Translation?” I can say, “Uh-huh.” It was good. Sofia Coppola has a nice feel for actors. Bill Murray was very convincing as a venturesome soul who’d been tired out by decades of routine. Scarlett Johansson’s one of the few starlets now operating who know how to be luminous without twinkling at the bleeding camera. That chick who was supposedly an old girlfriend of Giovanni Ribisi’s was hilarious (though, sad to say, plenty of Yale grads do talk that way).

    As far as the Tokyo setting goes, there’s no way I could have experienced it the way people who don’t live here do. My Japanese isn’t perfect, but I never felt disoriented by the words on the signs or the dialogue. Sometimes, the Japanese was frankly distracting: the shot that establishes Murray’s character as a star, when you first see the Suntory billboard with his picture? Right below it is an ad for hair removal. I guffawed, which I don’t believe was the reaction sought. (At least, nothing in the movie looked like an in-joke with Japanese speakers.) The cab driver also seemed to be taking a strange route to get from Narita Airport to the Park Hyatt–who would go through Shibuya? I mean, who would go through Hachiko?

    That part was kind of fun, actually: Shibuya and Shinjuku are the neighborhoods in which I spend a good 90% of my time. The other neighborhood mentioned by name, Daikanyama, is on my train line; I sometimes walk there to pick up lunch because it’s only seven minutes or so from the office. My chiropractor is in Omotesando, where Johansson is shown on the subway platform. The gigantic Shibuya intersection that Murray and Johansson cross as if they were playing Frogger is five minutes from my office in a different direction. In fact, until Atsushi was transferred and I moved my stuff conclusively into our apartment, I lived right in that neighborhood, in one of a very few apartment buildings surrounded by the Pachinko parlors and bars and stuff. Loved every minute of it.

    Actually, one of the cool things–movies are good at this–was the way Tokyo looked like Tokyo but without the dinginess. The Park Hyatt isn’t dingy, of course; the interiors and views looked exactly as they do in real life. But the outdoor scenes–you could see the jumble of incongruous grey buildings and power lines and pylons and stuff, but it always moved by fast enough that the grit and crud weren’t visible. Not that Tokyo’s a dirty city by any stretch, but it is dusty and frequently tired-looking. Coppola and the actors saw only the jittery vitality. In that sense, I guess, I was able to see the place as non-Tokyo-dwellers do. (Some of the idealization strained reality to breaking point, though–just try finding a Tokyo karaoke bar that has “Brass in Pocket” and “More than This”!)

    The movie wasn’t, in any case, a disappointment, as one always fears when a gajillion people have said, “Oh, you absolutely have to see it!” Just in case, though, I did that thing where you rent a hyped-up movie you haven’t seen and an old favorite you know you’ll enjoy so the night won’t be a total wash, you know? Atsushi hadn’t seen Cruel Intentions , so it was kind of fun to watch him react to the adult-free, idealized Manhattan, let alone Sarah Michelle Gellar as a sociopath. Ryan Phillippe was okay, as always, except when he had to talk–or, more precisely, when he had to evolve as a character. One emotion per movie seems to be about his limit.

    The funny part of the night was that after watching all this stuff about mopey, lost people who come this close to having an affair, and then about unsupervised teenagers engaged in elaborate revenge-screw plots, it was time to call my beyond-wholesome parents to wish them a happy 34th anniversary. (Did I mention that we’d also gone to the Moreau exhibit earlier in the day? When will Japanese museums learn about such obscure concepts as proper lighting, one is moved to wonder? Anyway, that was another hour and a half spent contemplating studies for paintings of Helen and Salome and the like.) It’s probably a good thing the ‘rents weren’t home; I could hear how strange my tone sounded when I was talking to the answering machine. When we got up this morning, Atsushi, who devotes a good deal of energy to nudging me out of my lapses in filial piety, pointed out that there was still time to call them again before they went to bed and the day ended on the East Coast. By then, my mood had returned to normal somewhat.

    Of course, I had to send him off an hour or so ago. At least this weekend I was able to feed him for three days. He says he’s eating fine in Kyushu, but I don’t buy a word of it. What do the old bags in his company’s dining hall know about taking care of Atsushi? And let’s not talk about the reheated food from 7-Eleven. Just three more years of this separation crap to go.

    Army of me

    Posted by Sean at 02:48, October 9th, 2005

    Even after the back-and-forth in the comments, I think Michael’s being unnecessarily harsh and dismissive toward this Purdue junior. I do take Ace’s point:

    That was the part that got me…why would he yield to others to define and direct him as to which group he fits in? I pointed it out to Michael, not to be critical of the author, but because I’d love to believe that no young gay person will ever have to end up like Roy, and that gays–young and old–have so much promise for the future that we should all be grinning like fools, comfortable in our own skin.

    Perhaps because I haven’t been e-accosted by the Roy to whom Michael and Ace refer, I don’t see his shadow everywhere.

    To me, the letter writer just sounds like a college kid. He’s immature and a bit too ready to inflate a petty campus personality conflict into a cosmic struggle, sure. That’s college life. Graduation cures that for most people. They hit the real world and realize that they’re the same size fish in, suddenly, a WAY bigger pond, and they make the necessary adjustments. It makes no sense to imply that some particular guy who’s barely cracked his 20s might be on his way to a morose, whiny middle age because of a single letter to the editor.

    Constitutional revision proposals in dribs and drabs

    Posted by Sean at 02:12, October 9th, 2005

    The LDP’s draft of suggested constitutional revisions will include this for the preamble:

    [The draft] adopts an active posture toward international contribution and states, “We sincerely seek world peace, and will cooperate together with other nations in order to realize that end.” The proposal expresses [Japan’s] position concerning patriotism and self-defense this way: “We will preserve the independence of the nation through the efforts of citizens who love their country.”

    The proposed revisions also refer to Japan’s unique “history and culture” in ways unspecified by the Nikkei article.

    Earthquake in South Asia

    Posted by Sean at 04:28, October 8th, 2005

    M 7.5 earthquake in Pakistan and India (also felt in eastern Afghanistan). The epicenter was northeast of Rawalpindi, so the quake was perfectly positioned to hit several densely populated metropolitan areas. Apparently, it was strong enough in New Delhi to knock things off tables–that’s pretty powerful.

    Of course, India and Pakistan both have huge populations anyway, but in cities you have the problem of multi-story buildings that may not be built to code as we would think of it in first world earthquake zones. It looks as if two apartment buildings have collapsed. The preliminary number of deaths is 30-ish; of those, CNN seems to be saying that about 20 were Indian Army personnel. I assume that means that some kind of military facility collapsed, but there appears to be little more information.

    A moment of black comedy was provided by one interviewee, a Western journalist who lives in Islamabad. He pointed out that one advantage Pakistan has is that it has a large army and thus was able to call on a high number of trained personnel for rescue. Being locked into mortal enmity with your next-door neighbor occasionally comes in handy, it seems. The same journalist–Danny Kemp of Agence France-Press; he’s cited here, too–said that he ran outside with his wife and daughter when their apartment building started shaking. Is that what they tell people to do in Pakistan? We’re told in Tokyo that avoiding falling glass, roof materials, and power lines is the highest priority; if you’re indoors, stay there unless the building is clearly unsafe.

    It’s impossible to predict what the final number of casualties will be. The area was relatively lucky, though: the quake struck early-ish on a weekend morning. That probably means that there weren’t many cooking fires open yet, and it definitely means that rescue workers had a full cycle of daylight and warm temperatures to look for trapped survivors after the first quake. (Strong aftershocks have been reported.)