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    Posted by Sean at 22:57, January 8th, 2008

    Hope everyone had a great holiday. I stayed in Tokyo this year, as did more of my friends than usual–a good thing, since I’ll be out of town for the next two months.

    For eleven years, I’ve lived in a country vulnerable to earthquakes and typhoons that sits a missile’s-throw from a nuke-hungry enemy. What could be more exciting? Hmm…how about a country vulnerable to earthquakes and typhoons that sits a missile’s throw from a super-huge country that already has nukes AND regards it as a renegade province? So I accepted an invitation from an old friend who owns the Taiwan branch of my former company to spend a few months in her office as a consultant. I leave at the end of this week, and I’m looking forward to it. To judge from my visits to Taipei, it’s not somewhere I’d want to live long-term, but I’ve always wanted more time to explore the place. Seven or so weeks seems like a good length of time, with some time back when the country shuts down for Chinese New Year.

    For the moment, I’m gearing up for the jump and watching the Clinton-Obama numbers in New Hampshire.


    Posted by Sean at 23:07, December 30th, 2007

    Dave Barry’s class-clown humor doesn’t always do it for me, but his year-in-review column always has a few passages that make you laugh out loud. I think this is my favorite part for 2007:

    Abroad, the six-party talks in Beijing conclude on an optimistic note as North Korea’s leader, Insane Lunatic Liar Il, announces that his country will dismantle its nuclear-weapons program just as soon as it receives the nuclear dismantler that it ordered on eBay. All six parties agree that this sounds reasonable; they resume partying. On a more ominous nuclear note, President Bush warns Iran that it is, quote, “awfully close to Iraq, if you look at a map, which I have.” In another increasingly tense international arena, the U.N. Security Council sends 1,000 peacekeeping troops to New York City in an effort to quell Rosie O’Donnell, who repels them by shouting.

    But the big news in February is the death and subsequent wacky adventures of Anna Nicole Smith, whose body remains in a refrigerator in the Broward County medical examiner’s office while her infant child is embroiled in a paternity dispute that eventually comes to involve pretty much every adult male resident of the United States except Richard Simmons. The news media cover this story with their usual taste and restraint, keeping the public informed of important developments via such journalistic innovations as the Refrigerator Cam; Greta Van Susteren jets to Aruba in case there is a Natalee Holloway link. The dramatic finale takes place in a Florida courtroom presided over by Judge Weeping Twit, who, in a display of Solomonic wisdom, rules that everyone involved will get a TV show.

    Scary how much of an improvement over reality that would actually have been, huh?

    Happy New Year, everyone.

    Spaing partners

    Posted by Sean at 08:36, December 28th, 2007

    Virginia Postrel links to a true story with the kind of happy ending that can literally make you cry: Afghans get a new industry that provides environmentally-sustainable work and brings cash into the economy…and affluent Americans get access to a broader array of fabulous beauty products!

    Anyone who writes to ask which part moved me more will be ignored.

    Of course, every narrative like this needs a villain to add drama and make our heroine’s eventual triumph sweeter, and this story has a great one:

    The letter I received from him a few days later confirmed my premonition. It requested a ream of further documentation, such as a breakdown of the raw-materials cost of a bar of soap and our financial accounts from previous years. “Maybe even more importantly,” the letter went on,

    we need to show the real raison d’etre for all of this. It’s because there’s real demand for your products. Demand is not your problem, Sarah, satisfying it is. You’ve already established a vibe in the market. You’re selling in Manhattan and sundry other swanky places. You’ve had plenty of free publicity in media with the appropriate reach to capture the attention of the chattering class whose hands you’re washing. The wind is now behind you and you’ve an opportunity to make a significant contribution to establishing Afghanistan as something other than a squalid state exporting only smack and terror. This is what USAID wants to hear.

    Peppering this and subsequent communications were colloquialisms like “the first thing we’ve gotta make plain …”

    I replied, providing the requested information, but also a statement of frustration. I was swiftly scolded for my tone: “unbusinesslike, unmannerly, and just plain unaesthetic.”

    Ick. No one who uses gotta in a business context–who would, indeed, use gotta for any purpose other than transcribing soul lyrics–should be passing judgments on the aesthetic value of someone else’s prose. Especially when he himself appears never to have met a cliché he didn’t like. Guy should be sentenced to wash with Duane Reade soap (“Compare to Irish Spring!”) for the rest of his life.

    Anyway, seriously, Sarah Chayes’s piece confirms what you hear elsewhere about funding provided by big-guns organizations for entrepreneurship in developing countries–namely, that it has a way of vaporizing in the pipeline from the West to the target population. It’s a very good read.

    Ring in the new!

    Posted by Sean at 06:43, December 28th, 2007

    The Nikkei has this wry little look at what the last day of work in 2007 was like in Kasumigaseki:

    2007: a year in which issues from food frauds to the leakage of public pension records and corruption scandals revolving around the defense administration attracted attention. On 28 December, the last business day of the year, federal ministries and agencies in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo, and elsewhere welcomed the end of a year spent frantically dealing with all kinds of problems and moving offices. While an air of relief at long last has spread over the place, workers with harried expressions could be overheard muttering, “Let’s hope next year, at least, is quiet.”

    There’s the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, shaken by the need to respond to revelation after revelation of fraudulent food packaging and with its minister’s suicide and the subsequent dramatic changing of the guard.

    Of course, there are plenty more scandals to incorporate into our splashy year-in-review segments: the court battle over damages for hepatitis C infectees (initiated by the old ones, not the most recent ones…or the old ones we’re just recently finding out about, of course–keep them straight!) possibly most prominent among them. But there’s also the latest textbook scandal (over how to present the role of the Japanese armed forces in mass suicides among Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa). And, uh, Prime Minister Abe, you know, resigned.

    And the Ministry of Defense still isn’t sure how it’s going to defend us against extraterrestrials.

    Any surprise everyone’s looking forward to next year? Can’t hardly wait.


    Posted by Sean at 04:52, December 28th, 2007

    Tokyo has had the same reaction to the Bhutto assassination as the rest of the developed world:

    On the night of 27 December, Minister of Foreign Affairs Masahiko Takamura spoke to the press corps about the assassination of former Prime Minister of Pakistan [Benazir] Bhutto: “We had hoped that free and fair elections would be conducted; there aren’t words to describe the heinousness of using violence to decide such matters.” At the same time, “We fervently hope that Pakistan will ride out this tragedy and [do us all the favor of] treading a path toward democratization. Japan, too, wishes to support the democratization of Pakistan.” *

    Rondi Adamson cites Christopher Hitchens’s reaction in Slate, in which he even-temperedly examines her strengths and weaknesses:

    The sternest critic of Benazir Bhutto would not have been able to deny that she possessed an extraordinary degree of physical courage. When her father was lying in prison under sentence of death from Pakistan’s military dictatorship in 1979, and other members of her family were trying to escape the country, she boldly flew back in.

    The fact of the matter is that Benazir’s undoubted courage had a certain fanaticism to it. She had the largest Electra complex of any female politician in modern history, entirely consecrated to the memory of her executed father, the charming and unscrupulous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had once boasted that the people of Pakistan would eat grass before they would give up the struggle to acquire a nuclear weapon. (He was rather prescient there—the country now does have nukes, and millions of its inhabitants can barely feed themselves.) A nominal socialist, Zulfikar Bhutto was an autocratic opportunist, and this family tradition was carried on by the PPP, a supposedly populist party that never had a genuine internal election and was in fact—like quite a lot else in Pakistan—Bhutto family property.

    This is what makes her murder such a disaster. There is at least some reason to think that she had truly changed her mind, at least on the Taliban and al-Qaida, and was willing to help lead a battle against them. She had, according to some reports, severed the connection with her rather questionable husband. She was attempting to make the connection between lack of democracy in Pakistan and the rise of mullah-manipulated fanaticism.

    That’s just his view, of course, but it squares with what I remember from reports about her second tenure as prime minister: Bhutto was politically progressive by study and reasoning but also had the reflexive sense of entitlement and privilege of the daughter of a super-elite family. Her assassination is a tragedy in any case, but it’s doubly unfortunate if she really was beginning to come around to harsh reality.

    * Japanese readers who click through to the article will notice that I’ve translated もらう as if it were くれる. That wasn’t a slip–“we will humbly receive the favor of…” didn’t quite seem to catch the mood here of dealing with an unstable nuclear power with Muslim radicals in the population.


    Posted by Sean at 00:01, December 20th, 2007

    That this announcement is not getting much attention is very suggestive:

    At a 19 December meeting, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Tetsuzo Fuyushiba and Minister of Interior Affairs Hiroya Masuda agreed to establish a new Tourism Agency in October 2008. The agency will be external to the MLIT. It will be geared toward attaining the goal of bringing the number of foreign travelers who visit Japan up to 10 million by 2010. This is the first new federal organization established at “agency” level since the Financial Services Agency in July 2000. Because the Marine Accident Inquiry Agency will be abolished, among other mergers and cuts in organizations, the total number of agencies in the government will not change.

    The MLIT [justified] its budgetary application this way: “The establishment [of this new agency] will be indispensable in light of our goal of building Japan up as a tourist destination.”

    It’s encouraging that the government is recognizing that Japan has been left (far) behind as the tourism sector has developed. A book could be written on how that happened–Alex Kerr has a whole chapter on it in Dogs and Demons . Japan has all the raw materials to be an industry powerhouse: an established global brand identity in both esoteric high culture and funky pop culture, a first-world standard of living, highly developed transportation infrastructure. It’s expensive, but so are plenty of other favorite destinations for travelers. And for Americans and Europeans, it’s certainly no harder to get to than Bali or Thailand.

    And yet, there’s plenty about the place that’s forbidding and, I suspect, signals to people that it’s not the place to come to relax. Japanese people are very helpful to tourists who stop and ask for directions on the street and such, but almost no one really speaks English, let alone French, German, Spanish, or Mandarin. That’s true even in the big hotels and resorts. Friends of mine who work in hotel management can go on for hours about how difficult it is to get staff who can communicate effectively with guests and respond flexibly to their needs.

    Speaking of being flexible, Japan famously isn’t. That helps make the country safe and clean, but it can also make adventure difficult, even in interesting city neighborhoods. Establishments that don’t want foreign customers tend to turn them curtly away at the door or, sometimes, allow them to enter and then just fail to serve them until they leave. (It wouldn’t make the motivation any less obnoxious, but least a polite “I’m sorry, but we’re just not set up to accommodate non-Japanese guests” would soften things a bit.) Resort design is intruded on by plasticky fixtures, and countryside views are intruded on by pylons and blocky buildings.

    Enjoying Japan takes effort, and it leaves people a little worn out by the end of their stay. I have only fragmentary anecdotal evidence for this, but I suspect that when people go home from Japan and chat about it with their friends, what they convey is “Fascinating place! But being there felt so odd” rather than “Fascinating place! You really must go sometime!” People who come once don’t have enough incentive to come back, and people who haven’t been somehow always find reasons to visit other places first.

    Of course, none of this matters intrinsically. Not being able to speak English is not a moral failing. The problem is that the noises the federal government is making indicate that Japan wants to get in on the lucrative tourism game, and I’m not sure that better ad campaigns in foreign countries address the real issues. But the move probably means more jobs for bureaucrats, which is always a good thing!


    Posted by Sean at 07:07, December 19th, 2007

    A few years ago, Claire Berlinski wrote the following about the intelligence failures that led up to 9/11:

    Baer reports that high-ranking CIA officials privately tell reporters that “when the dust finally clears, Americans will see that September 11 was a triumph for the intelligence community, not a failure.”

    It is a challenge to imagine what the words “intelligence failure” might mean, if not an unexpected attack on American soil that leaves more than three thousand civilians dead. Perhaps these officials are keeping the term in reserve for an invasion by extraterrestrials.

    Perhaps it was my lit. major’s overactive imagination, but I took that as exaggeration for effect. I was wrong, though, it seems. One of the big stories in Japan yesterday–I still can’t quite believe I’m actually typing this–was an exchange over whether Japan’s security measures against illegal aliens includes the type that menaces Sigourney Weaver:

    With Cabinet ministers debating all manner of security measures for unwanted visitors, be they terrorists or ballistic missiles, there was something that no one had apparently taken into consideration: Unidentified flying objects.

    On Tuesday, the Cabinet made clear what it knows.

    In an official written inquiry, Ryuji Yamane, an Upper House member from opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), had requested an explanation of the government’s stand on UFOs.

    In response, the Cabinet endorsed a statement saying there had been no confirmed existence of UFOs from outer space.

    Yamane noted that there have been numerous reports of UFO sightings and asked how the government goes about collecting information and studying UFOs, how it plans to deal with one landing in Japan, and whether Tokyo exchanges information on this issue with other nations.

    The government’s reply was that since it had not confirmed the existence of UFOs, it has not collected information on them, nor studied them.

    Yamane’s blogs, listed on his profile page, don’t yet contain any mention of his important efforts to plug the chinks in national security. Chief Cabinet Minister Nobutaka Machimura was moved to announce at a press conference, “個人的には絶対いると思う。 (kojintekini ha zettai iru to omou: ‘personally, I think [extraterrestrials] absolutely exist’)” Glad to see members of the cabinet have a functioning sense of wonder.

    However, if it’s real-life threats we’re worried about, the more gladdening news is probably that of the success of a test of one element of Japan’s anti-missile defense system in Hawaii:

    The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Aegis destroyer Kongo succeeded in intercepting a mock ballistic missile warhead with an SM-3 missile as part of missile defense system test carried out at sea near Hawaii, the MSDF announced Monday.

    The success of the test–the first conducted by the MSDF–means Japan will be able to counter the threat of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, such as the Rodong and Taepodong-1, analysts said.

    Compared to a mock target based on a Scud-type missile, whose warhead and rocket engine do not separate, the target used in Monday’s experiment flies much faster at about Mach 10 and is therefore more difficult to intercept.

    The DPRK likes to test missiles every now and then, just to be neighborly. The import of this test will not be lost on Pyongyang.

    God, I thank thee that I am not as…

    Posted by Sean at 02:43, December 15th, 2007

    So the candidates have started pushing the electorate’s God button for real now. “What do you think of that?” some friends have asked, adopting a “Gotcha!” tone that seems to assume I managed to reach age thirty-five without noticing that most registered Republicans aren’t atheists.

    Well, if you care, I think that religion is a repository of genuine wisdom about life that our civilizations have built up over time. If a given religion is the source of a candidate’s deepest beliefs and those beliefs are going to be driving policy, I’d kind of like to know about it. That said, I essentially agree with what McQ says at the QandO blog here:

    If you’re a politician, I don’t care what your religion is. I don’t care if you are religious. What I care about is your character, your ethics, your public record and your ideas. And while I understand your religion could have a certain level of effect on the development of all of those things, that isn’t the point.

    It’s one thing to explain to voters how your faith contributed to the development of your way of thinking; it’s another to imply that simply being religious somehow makes you a better candidate for office.

    In reality, I don’t think it does. A lot of politicians seem to have found a convenient way to balance humility toward the Lord with high-handed arrogance toward their fellow citizens when using the coercive power of the government. That the humility and the arrogance are probably both genuine in most cases doesn’t mean one excuses the other. McQ and a lot of other people are citing Peggy Noonan’s latest column:

    I wonder if our old friend Ronald Reagan could rise in this party, this environment. Not a regular churchgoer, said he experienced God riding his horse at the ranch, divorced, relaxed about the faiths of his friends and aides, or about its absence. He was a believing Christian, but he spent his adulthood in relativist Hollywood, and had a father who belonged to what some saw, and even see, as the Catholic cult. I’m just not sure he’d be pure enough to make it in this party. I’m not sure he’d be considered good enough.

    I hope there aren’t really grounds for such worries. Huckabee would have inclined in any case to play up his upright Christian-ness, but my sense is that he’s chosen to do so in his current coarse way mostly because there happens to be a Mormon in the race. Most Americans already think Mormonism is slightly weird, and playing on that is an obvious way to get a tactical advantage. (And since most Americans think atheists are weird, playing on that was an obvious way for Romney to try to regain his balance.) Of course, it would have been nice if everyone had refrained from building themselves up by casting slimy aspersions on others’ beliefs, especially when they’re not directly relevant to policy. But we are, after all, talking about people who think they deserve to be president here.

    Added later: Whoa. I thought I’d been on the cynical side, but that was until I saw this article in The Weekly Standard by Kenneth Anderson, a law professor and former Mormon (via Ann Althouse). The argument might have been made more compactly, but every paragraph has something to say.

    My former confrères among the Mormons apparently do not count as Christian, yet somehow feel themselves bound by their allegiance to the teachings of the Nazarene to turn the other cheek and meekly suffer these attacks upon their spiritual fitness to participate in the public square. Admirably Christian, I suppose. I myself propose that Huckabee be horse-whipped in the square of public reason and turned out of politics so he can get on with writing The Seven-Day Diet of Creation and Mary Magdalene Got Skinny for Jesus and You Can Too.

    The “all-out” answer that Romney gave was the denial that citizens might ever legitimately and ethically demand to know the content of religious doctrines professed by a candidate for public office. (“Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance.”) It is multiculturalist because it essentially treats all private beliefs as immutable and beyond reason, and because it says that to propose to subject any of them to public scrutiny of reason is an act of intolerance akin to racism. It is a position traditionally asserted by the left on behalf of its identity-politics constituencies. It is dismaying, to say the least, that Romney would claim it for his own to deny the legitimacy of all questions.

    It is, moreover, relativist in implication. Toleration is not an assertion of relativism. It is, rather, the forbearance from judging and acting on judgments in the public sphere that one might well believe oneself entitled to make in private. Toleration entails the suspension of public disbelief, or at least political action thereupon, about matters that one might nonetheless consider well within the realm of private moral judgment. Relativism, by contrast, is denial of grounds for judging at all. They could not be more different–and, crucially, relativism removes the possibility of toleration because it removes the possibility of reasoned judgment.

    Added still later: Anderson also has an item on his blog about his piece. Interesting comments.

    Causing a commotion

    Posted by Sean at 23:01, December 13th, 2007

    CNN: “Madonna and, you know, some other people to be inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (via Ann Althouse)

    I have to say, that picture freaks me out, man. Madonna’s never undergone the sort of hideously obvious Botoxing, collagen-shooting-up, and knifing that many stars have; but her martinet’s approach to working out, dieting, and general upkeep (including, no doubt, some inpatient work) have landed her in the same place as a lot of other middle-aged stars. Michelle Pfeiffer is supposed to be pointy; Madonna is not.


    Posted by Sean at 10:45, December 10th, 2007

    The blog at IGF has a post with an interesting comment thread–interesting because it addresses a serious sore spot of an issue without devolving into snarky one-liners. The issue (which is only part of what the original post is about) is the extent to which our gay civic duty, as it were, compels us to identify with people we don’t really have much in common with besides homosexuality.