• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    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.


    Posted by Sean at 00:09, October 28th, 2007

    Major news among foreigners in Japan this weekend is that NOVA, the largest chain of English conversation schools, has filed for bankruptcy and is in receivership:

    The company had been reeling from an administrative punishment issued in June over illegal practices, including deceiving would-be students with misleading advertisements.

    One focus of attention will be whether Nova’s estimated 300,000 students will be able to receive refunds for the lesson fees they paid in advance.

    The prepaid fees account for about 20 billion yen of the company’s liabilities.

    Another question concerns the wages in arrears to many of about 4,000 instructors and 2,000 other employees.

    The money owed to the employees and some other types of debts have a higher priority than the prepaid lesson fees in repayment from the outstanding company assets secured by court-appointed bankruptcy administrators.

    English conversation schools such as NOVA are low on the food chain. Their lessons aren’t so much methodical instruction in English as a way to pick up some phrases while having structured contact with foreigners. Teaching jobs there tend to attract kids just out of college who want an easy way to live abroad for an adventurous year or two and then make the transition into something else.

    That means that there are a lot of teachers in their early twenties who haven’t been paid for a month or two, don’t know any Japanese, and are feeling seriously screwed at the moment. The Asahi reports that at least one job placement center in Shinjuku has set up a window to help NOVA employees, and the Australian government is cooperating with Qantas Airlines to help Australian teachers get back home without having to pay full airfare.

    Of course, the Japanese administrative staff have been suffering, too, since they’ve been fielding questions from both students and foreign teachers over refunds and wages that weren’t forthcoming:

    Employees, mainly in their 20s, remained at their workplaces until the last moment, while many teachers had already stopped reporting to work over delays in salary payments. Lesson fees were also refunded to students who canceled their contracts with Nova. An employee in her 20s, who was manager of a branch in an office district in the Tokyo metropolitan area, said she began working for Nova after graduating from university as she wished to help people who wanted to learn English.

    She heard that the police had to be called to another branch because a student had become angry to the point of violence, apparently over a lesson contract dispute, but the headquarters offered no assistance in the matter. “I still told myself that I should hang on as long as I was getting paid,” she said.

    Foreign teachers started not showing up for lessons in mid-September when their salary payments were delayed. Consequently, dozens of complaints poured in, creating chaos for the company’s inexperienced receptionists. One staff member complained of not being able to afford food, while another had been reduced to tears every day before she finally collapsed and stopped coming to the office.

    It will be interesting to see whether the brand can be rehabilitated. More even than any of the other giant English conversation chains, NOVA has a McDonald’s-ish image of being available everywhere at reliable quality. The last several months of bad publicity have certainly done damage, but if new management can reopen offices within a month or so, it may do a decent job of mollifying wound-up customers.

    I’m not so sure what I think of the foreign teachers who stopped showing up for work. On the one hand, the responsible thing to do is to honor your commitments and expect payment when the company irons out its financial affairs. On the other, companies such as NOVA have a history of making it very clear to foreign teachers that they’re not a permanent part of the team and are valued chiefly as interchangeable cogs. The fear of permanently getting the shaft from headquarters was probably very real to a lot of them, even in cases in which their local managers were doing their best to be helpful.


    Posted by Sean at 07:01, October 22nd, 2007

    I just got the latest shakedown e-mail from my college. That’s fine. They’re doing they’re first fund drive in twenty years. That’s fine, too. What isn’t fine is the purple overblownness of the enterprise—is it really assumed we’ll only cough up money if we’re come on to like this?

    What we celebrated this evening was the beginning of what will be a five-year endeavor that will require the ongoing, thoughtful participation of our entire community. I promise you this: When we achieve our goal in 2012, we will hold the keys to an eminent and consummately interdisciplinary Penn that will have a vast, transformative impact on humanity.

    Oh, my. That’s some fundraiser.

    More Penn-related stuff: Erin O’Connor links to a wonderfully crabby review of Alice Sebold’s newly-disgorged novel. Sebold is a good example of why I rarely read fiction published after, like, 1950. I’m perfectly happy to listen to current music and watch current television and movies, but every time a friend whose taste I trust recommends a recent novel or short story, I end up giving up on the thing. I finished The Lovely Bones. Ick.

    Lee Siegel says of Sebold’s latest:

    If you welcome the unreal disjunction between killing your mother and reflecting afterward how lucky you are compared with the children of the dead, “uncared for” mothers in Rwanda and Afghanistan, then this book will make you clap your hands with joy. If you find the idea that mothers shape their children’s “whole” lives original rather than simultaneously banal and puerilely overstated, then Barnes & Noble, here you come! This novel is so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it’s bound to become a best seller.

    O’Connor charitably observes that writing in the first person makes it difficult to give the reader a sense of critical distance on the protagonist, and that (though she doesn’t put it this way) Sebold just isn’t a good enough thinker or writer to do so. Anyway, the whole review is hilarious. As O’Connor says, Siegel writes with real anger, not the airy contempt reviewers usually employ to dump on books they dislike.

    Speaking of art that doesn’t make good on its shock potential, a good friend and I went to see Death of a President this weekend. (It’s a year old, of course, but just made it to Japan.) She and I have known each other for a decade; she’s a very liberal history professor who’s always ready for a good argument. I looked forward to tangling over the issues raised in the movie.

    Unfortunately, there wasn’t much meat to it. The assassination itself isn’t presented in ghoulish graphic detail, and while the filmmakers’ sympathies are rather clearly not with the Bush administration, no one comes off any more cartoonish than actual interviewees on Frontline. But the moral problems that flow from the response to the assassination are rushed through and not developed very well. A Muslim Syrian-American is prosecuted for the crime based on circumstantial evidence, now-President Cheney flirts with attacking Syria for not cooperating in the investigation, and a Patriot III act is passed to increase powers of surveillance even further. But it’s hard to sink your teeth into anything because it’s all rushed through. It’s certainly possible to imagine a Muslim’s being railroaded–prosecutors can get overzealous and develop fixations on suspects that fit their expectations, especially when they’re under intense pressure from above to produce a case. It’s also possible to imagine that a lead with genuine promise could be lost among the thousands of tips that would inundate the FBI during its investigation. But the misjudgments that come after the assassination aren’t as fleshed out at those that lead up to it. The result is a nice lefty horror flick, presumably, but not all that hard-hitting about miscarriages of justice.

    Not necessarily the news

    Posted by Sean at 03:52, October 19th, 2007

    Reason has an entertaining interview with fark.com founder Drew Curtis about how the site developed and what it says about the future of the Internet. Like other commentators I’ve seen, he thinks that some sort of personal-shopper model is what’s next up, since we’re all swamped by the amount of information available.

    I like Fark. My only problem is that frequently the funniest tag lines lead to the least interesting articles. My favorite example from this week:


    The link takes you to a decent but decidedly non-fabulous piece arguing that presenting a well-groomed, pulled-together image is good for your career. Yawn.

    Reason also–I assume this month is some sort of media issue, but I’m too lazy to look–has this piece defending The Onion in terms I very much agree with:

    Most dailies, especially those in monopoly or near-monopoly markets, operate as if they’re focused more on not offending readers (or advertisers) than on expressing a worldview of any kind.

    The Onion takes the opposite approach. It delights in crapping on pieties and regularly publishes stories guaranteed to upset someone: “Christ Kills Two, Injures Seven In Abortion-Clinic Attack.” “Heroic PETA Commandos Kill 49, Save Rabbit.” “Gay Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back 50 Years.” There’s no predictable ideology running through those headlines, just a desire to express some rude, blunt truth about the world.

    One common complaint about newspapers is that they’re too negative, too focused on bad news, too obsessed with the most unpleasant aspects of life. The Onion shows how wrong this characterization is, how gingerly most newspapers dance around the unrelenting awfulness of life and refuse to acknowledge the limits of our tolerance and compassion. The perfunctory coverage that traditional newspapers give disasters in countries cursed with relatability issues is reduced to its bare, dismal essence: “15,000 Brown People Dead Somewhere.” [The unforgettable dateline for that one was “OOGA-BOOGA LAND OR WHEREVER.”–SRK] Beggars aren’t grist for Pulitzers, just punch lines: “Man Can’t Decide Whether to Give Sandwich to Homeless or Ducks.” Triumphs of the human spirit are as rare as vegans at an NRA barbecue: “Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer.”

    A lot of what passes for irreverent satire is little more than sub-adult pushing of the obvious buttons. But skewering the tendency of journalists to airbrush any story into a palatable human interest feature, or to invest any story they write or broadcast about with selections from a tired laundry list of Deeper Human Significance it may not have, is a real service. And it’s encouraging that it’s so popular. Some satire is funny enough to stand alone, but most isn’t. That people keep clicking on stories in The Onion and sending them to friends is a reasonable indication that they understand the news and issues that they’re twisting into humorous new shapes, despite all the gnashing of teeth about how ignorant everyone is nowadays.