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

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


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

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

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

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

    That old-time religion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sumatra earthquake provisionally measured at 8.5 M

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

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

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

    It might be Monday / Everybody’s drinkin’ vermouth

    Posted by Sean at 11:53, December 23rd, 2004

    I was going to wait to post the picture at left until after the year changed, but since I sent out my New Year’s cards today, I figured I may as well do it now. This is the same rooster Atsushi bought for my parents) when I went home last month. I mean, it’s the same design, only this one is ours. While I’m not addressing my parents here, I figure I may as well still call it the Year of the Rooster, since heaven knows it’s always the year of that other thing around here.

    To those who are traveling home for the holidays, stay safe.

    How soon is now?

    Posted by Sean at 15:48, December 22nd, 2004

    There’s an expression in Japanese–have I maybe discussed it before?–that combines two first-year words into an exponentially more complex and useful idea: ありがた迷惑. Those who remember Styx know ありがとう (arigato, usually rendered “thank you” but more literally a classical form of an adjective that means “it is a thing to be grateful for”). 迷惑 (meiwaku, “pain in the ass,” “annoyance”) is a word you use a lot in a country of such frictive crowding. An arigata-meiwaku is what you get when someone meddles out of a sincere desire to be helpful but ends up making things worse. The sister role played by Laurie Metcalf on Roseanne is a good example.

    So is France’s new hate crimes law:

    The French Senate Wednesday night gave final approval to legislation making it a criminal offense to speak or publish homophobia.

    The bill adds sexuality to an existing law banning hate speech against other minorities.

    Under the legislation, anyone who provokes hatred or violence on the basis of sex or sexual orientation could be fined up to $60,000 and be subject to one year in jail.

    The bill was fought by the Roman Catholic church which claimed it could be used against priests who speak out against homosexuality or to censor the Bible. [Enh…never happen!–SRK]

    Despite the concerns of the Church, the legislation had little difficulty in the conservative dominated Senate.

    The bill which had been pushed by President Jacques Chirac gives France the toughest hate-crime law in the European Union.

    French gay rights group Inter-LGBT hailed the vote as as a decisive step to combat growing homophobia.

    The government drafted the law after a young gay man was brutally attacked. After he was beaten his assailants poured gasoline on him and set him on fire leaving him severely burned.

    Stories like that make me want to punch a hole in the wall. Once that feeling subsides, though, we’re left with all the usual questions about hate crimes legislation. They’ve been articulated before, but since these bills keep passing, it’s obvious that we need to keep repeating them: For one thing, isn’t dousing someone with gasoline and torching him already punishable under French law, or has everyone been busy making sure the produce meets EU shape and color specifications? For another, is it really possible that people still harbor the delusion that forcing people not to talk about deeply-held beliefs will simply make their potential ill-effects vanish? Do those who sympathize with gays really think we need the deck stacked for us this way? If they don’t think we can meet the opposition with persuasive arguments in our own favor, why do they themselves side with us in the first place?

    And the issue that saddens me most to contemplate: Are there really gays who think we can only function well in society if we’re subjected to nothing but compliments and Nerf-ball questions? If they’re that lacking in conviction about their own moral choices, why don’t they, indeed, just convert to Christianity and off-load the responsibility onto someone else?

    This flood of rhetorical questions is going to start sounding hysterical, so I’ll knock it off. I can only marvel anew that the most basic life lesson–(1) not everyone is going to love you + (2) there’s nothing you can do about it, so deal–is being so ineptly handed down to so many people.

    Added on 24 December: Amritas is a dear as always to link me, especially with the compliment that I’ve acquitted myself well at the sociology-by-way-of-linguistics posts he specializes in. I have to say, though, that if I were really as good at that sort of thing as he is, I’d have given you the words for “thanks but no thanks” in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese, with due explanation of which parts were native and which borrowings.

    Since he has another post up related to the perceived religion-evasion of holiday greetings, this is as good a time as any to clarify something I discussed here. That is, I think that forcing a greeting such as “Happy holidays” on people is ridiculous. So is forcing Nativity scenes and such out of the public square.

    I just don’t think that “Happy holidays” is in and of itself a denatured substitute. A lot of people do use it that way, yes, but to me it’s a nicely economical way of conveying, “I hope you had a good Thanksgiving” + “Merry Christmas” + “Happy Hanukkah, if you’re Jewish” + “Happy Kwanzaa…uh, if that’s how you pronounce it and even though I’m not entirely sure what it is” + “Happy New Year!”

    Contrast this with, for example, “Have a nice day!” Blech. “Goodbye” is perfectly adequate, and “Have a nice day!” adds nothing to it. It takes the goodwill conveyed and, if anything, makes it less intense. Not being one to reject polite gestures, I’ve never drawn myself up to full height and replied, “Actually, I plan to fill the remaining time before midnight with wickedly scrumptious indelicacies, but thank you all the same.” Been tempted, though.

    New Year’s preparations (Yasukuni Shrine)

    Posted by Sean at 11:16, December 21st, 2004

    New Year’s Day means pilgrimages to shrines, and as it approaches, the Yasukuni Shrine controversy is refueled yet again:

    The question of whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will visit Yasukuni Shrine at the beginning of the year is attracting a great deal of attention as any visit is certain to further sour Japan-China relations. But there is domestic opposition to any cancellation based on outside protests.

    It seems the prime minister cannot possibly please both sides.

    Since his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Nov. 21, the prime minister has remained silent about future visits to the shrine.

    His silence on the matter was agreed on prior to the meeting.

    According to lawmakers close to Koizumi, the prime minister believes that focus on his visit to the shrine would undermine the Japan-China relationship.

    Rakutaro Kitashiro, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, said that a visit by the prime minister to the shrine would have an impact on companies operating in China.

    His remark apparently also contributed to the prime minister’s silence.

    “No country should complain about another country’s tradition,” [Koizumi] said, indicating that he had reached the conclusion after weighing the options.

    I’m not sure a tradition of honoring war criminals equally with citizens in good standing is entirely unassailable, myself. The issue is not an easy one, and the reason I’ve discussed it so often here is that both sides have a point. Which sounds more sympathetic at a given moment depends a lot on whether the wording its representative most recently tossed off to reporters was felicitous (in translation from Chinese to Japanese, in the case of Chinese politicians).

    Ultimately, though, my view of the issue doesn’t really change: while I have no doubt that the PRC is opportunistically looking for ways to cause problems that would get it leverage in trade negotiations with Japan and its adversaries, Japan is asking for it with its blithe let-bygones-be-bygones treatment of its own wartime conduct. If it’s true that Japanese treatment of the dead requires enshrining them all equally, despite differences in how honorable their behavior was while alive–and my understanding is that it really doesn’t–it doesn’t strike me as excessive groveling to explain that. As it is, the pilgrimages look like yet another instance of non-acknowledgement of the seriousness of Japanese acts during the occupation of Asia. Perhaps fixating on them as an important issue in and of themselves is wrong, but the ill-feeling itself isn’t groundless.

    It’s all about the oil

    Posted by Sean at 03:08, December 19th, 2004

    Good post at XGW about the way coming out is like a delayed-but-compressed adolescence. The numerical framework seems a bit 12-steppy, but the point that a lot of us spend our twenties going through the roiling-hormone stage normally associated with high school is an important one. One part I take exception to, however, is this:

    If you find that you are a

    Spreading good cheer

    Posted by Sean at 15:43, December 18th, 2004

    Virginia Postrel’s feelings about the newest must-discuss topic basically mirror mine:

    Why criticize merchants for including all their customers in wishes for a happy holiday season? The holidays do, after all, stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, both nonsectarian holidays. “Happy Holidays” includes Christmas, for those who celebrate it. But it also includes holidays we all share, as well as some others only a minority observe.

    When you extend these greetings, are you wishing people happiness? Or affirming your Christianity? Do you want people who don’t celebrate Christmas to be happy (or merry)? Or do you want to make them at least mildly uncomfortable? The answers will determine what you say.

    I say “basically” because what she leaves out is the self-righteous wing of her own side: people who are not content to say “Happy holidays” themselves but feel the need to expunge any mention of Christmas from all conversation, loudspeakers, and surfaces within a five-mile radius.

    But she herself isn’t taking that extreme a position, and she’s right about the standing-boldly-up-for-Christmas positions people are taking in droves. The argument is frequently made that we should all say “Merry Christmas,” whether we’re Christian or not, because Christmas is the origin of the holiday season. It strikes me as iffy, though–solstice rituals are, if not universal, widespread in world culture. That Christianity adapted one in the process of converting pagans may have been enterprising, but it’s not much of a distinction. Nevertheless, Christmas is the direct origin of the particular holiday season most of us celebrate, and forcing people to pretend they aren’t Christian, or being so taken aback when they acknowledge it that you can’t respond, is stupid.

    It also becomes flat-out ridiculous when the reason given is that people of other faiths might be offended. It’s truly outrageous to see world religions, from Islam to African animism to Buddhism to ancient Mexican earth cults, treated as anthropologically fascinating repositories of deep spiritual wisdom about the mysteries of the cosmos…while Christianity, whose philosophers helped develop many of the principles that undergird our free society, is regarded as a set of hokey superstitions that some folks still can’t shake.

    Personally, I’ll be celebrating Christmas the Japanese way, which suits my capitalist-atheist beliefs perfectly: on Christmas Eve, couples go out for dinner, exchange presents, and retire to love hotels. Atsushi, who wasn’t originally going to be able to come home until the New Year’s holiday (that’s when the Japanese have their big family gatherings), surprised me by promising to fly home on Saturday so we could at least have Christmas day together. At first, I figured we’d go to a restaurant, but then I remembered that this is the man who, after four years, still looks at me tenderly and calls me “GI Sean” whenever I come back from getting a haircut. He’s worth a week’s worth of preparation to have sauerbraten and dumplings at home.

    Anyhow, happy holidays to you all. And in the interest of cultural diversity:


    (yoi o-toshi wo o-mukae-kudasai: “Happy New Year!”)

    Added after tea and cake: Ooh! I almost forgot. Everyone does read Miss Manners, right? I think her edge has dulled just a bit over the last ten years or so, but her advice is still on-target, and the books she’s published are great reading. Perhaps my favorite column of hers ever is about hospitality and presents. It’s immortalized in this book. The piece isn’t holiday-specific, but I always reread it around this time of the year. It starts like this:

    Offering hospitality is such a serious obligation of etiquette that it is mandated in the sacred literature and traditions of many religions. Just about everyone has been taught one version or another of the holy personage in disguise who was turned away by the uppity rich, but generously welcomed to share the humble home of the poor. In case anyone misses the point, a vivid description was provided of how significantly the hospitality was reciprocated and its absence punished.

    So how are we doing with this lesson? The question most frequently posed to Miss Manners these days concerns how to make money from one’s guests, or at least how to make them pay for their own entertainment. Another question that has begun popping up concerns the efforts of hosts to enjoy a better standard of living than they are willing to share with their guests. Miss Manners suspects that these people are going to fry.

    It actually gets better from there.

    Kyoto decadence

    Posted by Sean at 11:49, December 17th, 2004

    Please, let it be true. Ronald Bailey reports in his TCS column that the Kyoto Protocol is no more:

    The conventional wisdom that it’s the United States against the rest of the world in climate change diplomacy has been turned on its head. Instead it turns out that it is the Europeans who are isolated. China, India, and most of the rest of the developing countries have joined forces with the United States to completely reject the idea of future binding GHG emission limits. At the conference here in Buenos Aires, Italy shocked its fellow European Union members when it called for an end to the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. These countries recognize that stringent emission limits would be huge barriers to their economic growth and future development. [I didn’t carry over Bailey’s links–SRK]

    For the last few years, I’ve cringed every time I’ve seen the word Kyoto leap out at me while scanning through a news story; dollars to doughnuts, it meant that someone was caviling that the US is pursuing profit over the cries of the sylphs and toadstool spirits.

    Along those lines, people familiar with Japan will get a chuckle out of the name of the Japanese energy analyst quoted in the article: 杉山 (sugiyama: “cedar mountain”). If anything symbolizes Japan’s own unromantic, calculating approach to environmental management, it’s the replacing of old-growth forests with batallions of cedar and other industrial trees. I’m not sure whether there’s a more specific name for the varieties usually planted than sugi, but to non-biologist me, the coincidence is pretty funny.

    (Via Instapundit, so you’ve probably seen it already)