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    “At the intersection of imagination and desire”

    Posted by Sean at 17:57, June 28th, 2009

    I asked Virginia Postrel last week whether there would be anything at Deep Glamour about Farrah Fawcett, since she seemed like an ideal subject for Virginia and her colleagues. She responded that there was certainly room for comment and graciously offered to post something if I sent it along. So I did. It’s up here. There’s also an interesting piece about Michael Jackson. (No, I don’t think it’s hypocritical to complain that Jackson’s death has taken over the media and then link to a post about him; a blog about glamour is, it seems to me, exactly the place at-length examinations of celebrity appeal should live.)

    How high

    Posted by Sean at 10:26, June 27th, 2009

    You do realize, don’t you, that we could have to go through this at least three more times?

    Michael may have been the absolute biggest of the ’80s-defining stars whom vast swaths of Americans watched on TV, listened to on Walkman headphones, idolized to the point of dementia, and followed through subsequent ups and downs before gradually deciding that maybe the weirdness was a little too much. But he wasn’t the only one. There are also Prince, Whitney, and Madge.

    I’m the least worried about Madonna, and I don’t say that just because I’m a rabid (not to say demented) fan. It’s just that Madonna is one of those terrifying control freaks whom you figure will drop dead from a stress-induced coronary at thirty-five but who actually end up soldiering on well into their nineties, shriveled and cantankerous. I fully expect Madonna to spend her eighty-fifth birthday kicking off a concert tour, emerging dramatically on stage from a floodlit, mirror-tiled giant bedpan while “Live to Tell” thunders from the sound system. Singing “Open Your Heart” while pole-dancing around her IV stand. Rasping “Vogue” while flinging herself in lewdly angular, spread-eagled poses over her walker, dressed in nothing but a micro-mini hospital gown (as interpreted by Anna Molinari in winter-white raw silk) over a pair of Depends customized with black lace. Performing “Like a Virgin” in a bra made of defibrillator pads. Giving a mid-show shout-out to her grandkids, Lourdes’s and Rocco’s children, who by that point will be halfway through Yale and very deep into therapy. As long as she stays away from horses, Madonna is the kind of person who will outlive most of the people who knew her when. She’ll greet the Grim Reaper’s arrival by shoving him flat on his back and barking, “I SAID YOU NEED TO GIVE ME FIFTEEN MORE MINUTES TO FINISH THIS SET OF CRUNCHES, JERKFACE!” Madonna will get a big media send-off, but I’m betting she’ll have lived a full life by then, so at least commentators will keep a lid on all this disingenuous soul-searching.

    But I’m not so sure about the others. Prince strikes me as a wild card, and (like Jackson, though in less disturbing ways) he’s always been considered a weirdo. And Whitney hasn’t exactly been keeping herself in the best of health. So if one of them goes in a fashion that’s deemed untimely, you just know what we’re in for. Katie Couric will get Mariah on the phone to coo about how Whitney’s hits “touched so many, many people’s hearts and lives,” when in reality she probably spent every night of her twenties ramming pins into a Whitney voodoo doll. Jam and Lewis will tell CBS that their respect for Prince is boundless–“just boundless…we can’t put it into words…a real genius”–when they’ve actually been thinking, for the last quarter-century, Fire us because of the weather? We told you we’d bounce back!

    It’s that kind of thing that’s been driving me nuts. The wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson in and of itself doesn’t reflect all that well on us or our media, but it’s understandable. It is 2009. You can go online and read about meatier stuff if that’s what matters to you. I know that cap and trade is more important. The Iranian uprising is more important. North Korea is more important. There’s a lot going on that’s more important than the death of a pop star. But Jackson was hugely influential, and his death has spurred a lot of people to reflect on the cultural era he dominated. Fine.

    It’s just, the decision to do all Michael all the time for the next few days has run up against our hyper-fast news cycle: the only way to act as if you were always delivering a putatively “new” angle on him is to keep finding another star to say that he was “special” and “gifted” and that he “didn’t have support.” We know already. We’ve known for years. We knew before Cher and Britney and Celine and Jay Z said so. Can’t they busy themselves with their own trawling for media notoriety and not hustle in on Michael Jackson’s this one last time?

    No, of course, they can’t. It doesn’t work that way. He was epochally successful and powerful in the industry, and no matter what everyone else really thought of him, everyone else looks more important by appearing to have something meaningful to say about him. And if any of his fellow early-MTV luminaries go under similar circumstances, we’ll be sitting through the same thing.


    Posted by Sean at 13:41, June 26th, 2009

    John Opie links to this op-ed in The Japan Times, which is about America’s new incoherent Asia policy. John summarizes it this way:

    [I]t is nice to see the recognition that US foreign policy under President Bush was understood abroad to have an overarching geopolitical framework…

    Or perhaps, more exactly, a massive focus on China to the exclusion of most other countries there. This is, I think, indeed a problem: India is in so many ways the more “natural” partner for the US, if one ignores the massive Chinese purchases of US treasury bonds.

    Unfortunately, the Obama Administration apparently thinks that China is the only country that matters: this means, in classic liberal wonk fashion, that the other countries will, for the most part be simply ignored or put on the back burner.

    Japan and India are, basically, the losers in the Great Game as it is being played out in Washington. The new Ambassadors to both countries? Political rewards for the faithful. The new Ambassador to India is, to quote, an “obscure former Congressman Timothy Roemer”; the new Ambassador to Japan is “a low-profile Internet and biotechnology lawyer, John Roos”. Neither have any real connections to these countries, and join the long list of US Ambassadors whose claim to fame is the ability to generate campaigning money and organize the party faithful or receive their Ambassadorships as part of some political deal involving others.

    The original op-ed, written by a fellow at what looks like a think tank in India, gives more detail:

    China’s expanding naval role and maritime claims threaten to collide with U.S. interests, including Washington’s traditional emphasis on the freedom of the seas. U.S.-China economic ties also are likely to remain uneasy: America saves too little and borrows too much from China, while Beijing sells too much to the U.S. and buys too little. Yet, such is its indulgence toward Beijing that Washington seeks to hold Moscow to higher standards than Beijing on human rights and other issues, even though it is China that is likely to mount a credible challenge to America’s global pre-eminence.

    The new U.S.-China-Japan trilateral re-emphasizes Washington’s focus on China as the key player to engage on Asian issues. Slated to begin modestly with dialogue on nontraditional security issues before moving on to hard security matters, this latest trilateral is being billed as the centerpiece of Obama’s Asia policy. Such is its wider significance that it is also touted as offering a new framework for deliberations on North Korea to compensate for the stalled six-party talks.

    Despite its China-centric Asia policy, the Obama team, however, has not thought of a U.S.-China-India trilateral, even as it currently explores a U.S.-China-South Korea trilateral. That is because Washington now is looking at India not through the Asian geopolitical framework but the subregional lens — a reality unlikely to be changed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming stop in New Delhi six months after she paid obeisance in Beijing. While re-hyphenating India with Pakistan and outsourcing its North Korea and Burma policies to Beijing, Washington wants China to expand its geopolitical role through greater involvement even in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    It is shortsighted of the Obama team to lower the profile of India and Japan in America’s Asia policy. Tokyo may be ceding political capital and influence in Asia to Beijing, and India’s power might not equal China’s, but Japan and India together can prove more than a match. The Japan-India strategic congruence with the U.S. is based as much on shared interests as on shared principles.

    It would be wonderful if China made the transition to a stable, peaceable democracy full of contented and prosperous citizens. But that hasn’t happened yet. It would be madness to snub China, but it’s also of questionable sanity to pretend that it’s going to be a reliable partner in the way Japan has been and India has been becoming. Of course, the cold-shouldering of Japan began months ago. At that point, it was difficult to tell whether it was Japan as a strategic partner or just Aso as a damaged-goods politician that was being held at a distance. It’s looking more like the former.

    They eat off of you

    Posted by Sean at 19:04, June 25th, 2009

    Wow. Michael Jackson, too? That poor man. After Off the Wall, nearly every great song he made seemed to paranoid or angry. I don’t say that as a criticism—the impulse to turn paranoia and anger into vigorous, combative art is very human and affirmative. It’s probably much better than sitting around and burning up inside. But he always seemed much more haunted and needy than even other out-there celebrities. This is very sad, but it’s nice to think he’s beyond all that now.

    Added later: I think it’s an error to go as far as Andrew Sullivan does here:

    He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age – and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

    But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.

    I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

    Well, that depends on whom Sullivan’s including in the “us” that owns what’s “ours.” There are plenty of Americans who wouldn’t be celebrities if you paid us and who find reality TV, for example, creepy. There’s no denying that Jackson was surrounded by people who wanted to use him as a gravy train and that, with his childhood, he would have had a lot of lessons to learn from scratch if he’d decided he wanted to become a conventionally happy adult in his twenties.

    At the same time, let’s remember that he was an individual with choices and free moral agency like the rest of us. Every day in America, there are people who escape abusive families, leave careers that are making them loads of money but crushing them spiritually, and ditch users to find themselves some real friends. Not for a moment do I want to underestimate how hard that would have been for Michael Jackson post-Thriller. But it demeans him to treat him as someone who was only acted upon and never acting. He had thirty years to get acclimated to adulthood; this is not a child star who burned out and ODed at eighteen. Most of us wouldn’t want to live like Elizabeth Taylor or Patty Duke, but despite their ongoing problems, they made the effort to carve out identities for themselves and not spin out into never-ending, uncontrolled loopiness.

    Very hazardous duties

    Posted by Sean at 14:08, June 25th, 2009

    How sad to read that Farrah Fawcett (after all these years, I nearly typed “Farrah Fawcett-Majors” on autopilot from boyhood memory) has died. Charlie’s Angels may have had the dumbest mystery scripts imaginable, but the actresses themselves were very good at embodying a very American type of beauty–alert, inquisitive, and, when necessary, mouthy. Sure, they jiggled. They were always on the move, doing something: chasing bad guys, fleeing bad guys after getting caught searching their offices, liberating abducted heiresses from bad guys, performing incognito as water-skiers (or showgirls or rollerskaters or figure skaters) to infiltrate organizations of bad guys. Not all of those happened during Fawcett’s one season, but while she was on the show, she was the athletic point person. It’s nice to know that both her career and her romantic difficulties after that point were resolved, and she seems to have died surrounded by loved ones.

    Added later: Rondi remembers aspiring to Farrah hair.


    Posted by Sean at 12:33, June 25th, 2009

    A Mitsubishi UFJ Securities IT manager who sold client information for money to pay down his debts has been arrested in Tokyo:

    According to police, Kubo used the ID of a female temporary staff employee at a subsidiary to illegally access the customer database on Jan. 26.

    The woman had been transferred to a different department in December, but her clearance for the database was not revoked.

    Using her ID, Kubo retrieved data on about 1.48 million customers–Mitsubishi UFJ Securities’ entire clientele–and stored encrypted names, addresses, phone numbers and income amounts in the company’s server, police said.

    On Feb. 4, Kubo instructed a male dispatch worker to copy the information onto a compact disc taken from office supplies, pretending the task was part of official work, they said.

    Kubo took the CD home and used his personal computer to relay information on about 50,000 customers to three mailing list companies. He collected about 328,000 yen, police said.

    That’s about USD3000, which could seem huge if Kubo were indebted to one of Japan’s more usurious consumer lending agencies (still pretty bad after the 2006 lending laws curbed their worst excesses, in my understanding). The Mainichi report adds this obnoxious tidbit:

    Although Mitsubishi UFJ Securities has urged the recipients of the customer information not to use it, the plea has apparently fallen on deaf ears, with the company receiving a massive 15,335 complaints and questions by Tuesday.

    “I receive 10 to 20 calls from salesmen a day,” complained one of the customers, according to the company.

    The company is going to give gift certificates worth JPY10000 each by way of apology, which means it could be out USD 5 million or so.


    Posted by Sean at 14:51, June 24th, 2009

    The Yomiuri reports that an amendment to the FY 2010 defense budget may scotch existing plans to relocate our Futenma base on Okinawa:

    A key U.S. congressional committee has added an amendment to the fiscal 2010 defense budget that would make it hard to realize an agreement reached by the Japanese and U.S. governments over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

    Japan and the United States have already agreed the facility will be relocated to the shoreline off Camp Schwab in Nago, in the prefecture.

    The amendment says the U.S. defense secretary should not give its approval to the alternative facility as long as it fails to comply with minimum flight safety requirements.

    The office of Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who proposed the amendment, told The Yomiuri Shimbun that the alternative facility under the current plan contravenes safety standards on the following points:

    — The runways are too short.

    — A school, Okinawa National College of Technology, is located nearby.

    — There are obstacles, such as utility poles, along the flight path.

    As a result, Abercrombie has stated that Camp Schwab is not an appropriate candidate for the alternative facility and that a new transfer location should be sought.

    A Japanese government source said, “The content of this amendment suggests the transfer to the alternative facility agreed by Japan and the United States won’t be permitted.”

    The relocation of the base has been a sticking point for years.


    There’s been an ongoing story about 7-Eleven Japan and one of the downsides to its now-legendary distribution system for prepared food, and the Mainichi has a pretty comprehensive piece on its English site:

    Seven-Eleven Japan Co. announced Tuesday that the company would help cover the costs of unsold food currently borne entirely by individual convenience stores, but franchises said the move was not enough.

    The industry giant’s headquarters will cover 15 percent of the cost of unsold items such as sandwiches and bento boxed lunches at franchise stores beginning in July. The company is the first major convenience store chain to take on part of such costs.

    “Franchises are worried about wasting food, but also that if they don’t order enough, they will run out of stock, causing trouble for their customers and hurting business,” said Seven-Eleven Japan President Ryuichi Isaka at a news conference Tuesday.

    In the wake of the Seven-Eleven announcement, it appears possible the practice will spread to the entire industry, where shifting losses, and the responsibility for the disposal of large amounts of food, onto franchises is common. Perhaps the era of forcing major expenses onto franchises while the corporate headquarters racks up profits is nearing an end. However, as central support for franchises increases, differences in corporate strength between convenience store companies will likely widen.

    In a standard franchise contract, judgment regarding orders of food items such as boxed lunches is left up to franchise owners and they also bear the total burden of losses from unsold items. However, stores that reduce orders run the risk of regularly selling out and leaving their shelves empty, dealing a blow to the business model convenience stores are based on.

    One way to move unsold stock is to reduce prices, but Seven-Eleven Japan had a policy against discounting. However, the company was ordered to eliminate that policy Monday by the Japan Fair Trade Commission, which could spur Seven-Eleven franchises to begin reducing food item prices to avoid having leftovers and the losses they entail.

    Like a lot of people in Tokyo, I worked within a five-minute walk of a good half-dozen convenience stores, and many of the 7-Eleven prepared-food offerings were, at least at first, markedly better than what you got from its competitors. (The nearby am-pm was horrible when I first started at my old company, though it cleaned up a lot, both literally and figuratively, several years ago.) They weren’t home or restaurant quality, but they were pretty much as good as train-station bento. There was a great deal written about 7-Eleven Japan some years ago during its ascendancy, largely because it was one of the few enterprises wowing Westerners after the fashion of the old Japan, Inc., era. But of course, you can’t predict inventory turnover perfectly, especially for something as whim-dependent as what people feel like eating for lunch once they pull up to the refrigerator case and have to pick something.


    The Nikkei says that China is agreeing in principle to uphold the draft UNSC resolution on North Korea:

    On 24 [June], the Chinese government opened individual meetings in Beijing with both U.S. and Japanese governments, and they were in accord on adopting the direction of upholding the sanction on the United Nations Security Council against North Korea, which had pushed brazenly forward with a second round of nuclear testing. It took the position of non-recognition of North Korea’s possession of nuclear capability and of applying concerted pressure, but it also stressed the importance of dialogue. On pulling together for cargo inspections of vessels entering or leaving North Korea, China is still cooler than Japan, the U.S., and South Korea; and it left unclear how far it would go along the path of “pressure.”


    Posted by Sean at 12:59, June 23rd, 2009

    The lead editorial in the Nikkei today carries the headline “Use stringent criteria for public assistance to [private] corporations”:

    Public-sector assistance for powerhouse corporations is getting mobilized. The government has determined that it will attach government insurance to the loans provided by the Development Bank of Japan to Japan Airlines. It is forecasted that within the month syndicated loans on a scale of JPY 100 billion will also be executed. Public assistance for Elpida Memory and Pioneer, among others, is also being looked into among relevant parties.

    The grounds for legitimizing Tokyo’s embarking on assistance for corporations are that it’s a response to a crisis. In the economically sluggish environment that surrounds them, if the operations of powerhouse corporations are impeded, many and great effects on the Japanese economy and on the daily lives of citizens will manifest themselves. The thinking goes that government intervention, taken as an emergency measure to forestall those effects, is justified.

    Casting an eye abroad, we see that the U.S. government has infused General Motors with approximately JPY 5 trillion of public funding to assist its reconstruction. In Europe and the Americas as well, Opel in Germany and other enterprises have taken public loans. Since the financial crisis of last fall, the nature of the relationship between private and public has changed, and now corporate relief from the government is not all that rare.

    However, the premise of the operations of private enterprise is responsibility for itself, and the brakes need to be applied hard to government assistance. If it gets to the point that “any old corporation can get a government bail-out,” then inevitably we’ll be asking for slackness in business operations. The metabolic process—restructuring, attrition [of moribund organizations], and appearance of new entrants—will not go forward, and it will produce a decline in industrial activity.

    An industrial policy of protecting the weak is not something that is desirable. In industries such as electronics, in which it has been indicated that the number of players is too high, moving forward with restructuring and attrition, not with bailing out individual enterprises, will lead to the robustness of the industry as a whole. Even if a powerhouse enterprise topples, if new entrants come to life, the markets will take on their own vigor, and employment will also emerge.

    Compared to some time ago, the financial markets are in the process of recovering their stability. We should pile prudence on prudence when it comes to setting in motion government assistance, which cannot be guaranteed not to cause distortions in competition.

    The word I’ve (loosely) translated “attrition” above is the selection part in the Japanese equivalent of natural selection (自然淘汰). Of course, the relationship between government and private industry (especially “powerhouse corporations”) has been much closer in Japan than it’s conventionally been in the States. And the Japanese have now had nearly two decades of experience with zombie corporations and painful economic dislocations.

    Added later: ReasonTV has turned Anthony Randazzo et al’s recent study into an episode.

    Added on 24 June: You’d think I’d be able to distinguish between JAL (my airline!) and ANA, but I mistyped above; it’s corrected now.


    Posted by Sean at 11:38, June 21st, 2009

    The Mainichi reports on new suits that are amenable to wear through the torturing heat and humidity of summer through much of Japan:

    Konaka Co., a pioneer of suits that can be washed at home, released its 100 percent wool “Shower Clean Suits” (priced from 35,000 yen) in February 2008. Just pouring warm water on the suits can wash off most sweat and dirt. The suits, made using specially processed fabric, also don’t need to be ironed.

    Konaka sold more than 60,000 Shower Clean Suits last fiscal year. The company is planning to expand the Shower Clean Suit lineup and aims to sell 150,000 of them this year, including women’s styles.

    Department store chain Takashimaya also got into the home-washable suit market with the March release of its “Vert line” suits (priced at 71,400 yen), jointly developed with leading apparel maker Onward Kashiyama Co. According to Takashimaya, the suits are made of a “high-quality and durable” weave of specially processed wool and polyester.

    Polyester? EWWWWWWW!

    The piece states that Aoki Inc., which has a huge Today’s Man-ish chain of Main Street outlets, and Aoyama Trading are also introducing washable suits. Of course, the real question is whether the fabric drapes well so that guys look all authoritative and studly in them, but the Mainichi doesn’t address it. Of course, on the company’s website, the demo version looks fine on the hanger, but it’s hard to tell whether it has that same oddness of sheen and hand that seems to plague, say, wrinkle-free cottons.

    Step away from the dishwasher

    Posted by Sean at 11:16, June 21st, 2009

    Happy Father’s Day, to my own and other fathers. Since my father is of the make-life-easier-for-Mom school, I’m busy practically wrestling him to the kitchen floor to keep him from cleaning up after his own breakfast. While I’m doing that, Eric has posted about Dr. Helen’s Father’s Day message.