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    A chemical, a chemical reaction

    Posted by Sean at 01:14, August 6th, 2004

    Here we go again. It’s been a few years since our last Keystone Kops-ish nuclear power screw-up, so I guess we’re about due for one. At least this time, the problem has been discovered before anything went kablooie:

    A former employee of a supplier of concrete-grade gravel to be used in turbines in Reactor 4 of Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station has made an internal report to the Nuclear Power Safety and Security Commission of METI (the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry), saying that he falsified reactivity test results on alkaline aggregate used to guarantee quality control in the gravel. The commission has begun investigations.

    Okay, I can read that, but I admit that I only took a year of high school chemistry and don’t know what it really means. But you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to understand that “falsified test results” + “guarantee quality control” = uh-oh. The nuclear power industry in Japan is notorious for lax enforcement of safety standards and endless cover-ups. Five years ago, two employees at the Tokaimura uranium processing facility were in a rush and dumped too much enriched uranium solution into a tank, setting off an uncontrolled fission reaction. (As a coworker said to me the day of the accident, you couldn’t trust such jackasses to make Lipton onion soup.) Several hundred people were variously evacuated or imprisoned at home or school. It took hours to locate an appropriate counter to measure how much radiation had escaped. All told, several hundred thousand people may have been endangered to different degrees.

    But the whole thing was played down. My favorite part came several days later when–I’ll never forget this as long as I live–one of the sub-minister types from MITI (it was still the Ministry of International Trade and Industry then) was packed off to Tokaimura to sample the local produce, stagily smacking his lips over how fresh and succulent the melon was. The implication was that, since he didn’t begin glowing immediately, no one had anything to worry about.

    Mind you, this had been the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl. That doesn’t mean it was at the same level as Chernobyl, of course; it wasn’t nearly. But it wasn’t as if two janitors had accidentally mixed ammonia with Clorox in a bucket, either. No one really knows how extensive the safety and accountability problems are in the nuclear industry here. Happily, while Japan has more accidents than most other countries that use nuclear power, they’re still pretty few and far between. One can only hope that controls are firmed up sufficiently before something big-time disastrous happens. It’d be unwise to bank on it, though.

    Thinking pink

    Posted by Sean at 13:08, August 5th, 2004

    The Human Rights Campaign has endorsed Arlen Specter’s Democratic opponent in the contest for his Senate seat, IGF reports. I’ve never been all that hot on Specter, who’s very much a finger-to-the-wind Washington operator. When his breaking ranks with the Republicans is motivated by principled disagreement is hard to get a handle on.

    But come on. If the HRC is going to play single-issue politics–and being a single-issue lobby, it has no reason not to–not endorsing Specter strikes me as plain dumb in strategic terms. It’s possible that Joseph Hoeffel supports a few more HRC wish list items, certainly, but Specter is a four-term senator with connections everywhere. A lot of hard-right types don’t like him (my Representative, Pat Toomey, was his challenger in the primary), but he still has credibility as a pro-gay centrist that most Democrats lack.

    BTW, I’ve been kind of lazy about reading up on Hoeffel as a candidate. His homepage as a Representative is about what you’d expect:

    Now in his third term, Joe has worked hard on promoting fiscal restraint, balancing the federal budget, paying down our national debt, reforming education, improving international relations, protecting the environment and expanding health care.

    I bet he thinks puppies are adorable, too.

    Naturally, his vague desire to balance the federal budget should not obscure his specific accomplishments, which mostly involve making sure that Northeast Philadelphia gets as much of that lovely pork and gravy as possible:

    Joe has worked hard to bring federal money back to Montgomery County, including over $50 million in his first term alone. He brought a public health center to Norristown; secured millions of dollars in SEPTA funding; brought $2 million to regional private colleges to establish a program to train public school teachers; helped establish the Center for Sustainable Development at Temple University-Ambler with a federal grant of $2 million; and helped restore $3 million in Title I education funds to Montgomery County school districts.

    In the most recent appropriations cycle, Joe secured funds for the Schuylkill Valley Metro, development of the Delaware River waterfront in Northeast Philadelphia, Montgomery County Community College, Manor College and the Abington Art Center among others.

    (Slight pause while I suppress my gorge at the casual mention of such a thing as “the most recent appropriations cycle,” in which federal money is poured into waterfront development. Glp. There. We’re good.) Being such a friend of gays and lesbians that it’s worth throwing over one of our strategic Senate allies for him, couldn’t he have worked in a new LGBTXYZPDQ community center complex somewhere in there? Exposed brick, atrium, and restful orchid garden would be welcome features, but I’d settle for the atrium. After all, we’re trying to practice fiscal restraint here.

    Can’t sleep

    Posted by Sean at 03:24, August 5th, 2004

    In about five hours, it will be exactly 59 years since the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Every year, I feel deeply conflicted on 6 and 9 August, but for the most part, my sentiment is as follows:

    I love the Japanese people. When I began studying Japanese freshman year in college, I hadn’t the faintest clue that I’d end up making my life here, but I did. In personal terms, people have been overwhelmingly kind to me. In general terms, Japan, for all its systemic faults, is one of the freest countries in the world. Its citizens come and go as they please, its least bureaucracy-bound manufacturers regularly bring the technology of consumer goods to dizzying new heights, and there is no fear of being carted off by the police for criticizing its politicians on the streets. And with freedom comes prosperity–even after 14 years of economic woes, Japan is dumbfoundingly rich, clean, safe.

    When I think of people immediately after the bombings, their faces obliterated by heat, expending their little remaining energy to bow in gratitude for the water volunteers brought to their lips (one of the most famous A-bomb memorials is inscribed with 水, the character for “water,” because that’s what so many victims cried out for), my heart aches. The same when…you know, bodies of water feature very prominently in Japanese literature, as they do the world over, as sources of refreshment and sustenance. Imagining people set afire, stampeding into rivers and lakes to cool themselves, only to find the water boiling hot, makes me cry. As an American who places the highest value on individuals, I wish we hadn’t had to cause such suffering to anyone at all who wasn’t irredeemably evil.

    But we did have to. Emperor Hirohito was ready to surrender, but he had military leaders who were plotting to intercept his proclamation, and no one on the American side could be sure how long rank-and-file Japanese soldiers and citizens would keep fighting. That there were other, more unsavory motivations for dropping the atom bomb (such as scientific curiosity about its effects) is hard to dispute. There probably isn’t any such thing as a guileless decision during wartime, for that matter. I wish the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs a peaceful eternal rest as much as anyone. But I’m glad America did what it took to win.

    Love’s got the world in motion / And I know what we can do

    Posted by Sean at 11:05, August 4th, 2004

    In a comment to a previous post, someone mentioned a report about displays of anti-Chinese sentiment at Japanese soccer matches. Not surprisingly, two are doing this tango. From a story headlined Anti-Japan feeling evident at Asian Cup:

    After the game, a crowd of people surrounded a Japanese student wearing a Japan team jersey and began to verbally abuse him, telling him, “Go home, now!”

    He was then pelted with sunflower seeds the Chinese had brought with them for a snack.

    I’m glad they didn’t use rocks, trust me. But I have to say that throwing sunflower seeds sounds like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Let this shower of trace minerals, cholesterol-fighting lipids, and essential amino acids signify our unutterable contempt for you, you…archipelago-dweller!” And I think the complaint lodged with the Chinese government by the Japanese government sounds kind of silly as rendered by the Mainichi English edition, though the original makes it a little clearer that the goal was to get the PRC to prevent things from escalating into violence, not just to express pique at being booed.

    Sports fans are the same worldwide, of course. I’m not saying they’re all hooligans, just that there’s nothing particularly Chinese or Japanese about passions that run high at soccer matches. Whether this sort of thing helps to defuse hostilities or ratchets them up is an arguable point. It probably depends on the circumstances. In any case, both Chinese and Japanese nationalism have been known to be unpredictable forces in the past. Given the shifting balances of economic and military power here on the Pacific Rim, we can only hope the belligerence stops at fistfuls of salty snacks.

    Added at 19:45: I can’t imagine how I missed it, especially since he pointed the issue out earlier here, but Meaty Fly put up a link-rich post about this issue a few days ago, tying it to the developing Sino-Japanese competition for resources. His update today is also more detailed than what I wrote here. Finally, CNN has posted an article that summarizes the current soccer-related goings-on.

    BTW, I assume most of you know what angers Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese when some Japanese politician talks about how “regrettable” something that happened during the War was, but for those who’ve wondered: The specific word translated as “regret” varies from case to case, but 遺憾に思う is the favored expression. If memory serves, that’s the phrasing the mayor of Hiroshima used in his widely-protested speech on the 50th anniversary of the A-bombing of that city.

    The problem with the word is that it expresses free-floating, non-referential regret; it is not an apology. The tone of his speech was something like having someone who kidnapped and tortured your toddler to death tell you, “I’ve done some extreme and ill-advised things, and what happened to your child is a very deplorable thing indeed.” To add insult to injury, there’s still a voluble crew of hard-right Japanese who protest whenever a politician makes a move to apologize to Asia for Japan’s wartime actions, reasoning that Japan was liberating the rest of Asia from Euro-American hegemony. You can imagine how much the former comfort women love that. In any case, that’s how Japanese politicians who express “regret” generally make diplomatic incidents worse.


    Posted by Sean at 04:26, August 3rd, 2004

    Tama Starr has a new article up at Reason about the latest of her hilarious adventures in trying to be an old-school, straight-shooting business owner who gets and retains contracts by, you know, doing good work and being answerable to clients. As you can imagine, she meets adversity at every turn. But she has a great sense of humor about it.

    Something that made me laugh, in particular, about this piece:

    A bank

    The day in headlines (short version)

    Posted by Sean at 21:04, August 1st, 2004

    Possibly my favorite recent economy-related headline: 7月のビール・発泡酒販売、猛暑効果で前年比1割増 (Beer, Other Effervescent Alcoholic Beverages Effective for Dealing with Severe Heat; Sales Rise 10%). Asahi seems to have seen the highest increase when beer alone is considered; teetotalers may be reassured to know that people are also snapping up iced green tea.

    On the other hand, this headline is from the tell-us-something-we-don’t-know department: Ministry: Staff Took Kickbacks. Well, okay, we didn’t know the specific ministry, agency, or amount:

    Probe shows 180 million yen was pocketed from payments for checking official documents.

    Thirty health ministry employees socked away 180 million yen in public money for department parties, late night cabs and personal use, say sources close to an in-house investigation.

    The federal bureaucracy here doesn’t attract fundamentally amoral people. But there is, built right into the system, an expectation that top graduates of the elite schools will take lower salaries than they would in the private sector in exchange for perks and, after retirement, the revolving door to a cushy job at one of the semi-public companies that oversee a lot of industries here. The deeply ingrained culture of patronage makes the line between being good to the people you deal with and outright corruption very difficult to draw. I’m pretty sure you can draw it somewhere before 180 million yen (US $1.6 million), though.

    No pride at all–that’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford

    Posted by Sean at 15:54, August 1st, 2004

    So I finally decided that, rather than clicking through to half the sites I read from Dean Esmay’s page, I may as well take the trouble to update my link list so I can actually get other places from here. Of course, the operation was fraught with hazard. Have I mentioned lately how much I detest default smart quotes? I forgot that Word has that particular annoying feature, so of course, when I hand-coded the links in a Word document and then cut and pasted into my site, MT was like, WTF is that junk in your href tags? Sigh. You’d think, as someone who’s spent his whole working life negotiating between word processing and DTP programs in English and Japanese, I’d remember how that little stuff can screw up your life. These two-byte characters are going to drive me to drink.

    Or maybe there’s hope. In the course of getting my links together, I was reminded of this report on IGF that Teresa Heinz Kerry…well, here’s the citation from The Washington Blade:

    Heinz Kerry appeared to mix policy issues with motherly love, drawing repeated shouts of appreciation from both lesbians and gay male delegates. She told of how she was moved at a campaign appearance a few months ago in Washington state, when a man told her in a question and answer session that his relationship with his mother was strained and told her, “I want you to be my mother.”

    “It was clear that he had not made that peace with his mother and he wanted someone who loved him,” Heinz Kerry said. “And so, at least, if nothing else, you’ll have a mom in the White House,” she told the crowd. Added Heinz Kerry, “You can call me Mama T.”

    That remark prompted the gay delegates to jump to their feet while chanting, “Mama T!”

    Cool! I know what let’s do. Let’s have La Ketchup address each of us as “Little Mary,” which not only has a reassuring ring of protectiveness but is also the name of Virginia Weidler’s character in The Women! Doesn’t get much gayer than that.

    Cheese and crackers. I normally think the word codependent an especially annoying neologism, but I can’t think of anything better to describe a room full of grown men and women who are begging to be patronized and a woman who’s only too glad to win their affection by doing it. Time to find a new shrink, ladies.

    (You, too, Mrs. K. Mama T.)

    Gravy as food and metaphor

    Posted by Sean at 17:31, July 31st, 2004

    There isn’t a chance in the world that anyone reading this site doesn’t also check Samizdata frequently, but for those who haven’t seen it, there’s a great post up about what has become one of my least favorite subjects. While I’m watching Columbo and trying to decide whether lunch will be broiled chicken with way too much pan gravy or chicken paprikash (sp.? I’ve only heard my Polish-American great aunts say it) with way too much sour cream, I’ll add just a few comments to what David Carr wrote.

    He’s talking about British, not American, law; but I think that what he says about the relationships among custom, law, and behavior applies States-side, also. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes the gay marriage proponents have made is insisting on limiting to homosexual couples the extensions of benefits. Domestic partner benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the use of enduring power of attorney are certainly issues that affect our relationships; however, we aren’t the only unmarried people who may need to think about them. If two relatives or lifelong friends want to take responsibility for each other’s welfare and are willing to do so officially and exclusively…well, why shouldn’t they be able to, using much the same argument we use in favor of benefits for gays? Some people have crazy next-of-kin whom they can’t trust when wide awake, much less while comatose. Others have simply formed bonds in their adult lives with people who would more respect their wishes than their blood relatives. As long as the content of the contract is clear, why not push to bundle these things into the kind of civil union in which who sleeps in which bed isn’t an issue?

    When this point is raised by critics, those arguing for gay marriage say that if anyone and everyone can randomly assign a domestic partner at will, things will get so chaotic that no one will be able to keep track of who gets what (more chaotic than our current era of no-fault divorce and no-father childrearing?). Or they bring up love and commitment, which I hadn’t been aware was impossible between distant cousins sharing a non-romantic household.

    I understand the emotional issue here. When people ask why gay couples should qualify for benefits that roommates don’t, many of them–not all, but many–are not-so-slyly taking the opportunity to dismiss our relationships as meaningless. That’s nasty, and it hurts, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have a policy point.

    Or a point about human nature. I believe that most of those on our team sincerely don’t want to force people to approve of our relationships in the sense of going out of their way to be congratulatory–that they just don’t want us to be prevented from providing for each other when we most need it. But forcing people to bracket together recognition of, say, hospital visitation rights and gay partnerships moves the issue into muddy territory in which even good-hearted people will feel as if they’re being shaken down for sympathy. That’s neither a logical nor emotionally astute way to get people on your side.


    Posted by Sean at 12:25, July 30th, 2004

    One of the guys at worked asked why, given how willing I am to spout off about politics, I wasn’t watching the pageantry at the DNC. This from Kerry’s acceptance speech is part of the reason:

    Before wrapping themselves in the flag and shutting their eyes and ears to the truth, they should remember what America is really all about.

    Please tell me he didn’t actually say that?

    Are we dancing now?

    Posted by Sean at 14:49, July 29th, 2004

    Meaty Fly (who’s commented on a few posts below and will presumably be another reader who can tell me when I mangle my translations from Japanese) has this post about Sino-Japanese relations and how their development affects US interests. He (I assume) quotes several Japanese news sources to make the following point, specifically with regard to a proposed natural gas pipeline but also with wider implications. I’ve left out the links in his original post:

    The United States is the world’s biggest oil consumer; China is in second place and rising. Japan depends on the Middle East for 90% of its oil. Thus, the stakes are high in all directions. The pipeline to Japan may also serve U.S. interests, because it “would also be a strategic asset for Russia, allowing it to export to other Asian countries and perhaps the US west coast.”

    Tensions between China and Japan over energy don’t stop there. Japan is embroiled in a dispute with China over offshore natural gas fields.

    Since US businesses and MBA programs stopped thinking of Japan’s management and bureaucratic practices as sexy, and there are no more human interest features to write about how Japan, Inc., is going to leave the hard-working American family impoverished, events in Japan don’t seem to make the news as much in the States anymore. Even here, little incidents between Japan and Korea, or Japan and China, over disputed islands and ships passing in the night are so frequent that they can obscure potentially big stories like these. One hopes that the US government is giving them due attention.

    I don’t really expect things to spiral out of control soon, given present conditions. Still, resentments run old and deep in this part of the world, even if you just think back as far as World War II. The generation that actually lived through the War is dying off, but in the last decade, several high-profile controversies–the proposed reparations suit by Korean comfort women, the dismissive trashing of Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking by Japanese historians, the whitewashing of Japanese aggression in its public school history textbooks–have kept the ill-feeling simmering. As far as strategic allies in the Pacific Rim go, China has a regime we flat-out can’t trust; Korea and Taiwan (the latter of which could be forgiven for not trusting us entirely) have their own very immediate defense problems to worry about and won’t have the ability to project much force for the foreseeable future. Japan is still basically the only game in town, no matter how fast the Chinese economy is growing.