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    Our betters

    Posted by Sean at 01:57, March 14th, 2008

    Overheard at the bar the other night, spoken between two always-loud friends from the same part of the British Isles:

    “Well, I get both CNN and the BBC, you know, and I always think–well, let me put it this way: CNN is entertainment, and the BBC is news.”

    “Oh, very much so. By the way, isn’t that weather guy…Rob Mar…Mar….”

    “Marciano! A real hottie!”

    “Can’t get enough of him!”

    To impress upon his mate (and, I’m fairly certain, everyone within earshot–he’s that type) the seriousness of the distinction, Speaker 1 drew out the word news with suitable fake-RP/genuine-gasbag portentousness: nee-yeeewwwwwz.

    I’m usually very good about not chortling audibly in such situations, but I happened to be sitting with my English buddy, with whom I e-mail news stories and things back and forth frequently through the day. I made the mistake of catching his eye. At that point, it was over.

    Of course, it wasn’t the novelty of the opinions expressed that I found funny. I’ve heard that kind of nonsense many times before. But it’s still nonsense.

    I have little objection to the characterization of CNN as a source of mere entertainment, given that its “in-depth coverage” is like World Book Encyclopedia come to life: all cutesy-poo visuals and repellantly chipper presentation, presumably calibrated to reassure the mass audience that it will not be confronted with anything too complicated, taxing to the intellect, or challenging to existing assumptions.

    I just don’t see how the BBC–especially BBC World, which has notably CNN-ified itself over the years–can be thought to bring anything more elevated to the mix. It’s not that the BBC is worse. For one thing, the reporters don’t do as much of that gruesome, would-be-matey joshing with one another as they do on American channels. (Is there no way to make them cut that out?) But you get the same pat, preconception-confirming reporting on stories that you get everywhere else. You get the same “heartwarming” human interest pieces, which I sometimes think are purposefully contrived to make any civilized person’s flesh crawl. You get the same asinine patter made necessary by being on the air all day. And you get the same unilluminating Q&A shows. Even the Hard Talk guy, whatever his name is (if he were cuter I’d make more of an effort to remember), is more known for his confrontational-jerk style of delivering questions than for actually, you know, drawing better information out of his subjects than other interviewers do.

    At times I prefer the BBC because I find the cool composure of the newsreaders welcome. Just spit out the story already. At other times it’s kind of nice the way CNN (as well as MSNBC) is populated by people who appear frankly aware that they’re feeding you Spam on Wonder smeared with Miracle Whip Lite. That probably says something about my native Yank preference for forthrightness.

    Just to end on a suitable note of (North) American frivolity: Rondi thinks Silda (Mrs. Eliot) Spitzer looks like Jennifer Aniston. There’s totally a Hollywood angle on everything if you just look hard enough!

    Over and over

    Posted by Sean at 01:54, March 12th, 2008

    Occasionally, the thought flits through my head that maybe Go Fug Yourself isn’t quite as funny as I think it is. Then I start guffawing again and forget all about it. This is Heather’s riff on one of the photo-op photos from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions last night:


    MADONNA: And the arms, they work, right? Young people have great arms. Justin probably has awesome arms. He’s kind of my inspiration, actually. God, I just want to use my fearsome guns to tear off his young flesh and eat it.

    JUSTIN: I don’t know why, but I’m suddenly afraid that Madonna is going to use her fearsome guns to tear off my young flesh and eat it.

    IGGY: I wonder what it’d taste like if I used Madonna’s fearsome guns to tear off that kid’s young flesh and eat it.

    I’m still not sure how much of Madonna’s strangeness of appearance is due to getting work done; a lot of it could be all the dieting and working out. No question, though, that she’s bringing the same determination to staying “youthful” that she did to becoming a star. And (to bring up Taylor Dayne for the second time in a week) M. at least is working with her facial structure rather than against it.

    To see Madonna’s continued ability to polarize people in action, refer to this comment thread at Ann Althouse’s.


    Posted by Sean at 08:49, March 11th, 2008

    No surprise here: the DPJ is making good on its threat to oppose the Muto nomination:

    The leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan met on 11 March and resolved not to agree to the the government’s nomination of Bank of Japan Deputy Governor Toshiro Muto as its new governor. Regarding nominees for new deputy governors, it will oppose University of Tokyo Professor Takatoshi Ito but not University of Kyoto Professor Masaaki Shirakawa.

    Now that the ruling coalition doesn’t control the upper house, it can’t get its nominees through the Diet without the agreement of the DPJ. The DPJ argument against Muto–that he’s a career bureaucrat who will compromise the central bank’s independence–isn’t one to be taken lightly. Muto was once Vice-Minister of Finance…meaning that he had risen through the ranks of appointed officials to become the official with the most real power in the ministry (more than the Minister of Finance himself, who’s appointed by the current administration from on high and lacks the deep-rooted connections with ministry insiders). Japan has a lot of public debt, so the fear is that Muto will be too likely to keep interest rates down to gladden the hearts of federal bureaucrats by helping finance the (large) public debt. And word is that Muto is less committed, at least in the short term, to raising rates than Toshihiko Fukui, whom he’d be succeeding.

    At the same time, I have yet to hear whether the DPJ has any bright ideas about who should get the job, and more bickering right now just gives foreign investors more reason–as if more were needed–to think Tokyo is seriously flaky and unreliable.

    Apropos of nothing: I don’t know much about the deputy governor nominees, but Wikipedia says that Ito is a disciple of Kenneth Arrow, who presumably directed his dissertation at Harvard.

    Client 9

    Posted by Sean at 00:00, March 11th, 2008

    While we were sleeping in East Asia, the Internets back home were humming with news of a new Eliot Spitzer scandal:

    As recently as this past Valentine’s Day, Feb. 13, Spitzer, who officials say is identified in a federal complaint as “Client 9,” arranged for a prostitute “Kristen” to meet him in Washington, D.C.

    The woman met Client 9 at the Mayflower Hotel, room 871, “for her tryst,” according to the complaint. Client 9 also is alleged to have paid for the woman’s train tickets, cab fare, mini bar and room service, travel time and hotel.

    Spitzer, who made his name by bringing high-profile cases against many of New York’s financial giants, is likely to be prosecuted under a relatively obscure statute called “structuring,” according to a Justice Department official.

    Instapundit has, naturally, the best round-up of links.

    I think of Spitzer exactly what you’d expect me to think as a libertarian: he’s repugnantly bossy and power-mad, and the showboating way he’s strong-armed corporations into disgorging big settlements just ensures that higher costs will be shoved off on rank-and-file consumers. Should he be driven out of office (it hasn’t happened yet, of course) for the hypocrisy of visiting a prostitute after having gotten all high-minded about operators of a prostitution ring he’d busted as Attorney General, well, what goes around comes around:

    In one such case in 2004, Mr. Spitzer spoke with revulsion and anger after announcing the arrest of 16 people for operating a high-end prostitution ring out of Staten Island.

    “This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multitiered management structure,” Mr. Spitzer said at the time. “It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring.”

    Hypocrisy is an easy charge to throw around glibly. We all fail to live up to our principles at times; that doesn’t mean we aren’t genuinely trying to. It can be very difficult to determine whether someone’s hypocrisy involves slipping up at weak moments despite good-faith efforts to behave or (worse, I think we’d all agree) cynically applying laws to others that he doesn’t apply to himself.

    But it’s hard to sympathize with Spitzer, for whom it’s never been enough just to be sanctimonious. No, he has to be bullying and high-handed about his ability to use whatever office he’s holding to make life suck for whomever he’s got in the crosshairs. I assume we’ll be listening to his “I’m so very sorry [that I got caught]” routine for a few days before we find out whether he’ll be forced out of office for leaving the sort of communication trail he used to warn his enemies against.

    Added later: Via Eric, Arthur Silber is suitably unsparing:

    Prostitution involving consenting adults cannot defensibly be regarded as a crime. In that sense, Spitzer should never have been targeted at all for that alleged offense. But it is currently illegal, as all basically functioning adults are fully aware. [And whatever else might be said about him, Spitzer appears to be basically functioning. I’ll be here all week.] Given Spitzer’s unfathomable stupidity — and in light of the fact that he is now the victim of the kinds of overreaching police state tactics that he himself has endlessly championed and utilized — this can only be regarded as an instance of an especially objectionable, arrogant, overweening, power-mad, vicious son of a bitch himself getting exactly what he has been delightedly happy to dish out to others.

    Can’t fight fate

    Posted by Sean at 00:56, March 7th, 2008

    Back in Tokyo for a half-week stay to attend to a few things before going back for my last few weeks in Taipei. This time, it’s the clear weather that’s following me around, which is nice. Not even I, with my English genes and sense of dramatic melancholy, like rain and overcast skies that don’t stop for weeks at a time.

    Japan appears not to have undergone any major changes, though I have to say I loved this item from the other way (which I was too busy to post about at the time):

    Cutting bureaucratic fat may be a lot tougher than anticipated.

    A government advisory panel’s proposal to reduce branch offices of central ministries and agencies is expected to meet with fierce opposition.

    While terms such as branch office and regional bureau may conjure up images of “outposts” of central government ministries, those venues are considered by entrenched bureaucrats as comprising the “core” of their ministries.

    Past developments do not bode for fast progress. Last year, the decentralization committee asked for suggestions on possible mergers of branch offices.

    Not a single central ministry came up with a positive proposal.

    “Tougher than anticipated”? Asking central ministries whether they have any bright ideas about how to shrink their own territory and limit their own authority? The degree of ingenuousness on display here is touching. Every battle over restructuring federal ministries–from the game of musical chairs finalized in 2001 to the Koizumi administration’s “trinity reforms“–has amply demonstrated that bureaucrats do not willingly look for ways to give themselves less power. And they know how to work the system to get their way, largely because they pretty much are the system.


    It’s confirmed that Toshiro Muto is the candidate whose name has been submitted to committee as the next head of the Bank of Japan. (Toshihiko Fukui’s chances for a second term were scotched by his involvement in the Murakami Fund/Livedoor maelstrom.)


    I’m starting to get the new Janet album, which makes me happy. It’s been a while since a celeb put out an album that actually grew on me instead of provoking an immediate and unshifting love it/hate it/enh reaction. The single seems to have gone nowhere except in dance clubs, of course.


    Happy belated birthday to Rondi, who was born on 5 March.


    Happy on-time birthday to Lynn Swann, Taylor Dayne, and Tammy Faye (wherever she is), who were born on 7 March like me. This is apparently the day Apple was granted the patent for the iPod two years ago, too, which is very cool.


    Eric has a good post about maneuvering in the Pennsylvania primaries. I agree that those who think goosing Clinton’s campaign in order to help McCain along later are playing with fire:

    Unless that is, I do something about it, and fast. The way I see it, Hillary is going to win this state, and the forces of Rush Limbaugh are going to do their damnedest to increase her margin of victory. This, it is believed, will help John McCain. Not only do I disagree with this approach, but I distrust it. Almost without exception, Limbaugh and the other major Hillary promoters hate John McCain and make no secret of it. So I am deeply suspicious of their claim that they are “helping” John McCain by helping Hillary at the polls.

    I think this might very well have the opposite effect. Yesterday’s election results demonstrated the fragility of Obama’s house of cards, because the Obamamania is already starting to wear off. I predicted that in the long term, he would be the weaker of the two candidates for this very reason, and that he, not Hillary, would be the easier of the two for McCain to beat.

    Divisiveness in the Democratic Party seems to be building just fine without trying to foment it…with the side effect of reinforcing HRC’s renewed viability. I don’t think I’m misunderstanding the argument, but I really don’t think it’s a good idea.


    Remember when Janet used to sing songs like “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive“? As often happens, the release of the new album has reminded me how much I love her old stuff, so I’ve been on a real Janet kick, and I was just thinking, you know, if she did a song with a similar storyline today, she’d be all like “He doesn’t even know that I’m alive…so I hired a private detective to find out his address, put on my studded lilac pleather catsuit, got into my SUV, plowed it through the facade of his McMansion, stepped grandly out into his now open-air foyer, and introduced myself as Miss Janet Robo-Damita.” I mean, rhyming and stuff, of course.

    I guess that’s not as interesting as it seemed a few minutes ago. Uh, have a good weekend, everyone.

    It’s Tuesday

    Posted by Sean at 06:06, February 26th, 2008

    The staff at my office here in Taipei have given me two different nicknames. I was designated “Evil Pink Guy” (by one of the fags, naturally–we’re such bitches) the day I showed up in a lavender T-shirt and sat behind my desk with the lights off, apparently looking malign. The girls up front, on the other hand, have decided I’m 型男. No clue how to pronounce that in Chinese, but apparently it means “well-dressed man.”

    I’m honestly not sure which one I prefer. Being known as the Evil Pink Guy could, it seems to me, have its advantages.


    Hokkaido Diet member Muneo Suzuki, an uncommonly proficient glad-hander even by Japanese standards, has had one of his sentences upheld:

    The Tokyo High Court on Tuesday upheld a two-year prison sentence against Lower House member Muneo Suzuki, a once-powerful politician convicted of accepting 11 million yen in bribes and other crimes.

    Although prosecutors can incarcerate Suzuki, his lawyers have requested his release on bail, meaning the lawmaker will likely be able to continue his political activities.

    Under the Diet Law, lawmakers accused of bribery while in office lose their seats only when a guilty verdict is finalized.

    Suzuki, a former member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, once wielded enormous influence over the Foreign Ministry, particularly on Russian affairs, and publicly clashed with then Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka during the Junichiro Koizumi administration.

    But his power eroded after he became embroiled in a series of money scandals.

    The lawmaker was found guilty of collecting 6 million yen from Shimada Kensetsu Co., a contractor based in Abashiri, Hokkaido, for his influence in gaining the company preferential treatment for a contract in a large-scale port construction project.


    A town in Saga Prefecture has a different (ahem) incentive plan in mind:

    The Karatsu Municipal Government will from April start providing special bonuses to any citizens 75 or over who have not needed medical treatment or special health care over the previous 12 months.

    Healthy elderly Karatsu citizens will be able to receive a special 10,000 yen payment provided they are on the list the city draws up for entitled recipients and they decide to apply for it themselves.

    Karatsu’s move to reward healthy older citizens is the first such step for a Japanese municipality.

    Karatsu is hoping the idea will catch on and encourage older people to look after their health to cut potential rises in medical costs as the city’s population ages.

    The original Japanese for the program is ご長寿健康手当 (go-chouju kenkou teate: “payment for health in [exalted] longevity”), but it sounds to me more patronizing than respectful. Those who are already over 75 (or will be hitting 75 in the foreseeable future) are at a point at which there’s not a whole lot they’re likely to be able to do to affect which ailments they’re prone to. They can be extra careful not to fall and break fragile bones, I suppose, but their range of choices is going to be kind of limited.


    The new Janet is okay. By which I mean the album. The new Janet herself appears to have gone further toward Michael/LaToya-fying her nose. Kind of spooky.

    When I think that I’m over you / I’m overpowered

    Posted by Sean at 06:30, February 24th, 2008

    Disconnected thoughts that may prove to have been better left unexpressed:

    Am I the only one who’s afraid the new Janet album is going to suck? I actually liked 20 Y.O. She sounded relaxed. She seemed to be having fun. Yeah, she was ripping off herself and everyone else, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. “Feedback” sounds great while you’re listening to it, but I forgot I’d even downloaded it a day or two after it was released.

    I’m enjoying Taipei, but it’s a very…intimately-scaled place. Over the first few weeks I was here, I was introduced to three or four guys in the Family (“Ooh…I have a friend you’ll just LOVE! He’s gay, too!”) and met a few others separately out and about. When I got back last Saturday, I was invited to a party. They were all there and all knew each other. It was kind of cute. Good thing I live a simple life, or the moment of realization might have been a little sticky.

    And the weather in this place! Rain, sunshine (briefly) smog, mist, more rain, the temperature going up and down wildly. The friend I’m staying with lives part-way up a mountain. It’s still officially Taipei City, but it’s not urban at all. There are hot springs. The wind howls constantly, often flinging rain at you. Going for a run is great; the steepness of the roads makes it feel like you’re doing stadiums. It’s all nicely primordial…and she has cable! So yeah, things are going fine. Just busy.

    Added 25 February: Another thing that’s struck me since I’ve been here: Taiwan is full of South Africans. Canadians, too. In Japan, you get used to every third foreigner you meet’s being Australian. Australia and Japan (touchingly, considering their war history) have very good relations nowadays, they’re comparatively close together, and Australians like to knock around other places. In Taiwan, I think I’ve met one Australian in six weeks. Just about everyone from North America here seems to be Canadian. Handful of English. And lots of South Africans. This appears to be one of the places it’s easy for the young and adventurous to make money away from home.


    Posted by Sean at 06:23, February 22nd, 2008

    No, I’m not dead–thanks to those who’ve asked. I’m forcing myself to follow the primaries, mirthlessly, and I have little to say about pesticide-laced gyoza or the latest alleged criminal behavior by our military personnel in Japan–not because there’s nothing to say about them, but because my attention is distracted by other things. My project in Taipei requires a lot of attention. That’s mostly a good thing, but it means that at the end of the day, I’m not exactly champing at the bit to spend more time at the computer. I may have more breathing room next week. Until then, I hope everyone enjoys the weekend.


    Posted by Sean at 04:55, February 6th, 2008

    It’s Chinese New Year’s Eve, if that’s the word for it. I’m about to leave for a party that I’m hoping is going to be pretty non-traditional–my experience in Asia has led me to the conclusion that when food is described as “auspicious,” you can reliably substitute “tastes bad.” (Well, soba noodles are good for longevity, and they’re pretty toothsome, but that’s about it.) I plan to spend the evening hoping that its being the Year of the Rat doesn’t portend anything for this year’s presidential election (not that you’ll be able to tell anyway). For others celebrating, have a happy new year. I’m back in Tokyo for a week starting tomorrow.

    How can I be sure?

    Posted by Sean at 05:53, February 1st, 2008

    This morning, for just about the first time in ten years, I got my hair cut by someone who’s not my regular guy in Tokyo. He made me feel right at home by putting gunk in my hair despite my telling him that I didn’t need any. He also had this idea that he was going to convince me to style it–there was this whole thing about using more gel on the sides than on the top and pushing it foward and down. I think there was a blow-dryer involved somewhere. Since he was recommended by a friend of mine down here (and had given me a good cut), I thought, but did not say, “Honey, I know we’re Family, but you have to understand something: I use the best degreasing shampoo I can get my hands on. Then I towel my hair dry. Then, if anything looks out of place, I finger comb it, kind of. Once. Anything more complicated than that, including applications of goo, is not happening.”

    Speaking of high-maintenance hair, can you believe Dusty‘s been dead for almost a full decade? Shelby Lynne has an album out now of covers of her songs. (Songs Dusty sang, of course, since she wasn’t known for her songwriting.) I’m trying to decide whether to buy it. I like Lynne’s voice, and though I tend to run headlong in the opposite direction from anything peddled as “alt-something,” I recognize that it’s probably not her fault that she gets icky marketing. She also had the good taste to pick two of the best songs from Dusty in Memphis to cover, along with a third, without going for the obvious attention-getting gambit of making a beeline for “Son of a Preacher Man.”

    Oh, why not? I have one more long-ish commute to work tomorrow before Chinese New Year, and if it sucks, I can always recover my spirits by listening to the real thing.