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Japanese Driving Test IV: The Trial

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on July 30, 2010 at 3:15 pm

At one, the three foreigners assembled, and I discovered that the Japanese girl who had helped me before would actually be taking the foreigner’s test since she had obtained her license in the U.S. while studying music therapy at SUNY, and she was therefore as good as a foreigner.  She was on her third test, and she was the only one of us who had been allowed to actually see “how it was done”: on her first day, the police officer had shown her the correct way to drive the course, and she had tried twice to no avail to duplicate his exact motions: no braking allowed on corner 12!  Drive between 31 and 33 km./hr. on the straightaway between “The Crank” and corner 15!  Of course, only she actually knew the arbitrary mechanism holding all of us prisoner (and failed anyways).  The rest of us, like Josef K., were ignorant of our charges.

We waited around until 1:45 or so, at which point the Japanese girl said that she’d better go upstairs because they’d probably forgotten about us.  I was shocked to hear this, but, sure enough, they had actually forgotten about us, which is no big deal, because we’re not important.  An old shit cop who looked like Marlon Brando after he died in Godfather II (but Japanese) came down and grumpily called our names.  I was and would continue to be “John-san” since I had written – and always write – my name as it is typed out on my passport to avoid “not kurisutofaa but kurisutoufa” confusion, and John, being my middle name, comes last, and every Japanese person knows that foreigners’s family names come last, so my family name must be “John”. 

I was to go last, and this trend would continue throughout the whole testing period for some reason.  The first lady was a Chinese or Korean woman married to a weary-looking Japanese man who served as her master.  I would see her fail more than once.  This time, she forgot to signal at the first turn and was forced to turn her car back before even attempting any of the obstacles.  The second driver was the Japanese girl, and it was my turn to ride in the back and observe how it’s done.  She, after all, had been shown the correct way by the pigs.

She drove completely retardedly, going ridiculously fast on straightaways and then slamming on the breaks before turning super slowly.  She failed, and I got a chance to talk to her afterwards, where she said that that was how she’d been instructed to drive.  I couldn’t really believe her, but when it was my turn, I decided to trust her and followed suit with said completely retarded driving style.  After I finished, it was time for the ceremonial being lectured on safety by a semi-retired police officer with a super high salary for doing nothing and a bully pulpit. 

Apparently, my driving had not been retarded enough and I had not been far enough left.  The particular infraction of note came when there was a motherfucking bike lane marked with a yellow line which I did not cavalierly plow through.  I was supposed to, because if I drive through the marked-with-a-yellow-line bike lane, the bike-riders will know not to fuck with my car, and safely clear out.  Otherwise, they might think the bike lane was for bikes.  Seriously, that was the rationale for my failure.  I was also told that I had been driving way too fast (I had been creeping at 25 – 30 km./hr. average the whole time.).  I argued with the guy, and I don’t think he liked that very much, because the dudes who get to work at the license center, with its super high salaries, are part of, in Japanese, amakudari, which loosely translates to English as Golden Parachute.  This means they’re super well-connected cronies making bank off the public dole, and obviously dickheads. 

I couldn’t really believe I had failed despite knowing full well that statistically I would, because I hadn’t made any mistakes.  At that time, I still believed there was the slightest semblance of logic in it all.  My friend had passed a few years ago on his first try, I had been texting him all day trying to uncover his secret as I waited, and he had been talking about how it wasn’t really a big deal, and only losers fail and whatnot, and I almost believed him.  And so, I called him and talked to him while riding my bike home that day after failing, and I let out an anger-fueled rant for which I’m now frankly embarassed.

I wasn’t free again until the following Monday, since I have work and a life and stuff, and so I made a reservation for then.  I showed up expecting to fail, but still held a glimmer of hope that reason and compassion existed in the hardened hearts of the amakudariyasan.  On Monday, I took my second test.  I had to show up between 10:30 and 11:30 to write down my name and address and pay the test fee of 2,400 yen, before then waiting two hours for the test to begin.  The same girl from before was still there and we talked about life in Japan and the United States as foreigners.  She had participated in clinical research in the University hospital where she had worked in the United States and had struggled financially, as all students do, and so had been forced to take a part-time job in a sushi restaurant while studying for her masters degree, despite the fact that that was totally illegal according to the ridiculous terms of her ridiculous visa, because some white American guy could be making sushi instead. 

It is absolutely striking how completely like shit foreigners are treated in our nationalist world system.  No matter what country, whenever shit hits the fan, immediately foreigners are blamed, and they took our jobs is the Frankenstein’s mob that makes everyone stop questioning the government.  The first sign of a country’s degeneration is the ostracization of foreigners.  If you watch for that, and escape as soon as it happens, you’ll be safe once they start mandating tracking chips in everybody’s passports.  Oops!  Too late.  The U.S. did that four years ago. 

I followed the instructor’s directions perfectly the second time around and decided to play it super safe.  I reduced my speed to around 20 km./hr. – an absurd Grandma speed – and I was still failed for “going too fast”.  But I was also simultaneously failed for “going too slow”.  How both of these conditions can be simultaneously satisfied still beats the fuck out of me, but there is no rhyme or reason to this test, and I still needed to accept that fact.  Towards the end of my second test, I was told to drive at 50 km./hr. for the final straightaway, and did so, but Marlon Brando suddenly slammed on the breaks half-way through, everyone in the car flew forward into their carefully-fastened seat belts, and Marlon Brando said I had been going too fast.  50 km.hr. – the proscribed speed – was too fast for that stretch, and I had been driving dangerously.  If the lesson here is to distrust cops. done.  I haven’t trusted cops since high school.   

I wanted to torture and kill him and then Keyser Soze his family.  My rationale for taking the test in the first place was simply to gain access to the law of my own country.  I’m planning on returning to the U.S. in December to prepare for medical school, my second daughter is due August 23rd., and there is only a short window where my family and I can visit the U.S. embassy in Tokyo to be officially sodomized before the new baby is born.  The visa paperwork for my wife and stepson will take at least three months, and waiting until the new baby is old enough to make the trip would mean I couldn’t enroll in an fMRI technical course I wish to take at Harvard Extension School in January, and I would have to be a janitor or something for a year.  If I didn’t get my license soon, it would mean disaster for my family.  If all family members don’t personally appear at the U.S. embassy, well, then, we must be terrorists.  

For anyone who still harbors doubts about how fucked up our world currently is, I implore you to marry a foreigner.

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Japanese Driving Test III: Investigations of a Dog

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on July 30, 2010 at 3:14 pm

I sat down to look at the form a bit more and decide how to proceed.  I considered my options: (1) I could go home and drag my 8-months pregnant wife and young child out in the 100-degree heat of the Fukushima summer to serve as totally unnecessary translators and my symbolic Japanese masters.  And, for foreigners living in Japan, if you have a Japanese master, it’s almost always best to bring him or her to any sort of application process, because the rights of foreigners are (politely) shat all over by immigration and city hall officials here when no Japanese people are watching.

My other option (2) was basically to resort to a strategy that had been successful so many times for me in the past – but which I really didn’t enjoy – which was basically to (politely) be as big a pain in the ass as possible and not leave until I got what I wanted.  This strategy has always worked for me in the past, but it’s a huge time commitment, and for the sake of the image of foreigners in Japan, I’m only really willing to initiate it in the most extreme of circumstances. 

The time my own bank refused to let me close my own account because I was moving to another city, I argued with them for three hours until they finally just gave me the balance in exchange that I leave a few hundred yen in the account, which I obviously haven’t used in three years.  The time I wanted to buy a phone which ran on Windows Mobile but was refused it required five full afternoons spread over five weeks. (I found out later this was because the operating system was in Japanese, one of the world’s “three most difficult languages” and, as a foreigner, I obviously couldn’t hope to comprehend the Japanese language, which is objectively more difficult than English – an “easy” language spoken by simpletons – and would accordingly call and complain repeatedly, and frankly no one wants to deal with that.)  The last time I was given a visa, I had to argue two days for a grand total of six hours, (and this was after the city hall lost my tax records and required six weeks to replace them) during which one government official whom I dubbed “The Cooler” actually bullied my wife to tears and threatened to expel me from the country.

So I wasn’t surprised when, while waiting obliviously at the license center, I suddenly got a call from my wife who said that the license center people had actually gone around me to call her on her cell phone to tell her she needed to put her gaijin in its place and call me to tell me to go home.  Meanwhile, I was still sitting in front of the window like a moron being ignored by officials who will do absolutely anything, it seems, to avoid actually talking to a foreigner.  (If your job description is “deal with foreigners” and you don’t like dealing with foreigners, I would suggest getting a new job.) 

I decided finally to (3) call the Fukushima International Center for advice.  Basically the Fukushima International Center is a Shaq-Diesel coalition of righteous Japanese and foreigners who counter the official bullying which foreigners receive from the Japanese government.  It’s indicative of an absurd waste that there needs to be a public service to combat public services.  

A woman at the International Center told me she’d try to straighten it out, and would call me back if there were any problems.  I never got a call back from her, but ten minutes after I hung up the phone, a nice police officer came out of the office behind the window and apologized for old bitch’s rudeness, said he had called my wife to apologize to her as well and to explain the situation, and introduced me to a young girl who had apparently spent time in America and could answer my questions in English if need be.  The International Center had come through in the clutch again.  I was sure the official point of reckoning was that “these foreigners just don’t understand Japanese culture.” as opposed to “stop being a cock.”  But, that is another battle for another day.

After the intervention of the International Center and the assistance of the Japanese girl who had studied abroad in the U.S., the form was quickly finished, and I entered stage two of this second day of driving test bullshit, which consisted of a detailed interview on how I had obtained my license.  I understand that America has fifty states and fifty standards, and so fast-tracking or burying this stage of the process may not have been initially feasible, but I wouldn’t think it’d be too difficult to gradually create a database of results, write a computer program, and eventually eliminate the wasteful interview part; but then again I’m still loosely operating under the assumptions that actions have reasons behind them and people aren’t complete morons. 

The next stage was the eye test, which was the only straight-forward, reasonable part of the exam, and this was followed by the written test.  The written test contained ten questions which consisted each of an illustration, a passage in Japanese explaining the illustration, and a passage in English explaining the illustration.  I was instructed by the nice police officer that I had five minutes to answer the ten questions.  This written test was shockingly easy: a young child with no driving experience could have answered every question correctly simply by employing the smallest dose of common sense; each picture would show someone passing at an intersection or stopping in the middle of train tracks and then I had to decide whether or not that was okay. 

I was on to stage something or other.  I forget what stage I’m on at this point, and if you don’t like it well sir you can rot in hell.  At this point I received my yellow card, which anyone who’s undergone the Japanese driving test would be familiar with: it’s a card that is yellow.  There’s a bright red stamp on the left side.  One stamp.  Indicating that the particular cardholder has passed the written test.  Because nobody fails the written test.  It’s effectively pointless.  And then on the right side of the most cards, in the driving test section, there’s a column of black “no pass” stamps.  There are five or six lines on the card, and that is exactly how many tries it seems to take the average person to pass, so I wouldn’t consider it unreasonable that somewhere along the line, someone figured out that the marginal cost of the paperwork required to produce a second card for an invidual gaijin exceeds the marginal cost of simply passing said gaijin.  I don’t know, because by the end of this process for myself, I had witnessed 11 driving examinations, only one of which had been successful, and had seen 25 black stamps on six yellow cards.

I was now ready to fail the driving exam firsthand.  I had prepared excessively by scouring the gaijin enclaves of the Internet.  There were many long, detailed explanations, but a few main points or cardinal rules to keep in mind.  The first was to go slow, especially around curves.  The second was to keep to the left, because one girl actually drove on the right side of the road and failed for that.  Dumbass.  The third was to look around constantly for invisible or imaginary ghost cars that had somehow made it onto the course, using your neck and not your eyes, really, really hamming it up.

Today there would be three foreigners taking the test, and we were instructed to assemble at 1:00 in the cathedral-like main room on the first floor of the license center.  I made my way downstairs.  It was only 11:30, so I had plenty of time before the test.  From 12:00 we were allowed to walk the course, which sounds ridiculous but is completely advised.  They had given me a map with the course charted, and I was pleased to see that the obstacles (since the Japanese course is designed or contrived and not on an actual road) were not especially difficult.  After walking the course, I decided to eat the sandwich which my wife had made for me before I went, but my stomache was upset from being so goddam fucking angry that I wasn’t hungry, and actually had to fight gag reflexes to fill my body with nutrients.  This is something which would recur throughout the following weeks. 

Japanese Driving Test II: Before the Law

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on July 30, 2010 at 3:05 pm

I had a dispassionate conversation today with my wife after visiting the Fukushima License Center about how she thinks all the problems I seem to come across here in Japan are directly caused by my confrontational, stubborn, and uncompromising personality.  I can’t deny that she’s right.  I have an abject and probably unfounded hatred for nearly all public employees, and take great offense when I am forced to do something which I find illogical and pointless.  I am absurdly cheap and miserly, and hate being forced to spend money on meaningless fees.  I don’t object to the concept of paying taxes, because the government needs money to function, and we the people need some form of government, but the underhanded way in which all governments structure their revenue sources to fool consumers into thinking they pay less than they actually do is odious and criminal, especially coming from the people whose job it is to serve us.

Public employees who don’t do everything in their power to slavishly serve the public are the worst kind of people alive.  Among them, those who think of themselves as the masters of the citizenry, and not as the servants of the people, should be publicly executed.  There is a substantial presence of police officers in this last, ninth-circle-of-hell group.      

Those who have read my long series of emails loosely titled “The Chronicles of Carrnia”, written four years ago largely from friends’s computers, an intermittently functioning seven-year-old laptop, hi-jacked wireless networks, and myriad internet cafes in two continents, may recognize a return to form in the following post of a family-less, responsibility-less, unworking, unshowered Chris filled with anger and hatred for all the unfair aspects of life and unable to control it.  That Chris has since been self-neutered, and he has been replaced with a Chris who tries to explore the world and write dispassionately with his head.  He is still filled with anger and hatred for all the unfair aspects of life, but at least makes an effort to control and direct it, to be angry in a civilized fashion.

I’ve wondered occasionally whether this gradual change in both my personality and in my writing over the past several years represents a process of maturity which we all go through or a selling out to the pressures of the world and obligations to those around me.  After my recent experience trying to exchange my American drivers license for a Japanese one, in which I discovered no matter how much I try to hide my anger and frustration, it doesn’t matter, I’ve decided to channel that old Chris for a profanity filled, angry rant about something that deserves it.  So, if you dislike profanity, and if you dislike anger, stop reading now.  But if you like profanity and anger in its proper place like I do, then by all means continue reading.

And so, when I was forced by the Fates to undertake the infamous Japanese driving test, I knew it would require tremendous self-discipline and anger management to successfully pass.  First, let me describe the situation for Americans living in Japan, a situation which most foreigners here don’t fully understand, and about which Americans in the United States remain apathetically oblivious.  This situation is indicative of a larger trend worldwide wherein American citizens are especially singled-out for abuse as retaliation to the actions of our retarded government. 

Sometime back in the day, some idiot American bureaucrats trying to justify their existences decided they didn’t like the way the Japanese taught their citizens to drive, and so Japanese citizens would no longer be fast-tracked to receive American licenses upon relocation to the United States.  Japan responded eye-for-an-eye by making it especially difficult for American Citizens to pass the Japanese test in order to gain permission to drive in Japan. Essentially, the current situation is two governments being babies and citizens having to clean up the shit.

I initially made a driving test reservation for three Tuesdays ago, but came down with a crippling fever and splitting headache which resulted in my cancelling my reservation.  When my wife called the license center to cancel my appointment, those arrogant fuckers got pissed off at her for failing to properly instruct her pet gaijin on the proper Japanese ways, even though the license center assholes set aside a block of time everyday for hassling foreigners and it doesn’t matter how many show up.  How dare I get sick. 

So when I rescheduled for the following Thursday, the license people were less than cordial, by which I mean they were rude fucks that deserve death.  Of course I had to ride my bike – since I’m not allowed to drive – to get to the license center, which is the only one in the prefecture, and is conveniently situated at the base of a huge mountain nowhere near any non-pork civilization.  There were of course several establishments in the vicinity, such as a place to take license photos, a convenience store with an ATM for conveniently withdrawing license fees, and several driving schools whose very existence derived from the montrous table scraps of the Japanese government, table scraps so large they’re considered their own political demographic which politicians try to sex up for votes.  This pork-microeconomy was surrounded on all sides by the vast peach farms, vinyards, and rice fields which mark the corner of Japan in which I am a humble guest. 

I’m extraordinarily lucky I live at the base of those very same mountains, but even so, it took me 45 minutes to bike to the license center uphill the whole way, and I barely made my ten o’clock appointment, but I made it.  I entered the large cathedral-like main room of the prodigiously expensive public building in the middle of nowhere and approached the nearest window, where I was made to wait like an idiot for fifteen minutes or so even though no other customers were there and there were twenty or so fat, semi-retired police officers sitting at their desks doing nothing before one of the fat pigs finally waddled over to talk to me.  I was informed that my window was actually on the third floor, and was directed to the elevator on the far side of the room. 

For some reason, the elevator smelled like stuffing of the Thanksgiving variety which actually made me feel sick because it was a hundred degrees out and I was still dripping in sweat from my uphill bike ride, and no one wants to smell Thanksgiving stuffing under those circumstances.  When I got to the third floor and approached my proper window, I was informed in extremely rude Japanese by a disgusting-looking angry old bitch that it was past 10:00 and I should “go home” because I had missed my 10:00 appointment (It was 10:05.); I was given a form in Japanese to fill out with details of how I had acquired my Massachusetts license more than ten years before: how many hours had I practiced driving before my license test, how many questions were on the permit test and which percentage one needed correct to pass.  I knew if I made any mistakes here, it could be used later as pretext to fail me once or reject me altogether for fraud if I didn’t “play ball”with the system, and so I had researched the Commonwealth’s standards circa the year 2000 on the Internet and bullshitted the rest, because that’s all you can do. 

I had a few questions about some technical words on the form I’d never seen before; I could guess their meanings and answer according to my best guess, or I could double-check with an employee first.  I decided to play it safe and ask old bitch, who seemed to hate her job dealing with gaijin.  Before I could finish my question, she smirked, “If you don’t understand Japanese, just go home.”  “But I’m asking you in Japanese.” I replied taken-aback, “I’m just trying to doublecheck what this one word means.”  “Don’t make make me move my neck for you!  Go home, and come back tomorrow with a Japanese translator.”

Drug Policy: Engaging with Reality

In Specific Facts on July 27, 2010 at 4:01 am

In Japan, there is a widespread benign ignorance about the effects of recreational drug use on the human body.  I know only one person here who has tried a hardcore drug (by which I mean it doesn’t pass the lunchbreak test), and he happens to be an extremely unique, strongwilled, powerful, and privileged individual.  Drugs (besides of course alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, nitrous, and until recently, both marijuana and mushrooms) are not a part of Japanese culture, and so if Japanese people do not dispassionately understand the physiological effects of crystal meth, who cares?  

However in America, a country saturated with recreational drug use, we suffer from a malignant almost willful ignorance on the part of parents and authority figures.  Our drug laws and programs designed to combat youth drug use, personal experimentation, and addiction are universally poor and self-defeating.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the easily-debunkable urban legends and boogieman stories disseminated through networks of parents and school officials engaging in discussions of mutual ignorance.  Like priests and nuns lecturing Catholic school students about sex, bureaucrats, PTA officials, and politicians not named Hunter S. Thompson should not be formulating drug policy or setting curricula.  This job should be the proper province of neuroscientists who understand the physiology of addiction, and illegal drugs should be scientifically reviewed and assessed by the chemists and clinical researchers at the FDA.

One particularly odious boogieman is that of the “gateway drug”; “I-dosing” as a gateway drug was discussed last week on Jason Kottke’s website to point out some of the obvious ridiculousness of the discussion.  It is worth noting that the very concept of a gateway drug seldom includes legal drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco, although there is a persistent cultural turn against tobacco that may lead to it’s being referenced as a “gateway drug” in the near future.  This incoherent inconsistency should place the very idea of a “gateway drug” in the same category as masturbation leading to blindness and belly-piercing harming babies; i.e, as an offensive social control, which, when discovered, leads inevitably to resentment-fueled hatred of authority figures manifest in that very activity which the lie intended initially to discourage.  And by that I mean a bunch of pissed-off kids jerking off ferociously, piercing everything and anything, getting wasted, and setting shit on fire.

From the perspective of human neurophysiology, the whole concept of a gateway drug is severely flawed: people are generally hardwired to be obsessively addicted to one thing at the expense of all others.  From clinical and experimental research: religion, caffeine, food, pornography, videogames, cocaine, heroin, etc. all stimulate the same part of the limbic system, although marijuana and hallucinigens are noticeably different and it’s worth noting have no addictive properties.  It may be worth noting here also that amphibians cannot get high, but dogs get wasted when you give them beer.  The point is that drinking too much coffee, or obsessively working on a novel, or talking to Jesus all day, or constantly craving Twinkies (the apparent addiction of choice for 68% of Americans) may actually be preventing all but a few stock brokers with small penises and action movie directors from developing crippling cocaine addictions.  Everyone has an addiction, so we must focus on choosing wisely.

From an individual and collective consequentialist standpoint, there seems to be a hierarchy of sorts. Choosing cocaine to satisfy your physiological need for an addiction is foolish because your heart will explode if you don’t stop at some point in time, but you will be the coolest guy in the room for the duration of that period of use, plus the consequences of the illegal cocaine trade are pretty devastating for the lower class.  Choosing to indulge in overeating (-3 years of life-expectancy) or tobacco (-6 years of life-expectancy is often reported as a blanket figure, but there is a huge, underreported range based on how much one smokes, when one started, and when one quit.) is definitely an improvement over harder, illegal drugs, in nearly all respects; but these choices are still probably not as good as religion, pornography, caffeine, or videogames. 

It is telling that even though this neuroscientific evidence for the universality of addiction is relatively new, the corroborating empirical evidence has been under our very noses for years: private addiction-recovery centers unaffiliated with the criminal justice system and the War on Drugs rose organically to the top by using some combination of religion and cigarettes to wean people off harder, more destructive drugs.  Recent major breakthroughs on combating obesity have actually come from the neurophysiological discovery that overeating and drug addictions share the same neurological pathway to the exclusion of the other, which was finally experimentally investigated after years of clinicians’s anecdotal reports that drug addicts were seldom obese, even in a nation of obese people.

There’s also a boatload of silent evidence in gateway drug discussions: where are all the people who have taken “gateway drugs” like marijuana who never became gutter-sleeping junkies? They’re wearing suits and sitting at desks unobstrusively not advertising their former recreational drug use and bonaroo attendance history to their coworkers.

Personally, I’m relatively pleased to have “chosen” benign iced coffee and the many faceted internet to neuter and suppress my limbic system in favor of mammalian levels of neocortical cognition.  I’m quite satisfied to have not wound up with religion, heroin, or overeating, however, the best use of the limbic system overall is probably to make it a slave to the planning capacities of the neocortex, i.e. do what Alfred Hitchcock did and direct a burning hatred for law enforcement into making cops badguys in narrative form and present it to the public for collective absorption.

Computer (Windows Vista) Problems

In Empires of the Mind on July 27, 2010 at 2:19 am

My computer exploded the other day, from two weeks of 100-degree heat in Fukushima, Japan. The motor on my five-year-old Dell simply combusted in a cloud of smoke while I was watching Sesame Street Jason Mraz videos with my daughter, the room reeked of plastic, and I quiety panicked at the prospect of losing a years-worth of baby videos.  But, from my small amount of computer hardware knowledge, I don’t think there should be any damage to the hard drive, and I plan on bringing my desktop tower to some nerds for fixing as soon as I can pass my Japanese license test (future post).

So, I’m temporarily writing posts from my mother-in-law’s laptop, which generally goes neglected, and seems to be responding well to its new master.  A few nitpicky problems: (1) the operating system is in Japanese, which is surprisingly not as much of a pain in the ass as problem (2) the laptop runs on Windows Vista, probably the most poorly-conceived product ever released.

I don’t understand why Microsoft would actively eliminate its one advantage in the operating system department, which is that every single human being on the planet has learned how to use Windows (NT, 95, 98, or whatever).  Learning a new, superior operating system like Linux takes time that most people outside of unemployed nerds simply don’t have time for, and so, like Starbucks, standardized mediocrity becomes an asset.  So making such a radically different OS as Vista essentially does nothing but level the playing field for Microsoft’s competitors.

I recently returned home from work to discover that the display had somehow been turned upside down after my baby had been mashing the keyboard.  At first I wondered if it was some hardware problem, that the shock from my daughter’s clumsy typing had dislodged some wires.  I figured that was too unlikely, and decided to try to navigate the Japanese control panel upside down, which was pretty tough, but once I actually managed to find the display settings, there was nothing about the display ever being upside down.  I shut down and tried the computer in safe mode to see confirm that it actually was a problem with the settings inadvertently triggered by my infant’s button-mashing.

After exploring the control panel a bit in safe mode and finding nothing, I decided to use my iPhone to search the internet for similar predicaments.  I found hundreds of people who had had the same problem as me, and the solution is just to press CTRL, ALT, and the up arrow key.  It turns out the problem was very common in households with infants and/or cats.  But I have to wonder, what is the point of Microsoft’s including a three-key sequence for turning one’s display upside down, especially in an operating system that lacks basic functionality?

Liberalism: The Only Fighting Faith

In General Principles on July 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Christopher Hitchens by EnscepticoI’ve always thought it was telling that the founding neoconservatives were all apostate liberals.  Their’s was a nightmare marriage of the cynical worldview of conservatism with the forward momentum of liberalism and the results were aggressively bad: the Iraq war, the War on Drugs, record deficits to “starve the beast” and the culture war.  Liberalism is dangerous stuff- look no further than the horrors of Communist excess- if not tempered by a restrictive, almost naive, morality.  Neocons were jaded liberals, looking the ugliness of the world in the face and getting “serious.”  They thought, maybe crime isn’t the result of historical inequality, maybe it’s just people making bad decisions they should be severely punished for.  A prison population of millions later, and we are talking about one of their great policy successes.  Nowhere is the embrace of the once unthinkable more apparent than in the muscular foreign policy of liberals who grow up; Christopher Hitchens, Jeffery Goldberg and Peter Beinart all took deep quaffs from that heady cup- Beinart notably in the essay that title this post- but at least Goldberg and Beinart have been chastened by being incredibly wrong headed in their advocacy for war in Iraq, Hitchens remains devoted to military utopianism:

Hugh Hewitt: But tell the audience, are there any other people left who came from the left to do, as you did, stand on the side of the invasion of Iraq, who are still there? Or are they all runaway?

Christopher Hitchens:[…]But people from various spots in Europe and the rest of the world, and America, too, saying that we have to finish with this Saddam Hussein regime. There’s no alternative. But the fact has to be faced, that this is considered to be an almost bizarrely eccentric position now, even though, you know, Iraq now has elections, has a constitution…

HH: A free press… 

CH: has a free press, it has bad political parties behaving in selfish ways. It has a wonderfully functioning autonomous zone in the northeast of the country for its Kurdish minority, the first time in their history they’ve ever had anywhere to call their own. These are people who have been turned into refuse, and raw material for mass graves within very recent memory. None of this is credited…furthermore, not a small thing, by the way, we can actually certify Iraq as having been properly inspected and disarmed, which we couldn’t before, unless we took the word of Saddam Hussein. That’s not a small thing, and it’s had a good knock on effect on politics in Iran next door, and in Lebanon, and elsewhere, too. The fall of Saddam Hussein was generally very positively experienced. And I think it will be remembered as a great thing to have done. But unfortunately, the overlay of incompetence and mismanagement and bungling that followed the liberation is never going to be forgiven or forgotten. And by the way, I don’t think it should be.

See invading Iraq was a good idea, it just was done poorly.  The list of things that Iraq is post Saddam leaves out the millions displace, hundreds of thousands dead and the daily terrorist bombings that persist.  Free elections and press and a Kurdish state are all worthy accomplishments, but they aren’t ends achieved in a vacuum and the cost, to us and them, was prohibitive.  The notion that Saddam’s exit was positively experienced just defies belief, it appears that Hitchens is engaging in mind over matter: the deprivation of millions is swept away before the dubious accomplishment of nation building.  He justifies th false pretenses of the war even more cavielerly:

HH: Do you believe on weapons of mass destruction that we know the story completely, or that we ever will?

CH: I think there’s more to be found, and more people haven’t testified yet. But I think we know enough to say from books like the memoir of Saddam’s chief nuclear scientist, Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, the famous book called The Bomb In My Garden, and others, that there was only one presumption on which to operate in any sentence that contain the words weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein, and that was on the presumption of guilt. It had to be assumed, it would be very unwise to assume that he wasn’t either harboring the means of reconstituting, or keeping some of the sinews of WMD, even if he’d been substantially degraded. And then of course, if he had been substantially degraded, I argued then and argue now that’s the time to hit him, when he doesn’t really, when he doesn’t really have…in other words, there’s a window of impotence. Take that now, because you won’t have another chance.

So the very fact that Saddam didn’t have WMDs means that it was the perfect time to invade, since of course he may get them again soon.  The staggering implications of a foreign policy based on preempting not immediate threats but probable potentials in the distant future leads Hitchens inexorably to Iran:

Stop then while you can, the Iranians. He [a UAE diplomat] said it’s all, we live, wake, sleep, eat, breathe nothing but the Iranian threat. No one’s safe if this regime, this illegal, torturing, fascistic theocracy…if this is allowed while we’re watching to become a nuclear state, we’ll never forgive ourselves, and nor will anyone in the region. We’ll be cursed for generations if we’re that lucky, if we live that long.

This is the worst aspect of liberalism: the certainty that justifies the unspeakable.  The best virtue of Burke tradition of conservativism is humility.  That sort of conservativism could never imagine possessing the foresight to proscribe invasion after invasion to snuff out nascent threats like a surgeon excising pre-cancerous moles.  Hitchens is a brilliant man, but his foreign policy views have become unhinged like his liberal cohorts of another generation calling for “permanent revolution:” consequences be damned, let’s make the world a better place.  I find that I have more in common with paleo-conservatives like Daniel Larrison than politically minded liberals who support Georgia, have their cake and eat it too with counterinsurgency milaritarism (project power but don’t kill the locals) and support endless sanctions.  I might not want to abolish the UN, but generally my foreign policy overlaps more with Rand Paul than Joe Lieberman.

The Well-Meaning Ethnocentrism of the Left

In Specific Facts on July 22, 2010 at 9:01 am

Don’t ask me why, but I regularly receive email petitions from change.org, the left-wing activist organization which is listed in the dictionary as an antonym to the word “thoughtful”.  Monitoring the organization’s communiques, I believe, will give me advanced notice when liberal overreach means it’s time to start running for the hills again.  But enough fun; I agree strongly with the vast majority of change.org’s positions: immigrant rights, gay rights, the rights of animals, sustainable farming practices, environmental protection, ending the drug war, reducing America’s prison population, etc. it’s their methodology which I find repulsive: “activism”. 

I remember in college, a certain liberal cultural anthropology professor wrote an editorial to the student newspaper bemoaning the lack of antiwar protestors and accordingly accusing the youth of the university of political apathy.  To be fair, there were definitely antiwar protestors at Duke, they were just universally hated for being obnoxious.  While I was actually trying to go to class and learn stuff so I could form a coherent opinion on stuff, activists formed a human chain Boy Meets World-style across the bus route, and we all had to get out and walk through the woods.  I was 30 minutes late for class, and it was something like econometrics where missing a small amount of lecture time translates to hours spent catching up late night in the social sciences building.

It is because a small number of bad apples have essentially ruined the political left that common sense measures such as environmental protection are seen as soft and opposed out of spite by practitioners of more austere political ideologies.  Meanwhile, moderates correctly perceive the insanity of both loud groups: the one in its beliefs and the other in its methods; as spokesperson for Generation X moderates also accused of apathy, Richard Linklater famously said (as if in response to a certain Duke cultural anthropology professor), “withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.”    

And so, I recently received a particularly disgusting email petition from change.org.  The meat:

This past week, Vaseline launched a controversial Facebook application that encouraged users to lighten the appearance of their skin. The application was targeted at users in India, who were asked to upload their profile photos and whiten their faces.

This isn’t the first time Unilever — which owns Vaseline — has used less-than-discreet attempts to market the virtues of white skin in India. Back in 2008, the multinational began hawking a skin-whitening product called “White Beauty.”

The difference now is that by using Facebook, Unilever has the potential to reach its more than 500 million users around the world, and spread its racially charged message that white is beautiful.

The skin whitening industry has taken off across India and other Asian countries, and creams are sold on shelves in black neighborhoods in the U.S. as well. The last thing we need is a tool on Facebook to extend this disturbing trend online.

While Unilever’s application is offensive, it gives Facebook the opportunity to draw a line in the sand of what sort of applications it is willing to host, and what kind of values it hopes to advance. As the largest social network in the world, the company has an unprecedented opportunity to advance tolerance and understanding. Let’s make sure it serves that purpose rather than serving as a platform for prejudice.

The many problems with change.org’s approach:

(1) While I am not particularly certain about India, many countries outside the United States with large gradations of skin color value white skin for reasons having nothing to do with the forced enslavement of West Africans by European contractors from 600 to 200 years ago.  In Japan, where I live, white skin is valued for a variety of reasons, the most well-documented being that members of the aristocracy tended historically to avoid laboring outside.  White skin is still valued because it connoted wealth, which – along with health – is more or less the basis for all attraction.  This is also true in China, Vietnam, and Ethiopia, and I would imagine the vast swath of land between to have a similar custom. 

On the contrary, in European countries, darker skin is valued, probably for reasons also related to both wealth and health.  Skin cancer and vitamin-D deficiency respectively historically killed enough human beings before they passed on their genes to select for an extremely wide and nuanced range of human skin tones to fit the earth’s many climates.  In places where European skins do not fit levels of exposure to direct sunlight – such as in the United States and Australia – darker skin is valued.  Those of us who have read or seen American Psycho (and those of us who have not) should be well-aware of the great lengths to which the American beorgeoisie will go to give themselves wrinkle and melanoma-inducing tans for seemingly biological reasons.

(2) Outside of the United States, the idea that “white is beautiful” is not “racially charged”.  The directors of change.org make the same mistake as the activists in The Cove by forcing conditions and ideas fermented in the pickle jar of American history on distant and disparate civilizations.  It would behoove the activist community to develop an imagination and do some more thinking before acting, maybe even becoming “thinkivists”.   

(3) Inside the United States on the other hand, there is a long-standing tradition of glorifying whiteness that does directly relate to the legacies of slavery, but even here we don’t ostracize the goth kids who hang out at the malls (well, maybe we do a little, but for reasons unrelated to race).  By not fairly inculcating members of the goth subculture as well, change.org seems to be implying that choice is okay for Americans, because most of us make the “right choice”, but when it comes to other countries, people should not be free to choose whether to whiten their skin or whether to eat dolphin, because those are the “wrong choices”.  Don’t those Indians know about the evils of slavery!?

(4) I am no friend of massive corporations, but blaming Facebook for everything and anything needs to stop.  At Duke there was a particularly odious gang of unthinking activists called Duke Divest whose loudest initiative consisted of lobbying the administration to stop investing the Duke endowment in Caterpillar, Inc. because Caterpillar, Inc. apparently contracted with the Israeli government, and the Israeli government apparently used Caterpillar, Inc.’s bulldozers to bulldoze the homes of Palestinians.  This sort of six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon morality tends to manifest underlying anticorporate political biases more than expose corporate malfeasance.  One night in college, a few friends and I got into an argument with a Duke Divest member on whether or not the university should also divest from Gatorade because Gatorade provides the electrolytes that Sudanese soldiers metabolize when they mercilessly slaughter puppies in Darfur.  She vascillated, and we eventually got bored. 

If Facebook chooses to pull Unilever’s skin-whitener advertisement at the behest of change.org, the only “kind of values” it will advance are those of American cultural imperialism, where every thing is the same as it is in America, noble savages need to be given Christian names, and they need to be taught how to make proper choices, and inside every misguided Indian teenage girl who wants to whiten her skin to look like a princess is an all-American, tanning-salon-orange, Tool Academy skank trying to get out.

The Zero-Sum Economics of Immigration

In Specific Facts on July 19, 2010 at 12:17 pm

A Protest against AZ Immigration Law – by nflravensDavid Frum ended his week hanging around Andrew Sullivan’s the Daily Dish by reminding me that even the most even keeled of Conservatives harbor a few indefensible positions.  David’s unorthodox solution for curbing unemployment is immigration reform- but wait, not the kind you are thinking of that would make it easier for hard working immigrants to move here and grow the economy- as in, kick em out and don’t let them in.  From the horse’s mouth:

But here’s a crucial fact that Brookings omits: that 125,000 per month increase in the US labor force is not a law of nature. In fact, during the Bush years, more than half the growth in the US labor force was due to the arrival of immigrant labor. 

Immigrants now make up some 15% of the US labor force. They are concentrated in the less skilled portion of the labor force and in industries hardest hit, especially construction.

 If immigration levels were curtailed, the job gap would be a lot smaller. And if illegal immigrants returned home, rather than being put on a “path to citizenship,” the problem of putting the unemployed back to work would be smaller and easier. 

 For someone who considers themself a champion of the free market this demonstrates an almost willful naivity about how free markets actually work.  Free markets are decided not “zero-sum”; when an unemployed worker reads that the unemployment rate is going down they shouldn’t be upset that all of those jobs available have been filled by other people.  When other people get jobs, they spend money, the economy grows and new jobs become available.  Thus, Karl Smith points out that this Frum is engaging in the “lump of labor fallacy,” which assumes that the amount of labor is static.  A simpler analogy is more illustrative: if kicking out immigrants to decrease competition for jobs is a viable plan, then shouldn’t we celebrate the 652,000 discouraged workers who left the labor market last month?  If we want unemployment to go down, even as the number of people working shrinks, then what’s the difference between deporting  immigrants and people unable to find work giving up?  

The answer, of course, is that Conservatives- big C conservatives anyway, don’t much care for illegal immigrants so saying something abstract like “if illegal aliens returned home” seems like a viable plan.  But illegal “aliens”- and is there a more dehumanizing word for immigrants than aliens- don’t want to go home or they would be there so Frum is eliding the detail of deporting millions of people.  Which is a drastic solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

In fact, the opposite is true.  Robust rates of immigration are actually signs of a healthy economy and the immigration rate goes down only when the economy is ailing.  In 2008, during the onset of the great recession, immigration fell 10% but unemployment skyrocketed.  During the Bush years half of the growth in the labor force was due to immigration, but unemployment was generally low during that time.  Immigrants come here to work, if there aren’t jobs then they don’t come.  Kicking them out is impossible, but even if we actually wanted to all we would do is make the labor market less liquid and dramatically shrink demand by removing all those consumers from the marketplace.  There are plenty of better reasons to oppose looser immigration rules: immigrants compete with workers the hardest hit by the recession (the young, low-skilled, uneducated, men and African Americans), use services without supporting them with tax dollars, are far more likely to send money out the American economy back home to relatives and engage in more criminal activity.  Many of these reasons are overblown, particularly the criminality of immigrants, but at least there is an argument to be made there.  Frum’s position on immigration, meanwhile, is counterproductive scapegoating of a vulnerable group.  It’s populism, not economics.

Mitt Romney in Retroperspective

In Specific Facts on July 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I’m currently reading Stephen Fry in America.  My British and British-Light friends obviously know who Stephen Fry is (here he is with House) and this book’s purpose, but for my American and American-Light friends, Stephen Fry is an erudite gentleman-comic, and in America is about his travels in a black London taxicab through all fifty U.S. States.  Despite Mr. Fry’s handicap, he’s incredibly perceptive and honest about life and culture in each American state.  During Fry’s titular 2008 travels in America, he followed around Mitt Romney and his team as they prepared to do battle at the New Hampshire primary.  The long version:

With a great flurry of handshakes and smiles, Mitt is suddenly in the house, marching straight to the space in front of the fireplace where a mike on a stand awaits him, as for a stand-up comedian.  He is wearing a smart suit, the purpose of which, it seems, is to allow him to whip off the jacket in a moment of wild unscripted anarchy, so as to demonstrate his informality and desire to get right down to business and to hell with the outrage and horror this will cause in his minders.  British MPs and candidates of all stripes now do the same thing.  The world over, male politicians have trousers that wear out three times more quickly than their coats.  And who would vote for a man who kept his jacket on?  Why, it is tantamount to broadcasting your contempt for the masses.  Politicians who wear jackets might as well eat the common people’s children and have done with it.

Romney is impressive in a rather ghastly kind of way, which is not really his fault.  He has already gone over so many of his arguments and rehearsed so many of his cunningly wrought lines that, try as he might, the techniques he employs to inject a little life and freshness into them are identical to those used by game show hosts, the class of person Governor Romney most resembles; lots of little chuckled-in phrases like ‘am I right?’ and ‘gosh, I don’t know but it seems to me that’, ‘heck, maybe it’s time’ and so on.  In fact he is so like an American version of Bob Monkhouse in his verbal and physical mannerisms that I become quite distracted.  Rod and Patricia beam so hard and so shiningly they begin to look like the swollen pumpkins that surround them.

‘Hey, you know, I don’t live or die just for Republicans or just for whacking down Democrats, I wanna get America right,” says Mitt when invited to blame the opposition.

A minder makes an almost indiscernible gesture from the back, which Mitt picks up on right away.  Time to leave.

‘Holy cow, I have just loved talking to you folks,’ he says, pausing on his way out to be photographed. ‘this is what democracy means.’

‘I told you he was awesome,’ says Deirdra.

In the afternoon we move on to Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most famous, exclusive and prestigious private schools in the land, the “Eton of America’ that educated Daniel Webster, Gore Vidal, John Irving, and numerous other Americans all the way up to Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook as well as half the lineup of indie rockers Arcade Fire.  The school has an endowment of one billion dollars.

In this heady atmosphere of privilege, wealth, tradition and youthful glamour Mitt is given a harder time.  The students question the honesty of his newly acquired anti-gay, anti-abortion ‘values’.  It seems he was a liberal as Governor of Massachusetts and has now had to add a little red meat and iron to his politics in order to placate the more right-wing members of his party.  The girls and boys of the school (whose Democratic Club is more than twice the size of its Republican, I am told) are unconvinced by the Governor’s wriggling and squirming on this issue and he only manages, in the opinion of this observer at least, to get away with not being jeered.  I could quite understand his shouting out, ‘What the hell you rich kids think you know about families beats the crap out of me’, but he did not, which is good for his campaign but a pity for those of us who like a little theatre in our politics.  

By the time he appeared on the steps outside the school hall to answer some press questions I was tired, even if he was not.  The scene could not have been more delightful, a late-afternoon sun setting the bright autumnal leaves on fire; smooth, noble, and well-maintained collegiate architecture and lawns and American politics alive and in fine health.  I came away admiring Governor Romney’s stamina, calm and good humour.  If every candidate has to go through such slog and grind day after day after day, merely to win the right finally to move forward and really campaign, then one can at least guarantee that the Leader of the Free World, whoever he or she may be, has energy, an even temper and great stores of endurance.  I noticed that the Governor’s jacket had somehow magically been placed in the back of his SUV.  Ready to be put on in order to be taken off again next time.

Recent polls show Romney set to beat Obama in 2012.  I can sympathize – I guess – with Fry’s silver-lining praise of the tall Republican’s powers of endurance, but I’ll assuredly be paying too much attention to where Romney’s jacket is to notice his politics. 

Raghu Rajan on the Economy

In Specific Facts on July 14, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Theoden: “How shall we restore full-employment?” Wormtongue: “I recommend more fiscal stimulus.” Image by Mortaljive. I’ve been sent this link four times now to Raghu Rajan’s latest blog post for Chicago Booth’s Fault Lines blog, and at first, I wasn’t too inclined to read it.  The title, “Monetary Policy or Fiscal Policy?“, seemed to represent all I believe has been wrong with the economics/policy community for the last two years: do we, as Bernanke et al. suggest, use massive monetary stimulus to fix the economy, or do we, as Krugman et al. suggest, use massive fiscal stimulus to fix the economy?

Instead, Rajan’s blog post is nothing like that, and is a fresh dose of sanity in a world where educated people actually pay attention to Ben Bernanke and Paul Krugman, and Glenn Beck seems to be the most respected and followed economist in America.  As Rajan is a faculty member at the Monetarist stronghold of the University of Chicago, I would not have been surprised had he touted monetary stimulus as the mean to the end of achieving the Holy Grail of full employment, but after already having experienced unprecedented massive monetary stimulus, and having personally grown wealthier over the last four years simply by virtue of not living in the United States, I’m skeptical as to the efficacy of any more stimulus; that is, will further redistribution from savers to consumers in our current mode really get us to where we want to be, or should we focus more on restructuring in a different direction, vis-a-vis removing restrictions on capital flow in lighter, more lethal fashion?

Nevertheless, Raghu Rajan is no hack.  The fact that he was IMF chief economist from 2003 to 2007 means nothing, unless appeals to authority matter, and they don’t in a world where “the economists got it so wrong“, but he is one of the few prominent economists to have predicted the 2008 collapse of the banking sector.  (The others of whom I’m aware are “crackpots” Nouriel Roubini, Jim Rogers, and Peter Schiff.)  

The relevent passage, from a 2005 address entitled “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?” delivered at a gala honoring the wise sage who got us here, Alan Greenspan:

(Managers were encouraged to take) risks that generate severe adverse consequences with small probability but, in return, offer generous compensation the rest of the time. These risks are known as tail risks.[…] But perhaps the most important concern is whether banks will be able to provide liquidity to financial markets so that if the tail risk does materialize, financial positions can be unwound and losses allocated so that the consequences to the real economy are minimized.

Rajan definitely nailed it.  The Hubris Award here goes to Lawrence Summers, who downplayed and dismissed Rajan’s prediction, and who has been rewarded for his foolishness with an appointment as the Obama Administration’s Chief Astrologer, but this title should probably be reduced to “mage” or “wight” status, or even Water Seer L63 or some-such.

To be clear, I’m not necessarily down with surrendering all decision-making power to the winners. Sometimes people just get lucky.  There’s a Chinese proverb, “when the wind blows, even turkeys fly.” not that Rajan is a turkey by any means, and 2005 was decidedly calm.  There is also the fact that otherwise smart people make mistakes, and economics is more like baseball than trapeze.  Despite my recent criticism of Krugman, I still think there is a kernel of wisdom behind his Theoden-like visage.      

Here is an excerpt of Rajan’s recent post, “Monetary Policy or Fiscal Policy”:

If households are going to want fewer houses, industries such as construction will have to shrink (as should the financial sector that channeled the easy credit). A significant number of jobs will disappear permanently, and workers who know how to build houses or to sell them will have to learn new skills if they can. Put differently, the productive capacity of the economy has shrunk. Resources have to be reallocated into new sectors so that any recovery is robust, and not simply a resumption of the old unsustainable binge.  The United States economy has to find new pathways for growth. And this will not necessarily be facilitated by ultra-low interest rates…

…None of this is to say that the Fed should jack up interest rates quickly without adequate warning, or to extremely high levels. There are trade-offs here, between short-term growth and long-term misallocation of resources, between reducing risk aversion and inducing excessive risk taking, between reviving hard-hit sectors and encouraging repeated bad behavior.  On balance though, if and when the jitters about Europe recede, it would be prudent for the Federal Reserve to start paving the way towards positive real interest rates.

I don’t think Rajan should be given special privileges or immunity from criticism simply because he predicted the financial crisis, but the economic policy establishment continues to hold any economists suggesting that the recent financial crisis was caused mostly by mis-allocation of resources caused by aggressive federal policy in deep disdain, and fiscal stimulus hawks Krugman and Delong basically resent any talk of trade-offs existing.  Anyone suggesting an approach the least bit more restrained than massive stimulus 2.0 is seemingly assigned the fate of Cassandra, this especially ironic considering Rajan recommends restructuring using the very same framework that allowed him to predict the 2008 collapse in the first place.