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Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

The U.S. Healthcare System is Going to Hell

In Specific Facts on December 29, 2010 at 2:04 pm

It’s no secret to anybody that the U.S. healthcare system is bad, but it’s important to point out from time to time just how bad it is.  I am an asthmatic and have had asthma since I was five or six years old.  Around age ten, I began taking regular medicine, which I have taken daily since then and will likely have to take for the rest of my life.

Part of my motivation in deciding to become a doctor is to work on seemingly “intractable” problems like asthma, because every time I really think about it, it pisses me off.  Despite the genetic reductionism gripping our society (in stark contrast to the scientific community), asthma is a disease having near entire environmental causality.  There was recently a study conducted in China where the rate of asthma decreased in predictable fashion the farther one was from an urban center.  People who lived near factories and cars had mathmatically modelable high rates of asthma correlated with ppm of various pollutants, while people who were farmers and lived in the countryside had near zero incidence of asthma.  The patterns produced matched the patterns produced by infectious diseases, suggesting strong environmental correlation.  

This week as I fell sick and the supply of albuterol which I brought with me began to dwindle, I remembered the scene from Michael Moore’s film Sicko where his Canadian relatives bought Canadian travelor’s health insurance before going to the U.S. since the U.S. system was just so bad.  I remember at the time thinking that perhaps it was a bit extreme, but now I’m wishing I had purchased Japanese travelor’s helath insurance before coming to the U.S. to visit my family for the holidays.

The last time I had a regular physician it was a pediatrician at a pediatrics office near my house.  After I went off to college, I utilized the Duke Health System, and in Japan, I have seen Japanese doctors.  Obviously.  I was home for the holidays and I needed to buy more asthma medicine here for the first time in eight years, so I called the pharmacy where I had always purchased it in high school.  I was told that prescriptions were only valid for a year, so I would need to get in touch with the office that had prescribed me asthma medicine, which was Quincy Pediatrics. 

I called Quincy Pediatrics and explained that I was home for the holidays and asked if I could get a new prescription.  They told me that they were a pediatric clinic and that I was twenty-six and that I could come by and pick up my medical records and take them to the emergency room.  You want me to go to the emergency room to get a prescription for the same medication I’ve been taking since I was ten?  Wouldn’t the people with emergencies be pretty upset by that?  Can I talk to my doctor? 

The woman in charge responded sarcastically that I hadn’t been there in like a million years and that big people see big people doctors.  I told her that literally all of my medical records were in her office, because they had been sent there before I went to Japan.  She told me I could come pick them up on my way to the E.R. 

I called the pharmacy again and asked if they had a walk-in clinic they could recommend and how much the whole process would cost since I didn’t have U.S. health insurance (despite Mass Health and Obamacare apparently).  The pharmacist said she couldn’t tell me how much a walk-in clinic visit would cost, but the medicine alone was $49.95 without insurance. 

In Japan, an albuterol inhaler without insurance costs about $6.00 – there also isn’t any insulting price-pointing.  I can just imagine it…

WHOA! Super Insulin Holiday Sale – 2 for ONLY $2.22! 

Get Twenty-Percent OFF Factory-Direct Chemotherapy Meds With The Purchase Of A LIMITED EDITION George Foreman Grill!!!!      

AIDS Meds NOW ONLY $9.99! 

On a related note, my lovely Grandmother fell down the stairs a few months ago and has been rehabing since.  She must wear a neck-brace indefinitely.  She went all the way to the hospital in her condition the week before Christmas for an appointment with her doctor, who didn’t show up.  They had no time to fit her in that day, since there is a primary care shortage in the U.S. because telling someone they have a cold requires eight years of formal education. 

My grandmother was quite upset about it on Christmas, and my blood boiled (as it does) when I heard her story.  Don’t they do house calls for outpatients? I asked my Grandmother.  She laughed.  House calls!  In fact, everyone in the room laughed.  What?  I asked. Why is everyone laughing?  In most other countries this would be seen as an entrepreneurial opportunity.  In America, it is probably a crime.  (Malpractice lawyers might see it as an entrepreneurial opportunity.)  

I realize that my medical situation is not exactly dire – which is why I am so morally opposed to going to the emergency room to get a two-dollar inhaler – I know my Grandmother is on the road to recovery at this point, I realize these stories are both personal and anecdotal, but I’m also quite confident that everyone with any kind of medical condition whatsoever experiences problems like these in our broken system.

I don’t know how to fix it (I can imagine that pretty much everything else we’ve recommended at the Inductive would have positive externalities for Americans’s health.), but nor do I want to spend my career in medicine filling out forms, avoiding lawsuits, conducting full physicals for procedural reasons, or treating non-emergency patients in the emergency room.  I’m not at all interested in healthcare.  I am interested in medicine.  So I’m seriously contemplating practicing medicine somewhere like South Africa (Are South Africans less deserving of medical care?) or New Zealand or Argentina – even Cuba or France. 

And there’s always finance.

An Interview with Kevin Kato

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 24, 2010 at 2:00 pm

It has been a great pleasure working with Kevin Kato for the past several months.  Kevin and I have worked together at the same English school in Japan, and we have both done various work for NOK, Fujitsu, and the Japanese government.  Kevin has written a guest post for The Inductive comparing and contrasting his trips to Angkor Wat and Yosemite National Park; and he has been kind enough to allow me to post on his blog: Travel. Write. Drink Plenty of Fluids.  Kevin is the author of one book, The Tunge Pit, a collection of interconnected short stories which I described before in this blog as a pungent mixture of the American Gothic, ensemble tale, horror nouveau, and pulp suspense genres.  From the publisher’s statement:  

Jon Dolan reaches for his cell phone, unaware he’s helping to kill a woman a mile away. A woman he’s never spoken to. A woman he can see. A woman who will spend her own last moments watching him die first. Kris was sure she knew what she was doing. But sometimes our decisions go wrong. Horribly wrong. So she high-tailed it out of town to save herself – and landed in the middle of a stranger’s deadly game of self-preservation. The neighbors in the hills think they know something about Terrence – and turn their prejudice into prophecy. Reading the obituaries leads a budding con man to widowed Mrs. Danbury, her balcony garden and her desperate grip on her family. What the hell is tunge anyway? Carson asks Nicholas mockingly. The ugly answer, he’d soon learn, would involve him. Twenty-odd stories, each grounded in the last. Each with its own sordid ending. And a plot that throws the reader into a world that doubles back on itself, shooting shreds of humanity like shrapnel in this never-ending tale of human fallibility. 

In addition to publishing the Tunge Pit last year, Kevin has recently translated from the Slovenian Damjan Koncnik’s Greenland – The End of the World, an account of an adventure to that massive island in the far north:

Do tupilaks really harbor supernatural powers? Is there more than one way to spell ‘Ittoqqoortoormiit’? And just why is sleeping in a tent in this icy, rainy land better than a beachfront hotel in Waikiki? These questions are only the tip of the iceberg of mysteries and surprises Damjan Koncnik uncovers over three expeditions to this island ‘way up there.’ Chock full of history, humor and hardship, these tales of an everyday man’s adventures in the Far North will stoke the imaginative fires of avid travelers and armchair explorers alike.   

I was originally planning on reviewing either or both books for this site; but now I believe such reviews might be a superfluous conflict of interest, since Kevin has agreed to write for the Inductive on a regular basis from 2011.  Without further ado, I present an interview conducted via email with Kevin Kato over the last month or so:

 

Christopher Carr: Please tell me about the changes in your life, outlook, view of Japan, and view of the U.S. since coming here. 

Kevin Kato: Wow, you’re going to hit me with all that right off the bat? Can’t we start with something simple like, “Hey are you on Facebook?” Well, for starters, as far as the obvious goes, I came here with three bags of clothes, a bicycle and a camera that used film; now I’ve got a digital camera, two bicycles and three other people in my home – this being my wife and two little boys. I still have three bags of clothes, but now they’re mostly buried under toy trains and picture books. 

But regarding my outlook on things, I’d say straight off that I’ve gone from one who lives for today to one who works for tomorrow. This I blame completely on the family I’ve acquired. For the first half of my life here in Japan I put in my classroom time and that was it; everything else was socializing, cycling and sumo on television. Now as a freelance teacher, writer, publisher, husband and father the concept of free time does not exist, unless you count sleeping. When I am not on the floor playing with cars or clay, or at the park with the kids, I am at my computer hoping I turn out to be the one monkey out of the infinite number of monkeys typing away on an infinite number of computers who happens to bang out Shakespeare.  I don’t even know when the next sumo tournament is until I happen to catch a glimpse of the broadcast before my boy switches to some show with a dancing chair or a magic peach-headed thing.

Regarding my view on Japan, I think whenever we travel we tend to have this romanticized view of our destination – if we are not scared shitless of course. Our imagination makes either fantasy or nightmare of the horizon, and it rarely turns out to be either of these. Coming to Japan I was on the fantasy side of the coin – I soaked up everything I could about this totally alien environment and – I think at least to a certain degree – I spun it in my mind into the best possible perception. Of course my opinion on some things has not changed since those first days and weeks: I love the atmosphere imbued in traditional Japanese architecture, and sushi and beer is still tough to beat on a summer evening. But other things have lost their magic. I can say with fair authority that not every schoolboy and schoolgirl here is an intellectual prodigy, as seemed to be the ongoing, permeating perception growing up back home. And always sitting on the floor can get old really, really fast.

As far as my perception of home, the U.S., I should note that I came to Japan ten days before 9/11 – thus the world in general was a very different place when I was still in the States versus what it was from almost the moment I got here. Add to this my sudden personal interest in politics and world events beginning on the morning of September 12th and yes, my views have changed appreciably since I arrived in Japan. Perhaps the most telling experience I can relate has been the change in my attitude – that’s not really the right word, though…maybe my inner response is a better term – regarding how I’ve felt when someone asks me where I’m from. In the first few days it was a veritable ego trip. The Japanese, at least the recent generations, love anything relating to the U.S., and when I’d tell someone I’m from America they’d invariably react with something bordering on awe if not mere admiration. It was really kind of silly. Then in those weeks after 9/11, I would answer the same question with a twinge of…oh crap, I need the right word again…Living here so long I’ve begun to lose my English, it’s crazy but it really happens, I swear. I don’t think I used to be this stupid. Anyway, when I told people I was from America they’d have this sudden sadness in their expression, their voice, you know, ‘Oh I’m so sorry what happened’ or whatever. And I mean it was sincere. Turned out I didn’t know anyone personally who died on that day but it was a national tragedy and at least in this part of the world people were mourning with us. 

But then G.W. rolled in with his ten-gallon agenda – all right, this has been hashed out a million times, I don’t need to go into it. But as time went on I began feeling embarrassed when I told people, whether in Japan or Malaysia or Chile, that I was from the States. Not because I suddenly thought my country was bad but hey, that fiasco was all the news anyone was getting practically, so for a while, that was the tipping point as far as the world’s view of the U.S.. And it wasn’t entirely unfounded. I would be immensely proud of my son if he stood up to the schoolyard bully to keep another kid from being pounded for his lunch money; I wouldn’t be a proud or a happy dad if he started lying to me about why he was throwing rocks at people. Beyond this, though, I’ve had so many people tell me they loved the U.S. when they visited, or would die for a chance to travel to the States, and this makes me immensely proud. 

Also, having done a fair amount of traveling in these nine years, from Asia to South America to Europe and Morocco and Australia, my view of the U.S. has not been shaped merely by whatever my students think and what I can get off the web. To see how so much of the rest of the world lives – and I mean seeing it firsthand, which is worlds apart from watching the same thing on 60 Minutes, or checking out some magazine article on what Brad Pitt and Angelina Voight are doing – actually being in these places, living them, I see how very very lucky we are in the U.S., from our standard of living to our freedoms to just how cheap we get everything. And since the only exposure so many people are getting to the outside world is through TV – where nothing is real, really – so few people can appreciate the extent to which we are blessed. I go home and overhear people complaining about this or that and I want to club them over the head.

Christopher Carr: My experience coming here was kind of the same.  I actually never really chose to come to Japan, so that’s always a tough question for me to answer when the students ask.  From the time I graduated college to the time I had kids I just kind of floated through life.  Would you say you had a similar experience?  If so, do you believe that there was a kind of force of Fate or Destiny guiding you to Fukushima, or was saying “sure” a conscious decision?

Kevin Kato: Well, I certainly made the decision on my own to come here to Japan. Coming to Fukushima was part of the job offer, something I just accepted without much consideration. “Fukushima, Shimafuka, whatever, I’m going to go live in Japan!” was pretty much my take on the whole deal. Even if I knew I could have requested another location – which I could have – I don’t think I would have because I hadn’t done a whole lot of homework on Fukushima or anywhere else. So at the moment one place would have sounded just as good as the next – as long as it wasn’t Tokyo. ‘Fukushima? Never heard of it, sign me up.’ So in a sense, yeah, I can be a bit of a floater, taking the road that happens to roll out in front of me.

But really, in my years after getting my grad degree – in forensic science…you know, CSI Miami type stuff – I wasn’t floating; I was naively determined to wait until I got exactly the job offer I wanted, which from the outside can seem the same thing. I knew I wanted to work for the FBI as a profiler, and I was ready to accept nothing but the shortest route to that end. Fresh out of grad school I was rejected by the Bureau, so I said okay, I’ll work on the state level for a while first, or I’d go local but only in a place I thought would be cool. I applied for jobs in San Fran, Tampa Bay and Portland, Oregon, passing on jobs in Tulsa and Detroit and such. And I think I pretty much shot myself in the foot being so choosy – I ended up working further and further outside my degree until I found myself an operations manager at a storage and moving company in Colorado. ‘And you have a Master’s in forensics?’ No one could quite get their head around that one, and so a lot of people probably nailed me as a floater, even if that wasn’t the term they had in their head, you know? 

By this time I knew one thing about myself: money did not motivate me. ‘You can become a millionaire in this business.’ This is what one of the owners of the moving company said to me once, no joke. But I just wanted out of that entire industry pronto. That was when I found this teaching job in Japan, and my wanderlust exploded to the forefront. And that is why I’ve been in Japan for 9+ years now; what I’ve been doing here has allowed me to travel far and wide and often, and even when I’m home I’m in a different world. Having a family has changed that dynamic, for sure, but since my first son was born 3 years ago we’ve spent…I don’t know, probably close to twelve months outside Japan all told. I do think about moving back to the US, and I think it would be good for the boys as far as their schooling, but in the back of my mind I feel that once we do move to the States, that’s it, we’re going to settle. And now even with another little boy in diapers I don’t think I’m ready to do that. There are still way too many places to see.

Yet getting engaged, and thus suddenly facing the prospect of having a family to feed, did change things. As soon as my brand new fiancée left Osaka, where I was living at the time, to go back home to Fukushima, I started scribbling like mad in any old notebook I could find, striking out on this new dream of becoming a writer. Five, no, almost six years later I am as deep and committed to it as ever. So to answer your question, as far as living, I feel like I’m floating a bit, because I’m in this self-imposed purgatory, and I won’t let myself out until I’ve gotten to a certain point with my writing. But like I was after grad school, I know right now what I am after, and I’m giving it all I’ve got. In this regard, no I am not floating around. It just looks that way!

Christopher Carr: Tell me about your travels since you came here.  Japan is not all that popular with tourists these days, although it’s leading the world in English teachers who come and live here I think.  Most of my friends, if they make it to Asia at all, skip the neon of Tokyo and the temples of Kyoto for more adventurous tours in Laos or Thailand.  Can Japan compete?  I’ve heard a lot of seasoned travelers say that touring Japan for the most part is an academic experience, and you’ll get much more out of if you speak Japanese and really do your homework before going somewhere, or else you’ll have just no idea what it is you’re seeing.  Would you agree with this assessment?  And how would you characterize your travels around the archipelago?

Kevin Kato: It’s funny, when I first got to Japan I was on the street in Tokyo, maybe Shibuya, and my overriding impression was that it looked a lot like certain parts of Manhattan; big buildings, lots of traffic and people and, what was by far the most astonishing thing, if that isn’t too strong a word, was that almost everything was in English. Store signs, restaurant menus, everything on everyone’s t-shirts, it was all in English. Not always correct English, but English. It was disappointing, really. I was expecting to walk into a world that didn’t make any sense to me. That’s how I wanted it to be. Probably the most exotic experience I’ve had here is using the toilet in someone’s old farmhouse – where they still lived – and finding a floor made of loose boards sitting above a big hole in the ground. In Laos or Cambodia or Malaysia or Peru, outside of the major cities and tourist areas this is almost what you can expect. Japan is extremely developed, so I think you’d be hard-pressed to find that permeating primitive, exotic experience though I’ve never been to the Okinawa island chain.

I tell people my first “real” experience as a traveler came after I’d been in Japan a year and a half already and went to Cambodia. My first day there I found myself in the middle of Phnom Penh with no money, not a word of the language in my head, no idea where to go and no sign of anyone who could help me even if they wanted to – which, to be totally honest, they didn’t. I never felt so utterly lost and hopeless in my life – yet I have to say I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.  I’ve never felt even remotely lost like that in Japan. 

As far as travelers skipping Japan, I’d see several reasons for this. One is quite obvious; the place is brutally expensive, both relative to other Asian countries and simply to anyone who comes in not knowing how to get by on the semi-cheap. The second goes along with my first experiences in Japan and Cambodia; I felt much more like I had stepped into a different world when I reached Phnom Penh, and although from what I’ve seen the majority of the backpacking crowd seems to prefer hostels and bars with an English-speaking atmosphere, I sense they’d like to at least feel they are somewhere exotic – or at least pretend. As developed as Japan is, that sensation is not as readily available as it is in much of the rest of Asia, even in the cities, where most backpackers still seem to migrate. On top of this – and I don’t think I’m making any news here either – Japan isn’t, can’t or perhaps won’t make that concerted effort to drive up tourism. The underlying sense is like ‘Yes, we have tons of history here, evidenced by our impressive array of World Heritage sites, come take a look if you like but otherwise we’re busy.’ There may be some of that fear, or at least aversion, to the outside world at play here, but that’s a whole new can of worms. 

As for Japan being an academic experience, I may be the wrong guy to ask, I’m not particularly academically-minded when I travel.  But really, whether you are looking at a temple in Kyoto or Luang Prabang, you’re likely to get more out of the experience if, as you say, you do your homework. The difference is that in Kyoto, you turn around and you see traffic lights and convenience stores while in Laos you get a woman in sandals and a baby slung over her back lugging a bucket of cans of Coke around. So while Japan has this reknown for its juxtaposition of the old and new, or ancient and modern or whatever, in a sense, while this makes Japan a wildly interesting place, it can also take away from the overall travel experience, i.e. the sense of being in a totally foreign world. Maybe this is a big reason travelers would tend to skip Japan. But I really think it’s the first reason – economics.

As for my travels around the archipelago, I’ve been able to do a lot of touring by bicycle, so I think I’m fortunate to have gotten a fairly extensive close-up look at the Japan beyond the guidebooks or off the beaten path or whatever hackneyed expression you like. And I’ve seen that so much of Japan is neither neon nor elaborate temples. Japan, away from the places people in general have heard of, is a world of serenity, industry – in the sense of devoting oneself to honest, productive work – and simplicity. Anyone who has taken the train from Narita to Tokyo has seen a hundred rice fields, but it wasn’t until I rode through Ogata-mura in Akita that I could begin to comprehend how they could grow enough rice to feed 125 million people every year. Down in Saga, along the coast, there are terraced rice fields built into these huge hillsides; I’d never seen anything like that anywhere else in Japan. I’ve not seen a whole lot of Hokkaido but I know there are some amazing campsites overlooking the Sea of Japan which, like the terraces in Saga, no person or book had ever told me about.

Tourists in Tokyo often go to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which I hear is quite an experience, and one that I have regrettably missed so far. But I’ve ridden through countless tiny fishing villages, and I never tire of them.  One could say no one’s work is purer than that of farmers and fishermen.  Without turning too esoteric, I’d like to think that I get something from putting myself in their world, something that a visit to Tsukiji or Kinkaku-ji could never afford. I mean, so I imagine at least, since I’ve never actually been to Kinkaku-ji either. It’s true, I even lived in Kansai for a year, went to Kyoto a few times but never the Golden Temple. I actually wrote a travel piece for the Japan Times that revolved around the fact that I didn’t feel an overriding need to go see Kinkaku-ji because I’d been to Shimamaki, a coastal town of 4,000 in Hokkaido (on the day of their annual summer festival which certainly added to the allure of the place) and how could you beat that as far as what it means to be here in Japan?

I mean sure, I’ve visited Kiyomizu-dera, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Meiji Jinja and Ise Jingu, seen Sapporo’s Snow Festival and Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri, and this is all great stuff.  Japan’s culture and history is rich as any other Asian country, or any other in the world. But the places and moments that have stuck with me the most have been the out-of-the-way experiences that traveling Japan’s back roads have brought me. Luckily, this kind of travel doesn’t require an academic approach!

Christopher Carr: In terms of traveling Japan, I imagine going by bike is one of the best possible ways.  I’ve always preferred using the cheapest public transportation imaginable mixed with a small amount of hitchhiking. Getting back to your point about avoiding the touristy areas, which specifically would you avoid, and which do you think are must-see?  Also, could you paint in broad strokes, how someone with no experiential knowledge of Japan might go about acquiring that knowledge as efficiently (yet enjoyably) as possible.

Kevin Kato: Which touristy areas to avoid? That’s actually a tough one to answer. I mean, by and large I’ve enjoyed what these heavily-touristed places have to offer, it’s just that conundrum of a place losing its aura because of all the people who wish to go see it. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you were out in the backwoods of Oita or Aomori and you stumbled on a Kiyomizudera that no one but the locals knew about…well, I’d certainly consider that an immensely more magical experience than visiting the ‘real’ Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. But Japan doesn’t tend to hide her treasures – I mean the ones that fit into the mainstream tourist’s interests. Okay, so what to avoid? One place that comes to mind is a theme park in Nikko called Edo-mura, which you can imagine is a recreation of an Edo-period village.  Well, a very poorly-presented recreation. Really, it was terrible. Not the replicated village so much as the troupes of pseudo-bandoliers parading around like they were in some samurai movie set and hadn’t read the script.  But Nikko itself was fantastic, from Toshogu Shrine to Lake Chuzenji to the gorge downriver from Kegon Falls, I can’t remember the name actually. But let’s see, a place to avoid… Maybe not so much to avoid but a place that in my opinion did not live up to my expectations was Amanohashidate. It was nice, but one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan? Great place, no debate; maybe what got to me, and if you’ve been there then maybe you can relate, was everyone up on that lookout spot standing up on that rock bent over and looking between their legs, which is supposed to make that strip of land look like it is rising up into heaven. For the few minutes I was up there waiting my turn, no one seemed to see anything more than I did, which was an upside down strip of land. But then afterward I went down and took a stroll across that strip of pine-covered sand and thought it was remarkable. Sat on the beach, went for a swim, it was great. So again, it was the human-added factor that put a check in the con column for me.

In a nutshell, I don’t think I can say with complete confidence there is any one place that should be strictly avoided. Except maybe Roppongi. Seriously, why come all the way here to go pay some guy named Bob eight hundred yen for a Bud and then hang out listening to Blink 182 and talking to people you might as well have grown up with? Must-see places? I’d say make sure to see Hiroshima or Nagasaki. If I had to pick one it would be Nagasaki, despite that atrocious blue statue. But a visit to either one is like a sledgehammer to the gut. Kyoto is an easy pick but I enjoyed Kamakura, I guess for the subdued, natural setting. Nikko for the same basic reason. And Hiraizumi in Iwate, aside from aesthetic allure, was at one time on par with Kyoto or Nara in terms of national cultural importance. My dark horse here is Akita Prefecture. Astounding in a sublime way, from Shirakami in the north to Chokai-san in the south, great beaches all up and down, Japan’s deepest lake, Tazawa-ko, which I believe is also the world’s second deepest after Baikal, world-class fireworks in summer, my personal favorite festival, the Kanto-matsuri, and perhaps my favorite spot in all of Japan, Sakurajima, along the coast out on Oga Hanto. Rock formations rising up out of the water, a free campground and, when I was there – both times – breath-taking sunsets. Just make sure you visit in the summer – I hear the winters are brutal. The trees along the Akita coast are actually, literally all slanted because the Siberian winds blow in so strong.

As for your last question, I’ve had more than a few people come to me asking what I think they should do and see in Japan – and I always struggle with my answer. It truly depends on what you are interested in, though it seems everyone pares down to the same list of places in the end anyway. Obviously there’s a tremendous wealth of information on the web, not only information but blogs and trip advisor and such from people who have traveled Japan. Take everything with a grain of salt though; Jenny might hate everything about Kamakura because she’s allergic to cedar pollen and her boyfriend ditched her the night before in Enoshima. Another possibility is to find a place on the web where you can correspond with a Japanese person directly; this idea just came to me, I don’t know if such resources exist but just communicating personally with someone who lives in the place you plan to visit would be a trip in itself, so to speak. But the best bet I’d say is to do your research, ask questions, pick a variety of places and go. If you have the time, take a random day trip and see what you find. Without any tourist attractions – or tourists – in your way you might stumble on something priceless. Oh, and by all means get yourself a bicycle! Or stick out your thumb, like you said.

Christopher Carr: As for connecting with a local person, I recommend couch surfing.  Other than that, I’ve heard Akita is a special place.  It’s the only area of Tohoku I’ve never been, and I’m planning a big trip up there next summer, so we’ll see how that goes.  Here is my final question for you: what do you think lies in the future for Japan and your own relationship to it?

Kevin Kato: Couch surfing, of course! How could I forget that one? I’ve actually surfed all over the place, and I’ve hosted some great people here which has actually helped deepen my own appreciation for Japan and Fukushima. Yes, definitely glad you brought that up. I must be getting tired.

Now, you want my take on the future of Japan? I’ll be honest, for as long as I’ve been here I know precious little of the machinations behind this country’s political and economic behavior, I’ll leave that to the pundits and bloggers who know what they are talking about. As far as my place in Japan, I really do feel at home here, bewildering though it can still be at times. On a personal level I’ve met and been befriended by countless wonderful people who would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. I’ve eaten dinner with many a welcoming family and slept in their homes. I’ve been invited to partake in festivals and weddings. I’ve been forgiven by policemen and treated like royalty by strangers on the street. I wandered into the restricted area at the Hakodate fish market and found myself being given a guest pass and a complimentary sashimi breakfast. And none of it took more than a smile or a friendly word. To anyone who says Japanese people aren’t friendly, I say you aren’t doing your part.

On the other hand, in the grand societal scheme of things I don’t think I will ever feel like I am a full-fledged citizen of Japan. But why would I?  In Slovenia or Morocco or Peru it would be the same. I’ve heard foreigners lament over and over about how they will never be treated as “Japanese”. Well guess what, gaijin, you aren’t Japanese. Of course I’d hope and expect to be treated fairly according to the law if such circumstances ever arose, but I certainly have never wished that people would stop seeing me for who I am: an American guy doing his best to find a place and a life for himself in a foreign world.

I don’t mean to imply that I’ve decided to settle here, because I haven’t. I don’t see myself living here for the next fifty years if I’ve got that long.  But with a Japanese wife and two boys here, I’ll have ties to this country for the rest of my life, regardless of where we eventually decide to live.  Without this family I might one day leave Japan and never make it back. And that, on a personal level, would be a shame.

Assuming the dollar is worth something again someday.

They Were Never Planning on Televising the Revolution

In Empires of the Mind on December 23, 2010 at 9:50 am

art by Jack Jerz. Click on photo for link.Fake Steve Jobs and blogosphere hater Dan Lyons speculates that the latest FCC net neutrality ruling ushers in the age of consolidation for the Internet:

No matter what you think about the new rules, however, they signal an important turning point in the development of the Internet. We are going from Phase One, where everything is free and open and untamed, into Phase Two, which is all about centralization, consolidation, control—and money.

Because don’t kid yourself. Money is driving all of this. As in: Hey, we’ve created this marvelous new platform for communicating with each other. We’ve demonstrated that very large sums of money can be generated by sending stuff over these wires. Now let’s figure out who gets what.

Tuesday’s new FCC rules grant two big concessions to carriers. First, the rules will apply to wired broadband connections, but they will pretty much leave wireless alone. Second, carriers remain free to create “fast lanes” on the Internet. They can charge Internet companies to ride on the faster pipes, and perhaps also charge consumers more money to get access to those speedy services.

That is a huge deal. It means we are entering an age in which we will have two Internets—the fast one, with great content, that costs more (maybe a lot more) to use, and then the MuggleNet, which is free but slow and crappy. Cable TV vs. rabbit ears.

Lyons further argues that the qualifty of information itself will divide into two Internets, one premium Internet controlled by an oligopoly and one for the commoners to use when they aren’t busy with the turnip harvest:

Oddly enough this bifurcation resonates beyond just the speed of our Internet connection. It also is happening to information itself. We could be heading into a world where the rich get better information, from a wider choice of sources, while the poor get less.

That’s already happening, to some extent. If you’re a trader on Wall Street and can afford a Bloomberg terminal, you get better information sooner than the poor schlumps who are home trying to play at being day traders.

It will happen even more as news organizations, like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and The New York Times, start putting content behind pay walls.

And so the digital divide widens into an information divide, which of course has huge implications for politics, economics, and even democracy itself.

I have several reactions to this.  The first is, so what? Things cost money and the Internet is not a necessity: Internet access looms well above anybody definition for goods and services that should be below the social safety net.  There is no way to justify any sort of claim that Internet access ought to be affordable.

The second reaction is that a future where more and more people get their information from the Internet and fewer and fewer people get their information from Fox News is a utopian future, and I believe this future is inevitable.  Information quality will still improve in kind with users controlling their own information consumption according to their own preferences.  The worst thing an oligarchy can do is call attention to itself.

My third reaction is the Lyons’s use of Bloomberg as an example puzzles me.  For years and years and years big investment banks have been recruiting the best and brightest and devising ever more accurate and fast computational investment models that day traders haven’t been able to keep up with since there were day traders.  How exactly does access to some Bloomberg service radically change all that?   

My fourth reaction is that of course I’m extremely pissed off about the ruling, which basically is just another example of the government getting involved in something already functioning seamlessly to throw a bone to a few whiney ubercorporations.  I just don’t think it will affect free speech or quality of information in the ways Lyons does.  I think people can safely continue to call the broadband carriers’s bluff and continue to regularly violate copyright law and support piracy. 

My fifth and final reaction is that, I just don’t see a stratification in the quality of information.  In fact, it may be entirely opposite to how Lyons sees it, with the poor having access to better information (like public libraries) and the wealthy being preoccupied with flashy pictures and base amusements.  Whether text, picture, video, or simply data, good information is good information: if the price of quantity goes up, quality will compensate. 

Minipost: the Table of the Worthy

In General Principles on December 21, 2010 at 3:48 am

I commented at LoOG:

It seems to me like there is always a Table of the Worthy of sorts that gets to weigh in on national industry policies. Instead of coming up with policies that are beneficial for everybody, we work on ways to throw bones to all the relevent parties. How can we switch to a system with more central control without destroying private enterprise? I know, let’s just nest a layer of corporations between consumers and legislators. How can we improve food safety while keeping costs low? Let’s put it all under the umbrella of FDA control, but we can compensate with more farm subsidies and restrictions on foreign competitors.

What you wind up getting with such a system is a kind of mercantilist, privatized oligarchy that can only really leverage its own clout against other rival mercantilist, privatized oligarchies to succeed. The constitution sets down and elaborates on a specific set of principles designed to avoid this intractable situation, yet we’ve stretched and gerrymandered it to the point where it provides the putative justification for the exact opposite of its intentions.

I’m going to call this kind of special interest unfreedom club the Table of the Worthy from now on.  Look for it in our archives.

Five Amorphous Question Marks

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 21, 2010 at 3:26 am

Some shallow impressions of the new America of 2010 before my declarative and non-declarative memories and American sense of etiquette are fully restored:

(1.) My mind meld with the Great Economic Spirit upon entering the country suggests things are back on track.  I now look forward to – instead of dreading – the opportunities for putting bread on the table when I come back here more permanently next summer. 

(2.) For all the hooplah and big stink about security theater and don’t touch my junk and opt out day, this time was actually the easiest I’ve had it in the last five years, and I’ve been badmouthing the government and the TSA all over the Internets.  Even though our ESTA information was lost, we were not presumed to be terrorists, my children were not groped, and no one got his or her junk touched.  I attribute this entirely to the hooplah and big stink about security theater and don’t touch my junk and opt out day.    

(3.) The autism bubble is about to burst.  Joe Kennedy famously exited the stock market just before black friday after his shoe-shine boy gave him a “hot stock tip”.  Well, I just saw an advertisement for an autism screening service on a highway billboard in Dorchester, Massachusetts with an 800 number affixed.  It’s time we realize that some – definitely not all – of autism can be explained as round children raised on free range information not fitting into the square holes of the Victorian Era factory classroom.  It’s time we force liquidation on Autism Inc. and start paying more attention to knowledgeable people like Temple Grandin

(4.) Watching Sesame Street makes me proud to be an American.  I don’t know why, but, minus a few obnoxious Elmo panderings to fad “musicians” like Katy Perry, Sesame Street seems to embody all the best parts of my culture.  I mentioned this to my wife, who told me that Sesame Street used to be on NHK’s morning kids lineup, but it was replaced by the dreaded Eigo de Asobou with walking stereotypes Eric and Jenny just a few years ago.

Of course it was replaced, I thought.  I imagined some black suit, black tie wearing NHK bigwig ojisan with some family tree connection sitting in a plush, black leather chair in a black corner office with floor to ceiling windows at one of the top floors of some black office building in black Tokyo who can speak no English and spends all his time playing golf and visiting hostess bars making the decision to cancel Sesame Street to throw a bone to a few of his drinking buddies.  For some reason in my fantasy he spoke like Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: “Shredder, Japanese people are uniquely unique and especially special.  Japanese people are not like foreigners.  Japanese people must have their own unique and special way of learning English that is different from the way foreigners learn English, because Japanese people are so special.  Blah blah blah Japanese people blah blah blah foreigners.  There must be Japanese way for Japanese people!”

Hearing that Sesame Street was cancelled in favor of Eigo de Asobou from my wife blew my mind, just when I thought English Education in Japan couldn’t get any dumber.  I am seriously entertaining the possibility that the puppet masters want the people to fail at English.  The Japanese education system is a classic case of designed stupidity such as my own Catholic Church must envy.

(5.) Bad nutrition in the U.S. may have peaked.  I don’t mean that in a positive, hopeful light so much as I mean I can’t imagine mainstream concepts of what us good for us getting any more bizarre.  I went to buy infant formula tonight and there were about fifty different varieties from each of three companies with a hand in the infant formula market cookie jar.   Each variety differentiated itself from its “rivals” by, for example, “Containing Twenty-Eight Essential Vitamins and Minerals!!!”, “Now, With Six Varieties of Omega-3 Fatty Acids!!!”, or “130% Daily Allowance of Vitamin C Per Serving!!!”  Each variety was at least four times more expensive than the formula we buy in Japan despite all the “competition” we have here in America.  I wanted to buy none of them, but sometimes baby gotta drink formula, guy.  I looked for something with ingredients that weren’t created in a lab sometime in the last thirty years, but found nothing that wouldn’t catalyze a deterministic chemical reaction someday resulting in type-II diabetes.  Luckily we have only twenty days of American catalogue-nutrients before we can start eating Earth-food again. 

Even at my house, even when my mom is getting her black bean, arugala, sour cream, colby cheese, cumin dip for baked whole wheat chips ready for her red wine and dark chocolate party with her foodie bobo friends, I found bags of cheese curls with added calcium and simply massive doses of Vitamin C in a wide variety of products after rummaging through the cabinets for only 10 seconds or so.  As for Vitamin C as a supplement in particular, the famous Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling was the first to popularize Vitamin C as a cure-all which prevented infection and boosted the immune system.  (He also thought DNA was a triple-helix facing outward.  Guess the guy had never heard of William of Ockham.)  Scientists and other learned scholars now know this is quackery, but the public perception of Vitamin C as a miracle substance continues.  Food processing pop-chemistry giants rejoice.

My advice to America as far as nutrition goes is to immediately start doing the exact opposite of whatever it’s doing: instead of eating something composed entirely of heavily-processed empty calories with added products of chemical reactions, such as Doritos with “Fourteen Kinds of Essential Magnesium and Zinc!” and then driving your heart to the threshold of explosion on a treadmill for nine minutes everyday, eat something composed entirely of food (with added flavoring if you really need it), like a fresh, warm slice of oven-baked bread with cool butter; then go for a walk by the lake. 

It’s like all food in this country has been carefully dissected and then reassembled for us in ways that maximize profit for the most efficient synthesizers of individual nutrients and nutrient components.  Economies of scale, structural self-awareness, corporate safety nets, and machine technology will continue to make it easier and easier for massive corporations to extract albumen than for farmers to produce eggs. 

At some point we must choose between remaining a nation of Hutts and our own health.  For the latter, eat as your ancestors did and give thanks to the Great Spirit for allowing you the same privileges as those doubtlessly superior people.  Humans have a bad track record when it comes to challenging evolution.  Nutrition is not a role-playing game.  There aren’t “Vitamin C hit points” and “calcium magic points”.  No one is dying of scurvy or developing a nasty case of the rickets.  No one is bow-legged or pigeon-toed.  Under-nutrition is not a problem.

A Stoney Period

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 19, 2010 at 9:15 am

I wrote in a previous post about the strange species of anomie that permeates the expatriate ephemeris:

A full year in Japan is a full year of Ordinary Time for us – there is no punctuation, no Advent, no Lent, certainly no Triduum, just a blur; we are forced to create our own concepts of the special – a fully existential reality. 

So when the I having habituated to an ordinary expatriate lifestyle gets the chance to come back to the United States, I feel like a young child must in that my senses are overwhelmed by stimuli that I simply cannot process all at once: number systems are often the first foreign objects encountered – their mastery is requisite for the elementary task of currency exchange, the intermediate challenge of making infant formula, or the advanced trial of budgeting gas for the rental car: readjusting to miles per gallon in U.S. dollars from kilometers per liter in Japanese yen might give Rain Man pause.

Next, medium-term challenges: the normal cycles of waking and sleeping are severely disturbed by international air travel, requiring the brain to begin to rely more on external stimuli than on internal stimuli if one is to avoid a sad vacation of unchecked vampirism; ancient protocals and formal linguistic exchange functions must be recalled from storage in the dusty and cobwebbed, fifth-floor stacks of memory for sudden and unpredicted sublimation.

Between each stoney period of repatriation, where the mind abruptly organizes and reorganizes itself to respond to a new and familiar and rusty pool of stimuli, time ceases to exist.  The time between this stone and the last saw the birth and rise of my career as a freelance teacher, translator, and technical writer; almost everything I’ve contributed to the Inductive and elsewhere; the beginning of my mission with Dispatches from the Wild Wild East and the neuro-crystallization of the corresponding album-length book – representing through a variety of media sea changes since I arrived in the Japanese archipelago over four years ago; the start of my life as a subsistence farmer, autodidact, and active commuter; my decision to become a neurologist; and most importantly the birth of my second daughter.  Nevertheless, returning home to familiar faces and places suggests a disassociation.  I must bola the fleeing experiences of my shadow world and reassert my own self with one foot on each side of the portal before I forget the chaos of transition (and therefore this strange and unbridled piece of writing). 

I write this now at 2:18 4:16 Sunday morning, having slept from about midnight on Friday to 5:00 in the afternoon on Saturday.  My two dayless evenings in America so far have been spent enjoying beer and pizza, crayons and Sesame Street, Where the Wild Things Are, Jackass, and Nip/Tuck, shallow bathtubs which could accomodate two children at once without being dangerous or pleasurable, insulated central heaters and plush beds, me in my t-shirt looking out December picture windows at dark and crisp cityscapes and frozen bays full of Christmas lights.

Our connecting flight from snow-covered Minneapolis to a clear and brightly-lit Boston got in on Friday night at 5:00.  We had almost missed DL1492 since the TSA PCs had a malfunctioning ESTA and the DHS VIPs had to manually confirm with IT in DC that we weren’t carrying WMDs for the KGB, PRC, or even BFFs with OBL himself.  Guess what?  We weren’t.  And we made our connecting flight with five minutes to spare.  Hooray.  They had already shut the doors, but opened them again just for us, and our party of six was escorted to the back row of the surprisingly roomy 7-something-7, where we all immediately fell asleep at the same time.

We were tired for good reason.  The flight from Tokyo to Minneapolis had been a disaster.  To start, there were no personalized touch-screen TVs with thousands of free movies this time around (nor had there been for me since 2007); the food was shittier than usual – disgusting pasta, yakisoba for breakfast, and cardboard rolls; the seats seemed even smaller than usual (I wasn’t carrying my handy-dandy tape measure so I had no way to prove this), plus my wife and I both had babies on our laps.  I spent the twelve-hour flight trying to put my baby to sleep, adjusting and readjusting my own legs, and doing nothing else.  I had brought two books to read, which were never even retreived from my smart, cherry-red carry-on bag. 

At one point, my older daughter had a single, uninterrupted tantrum for almost two hours, during which she screamed and cried uncontrollably and kicked all the seats around us.  I knew she was tired and wanted to go to sleep, and I knew that she was stressed out because she didn’t have enough space for her legs, and I knew that if I could stand up and rock her and sing to her she would be asleep within five minutes.  So I stood up and walked to an open space near the “lavatory” where they usually have water for passengers whose noses and throats are especially dehydrated from the cabin air purposely dessertificated to prevent people from going to the bathroom too much and disturbing uptight businessmen fond of both flying and complaining.

I rocked my daughter back and forth and sang Octopus’s Garden to her, which she loves… Excuse me, sir, the captain has turned on the fasten seat-belt sign.  Could you please go back to your seat… I went back. (I can do and/or tolerate anything I want when I’m wearing my “IRONY” hat, which is why I wore it for the trip.)  My daughter woke up and started screaming and crying and kicking again, so I stood up again and started rocking her to sleep… Sir, we are scheduled to hit some turbulence in approximately ten seconds, and you must go back to your seat.  10…9…8…7…6… I went back to my seat, and my daughter immediately Chun-Li wall-jump kicked the seat in front of us full of a sleeping, besuited salaryman; he woke up and (rightly) complained to a flight attendant about us without even turning around to ackowledge our existence.  Good luck in America, dude. 

I stood up again to rock my daughter to sleep… Sir!  We’re getting mayday radio signals from a plane five-minutes in front of us that there is life-threatening and contagious turbulence such that the world has never seen headed in an impenetrable double flying-V pattern directly towards this plane in order to kamikaze attack us.  It will pick you and your baby up sans merci like the smoke monster from Lost and slam you both into the ceiling like the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk Grimm version, not Disney and Bill Goldberg in his prime put together… I went back to my seat.  Delta Airlines remained personal injury lawsuit-free for another pendulous day.  My crying child and I are still waiting for turbulence… 

Four Cultural Gaffs in One Day (Maybe)

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 16, 2010 at 5:56 pm

I may or may not have made four cultural gaffs yesterday.  The trouble with living in a foreign country is that you often never know whether you’re in the wrong because of some cultural misunderstanding or whether you’re just dealing with a bad individual (or whether you’re a bad individual).  I’ve gotten better at realizing when I’m about to cross some cultural line, but I usually don’t even get this right in my own country, so I try to err on the side of caution (or on the side of being taken advantage of – future post).  Here are three scenarios presented for your own consumption, my dear readers…  

…A student quit my lesson yesterday morning.  I was especially disappointed and confused because I always thought her lessons were great, and she was one of my favorite students.  At about one in the afternoon, my student walked into a classroom that I rent out with two other freelance teachers and announced that she wanted to have class outside.  I thought this was a bit strange considering it was December and it was actually snowing.  I had tea and a heater ready inside the classroom, but, the customer is always right.  

As we were walking down the hill from my classroom, she told me that she had found an interesting looking coffee shop while walking from the nearby bus station and she wanted to get coffee there.  Once we were in that coffee shop, she proceeded to have an emotional breakdown and revealed to me that a business associate of mine had lost his temper at her the previous week when discussing her purchase of a new textbook.  I assumed it was a misunderstanding since I had witnessed the meeting and it was regular, and I attempted to reassure her that my associate hadn’t lost his temper; if there was a misunderstanding, I was sure I could clear it up.  My student would have none of it, and announced that she was quitting and would be attending English class at another school which was closer to her house and therefore more convenient for her.

I contacted my business associate who teaches her husband to warn him that this misunderstanding had occurred and he should make sure he’s on good standing with my now former student’s husband and reassure him that no incident had occurred and everything was hunky-dory and whatnot.  After these events played out, I realized that perhaps this was only my student’s way of trying to quit without making me feel bad.  Americans are often concerned about bottom-line and tend to separate business and personal life.  If she had wanted to quit my lesson for whatever reason, all she had to do was say that.  She didn’t owe me an explanation.  I still would be friends with her and exchange emails and have cordial relations.

Perhaps this is not the case in Japan.  Business and pleasure are often mixed here in complex and idiosyncratic ways.  I considered – and still consider – the possibility that she just wanted to quit and felt like she needed a reason whereby it didn’t look like she was abandoning me for another teacher.  I received confirmation of this after hearing back from my business associate that her husband (whom he teaches) had spoken to her, and she had told him she just wanted to take group lessons closer to home, hence the move.  Of course, I can do nothing about the situation except to feign ignorance and continue to defend my business associate…

…Later that day, I went to teach at a school where most of the students are elementary school children seeking to supplement their official education – provided in part by me – with private attention.  One of the oldest of these students – a twelve-year-old monster – has been a thorn in my side from day one, insulting my physical appearance and ridiculing me in Japanese in front of the other students because she thinks I don’t understand what she’s saying, and that is funny to her.  I would normally tolerate such behavior from one student, but the other students are beginning to follow her lead.  There are now slippery slope considerations.

I couldn’t imagine any way to make her stop without inviting more ridicule (which I would be powerless to stop due to the fact that she is a customer), and I don’t want to acknowledge her insults: if I broke the ice and used Japanese, she would probably just ridicule my poor pronunciation. (I never use Japanese with English students.)  I have turned to complaining to the boss that her actions are affecting other students and she must stop, and this boss has spoken to the student about her behavior several times.  She has often denied wrongdoing only to redouble her efforts when the boss is not there.  Finally today, after she told two six-year-old students that I farted and it smelled, I told my boss that either she quit the school or I would no longer be available to teach on Thursdays.  Yes, I was willing to sacrifice almost 300 dollars in monthly income for this.

Tonight, I explained this seemingly intractable scenario to my wife, who told me I should just insult her back by, for example, calling her a stupid shitbrat destined to fail.  I was thoroughly nonplussed.  A teacher in America would be fired for insulting students like that.  This is apparently not the case in Japan; parents expect teachers to teach not only reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also character and respect for others.  After I complained to my boss, I was told that the student in question is, in fact, quitting incidentally after this month to study five subjects at a bigger school.  I will likely never see her again.  I’m a little embarrassed for presenting an ultimatum in retrospect better kept to myself…

…After today’s horrible classes, I went to a print shop near my house to get some digital photos printed.  I had already gone there in the morning, but I was told the computers were undergoing maintenance until four in the afternoon, and I had to go to work before I could have the opportunity to use them.  I asked the clerk what time the shop closed, and she said nine o’clock that night.  Great, I thought, open late.  I finished work at 5:30 and hurried to the print shop.  

For some reason, the dimensions of my digital photos and the dimensions of the prints don’t match, so every time I print pictures, I have to manually set the printed field using a computer program provided by the print shop’s computers.  This is very time-consuming, and this time I was planning on printing about 250 pictures.  I sat down at a computer at about 6:30, and by 8:00, I had configured about three quarters of my prints.  I was the only customer.  Good, I thought, I’ll be finished at 8:30, they can run the printing program, and the pictures should be printed out by 9:15 or so.  

My older daughter had fallen asleep just before we got there, and the rest of the family was shopping upstairs.  The building didn’t shut down until 9:00.  There was no rush.  I could set the visual fields just right (although I don’t understand why printers and digital camera manufacturers can’t agree on a common format – maybe future post).  There were two workers at the print shop, and they were having a conversation about how they had both struggled with English in high school.  Typical, I thought, having a conversation about me as if I weren’t there.  (Japan veterans may know the rest of this story by now.)

There were two things I missed.  The first is that the shop staff were talking about English because they weren’t sure how to approach me the foreigner, and they were hoping that I would get the hint and break the ice myself.  I have been here for long enough to develop some proficiency with Japanese, and I am used to clearly and assertively communicating my desires, but I was already tired and distracted by the previous events of today and glad to interact with a machine.    

My second gaff was that I forgot (really inexcusable) that the closing times of Japanese shops represent the times that everybody immediately goes home.  In the States, we’re used to closing times representing the last time customers can begin consuming a particular service.  If the drug store closes at 9:00 and I get in there at 8:58, I can shop until 9:20.  If the restaurant is open until 10:00 and I get there at 9:45, I can eat until 11:30.  

This is not the case for Japanese stores.  Most begin playing a midi version of “Auld Lang Syne” about fifteen minutes before close with polite messages in English to politely remind their foreign customers that everybody needs to be out of the store by closing time.

When my wife came back from shopping, she seemed surprised that I was still working at the computer and asked one of the clerks what was the deal because we had to leave for America early the next morning and needed the prints tonight.  The clerk told her that if I had 100 prints, she could print them all tonight.  All my work setting the frames just right was a waste.  I would only be able to print two fifths of my pictures.

At first I was upset that there had been no irasshaimase! from the clerks and annoyed that they had continued to talk about me without talking to me, but then I realized that I had also been absorbed in my own world and had made no effort of my own towards effective communication, so I was just as much of a face stealer.  Nevertheless, the clerk apologized profoundly and gave us some coupons for the next time we wanted prints…

…Perhaps I am tired and stressed out from twelve-hour-days and no holidays for the past three weeks, but I don’t think there is any excuse for the kind of mistakes I made today, which is my last day before a long vacation.  The good news is that I have a long vacation from teaching starting tomorrow, when I will haul two babies across the Pacific Ocean on an airplane and begin a twenty-day rest in America for Christmas.  Expect lots of posts during that time as well as a few new writers.  I will be devoting four or five hours a day to the Inductive starting this Saturday.  I’m looking forward to being home for the first time in fifteen months.

On TOEIC and Embracing the Void

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 14, 2010 at 3:41 am

This passage comes from a TOEIC prep book I used in a lesson yesterday.  I found myself fighting back vomit as I maintained a requisite, grinning, foreign visage of utter seriousness:

A really good city must have all of the necessary facilities for its citizens.  There must be government offices, which people use to register automobiles, pay taxes, and so on.  There must also be plenty of financial institutions like banks, loan offices, and insurance companies.  Shopping is vital to peoples’s lifestyles, so there must be lots of places like shopping malls, clothing shops, and grocery stores where people can buy things.  Citizens also need to enjoy their lives by, for example, seeing a game at a sports stadium, watching a performance at a theater, seeing a movie with friends, or dining at a nice restaurant.

After teaching that class, I blasted Marilyn Manson on my iPod on the way home.  This passage disgusts me for a wide variety of reasons.  The first is that it uses almost all the words and phrases which are unique to Engrish and which I wish my students would stop using altogether.  I imagine George Orwell must be rolling in his grave – not only because this passage traffics in poor and tired English of primarily Latin origin but because it reads like fascist propaganda.  I would actually skip all the bullshit and simplify it as follows:

Tired statist trope. Tired capitalist trope.  Tired consumerist trope.  Tired propagandist trope.

The irony is that this TOEIC passage of piss-poor, predictable prose represents the putative pinnacle of proficiency.  It has convinced me that unchecked cynicism is the key to excelling on the TOEIC test, and I plan on instructing my students accordingly.  

As it already is, TOEIC is a poor standard of English proficiency.  TOEIC tests hearing – not listening: students basically write what they hear without being evaluated for comprehension (how could they be, on a multiple-choice, standardized test with no feedback?)  A high TOEIC score directly correlates with (1.) the ability to recognize the patterns of Roman letters particular to English and (2.) the ability to recognize and simplify bullshit and sloppiness of thought. These two correlations probably go a long way towards explaining why doctors and other scientifically-minded individuals always seem to score relatively high on the TOEIC exam.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I teach at the local magnet school.  The other day I was having lunch with the principal, and he took the opportunity to aggressively criticize my work.  He told me that 80% of the students studied English independently outside of school, so whatever collective ability level I was gauging via direct feedback from the students must be ignored, and I must stick to the textbook curriculum of teaching the pronunciation of basic nouns devoid of context.  The principal continued to tell me that the English I used in class was too fast and too difficult for the students to understand.  I needed to speak slower and more simply so the students could understand me.

When the principal finished his lunch, the other teachers rushed to his place like Brandt from Big Lebowski; six or seven teachers simultaneously fell over themselves to take away his empty tray and clean it for him.  After his tray was gone, he dismissed them all with a wave of his hand. 

I considered his criticism that my English was “too difficult” and “too fast” – or “too natural” if you will: perhaps I needed to more especially subvert my entire culture to the unique demands of the Japanese entitled bureaucratic classes.  But, try as I may to appease these Japanese wolves, I just don’t know any countries where they speak “slow, simple English”.  I don’t know any other country besides Japan where the natives so struggle with English and still insist they are experts on the topic.  

On the contrary, I think one of the most important lessons for students to learn is that they can never understand everything.  If I had my way to plan a lesson for forty students totally free of consequences and practical, bottom line concerns, I would just read Jabberwocky or have the students use “banana” for every word.  That way, the students would start paying attention to situations and develop the kind of common sense that defies linguistic ability instead of the forever omphaloskepsis of deskbound, square learning and why is “two” spelled with a ‘w’?  The goal should be to become comfortable with helplessness.

For now, I guess the cynical part of me can understand the incentives and motivations behind a system that creates morons so it can test the ability of those created morons to unmoronify themselves.  The sublime absurdity of the Japanese school system never ceases to amaze me.

Introducing the Green Tea Party

In Specific Facts on December 8, 2010 at 11:14 am

One tea to rule them allA reader mentions that media coverage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act has been conflicting.  On the one hand, it seems like the uneducated hicks of the Tea Party are behind the opposition, but on the other hand, the loudest denouncers of the bill seem to be dirty hippies.  Perplexing indeed.  

I imagine the Tea Party would be against the food bill because it increases central government control over food production, which – let’s face it – is about as Soviet as you can get. We might as well rename Nebraska “Украина”, set quotas, and send Grandma to the Gulag for violating provision 6655321 with her latest batch of steak-fried steak.

Hippies and their black sheep cousins, Whole Foods shoppers, would be against the food bill because it requires “safety standards” which would probably just entrench corporate food by making it prohibitively expensive to produce locally and organically and perhaps jeopardize hippie access to the crunchier and more bizarre varieties of honey, cheese, hummus, and dried fruit. (America has already suffered so much for so many years without unpasteurized cheese. If only we could be more like France.) 

For libertarians such as myself, “safety standards” for food is like the Holy Grail of unintended consequences.  Just like financial companies, food companies spend most of their resources finding clever ways to get around the half-assed “We can do it! Let’s build a better world!” standards devised by our best and brightest (centralist Modernists) instead of spending their resources producing quality food in response to consumers acting on correct, undistorted information; hence we are all forced inadvertently by the unholy two-headed monster of big government and big business to eat cheaply-produced rubber tomatoes, disguised soy, and secret high-fructose corn syrup

What such a system tends to produce more than anything else is heavily-processed crap-cum-nutrient-boosters, like Pop Tarts (I think around 80 or 90% sugar, but I may be exaggerating) with “super-duper added Vitamin C!” or cupcakes “now with totally awesome riboflavin!”, which Aunt Shirley buys because she read in the New York Times or saw on Fox and Friends (depending of course on which side of the culture war she’s on) how riboflavin is good for high blood pressure or something. (Needless to say, Aunt Shirley can’t figure out why she’s pushing 300 pounds.) 

Of course the government food bill is going to protect Big Food while pretending not to, just like the healthcare bill protected Big Insurance while pretending not to. That – i.e. rob from the poor to give to the rich while pretending to do the exact opposite so people can feel good and go back to the things that matter, like American Idol – is and has always been the goal of policy.  More euphemistically, this is called “balancing consumer and business interests”.  If you don’t believe me, look it up: PepsiCo is loudly leading the charge for centralized food regulation.

If only the hippies and Tea Partiers could sort through all the misinformation and recognize that these issues are important to all consumers, we might be able to make some progress.  If all the factions could unite, we could form something amenable to all and have safe food and fewer of da warz, cheaper prices, and probably even lower taxes; but more or less, the two factions of commoners hate each other because they can’t agree on what to do about the “homosexual problem”, which is clearly much more important than one of the three basic necessities for human survival.

Meanwhile, the corporate fatcats are free to dream up ever more creative ways of enslaving us all into lives of servitude.  The specialists of the food industry laugh at the greedy and gullible generalists of Congress.  They laugh louder at the stupidity of the people.  To summarize: I hope this “bipartisan” food bill goes down in flames and we can take the first steps towards a society driven by informed demand.  

For a demand-driven society to happen, the stupid and the dirty must unite.  I propose a new entity, called the “Green Tea Party” with or without the slogan, “get your government hands off my tofu!”  

The nonSTARTer

In Specific Facts on December 6, 2010 at 10:21 pm

From Flckr Creative Commons by MuklukA treaty that is a priority of the President, advocated for by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, the Secretary of State, every Democrat in the Senate, the President of Russia, every member of NATO, U.K. leaders past and present, major Israeli lobbies, Republican Cabinet Secretaries Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Colin Powell and the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would seem to be a slam dunk. Yet, in a testament to U.S. policy’s powerful status quo bias, the new nuclear disarmament START treaty is widely considered to be a long-shot for passage because of the objections of one Senator, John Kyl, the Republican whip.

The START treaty reduces the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, a step that may be controversial among believers in an exceedingly strong nuclear deterrent, but without the START treaty, the U.S. forgoes the right to inspect Russian nuclear facilities. The Vice President summed up the importance of the treaty thusly: “Failure to pass the new START treaty this year would endanger our national security” and “sour a relationship that has helped open a new supply route to troops in Afghanistan and increase pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program.” Senator Kyl’s objection is not to the treaty itself, but is a strategic opposition to extract a commitment to nuclear modernization. President Obama has pledged to dramatically increase the funds for modernization, but so far not enough to satisfy Kyl.

START is an enormously sensible and strategically important treaty. While I strongly support treaty ratification, my real concern is how can a country govern when its political system is so prone to seizure? If the U.S. can not address a straightforward policy with such a wide consensus, what hope do we have for tough policies with disputed solutions? The problems the U.S. faces will require either consensus or compromise, yet partisans seem to find neither palatable.

The looming crisis of structural deficit and debt is illustrative. After Congress failed to convene one, the President created a bipartisan deficit commission to put together a grand compromise to spread the pain of deleveraging around through tax increases, spending cuts and entitlement reforms. Naturally, instead of creating a starting point for both sides to rally around, the proposal has been widely criticized. Grover Norquist said it was a nonstarter because it increased tax revenues, even though it also made taxes much simpler. Meanwhile, Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky offered a counterproposal that balanced the budget almost entirely through tax increases and defense cuts, even though she was on the original committee. The status quo is a policy choice, but not the right one for most of our problems. Unfortunately, until both sides stop making the perfect the enemy of the good, that’s the only choice we have.

crossposted at Georgetown Public Policy Review