Tuesday, June 24, 2008

RIP Disappointed Idealist

I'm sorry to hear that George Carlin has died. His irreverent, iconoclastic, thought-provoking wit often both amused and impressed me. He was at one time probably most famous for his "Seven Dirty Words" routine, that triggered a US Supreme Court case.

I always sort of half-hoped that one day I'd be lucky enough to meet the man; he seemed like a great guy to talk to in a bar over a couple of beers or some tequila. Or wine, of which he seems to have claimed to be an abuser. This is the fellow who was the first guest host of Saturday Night Live and apparently did the job high on cocaine.

You just about have to like a guy who has a section on his website called "2,443 Dirty Words", not to mention a guy whose last in a list of "guidelines to pass along to your children" is "Finally, enjoy yourself all the time, and do whatever you want. Don't be seduced by that mindless chatter going around about 'responsibility.' That's exactly the sort of thing that can ruin your life."

I'm going to miss him.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More Once-familiar Places

The Iwate-Miyagi Earthquake has caused some astonishing damage to the area, although much less loss of life than it would have done had it been in a less sparsely settled area.

Once again, the scenes of devastation disturb me by more than their intrinsic shock value. Many years ago, when I had more vacation time per year, and more free time generally, I spent quite a lot of time driving and camping around Iwate and Miyagi, including the areas where the recent quake struck. I don't remember exactly, but I believe it's very likely that I stayed in the hot spring inn that's been shown on the news, crushed from two floors into one, and half pushed/washed away. Pictures on the news of what it used to look like certainly seemed familiar.

I almost certainly drove on most of the roads that are shown broken into fragments among the crumbled mountains.

It's a very strange feeling, seeing what was once familiar turned nearly instantly into utterly strange, broken present reality.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lowering the Bar

I can't really comment on the wisdom of Britain's decision to lower the language requirements for foreign nationals going there to work. I'm not British and have never lived there, and neither my taxes nor my livelihood are really threatened by the decision. I suspect that they will regret it, but it's not my problem.

I do think that if the information shown here is accurate, the Japanese government is doing its citizens and companies a disservice in the long run.

They have, through their embassy, apparently persuaded (pressured?) the British to exempt people going to Britain as ICTs (intra-corporate transfers) from the English language requirement if they are going to Britain for under three years, and to reduce the language ability required for skilled worker visas--including ICTs--for over three years, from being able to ‘‘understand the main ideas of a complex text on both concrete and abstract topics" and ‘‘interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party’’, to ‘‘ability to understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases, to introduce themselves and others and ask and answer questions about basic personal details’’.

So the Japanese sarariman who's sent to work in London, instead of being able to discuss, say, the stock market, OPEC policies, global warming, terrorism, or even football, will now only need the typical result of six years of Japanese English education: "This is a pen", "I'm fine, thank you, how are you?", "Can you use chopsticks?", "Are you married?", and so on.

To be fair, "other missions" are mentioned in the article, so it's apparently not only the Japanese Embassy that was lobbying for reduced standards. I live here, though, and pay taxes here, and meet many people who are going to be sent abroad to work. Many of them could use much more preparation if they are expected to do a creditable job overseas.

It would be much better for the Japanese government to be spending time and money on raising the quality of their citizens' English than to be lobbying for foreign countries' working visa language requirements to be lowered.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blast from the Past

After having received an unexpected but very welcome e-mail message yesterday from an old friend from my Navy days, I was astounded to get a phone call from him this morning.

It was great speaking with John and his wife Machiko, both of whom were witnesses (and sometimes participants) in some of the wilder escapades of those early days in the Yokosuka/Hayama area.

He's tracking down some of the other likely suspects, and he's already found two of my former roommates.

A reunion would be cool, but I'm not sure that Japan's ready for it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

More Ministries, More "Gifts"

There's an update on the story mentioned below about bureaucrats receiving cash and gifts (including beer and snacks during the ride) from taxi drivers--whom they paid with taxpayer-funded ministry-issued taxi tickets--for long, late-night rides home.

It turns out to have been at least 13 ministries and over 500 bureaucrats.

Arrogant unethical bastards ought to be fired, if they can't be executed.

Real-life Killing in Akihabara

The news of the murders in Akihabara yesterday came as a shock.

I visit that area pretty frequently, as do many friends and relatives. On any given Sunday, the odds are pretty good that someone I know is shopping in Aki.

For a guy to rent a truck in Shizuoka and drive it all the way up to Tokyo for the purpose of mowing down pedestrians whom he then proceeds to slash and stab with a survival knife, is mind-boggling.

An update here shows what seem to have been cell phone e-mail posts the murderer made just prior to the crime, and indicates that police say the knife was a dagger rather than a survival knife...not that the type of knife really matters much.

He claims that he did it because he was tired of life and wanted to kill people; anyone would do.

Fine. If you're tired of life at 25 (or any age, really) and want to kill someone, and anyone will do...kill yourself. Do society a favor.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Finance Ministrations

Finance Ministry officials have been found to have been accepting what amount to kickbacks from taxi drivers.

Not only are my taxes being wasted on 25,000 taxi rides home for these bureaucrats, I'm having to pay higher taxi fares partly because the cab company operating expenses have to cover cash and other gifts to these so-called public servants.

Years ago I used to spend quite a lot of after-working-hours time in various Japanese government offices, and I saw a lot of people collecting overtime pay while they read newspapers or practiced golf swings with their umbrellas, waiting for the boss and/or their colleagues to go home. Nobody wanted to be the first to leave the office, even if there wasn't really any urgent work to do. Perhaps the Finance Ministry people are different, but I doubt it very much, indeed.

Maybe we'd get a better class of bureaucrat if punishments for corruption were, for example, public whipping. Or execution. We'd probably have many fewer people entering the bureaucracy, but the ones who did would likely be a better, and more honest, class of people.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Smoke from a Machine

I generally buy cigarettes by the carton, having them delivered because in my area of the wilds of the Saitama/Gunma border country Marlboros aren't available within walking distance. If I run out in more metropolitan areas, there are plenty of convenience stores selling cigarettes, so I almost never buy them from vending machines.

Thus, I haven't bothered to go through the trouble of acquiring a "taspo" card, the "smart card" recently required to prove to many cigarette vending machines that you're at least 20 years old. I fully expected the cards to be yet another solution that created its own problems, too, and recent news seems to prove me right.

First I saw the case of a mother loaning her 15-year-old son her card:

Then I saw an even funnier case, in which a vending machine owner attached a card to the machine, utterly defeating the purpose of the card, but perhaps helping him to get back some of the 20% reduced sales the introduction of the card system cost him:

I find the situation hilarious. I'm also amused by the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has suggested making a similar system for the numerous vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages (including some that even sell full-size whiskey bottles).

I guess they feel that the law passed 20 years or so ago, requiring vending machines of this type to be turned off at 23:00, as a measure to prevent minors from buying booze and cigarettes, actually serves its purpose, rather than just inconveniencing machine owners (often poor senior citizen shop owners) and adult customers who live closer to vending machines than to convenience stores. As far as I can tell, it's inconveniencing minors who want to drink or smoke very little if at all.

I suppose that it gives some bureaucrats and busybodies, somewhere, the mistaken feeling that they've done something useful, for a change.