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U.N. rape scandal spreads

Lots of bloggers, including yours truly, have commented on the U.N. child rape scandal in the Congo.

Now (via Instapundit), Reuters reports that it's not just in the Congo.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.N. officials fear the sex-abuse scandal among peacekeepers in Africa is far more widespread and appears to be a problem in each of the global body's 16 missions around the world.

As the world body seeks to crack down on the abuse, it could bar countries from participating in missions if they fail to prosecute offenders, even though the U.N. is hard-pressed to find contributing nations, the officials said on Friday.

Rocked by widespread abuse of women and girls, including gang rape, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations also has found sexual exploitation cases in at least four other missions -- in Burundi, Liberia, Ivory Coast -- as well as more recently in Haiti, they added.

"We think this will look worse before it begins to look better," Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations, told reporters. "We expect that more information will come from every mission on allegations. We are prepared for that."
I strongly suspect that whaever good deeds the U.N. manages to do in the world are far outweighed by the negative impact of its endemic cronyism, corruption, fecklessness, and, now, widespread violent crime. Nor will its problems be solved by replacing Kofi Annan. It's time to recognize that the U.N. itself is a failure.

NOTE: This is Day 2 of the light-blogging ski trip edition of Riding Sun. Regular posting will resume after I get back home Friday night.

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Reckless writing about reckless riding

I've posted several times about how bikers, in general, are more careful and responsible motorists than car drivers. So I was surprised by this report in The Scotsman:

The rising toll of motorcycle deaths will dominate a three-day road safety conference starting tomorrow.

Safety experts will discuss ways of reducing biker deaths which increased 14% between 2002 and 2003.

The total number of deaths in road accidents, although well down on the worst years in the 1950s and 1960s, also rose – slightly – in 2003.

RoSPA’s [Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents] head of road safety Kevin Clinton said: “Despite superb progress in road safety generally in recent years, the number of deaths has stopped falling and we don’t want to see last year’s rise becoming a trend. We need to redouble our efforts to improve driver behaviour and motorcycle safety.
Sounds dire on a first read, but closer inspection suggests The Scotsman has merely bought into alarmism over the U.K.'s "rising toll" of deaths from motorcycle accidents.

First, the article points out that motorcycling deaths are actually "well down" since the 50's and 60's.

Second, by revealing only the percentage increase in deaths, not the real-number increase, the problem is made to seem bigger than it may actually be. Assuming the number of deaths must be a positive integer, the 14% increase could reflect a rise of as few as seven additional deaths throughout the whole of 2003.

And third, Mr. Clinton' comments imply that 2003 marked the first annual rise in deaths in many years. But it's only natural that the number of motorcycling deaths would rise after a long period of decline. Statisticians call this phenomenon "reversion to the mean". Basically, it means that trends don't go on forever. Given the large number of people riding, there will always be some number of deaths in any given year. If the previous year's tally was very low, then chances are the next year's will be at least slightly higher.

The information provided by the Scotsman article, without more, provides no reason to believe that motorcycle riding in Britain has become any more dangerous than it was in recent years.

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Biker babe

The Associated Press reports on Tiffany Sloan, a 17-year-old who has been beating boys in motorbike races, including some with studded tires on ice tracks, since she was 14.

Plus, she's tough:

She's never broken a bone, but she crashed once at a race in Florida. She'd laid the bike down "nice and easy," but someone clipped her handlebar and it hit her in the stomach. She began hyperventilating, and health workers thought she was bleeding internally.

"They had me in the ambulance and ready to stick IVs in my arm, but I told them no, I was going to keep racing. So they let me go," she said.
What a girl.

Note: The snow at Niseko is the lightest and fluffiest I've ever seen it in four years of coming here. I don't have the time to write up ultra-long posts, and the Internet connection here is via a pretty shaky dial-up modem, so this week I may be just pointing out a few interesting stories and keeping it short. Regular blogging will resume after I get back Friday night.

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Early Sunday morning, I'm heading off with a bunch of buddies for a week-long ski trip to Niseko.

Located on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost major island, Niseko is made up of three linked ski areas: Hirafu, Annapuri, and Higashiyama. As Japanese resorts go, it's huge:

In my opinion, Niseko has the best terrain, powder, and apres-ski scene of any resort area in Japan. It's also unusual among Japanese resorts for letting people go off-piste in certain areas. They call it "Niseko Local Rules".

Last time I went, they had an internet cafe up there, so I will try to keep blogging during the trip, but posting will probably be on the light side.

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Suicide bomber breaks "cease-fire"

I posted here about how the so-called "cease-fire" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was meaningless, because the main Palestinian terrorist groups, like Hamas, rejected it.

And I posted here about how Lebanese terror group Hizbullah was stepping into the gap left by the PA by funding Palestinian suicide bombers on its own.

Now, the Associated Press reports, these two factors have combined to produce a new Palestinian suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv nightclub. Four Israelis were killed and dozens were wounded:

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) - A Palestinian suicide bomber carrying 20 pounds of explosives blew himself up in a crowd of young Israelis waiting outside a nightclub near Tel Aviv's beachfront promenade just before midnight Friday, killing at least four other people, wounding dozens and shattering an informal Mideast truce.

A senior commander of a Palestinian militant group, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which is funded by Iran and has been trying to disrupt the cease-fire, hired a Palestinian from the northern West Bank to carry out the bombing. Palestinian security officials also implicated Hezbollah.
Israeli officials have said they won't let this latest little act of murder and bloodshed derail the all-important "peace process". But peace isn't a process; it's a condition. And when Palestinians feel free to blow themselves up amid throngs of young Israelis, it's conspicuously absent.

With peace like this, who needs war?

It will be interesting to see whether the suicide bomber was one of the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners Israel recently freed as a goodwill gesture to Abbas.

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Enter the Ricetrix

Robin Givhan of the Washington Post reports on Condoleezza Rice's fashion sense:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield on Wednesday dressed all in black. She was wearing a black skirt that hit just above the knee, and it was topped with a black coat that fell to mid-calf. The coat, with its seven gold buttons running down the front and its band collar, called to mind a Marine's dress uniform or the "save humanity" ensemble worn by Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix."

...Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame "Matrix" jump kick if necessary.
Judge for yourself:

There's no doubt about it: Condi is The One.

As Hillary Clinton demonstrates, there are worse characters to resemble.

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Update on Ilario Pantano, II

No sooner do I say that there have been no significant developments in the Ilario Pantano case, than the Washington Times comes out with more information.

This Times article claims to be based on documents that describe or include the sworn statements of "eyewitnesses" to Pantano's shooting of two Iraqi insurgents. Apparently, however, those statements reveal that neither of the two witnesses — the allegedly disgruntled Marine sergeant and a Navy corpsman — actually saw the first shots being fired:

"While I took my security post, I heard Lt. Pantano yell stop [in Arabic] directed towards the two Iraqi men searching the vehicle. He yelled stop. Lt. Pantano yelled stop, and then, I heard shots fired," said the eyewitness, a Navy corpsman in Lt. Pantano's platoon, in a sworn statement.

"I quickly turned towards the vehicle, Lt. Pantano's position, and witnessed the men attempting to flee away from the vehicle away from where Lt. Pantano was standing."
Notably, since the Navy corpsman witnessed the insurgents fleeing after Pantano's first shots were fired, it appears those first shots were warning shots not meant to hit or kill. At the very least, the corpsman's story supports Pantano's contention that he clearly warned the Iraqis to stop moving before he shot them.

And, importantly, the Marine sergeant, who filed the complaint against Pantano, admits he had his back turned when Pantano fired the first shots:
"As soon as I turned my back, Lt. Pantano opened [fire on] them with approximately 45 rounds," the sergeant said. "After the shooting, Lt. Pantano let everyone know on the [radio] that he was the one that shot. ... Me and [the corpsman] were both shocked about what just happened."
This story isn't over yet, but the information available so far seems to be to be leaning against the sergeant's earlier allegations of a gruesome, premeditated execution.

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Marine not charged; CBS disappointed

While no significant developments have occured in the Ilario Pantano situation since my last post about it, the case of another Marine provides hope that Pantano will be given a fair shake by the Corps.

Last November, during the taking of Fallujah, freelance reporter Kevin Sites caught a Marine on video shooting an insurgent inside a mosque. The Marine thought he saw the man moving as he lay injured on the floor, and shot him dead.

Now, over three months later, CBS News reports that "military investigators conclude there is not enough evidence to formally charge that Marine" with any crime.

The article oozes disappointment that one of our troops will not be punished for defending himself in a war zone:

The original video added to popular anger over the Fallujah crackdown. Many Iraqis felt Fallujah's unarmed civilians bore the brunt of the U.S. campaign.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the battle, and months later, much of the city is still without power or water. Many Fallujans live in makeshift refugee camps far from their homes.

When news breaks that the Marine will not be prosecuted, it will not go over well here.

It's now up to Marine commanders to decide what, if any internal action to take against the Marine. And investigators are still conducting ballistics tests to determine how the other insurgents in the mosque were killed.
"Don't give up hope," this report is saying, "There's still a chance they'll throw the book at some of those jarhead baby-killers!"

Of course, the people who bear the blame for the invasion of Fallujah are not the Marines, but rather, the insurgents who decided to turn it into a den of terror.

Why does CBS want to see U.S. Marines in jail?

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Ride to die

In a recent post about "gonzo" journalism creator and, now, suicide victim Hunter S. Thompson, I mentioned that I hadn't read much of his stuff.

However, with his suicide in the news, some of his more famous pieces are making their way around the Internet. I came across one with the odd title "Song of the Sausage Creature" — Thompson's name for the bloody, shredded mess you can end up as by crashing your motorcycle at high speeds.

It didn't do much for my opinion of him. Whether the subject was drugs or motorcycles, Thompson's general writing strategy seems to have centered around the glamorization of harmful, foolish, self-destructive behavior. He was like the kid in your grade school class who always pulled dangerous stunts to get attention. Most kids grow out of that phase, but Thompson stayed in it until the very end.

In "Sausage Creature", Thompson, describing his adventures astride a Ducati, indicates that, whatever his gifts as a writer, he was a poor motorcyclist:

This motorcycle is simply too goddamn fast to ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic unless you're ready to go straight down the centerline with your nuts on fire and a silent scream in your throat.

When aimed in the right direction at high speed, though, it has unnatural capabilities. This I unwittingly discovered as I made my approach to a sharp turn across some railroad tracks, saw that I was going way too fast and that my only chance was to veer right and screw it on totally, in a desperate attempt to leapfrog the curve by going airborne.

It was a bold and reckless move, but it was necessary. And it worked: I felt like Evel Knievel as I soared across the tracks with the rain in my eyes and my jaws clamped together in fear. I tried to spit down on the tracks as I passed them, but my mouth was too dry... I landed hard on the edge of the road and lost my grip for a moment as the Ducati began fishtailing crazily into oncoming traffic. For two or three seconds I came face to face with the Sausage Creature...
It may be fun to watch in the movies or at the X-games, but on a public road, riding the way Thompson describes isn't gutsy or cool. It's just stupid. That he didn't kill himself, or any drivers on the road, shows only that he was lucky, not skillful.

Riders who know what they're doing don't put themselves into everyday situations where the only way out requires a leap through the air — unless they have a death wish.

Thompson may have had one himself. Perhaps this past Monday, sadly, he finally granted it.

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Honda's new motorcycle navigation system

Via Forbes, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports that Honda will start selling an onboard navigation system for motorcycles this April:

Japan's Honda Motor Co. said Wednesday it will release Japan's first navigation system for motorcycles on April 28 in the domestic market.

The navigation system, with a 3.8-inch touch-panel screen, will be installed for Honda's Forza large scooters. It is attached to the center of the handlebars. In addition to showing a map, the navigation has a voice message to tell directions, Honda said.

Setting the price at 173,250 yen (1,665 dollars), Honda aims to sell 2,000 units annually.
Similar systems for cars ("car navi") are commonplace in Japan, much more so than in America or Europe. Most of the time, if you take a cab in Tokyo, the driver will track his way to your destination on his navi system. The higher-end models have large color displays with 3-D graphics. Some even have touchscreens for easy use while driving.

They're quite cool, and I've often thought about bolting one on to my bike. But I wasn't sure they could handle the vibration and exposure of motorcycle use. It'll be interesting to see how Honda solves those problems, and if its system can be used with bikes other than its Forza scooters.

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The Onion: Tomorrow's news, today

February 2nd, The Onion:

Nation's Leading Alarmists Excited About Bird Flu

WASHINGTON, DC—The avian influenza virus, a mutant flu strain that has claimed the lives of 31 people in Eastern Asia since it was first observed passing from birds to humans in 1997, has the nation's foremost alarmists extremely agitated.

"Right now, the bird flu is just a blip in the newspapers, but if the avian influenza virus undergoes antigenic shift with a human influenza virus, the resulting subtype could be highly contagious and highly lethal in humans," Matthew Wexler, the president of the National Alarmist Council and one of the nation's leading fear mongers, said Monday. "My professional opinion, and more importantly, my personal belief, is that this is a cause for great national alarm."
February 24th, International Herald Tribune:
World bird-flu risk is 'gravest possible'

HONG KONG The risk that Asia's outbreak of avian influenza could turn into a deadly global pandemic has increased sharply in recent months, a top international health official warned on Wednesday.

"The world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic," said the official, Dr. Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific director of the World Health Organization. "We need to consider urgent and decisive action in radical new ways."

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Believe it or not

Pakistan's Daily Times reports a shocker:

LAHORE: The Punjab government’s decision to make helmets compulsory for motorcyclists from March 1 has increased the sale of helmets, revealed a Daily Times survey on Tuesday.
Primary-source investigative journalism: what the traditional news media do best.

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The sexism Harvard likes

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers has been in hot water for a while, after he had the temerity to suggest that innate biological differences between men and women might possibly be one among several factors explaining the underrepresentation of women in science.

Never mind that Harvard's own Graduate School of Education hosts on its own servers detailed discussions of scientific studies that actually did find differences in how men's and women's brains process information:

Gender-Based Differences
Of particular interest were differences in brain activation patterns in men compared to women. Figure 3 illustrates that activation during phonological processing in men was more lateralized to the left inferior frontal gyrus, known as Broca’s area; in contrast, activation during this same task in women resulted in a more bilateral pattern of activation of this region.

These findings provide the first clear evidence of gender-based differences in the functional organization of the brain for language. They support and extend a long-held hypothesis that language functions are more likely to be highly lateralized in males but are represented in both cerebral hemispheres in females.

...Shaywitz, B., Shaywitz, S., et al. (1995). “Sex differences in the functional organization of the brain for language.” Nature, 373, 607-609.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that that study, and numerous others showing some degree of gender-based difference in brain functions, are completely irrelevant to the ability to perform top-notch scientific research. In other words, let's assume that when it comes to academics, men and women are completely equal.

If such a scenario were the case, as President Summers' enemies vociferously demand it is, then surely any professor promoting false and pernicious notions of gender inequality would have no place at Harvard.

But in fact, at least one such professor did exist very recently at Harvard. And before she moved on to NYU in 2002, she managed to set up an entire, thriving research center to propagate her sexist ideology.

The professor in question is Carol Gilligan, known as the founder of "difference feminism":
Many feminists insisted that there are no differences between males and females. Gilligan asserted that women have differing moral and psychological tendencies than men. According to Gilligan, men think in terms of rules and justice and women are more inclined to think in terms of caring and relationships.
If President Summers had said that men think in terms of rules and women think in terms of caring, he would have been run out of town on a rail, if not actually tarred and feathered. But Prof. Gilligan's reception was somewhat warmer. She became Harvard's first professor of Gender Studies in 1997.

Soon after, in 2001, Harvard dedicated a brand-new Gender Studies Center (financed by a $12.5 million gift from Jane Fonda) to the further study and embellishment of her sexist theories. For example, in her 1982 book In a Different Voice, Gilligan argued that young girls suffer a crushing lack of self-esteem in schools centered around a male-dominated oppressor culture, which must be undermined by striving to, as the Wall Street Journal sardonically put it, "rescue boys from their masculinity."

In an interview with, former philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys, points out that Gilligan's scholarship is irredeemably flawed:
Carol Gilligan's research should not be promoted by Harvard University any more than it already has been. She has failed to produce the data on which her celebrated research for "In a Different Voice" was based. She says it's too sensitive to share with others. That is simply unacceptable in empirical research. You have to show others your original data, and she hasn't done this for the three studies on which she based her claims.

She claims that girls suffer a precipitous loss of self-esteem in adolescence, but no one has been able to corroborate this. She's very good at using anecdotes, but that's the problem -- one of the greatest indicators of pseudoscience is a reliance on anecdotes rather than data. When researchers like Susan Harter at the University of Denver tried to test Gilligan's hypotheses, she was unable to find this dramatic loss of voice and self-confidence and self-esteem in girls.

... It does ring true to some parents. The problem is that when you make generalizations about people, some of them seem to apply. That's how astrology works.
Sommers also exposed Gilligan's toxic legacy:
This is the era of the disappearing male on the college campus. Now, overall, colleges are 56 to 57 percent female. There are many schools that are already 60 to 62 percent female -- University of Georgia, Boston University, American University.

So college admissions officers are grappling with the problem of how to attract young men. At Oberlin, for example, one of the college admissions officers suggested ways to make its Web site a little more male-friendly. His colleagues said, "Men are part of the oppressor culture. Why should we do that?" That mentality, I think, is very harsh. I believe that Carol Gilligan created this by drawing attention to this faux girl crisis.
To recap: Larry Summers makes a casual suggestion that gender differences might play a role in explaining disparities between men and women, and is roundly criticized. Carol Gilligan bases an entire career on a corrosive, sexist worldview backed up by fraudulent research, and she is rewarded with a professorship and a research center.

At Harvard, it would seem, gender-based distinctions are good for the goose, but not for the gander.

Scrappleface expresses the same idea, only he uses a lot fewer words. And makes it gut-bustingly funny to boot.

Running for the Right points out a recent CNN report on gender-based differences in brain structure and activity:
Scientists say males have more activity in mechanical centers of the brain, whereas females show more activity in verbal and emotional centers.

...To find out why these differences exist, scientists have taken voyages deep inside the gray matter using MRI scans.

The scans show that in most women, the corpus callosum area, which handles communication between the brain's two "hemispheres", is larger.

In layman's terms, it means that the two sides of the female brain "talk" better to each other -- which could explain why studies show women tend to multi-task better.

On the other hand, the scans show men tend to move information more easily within each hemisphere.
None of the above proves that men or women have an innate advantage in certain academic subjects, or whether such an advantage, if one exists, outweighs other factors like upbringing, personal preference, social pressures, or sexism. But at the very least, it demonstrates that the question is a legitimate topic for further research and debate.

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British government to "mainstream" biking (MCN) reports that Britain has unveiled its first-ever Government National Motorcycling Strategy:

Tony Blair's Government has finally come up with a National Motorcycling Strategy — eight years after he first told MCN it was on its way.

Better late then never — because the great news is that this is a strategy designed to fully recognise motorcycling as a genuinely mainstream mode of transport — and shows evidence of a new and positive approach to bikes.

Transport Minister David Jamieson announced the strategy today, Tuesday February 22, recognising an increase in the number of two-wheeled vehicles, resulting from the desire to beat traffic jams — and to have fun.
I posted earlier about how "congestion charges" on driving a car into central London has lead to an increase in the number of bikers — and, because bikers are more cautious on the roads, a fall in the number of accidents.

At a time when the European Union is threatening to create unnecessary new rules making it more difficult for would-be motorcyclists to get licensed, it's good to see Britain taking a stand for common sense.

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Knives don't stab people, people stab people

Japan, which has effectively outlawed all private ownership of guns for self-defense, has suffered from a spate of murders lately -- and the weapon of choice in each case was a knife.

Now, one Japanese city is responding by taking the next logical step along the gun control path: knife control.

Via Japan Today, Kyodo News reports:

KOBE — The city of Kawanishi in Hyogo Prefecture announced Monday it will propose a bill to the municipal assembly to require registration of knife buyers in the city, following a series of incidents in which knives were used as weapons including the recent killing of a teacher at a school in neighboring Osaka Prefecture.

A prepared form requiring the name and address of the buyer of a knife with a blade of at least 15 centimeters, as well as the purpose of the purchase, would have to be submitted to the shop under the bill the city plans to put into effect in June.
The proposed bill is ridiculous on its face for several reasons:

First, any positive impact it might have is completely undermined by the arbitrary cut-off (no pun intended) at 15cm. What about blades measuring 14.5cm? We're on a slippery slope here, limiting law-abiding citizens' access to perfectly good knives and gaining nothing in return.

Second, the law is unenforceable, unless the Kawanishi cops are going to perform random door-to-door surprise inspections, checking for unregistered knives, and stop residents at the city limits, searching their bags to make sure they're not smuggling in black-market knives from out of town.

Third, even if all knives are in fact registered, that won't prevent a registrant from using one in a crime later on. Someone crazy enough to burst into a school in broad daylight and stab the teacher is not going to think twice because his name is on the registration form.

The good thing is that the proposed bill is so silly that it makes the arguments against gun control all the more clear. One hopes that before this folly progresses much further, the bill's proponents will come to their senses and realize that when knives are outlawed, only outlaws will have knives.

Gindy points out a post by The Astute Blogger, noting that knife crime is rampant in Britain, where draconian gun control laws are in effect. As other bloggers have noticed, it's leading to the same sort of foolishness over there.

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Shotgun Golf in Japan

I wasn't planning to post anything on the suicide of "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

I never read much of his stuff, and what I did read never made me want to read more. Certainly his comments on America's reaction to 9-11 struck me as offensive and off-base.

Legend has it he also once gave a speech at Harvard Law School while completely drunk. That's a neat stunt to pull at one of the world's more uptight law schools (and that's saying a lot), but it didn't strike me as the sign of a great talent. He seemed like a drug-addled Sixties relic, with correspondingly negligible relevance today.

Well, maybe so. But he could be quite amusing.

Michelle Malkin points out Hunter's last published piece of writing, just this past Wednesday, on

The title? "Shotgun golf with Bill Murray." In which he calls up the greatest comic actor of our time, the man behind the legendary Carl Spackler, at 3:30 in the morning. And asks if he'd like to fire shotguns at golf balls in Japan:

HST: "Are you ready for a powerful idea? I want to ask you about golf in Japan. I understand they're building vertical driving ranges on top of each other."

BILL (sounding strangely alert): "Yes, they have them outdoors, under roofs ..."

HST: "I've seen pictures. I thought they looked like bowling alleys stacked on top of each other."

BILL: (Laughs.)

HST: "I'm working on a profoundly goofy story here. It's wonderful. I've invented a new sport. It's called Shotgun Golf. We will rule the world with this thing."

BILL: "Mmhmm."

HST: "I've called you for some consulting advice on how to launch it. We've actually already launched it. Last spring, the Sheriff and I played a game outside in the yard here. He had my Ping Beryllium 9-iron, and I had his shotgun, and about 100 yards away, we had a linoleum green and a flag set up. He was pitching toward the green. And I was standing about 10 feet away from him, with the alley-sweeper. And my objective was to blow his ball off course, like a clay pigeon."

BILL: (Laughs.)

HST: "It didn't work at first. The birdshot I was using was too small. But double-aught buck finally worked for sure. And it was fun."

BILL: (Chuckles.)

HST: "OK, I didn't want to wake you up, but I knew you'd want to be in on the ground floor of this thing."

BILL: (Silence.)

HST: "Do you want to discuss this tomorrow?"

BILL: "Sure."

HST: "Excellent."
Hunter S. Thompson, rest in peace.

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And now for something completely different

I've been adding lots of new sites to the sidebars here, so if you're only reading the same few blogs every day, why not experiment a little?

There are links to bloggers focused on Japan ("Kamen Riders") and overseas ("Easy Riders").

There are liberal bloggers ("Rival Racers") and conservatives ("Club Leaders", "Prospects").

I've added Jewish bloggers ("Riding Chai") who won Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards, and Muslim bloggers ("Mecca-nics" -- get it? mechanics!) who won Brass Crescent blog awards.

It should go without saying that I don't agree with all of them. No one could. But they all make a good faith effort to write stuff that's engaging, honest, and challenging. (Either that, or they linked to me and I'm returning the favor. Or both.)

One blogger I've discovered recently (his site has been around for years, but he's new to me) is Gen Kanai, who appears to be some kind of crazy-smart Japanese-English bilingual computer scientist and mechanical engineer here in Tokyo. Plus he's also a biker who's ridden across the U.S. and written an interesting analysis of alternative front suspension systems for motorcycles. Cool.

So, break out of your blogosphere rut and try reading something new, even if -- especially if -- it goes against your grain. It's a refreshing change, and an even better long-term habit. The purpose isn't to change your mind, but to challenge it. Enjoy.

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Revenge of the (Japanese) Nerds

Newsweek reports on the sudden popularity of otaku -- essentially the Japanese equivalent of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy:

The hip lit magazine, Da Vinci, features a big article in its February issue entitled "Love of Otaku," with comments by former otaku and the women who date them. "Once the most unlikely love interest, otaku are now the center of attention," it declares. Even businessmen are bullish on otaku, it seems, according to a survey by Tokyo's Nomura Research Institute. Japan's 2.8 million otaku spend $2.7 billion a year on DVDs, comics and fantasy figures modeled after anime characters. Their Internet literacy and networking habits make them hugely influential, beyond mere purchasing power. "Their passion and creativity will be a driving force for industrial innovation," reports Nomura.
Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse notes that otaku culture is catching on in America, too:
ARLINGTON, Virginia (AFP) - Judging from the colorful crowds at the "anime-con" event here, the Japanese pop cultural invasion of the United States is in full swing.

...Many Americans are attracted to Japanese pop culture "because we look at Japan as a place where it's OK to like comic books and cartoons past the socially approved expiration date," said Macias, who is also the author of "Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo-Tokyo."
Speaking as a kid who got Mattel's giant "Mazinga" robot with launching missiles (based on the Japanese anime Mazinger Z) for my fifth birthday, I can confidently state that I was way ahead of my time on this one.

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First-ever obscenity ruling against manga

(NOTE: This story is apparently a year old, but recently appeared as new on another website. See the follow-up to this post below.)

What is the world coming to?

Japanese manga, or comic books, have long been infamous for their gleefully gratuitous depictions of sexual perversion beyond what the average person, or even the average porn star, could imagine.

Yes, yes, there is a staggeringly vast variety of manga available, and not all of them include sexual content.

But the ones that do, well, they're really something else. All bets are off. Rape, bondage, and S&M are manga mainstays. One popular recurring story in a widely-read manga features a gang of cuddly, yet horny, cats that regularly molest the nubile young women in a ladies' dormitory. Another stars a sexy dominatrix who struggles to reconcile her passion for tying up and whipping her customers with her day-to-day life as a secretary. (You wouldn't believe the amount of research I had to do for this post, I tell ya.)

Notably, such manga are not sold wrapped in plastic in the red-light district to shady-looking guys with proper ID. They're sold out in the open, in convenience stores and subway newsstands, to suit-wearing businessmen and uniformed high-school students alike. For the true fan, entire series are collected in bound volumes and sold in bookstores. And they're read in the open, too. If you're on a Tokyo subway and your eyes wander, you might glimpse more than you bargained for.

Now, surprisingly, that particular quirk of Japanese pop culture may be headed for extinction. The permalink-deprived Manga News Service reports:

2-17-05 (9:28PM EST)---- First Obscenity Judgement Against Manga

In a landmark ruling in the Japanese court system, the first judgment stemming from obscenity charges has come down against a manga. The key figure in the case is Motonori Kishi (54) who first started his publishing company Shobunkan in 1968. He was arrested pending the release of his manga Honey Room, the charge being distributing obscene material. Tokyo's District Court found Kishi guilty on January 13, sentencing him to one year in prison and suspension for three years. The verdict has the adult rich comics industry in Japan in quite a nervous state. Ashita No Joe mangaka Tetsuya Chiba appeared in court as a defendant side witness. According to the testimony of a Tokyo Metropolitan Police inspector, the investigation was started based on a memo from LDP Diet member Katsuei Hirasawa. The defendant's side argued that charge violated the constitution that secures the freedom of expression. An appeal is currently underway and a hearing is scheduled for March 17th.
Here's a picture of the offending manga:

I'm not about to judge a comic book by its cover, but it hardly seems beyond the pale by Japanese standards. This may be the most inconsistent crackdown since Captain Renault closed Rick's Cafe. Prosecuting a manga publisher for obscenity is like busting a fish for swimming. There's got to be more to the story here, and I expect it will come out soon.

A little research on the Internets suggests that Manga News Service is just a bit out of date on this one. According to The Japan Times, the judgment in question actually came down over a year ago, in January 2004. The judgment followed Kishi's initial arrest in 2003 on suspicion of distributing obscene material.

Back then (via The Comics Journal), the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Honey Room (密室) may have gone too far even by Japanese standards:
More than 80 percent of the pages contained pornographic images, including depictions of gang rapes and the confinement of women for sexual purposes.
However, The Japan Times quoted Kishi as saying his company "is not the front-runner for such extreme publications."

But it was the Mainichi Shimbun that may have found the key to the puzzle of why Kishi was singled out by the authorities. It reported:
Tuesday's ruling was a landmark decision as it was the first time Japan's courts had to deal with the limits of sexual expression in manga, the comic form the country has given the world.

"Bodies were drawn in a lifelike manner with little attention to concealment (of genitalia), making for sexually explicit expression and deeming the book pornographic matter," Nakatani said as he convicted Kishi.
So that explains why Kishi got busted: He didn't take the time to conceal his characters' naughty bits.

Left out of my above discussion of porno manga was the fact that while the storylines and drawings are ridiculously explicit, the one ground rule is that genitalia are not shown. A penis will be drawn as a banana or an airplane, for example. Alternatively, the space it would occupy is simply left blank, and a eager young lady is shown tenderly ministering to thin air. Women's nether regions, if not drawn as suggestively budding roses, are similarly obscured by plain blank space.

While I have not (and do not plan to) obtain and inspect a copy of Honey Room to verify the nature of Kishi's infringement, it would appear he simply didn't play by Japan's arbitrary but well-known rules on porn.

So, rest easy manga fans. The world is still safe for horny cats and leather-clad secretaries.

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Kofi Annan, hypocrite

CBC News reports:

GENEVA - The top UN refugee official has resigned under pressure from Secretary General Kofi Annan, amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, stepped down Sunday as high commissioner for refugees. He maintained his innocence against accusations that he had sexually harassed a woman who worked at the agency.

..."To be frank, and despite all my loyalty, insult has now been added to injury and therefore I resign as high commissioner," Lubbers said.
The first thing we must note in this case is that "Ruud Lubbers" is an extremely unfortunate name for a man accused of sexual harrassment.

The second thing is that if Mr. Lubbers were truly innocent, one would expect him to fight the allegations made against him. Pre-emptively resigning to spare oneself further inquiry is the mark of a guilty person.

And the third thing is the hypocritical reaction of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan:
In a statement, Annan said he "is convinced that it is in the best interest of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, its staff and the refugees it serves that the page be turned and a new chapter be started.

"While the secretary general had accepted legal advice that the original allegations made against Mr. Lubbers [last year] could not be substantiated, the continuing controversy has made the high commissioner's position impossible," he continued.
So, Kofi is fine with dismissing a man who he himself believes did nothing wrong, in response to allegations of comparatively minor wrongdoing.

But when Annan himself is implicated in a far worse scandal like Oil-for-Food (or even, if we take a buck-stops-here view, the Congo child rape rings), he hangs on and fights for his own cushy job.


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Trying too hard

Even though I deplore negative portrayals of American troops in the news media, this just doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

American Pride Films Group (motto: "Portraying America positively... one movie at a time!") is a new movie studio that "takes pride in showcasing America's goodness via the medium of movies."

On its website, APFG explains its mission:

With the Production and Distribution of our films, APFG will accomplish:

Our First Goal

To send a message to our global audience that, America is a kind, generous land and that most Americans are good, decent, everyday folks.

Our Second Goal

To send a message to our American audience that, the American dream and way of life is still alive.

We have enemies, not because we are the worst, but perhaps, because we are the best!

Along the way, establish our company’s reputation for quality movies that are entertaining, wholesome and "truly" pro-American.
Movies, on one level or another, are art. Even in the realm of summer action blockbusters, there are inspired examples of the genre, and unspeakable disasters that feel like they came straight off the corporate assembly line.

A company with a mission to make a certain kind of film is almost certain to crush the independent spirit that makes truly great films possible. It's kind of like trying to be cool — if you make a conscious effort, the results feel forced and phony. The whole process has to flow naturally from a spark of inspiration, not a corporate mission statement.

America's film and television industry, despite the liberal leanings of much of Hollywood, makes an incredible contribution to the promotion American culture. Small TV's picking up satellite broadcasts of Baywatch reruns in Afghanistan, or pirated DVD's of School of Rock or The Incredibles on the streets of Bangkok, promote the American dream more effectively than any ham-handed attempt at "showcasing America's goodness" ever could.

Indeed, it's precisely because our movies are so clearly not propaganda, and not toeing any party line, that they are so popular and enticing. Even our war movies are more gripping when they are more honest: Movies like Three Kings or We Were Soldiers portray American troops as real people, not idealized heroes, making real -- and sometimes wrong -- decisions. Even Saving Private Ryan, often perceived as a love letter to America's WWII veterans, did not shy away from showing a U.S. infantryman shooting a German soldier trying to surrender.

Would American Pride Films Group have had the courage to leave that scene in? I doubt it. Certainly the clumsy writing on its website gives one little confidence that it will bring an artist's sensibility to its productions. Film is one area where a Kerry-esque flair for nuance is actually appropriate.

People can tell when they're being lied or condescended to. By dedicating itself to a two-dimensional, sanitized presentation of America, American Pride Films Group runs the risk of alienating the overseas audiences it wants to influence.

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More Japanese support the death penalty

U.S. liberals often hold up Japan as an example of a land where guns are outlawed and crime is low.

They're less likely to point out that Japan has the death penalty -- and over 80% of Japanese support it.

The Japan Times reports:

More than 81 percent of Japanese expressed support for the death penalty in a recent government survey, exceeding the 80 percent mark for the first time.

The rise appears to reflect deepening public alarm over a recent spate of serious crimes, including the kidnapping and murder of a girl in Nara.

The increase to 81.4 percent of respondents saying they support the death penalty was 2.1 percentage points higher than in the previous survey in November 1999, when the support figure was 79.3 percent.

Only 6.0 percent said the death penalty should be abolished, down 2.8 points from the 1999 poll.
Of course, no death penalty story would complete without a word from Amnesty International, which I thought was supposed to be concerned with political prisoners and human rights abuses, not people who have been convicted of heinous crimes after receiving due process:
The Justice Ministry says the death penalty has a certain degree of power to deter crime, but human rights watchdog Amnesty International Japan said the latest figure reflects a situation in which people have been spurred into anxiety over what they perceive as deteriorating security.

The group said there is no proof that the death penalty prevents crime.
Actually, there is. No executed criminal has ever committed another offense.

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Incredible collection

Coke and Pepsi commonly run promotions here in Japan where they'll attach some trinket in a plastic pouch to the neck of your soda bottle. It's kind of like the surprise inside a Cracker Jack box.

Normally, I just ignore them. But when I saw Pepsi's latest one — 24 figurines from The Incredibles, available only in Japan — I knew I had to go for it. I had to get them all.

This was harder than you might think, for two reasons.

First, the pouches are opaque, so you can't tell which figurine is attatched to the soda you're buying. Often, you'll end up with a duplicate of one you already have, while the ones you need remain tantalizingly hidden somewhere among the other bottles in the rack. I must have bought at least 70 bottles of soda to get all 24 figurines

Second, half of the figurines were attached only to bottles of regular Pepsi, and half to Diet Pepsi. Since I only drink Diet Pepsi, I had to buy numerous bottles of regular Pepsi that I knew I'd never drink.

Yet at last, I tore open a foil pouch last week and inside was the elusive "#3 Violet (Super Suit)". My collection was complete.

I am now officially a geek. How much do you think the whole set would go for on eBay?

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The usual suspect

Tuesday's horriffic assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, accomplished with some 650 pounds of dynamite, is almost universally believed, even by Lebanese themselves, to have been orchestrated by Syria.

Now, political assassinations are not exactly a rare event in Lebanon. But when he witnessed (so he claims) the event firsthand, British journalist Robert Fisk instinctively sensed who was to blame — Israel:

I saw the blast wave coming down the Corniche. My home is only a few hundred metres from the detonation and my first instinct was to look up, to search for the high-altitude Israeli planes that regularly break the sound barrier over Beirut.
The blame-everything-on-Israel mental disorder is hardly limited to blinkered Western reporters. The following editorial cartoon is currently diplayed on Al-Jazeerah's website;

Depicting a sinister Star-of-David-wearing spy fleeing the scene after felling a Lebanese cedar, it succinctly expresses the belief that when something this bad happens, Israel must have been behind it.

Yet the history of the Middle East suggests that Arabs kill each other just fine without any Israeli help. Beyond the withering Iran-Iraq war, there is Jordan's crushing defeat of Palestinian forces in the 1970-1971 "Black September" conflict, and Syria's 1982 destruction of its own city of Hama, to elimiate Sunni Muslim rebels there. Wikipedia describes the carnage:
The assault began on February 2 with extensive shelling of the town of 350,000 inhabitants. Syrian special forces entered and began to slaughter its inhabitants, with many others fleeing. According to Amnesty International, the Syrian military pumped poison gas into buildings where insurgents were said to be hiding.
About 20,000 Syrians died, shot, gassed, or crushed under the rubble.

Hariri's tragic death isn't even the first time Syria has rubbed out a Lebanese leader: it also coordinated the 1982 assassination of President-Elect Bachir Gemayel. Again, from Wikipedia:
Nine days before he was due to take office, Gemayel was killed along with twenty-five others in an explosion at the Kataeb headquarters in Achrafieh on September 14, 1982. Habib Tanious Shartouni, a member of the pro-Damascus National Syrian Socialist Party and an alleged agent for Syrian intelligence, confessed to the crime, but has not been apprehended.
The real cause of unreast in the Middle East isn't a fence here or a settlement there. It's an irrational, visceral hatred of Israel, encouraged by Arab rulers desperately seeking a scapegoat for what even a U.N. report acknowledges are the shortcomings engendered by their own despotic regimes.

Mideast peace may come after Arabs stop blaming Israel for all their troubles. It will not come before.

FOLLOW-UP: Chrenkoff finds a particularly egregious example of blame-everything-on-Israel dementia.

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The Daily Show understands blogging

The traditional media are starting to observe that Comedy Central's The Daily Show is becoming an increasingly popular source for actual news coverage.

And in response, they're turning to The Daily Show for inspiration.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich points out that MSNBC has started to use Daily Show-style video editing techniques:

On "Countdown," a nightly news hour on MSNBC, the anchor, Keith Olbermann, led off with a bit in the classic style of Stewart's classic "Daily Show": a rapid-fire montage of sharply edited video bites illustrating the apparent idiocy of those in Washington.
But The Daily Show is not just leading the way on matters of style. It actually has a solid grasp on the transformation of the news media, while many old-guard outlets remain in denial.

In response to the blogosphere's digging into former CNN news chief Eason Jordan's remarks at Davos, which eventually culminated in Jordan's resignation, some traditional pundits were indignant.

On February 10, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Bret Stephens airily dismissed the bloggers' efforts:
There's a reason the hounds are baying. Already they have feasted on the juicy entrails of Dan Rather. Mr. Jordan, whose previous offenses (other than the general tenor of CNN coverage) include a New York Times op-ed explaining why access is a more important news value than truth, was bound to be their next target. And if Mr. Jordan has now made a defamatory and unsubstantiated allegation against U.S. forces, well then . . . open the gates.
Others were less reserved. Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review's website, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail." And Bertrand Pecquerie, the director of the World Editors Forum, the editors’ organization within the World Association of Newspapers, wrote (on his blog, ironically), "Within the honest community of bloggers, some of them claimed to be the 'sons of the First Amendment', they were just the sons of Senator McCarthy."

In contrast to these splenetic outbursts by members of the mainstream media, The Daily Show's response was a model of rationality. When it comes to blogs, they "get it" -- probably because, like blogs, the Daily Show reflects and responds to ordinary people's exasperation with traditional news coverage.

In this video clip, which may be the funniest thing you watch all day, Daily Show "Senior Media Correspondent" Steven Colbert pre-emptively scoops the blogosphere by revealing his real name.

Steven -- um, I mean, Ted -- points out that bloggers "have no credibility. All they have is facts."

He continues:
They're reporting on the reporters. The first rule of journalism is: Don't talk about journalism. Or maybe that's Fight Club. But my point is, these guys have got to learn, you don't report on reporters. Nobody likes a snitch.
As one prominent blogger himself might remark, "Indeed."

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Firefox rox

When the Firefox browser emerged from beta and hit the news last year as a challenger to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, I didn't rush to switch. IE worked fine, I thought.

Well, during Blogger's latest burst of sluggish operation, I couldn't post, so I figured I might as well download Firefox and give it a shot.

In a word: Amazing.

I haven't fully explored all its capabilities (although the tabbed browsing is cool), but right away, I am seeing sites load faster. Even Blogger's working better.

I'm not sure if that was supposed to be an advantage of Firefox, and I would have thought load times depended on your Internet connection speed, not your browser. But there you go. It's undeniable.

Some people are claiming Firefox causes image files to load 30% more slowly than IE, but for me, it seems like they load much more quickly. (And yes, I've done a full scan with Norton Antivirus and SpySweeper, so I don't think viruses or spyware is the problem.)

If you haven't already, do yourself a favor and download Firefox now.

I've been using Firefox for a few days now and it seems pretty clear that images do in fact take a bit longer to load. However, the delay is only noticeable, I think, because the rest of the page loads so fast. Blogger in particular works a lot better.

The drawbacks to Firefox deal with sites that have been optimized for IE. For example, you can't type an HTML email in Yahoo! Mail with Firefox. And certain aspects of Blogger are a little quirky. Like, instead of the b and i buttons inserting "strong" or "em" tags around the selected text, they insert "span style" tags that do the same thing, but with clunky code. And you can't use the find-in-page function of Firefox to search all the text in a scrolling text window, like for a Blogger template. Apparently it will only search the text visible on the screen at that time.

I am not going to penalize Firefox for problems that arise from other companies tailoring their sites to work well with IE. It seems clear to me that Firefox is the more stable, efficient browser, and I would expect more and more webmasters to adjust their sites accordingly over time.

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Iraqis losing patience with insurgents

The media myth that ordinary Iraqis support the insurgents is rapidly becoming impossible to maintain.

After last month's historic elections, ordinary residents of the village of al-Mudhariya fought back against a gang of insurgents who tried to punish them for voting. The villagers killed five insurgents, wounded another eight, and burned their car. Their righteous fury caused Baghdad-based Australian Broadcasting Company correspondent Mark Willacy to observe, dryly, that "It would appear that people are getting sick of the insurgency."

Elsewhere, voters killed by the insurgents were mourned as martyrs, while the remains of suicide bombers were spat upon.

And this past Wednesday, Reuters reports, a crowd of Iraqis noticed a man "mingling amongst them who appeared to be wearing a vest strapped with explosives, like those used in suicide bombings" -- and promptly beat him to death.

You don't have to support such instances of mob justice to nevertheless be heartened that Iraqis have no illusions as to who their enemies truly are.

(Via The Dread Pundit Bluto)

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FCCJ hosts comedy show mocking Bush

On Wednesday night, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan decided to put the serious policy and current events discussions on hold and kick back with a little lighthearted entertainment:

The Entertainment Committee is proud to announce a departure from our usual fare. On February 16 we will host a night of comedy the likes of which you have never seen and will not want to miss.

Ms. Sumiko Tamuro, who last year brought us the well-received performance of Samuel Beckett's "Play," is now back with a three-act comedy show that is sure to send you howling. A combination of standup comedy, music and film, and a one-act play, you will be treated to political satire related mainly to Iraq.

You will not want to miss this very timely performance.
And what is Ms. Tamuro's take on the Iraq situation? Her theatre group, Sin Titulo, provides a helpful explanation of her show, "Axis of Comedy":
“Axis of Comedy" satirically alludes to President Bush's all-too-famous "Axis of Evil."

We had once hoped for world peace after the end of the cold war, but current events inform us otherwise. America's demeanor reminds us of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes." Japan, of course, is tailing behind the emperor like a page holding his imaginary mantle.

Events in real life are at times cruel, foolish, and absurd, more tragic and comedic than theatre itself. Sin Titulo's comedy show allows its audience to laugh away some — if only for an evening — of our world's absurdity.
This is the sort of fare that our unbiased professional journalistic community finds amusing.

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EU rules could slam brakes on bikers

According to the British Motorcycle Federation, European motorcycle-related businesses rack up €10 billion in annual sales and employ more than 200,000 people, meeting the needs of over 30 million riders.

To EU bureaucrats, an industry with numbers like that calls out for one thing: pointless, burdensome regulations. And the European Parliament's Transport Committee is hard at work thinking some up, for inclusion in the upcoming EU Third Driving Licence Directive.

One of its proposed rules would raise the minimum age for "Direct Access" -- letting beginners earn big-bike licenses without working their way up in engine size -- from 21 to 24. That might sound reasonable at first, but according to the BMF, "all the problems with Direct Access licencing involve riders far older than 24."

The Transport Committee is considering several other similarly ineffective proposals. One would require riders to pass a road test to qualify for a big-bike license instead of automatically moving up after two years on a small bike. Another would create a new class of "mid-size" bikes -- and, correspondingly, a new class of license to earn.

Such restrictions would burden riders, but a recent study, funded in part by the EU itself, suggests they would have little to no impact on road safety. As the BMF notes:

[T]he findings of the recently completed €2.5 million "Motorcycle Accident In-Depth Study" (MAIDS) research project, funded by European taxpayers, the motorcycle industry, and other bodies including the BMF...have been largely ignored.

MAIDS research showed that the three key factors in rider safety are the behaviour of other road users; rider experience and the road environment, but European Parliament Transport Committee proposals relating to the draft EU 3rd Driving Licence Directive ignore these.
Instead of improving road safety, or educating car drivers to put the cell phone down and keep their eyes on the road, the EU proposals throw regulatory roadblocks in the way of people who want to ride.

Last May (this has been going on for a while), BMF government relations executive Trevor Magner said:
The proposals in the Third EC Driving Licence Directive have continued on this path in which more bureaucracy is to be introduced for questionable benefits.

They're difficult to justify except as "busy work" on the part of the European Commission; the government should reject the draft Directive and return it to the Commission for redrafting into a simple and understandable system that will truly improve road safety.
More recently, on February 10, Jacques Compagne, Secretary General of the Association des Constructeurs Européens de Motorcycles (ACEM), weighed in:
The Transport Committee argues that the changes proposed are for road safety reasons. However, the Motorcycle Community challenges this view and strongly feels that road safety will not be enhanced by the current proposals.

The real effect of these proposals will be to make motorcycling less accessible and have significant negative effects on individual mobility and urban congestion. These proposals will seriously damage the whole motorcycle sector, which provides more than 200,000 jobs, and will endanger the existence of well established motorcycle companies. We all support improved road safety, but these proposals tackle the issue in an entirely inappropriate way.
When even French guys are telling you your regulations are too burdensome, you know you've gone too far. At a time when Japan is belatedly relaxing its restrictions on bikers, it's disappointing, if not surprising, to see the EU moving in the opposite direction.

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Note to bike thieves: Avoid Burundi

There's been an increasing number of motorcycle thefts here in Japan, mainly of expensive Harley-Davidsons.

Bikes are simply scooped up off the street by professional theft rings for sale elsewhere in Asia. It's seen as a low-risk, high-reward crime.

Not in Burundi, though:

Suspected motorcycle thieves burned alive
Bujumbura, Burundi
15 February 2005

Two suspected motorcycle taxi thieves were burned alive and killed on Tuesday in a busy section of the Burundian capital, witnesses said.

The two men, who had allegedly recently stolen a motorbike in Bujumbura, were chased down by dozens of enraged motorcycle taxi drivers.

The drivers then "necklaced" the men by placing gasoline-filled tires around their necks and setting them ablaze, the witnesses said.

"We have just finished off these two robbers as an example," one of the drivers who participated said. "These motorbike thieves must stop."
Don't worry, guy -- I have a feeling they will.

If you want a more peaceful means of dealing with bike thieves, LoJack has announced LoJack for Motorcycles, a new version of the company's global stolen vehicle recovery system.

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Whole lotta shakin' goin' on

A few people have asked whether I was affected by this morning's 5.4 magnitude earthquake, centered north of Tokyo.

The answer, thankfully, is no. The quake hit at about 4:40am. It shook our wood-frame house violently, but nothing broke or fell over, and the house doesn't appear to have sustained any damage.

Still, I've been in Japan over three years, and that was the worst quake I've experienced.

It's been over 80 years since the last major quake hit Tokyo, and since they tend to come along about once every 75 years, experts say we're due for another big one that could strike at any moment.

Oh well, if it does hit (and I survive), I'll be poised to do some first-hand disaster blogging.

But I hope it doesn't.

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Update on Ilario Pantano

If it hasn't been obvious all along, I'll admit it right here: I've got a huge bias with respect to this story.

I want Lt. Ilario Pantano, the Marine accused of murder in the shooting deaths of two Iraqis, to be innocent of the charges against him. I don't want to believe that a man who did so much right with his life, and for his country, could do something as callous and cruel as what he's been accused of.

But I said in the follow-up to my previous post on Pantano that I would consider new information as it becomes available, and now we've got some.

Pantano's lawyer, Charles Gittins, claims a U.S. Navy man who witnessed the shooting agrees that the two Iraqis disregarded Pantano's order, in Arabic, to stop moving.

However, the Navy witness claims the two men were moving away from Pantano, while Pantano claims they were moving toward him.

More details of the accuser's story have also come out, and they're pretty grim:

The accuser, described by Gittins as a "disgruntled" Marine Corps sergeant who served as a radio man, asserts Pantano relieved men who were guarding the Iraqis. The accuser said Pantano sent the guards away so they couldn't see what he was doing and uncuffed the Iraqis. Then, according to the claim, Pantano shot the Iraqis in the back, left their bodies lying out in the open and put a mocking sign on them in order to "send a message."

Gittins contends, however, that no one was relieved of guarding the Iraqis or told to turn away, and the Iraqis were shot all over their bodies – their backs, sides and fronts – with many rounds.

No sign was put on their bodies, he claimed, but Pantano put a sign on the SUV with the words, in English, of 1st Marine Division commander Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis: "No better friend. No worse enemy."

Mattis stirred controversy earlier this month for saying at a conference "it's fun to shoot" terrorists.
The new information is, to varying degrees, troubling. But the key point is, we now have three different versions of what happened:

•    Pantano says the Iraqis disobeyed his order to stop, and he shot them as they were moving toward him.

•    The Navy witness agrees the Iraqis disobeyed Pantano's order to stop, but claims he shot them as they were moving away from him.

•    And the accuser claims Pantano essentially executed the Iraqis, shooting them in the back in cold blood.

Notably, the accuser's story differs considerably from those of Pantano and the Navy witness. His claim of a cold-blooded execution followed by desecration of the corpses strikes me as fantastic.

Given that the Navy witness apparently corroborates Pantano's own account, save for the issue of whether the Iraqis were moving away or toward him, it seems that we're still left with a Marine who shot two men after they ignored his order to stop where they were.

It will be up to the Marines to decide whether that constitutes murder.

In another twist, the Washington Times reports there is some uncertainty as to whether Pantano is even being charged with murder at all:
Last week, the Corps initially announced that 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano faced unspecified charges in the shooting deaths. Lt. Pantano's civilian attorney, Charles Gittins, told reporters his client faced two murder charges.

But later, spokesman Maj. Matt Morgan, at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Lt. Pantano is based, said the officer had not been charged.

This came as a surprise to Mr. Gittins, who said he has a copy of the official charge sheet signed by a prosecuting judge advocate that was handed to his client Feb. 1. On the sheet, it clearly states the Marine Corps has charged the 33-year-old officer with two counts of murder.

The Corps stands by how it has handled public relations in the criminal case of Lt. Pantano.

"I think it is because they are embarrassed by the fact they have charged him with premeditated murder," Mr. Gittins said yesterday. "They are looking for a way out."
I hope Gittins is right.

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Kerry votes for against for Iraq spending

Senator John F. Kerry told reporters that he will vote for President Bush's new $81.9 billion funding request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Previously, Kerry voted for a failed version of a separate $87 billion request, but against the final version, inspiring his immortal gaffe, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

Clarifying his nuanced position, Kerry said his vote against the earlier bill had been "the right vote at the right time" on a war he previously described as "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" -- a war from which he, as President, would have withdrawn troops as soon as possible.

Now, however, times have changed:

"I think we're in a very different situation," Kerry told reporters. "I'm going to vote for this ... I think this money is important to our being successful and to the completion of the process."

...Kerry said the United States would have made better progress on Iraq, where an insurgency continues to rage almost two years after the March 2003 invasion, if he had been elected.
Better progress since January 20? That seems like a tall order, given that Iraq successfully held its first free elections in decades on January 30. And wasn't Kerry going to pull our troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, anyway?
He asserted the Bush administration was only now "trying some of the things" he proposed such as focusing on training Iraqi forces and getting other countries involved.

"I think my security proposals for the country were smack on, dead on," Kerry said.
Well, if you bet every number on the roulette wheel, one of them is bound to win.

Nice of him to straighten all that out.

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Marine deserves medal, gets murder charge

Marine Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano, 33 years old, first served his country in the 1991 Gulf War.

After the Manhattan native lost friends in the September 11 terrorist attacks, Pantano, by then a married father of two sons, quit his job as a highly-paid Goldman, Sachs stockbroker and re-joined the Marines. He completed officers' training school, received a commission, and became a platoon leader with the Second Marine Division, landing in Iraq last March and cheating death in the battle of Fallujah.

Unlike some of his fellow Marines, Lt. Pantano made it safely back home.

But now, the Marines are forcing him to cheat death again.

On February 1, the Marine Corps he loves charged him with double murder for shooting two Iraqi insurgents who put him in fear for his life during a dangerous security mission. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

On April 15, 2004, Lt. Pantano's men were ordered to search a suspected insurgent hideout. Inside the building, they found weapons, ammunition, and bomb-making materials. Then, a sport-utility vehicle pulled away from the site.

Pantano's Marines shot out the SUV's tires and took the two Iraqi men inside into custody. Since the insurgents often rigged vehicles with bombs, Pantano ordered the Iraqis to search it thoroughly for booby traps.

But in the midst of stripping the vehicle's interior, the Iraqis stopped, turned toward Pantano, and began walking toward him.

Pantano ordered them to stop, in Arabic, but they kept advancing. He shot them both dead.

A precise, disciplined Marine, Pantano made all the necessary reports to his superiors concerning the shooting. None of them had a problem with his actions. He served for three more months in Iraq, and returned home a hero.

So how did he end up charged with murder?

His lawyer, Marine reserve officer Charles Gittins, claims the Marine who first accused Pantano is a disgruntled sergeant who may be upset at Pantano for some perceived slight. But whatever petty motive lies behind the allegations, it's difficult to see why the Corps itself lent them any credibility.

Pantano's situation is tragic not just because his valiant service is being rewarded with a potential court-martial, but because it will lead all our troops, in Iraq and elsewhere, to second-guess themselves. And if the fear of ending up in Pantano's position causes them to hesitate an extra second before pulling the trigger, some of them will die.

Pantano's family has set up a site with information about his situation,, but at present, it appears to have exceeded its bandwith allocation. I expect they'll have it up again soon.

Meanwhile, World Net Daily commentator Joseph Farah offers a suggestion to the Marines on how to resolve Pantano's case:

Drop the charges now. Fire the overzealous persecutor. Apologize to Lt. Pantano and grant him a medal for his distinguished and courageous service to his country.
That would be a good start, followed up by disciplining the Sergeant who made the allegations of criminal conduct, as well as the officers who decided to act on them. And sending a clear message to our troops that their commanders won't second-guess decisions made in the heat of battle. (After all, if British homeowners can be trusted to know when to pull the trigger, surely our fighting men and women can as well.)

But rather than drop the case, Marine Corps prosecutors are, bizzarrely, adding additional charges that, the Washington Times says, Pantano's supporters describe as "piling on": destruction of property, for slashing the vehicle tires so they could not be repaired, and desecration, for posting a sign in English on the SUV with the Marine Corps slogan, "No better friend. No worse enemy".

It's not clear why the Marines are treating Pantano as an enemy. But it's time they stopped.

A number of people have pointed out to me that "we don't have all the facts" on Pantano's case yet.

That may be so. It's theoretically possible that a Gulf War veteran who voluntarily re-joined the military suddenly snapped, shot two men in cold blood, and then went about being an outstanding Marine for three more months before leaving Iraq.

But I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that's what happened. All we have is an allegation of murder, as yet unsubstantiated by any corroborating evidence, brought by a Marine who may have had a grudge against Pantano.

I'm planning to stay on top of this story, and if new facts emerge, I'll consider them in due course. But right now, the murder charge seems baseless, and the Marine Corps has not, to my knowledge, released or claimed to have any information that would make it less so.

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I like motorcycles, but this is ridiculous

From the Phillippines, a disturbing tale of motorcycle passion gone horribly awry:

Son stabs ma over bike use
by Flor Z. Perolina
February 14, 2005

An 18-year-old man stabbed his mother with forks after being denied the use of the family motorcycle last night in Barangay Basak, Lapu-Lapu City.

Elvira Paquibot, 45, a vendor at the Lapu-Lapu City public market, was brought to the Lapu-Lapu District Hospital after Chrismund Paquibot stabbed her with the forks several times.
I'm going to take another one of my trademark tough stands on a controversial issue, and here it is: No bike is worth stabbing your mother for.

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Not all atrocities are created equal

In a recent post, I suggested that the New York Times, in an article citing prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib as an example of people commiting evil acts, might have done at least as well to consider the U.N. rape scandal in the Congo. However, I never tried to explain why it hadn't.

Now, Arthur Chrenkoff answers the question of why U.N. officials raping hundreds of young Congolese girls and boys just doesn't seem to be stirring up the sort of white-hot outrage inspired by the Abu Ghraib photos:

A combination of four widely-held beliefs will conspire to keep the fate of Congo and many other places from generating sufficient levels of international outrage:

American misdeeds are the worst in the world;

There are worse misdeeds in the world, but that's to be expected of others, so who cares? now back to American misdeeds;

American misdeeds are the most offensive because America holds itself to a higher moral standard than others;

American misdeeds deserve the most attention because by publicizing them within the Western world, you actually have the greatest chance of effecting change. (This is a sort of backhand, and often unintended, compliment to the strength of the American political system.)
Chrenkoff's last two points, in particular, suggest that those who single out American scandals for criticism are guilty of the common fallacy that Steven Den Beste called "searching under the streetlight":
A cop finds a drunk man in a parking lot late at night, searching the ground under the only street light in that parking lot.

He asks what the guy is doing, and the drunk replies that he dropped his car keys and is looking for them.

Asked where he was when he dropped the keys, the drunk waves towards a car in the darkness.

Asked why he's searching under the street light, he says that if the keys are actually over in the darkness, he'd never find them anyway.
As Chrenkoff observes, it's easy to find fault with America, because it implicitly claims to be setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. And, because American political institutions are comparatively quick and efficient in responding to problems, criticizing America is likely to yield tangible results.

I'd add two more reasons: Since America is the most powerful nation on earth, even the most trifling allegations made against it draw lots of attention, giving protesters more bang for their buck. And weaker countries are only too eager to undermine America's moral authority by calling attention to its flaws.

For those reasons, even if the worst atrocities are happening somewhere else, critics prefer to search under the bright streetlight — or, more accurately, spotlight — shining on America.

And rapists prey on African children in the darkness.

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Palestinian terror: Under new management

Lebanese terror group Hizbullah is eager to keep up with the Jew killin'. And, as Israel National News reports, this time it's going to cost them -- literally:

The Lebanon-based Hizbullah terror organization has announced that it is raising the compensation it pays out to families of suicide attackers from $20,000 to $100,000.

...PA military officials told Associated Press reporters that Hizbullah, which has in the past funded hundreds of PA terrorists, has been intensifying its recruiting efforts, offering to pay great sums of money to armed men willing to attack Israeli targets.

One PA terrorist -- he told the AP that he is a "former" terrorist -- disclosed how a Hizbullah operative contacted him a day before the Sharm al-Sheikh summit and offered him a substantial sum of money in exchange for carrying out violent acts. According to this source, groups of 5-6 Hezbolla recruits are paid from $5,000 - $8,000 for weapons, ammunition, and ongoing terror activities. Payment includes free use of a cellular phone.
Sure, it sounds like a good deal, but they get you on the roaming charges.

Seriously, though, it's encouraging news that market forces have pushed up the going rate for suicide bombings, hitting Hizbullah where it hurts: the wallet. Apparently, with Arafat gone and a nominal cease-fire in place, fewer Palestinians are willing to blow themselves up. And when demand outstrips supply, prices rise.

But beyond this helpful Econ 101 refresher lies a troubling development: For Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinian terror groups, Hizbullah represents a loophole in the supposed Israeli-Palestinian truce.
...A PA military officer charged with supervising “radical” groups has pointed out that Hizbullah attempts to find out the bank account numbers of its operatives in the PA, as well as the names of terrorist perpetrators, by way of e-mail exchanges.

The officer claims that he has read some of these exchanges and that the “humanitarian” bureau within the PA “supervises” the bank transfer of money from the Hizbullah to terrorists within the PA.

The officer also claims that he has notified the PA leadership of the Hizbullah activity, but has not received any instructions to intervene to preclude such operations or arrest terrorists.
What we're seeing here is the terrorism equivalent of a company forming a new subsidiary to evade legal restrictions.

For example, Halliburton does business in Iran through the Cayman Islands-based Halliburton Products & Services Ltd. -- thus, it claims, dodging a U.S. trade embargo against Tehran. You don't have to be a Cheney-bashing conspiracy theorist to find that arrangement inappropriate.

Analogously, it looks like Palestinian terror attacks in Israel will still be carried out, but under new, Lebanese management. If Israel complains, Abbas will point out, conveniently, that he can't be expected to control a foreign group like Hizbullah. (In fact, he might even claim that Hizbullah is his enemy.)

And make no mistake, Hizbullah is out for blood:
...Hizbullah terrorist chieftain Hassan Nasrallah declared last week that violent opposition to Israel will continue and will not stop under any circumstances. He was quoted by Al-manar television on February 9th as saying, “This is the year of unrelenting opposition, preserving the opposition and standing firm in opposition, which is our choice, our way and faith, and a pan-Arab, Islamic national struggle.”
A businesses using legal technicalities to evade regulations is frustrating. A terrorist group doing it is lethal. And if the Lebanese loophole isn't sewn shut, terror attacks against Israelis will continue.

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