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Pirates attack Sky Captain

The beautiful and intrepid Dusky, Riding Sun's research assistant and field reporter, brought back a pirated DVD of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" from her trip to Beijing.

From the cover:



        — Roger Bortm, Edition
Also, according to the back cover, this version of "Sky Captain" stars Meg Ryan and Omar Epps. Must be the director's cut.

On BoingBoing, reader Charles Lin says that most bootleg DVD typos are due to faulty OCR (optical character recognition) software used when scanning the original packages.

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Japan's fiscal conservatism

Japan has long been known for a grotesque excess of pork-barrel spending. Example: its $4.5 billion splurge on new stadiums for 2002's soccer World Cup, which David Plotz described on Slate:

Japan, which builds superhighways for teeny villages, billion-yen bridges to empty islands, and flood-control dams for streams that couldn't soak your basement, today introduces its latest public works boondoggle: 10 World Cup stadiums — shapely, modern, spectacular white elephants.

...The stadium I visited this spring in Sapporo is a ludicrous marvel. It is a domed stadium with artificial turf, but a grass soccer field sits just outside the east wall. On soccer game days, the wall slides open, a bank of seats retracts, and the turf field — floating on an air cushion — is rolled indoors. Then the wall closes, the turf field is rotated 90 degrees, and — voilà — an indoor, grass soccer stadium. This insanity cost $400 million, plus $15,000 every time they move the field.
Such excesses have typically been justified as necessary to "jump-start" the languishing economy. But one Japanese city — Nagoya — has found that smaller government works. In the Washington Post, Anthony Faiola reports:
In the past eight years, the city has trimmed 13 percent of its workforce, or 3,648 jobs, deemed part of a bloated government bureaucracy.

In the country that turned pork-barrel politics into an art form, the new international airport in Nagoya has been hailed in national newspaper editorials as a rare example of good civic management. Inaugurated in February, the project came in about $1.2 billion under budget and changed the very concept of what an airport can be.
The result has been a localized economic boom in the midst of nationwide malaise:
In a nation still struggling to find its footing after a 13-year economic slump, Nagoya is riding high as Japan's city of the moment. With an economic growth rate of 2.8 percent, greater Nagoya — home to 7.2 million people and some of Japan's most successful companies, most notably Toyota Motor Corp. — is sizzling along at more than double the national average. The region boasts an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, markedly lower than the national rate of 4.7 percent, according to government statistics.
So, they cut redundant jobs and unnecessary spending, and got higher economic growth and lower unemployment? Hmm. I just know there's a lesson in here somewhere...

Japundit observes that the national government isn't learning from Nagoya's example.

And, in an earlier version of this post, I mistakenly identified Yasuo Tanaka as the mayor of Nagoya. Tanaka-san is indeed famous for cutting government spending, but in fact he is governor of Nagano prefecture. The reference has been removed.

I've always had a problem with Japan's "N-G" place names — once I bought an expensive Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Nagoya, instead of Niigata.

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Rodent trip

It's a problem that's bedevilled bike enthusiasts for ages — how to share the thrill of motorcycling with your pet hamster?

Finally, a solution is at hand. Via the potentially-misleadingly-named Rubber Magazine, Pets International introduces the "Critter-Operated Chopper":

It's actually very similar to the 50cc scooters so common around Tokyo, except those have the hamster wheel in the engine.

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Thanks, Albania

In the 1997 movie "Wag the Dog", Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro play Stanley Motss and Conrad Brean, a Hollywood producer and a Presidential adviser. They team up to distract the media from the President's latest sex scandal by claiming that America is threatened with imminent attack.

Picking an enemy for their ficticious war, Brean suggests Albania, prompting the following exchange:

MOTSS: Why Albania?

BREAN: Why not?

MOTSS: What have they done to us?

BREAN: What have they done for us?
Well, it turns out that Albania's doing a lot for us, at least lately. While the Netherlands and Ukraine are pulling troops out of Iraq, Albania just upped its contingent from 70 to 120. That may not seem like a lot, but as a percentage of Albania's population, it represents the proportional equivalent of over 10,000 U.S. troops.

Arthur Chrenkoff takes a look, calls recently-communist Albania a better ally than France or Germany, and wonders, "Why can't they make more countries like that?"

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Making its own gaijin

Foreigners in Japan can and do get away with all sorts of things that Japanese people would never dream of. (This is the flip side of being a gaijin — literally, an "outside person".) Taking advantage of this fact is commonly called "playing the gaijin card".

Playing the gaijin card usually involves feigning ignorance of local rules, like skiing off-piste because you “couldn’t read the sign” saying not to. Most Japanese people won’t try to correct a foreigner who is out of line, either because they assume he can’t speak Japanese, because they don’t feel comfortable speaking English, or just because they don’t want to get involved in a confrontational situation.

Even when caught red handed, gaijin are frequently let off the hook. For example, a cop may just warn a foreigner to slow down instead of going through the whole ticket-writing procedure.

But gaijin-ness doesn't always push Japanese people away; often, it draws them closer. For example, many foreign guys in Japan are pleasantly surprised to find themselves much more popular with the ladies here than they ever were at home. It's not because they suddenly became better-looking when they stepped off the plane; it's because in Japan they're exotic, they're different, and they follow a different set of rules. (If there's one thing women like, it's a man who plays by his own rules.)

This phenomenon was infamously parodied in the comic strip Charisma Man, which debuted several years ago in an English-language Tokyo magazine:

My own personal experience (before I met my lovely girlfriend, of course — hi, honey!) suggests that the above depiction is not all that much of an exaggeration. But the benefits of being a gaijin aren't limited to getting better customer service and feeling like Austin Powers in the 60's. They also include getting to run major multinational corporations.

In June 2001, Carlos Ghosn, a Frenchman born in Brazil and raised in Lebanon, was named CEO of Nissan, the Japanese carmaker. Nissan was losing money hand over fist, but none of its Japanese executives felt comforable taking the drastic steps that would be necessary to effect a recovery. Free of Japanese cultural obligations, Ghosn was able to slash costs, cut jobs, and reorganize the company; Nissan has posted a net profit every year since he took the job.

Sony, which has fallen on hard times of late despite the success of its videogame unit, is looking to try the same approach. The company recently replaced former CEO Nobuyuki Idei with Harold Stringer, an American originally from Britain, who previously ran Sony's U.S. entertainment division. And he's clearly expected to shake things up. As CNN reports:
Analyst Flint Pulskamp of research firm IDC said Sony, which earlier this month promoted U.S. operations chief Howard Stringer to the top corporate spot, is most likely to expand outsourcing to the large companies with which it already does business.

Piper Jaffray analyst Jesse Pichel said Sony's cost of producing each gizmo — $14.5 billion in its latest quarter — represents the company's potential market for outsourcing.

Pichel said the Japanese have generally been reluctant to outsource because of the cultural norms there for lifetime employment.

But analysts said Stringer, a Welsh-born former television journalist, will find it easier to make big shake-ups at Sony than a native Japanese CEO would.

"Stringer doesn't have a lot of the baggage or the cultural inhibitions that a Nobuyuki Idei did," Pulskamp said, referring to Sony's former chief executive.
So, is Japan doomed to become a nation of companies led by foreigners? History suggests the answer is no.

Japan has a long tradition of first borrowing technology from overseas, studying it carefully, and then developing a made-in-Japan version. Its first cars were imported from overseas; next (as David Halberstam describes in his excellent book The Reckoning) came a process of importing car makers themselves, like William R. Gorham, who developed many of Nissan’s earliest car models, and quality-control experts like W. Edwards Deming, who helped Japanese companies dramatically improve production. Soon, companies like Nissan, Toyota, and Honda were turning out excellent cars on their own, and quickly leapt to the front of the global automotive industry.

My hunch is that executives like Ghosn and Stringer represent the early stages of a transformation of Japanese management, in much the same way that Gorham and Deming kicked off a transformation of Japanese production. Japanese businessmen may not like making aggressive, confrontational moves yet, but they'll learn to soon enough.

Some of them already have. Consider Japan's youngest Internet mogul, Takafumi Horie:
About eight years ago, while still a student at Tokyo University, Horie formed a web design company with the unconventional name of Livin' on the Edge Ltd. At the time, he was just 23 and his company had about $45,000 in capital. After Horie dropped out of Tokyo U., Bill Gates-style, he grew his company, largely by acquisitions, into a diverse IT, networking, and e-commerce firm with a market capitalization of over $2 billion. It's currently known as Livedoor, taking its name from an ISP it acquired back in 2002.

Horie, now all of 32 years old, has been a fixture on Japanese news shows for the better part of a year, since he tried (and failed) to buy a professional baseball team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, last summer. But more recently, he's been in the news for a different reason: trying to gain control of Fuji Television, one of Japan's largest media companies.

On February 8, Livedoor bought almost 30% of the shares in Nippon Broadcasting System (NBS), bringing its total stake to 35%. As the biggest shareholder in NBS — which was itself the biggest shareholder in Fuji TV — Livedoor would have be able to influence managerial decisions at Fuji.

While similar takeover bids have been par for the course in the U.S. for decades, they're unusual in Japan, where companies have traditionally held each other's shares in cozy, stable "cross-shareholding" relationships designed to prevent outsiders from buying a controlling stake. Even more interesting than the rarity of the takeover attempt itself, though, has been Japan's reaction to it.

In America, hostile takeovers, and the dealmakers behind them, are seen as essential tools for weeding out inefficient management and making sure corporate assets are put to their most effective use. The Japanese financial and media establishment's reaction to Horie's NBS bid, by contrast, ranged from dissaproving to downright hostile.

In a news article that seemed an awful lot like an editorial, the Asahi Shimbun complained that Livedoor used "clever financial magic tricks" to finance the NBS share purchase:
So with a market capitalization that has grown threefold over the past 14 months or so to 300 billion yen, Livedoor convinced a foreign securities group to underwrite the convertible bonds and lend it the 80 billion yen needed to buy the Nippon Broadcasting shares.

Presto — a rabbit from the hat.
Fujio Mitarai, the president of Canon, blasted Horie for buying the NBS shares in (perfectly legal) off-hours trading, instead of revealing his plans by publicly announcing a tender offer:
Off-hours trading is legal and has some merits, but restrictions should exist on such stock trading. Social ethics and manners are required for corporate mergers and acquisitions.
And speaking at a press conference, Hiroshi Okuda, head of the powerful Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) attacked Horie simply for having the gall to go after a larger company:
He has been criticized by people in political and business circles for having done something morally wrong, because it is the worst thing in Japanese society to think that if you have money, you can do anything. Mr. Horie should humbly accept the criticism.
After a complex series of developments, culminating in NBS lending its Fuji shares to another company to keep them out of Livedoor's hands, it now appears Horie has ultimately failed in his effort to gain control of Fuji. But while he may have lost this particular battle, and is being savaged by the old business elite, he appears to be winning the war of public opinion among younger Japanese. As the Mainichi Daily News reported:
Horie has often appeared without a necktie, and his enterprising approach has drawn criticism in Japan's corporate circles. But he has also found supporters among the young generation.

"It's great to see him appearing on TV programs full of confidence," said Miki Hirano, a 20-year-old university student in Kyoto. "I much prefer Livedoor, a young and ambitious company, to Fuji TV."

Ruriko Kunitake, 39, a company worker from Yame, Kumamoto Prefecture, said she found a reformer in Horie. "Every industry needs replacements. I admire Horie because he stands up under pressure."
If Horie's ambitious attempt to shake up a major Japanese company is any indication, Japan's future cost-cutting turnaround specialists won't come from France or America; they'll come from Japan itself.

Long ago, Japan learned how to make its own cars. Now it's learning how to to make its own gaijin.

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Five up

A massive 8.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Indonesia today, just three months after December's killer tsunami devastated much of the country.

While no serious tsunami materialized this time, residents of the ravaged city of Banda Aceh took no chances, fleeing for higher ground as soon as the earth began to shake:

Normally, I'd say loading the whole family on a scooter without helmets is asking for trouble, but this time, I'll let it slide.

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Keep your facts away from my opinion

About a week and a half ago, commenting on the two-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Iraqi blogger Husayn Uthman wrote a post called "2 Years", expressing optimism and hope for his country's future:

So you ask me, Husayn, was it worth it. What have you gotten? What has Iraq acheived? These are questions I get a lot.

...Now I answer you, I answer you on behalf of myself, and my countrymen. I dont care what your news tells you, what your television and newspapers say, this is how we feel. Despite all that has happened. Despite all the hurt, the pain, blood, sweat and tears. These two years have given us hope we never had.

Before March 20, 2003, we were in a dungeon. We did not see the light. Saddam Hussain was crushing Iraq's spirit slowly, we longed for his end, but knew we could not challenge him, or his diabolical seed who would no doubt follow him and continue his generation of hell on Earth.

Since then, we now have hope. Hope is not a tangible thing, but it is something, it is more than being blinded by darkness, by being stuck in a mental pit without any future.

...No, we will not give up, and we will not say that the last two years were a waste. They for all their trouble have been momentus. They for us, have been a turning point in history. Whether or not you agree, this is how it looks from Iraq.
It's a powerful statement. If you haven't read it, check it out.

Soon after Husayn posted his thoughts, the feedback started rolling in. Here are a few of the responses he's received:
What the hell is wrong with you, you don’t mind having your country blown up by others but you mind people not understanding you. This is a pure crock, and you sir are either mentally unstable or working for the United States.
                  — Oliver Jordan

Husayn, you are an idiot, I think you are really American. No, I know you are American, no Iraqi feels like you do you lying scumbag. How much is the CIA paying you to spread lies about the occupation of Iraq? I hope you get yours.
                  — Nameless

Sir I was linked to your blog by another website. What I found is quite interesting. Despite what everyone else in the world says, you are saying that things in Iraq are good. Ignorng the fact that everyday bombs are blown up, you are happy. Despite the fact that Americans are wasting money in Iraq, you thank them. May I ask you, are you blind or just stupid?
                  — Richard Jones, UK
I can't prove that Husayn is really an Iraqi, blogging from Iraq. But the only reason some people think he's lying is that his opinions don't match their own idea of how an Iraqi should feel about the war. I have a hunch none of the above commenters fired off angry, skeptical missives to anonymous Iraqi blogger Riverbend in response to her very pessimistic post on the same topic. Her views were acceptable, you see.

In Riverbend's case, an anonymous poster at Healing Iraq, who claims to know her personally, said her father was "a Saddam-appointed ambassador, and a high ranking Ba'athist", who presumably lost big when Saddam was overthrown. Cry Me a Riverbend II examines her blog and suspects the same thing. Provable? Again, no. But it's a possibility for bias that opponents of the war would never stop to consider. Riverbend's views are acceptable, you see.

All of this has me thinking that the recent spate of hand-wringing about how ill-informed Americans are about current events in general, and about Iraq in particular, is overblown. My hunch is that America's media are largely succeeding in their mission of delivering information. That delivery may be incredibly biased, but facts for the most part get through.

All the facts in the world, however, won't make a difference to someone who has closed his mind to new evidence. A Bush supporter (which I am) who feels threatened by the failure to discover stockpiles of WMD in Iraq (which I don't) may have responded by refusing to accept that fact.

And war opponents confronted with an Iraqi who supports the occupation may simply refuse to believe he exists.

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Don't leave the Forbidden City without it

Riding Sun's new research assistant and field reporter, the beautiful and intrepid Dusky, went to Beijing last week on a business trip.

While sightseeing in the Forbidden City, she snapped this picture of a sign on the Hall of Union and Peace (Jiao Tai Dian, also known as the Hall of Prosperity), where, centuries ago, the Qing Dynasty empress received well-wishers on her birthday:


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A Democrat stands up for bloggers

In the comments to this post, Riding Sun reader Big Ben challenged me to find a Democratic politician "saying anything unambiguously negative about blogs".

Well, I haven't done an exhaustive search. But so far, aside from failed presidential candidate John Kerry's recent (and much-discussed on this blog) speech, which mentioned the Drudge Report and the "sub-media", but not blogs in general, it seems like the negative comments about bloggers are coming from members of the mainstream media themselves — who, while probably Democrats, are not politicians.

For example, consider Vanity Fair "media critic" Michael Wolff's recent pompous comments on the impact of blogs:

Well, they do have impact. Part of it is actually involved with a kind of further devaluation of information because what it sets up is this constant second guessing of information. Which is not necessarily bad but it does lower the value of all information. You undermine that authority of information. But having been around this business now for some time I've learned that nothing lasts too long. By all rights, 18 months from now we should be looking back at this and all kind of embarrassed to say the word blog — I hope.
True to form, when Wolff found a blogger had posted a transcript of his speech on the Internet, he had it removed by sending a notice of copyright infringement to the blogger's ISP — but not before, of course, pertinent bits spread through the blogosphere.

The lack of politicians going on record against blogs bears out my hunch (as discussed in that previous post) that none of them is dumb enough to publicly call for a crackdown on free speech. Any pressure on bloggers will not be billed as such, but will come as the de facto effect of a push for tougher libel laws or copyright protections.

However, I did find one Democrat who's standing up for bloggers' free speech rights: Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan). On Cnet's site, Rep. Conyers states:
For better or worse, we operate in an environment where major conglomerates such as News Corp., General Electric, Disney, Viacom, Gannett, Knight-Ridder and Clear Channel dominate the nation's airwaves and print media. Whenever a potential story criticizing a powerful political figure or corporate parent is squelched, questions are raised concerning the independence of the mainstream news media. Bloggers, by contrast, are not subject to these same constraints or concerns, and have shown their independence over and over.

I agree with Thomas Jefferson's sentiments when he wrote, "The basis of our government being the opinion of people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

In Jefferson's era, print newspapers revolutionized the way the country read and processed the news. Today we stand on the precipice of a new media revolution with the advent of the Internet. We need to protect bloggers' First Amendment rights so they can help us protect our own citizens' rights.
Well said, Rep. Conyers. I'd like to hear Kerry express similar sentiments the next time he feels compelled to opine on the state of America's media.

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Aggregate demand

"Aggregator" sites, which round up posts from throughout the blogosphere, are a good way to quickly scan a wide range of blogs.

One I like is Punditdrome, which shows the syndicated feeds from lots of blogs (including mine!), grouped into helpful categories.

Another good aggregator, this one in the style of Matt Drudge's Drudge Report, is Wes Roth's... you guessed it, Roth Report. Wes points out interesting blog posts as well as straight news stories in a straightforward, efficient style.

If you're falling behind in your blog reading, or if you're stuck in a rut of reading just the same few sites every day, check these guys out.

The creator of Punditdrome pointed out to me in an email that it's really more of a "selective table of contents" than an "aggregator", since a live person, not a computer algorithm, is putting it together.

No offense intended. I use "aggregator" to refer to any site that primarily gathers together external links instead of generating content — whether it's done by a human or a machine.

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Next stop: Zimbabwe?

Having played to standing-room-only crowds in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Taiwan, Bahrain, Egypt, and Mongolia (with a cancelled date in Belarus), the World Freedom and Democracy tour may be rolling into Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe next, reports ABC News.

In all of history, have there ever been so many challenges to authoritarian regimes, one after the other, around the world? Things like this don't happen by chance.

George Bush may not be headlining every stop on this tour, but he's definitely its main promoter.

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Unlicensed to kill

I thought this story from Sunday's Orlando Sentinel seemed unbelievable, but apparently, it's depressingly common:

Derrell Willis bought a motorcycle and took it for a spin without bothering to get a license.

There's nothing unusual about that in Florida, where the crime is treated as lightly as driving without prescription glasses.

Illegal riders crash here at a rate of five a day, 35 a week and about 1,800 a year. Most survive. Willis didn't.

First he stalled the high-performance Yamaha R6, which he didn't know how to ride. Then he managed to drive the motorcycle to the first stoplight on John Young Parkway, less than 100 feet from Cycle Sports Center in north Orlando, where he purchased the vehicle.

The engine died again.

Finally under way, the 37-year-old Orlando sanitation worker almost lost control. He swerved onto the grassy median. Standing as he rode, he veered back into traffic.

Exactly 1.4 miles later, Willis crashed on a gentle curve on Lee Road. The bike bounced and landed nose-down. It launched itself and Willis against a concrete utility pole, chipping away a quarter-inch-thick flake. His cracked helmet rolled 60 feet farther than his body, according to interviews and Orlando police reports.
It's fortunate that Willis only killed himself, not other motorists that might have hit or swerved to avoid him.

Riding a motorcycle is reasonably safe — if you know what you're doing. I took twelve hours of lessons to get my small-bike license here in Japan, and then seventeen more to get my unlimited-class license after riding a 400cc Kawasaki ZZR almost every day for a year. I'm still learning new things about how to handle my bike, and how to read other motorists' intentions. And despite all that, I still have the occasional close call. Yet this guy hops on board a powerful 600cc sportbike with absolutely zero training and heads out on the road.

Ultimately, Mr. Willis died as a result of his own poor judgement. But what was the dealer who sold him the bike thinking? And would it be asking too much for Florida to require someone to have a motorcycle license before he can buy a motorcycle? Currently, it doesn't.

Like I said, unbelievable.

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This post is not about Terry Schiavo

The sad story of Terry Schiavo has dominated the blogosphere for the past week or two. I have not made a single post about it, and I'm not going to start getting involved in the debate about when it's appropriate to euthanize someone now.

I will note, however, that sometimes it's possible to be a little too eager to wrap things up. The Asahi Shimbun reports:

In a case that sparked debate over ending treatment for terminally ill patients, the Yokohama District Court on Friday found a doctor guilty of murdering a comatose man.

Setsuko Suda, 50, former head of Kawasaki Kyodo Hospital's respiratory department, was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended for five years.

Presiding Judge Kenji Hirose said Suda "deviated from the last line allowed for a doctor" when she killed the 58-year-old patient in November 1998 by removing a tracheal tube and injecting him with muscle relaxant.

"Suda retracted the tube (that helped the patient to breathe) without the family's request and, when the patient began to agonize, determined to choke him with muscle relaxant," the judge said.

He said the doctor killed the man on a "misunderstanding" that his family had agreed to end his treatment.
That's quite a misunderstanding. Somehow I don't think a sumimasen is going to cut it.

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Tangled up in Blu-ray

Japanese electronics giant Sony is known for creating proprietary technology standards. Sometimes that works, like when the PlayStation and its sequel, the PS2, became the top-selling home videogame consoles of their respective generations. And the handheld PSP looks like another winner. But videogames are something of a special case; systems made by different companies are, by their very nature, incompatible with each other.

In other areas, Sony's proprietary formats have been wash-outs. Sony's Betamax videocassette format lost out to VHS. Its memory sticks are much less popular than SD memory cards. In music, its MiniDiscs gained a small following, but never came close to threatening CD's (or now, hard disks and flash memory), and its ATRAC music compression format is vastly less popular than MP3.

But Sony is starting to recognize that its strategy has been a failure. After being absolutely crushed in portable digital music players by Apple's iPod, Sony made its new players MP3-compatible. (Actually, it's making its MiniDiscs MP3-compatible, too.)

And now, Sony is backing away from a format war over next-generation high-definition DVD's. The company isn't about to abandon its own technologically superior Blu-ray standard, mind you. Blu-ray recorders are already on sale in Japan, the upcoming PS3 videogame console will be Blu-ray based, and, crucially, Blu-ray has the support of other companies besides just Sony. The Blu-ray recording deck below, for example, is made by Hitachi:

But Sony's signalling that it may embrace the rival HD-DVD standard as an alternative. IDG News Service reports:
"Listening to the voice of the consumers, having two rival formats is disappointing and we haven't totally given up on the possibility of integration or compromise," Ryoji Chubachi, Sony's president-elect, said at a news conference Thursday in which he discussed the company's performance and future strategy.

...Chubachi's comments mark the second time that a Sony executive has signaled the possibility of a compromise between the two camps. In January, Ken Kutaragi, executive deputy president of Sony, said a format war was not in the public interest and that Sony had not ruled out the possibility of uniting the formats.
People don't like having to pick and choose between incompatible formats. If you're lucky enough to have a format that becomes the de facto standard, great. But if not, forcing customers to use special files, on special media, via special devices, is bad business.

The best approach for device makers today appears to be: Forget about proprietary formats. Just make your product useable by as many people as possible. If it's good, they'll buy it.

It's not a new theory, either. It worked for Sony itself, over a quarter-century ago, with the product that in many ways defined it as a company: the Walkman.

Looks like Sony just can't get a break.

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Bobby Fischer's Axis of Evil

Fresh off the plane in Iceland this Friday, anti-semitic former chess champ Bobby Fischer wasted no time in cementing his reputation as a deranged loon. The Associated Press reports:

On Friday, Fischer told reporters he was finished with a chess world he regards as corrupt, and sparred with U.S. journalists who asked about his anti-American tirades.

"The United States is evil. There's this axis of evil. What about the allies of evil the United States, England, Japan, Australia? These are the evildoers,"

...Fischer, whose mother was Jewish, accused "the Jew-controlled U.S. government' of ruining his life.
Iceland, a U.S. ally through NATO, might not have been the best choice for Bobby to make his new home. Sounds like he'd be a better fit in Iran.

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Professor sees Dems attacking bloggers

There's been a rip-roarin' discussion going on here at Riding Sun about whether failed presidential candidate John Kerry really wants to restrict or regulate what he calls America's "sub-media" — and in particular, the blogosphere.

Kerry set forth his concerns about the issue in a February speech, described here.

I've taken the view that Kerry, while smart enough to know that the pesky ol' First Amendment bars a direct attack on news sources he doesn't like, nevertheless wouldn't mind seeing some limits and controls placed on who's allowed to report the news, and how they're allowed to do it.

Others have argued that Kerry was simply complaining about the trend towards mixing, or even replacing, hard news with entertainment. They point out that Kerry didn't seem to be singling out blogs for special condemnation, and indeed benefitted in the last election from the efforts of liberal bloggers.

In an article published yesterday on Tech Central Station, James D. Miller, Assistant Professor of Economics at Smith College, considers the same Kerry speech — and weighs in on my side of the debate:

The Democratic Party will likely assist the MSM in their attack on blogs, not because most blogs are pro-Republican but because blogs are not as consistently liberal as the MSM. John Kerry, for example, is calling for the government to do something to protect the MSM. As he said in a recent speech:
"The mainstream media, over the course of the last year, did a pretty good job of discerning. But there's a subculture and a sub-media that talks and keeps things going for entertainment purposes rather than for the flow of information. And that has a profound impact and undermines what we call the mainstream media of the country. And so the decision-making ability of the American electorate has been profoundly impacted as a consequence of that. The question is, what are we going to do about it?"
The Republicans will, I hope, realize that on average their interests are served by protecting blogs. But the Democrats and the MSM will still use the courts and regulatory agencies to attack bloggers, and if the Democrats ever retake the Presidency and Congress expect "media reform" to become a top priority.
It's nice to see that I wasn't the only one who found a hostility to bloggers buried between the lines of Kerry's speech.

Professor Miller argues that Democrats, despite the protections of the First Amendment, could go after blogs by pursuing stricter, and more rigorously-enforced, laws on campaign finance reform, libel, and copyright protection. He argues that the mainstream media has the resources to research the impact of, and to comply with, tough new laws in these areas, as well as to defend themselves in court should they be sued. Individual bloggers, however, would likely be cowed into submission or abandon blogging all together.

It's a chilling vision, and one I hope doesn't come to pass.

Interestingly, while some Democrats may be siding against bloggers, the Bush administration appears ready to treat them as legitimate information sources, even inviting a blogger to attend the White House's daily press briefings.

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The world's best-looking motorcycles

When ordinary bloggers don't have anything to say about current events, what can they do? Nothing!

I, on the other hand, can post cool pictures of amazing hand-built motorcycles from the good folks at Confederate Motor Company.

Here's their powerful Hellcat:

And the new 2006 Wraith:
The Hellcat will set you back $61,000, but the Wraith is a steal at just $45,000 on pre-order. Supplies are limited — act now!

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Canada rejects American deserter

Things aren't going well for Jeremy Hinzman, a soldier in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division:

When the Army tried to send him to fight in Iraq two years ago, he headed for Canada instead. And as Reuters reports, Hinzman, who joined the Army to earn money for college, justified his actions with tired, Vietnam-era rhetoric:
In a December refugee hearing, he said he refused to go to Iraq because he was "unwilling to kill babies."
Hmm. Somehow, I don't think this man is, either:
It's one thing to desert. It's another thing to slander your fellow soldiers. What a class act.

Thankfully, Canada isn't buying Hinzman's story. Yesterday, its Immigration and Refugee Board ruled that he doesn't qualify as a refugee and refused to grant him asylum:
The ruling said Hinzman's reasons for refusing to fight in Iraq were "inherently contradictory" because he was willing to serve but only in a non-combat role.

"Surely an intelligent young man like Mr. Hinzman, who believed the war in Iraq to be illegal, unjust and waged for economic reasons, would be unwilling to participate in any capacity, whether combatant or non-combatant," the refugee board said in its decision.
Hinzman had no problem with the Army subsidizing his college education, as long as he didn't personally have to do any fighting. Canada may welcome conscientious objectors, but it's not interested in hypocrites.

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The two kinds of politicians

(NOTE: This post generated strong criticism from commenters who pointed out that Kerry wasn't singling out blogs in his speech. The key point is that Kerry wants the mainstream media to act as "arbitrators" of the truth; not that he despises blogs in particular. Therefore, I've revised the post accordingly.)

In the Christian Science Monitor, Mark Sappenfield reports that an increasing number of politicians are bypassing the mainstream media by starting their own blogs:

In many ways, the blog provides politicians an opportunity to recast themselves away from the mainstream media. Across the bay in San Francisco, Supervisor Chris Daly has begun a blog to counter what he feels is biased reporting in the local paper.

"I've not done well in the newspaper coverage," says Mr. Daly. "The Internet is a way to get my message out to people who are wired."
On the other hand, other politicians, like failed presidential candidate John Kerry, think we need the mainstream media as intermediaries, helping the public make sense of the many, possibly misleading, information sources available today. In a recent speech, Kerry said:
When fear is dominating the discussion and when there are false choices presented and there is no arbitrator, we have a problem.

We learned that the mainstream media, over the course of the last year, did a pretty good job of discerning. But there's a subculture and a sub-media that talks and keeps things going for entertainment purposes rather than for the flow of information. And that has a profound impact and undermines what we call the mainstream media of the country. And so the decision-making ability of the American electorate has been profoundly impacted as a consequence of that.
So, it seems, there are now two types of politicians: those who see mainstream media as a problem, and those who see mainstream media as the solution.

Given a choice between the two, vote for the former. The other one doesn't trust your ability to critically evaluate information and make intelligent decisions.

And if he doesn't trust you, why should you trust him?

(ANOTHER NOTE: The Chrisitan Science Monitor article also claims that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has his own blog. I'm not sure if they're talking about his official website — it doesn't seem all that bloglike to me.)

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Why I commute by motorcycle, pt. III

Astute observer of Japanese current events that I am, I completely forgot to note that this past Sunday marked the 10-year anniversary of the Aum Shinrikyo cult's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

On March 20, 1995, twelve people were killed and about 6000 were injured as cult members left plastic bags filled with the deadly nerve toxin on various train cars, puncturing the bags several times with sharpened umbrella tips to release the gas before making their getaway.

The attack hit the Chiyoda, Marunouchi, and Hibiya lines. If I were to take the subway to work, I would take the Chiyoda and Hibiya lines, switching at Kasumigaseki station.

Wikipedia describes the lackluster official response at the time:

Emergency services including police, fire and ambulance services were criticized for their handling of the attack and the injured, as were the media (some of whom, though present at subway entrances and filming the injured, hesitated when asked to transport victims to the hospital) and the Subway Authority, which failed to halt several of the trains despite reports of passenger injury. Health services including hospitals and health staff were also criticized: one hospital refused to admit a victim for almost an hour, and many hospitals turned victims away.
Japan is often held up as an example of an efficient, well-run society, and it is — until something goes wrong.

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Fischer headed for Iceland

Looks like chess-playing anti-Semite Bobby Fischer is heading for Iceland after all. ABC News reports:

Chess legend Bobby Fischer was freed Thursday after nearly nine months in a Japanese detention center and immediately headed for the airport to board a flight to his new home, Iceland.

Fischer, sporting a beard and a baseball cap pulled down low over his face, left the immigration detention center in this city on Tokyo's outskirts early Thursday.

He was accompanied by his fiancee, Miyoko Watai, the head of Japan's chess association, and officials from the Icelandic Embassy. He was scheduled to catch an afternoon flight to Denmark en route to Iceland.
It's nice to know that both Japan and Iceland are doing everything they can to keep Fischer out of U.S. hands. According to Section IV, Article 53 of Japan's Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, a person is supposed to be deported to a country of which he or she is a national.

Iceland voted to give Fischer citizenship only this past Monday, months after he got nabbed. Why wasn't he treated as an American for purposes of deportation, instead of being detained just long enough for another country to claim him?

One more ironic point: Because Iceland has an extradition treaty with America, Fischer may yet end up headed for the States, if the U.S. presses criminal charges of tax evasion against him.

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If this motorcycle crashes, just reboot it

JP, from the always-interesting Japundit, tipped me to this post about a guy who installed a desktop PC in his Kawasaki Z1000:

He uses it to record video from his helmet cam, and is planning to have it log data from his GPS locator, run his iPod, and more.

His own site has the details:
So, why did I create a whole webpage about my motorcycle?

It runs UNIX!

I removed the charcoal can, and cut out most of the plastic casing to install a Shuttle SV24 Flex-ATX motherboard in the tail section. I cut off the rest of the case except for the bare minimum required to bolt in a PCI card on the riser, and all 4 motherboard mounting screws.

I've upgraded the CPU to a P3 Coppermine 1Ghz and added 256MB of RAM. Beneath the 'case', or whats left of it anyway is a 40GB Seagate hard drive.
Microsoft makes an operating system for cars, but it makes sense that this guy chose UNIX — because motorcycles don't have windows. (Har!)

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Dear Sir, I have an urgent business proposal...

Via, Lagos newspaper This Day reports that Nigeria is trying to get a Chinese firm to build a motorcycle factory there:

The Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN) has begun negotiations with a Chinese firm towards the establishment of a motorcycle assembly plant in Nigeria.

Talks, which have got to the level of Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signing, will lead to the production of motorcycle parts in Nigeria in partnership with the private sector or direct investment by the Chinese corporation.

A SMEDAN report explained that the Director General of SMEDAN, Mrs. Modupe Adelaja, who embarked on an investment tour of China and Malaysia, disclosed that the MOU was signed during the just-concluded Nigeria-China Investment Forum.
However, progress appears to have hit a snag over Mrs. Adelaja's request that the Chinese firm advance her several million dollars until she can free the necessary funds for the project from her bank account, which was frozen when her father, a former army colonel, was chased from the country in a rebel coup.

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How do people this gullible survive?

Below is a picture of a sticker on the ATM at a bank in my neighborhood:

It's warning customers not to fall for the increasingly common "Ore ore" ("It's me!") trick.

Basically, the way it works is that people call up complete strangers and ask them to send money for some urgent need, like compensation for a traffic accident, an emergency abortion, or just to repay a loan shark. And people send them the money!

The General Insurance Association of Japan has more:
Perpetrators of ore-ore fraud usually pretend to be relatives of the target victims, such as their child, grandson, husband or others, and urge the victims to transfer a large amount of money to a certain account for non-existent problems. Recently fraudsters have been using a clever ploy to steal money, in that they form a group, sharing and performing several roles such as a policeman or an insurance company representative.
The ATM sticker offers helpful advice:
Watch out for the "Ore Ore" scam.


Three steps to avoid being ripped off:

(1) Don't panic

(2) Don't send money right away

(3) Confirm the facts
Call me culturally biased, but I don't think this scam would fly in New York.

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Missing the point

The Associated Press reports:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. soldiers, ambushed by dozens of Iraqi militants near the infamous "Triangle of Death," responded by killing 26 guerrillas in the largest single insurgent death toll since last fall's battle for Fallujah, the U.S. military said Monday.

The high number of deaths in Sunday's daylight battle south of Baghdad was attributed to the large number of attackers, unusual in a country where most clashes are carried out by small bands of gunmen or suicide bombers.
Um... no. Just showing up doesn't mean you're going to die. The high number of insurgent deaths was due to American troops killing them.

It's amazing how the AP manages to depict a complete rout for the insurgents as a sign of their supposed strength.

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Here we go again...

The Associated Press reports:

BEMIDJI, Minn. - A high school student went on a shooting rampage on an Indian reservation Monday, killing his grandparents at their home and then seven people at his school, grinning and waving as he fired, authorities and witnesses said. The suspect apparently killed himself after exchanging gunfire with police.
If this kid had driven the family car into a crowd of people, we wouldn't be hearing calls to ban cars.

And if he had stabbed his victims, no one would demand a crackdown on knives. (Actually, maybe they would.)

But because he used guns, you can look forward to a barrage of rants claiming that these killings demonstrate why America needs strict limits on gun ownership.

In what other siutation are the actions of a mentally deranged teenager held up as a reason to curtail the rights that all Americans enjoy?

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Why I commute by motorcycle, pt. II

The Daily Yomiuri reports on another Yamanote line goof:

Five hundred people found themselves trapped aboard a late-night train on Tokyo's JR Yamanote Line for 40 minutes Friday after a faulty door indicator caused the train to come to an unscheduled stop.

...About 500 passengers were trapped onboard the train for about 40 minutes as the conductor inspected the train. Nothing out of the ordinary was found, and service eventually resumed, the official said.

The indicator malfunction caused 18 trains traveling in both directions around the loop line to be delayed up to 39 minutes, affecting 21,000 passengers.
Like I said the last time this happened — less than two weeks ago — I can't imagine being stuck on an immobile train for that long. At least this time it wasn't rush hour.

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Broken windows in Iraq

In The Corner, Rich Lowry posts an anonymous account of a presentation given by one of the leaders of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, just back from Iraq.

Taking it at face value, what I found most interesting was the following bit:

He showed a graph of attacks in Sadr City by month. Last Aug-Sep they were getting up to 160 attacks per week. During the last three months, the graph had flatlined at below 5 to zero per week.

...His big point was not that they were "winning battles" to do this but that cleaning the place up, electricity, sewage, water were the key factors. He said yes they fought but after they started delivering services that the Iraqis in Sadr City had never had, the terrorist recruiting of 15 and 16 year olds came up empty.
This approach sounds very similar to the "Broken Windows" theory of policing, first propounded back in 1982 by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in the Atlantic Monthly.

It was later relied upon, famously and to great effect, by Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner William Bratton, in turning New York from a filthy high-crime embarrassment, into the clean, low-crime metropolis it is today.

It's no surprise to me that Iraqi cities are benefitting from the same policing tactics that worked in New York. Like they say: If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.

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Market regulation

Did you hear the one about a guy who orders a pizza, and the chef asks him if he'd like it cut into six pieces or eight pieces?

"Cut it into six," the guy says. "I'd never be able to eat eight."

The pizza story is an old joke, but pretty much the same thing just happened at the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE). On March 8th, the Asahi Shimbun reported:

In the wake of wide share price fluctuations attributed to large-scale stock splits, the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Monday set new guidelines to restrict the tactic.

Aggressive splits by Livedoor Co., for example, led to a substantial increase in the relative share prices and, as a result, a rise in market capitalization.
If you're familiar with stocks, that statement probably strikes you as a bit fishy — because stock splits have no inherent effect on share price or market capitalization.

Generally speaking, the total equity value of a company (its "market capitalization") equals the number of shares of stock it has outstanding, times the price of a single share. If Acme Corporation has issued a million shares of stock, and Acme stock is trading at $100 per share, then Acme's market capitalization is $100 million. Easy, right?

But what happens if Acme decides to split its stock? In a normal split, a company essentially increases its number of shares while proportionately reducing their value. Returning to our above example, let's say Acme decides to split its stock "two-for-one". That means it's going to turn its one million shares worth $100 each into two million shares worth $50 each.

Notice that the split doesn't change Acme's market capitalization at all. One million times $100 is the same as two million times $50. (And, in response to a comment on this post, note that the value of individual shareholders' investments isn't affected, either: If you held 100 shares of Acme worth a total of $10,000 before the split, you'll have 200 shares still worth a total of $10,000 afterwards.)

Yet the TSE claims the practice drives share prices higher, and the Asahi isn't calling them on it. What's going on? Well, it's not that they don't understand how splits work. Despite everything I just wrote, stock splits actually do tend to spark short-term share price increases.

Why? To answer that question, consider the main reason companies use splits: to keep their stock price in a range where individual investors can easily buy shares.

For example, look at Dell. Since it went public in 1988, Dell has increased dramatically in value, but it's also split its stock several times. A single share from its IPO has now, after all those splits, turned into ninety-six shares. As a result, instead of costing $3,696, a single share of DELL stock costs only $38.50. That low price makes it easier for investors — especially small, individual investors — to buy and sell Dell stock.

So, because spilts can signal that a company thinks its stock price is headed up, investors tend to buy shares in companies that announce splits. And this increased demand for a company's stock can drive up the share price.

The Asahi article focuses on this phenomenon as a reason for the increased regulation:
However, share prices tend to fluctuate immediately after a stock split largely due to an imbalance between demand and supply.

The actual number of shares available for trading is generally limited shortly after the stock split, because it can take more than a month for newly issued shares to be delivered to stockholders after necessary procedures, such as printing stock certificates.
The number of shares post-split isn't any more "limited" than it was beforehand. Neither is there an "imbalance between demand and supply". The rising share price keeps them in perfect balance. And while a company may get a short-term price boost by splitting its stock, the key word is "short-term": If it doesn't actually deliver earnings growth, investors will dump its shares as quickly as they bought them. The split hasn't increased the fundamental value of the company, any more than a Yankees uniform improves your ability to play baseball.

In the case of Livedoor, it hasn't just split its stock, it's also aggressively acquired other companies, doubling its annual revenues for several years running, and growing from a small web design shop into a diverse IT, networking, and e-commerce company. (Indeed, Livedoor's now at the center of a front-page takeover battle, as it tries to acquire the much larger Fuji Television company.) You don't get that kind of real growth by splits alone.

The Asahi article also cites another supposed problem with splits:
If a company executes a stock split soon after it issues bonds with stock warrants, the stock split may benefit only the bond subscribers, who can quickly convert the warrants into new shares.
The problem here is not the split, but the warrants themselves, which give new shares to a select group of investors while diluting the value of existing shareholders' stakes in the company.

What's really at work here is a reluctance to let the market do its job of reflecting investor opinion. The TSE has essentially decided that share price behavior in the wake of a split announcement is inappropriate, and it's trying to bring it more in line with the way it thinks stocks should trade. Notably, by restricting splits, the TSE is making it more likely for companies to keep their share prices high — shutting small individual investors, and their supposedly irrational behavior, out of the market.

In this way, the TSE regulators resemble failed presidential candidate John F. Kerry, who in a recent speech deplored the ability of ordinary people to opine on, and influence, the political process:
There has been a profound and negative change in the relationship of America's media with the American people... If 77 percent of the people who voted for George Bush on Election Day believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq — as they did — and 77 percent of the people who voted for him believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 — as they did — then something has happened in the way in which we are talking to each other and who is arbitrating the truth in American politics... When fear is dominating the discussion and when there are false choices presented and there is no arbitrator, we have a problem.
Kerry doesn't explain where he got his 77% number, but it doesn't really matter. There is an arbitrator in America's national debate: the ability each of us has to listen to, judge, and support or denounce various speakers and their statements.

Kerry simply doesn't trust ordinary people to interpret the news on their own, just like the TSE doesn't think small investors can make rational investment decisions. The ironies here are many, and rich. In Japan, much of the economic malaise dating back to the late 1980's has been due to the irrational behavior of large, institutional investors, like banks, who maintained "cross-shareholdings" in friendly, but money-losing, companies long after ordinary investors would have cut their losses. And in America, the increasing number, availability, and prominence of nontraditional information sources has made Americans better-informed than ever before, while holding the mainstream media itself to a higher standard.

Yet in both cases, the claim is that more regulation, more oversight, more guidance is needed. And in both cases, the marketplace — of stocks, or of ideas — will do just fine on its own.

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Still one thing missing...

In the New York Times, Warren Hoge reports that Kofi Annan himself is talking tough about cleaning up the U.N:

Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations proposed sweeping reforms Sunday, recommending the expansion of the Security Council to reflect modern realities of global power and need, the restructuring of the discredited Human Rights Commission to keep rights violators from becoming members, and the adoption of a definition of terror that would end justifying it as an act of national resistance.

Annan will make the recommendations in a speech Monday to the General Assembly aimed at restoring confidence in the UN that has seriously lapsed because of bitter divisions over the war in Iraq, charges of mismanagement and corruption in the oil for food program and revelations of sexual misconduct by blue-helmeted peacekeepers.
Good ideas, all. But given Annan's close ties to, and ultimate responsibility for, the Oil-for-Food scandal, his laundry list of reforms is missing one key item: his own resignation.

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Why skiing in Japan is so popular

As Yogi Berra might say, it's because no one's doing it. More and more foreigners, especially the relatively close-by Australians, are waking up to the unbeatable snowfall, snow quality, and empty slopes of Japanese resorts.

But as James Brooke reports for the New York Times, overall skier visits in Japan are way down:

Twenty years ago, Japan's ski resorts resembled Tokyo Station on the slopes. Today, the new image could be someone skiing alone. Despite abundant snow, fresh air and stunning mountain views, the number of skiers in Japan, the world's second-largest skiing nation, has dropped in half over the past decade.
The predictable response: Turn ski areas into foreigner-friendly mega-resorts where skiing is only one of many options:
The solution, many Japanese and outsiders say, is to close marginal ski hills and invest to make the major areas attractive to Japanese and foreign visitors, both skiers and nonskiers.

..."Some of the Japanese mountains will close, and they should," said Roger Donazzan, executive chairman of Harmony Resorts Niseko, a private Australian company that bought Hokkaido's Niseko area last fall.

Through 2010, Donazzan plans to invest about $200 million to create a new base at the mountain village, capable of sleeping 8,000 visitors.

..."By next season, almost all our trail maps, signs, and menus will be in English and Japanese," Donazzan said of Niseko. "Then we are going to add Korean and Chinese."
Translation: If you want to experience Niseko before it turns into a jam-packed, mass-market Disneyland, go now.

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Bean mail

You've got snail mail, voicemail, email, and maybe even gmail. Now, Japanese toy maker Takara introduces Ma-Mail.

In English, that means "Bean Email". The name is a pun, because it has the last syllable of "bean" (ma-meh, 豆) doubling up with the first syllable of email (meh-ru, メール), to form ma-meh-ru.

Basically, the idea is that you give someone a can filled with soil; they water it, and in 5 days, a bean plant sprouts up with one of six short messages printed on it. You can see the TV commercial here in Windows Media format.

(Preemptive note to language wonks: Yes, I know that the last syllable in 豆 is shorter than the long sound that starts メール. Cut me some slack.)

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Thanks a lot, guys

Via The Guardian, the Associated Press reports:

Japan will use its future missile defense system to ward off an attack but not to shoot down missiles aimed at its allies, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Friday.

Japan and the United States are working on a joint defense program, spurred in part by North Korea's development of missiles capable of hitting Japan. But Koizumi told the upper house of Parliament that Japan would not be obligated to use the system to protect an allied country — such as the United States — from missile attack.

"The purpose of our country's missile defense is to intercept incoming missiles targeting Japan," he said. "We are not thinking of dealing with other missiles targeting our allies."
Some people claim that Article IX of Japan's pacifist constitution prohibits Japan from using military force unless Japan itself is attacked. But such a view seems unwarranted, given the actual text of Article IX:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
Shooting down a missle launched at your ally hardly strikes me as a "belligerent" act.

And with a modern, well-equipped military (euphemisitcally called "Self-Defense Forces"), the fourth-largest defense budget in the world, and an anti-missile system in the works, the "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained" bit hasn't exactly been taken literally.

Moreover, ever since the 1951 Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, America has been officially committed to defending Japan from any attack. Even today, about 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan.

While Koizumi's statement comes in the context of talks aimed at expanding and rebalancing that relationship, Japan's security still depends in large part on American protection.

It would be nice of Japan to assist, when possible, the country that has defended it for over half a century, and defends it still.

In the comments, A Guy in Pajamas brings the knowledge about Article IX:
Actually, a Japanese supreme court ruling has stated that Japan can have defensive forces, but cannot exercise the right of collective defense. So, despite what you may think about the text of the constitution, the legal interpretation is that Japan cannot constitutionally defend an ally.

The LDP [Liberal Democratic Party], led by Koizumi, is trying to change this by amending the constitution, but unless / until they are successful, shooting down a missile headed for the US will be at least questionable on constitutional grounds. I personally think the Japanese would shoot one down, given the support they've given us in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Koizumi and the LDP are already under fire for those actions. The opposition parties harp on it constantly, and they have gained a few seats in the last year, possibly due to that. The LDP needs to stay out of fights like that for now.

The good news is, Japan, unlike Canada, is interested in working with the US on missile defense. The LDP is getting into the deal now, promising not to violate the constitution, while at the same time working to change the constitution. If they are successful, then Japan will likely become a key part in defending the US from possible missile attacks from belligerent states in the region.

Nichi Nichi adds more helpful context.

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Funny, I thought it had always been here

From Indian news site New Kerala: Rice arrives in Japan

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The awesome fury of an Instalanche

My post on the link between democracy and sex appeal marked the first time I was linked by the mighty Instapundit.

As you can see, it had quite an effect on my hit counter:

There's a good number of hits from other blogs in there too, but the spike is mostly due to the massive traffic-directing power of the über-blogger himself, Prof. Reynolds. (The fact that he hyperlinked the word "SEXY!" in all caps couldn't have hurt, either.)

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You know you're addicted to blogging when...

...the newspapers are full of stuff you read about last week. accidentally sign work emails with your blogging alias.

...there are no longer any porn URL's left in your browser history. won't travel more than a weekend without Internet access. wish you lived in a war-torn nation so you could blog about it. visit sites through your blogroll so you hit their referrer lists. use HTML tags in a handwritten letter out of habit. ask your girlfriend to dress up like a Lebanese protester. watch your SiteMeter charts more than your stock portfolio. proudly tell people that you're a Flappy Bird in the Ecosystem.

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Fuel cell bike too quiet

British company Intelligent Energy has produced a prototype fuel cell-based motorcycle, the ENV (Emissions Neutral Vehicle), which it revealed on Tuesday in London:

With a top speed of 50 mph, which it takes a leisurely 12.1 seconds to reach, the ENV won't be leaving Harleys or Ducatis in the dust any time soon. But its problem isn't just a lack of power, it's a lack of noise.

Reuters reports:
Powered by a high pressure hydrogen fuel cell, the Emissions Neutral Vehicle produces the equivalent noise of a personal computer fan belt.

Not only is that distinctly wimpy in the eyes of many bikers, it could also be dangerous.

Intelligent looking at ways to produce an artificial engine noise that will alert people to its presence, making sure the machine is not silent and deadly.
I think the complaints about a lack of noise being dangerous are largely hogwash. Riders who favor "loud pipes" claim car drivers won't notice them unless they blast their ear-splitting exhaust systems at full volume. Maybe that helps, but you shouldn't be depending on noise to keep you safe.

The truth is that the deep rumble of an internal-combustion engine is just part of the motorcycle experience, plain and simple. As British Motorcycle Federation spokesman Jeff Stone explains later in the Reuters article:
The motorcycle is a primitive thing and it appeals to the inner person. The excitement and exhilaration of a bike is why people ride them.
Reuters notes that the designers are thinking about adding a fake engine sound to make the ENV noisier, but that would be about as effective as replacing a dog with a stuffed animal and a tape of barking. The charm of a motorcycle is that its noise comes from the physical interaction of dozens of metal parts and pieces, right under your seat. In our increasingly virtual world, a bike’s noise, smell, and vibration are proof of something tangible and real.

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Alan Greenspan, hardcore biker

Finally, bikes and current events in the same post! On, Morgan Stanley economist Andy Xie writes that the global economy has settled into a "motorcycle model":

The US consumer and the Chinese investor are like two wheels of a motorcycle. The fuel for the motorcycle is dollar liquidity from the Fed.

Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve's chairman, is essentially riding this motorcycle. He sticks dollar bills into the fuel tank from time to time to keep it going.

...What has occurred since 2000 is Greenspan has stuck too much money into the fuel tank and the motorcycle has become overheated. This world needs to rest.
Yeah, and change the oil, check the tires, and replace the brake pads while we're at it.

Actually, by spreading democracy through the Middle East, I guess you could say we are "changing the oil".

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Pocket veto

In USA Today, Larry Copeland reports on how the growing popularity of "pocket bikes" — functional, but miniature motorcycles — is triggering calls to regulate or ban their use.

The main users of pocket bikes are teens too young to get a driver's license. Letting them hop on a machine that can do 35 miles per hour strikes me as a bad idea.

In fact, pocket bikes' poor handling chracteristics and low visibility to other drivers make them more of a toy than a practical vehicle, no matter how old you are. I shudder to think how easy it would be to get lost in an SUV driver's blind spot on one of those things. And if you do need to get out of trouble in a hurry, it helps to be on a bike that's ergonomically designed to be responsive to your steering input, not one that makes you look like a Russian circus bear pedaling around the ring.

I'm typically in support of regulating actions, not items. Don't want people copying Hollywood movies? Ban copying them — not DVD-RW drives and Kazaa. Want to fight gun crime? Crack down on armed robbery and murder — not guns. There's no reason to ban pocket bikes outright. But at the very least, it seems obvious that unlicensed riders shouldn't be able to take them on public roads.

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Poor choice of words

Agence France-Presse reports on 28-year-old Laleh Seddigh, a successful female Iranian race car driver:

"Resistance from men does not bother me," Seddigh told AFP at a recent track race event held at Tehran's Azadi stadium. "Once I get on the track I like to use my technical skills, take control and dominate the other drivers."

At the race, the petite woman racer caused yet another upset by beating off her fellow 12 Proton teammates — all of whom are men — much to the delight of the small group of female fans watching from their part of the segregated stadium.
I'll bet the 12 teammates were delighted, too.

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Faulty reasoning

The Mainichi Daily News reports that police have unravelled the fiendishly clever plot of a Japanese arch-criminal:

A 24-year-old man who fatally stabbed an employee of a Japanese pub in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo and stole cash earlier this month has been arrested, police said.

..."I did it because I was short of money," officers quoted Furuya as saying. "I stabbed him to cover up the robbery."
Good thinking, Furuya-san.

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Former chess star and virulent anti-Semite Bobby Fischer has been wanted by the U.S. government since 1992, when he violated U.N. and U.S. economic sanctions against Yugoslavia by winning $3 million for playing chess there.

Fischer was nabbed in Japan last year for having an invalid passport, and his supporters have been trying to get him sent to Iceland, instead of deported back home to face the music in America.

Now, via Japan Today, Kyodo News reports that Fischer will indeed be deported to the U.S. — and he's worried:

...Fischer believes he will not receive a fair trial in the United States, having made controversial statements such as those hailing the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.
Hey, relax, Bobby. After you get out of prison, you've got a bright future ahead of you as a university professor.

The Mainichi Daily News reports that it may not be game over for Fischer just yet.

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Lebanese protesters quote Madonna

Last week's bogus counter-protest in Beirut, in support of Syria's occupation of Lebanon, has been decisively trumped — by a truly massive counter-counter protest made up of real, honest-to-goodness Lebanese people.

Observers estimated the crowd at about 1 million people — or roughly 30% of Lebanon's entire population:

And they're still lookin' good:
The Associated Press reports:
BEIRUT, Lebanon Mar 14, 2005 — Hundreds of thousands of anti-Syrian demonstrators flooded the capital Monday in the biggest protest ever in Lebanon, surpassing the turnout for an earlier pro-Damascus rally organized by the Islamic militant Hezbollah. In a show of national unity, Sunnis, Druse and Christians packed Martyrs' Square as brass bands played and balloons soared skyward.
And as befits people fighting, in part, for the right to speak freely, they weren't afraid to cut loose and crack a few jokes:
There was a party atmosphere on the Mediterranean seaside square, where many young faces were painted with the red and white colors and green cedar tree symbol of the Lebanese flag. And there were signs poking fun at Syria.

"Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep," read one, with a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad apparently looking shamefaced at his late father, Hafez Assad.
Pro-democracy protesters: They're not only better-looking, they also have more fun.

This Yahoo! News slideshow includes a picture of the "Papa Don't Preach" protester:
And it seems like other Lebanese are big fans of Mel Gibson in Braveheart:
Who says American culture isn't popular in the Middle East?

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Japanese motorcycle helmets for dogs

Long-time readers (both of them!) may remember that I've been trying to get our dog to ride on my motorcycle with me, and I thought she might benefit from a pair of dog goggles — "doggles" — to protect her eyes.

Well, she still hasn't gotten the hang of sitting calmly aboard the bike, but if she ever does, it turns out I can get her a doggie helmet, too:

They're sold through various Japanese bike shops and websites, and there's an American version too (shown above).

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Thanks for clearing things up

Business Report, March 13:

Japan has been slow to realise that underusing its female workforce is an economic problem... More and more women are trading in their "office-lady" uniforms, which make them look like 1970s air hostesses, and forging their own future.
The Japan Times, March 13:
Office ladies are back in fashion
...And so the OL uniform, fixture of the bubble years, casualty of the recession, is staging a comeback.

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Aussie prof defends Japanese racism

In general, Japan is very welcoming to foreigners. Nevertheless, people who are not ethnically Japanese are regularly shut out of certain bars and restaurants here. Some are shady nightclubs connected to the Yakuza — the Japanese Mafia. But others are completely legitimate establishments that just don’t feel like dealing with gaijin.

Note that this is a question of ethnicity, not nationality. When I say "foreigners", I mean "people who don't look Japanese". Even a Westerner who's immigrated to Japan, speaks fluent Japanese, and become a Japanese citizen will find himself shut out of such places. On the other hand, a Japanese-American who speaks only English could probably fake his way in.

It's shameful that such blatant racism is largely tolerated Japan, a nation that prides itself on being a modern, influential member of the global community. But I can understand, if not accept, that some bigoted Japanese proprietors want to keep their businesses Japanese-only.

What I can’t understand, however, is why a Western professor would defend their decision to do so.

That professor is Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat and the current vice-president of Akita International University, where he teaches global studies and Japanese studies. Clark is also a frequent op-ed columnist in the Japan Times.

Clark has consistently argued that Japanese storeowners are justified in banning all foreigners if they claim they've had a bad experience with particular foreigners in the past. (Or, presumably, if they suspect they might have trouble with foreigners in the future.)

In one high-profile case, a Hamamatsu jewelry store owner, allegedly troubled by Brazillian shoplifters, solved the problem by banning all foreigners from entering his store.

In a second, a bathhouse proprietor in the northern port town of Otaru, allegedy troubled by drunken Russian sailors, responded by banning all foreigners, just to be on the safe side.

In both cases, Clark argued the race-based bans were perfectly appropriate. At the time, in a 1999 op-ed, he wrote:

Nor is there much interest in the reasons why a Hamamatsu jeweler might want to keep out foreigners — when even the Hamamatsu police are concerned over the problem of petty pilfering by local Brazilian workers.

The critics are now focusing on an Otaru bathhouse keeper who sought to keep out visiting Russian seamen. Many of these people are delightful. Even so, the fact remains that people who have just arrived from Sakhalin on unsanitary, rust-bucket boats are bound to cause problems ("meiwaku") in Japanese bathhouses. In Japan's person-oriented value system, causing meiwaku is a major sin.
Just as a pothead's spaced-out rambling makes perfect sense if you yourself are high (or so I've heard), Clark's arguments are airtight, as long as you share his fundamental premise that racial discrimination is a good thing.

Those incidents took place a while ago, but Clark is still sticking to his same discredited racial rhetoric today. In an indignant February 13 reply to one of his critics, who had the gall to accuse Clark of defending racism, he simply reiterated his Jim Crow views:
Far from foreigners in Japan having their rights abused, the Otaru bathhouse and the Hamamatsu jewelry store events that underlie the "racial discrimination" claims...are both good examples of foreigners abusing their rights in Japan.

In both cases, the proprietors had suffered severe damage or loss from the criminal actions of certain foreigners in Japan. They had resorted to what they saw as the only defense possible, namely to try to bar the entry of these foreigners.
Uh... no, Professor. They didn't bar the entry of those foreigners. They barred the entry of all foreigners, just because of their race.

To top it all off, Clark's also not much of a stickler for accuracy. His claim of "severe damage or loss" at the hands of foreigners is at least partially untrue; the Otaru bathhouse in question actually banned foreigners ever since it first opened for business.

Gregory Clark is an embarrassment to the Japan Times and to Akita International University. To preserve their reputations and credibility, they should disassociate themseleves from Clark and his odious views.

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Chihuahua death rumors unite Japan, U.S.

The Mainichi Daily News reports on rumors that Koo-chan, the beloved long-haired chihuahua who starred in a popular series of TV commercials for consumer lending company Aiful, has died.

The rumors are false; Koo-chan is alive and well. He hasn't been featured in a new commercial for quite some time, however, so people started to fear the worst.

I was struck by how similar Koo-chan's story was to that of Gidget, the Taco Bell chihuahua:

As Snopes explains, in 2000, Taco Bell simply decided to end that particular advertising campaign and go in a new direction. But when the chihuahua commercials stopped, fans worried that the dog had died.

At a time when contentious disputes over military bases and beef tariffs threaten to tear the crucial American-Japanese alliance apart, it's helpful to remember the things both sides have in common. Like concern for the well-being of celebrity chihuahuas.

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