Archive for the ‘Recycled BlogD’ Category

Recycled BlogD: The Futility of SETI

February 17th, 2013 1 comment

This is an article from 2006, and I stand by it just as much if not more than I did seven years ago. I feel it is important to reach out and find extraterrestrial life, and the recent discovery of so many exoplanets is an exciting step in this direction. However, for the reasons given below, I don’t think it’ll be accomplished using radio frequencies.

To me, that smacks of assumptions that are almost childlike: we are in our technological infancy, barely just discovered how to use electricity a century or so ago, and we presume that this is the ultimate communications medium that everyone is using. Seen in proper context, we kind of look like a six-year-old working with string tied between tin cans. Not that the technology can’t work, but rather than there are probably several generations of communications technology that are currently beyond our understanding.

A commenter in 2007 added another point: we presume that evolution necessarily leads to intelligence, in particular an inquiring or social intelligence, when that may not be the norm.

I am very much a fan of science, as well as science fiction. I am pretty certain that other life and civilizations exist out there, and am quite keen on the concept of contacting that life.

That said, I don’t think SETI will ever accomplish anything. Here’s why.

Imagine there is a tribe of primitive people on a remote and small archipelago in the south Pacific (where these imaginary tribesmen are usually located), who have never encountered anyone else in the world. They are way off of sea and air traffic lanes, so they have never even seen any evidence of others living on Earth. They do know the Earth is curved (they see boats going to their most distant island disappear over the horizon) and vast, and they wonder: are there any other people, any other tribes out there?

So they send their smartest people off to try to contact others using the most sophisticated communications technology they possess. These big brains climb the tallest mountain in the island chain, start a fire, and begin sending up smoke signals. The communications team figures that if anyone exists out beyond that horizon, surely they will see the signals, and if they do, they will reply in kind. The intrepid team spends weeks up on the mountain, sending signals and keeping a keen and vigilant watch on all horizons for any reply.

Eventually, after receiving no answers to their many signals, they decide to pack it in. Either there is no one else out there, or they aren’t watching for smoke signals, or they aren’t advanced enough to understand or send them, or they just don’t care to reply. Regardless of which is true, they cannot find any evidence of life out there.

And as they walk down the mountain in resignation, they are completely unaware that at that instant, countless radio signals from dozens of highly advanced civilizations on Earth are coursing through the very space they occupy.

In this analogy, we are the tribesmen.

It has always surprised me that this probable truth is never discussed, that I have encountered at least, in public discourse about the search for intelligent life in the universe. No one seems to consider or at least speak aloud the most likely case that alien signals abound around us–but we simply don’t have the technology to pick them up.

Think of the scientific arrogance: we are supposed to assume that the long-range communications technology we possess–electromagnetic radiation signaling–is somehow the ultimate in scientific achievement. Here we are, just beginning our scientific development, still without a unified theory on how the universe works, and yet the technology we developed just a hundred years ago–the blink of an eye by cosmological standards, and just the very beginning of what is likely a long technological evolution–is the end-all-be-all of cosmic telephony. I find the idea highly unlikely. You might say that there is no better conceivable technology than radio to communicate–but I’m sure that what was thought of the last best way to talk before radio technology was developed.

I have little doubt that decades, centuries, or even millennia in the future, we will discover if not one, then many more advanced stages of communications technology, and when that time comes, we’ll discover why things seem so silent in the universe when we listen just with radio telescopes.

Categories: Recycled BlogD, Science Tags:

Recycled BlogD 2008: The Ten Commandments: A Moral Guide?

January 28th, 2013 3 comments

Haven’t done the “Recycled” bit in a while, and this one rolled up on the “This Day Past Years” list. I think it holds up pretty well, and always will. Christians make a big deal about the Ten Commandments, how they’re a great moral guide and in fact are the basis of our legal system, claims which I find to be completely unsupportable.

I really do believe that the Ten Commandments hold people back. An excellent example is when you hear idiots say they would have given up Anne Frank to the Nazis because of the commandment about not bearing false witness:

Consider this carefully. In the situation of a Nazi beating on the door, we have assumed a lie would save a life, but really we don’t know. So, one would be opting to lie and disobey God without the certainty of saving a life—keeping in mind that all are ultimately condemned to die physically. Besides, whether one lied or not may not have stopped the Nazi solders from searching the house anyway.

Yeah, the Nazis would probably find her, and if not, she’d perish in another 60 or 70 years anyway. Why risk breaking a commandment? Give her up when they ask for her. “Jawohl, mein Kapitän! Die Juden sind im dachboden. Ich bin ein guter, ehrlicher christlich!

Almost as bad, someone having to agonize through a mass of readings and convoluted interpretation to arrive at the obvious conclusion that one should not give up Anne Frank to the Nazis.

In my mind, if your morals are in order, you don’t even have to think twice about that. Of course you don’t give up the little girl to be slaughtered by genocidal maniacs, you idiot. For crying out loud. Instead, we see Christians having to go through convolutions in order to arrive at the most obvious of moral conclusions, sometimes even arriving at the horrifically wrong decision. The ten commandments have not served here, they have led its adherents astray, made them fret about angering God. What frightens me is that such people could live with themselves after cooperating with the Nazis, maybe even believing they had acted righteously and would be rewarded in heaven for sending a family of Jews to Auschwitz.

No, the Ten Commandments are not a terrific moral compass. Too blunt, too incomplete. It does not help that you have to rife through everything else in scriptures to find supporting points in an ocean of possible cross-references and examples.

What we need is a small book distilled down to some key essentials. Short, easy to read and remember, and far better at guiding people when true moral dilemmas present themselves. In the end, however, simple common sense and human compassion should prevail. The post from five years ago:

On last week’s Bill Maher, the conservative guest on the show made the old “ten commandments” argument: “Who’s gonna argue [against the idea] that the ten commandments are a pretty good way to lead your life, and if more people did do that, the world would be a better place?” Indeed, many Christians talk about the ten commandments like they are morality embodied in ten lines. If children’s morals are lagging, then post the ten commandments in their school room, and it’ll make a difference. Our entire legal and moral codes are based upon the ten commandments, we are told.

However, the ten commandments don’t really live up to their billing–not if you take a closer look at them and think about it a little.

The first five commandments are very simple to summarize: respect and obey authority, especially the church. The first four in particular are all about establishing the church as the ultimate authority, none others, and you better take them seriously:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any other gods before Me

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy

Honor your father and your mother

The first four are, in short, “don’t disrespect God (or by extension the church in general) in word or action.” The last is about obeying parents, which in essence says to respect authority–and let’s not forget the form of address required when addressing church authorities.

Still, how do any of these address morality? The first four simply establish the authority of the church; that’s no moral guide. At best, it tells the user to follow the church, and obey it. The fifth commandment says to obey your real parents or the church-as-parents. It is, in essence, suggesting simply to replace your own moral judgment with that of another. This is not morality, it is submission. It does not teach you about right and wrong; on the contrary, it tells you to leave those matters to someone else.

The last five commandments are where the more “morality-based” directives lie:

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

So what moral directives are there here? Don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet.

Look at the first four of those: don’t kill, sleep with another’s spouse, steal, or lie. What kind of moral guides are these? Sound ones, most would agree–but general ones, to be sure. Here’s the question, though: do they serve as a special moral guidance, one which you can base an entire moral system upon, as people claim they do?

I would argue not, based upon the fact that these four things would be so obvious to any member of almost any society of any time period that they would go without saying (though many societies would have their usual exceptions). In other words, the ten commandments are wholly unnecessary to establish these moral rules. I mean, think about it: before Moses came down the mountain, did people think these things were moral? Upon seeing Moses come down, did everyone peer at the tablets and exclaim, “Oh, thou shalt not steal! Dang, all these years I thought that stealing was moral!”

So how do these commandments set down a moral code by “establishing” rules that are already apparent and obvious?

2013 edit: Check out Babylonian law, including the Code of Hammurabi, predating the ten commandments. It has all the moral codes in place as much as a millennium before. These moral codes had existed for centuries; they were already well-known.

The real cutting edge of morality lies not with the obvious rules, it lies in the complex moral situations. If killing one innocent person will save the lives of twenty other innocent persons, is it moral to kill the one? Is it moral to steal food if it is the only way to feed a starving child? May one lie if it saves a life?

These commandments are far too blunt and dull a tool to address the questions with which people truly need moral guidance.

That leaves the last one: coveting. This is the one which makes the most sense to me–it essentially warns one not to envy others, which is good moral advice, and something which is not so obvious.

Of course, this particular commandment is soiled by the reference to a neighbor’s slaves, which essentially puts god’s seal of approval on the ownership of human beings. Something which, in my opinion, has done as much damage as suppressing envy could alleviate.

In the end, I think the ten commandments are really a lot less valuable as a moral guide than they are cracked up to be. In fact, I would point more to a passage from the Qur’an as a far better moral guide, though it too has its limitations:

Worship only God

Be kind, honorable and humble to one’s parents

Be neither miserly nor wasteful in one’s expenditure

Do not engage in ‘mercy killings’ [of children] for fear of starvation

Do not commit adultery

Do not kill unjustly

Care for orphaned children

Keep one’s promises

Be honest and fair in one’s interactions

Do not be arrogant in one’s claims or beliefs

Here, we get the “worship god” directive, and the mercy killings of children which addresses a different time and culture (well, admittedly, some places on Earth today might still need to address this, but hopefully not many). But the other commandments set rules and principles that are much more far-reaching in terms of what moral situations they cover. Certainly, a lot of fundamentalists could learn from the last one on that list.

One might argue that the ten commandments simply are the standard-bearer for the morality expressed in the entire bible; that, to find one’s moral guidance, read the whole bible and take value from all the lessons enclosed.

The problem with that is that one could extract a lot of very bad moral guidance from reading all the bible. What should one make, for example, of these passages?

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
And dash them against the rock! –Psalms 137:8-9

Their infants also will be dashed in pieces before their eyes.
Their houses will be ransacked, and their wives raped. …
Their bows will dash the young men in pieces;
and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb.
Their eyes will not spare children. –Isaiah 13:15-18

And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? […]
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones,
and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him,
keep alive for yourselves. –Numbers 31:7-18

The obvious answer to that is to discriminate as you read, to weed out the bad parts. There are several problems with that; the first problem which comes to mind is the parts of the Bible which are bad but not clearly so. Surely one would see Moses’ order to kill male children and take the young girls as slaves and know immediately that one should not adopt this as a moral guide. (Well, most people would, at least.) But what about moral directives in the bible which either are bad but not clearly so, or which play to pre-existing prejudices, like the ones against homosexuality?

Not to mention that, ultimately, when trying to sell the bible as the ultimate moral guide, it does not help when you have to tell people to ignore a great deal of clearly immoral and even barbaric stuff that is liberally mixed into the text.

And then there’s the readability issue. How many people have you heard say they gave up when they got to all the “begats”? Even if you’re able to skip over such parts, that’s an awful lot of reading to do. I wonder if anyone has extracted all the parts they believe contain the useful moral parts? And I wonder how long such an extract would be.

In short, why rely on a moral guide when one must labor so hard to get through it and wind up with so much horrific baggage at the end? Why not simply extract the valuable lessons and leave the bad stuff behind? Would that not be a better road to building morality? In fact, that is pretty much what Thomas Jefferson did–he thought that the ethical teachings of Jesus were beyond compare, but loathed the parts of the bible which he thought contributed to dogma and superstition–so he edited the bible and kept the parts he thought were valuable.

But, returning to the idea of the short-list moral guide, what rules would be far more useful than the ten commandments? It’s not hard to make a list that’s a lot better, but what would be the optimal list of ten moral rules that would truly lead lead one through moral crises and help establish a solid personal moral code?

Here is an impromptu attempt at such a list:

Forgive others their wrongs and focus more on the wrongs you have committed

Show compassion, sympathy, and kindness at every opportunity

Know that others have different views and try to understand them

Help others when they need and will accept help; be willing to sacrifice for others

Do not be arrogant

Use reason: seek knowledge, question information given to you, and think for yourself; always allow for the possibility that you may be wrong

Reign in your fear, anger, envy, greed, and jealousy; recognize them and do not act on them

Take responsibility for your actions, and do not use the actions of others to excuse yourself

Always try to work for the greater good, but first, do no harm

If you must judge others, judge them by their actions alone

See anything wrong with the list above? Have any other ideas? When it comes down to it, there’s no reason to limit it to just ten.

In hindsight, I think that list of ten is pretty good. In the case of Anne Frank, we have some adherents to the ten commandments saying, “Well, we shouldn’t bear false witness, so give the Nazis what they want.” If you followed the list above, the 2nd, 3rd, and 9th all tell you, “Protect those people even if it costs you.” Seriously, this list is far better. Sorry if that offends you, but I think it’s pretty obvious.

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Recycled BlogD 2003: Hattori Revisited

February 12th, 2009 2 comments

Author’s Note: Often times, when something is a hot-button topic, it will get badly distorted in the news. The tale of Yoshi Hattori is an excellent example. Many (especially in Japan) still believe that this friendly Japanese teen rang a doorbell, smiled in greeting, and was shot down by a crazed, gun-weilding maniac. So much went unreported–Hattori’s impaired vision, his habit of running up to friends, and especially the chain of events as seen from Rodney Peairs’ perspective–that the story as it’s usually told gives a completely distorted perception of the actual chain of events. This fact was especially disturbing to me at the time, as I was particularly sensitive to how non-Japanese were portrayed in Japanese news and entertainment media. So I dug into the court files via Lexis-Nexis and found out the facts for myself, leading to the blog post below.

Interestingly, this has led to quite a bit of commentary–43 comments so far–many condemning Peairs, some stating greater understanding. If there is one point I would make to readers, it is that I never claim that what Peairs did was in any way justified–but rather, in the full context of the situation that night, what he did was understandable. He still made the mistake of stepping outside, and that made him responsible. But, unless I am missing a whole lot, it does not make him into some half-crazed gun nut eager to find a reason to shoot someone.

Also of note around the same time:

  • The Saga of Pigeons Born on My Balcony (Before I learned how to stop them (only netting worked), a pigeon laid two eggs in a nest on my balcony in Inagi. The page linked to shows their hatching and entire childhood, which took only a matter of six weeks.)

Hattori Revisited,” Posted June 30, 2003

I wanted to touch on this story as a tangent to the greater current issue of press unreliability and the distortion of truth. It came up in a conversation I was having today having to do with how the view of our world is skewed through the reportage of the mass media. In “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore pointed out how U.S. television overplayed images of black criminals and underplayed white ones. A current version of that in Japan is the kind of crimes committed by members of the U.S. armed forces based here, and how they are amplified in the press–things like a pizza delivery guy getting pelted by a toy plastic pellet gun wielded by someone on an Okinawan base–hardly news, but it gets national coverage because the perp was from a U.S. base.

What might have been the definitive example for Japan-U.S. media distortion, however, was the case of Yoshi Hattori, the young Japanese exchange student shot to death by Rodney Peairs. When it occurred, I was a student at San Francisco State University, and wanting to get the straight details on the case, I accessed the college’s LexisNexis account, and found court transcripts and other records which told a much different story than I’d heard popularly–and which put the incident in a completely different light than how it was represented in the press.

When I ask people to recall how young Hattori got shot, the general recollection was that Hattori went to the wrong address, was met by an aggressive, paranoid homeowner who raised a gun and yelled “freeze”; that Hattori thought he said, “please,” and walked towards him, and then he got shot. That is the general story that was released in the media, and if you do a search on the story on the web, you will find that even today, the story persists.

But it is far from the truth. Vital facts were left out; the story was abbreviated, and was not told from all perspectives. Here’s what I was able to piece together so many years ago from the materials I found.

First off, you should be made aware of two important facts that contribute to a completely new understanding of the case, facts which make the incident and some of its indirect causes far more clear. The greater of these two revelations was that Hattori wore contact lenses, but not on that night: he had lost one lens, and so went without. In other words, his eyesight was impaired. One would think this a fact of great importance to the case, but the press did not touch on it at all. The second fact was the friendly, almost puppylike nature of Hattori himself: when he saw his friends, he had a tendency to run up to them in greeting. This comes into play later as well. You should also know that Peairs’ neighborhood was a high-crime area; that police response time was around 30 minutes (indeed, the ambulance that came for Hattori took that long to arrive). This contributes to Peairs’ state of mind about whether he should handle the matter himself, or wait for law enforcement to arrive.

Here’s what occurred that night, October 17, 1992. Hattori and Haymaker, on their way to a Halloween party, unknowingly arrived at the wrong address (two numbers in the address had been transposed). They walked up to the house and knocked (rang?) at the front door. Mrs. Peairs did not answer immediately because she was putting the kids to bed. She wondered who was at the door that late in the evening, in that neighborhood, with no visitors expected. By the time she got to the front door, no one was there. Hattori and Haymaker, wondering why their friends did not answer, had decided to try the carport door.

Now, a carport is like an open garage, and the door for it is not as “public” as the front door. In terms of personal space and perception, the carport door is somewhat more of an “inside” door, a door strangers do not come to. It is similar to a stranger coming to your side or back door at night–it makes you feel a little insecure. The two boys thought it was OK because they believed it was a friend’s house. But when Mrs. Peairs, just having opened the front door to no one, heard the knocking at the carport door, it was far more worrying to her. She went to the carport door to see who it was.

However, by the time she got there, the boys, again wondering at the delay, had moved away from the door. When she opened the door, Hattori reacted as he did when he greeted new friends: he ran to the door to greet them. From the perspective of Mrs. Peairs, however, this was an entirely different event. She opened a private door to her home, saw two young men–one dressed as a bloody accident victim, the other as a disco star–and suddenly one of them ran at her. Her understanding of context–night in a high crime area, nobody expected, putting the kids to bed, strange youths who ditched the front door and came to an inside door–this made Hattori’s playful greeting run appear frightening. So she freaked out. She slammed the door, ran to her husband, and told him strange young men were at the carport door, and one ran at her, so get the gun!

It is important in understanding what Rodney Peairs did to know that Peairs did not answer the door originally, had not seen what had happened, and did not lay eyes on either boy until he stepped out into the carport with his gun. He entered the situation knowing only what his wife had told him: that strange youths had come to the carport door and one had rushed at her. This left no room for doubt in his mind; he could not possibly know it was a friendly exchange student. Rather, his understanding of the local context along with his wife’s frantic explanation and plea gave him only one clear understanding: young punks outside were threatening his family. Angry and perhaps afraid, he got his gun and went to the carport door.

And here was the critical error, the one that, more than anything else, caused the tragedy to occur–at least the only knowing error: Peairs went out into the carport. What he should have done was to make sure no one had come inside, locked all the doors and windows, called for the police, and waited inside with his gun, using it only if someone tried to enter. Going out and confronting thugs may be in accord with the macho code, but it is tactically unsound and generally unwise.

So Peairs stepped out, expecting that he was dealing with some kind of criminal element in his carport. By this time, Haymaker and Hattori had moved out beyond the parked cars in the carport; Haymaker was trying to explain to Hattori his suspicion that they were at the wrong house; Hattori still hadn’t gotten the idea somehow. Then they heard Peairs call out to them, and say “Freeze!” Peairs raised the gun in plain sight.

Here’s where the missing contact lenses came into play. Most people wonder, even if he didn’t understand “freeze,” why Hattori didn’t see the gun. The missing contacts were why. He couldn’t see. To Hattori, a friend had walked out, and Hattori rushed to greet him. But in Peairs’ context, a clear warning had been given, and a gun had been displayed in plain sight. And yet, one of the young thugs he perceived in his driveway started to run right at him, holding some dark metallic object (it was a camera) in his hand. To Peairs, it could not have been more clear at the time. He fired his gun, and Hattori soon died.

Knowing the whole story makes a difference. With all of these facts stated, the Peairs’ actions are far more understandable. There was still a tragic error and the fault was Mr. Peairs’, but one can see now that Peairs was not the violent, paranoid gun nut he was made out to be in the press. Context and perspective are crucial for a clear view. The public, especially in Japan, was outraged when Peairs was cleared of wrongdoing in criminal court; if one knew the true story, one would not be surprised at all. Although Peairs made the error of stepping outside and was ultimately responsible for Hattori’s death, what he did was within the law, especially under Louisiana’s “shoot the burglar” statute.

Returning to the thesis of this entry, the distortion by the press was obviously a factual one, but also there was the element of degree: the Hattori story remained in the press for years, and for the first 18 months, Japanese papers ran stories on it several times every week. But, like the stories about U.S. military personnel in Okinawa, the story was run way out of proportion to its actual importance.

One day’s second-page layout in the Daily Yomiuri exemplified the imbalance in ironic splendor. I saw it fully a year and two months after the Hattori incident, with Yoshi stories still running regularly. There was a 6-inch article on the continuing Hattori saga, about a planned film project called “The Boy Who Loved America”–talk about your bitterly ironic titles. But right next to it was a 2-inch piece about a death that had occurred just the day before. Somewhere in the Kansai region, a hunter had accidentally shot and killed a 62-year-old woman who was in the hills looking for wild vegetables to use during the New Year’s holidays. The story, though fresh, ran just for that one day, and only got those two inches.

Reading these two articles together, it occurred to me that the Kansai story was in many ways identical to the Hattori story. A man, legally owning a gun and using it for legally allowed purposes (hunting, defending one’s home), mistakes an innocent, on a holiday outing, for an acceptable target, shoots and kills them. The Kansai killing took place in a country where guns are as rare as gun deaths–and yet the incident barely made a ripple in the press. But the Hattori case, already more than a year old, demanded a story three times the length of the new story.

This is not what one could call “balanced reporting.” But then, this is my contention: that the media does not balance, despite their claims to do so. They print what sells. They cater to stereotypes, reinforcing them.

Don’t trust what you read. Don’t trust that you’re hearing all the pertinent facts or perspectives. Don’t trust that anything is presented in proportion.

So how do we get the big picture? We don’t, and that’s what is important to realize: in this information age, we expect that it is possible to get all the facts, but it never is. When you regard an issue, keep in mind that you do not and will never know the whole story. Most people forget this and believe their conviction to be a virtue.

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Recycled BlogD 2003: Seasonal Fair-Weather Daylight Enforcers

February 5th, 2009 Comments off

Author’s Note: If you’ve read this blog for a while, then you are probably aware of what little respect I have for the Japanese police. Despite a good reputation overseas (gained by ludicrously inflated conviction rates), they are surprisingly ineffective and all too often inept. Far better at collecting fines, giving directions, and ignoring crimes they feel it’s not likely they can solve, even the Japanese people themselves generally don’t respect them too much.

This has been illustrated in other stories in this blog, such as when a cop just stood by and watched while three gangsters grabbed a man near a police station, tossed him into their car, and then sped off, or the time Japanese cops arrested a guy who doused himself with gasoline to set himself afire, and then gave him a cigarette lighter upon request, leading to a predictable result.

The article below outlines how Japanese motorcycle cops specifically strut around mainly for show, but don’t actually do what they should be doing, which is enforcing laws to make the streets safer.

Please read the postscript at the end.

Also of note in this blog around the same time:

“Seasonal Fair-Weather Daylight Enforcers,” Posted June 4, 2003


The guy at right is probably not as ashamed as you might think, depending on his particular crime. There’s a very good chance that he was pulled over for something that was safe, reasonable, and yet still illegal.

Japanese traffic police are an interesting breed. If we were to class them as we would a species of bird, we would note that they have a very specific range–in this case, primarily along major thoroughfares, especially at intersections or at the exits of underpasses. Their “diet” is primarily motorcycles or other two wheeled vehicles; they might occasionally snack on cars or vans, but they never, ever go after trucks, no matter what crazy thing one might do. And they are most definitely diurnal; you will never see one out after dark. In fact, they never go out when it rains or snows, either; they apparently have a very delicate constitution.

OK, ornithological analogies aside, Japanese motorcycle cops are not exactly doing the job they are supposed to be doing, which is–and I’m making a big reach by presuming this–protecting public safety on the roads. In fact, their mandate is likely closer to what it is for most police in Japan, which is to make a good show of law enforcement without really getting involved, except for high-profile cases.

As I mentioned, Japanese traffic cops have poor habits for enforcement. First, they only venture out onto the big roads, like Koshu-Kaido, Ome-Kaido, and so on. With the multitude of smaller roads and blind corners where traffic disobedience can present real dangers to the public, you might think they would normally patrol these areas as well, but they don’t. Even on the bigger roads, they hang out at major intersections and at the exits of underpasses only. Why? Because it’s easy to catch people there. Seriously. That’s where people slow down, making it easier to pull them over. Also, you can find people violating technical rules there more often, rules that do not necessarily endanger anyone but make for juicy traffic fine fodder.

One example: I knew a guy who rode a 50cc scooter. At one intersection, he got into the right turn lane (in Japan, you drive on the left, so a right turn at an intersection means crossing the opposite lane of traffic), and he got pulled over. The officer gave him a ticket. Why? Because in Japan, if you are riding a scooter under 51cc and you make a right turn at an intersection with two major lanes of traffic and a third turn lane, it is illegal. Why? No good reason whatsoever. They just made the law that way. If you know how Japanese traffic works, you will know that there is no earthly difference between a 50cc and a 70cc scooter making that same turn. A 50cc bike is allowed to drive in any lane of traffic, no matter how many lanes there are. When you go from the rightmost lane into the right turn lane, you slow down, meaning 50cc vehicles have no problem there. Making the turn itself is no problem. There is no part of that maneuver which is not perfectly safe for a 50cc vehicle. But the police can write lots of lucrative traffic tickets for it.

Another profitable spot is at the exit of two-lane underpasses. Why? Because such underpasses always have lanes separated by a yellow (no-cross) line. Why is it there? I can’t think of a logical reason. But bikes will often cross it, and they’re easy to catch on the straightaway or traffic light right after. Also, the cop can hide easily there, as he can at the intersection.

In addition, they go after motorcycles far more often than any other vehicle, far out of proportion to offenses committed. And I have never seen them pull over a truck. One time I saw a truck make a sudden and extremely dangerous lane change, over a no-cross yellow line, no less. A traffic cop was right there, watching. He did nothing. A minute later, a motorcycle crossed the yellow line, in a completely safe way. He got pulled over.

There is also a season, by the way–traffic campaign seasons, multi-week stretches (usually 2 or 3 times a year) when traffic cops are at intersections and underpasses everywhere, writing tickets like mad. Why the sudden enthusiasm? They get paid extra for every traffic ticket they write.

Traffic cops seem to have a good union, because they are never out at night, nor do they come out in inclement weather. Which are, naturally, the times when traffic violations present greater dangers than usual due to lack of visibility and control. But I concluded long ago that cops in Japan are more about show than safety. One example: I have only seen one speed trap (a guy seated on a folding chair with a radar setup, in radio contact with traffic cops at the other end of the street) set up in my years in Japan. It was along a riverside road. The road itself is ludicrous: half a kilometer long, the river on one side, a huge building on the other; no intersections along that stretch, no houses, no pedestrian traffic, just a nice, long unbroken straightaway. So of course the speed limit is 30. That’s Kph, not Mph. It comes out to just under 20 mph. Someone would have to be insane not to “speed” there. They put up the trap there precisely because of that, and because it’s easy as pie to stop people. Does it help public safety? Not in the least.

On the other hand, there is a small street I sometimes walk on, one of those very narrow two-lane streets you often see in Japan, but this one with lots of blind corners and heavy traffic. A straightaway, no stops signs or lights for a 200-meter stretch. People crossing the street all the time, cars coming out of the blind intersections. The speed limit on that road is 40 kph (25 mph), and people speed quite often. It’s one of the most dangerous streets I know of. Furthermore, there is a large police station right smack at the end of the street. And yet I have never seen a speed trap there, nor any cop watching traffic. Go figure.

This all jibes with what you hear about Japanese police in general. Someone stole your wallet/purse/whatever? Sorry, we can’t help you, in fact don’t even bother us by filling out a report. Bosozoku (hot rodders on scooters and motorcycles) racing up and down your street at 2 a.m., endlessly revving their engines at artificially-enhanced noise levels, breaking traffic laws left and right? Don’t bother us.

But if you see a guy on a 50cc scooter going at safe speeds making an orderly right turn on a 3-lane street, by all means, report it immediately. We don’t want a menace like that going unchecked.

Update: I have encountered two more speed traps like those mentioned here. Both were in almost identical circumstances–not dangerous at all, but well-placed to catch safe drivers in technical illegalities. But I have also seen two instances recently which made my eyes pop: a truck and a taxi (not at the same time–different days) pulled over and ticketed. I have never seen that before, either one. Not because they drive safely, especially not taxis, but, I believe, because cops give them a break, either because they share a common background or simply because taxi and truck drivers depend on driving for their livelihood.

Postscript: My past year and a half in Ikebukuro has made one thing clear: you get a lot fewer tickets living in the city. As I note in the above blog post from 2003, the police love to lay in wait on long, wide, deserted stretches of countryside road where it’s absolutely safe to go fast and yet the speed limits are set ludicrously low. Before moving from the more rural area of Inagi, I got so many tickets that I went “mentei” (on probation). However, since I moved to Ikebukuro, I have not gotten a single ticket. Why? Not because I drive any differently, I drive exactly the same as before–safely. The difference is that in central Tokyo, the police almost never set up traps like they do outside the city center. I have seen one speed trap in Ikebukuro (not very effective–it’s right after a major 90-degree turn, where few would be able to speed), but that’s it–I saw speed traps all the time out in the countryside. And motorcycle cops just don’t stalk you on Meiji Blvd. like they do on Route 20.

More evidence that it’s all a scam, more about raising revenue as easily as possible, and not even the slightest about traffic safety.

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Recycled BlogD 2003: “Has Anybody Noticed?”

January 30th, 2009 Comments off

Author’s Note: this blog post is more in the vein of how the media has been complicit in lying to us. This brought back some memories, including that I still got a newspaper delivered back then–something I long ago dropped, since there’s more than enough coverage on the web.

Some other blog posts from May 2003 that you may want to check out:

“Has Anybody Noticed?” Posted May 14, 2003

Today in the Yomiuri there were some Washington Post articles, as there are every week. As I read some of these gems from what is supposed to be the bastion of “the liberal media,” I wondered how anyone could believe in such an outrageous mischaracterization. The media have become shills for the government, driven by the success of conservative networks, good ratings for being flag-waving patriots, and the knowledge that conservatives back telecommunications laws and policies that benefit media conglomerates.

This morning’s examples include three articles. One was a “reproach” against Bush’s honesty, but it’s kind of hard to see it. While calling Clinton and Gore outright “liars,” the story goes soft on Bush, saying he is “flexible on leveling with the public,” and saying things that are “not exactly true,” but “necessary.” Ooooh, that’s biting. Bush’s record on lying makes Clinton and Gore look like George Washington with the Cherry Tree.

The other two articles refer to the so far not-found WMD (weapons of mass destruction) in Iraq. But instead of asking where they are and why did you lie to us, the articles basically speak of ways we might be able to uncover them better, and if we don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway. I got a very different perspective in Europe on my Spain trip, when I picked up a copy of Britain’s “The Independent,”, which had the banner headline, “So where are they, Mr. Blair? Not one illegal warhead. Not one drum of chemicals. Not one incriminating document. Not one shred of evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in more than a month of war and occupation.”

A slight difference, wouldn’t you say? Something most Americans are unaware of or are unwilling to accept is that we are being systematically lied to and misled. No, this is not paranoid conspiracy-buff territory. The evidence is pretty glaring, especially if you have an international viewpoint.

Take, for instance, the April 9th toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s al-Fardos Square. First we were told that it was Iraqi’s but when the pictures came in showing marines draping the U.S. flag over the statue’s head and using a winch to pull it down, the story got revised. Still, news reports told us that huge throngs of Iraqis watched, cheered and danced when the statue was pulled down, and we saw tight shots (left) of the crowds that made it look true. ABC News reported that “hundreds of Iraqis then cheered and waved an Iraqi flag as a Marine tank tow truck pulled the statue to the ground. A frenzied mob roared and jumped and danced on the fallen statue.”

This was repeated again and again over the major networks, seen everywhere by everyone. Pretty convincing stuff. Except that later on, if you were diligent enough to leave the networks and get on the Internet, you would have found out a few galling facts. First of all, the tight shots were framed so as to hide the fact that only a hundred or so people–many of whom were marines and reporters–populated the large square; the photograph below shows the whole square, and as you can see, it looks rather deserted in reality.

Next, we learned more about the staging of the event. The flag marines draped over the statue’s head turns out to have been the same flag that flew at the Pentagon on 9-11. Flags like that one don’t just happen to pop up at places like that. And as it turns out, neither do “frenzied mobs” of Iraqis. One photo shown widely in the press of a jubilant Iraqi turned out to be none other that Ahmed Chalabi, a U.S. military chosen puppet leader. Other Iraqis who “spontaneously” appeared at the scene have been photographed with Chalabi in the past.

Remember how we saw frenzied mobs of Floridians in the 2000 election aftermath who succeeded in shutting down the recounting process in some parts? Remember that we later found out that they were not only not Floridians, but they were paid staff of Washington D.C. Republicans sent down to disrupt legal state processes? the Iraq statue story is the same kind of thing. And again, the fake image gets broadcast everywhere, while the truth, learned later, is barely heard anywhere. But with the Baghdad incident, the press was without doubt a willing accomplice to the fraud.

But that’s not an isolated incident. Here’s another recent example. Last March, Bush held a sham “press conference” that was effectively scripted. Reporters were not allowed to filter in, but rather were escorted in one by one, to demonstrate White House control. Reporters unwilling to throw softballs were relegated to the back rows, and even Helen Thomas, for the first time in more than 30 years, was not seated front row and was not allowed to ask any questions. White House Communication director Dan Bartlett announced publicly that he knew what the questions were going to be and that only those reporters would be called upon; Bush had a list of 17 reporters whom he knew would ask questions he wanted to answer, and stuck tightly to the list when calling on reporters. No one was allowed to stray from approved topics, and no follow-up questions were permitted; when one reported tried to, Bush shut him up, blurting out, “This is a scripted–” and then stopped short, after which the press corps, mostly in the back of the room, laughed (Listen for yourself).

And the press sucking up to Bush not just because of the war–otherwise how come the press was so light on Bush even before the war? Especially during the election process. Remember how we were scandalized when we read incessant coverage of Clinton saying he “didn’t inhale”? The endless stories on Whitewater which turned out to be nothing? The incredible number of stories about Monica? Small-time stuff compared to Bush.

Get this: Bush is a convicted drunk driver, has a reputation for being a long-time coke addict which he accentuated by claiming he’s been drug-free since 1974, just after, coincidentally, he went AWOL from the National Guard where his dad got him into a celebrity unit and was trained on a jet that had been taken out of service and would never be used in Vietnam. He has three felony SEC violations that were never prosecuted (his father was president at the time), and “borrowed” $180,000 from one of his companies, which later forgave about $340,000 in debts to “unnamed executives.” And to top it off, as Governor of Texas, he lied under oath–not about an affair, but about an investigation into one of Bush’s cronies, a Robert L. Waltrip, owner of a chain of funeral homes. Bush himself was named as a defendant, and he signed the affidavit to avoid being involved in the trial–and he lied. There are at least half a dozen other skeletons in his closet that are less blatant, each one more around the level of Whitewater.

If Clinton had even a fraction of this kind of dirt, the media would have gone into frenzy mode. He was impeached in the Senate and pilloried in the press for lying under oath about an affair, and yet Bush has not been touched by the media despite the fact that it has been proven that he lied under oath in a serious case of political and financial corruption.

This does not happen with an impartial press.

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Recycled BlogD 2003: “The State of the Disunion”

January 27th, 2009 Comments off

Author’s Note: this was posted on the first day of the ‘official’ blog, the same day I also first wrote about eyelid twitching, which has since attracted unbelievable attention. As for the post below, many of the points could have been made recently without much change, and a few points have been recurring themes in this blog.

Some other blog posts from April 2003 that you may want to check out:

  • Days one, two, and three of my 2003 trip to Spain (day four was covered in May; I never got around to blogging about days 5 to 13, alas)
  • Enough With the French Already(My reaction to the Bush-inspired anti-French crusade. You remember “freedom fries,” right?)
  • A New handheld(Check out the cool Sony PDA I bought and never used again!)
  • It’s not hard to tell…(Elections and loudspeaker trucks in Japan)

“The State of the Disunion,” Posted April 6, 2003

This is something I’ll be writing on from time to time–not just the current sorry state of the press but of many areas of American life and culture that I find important, as do a lot of people obviously. But there just are not enough people talking about these things, or making the points that need to be made. One thesis that covers most of these topics is that the United States of America is no longer the country I was always told it was supposed to be, is no longer the country we have always wanted it to be. There have always been times where things have slipped or where imperfections had not yet been rectified, but we have been backsliding big-time recently.

One of the ways we are doing so is with the press. At one time, the label of “Liberal Media” was appropriate to a certain degree, in that many reporters have personal liberal leanings, and those leanings would sometimes color their reporting. But what effect this had on the news media collectively was mild enough that one had to run statistical analyses for it to show up in any objective way whatsoever–it was never something that made much of a difference.

Conservatives made it an issue, however, not because it was really a problem for them or that they hated to see inequality (har), but because it profited them politically. If, after all, everyone considered the media to be left-leaning, then the general impression would be that the truth lay to the right of what reports and opinions were read by Americans, and that would profit conservatives. Many conservatives felt it was true in any case because anything to their left seemed liberal, no matter how right of center it might be.

But the idea of a liberal media today is laughable. Most editors and media owners are right-wing, and since the conservative revolution in the early 90’s showed that right-wing shows got good ratings, the media has taken a conservative turn which far exceeds the extent of what liberal biases used to exist. And since 9-11, conservatives have turned patriotism into a base political weapon: we are fighting a war (against Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, you name it), the war is constantly on, the President is our leader in this time of crisis, what he says goes–and anyone who disagrees or criticizes him is unpatriotic and unAmerican.

Most people accept this through tradition and fear. Tradition because we have in the past supported presidents in time of war. Fear because we are worried about 9-11 and terrorism and we know that people around the world hate us, and we have to do something about it. And we depend on the president for that.

But the man we have in office today doesn’t even deserve to be there. His character (Republicans no longer talk about that, do they) is shoddy–drunk driver, corrupt businessman, drug abuser, hid in the National Guard in Vietnam and then went AWOL when they started drug testing, and much more… how could we accept a man with such a history? In part because too many Americans vote the party line no matter who is there, and partly because we don’t want to believe that such a man could be in high office, so we are in denial. There was clearly fraud in Florida–non-felon Democrats, mostly African-Americans, forbidden to vote because of a rigged “felon” blacklist created by the Republican Attorney General of Florida, absentee ballot tampering by Republicans of thousands of ballots in two counties (solidly proven to have ocurred, confessed to by the election officials who let it happen), these just being a few examples. All illegal, each one by themselves turning enough votes to Bush to win him the election, and then the tsunami wave of political and illicit judicial action to deny a recount. Gore won by more than a half million votes. Blatantly illegal vote tampering in Florida turned thousands of votes to Bush in that state, who won the vital electoral votes for the state by just over 500 votes. But we tolerated it because too many believed the faked outrage in Florida, but more because we value stability higher than out-and-out justice.

And now this leader is thought of as a hero–not because he did anything heroic, but because in our time of crisis we needed a great leader, so we fabricated one out of whole cloth.

And the press? Not just conservative-leaning, but now blinded, and blinded by themselves. Shilling for the government is so blatant that the news agencies hardly cover it up any more. Of course, they do not focus attention on it, and so many do not hear of it and do not think of it. But it’s clearly there if you look.

Take the president’s last “news conference,” for example. That was a news conference? No, it wasn’t–it was a sham. A scripted mockery of a press conference. Here are a few things that were wrong:

1. The first two questions were pre-approved and the answers carefully scripted (considered commonplace now)

2. Reporters who were known to ask tough questions were not allowed to participate, or were seated in back and not called upon

3. Helen Thomas, Dean (or “doyenne”) of the press corps, for the first time in several decades, was relegated to the third row and was not allowed to ask Bush a question (she’s known to ask tough questions and would not play ball in the charade)

4. Bush had a list of 17 reporters whom he knew would toss softballs, and asked only them for questions, sticking tightly to the list

5. No follow-ups were permitted; when one reported tried to, Bush shut him up, blurting out, “This is a scripted–” and then stopped short, after which the press corps, mostly in the back of the room, laughed (search this page for the word “scripted”; and here is a link to a site with an audio recording of it)

6. No reporters were allowed to stray off the White House’s approved topics, even though a story about U.S. spying on U.N. Security Council Members had just broken, not to mention a lot of other important stories; questions were not allowed to be overly critical

7. White House Communication director Dan Bartlett announced publicly that he knew what the questions were going to be and that only those reporters would be called upon

8. Many other small details, including items such as how reporters were closely escorted into the press room in pairs, added to the controlled atmosphere of the news conference.

Just as disturbing, the president’s slip about the conference being “scripted” was audible and clear. There is no mistaking what he said if you listen to it. And yet, The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Fox News, and Wall Street Journal all printed transcripts with the word “scripted” altered to “unscripted”–some transcripts rewriting more than just that one word, editing and adding at different points.

And this is just one example. How about Fox News? I know some people whom I otherwise consider intelligent who believe that Fox is not conservative. Um, yeah. A week ago, there was a legal protest against the war, and Fox News, supposedly an “unbiased” news source, in their streaming banner, displayed the following “news items”:

“War protester auditions here today … thanks for coming!”

“Who won your right to show up here today? Protesters or soldiers?”

“How do you keep a war protester in suspense? Ignore them.”

“Attention protesters: the Michael Moore Fan Club meets Thursday at a phone booth at Sixth Avenue and 50th Street”

And to wrap up what could be a lot more ranting if I didn’t stop myself, was something that I swear to God I heard on CNN a few days ago. CNN was showing a press conference being held by the Iraqi government, their usual propaganda line, and in mid-conference, CNN cuts away. Says the CNN reporter: “We’re cutting away because we don’t think that the government wants to see that.”

I swear to God, that’s what she said.

We don’t have a press anymore, we really don’t. Read the Canadian news for slightly more balanced coverage.

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