Even the departing editor of the Economist isn’t above chopstick praise

The Financial Times’ Emiko Terazono recently interviewed Bill Emmott, the soon-to-be-departing editor of The Economist (OOPS! The FT took it down but you can still read the interview here). The interview was conducted at a Japanese restaurant in London over lunch (scroll down to the bottom to see what they ate and how much it cost). In the article, Terazono describes Emmott‘s truly enviable career as a journalist and noted Japan expert, and toward the end makes the following observation:

He holds his chopsticks perfectly, and lifts his rice bowl when eating from it – as the Japanese do. He also does not make the common gaijin faux pas of pouring soy sauce on his rice.

I did a little (very little) digging to make sure Terazono is not simply an adopted Briton who kept her Japanese name (a la Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day). Turns out, according to this interview, Ms. Terazono was born in Japan 40 years ago, spent her junior high and high school years in Canada, went to a Japanese college, worked at a bank, hated it, and then got work at the FT Tokyo Bureau, where she fought hard for six years to get out before getting assigned to the London headquarters. So that confirms that she is writing from the perspective of a member of Japanese society, not that of a gaijin herself.

IMO, the observation works well to drive home the point that not only is Mr. Emmott a well-received author on Japan (whom I have not read, unfortunately), he actually took the time to get the little things “right” about Japanese culture and thereby truly understands it. Don’t you get that impression?

But wait a minute – do his table manners really matter? I mean, would a journalist in India, for example, earn the respect of the locals by eating with his/her fingers and refusing to carry around toilet paper? Would his analysis ring untrue if he didn’t?
Continue reading Even the departing editor of the Economist isn’t above chopstick praise

Best hits of Aum – Part I

Earlier this year I spent an entire month working fulltime translating documents about Aum Shinrikyo into English to be used as research materials for a report on international religious terrorism being created by a Washington DC based organization that shall remain nameless.

While I did a couple of articles and some excerpts from various books, I spent almost the entire time translating large sections of Aum and I, the confessional jailhouse memoir of Ikuo Hayashi, a former medical doctor who helped to spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subway on that infamous day.

Although I was paid to do this translation, it was not intended for publication and my client has no rights over the material, only requesting the translation in the first place for their own reference. Therefore, I’ve decided to excerpt some of my very favorite sections of evil cult related goodness to post every once in a while.

Here is the very first installment – my translation of page 133 of Aum and I.


There was nothing I could say in response to that, but I do remember feeling terribly remorseful about delaying the salvation plan. Because of that., I thought that maybe I could perhaps advance my training a bit, and even performed a bit of secret surgery, cutting my tongue’s frenulum with the aim of perfecting my Yoga’s “Nagomdoni.” I also thought I had failed to become a Siddha because I hadn’t pushed myself to the limit, so I started fasting. The result was that my body became progressively weaker, and I became unable to do breathing exercises. Whenever I tried I would develop an irregular pulse.

Over the course of three days of fasting I was able to maintain consciousness even without getting any sleep. I tasted one part of the “experience” described as the so-called “sequential states of consciousness.” As a “prithag-jana” [an unenlightened person still a slave to their worldly desires], I had trouble during the period after the fasting, when I started eating again. I was reading an article by someone who had achieved Siddha, which contained some sections specifically talking about people tormented by gluttony, or pained by fasting. Upon reading these sections, I was swept up by the images of food, and felt the same lust to eat say, eel or bread. I thought that I had been overcome.

At exactly that time, the Aum magazine Mayahana printed a story about the Buddhist training from the time of Shakyamuni. It said that during the time of Shakyamuni’s spiritual training, there was a practice of eating the feces of some animal, say a dog. Thinking that the reason I hadn’t yet become a Siddha was because I just hadn’t been pushing my limits, I thought that perhaps I should try doing the same thing as the original Buddha. I decided to begin eating my own feces.

When first facing my own feces I seriously hesitated. It was originally a part of me though, and there are even living things that eat feces. Since it’s the same E. Coli that just came out of me, it couldn’t upset my stomach, right? Inflammation of the pharanyx is a possibility though… I tried to reason through the various possibilities before finally eating it.

Perhaps because at that time I had been eating nothing but roots and vegetables for three months solid, there was actually no smell.

Avoiding lameness in Narita ground transportation: a primer

I leave in a few hours to spend my spring break in Florida—actually one of the last places I expected to spend spring break, but Ms. Joe has a new, difficult job and needs someone to give her backrubs at night.

Anyway, Narita is a really inconvenient airport. No matter how you do it, it takes at least an hour to get there from the city. Then there’s the time you have to spend getting to wherever you’re boarding your transportation, and the time you have to spend wandering around the terminal to get where you need to be. If you’re like me, you also have to factor in the time you spend being held for questioning.

It used to be worse, actually. Back in the day, the trains to Narita didn’t even stop at the terminal. You had to get off on the edge of the airport property and then take a bus. Fortunately, the Transport Minister figured this was daft, and he opened up some underground platforms that were originally intended for a Shinkansen line. (He’s a great guy—his name is Ishihara.) So today, the trains drop you off inside the terminals… but you still have to go up four stories to get to check-in. Hmpfh.

So what’s the best way to get to and from the airport? Continue reading Avoiding lameness in Narita ground transportation: a primer

First it was Braille on the drive-up ATM…

…and now this:

Hundreds of school districts in Illinois require students to pass driver’s ed, although the state only requires that districts offer the courses. A state education official says districts that require it should exempt disabled students.

“It defies logic to require blind students to take this course,” Meta Minton, spokeswoman for the state Board of Education, told the Chicago Tribune in a Friday story.

About 30 students at two Chicago high schools with programs for the visually impaired recently formed an advocacy group in part to change the policy.

Does China own your box?

There have been rumours going around that Microsoft has been cooperating with the US government to build secret backdoors into the upcoming edition of Windows known as Vista to allow easy government access to all of your private data. Well, Arstechnica yesterday did what I think is a pretty good job of putting that particular rumour to rest, primarily with this quote from one of Microsoft’s cryptography programmers.

Over my dead body.

Well, maybe not literally-I’m not ready to be a martyr quite yet-but certainly not in any product I work on. And I’m not alone in that sentiment. The official line from high up is that we do not create back doors. And in the unlikely situation that we are forced to by law we’ll either announce it publicly or withdraw the entire feature. Back doors are simply not acceptable. Besides, they wouldn’t find anybody on this team willing to implement and test the back door.

If you stop and think about it, it’s really a rather absurd idea for Microsoft to add a “feature” like that. It would provide them with no business advantage, since they’re already going to achieve high market penetration based on other features, without having to agree to the NSA’s Big Brother demands.

Now, on the other side we have China. Last year this brief article was published.

Lenovo Group on Monday in Beijing released China’s first security chip – “Hengzhi” which has been approved by the State Encryption Administration and independently developed by the company.

It means that China’s information security-sensitive departments in the government, military and research institutions can now purchase safe PCs independently developed and controlled by Chinese.

According to relevant regulations the design, development and manufacture of China’s encryption chips must rely on independent domestic ability and are forbidden from using relevant foreign products.

Safe Lenovo PCs installed with Hengzhi chips will provide security-sensitive departments in the government, military and research institutions with PC terminals completely developed and controlled by Chinese.

As learned Lenovo will officially launch safe PCs installed with Hengzhi security chips within this year.

A reporter is taking photo for Lenovo’s Hengzhi chip at the 8th Beijing International High-tech Expo.

You may remember Lenovo as the company that now own’s what was formerly IBM’s popular Thinkpad brand of notebook PCs. What you have probably never heard of, however, is the State Encryption Administration. Unfortunately, little information is avaliable in English about China’s encryption regularions (and I wouldn’t be surprised if much of it isn’t even publicly avaliable in Chinese.) We do know, however, that this group was first created in 2000, and while specifics are unclear, the basic framework implemented by the law was as follows:

Import into the PRC: The import of foreign encryption products will only be permissible if approval has been obtained from the State Encryption Administration

Sale/distribution: Encryption products can only be sold or distributed within the PRC by entities which have acquired special permits. Such permits are unlikely to be granted to non-PRC entities such as foreign invested enterprises.

Manufacture: Restrictions also apply to the type of entities which can manufacture encryption products, and such products will require approval.

End-users: Users of foreign encryption products, in use prior to the introduction of the new law, must have registered such use with the State Encryption Administration by last January 31 2000 in order to continue using such equipment. In addition, unlike PRC entities, foreign users must also obtain approval for the use of encryption products.

What this basically means is that any encryption product imported to, or sold in China requires government approval, and I think it is fairly safe to assume that said approval requires a backdoor of the very same type as the rumoured Microsoft one.

In a wonderful bit of double-speak, another news tidbit describes the hengzhi chip as a “significant breakthrough in the field of trusted computing technology.” I presume that the breakthrough in “trusted computing” would be knowing in advance that you cannot trust your own hardware to protect your secrets no matter what procedures you implement. Clearly this does, in the most pedantic sense, represent a breakthrough of a kind.

This article, also referenced by Ars, has a little more to say.

“Lenovo ships a lot of PCs inside China with a Chinese government chip instead of the TPM,” he says. “We don’t know what it does.”

The obvious fear is that the chip gives the Chinese government the ability to access any encrypted communications, something that seems particularly sinister in light of the recent allegations that American technology companies (in particular Yahoo) have helped the Chinese government locate dissidents. But Anderson emphasizes that these machines are only sold within China. “They’re completely unsuitable for the American market,” he says.

The last part is important. While many of are computers are assembled in China, I don’t think that there is any significant danger that secret Chinese spy chips are installed in your Dell, Apple, or even Lenovo computer. Were such a thing discovered, it would immediately trigger the highest level sanctions against the Chinese government, and probably cripple their subcontracted manufacturing industry overnight. However, it seems to be certain that any new computer you buy inside China will most likely have this chip installed, and even a moderately lower price is not, in my mind, enough to make up for inviting the secret police into your secret documents. It may sound paranoid, but I would strongly caution anyone to reconsider a decision to buy computer hardware in China, and if you want to get a cheaper but well made notebook PC, just save your money for a nice Taiwanese Asus or BenQ .

A question of national economic security

I’ve been posting recently on the global backlash against FDI. So, in scanning today’s news, this headline caught my eye: “INTERVIEW-China official slams foreign investment spree.”

Here’s a sample:

Li Deshui, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, called for legislation to curb “ill-willed” acquisitions of domestic companies by foreign firms… Echoing recent concerns over China’s sale of stakes in its major banks to foreign investors, Li said that unchecked acquisitions by foreign multinationals could pose a threat to China’s economic security.

Reading this latter remark made me wonder just how one nation’s “economic security” should be defined. Where does one draw the line? Borders are the obvious place to start, but everyone knows that this is no longer true. The same may be said of nationality.

Let’s face it, when it comes right down to it, when someone (be it a company or an individual investor) stands to lose millions or even billions of dollars on an investment, national economic security goes right out the window along with concern for everything else but one’s own ass.

Think about a bank run: are those people lining up to withdraw their deposits before the next guy concerned with national economic security? Of course not. They’re worried about their own damned money.

I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of the issue. “Bank runs” on an international scale are exactly what governments are worried about. But they should consider other ways of preventing such things from happening (i.e. better policy or more effective regulation) than by prohibiting them altogether. You don’t deal with bank runs by outlawing banking; you deal with them by creating systems of deposit insurance, by providing lenders of last resort, and by requiring banks to keep a certain percentage of deposits on hand at all times.

OMG, more kabuki!

When I saw the editorial titled Kabuki Congress, I knew what the next blog post would be.

The question is whether the Bush administration broke the law by allowing the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and others in the United States without obtaining the required warrant. The White House wants Americans to believe that the spying is restricted only to conversations between agents of Al Qaeda and people in the United States. But even if that were true, which it evidently is not, the administration has not offered the slightest evidence that it could not have efficiently monitored those Qaeda-related phone calls and e-mail messages while following the existing rules.

In other words, there is not a shred of proof that the illegal program produced information that could not have been obtained legally, had the administration wanted to bother to stay within the law.

…Putting on face paint and pretending that illusion is reality is fine for Kabuki theater. Congress should have higher standards.

I mean, it’s the usual NYT line, but you gotta love the kabuki.

Say it with a nose

From the greatest magazine on Earth:

This Valentine’s Day in Shanghai, people said “I love you” not with roses but with noses. Business at Shanghai’s plastic surgery clinics has risen by 30% since the beginning of the month, a trend fuelled by Valentine’s Day and the Chinese New Year, when young people receive job bonuses and cash presents from relatives. Some clinics offered special Valentine’s Day packages, such as a 20% discount between February 14th and 17th. The most popular treatment was for couples to opt for matching noses, or to have their eyes reshaped.

Liu Yan, who is 24, was quoted in a newspaper as saying, “I suggested it [to my boyfriend] as a way of celebrating our relationship and bringing us closer together with a special kind of bond.” Miss Liu said her 28-year-old boyfriend “loved the idea of matching noses”, and readily paid the 10,000 yuan ($1,200) for the surgery.

When Robots Are Used for Evil, Nobody Wins (Except the robots)

Somehow, political robotic telemarketing seems even more annoying than robotic telemarketing that’s trying to sell me something. Thankfully, I haven’t gotten any of these calls:

Column: Just a bit of hypocrisy in Simmons’ attitude regarding robo calls

On Politics

Congressman Rob Simmons wants to share a phone number with his constituents in the 2nd Congressional District, and he’s urging people to call it: (202) 393-4352.

The number belongs to “American Family Voices,” the group behind the recent rash of the so-called robo calls — automated phone messages — that have flooded homes in Eastern Connecticut, urging residents to call Simmons’ office and tell him they don’t like his position against federal funding for port security.

Simmons has, in the past, claimed these calls have caused a major disruption of his staff’s ability to do its work as hundreds of constituents have called to complain about receiving the unwanted automated messages. So his solution to the problem is ask residents to call “American Family Voices” — and tell them to knock it off.

According to Simmons — and these are his words — American Family Voices is “notorious,” “a shadowy, partisan” organization using “these sleazy and deceptive” calls to distort his voting record.

I don’t recall the congressman being as equally outraged back in 2002 when another organization — United Seniors — flooded the homes of Eastern Connecticut with automated calls asking residents to call the congressman and “thank him” for passing a prescription-drug bill for seniors.
Continue reading When Robots Are Used for Evil, Nobody Wins (Except the robots)