Fuji-san returns

One of the great joys of flying in the front of an airplane is that you don’t have wings or engine exhaust to obscure your view, which makes the window seat a great place for aerial photography. I ran into Fuji-san on a cloudy day in 2006, and finally got a clearer shot of it on my way back from China in 2008.

The not-so-secret “secret” to spotting Fuji-san from the air: Pretty much all flights leaving Tokyo for destinations to the west (including Asia, but not Europe) use an airway that runs over the water south of Fuji-san. This is to avoid the airspace around Yokota and Atsugi, the US military bases on the west side of Tokyo. So when you’re leaving Tokyo, sit on the right side of the plane: when you’re coming to Tokyo, sit on the left.

New and old

For those who are curious, the old voting machines in my area looked very much like this one, color and all


The actual controls were a bit different, and significantly the big lever was vertical along the right side, but you certainly get the idea.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a photo of the new machines I could embed, but you can see a hilariously 1980s educational film style demonstration of them, courtesy of the Essex County Clerk’s office here on their web site.

“Super Tuesday”

I just came back from voting in my first presidential primary election. I did vote in both the 2000 and 2004 general elections, but I was living at college an hour away and voted through absentee ballot since I did not want to skip class to come back to my hometown, the only district in which I have ever been registered to vote. But absentee ballots are not available for the primary, and I didn’t even consider skipping class for that (I believe I was also in Japan during the 2004 New Jersey primary).

I have however voted in person before, during a couple of the less significant election years between the presidential race, and I also spent several election days in the polling location at Edgemont Elementary School around the corner from my house when my father held a Democratic party position involved with supervising the polling station during my childhood.

Voting today was nearly the same experience as before. I told the man sitting at the A-K half of the desk my name, signed the blank signature line next to the photocopy of my signature from my voter registration card, and was given a pink voting slip, which I also signed. I had brought my passport along to use as ID, since I did not remember if any documentation is required, but in fact the only verification is a signature check, and knowing your own name and address. I then proceeded to the curtain-encircled voting machine and handed the pink slip to the woman sitting next to it. Her job is to collect each slip, make sure it is properly filled-out, and then pierce it on one of those spiked receipt collector things one often sees next to cash registers and the like. She then presses the button on the rear of the voting machine to prime it for the next voter.

Next, I stepped inside the curtain. This is the point at which there was a slight variation from the old days. I had grown up with the awesome yet clunky great blue mechanical voting machine, which had now been supplanted by electronic ones. There was something viscerally satisfying about actually flipping each little mechanical switch into the correct position before locking and then through the pull of the oversized lever on the right of everything else, transmitting your choices through a series of gears into the hole-puncher in the rear of the machine, encoding your vote onto the long and wide paper feed spooling one line at a time through the apparatus.

Now it is electronic, but thankfully not one of the overcomplicated and eminently hackable touchscreen monstrosities used in many areas. The New Jersey machine, at least the one I used here in Montclair, Essex County, simply has a plastic insert printed with the exact same material as the sample ballot I received in the mail a week or two ago, laid over a series of light-up buttons. When the machine is activated by the attendant, a backlight comes on behind the applicable ballot portion: Republican, Democrat or both depending upon your registered affiliation (both is for people like me who register as unaffiliated). Today is only a primary vote and not a real election, so the sole choice was for choice of presidential nominee. I clicked the Barack Obama button, the names of his four convention delegates to the right, the little red light behind his name came on, and I pressed the finalize button on the bottom right. It took only a couple of seconds, and I was out of there.

But in my heart, voting will never truly feel like democracy to me if you don’t get to pull a big, blue, metal lever at the end.

Update: How did my vote  do? Well, Obama and Clinton are currently looking like they’re tied neck and neck nationwide, Clinton won New Jersey by about 9%, but Obama won my Essex County by around 15%. I believe this means that, since delegates are more or less apportioned  at the county level, the candidate I voted for technically won in the election which my vote directly counted towards.

Manila an “anti-birth-control dystopia”

At least, that is how it is described in the words of Carol Lloyd, blogger on women’s issues at Salon.com. Due to the centuries as a Spanish colony, The Philippines is a firmly Catholic country-one in which the Church holds a level of influence rarely seen in the western world. Although the Catholic Church has oddly never managed to have any appreciable effect on the Philippines endemic Southeast Asian liberalism towards homosexuality and gender identity, they have managed to keep abortion illegal in all circumstances but to save the life of the mother. (More information on abortion in SE Asia here.) Although pre-conception birth control remains legal throughout The Philippines, in 2000 conservative Catholic Mayor Jose “Lito” Atienza of Manila issued an executive order removing all contraception from free clinics within the city. Many women in the desperately poor slums of Manila find it impossible to fit contraception in with food and other basic needs into their family budget, which has the eventual effect of a larger and even harder to feed family. This is what has women living in three urban slums to file a lawsuit demanding revocation of the order. From Reuters:

Emma Monzaga, one of the petitioners, said she was getting injections once every three months to prevent her from becoming pregnant, but was told on her third visit to a public clinic that the treatment was no longer available. “I was asked to go somewhere else to get the shots because the city hall has stopped funding the family planning program,” Monzaga said, adding her family could not afford to spend extra for contraceptives. “We used to get it for free. It’s becoming a burden because we have to eat and send our six children to school.” She said she has given up the idea of saving some money from her husband’s 300 pesos ($7) daily wage as a construction worker to pay for the vaccines because of rising cost of basic needs.

Amazingly, it took almost eight years before a local NGO managed to file the lawsuit “because the women feared political reprisals.” Unsurprisingly, there is now a different mayor in charge, and many hope that he will revoke the previous order without the need for the lawsuit to proceed. The Center for Reproductive Rights has a 50 page report, full of testimony, on the issue entitled “Imposing Misery: The Impact of Manila’s Contraception Ban on Women and Families,” which may be downloaded in PDF from their website at the above link. The report claims that the executive order violates the Republic’s 1987 constitution, stating:

The 1987 Philippine Constitution guarantees the
rights to liberty, health, equality, information and education for all citizens,
as well as the right of spouses to found a family in accordance with their
personal religious convictions. These basic principles, reinforced by
several pieces of legislation, create the foundation under national law for a
right to reproductive health, including access to contraception. [p. 9]

The report suggests that “The Manila City government should revoke Executive Order No. 003” as well as various further plans. [p. 11]

While many people look at issues such as these primarily in terms of individual rights and their effect on individuals and families, it is critical to consider the broader picture as well.

The Philippines today has a population of just under 90 million, a staggering number of whom live in poverty. I can attest from my own visit to the country that the cities are clogged with slums, illegal shanty-towns line the rivers and fill public parks, and the ratio of the population with no gainful employment appears to be easily several times that of anyplace else I have ever been. I have even heard that the unemployment rate in Metro Manila may be almost 50%.

Without high quality and aggressive family planning, that 90 million could nearly double in a generation- and the country’s scarce economic resources would be stretched even thinner. Could the unemployment rate rise even above 50%? Will The Philippines be plunged into a Malthusian crisis like Bangladesh or parts of Africa? Lack of birth control is hardly the only factor that has made Manila, and many other third-world regions, into dystopias, but it is one.

More on plastic bags

Following up on my post about three weeks ago on the movement to curb plastic bag use, the NYT has an article focusing on the success of the Irish campaign.

In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.

I think that imposing such fees, essentially a pollution tax being paid in direct response to the pollution itself, may be effective as a means to use market forces for environmental protection. While some libertarian hardliners claim that the only market which matters is the so-called “free market,” operating with no governmental interference whatsoever, in a completely unregulated market the costs of pollution and environmental damage are simply externalized, and born far away from either the producer or consumer of the offending product. By raising the cost of a polluting product, such as a plastic bag, consumers are not just made intellectually aware of the abstract cost which consumption of such a product imposes on the system as a whole, but are forced to make a choice whether or not they, as the responsible party, actually wish to pay the real cost.

Could this be a model for the larger market? It is essentially the same philosophy behind the proposed carbon emissions tax, in which industrial emitters of carbon dioxide are charged fees to encourage thrift and conservation, to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

On a side note, the article said two more things of which I was not aware. First:

Whole Foods Market announced in January that its stores would no longer offer disposable plastic bags, using recycled paper or cloth instead, and many chains are starting to charge customers for plastic bags.

A positive development from  a major US supermarket, and one whose up-scale yuppie customer base will doubtless embrace. Unfortunately, there is still no sign of a nationwide -or even statewide effort, but perhaps competitor supermarkets will be spurred by Whole Foods.

And on a related, yet surprising note:

While paper bags, which degrade, are in some ways better for the environment, studies suggest that more greenhouse gases are released in their manufacture and transportation than in the production of plastic bags.

Rather unfortunate news, I would say. I hope that recycled paper bags, such as the ones which Whole Foods uses, are in fact less polluting. Still, even if paper bags may pollute the air slightly more than plastic, they certainly don’t have as much impact on the sea.