F-U journalism from Matt Taibbi

Following on the heels of yesterday’s post on a 1993 long-form, take-down profile of Gregory Clark, readers might be interested in taking a look at Matt Taibbi. He is a true master of what I call fuck-you journalism, something of a subset of gonzo style. If you thought the reporter for The Australian was a little harsh, you haven’t seen anything. Taibbi has got to be the biggest out-and-out dickhead in the entire business, though I am sure he could find far more biting insults for himself. Some choice bits:

On the death of Yeltsin:

Death of a Drunk
At long last, former Russian president and notorious booze-hound Boris Yeltsin dies

Boris Yeltsin probably had more obituaries ready in the world’s editorial cans than any chronically-ill famous person in history. He has been dying for at least twenty consecutive years now — although he only started dying physically about ten years ago, he has been dying in a moral sense since at least the mid-Eighties. Of course, spiritually speaking, he’s been dead practically since birth…I once visited Boris Yeltsin’s birthplace, in a village in the Talitsky region of the Sverdlovsk district in the Urals, in a tiny outhouse of a village called Butka. I knocked on the door of the shack where Yeltsin was born and stepped in the soft ground where his room had once been. Boris Yeltsin was literally born in mud and raised in shit. He was descended from a long line of drunken peasants who in hundreds of years of non-trying had failed to escape the stinky-ass backwater of the Talitsky region, a barren landscape of mud and weeds whose history is so undistinguished that even the most talented Russian historians struggle to find mention of it in imperial documents.

Reviewing Thomas Friedman’s latest book:

When some time ago a friend of mine told me that Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, was going to be a kind of environmentalist clarion call against American consumerism, I almost died laughing.

Beautiful, I thought. Just when you begin to lose faith in America’s ability to fall for absolutely anything—just when you begin to think we Americans as a race might finally outgrow the lovable credulousness that leads us to fork over our credit card numbers to every half-baked TV pitchman hawking a magic dick-enlarging pill, or a way to make millions on the Internet while sitting at home and pounding doughnuts— along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 114,000 11,400 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”? Well, he’ll explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95, $30.95 if you have the misfortune to be Canadian.

I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn’t make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the “illustrative” figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman’s take on Bush’s Iraq policy? “It’s OK to throw out your steering wheel,” he wrote, “as long as you remember you’re driving without one.” Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman’s analysis of America’s foreign policy outlook last May:

The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.

And on Tom Daschle (Glenn Greenwald dug this up when the tax problems that cost Daschle his cabinet position surfaced):

I know several reporters who are either officially or unofficially on “Whore Factor” duty, watching the rapidly kaleidoscoping transition picture and keeping track of the number of known whores and ghouls who for some reason have been invited to befoul the atmosphere of the next administration.

Obviously there has been some dire news on that front already. When Obama picked Tom Daschle to be the HHS Secretary, I nearly shit my pants. In Washington there are whores and there are whores, and then there is Tom Daschle. Tom Daschle would suck off a corpse for a cheeseburger. True, he is probably only the second-biggest whore for the health care industry in American politics — the biggest being doctor/cat-torturer Bill Frist, whose visit to South Dakota on behalf of John Thune in 2004 was one of the factors in ending Daschle’s tenure in the Senate.

But in picking Daschle — who as an adviser to the K Street law firm Alston and Bird has spent the last four years burning up the sheets with the nation’s fattest insurance and pharmaceutical interests — Obama is essentially announcing that he has no intention of seriously reforming the health care industry. . . .

Regarding Daschle, remember, we’re talking about a guy who not only was a consultant for one of the top health-care law firms in the country, but a board member of the Mayo Clinic (a major recipient of NIH grants) and the husband of one of America’s biggest defense lobbyists — wife Linda Hall lobbies for Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Does anyone really think that this person is going to come up with a health care proposal that in any way cuts into the profits of the major health care companies?

That image has been burned into my head over the past week or so…

Of course, in Japan Taibbi would find himself up to his ears in defamation suits. In the US, he appears merely to be ignored as a sensationalist who can only get published in Rolling Stone.

A hypothesis regarding Japanese universities

The Japanese university model of education is in reality more like a European model in which most of the work is focused on seminars and final projects, and where most lectures and other courses are borderline optional. However, due to post-WW2 reforms the Japanese university system is institutionally based on the American model, and therefore has a superficial structure of grades, credits, homework, etc. that is often but weakly related to the more important areas. This disconnect makes Japanese universities (which do have serious problems) look even worse than they really are, and in fact contributes to their degradation.

As a hypothesis I haven’t thought about this too hard or looked for any evidence but would like to see some discussion. Thoughts?

Yakuza visibility

One of the distinctive characteristics of Japan’s yakuza, as compared with similar mafia type organizations in other countries around the world, is their sometimes incomprehensible blatantness. Where the American Mafia used to officially deny its own existence, Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest Yakuza “family”, has a sign outside their headquarters and a PR officer.

The other weekend Joe and I were in Osaka and happened to pass through the lobby of the Rihga Royal Hotel in Naka no Shima coming out of the subway and noticed that there were signs out advertising meeting places for two parties with rather unusual names:  昭成会 and 朝日会. 昭成会 (Shou-sei-kai) is obviously a reference to 昭和 (Showa) and 平成 (Heisei), the former and current Emperor/historical period of Japan, and 朝日会 (Asahi) just has a nationalistic ring but could mean almost anything. A quick mobile phone Google confirmed that 昭成会 is a known Yakuza group and Yamaguchi-gumi affiliate based in Ishikawa Prefecture. Asahi-kai is far less obvious. A few minutes of poking around just now showed a medical group and an Asahi newspaper distributor, but no obvious gangs of that name.

So basically, one confirmed Yakuza conference at the Righa Royal Hoten on January 24.

Have keitai novels gone the way of the maid cafe?

Update on keitai novels: they’re dead! At least, it looks that way in the publishing industry.

According to J-Cast, Kinokuniya rankings show that not a single keitai novel made an appearance in the top 100 sellers of 2008, despite ongoing heavy promotion of the genre.

One publisher blames the sluggish publishing sales on a lack of an impactful release during the year. That, and the fact that “keitai novel” releases went from 1 or two titles a a month in 2007 to around a dozen in 2008, reportedly resulting in a more dispersed readership. However, the drama and movie versions of “Red String” have expanded the genre’s fan base, as evidenced by growing traffic and registered users at major site Orion.

But given the originally non-commercial and independent nature of keitai novels (really, a form of fictionalized blogging), one view, backed up by an unnamed industry insider, notes that going mainstream made the genre less grassroots and thus less cool. As a result, writers/consumers may have lost interest as the “independent” feeling of community was lost. Indeed, popularity of select titles has meant stable fan bases for particular authors, making it harder for less established newcomers to make money on a book gig (sounds like the traditional publishing industry, no?).

So that means in 2008, as NHK, Japan bloggers, and even the New Yorker marveled at this new consumer development, the actual fad had already begun to fade. Doesn’t it feel kind of dirty to have been part of the dreaded “Newsweek effect.”

$20 laptop in the near future?

From Financial Times:

FT: India To Follow $2,000 Car With $20 Laptop

India is planning to produce a laptop computer for the knockdown price of about $20, having come up with the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car at about $2,000.

India’s “Sakshat” laptop is intended to boost distance learning to help India fulfil its overwhelming educational needs… However, some analysts are sceptical that a $20 laptop would be commercially sustainable and the project has yet to attract a commercial partner.

A prototype will go on show at a National Mission on Education launch in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, tomorrow… the laptop has 2Gb Ram capacity and wireless connectivity.

R.P. Agrawal, secretary of secondary and higher education, said last week that the cost of the laptop was about $20 a unit, but he expected that to fall. He also said he expected the units to be commercially available in six months.

We will have to wait and see this prototype, but I am also pretty skeptical, especially considering the lack of details at this point. You have to wonder what features it could have for $20.

Clueless police

Pointless shaming of athletes for marijuana have made international headlines with the Phelps “scandal”, but the ongoing series of sumo related marijuana arrests here in Japan has hit a new low. According to today’s Japan Times:

Wakakirin has allegedly admitted possessing the marijuana with the intention of using it, though police said they doubted his explanation of how he smoked it.

He reportedly told investigators he hollowed out a cigar, blended the tobacco with marijuana and put the mixture back into the cigar and smoked it, but a senior prefectural police official said it isn’t normal to inhale cigars in the same way as smoking marijuana.

Really? A “senior prefectural police official” making public statements on a criminal drug investigation hasn’t heard of a blunt? Someone needs to get the Yokohama police a subscription to MTV so they can watch some hip hop videos. This would just be pure comedy if it didn’t imply that they were casting doubt on Wakakirin’s entire story in an attempt to frame him for the Japanese equivalent of “possession with intent to distribute”, whatever it may actually be called here.

The original fortune cookie

This may shock you, but fortune cookies are not Chinese food, nor are they really Chinese-American food. They started out as a Japanese product, and were copied by Chinese-Americans in San Francisco decades ago to form the dessert staple of cheap Chinese restaurants across the US. (This was detailed in a New York Times article last year, and linked by Roy in a post which I somehow missed; I learned of it from watching the author of said article, Jennifer Lee, give this fascinating presentation on the evolution of Chinese food outside China.)

The predecessor of the Chinese-American fortune cookie is the tsujiura senbei, a cookie made of flour, sugar and miso which is sold at certain shrines. According to Wikipedia, it comes from the Hokuriku region. But after some Googling, I found out that these are still made and sold at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, and since I was visiting the city anyway, I decided to track some down. Sure enough, they were being sold in a few shops near the shrine, including one shop where they were being hand-made by an old fellow with a cast iron machine (as per the NYT article, which I didn’t discover until later).

As you can see, it’s larger than a fortune cookie, and the fortune (omikuji, actually) is held by the cookie’s fold rather than inside the cookie itself. In fact, there’s another surprise inside the cookie:

Those are dried soybeans, which serve to give the cookie a pleasant rattle as you shake it around. Hence the alternative name suzu sembei or “bell cookie.” I’m sure this was intended to please a hard-of-hearing Shinto deity, or something like that, but to me it was just an interesting modification on the fortune cookie style I grew up with.

The actual fortune looks like this:

And I’m pretty sure that it’s funny when you add “in bed” to the end. Some things are simply constant across cultures…

[Updated by Roy]

Unfortunately I had forgotten to charge my camera battery that day, but I got a few shots of the cookie making process before it died. They aren’t great, but I think you can get a fair idea of it.

What Joe forgot to mention-and this is critical information-is that they are miso flavored! There was a sign in all the shop windows saying this, and advertising that no eggs are used. Trying for the vegan market?