People are violent even without guns

(I find that I’m too thrifty not to get the most mileage out of my writing.  People who get my newsletter — and if you don’t, you can fill out the subscription form to the right — will have seen this post already, but I couldn’t resist a slightly wider audience for it.)

I wrote the other day about the extraordinary violence in England, a level of violence that increased dramatically after the Labour Party outlawed almost all guns.  After reading that post, a friend send me a link to an article by Tom Gresham, writing at the Tactical Wire.  Gresham’s article bounces off of Bob Costas’ inane little homily asserting that Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, would be alive if guns were outlawed.  After pointing out the most obvious fact, which is that Belcher could easily have killed Perkins with his bare hands, Gresham gets to the heart of the matter, which is the way the anti-gun Left abuses data.

Arthur Fellig photo of suicide 1936Gresham first tackles Costa’s claim that, even if guns aren’t used to kill innocent bystanders, they drive suicide rates.  Gresham has one word to demolish that argument:  Japan.  Japan’s laws almost completely prohibit guns.  Nevertheless, says Gresham, “the suicide rate in Japan approaches (sometimes exceeds) twice that of the U.S. No guns in Japan, but twice the rate of suicides of the U.S., which has perhaps 300 million guns.”

Gresham also points to a stunning statistic about America, one I hadn’t known.  In the 20 years since most states passed laws mandating issuance of concealed carry permits to qualified applicants,”the murder rate in the United States has fallen dramatically.”

We now have three interesting facts:  (1) Mostly gun-less Japan has twice the suicide rate of America; (2) mostly gun-less Britain has almost five times as much violent crime as armed America, a rate that increased dramatically when Britain banned most weapons; and (3) when American states enabled law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons, gun crime decreased, rather than increased.

Lion lying down with lambWe’ve talked before at the Bookworm Room about the fact that correlation is not the same as causation.  Those three facts taken together, though, indicate that it’s reasonable to assume a connection between guns and violent crime.  The connection, though, isn’t the one the Left wants us to draw, which is that guns increase the violent crime and suicide rate.  Rather, the connection is that an armed society is one that sees fewer violent crimes and fewer suicides.

Lingering fall-out from our trip to Japan

Our family has traveled a great deal, but I think few trips have affected us as much as the Japan trip we took this summer.  Two things account for that:  First, we took a comprehensive tour, so we saw more than we usually see on a trip.  Second, Japan is so very different from America.  Our European and even our Mexican trip have been to familiar cultures.  Japan, however, even though it has a Western gloss, was a radically different culture from any we’d previously experienced.  It’s therefore not surprising that the trip lingers on in our memories.

One of the downsides of the trip is that the kids are currently refusing to eat any Japanese food.  They’ve always been fairly adventurous eaters, and they liked a lot of the food we had in Japan, but it got to be too much for them.  In the months since our return, every suggestion that we enjoy some Japanese food for dinner (sushi, for example, as I have a gift card to this nice place) has been met with a resounding “No.”  I got one of those loud “Nos” just yesterday, when I was trying to avoid cooking dinner, so the subject is on my mind right now.  I assume that one of these days the children’s overloaded circuits will reset, but until then, it seems that Japanese restaurants are no longer part of our dining-out repertoire.

Another thing the has stuck with all of us is how immaculately clean Japan was.  Just yesterday, my son kept asking me to explain again why the Japanese have no garbage cans in public places (answer:  to limit the risk of hidden bombs or toxins) and why, if they have no garbage cans, Japanese streets, train stations and subway stations are entirely free of litter (answer:  the Japanese responded to the absent litter bins by carrying their own trash away).  Both kids came way with a heightened sense of social responsibility after having seen Japanese civic honesty and cleanliness in action.

We are also contemplating bringing a little bit of Japan home.  Our Japanese trip offered us some of the worst and some of the best toilet experiences we’ve ever had when traveling.  The worst were the squat toilets in public places outside of Tokyo.  We mastered them, but not happily.  Moreover, I kept wondering how in the world arthritic people manage to deal with them.  The best toilets, though, were the ones with the bidet seats (like these, at Bidetsplus.com).  They’re such a marvelous hybrid of cleanliness and efficiency.  Instead of trying to squeeze a stand-alone bidet into a small bathroom (and Lord knows, all the bathrooms were small), the Japanese turned every toilet into a bidet.  I won’t gross you out with details of their wonder (but you can see product videos here, which are cool), but suffice to say that they are wonderful — and affordable, and easy to install.  We’re thinking of giving these bidets as a gift to ourselves this holiday season.  They’re affordable decadence.

 

Lemmings and herded cats — musings on Japan and America

Spending two weeks in a country does not make one an expert on that country.  Indeed, I’m sure the opposite is true, which is that one learns just enough to be dangerous.  One sees the country without understanding it.  Nevertheless, both from looking at the Japanese in action and from speaking to myriad people, both Japanese and Western, I’m prepared to make the dangerous leap to conclusions.

I can’t speak for other people, but what struck me most strongly about Japan was the homogeneity — not just racially, although it is bizarre in today’s world to be in a country where everyone, with the exception of tourists and the American military, is racially Japanese — but also behaviorally.  No matter where we traveled in Honshu, the behaviors were identical.  Everyone said “Arigatou gozaimasu” (0r “thank you very much”) constantly.  And I do mean constantly.  Whether listening to shop keepers, desk clerks, train announcements, bus drivers, subway passengers, or anyone else in any other walk of life, that phrase must have popped up every third or fourth sentence.  So much so that one began to doubt that it had any real meaning.  It began to feel like a verbal twitch, akin to an American “um” or “like.”  Nevertheless, the Japanese fully understand its polite import, and someone who deletes that phrase from his or her vocabulary is definitely rude.

The bowing is akin to the thank yous — all the Japanese do that, to the point at which it feels leached of meaning.  However, had anyone failed to do it, it would have been quite obviously rude.  I found myself bowing reflexively and then, being American, felt guilty for doing so.  Americans shouldn’t be bowing.  I consoled myself, though, by telling myself it’s a meaningless, mannered act, rather than a showing of fealty to a sovereign power.  Given the reflexive bowing, I was almost inclined to forgive Obama for bowing to the Emperor — but not quite.  He’s the American president and it was just wrong to bow to the Emperor, no matter how nice a man the Emperor is and no matter the ritual nature of the bow.

Wherever we traveled, the bus drivers spoke in sibilant whispers.  As best as we could tell, they were constantly muttering under their breath such things as “Everyone sit down, thank you very much,” “we’re all on the bus, thank you very much,” “move to the back, thank you very much,” “the next stop is _______________, thank you very much,” or various other mindless nothings, many of which had already been announced on the overhead recording (complete with multiple pre-recorded “thank you very muches”).  Please note that it wasn’t just the repetitive phrases that were homogenous — it was that identical whisper that the drivers all over Honshu murmured into the microphones.  The first time it was funny, the second intriguing, the third, fourth and etc., it was kind of weird.

My overall sense was that the Japanese are obsessively attached to behaviors.  I liked their obsessive cleanliness, since it meant that travel was less onerous to me.  Since I was raised by a (Japanese) concentration camp survivor with a fetish for cleanliness (cleanliness in a tropical camp could mean the difference between life and death), I have a few obsessive behaviors myself.  Traveling always squeezes me emotionally, as I deal with musty beds and less-than-clean bathrooms.  In Japan, especially because we stayed in tour-group vetted hotels, I didn’t see anything that was less-than-clean.

Nevertheless, even with my appreciation for all things clean, it was strange that, everywhere we went, barring public venues such as train stations or stadiums, the bathrooms were equipped with virtually identical bathroom slippers.  They might be a plain tan color or, more commonly, a snazzy his-and-her toilet design (see below), but they were all styled the same.

The deal with these slippers is that, when you enter a bathroom barefoot or in socks (as is the case in all homes, hotels or nice restaurants), you immediately put on the toilet slippers.  If you forget to take them off when you leave the bathroom, it’s akin to walking out with toilet paper attached to your derriere. Being a fastidious type, I liked the fact that I didn’t have to walk barefoot onto a potentially urine-spattered floor.  Nevertheless, the ubiquity of identical slippers no matter where we traveled was peculiar.

The most fascinating example of the Japanese ability to function in unison was the baseball game we attended.  Although I’m no baseball fan, it was a very enjoyable experience.  The stadium was, of course, immaculate (including the bathrooms).  The fans were happy and friendly, making it a vastly different experience from attending, say, an Oakland Raiders game, which can be rather frightening.  The fans never booed the opposing team or a bad player on their own team.  Instead, they cheered for their own team.  We Americans cheer too, but in a chaotic, unstructured fashion.  The Japanese have cheerleaders in every section and the fans follow along with chants and rhythmic beats on their noisemakers (which look a bit like small bowling pins).  I’m not unique in observing this.  Others, too, have drawn the same conclusions about Japanese group think as played out in the baseball stadium:

The difference is in the atmosphere of the stadium as the game is being played. Both teams had huge bleacher-seating fan sections all of whom cheered for every batter during every inning. This is not just random cheering, it’s highly organized. Think college football games, except pull people from all ages and demographics. Everyone had noise makers and shirts. Businessmen in suits pulled a jersey over their shirt and tie. Old women screamed their hearts out.

The collective nature of the cheering reflects Japanese culture of groupthink, not standing out, etc. I’ve never seen such a highly organized cheering machine in any other sports venue or game I’ve attended. Such a collective fan spirit means many people show up by themselves but instantly join in. The fans cheer while their players are batting. Then they sit down and are quiet the other half of the inning, again reflecting the Japanese value of respect and dignity for opponents.

The whole baseball game experience was charming, but the groupthink bothered me.  You see, as far as I’m concerned, groupthink goes a long way to explaining how a polite, thoughtful, kind, decent group of people can suddenly morph into a monomaniacal killing machine.  The Japanese did it.  The Germans did it.  The Chinese did it.  If the lemming group moves in a nice direction, all is good.  However, if the lemmings get steered towards the cliff, nothing will stop them.  Since morality is defined by manners, when the manners dictate death, off they all go, engaging in mass suicide or homicide.

Americans, traditionally, have appeared more like surly herded cats than enthusiastic lemmings.  For every stain on American history (slavery, the treatment of the Indians, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, Jim Crow), there have been countervailing forces, vigorously protesting these injustices.  Yes, the injustices happened, but they were never the product of a unanimous society mindlessly going along.  Instead, they were the result of societal tension and were destroyed by that same societal tension.

Many years ago, I read Pierre Berton’s Klondike : The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899. I enjoyed reading the book, but with time’s passage, only two things remain in my memory. The first is Berton’s description of the Klondike mosquitoes, which were so big and aggressive that they could quickly kill a horse. The second is his description of a town that was split evenly down the middle between Canada and the United States. On the Canadian side, the townspeople instantly formed a provisional government, and quickly had an orderly, top-down society. The American side, however, was a Wild West town, with a pure democracy, in which every townsman had a voice. The streets were muddy, crime was rife, and little got done.

At the time I read the book, I was actually embarrassed by the American Klondike town — “What violent, disorganized losers Americans are!”  Since then, though, I’ve come to appreciate the American unwillingness to bow down to leaders.  We don’t — and shouldn’t — look to a strong leader for help.  We look to ourselves.  It may slow us down, but it also allows us to innovate and, most importantly, helps us put the brakes on bad ideas.  We herd as badly as cats do, and we should be grateful for that fact.

Yes, it was reasonable to drop the atomic bomb

Almost since Truman drooped the bomb, historians have been claiming that he did so, not to end World War II but, instead, to fire the opening salvo in the Cold War. In other words, the post war academics claimed that Truman sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives just to prove a point to Stalin.

For decades, the only writer to buck this trend was Paul Fussell in Thank God for the Atom Bomb, a book that I don’t believe ever got much traction. Fussell argued that Truman and his advisors, looking at the staggering US losses in Okinawa, and projecting ahead to a mainland invasion, predicted another 70,000 or more American dead, and 100,000 to 200,000 Japanese dead. Under these calculations, the bomb was a reasonable, even humane option.

It turns out Fussell was wrong. His numbers were too low. War historian Dennis Giangreco has examined many more documents that were released since Fussell’s book, and concluded that the best belief in 1945 was that a mainland assault would have been a bloodbath:

American planners for the invasion of Japan as far back as the summer of 1944 produced a worst-case scenario of “half a million American lives and many times that number wounded.” The Japanese Imperial Army’s increased efficiency at killing Americans, particularly on Okinawa, demonstrated to US Secretary of War Henry Stimson and many Pentagon planners that the worst case was a real possibility. This begged a question. The invasion of Japan was scheduled for fall 1945. If the situation on Okinawa — fully half a year before the invasion — was movng toward the original worse case scenario, was there an even worse case, unanticipated death toll? This notion alarmed Stimson. He ordered a multifaceted examination of the US Army’s manpower and training requirements. Shortly before the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, this resulted in an ominous warning: “We shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese [and] this might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 and 800,000 killed.”

You can read the rest of a fascinating and information interview with Mr. Giangreco here.

Communicado — for about five minutes

I’ve been completely without Internet for the last four days. Some might find it relaxing; I found it stressful. I had this sense that the world was passing me by, without stopping for me to make comments about events. Such is the mindset of the compulsive blogger.

I have Internet now, for about five minutes, so I’ll try to be both quick and interesting — or, at least, quick.

We spent a couple of days up in Kamakochi, a mountainous area that manages to look alpine, if one ignores the smoke rising up from the barely dormant high peak towering over the lovely valley. This volcano let loose almost 100 years ago, sluicing down the mountain, thereby creating bare patches that exist to this day, as well as a lovely, still lake.

We stayed in a cabin that seemed to have been built entirely without nails. Everything was . . . hmmm, what’s the name? Ah! Tongue and groove . . . that sounds right. Everything was precisely fitted, obviating the need for nails or screws. It was quite impressive. Also impressive was the complete absence of any decoration or furniture, save for a single coffee table. It was austere, to say the least. Bed was a rock-hard futon, with a pillow filled with — I kid you not — plastic pellets. I didn’t sleep well, but I did lie awake in peaceful beauty.

We went from the mountains to Tokyo, where we scoped out what must surely be the world’s biggest department stores. The food courts were wonderful. They had dazzling displays for the most beautiful, and often the most exotic, food you can imagine. We managed to get out there minus only $100 — and that was after exercising extreme self-control.

The real catnip for our family, though, was a visit to the Sony showroom, where we got to see the latest in cameras and 3D television. I don’t like taking pictures or having my picture taken, but these cameras were so magnificent that even I looked good in the resulting photos. Everyone was surprised, as I am notoriously un-photogenic. The 3D TVs were fascinating, although I think I would get a headache from watching them too long.

From Sony we headed to the Ghibli Museum — and then, when we got there, wondered why we spent the money and time to do so. We had envisioned something rather big and splashy, but we got what amounted to a small shrine to the art of the Ghibli studio. What was there was truly beautiful, but the place was so small, it simply didn’t justify the $100 it cost us for tickets and travel. If you’re a die-hard fan, you should visit the museum; otherwise, save your money to watch the movies.

Out of time. I don’t know if I’ll have time or Internet access anytime soon, but I should be up and running again by the 7th.

More random observations from Japan

We’ve all said it at one time or another — “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” In Kyoto, though, it’s very much both the heat and the humidity. When temperatures are around 100 and humidity is around 85 or 90%, it feels as if one is moving through a giant, heated sponge. One perspires, but doesn’t cool, because the humidity, combined with the fact that not a breath of wind stirs the air, means that one simply gets wet.

Kyoto is lovely, but the heat is off-putting. I know many consider it the most beautiful and interesting city in Japan, but I won’t be sorry to leave it tomorrow for cooler, mountainous climes.

We’ve been watching the Olympics on Japanese television. Or perhaps I should say, we’ve been watching the Japanese Olympics on television. As far as we can tell, Japanese TV shows only those events in which the Japanese are competing — never mind that it’s the fourth heat in a swimming race, without any possibity of a winning swimmer appearing on the television screen. Medal ceremonies, too, show only the Japanese competitor. If the Japanese competitor won only a bronze, you’ll never find out who won gold or silver. It’s a very narrow, parochial approach to a world-wide athletic event.

Japanese trains and subways are lovely. Because we’re not in Tokyo now, and because we’re not traveling at peak commuter times, we’ve seldom encountered oppressive crowds. Mostly, we’ve experienced insanely punctual, obsessively clean trains.

Speaking of obsessive, when it comes to respecting possessions, the Japanese put everyone to shame. On a crowded train, someone discovered a wallet. A general outcry went up, as everyone sought to find the owner. Opening the wallet revealed that it held no identification, but only about 500 yen (less than ten dollars). In America, someone might have pocketed it, or maybe just left it on the seat. In Japan, several teenagers had a quick discussion, and then opened a window to summon an employee who spirited the treasure away to Lost and Found. I think those kids would have had some sort of emotional breakdown if they hadn’t been able to turn it in.

We read about it before we left for Japan, of course, but nothing prepared us for the microscopically small hotel rooms. They’re immaculately clean, of course, but so tiny one person feels quite crowded in the bathroom. Thankfully, all of our hotels have offered “Western” toilets, rather than the “squatting” toilets popular outside of Tokyo:

One of the great pleasures we’ve had in Japan is reading t-shirts. The Japanese love having English words and sentences on their shirts. They don’t care that they make no sense; they just like having them. We’ve tried stealthily taking photos of a few, but it’s very hard to get the words to come out clearly when you’re sneaking up on someone. Today’s silly shirt boasted about the wonders of “State of California, City of Sacrament [sic].”

Department stores here are HUGE. They’re several stories tall and, as with every other place we’ve seen in Japan, they have about twice as many employees as a similarly situated American business would. It’s quite intimidating, really. What’s also different is the floor plans. In America, department stores tend to have open floor plans, with one department flowing into another. In Japan, the stores are broken down into myriad cubby holes, each dedicated, not just to a single type of merchandise, but to a single brand of that specific merchandise. I don’t like shopping at the best of times, and I was not enticed by the busy, claustrophic approach.

By the way, everything you’ve heard about Japanese packaging, wrapping, and presentation is true. Every product is exquisitely displayed, with a symphony of colors and textures. Part of me is gratified by the beauty and part of me is shocked by the waste. This is a culture that places a high premium on appearances. It’s not a shallow or superficial culture, although one could be forgiven for thinking that given the focus on the superficial, both in terms of how things look and how people behave.

On the subject of behavior, I commented on how polite the Japanese have been to us. I know some readers wrote back about the horrible behavior the Japanese have shown foreigners. I can see that we’ve been lucky. Also, there’s a difference between manners, on the one hand, which are formulaic and kindness, on the other hand, which comes from the heart. Not that long ago, someone told me that Americans are the most polite people of all, because they cut through meaningless gesture and go right to true kindness. (Having said that, we have been on the receiving end of genuine kindness while in Japan, as well as ritual politeness.)

I’m pooping out here, so I’ll wrap this up. My Internet access is random, at best, so no promises as to when I’ll next post. I can see, though that DQ is keeping things lively, so I can sign off with a clear conscience.

Another day in Japan, and thoughts about shovels and spoons

We spent today touring Hakone National Park, the park in which Mt. Fuji sits.  As with so many things we’ve seen in Japan, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words to describe it. The itinerary was straightforward. From our “onsen,” which is a semi-traditional hotel with a hot spring, we caught a bus to a funicular.  That took us up a hillside, through a beautiful rhododendron grove, to a gondola station.

We boarded the gondola and soared above a semi-tropical forest, filled with lacy cedars; delicate Japanese maples; upright, feathering bamboo; and a whole lot of other foliage I didn’t recognize. Behind us was a beautiful valley. And then, over a ridge, we suddenly found ourselves staring down into the caldera of a semi-dormant volcano, complete with puffs of sulfurous erupting from fissures in the barren rock. 

The gondola ride ended immediately above caldera and, from there, we headed up to the hot springs. And was it hot. Between the blazing sun and the bubbling sulphur pools, it was easily 100 degrees up there. For those of us with wussy Bay Area blood in our veins, that was tough.

The sun had one good effect, though. It momentarily burned away the clouds shrouding Mt. Fuji, and we were lucky enough to see the very top of that perfect volcanic cone rising above the clouds. Then it vanished again. Apparently a lot of people leave Japan without ever having seen the mountain, so we were very fortunate.  

After our little Mt. Fuji moment, we hopped onto the gondola again, headed down the other side of the mountain and headed to Lake Aish . On the lake were two European-style pirate ships. Why European-style pirate ships?  I have no idea. It’s a Japanese thing. 

We caught a pirate ship, which ferried us across the lake.  On the other side, we wandered about the town a little, and then hiked toward a second town from which we’d catch the bus back to our hotel. The hike took us along the most humid lake walk I’ve ever experienced. Add to that about 700 stairs, both up and down, and you can imagine how wilted we were, with our fog-bred Bay Area blood. 

That’s the itinerary. The shorter version is that Hakone National Park is really lovely. There weren’t actually any stand-outs as compared to other parks which I’ve seen, although I did love that delicate forest.

What’s truly noteworthy, to my mind, isn’t the geography, but is, instead, the culture. To begin within, the Japanese people are so polite and kind. It’s really impossible to imagine the national convulsion that resulted in the Bushido culture and all its attendant cruelties during the 1930s and 1940s. The people we’ve met are so gentle. They truly embraced defeat, and turned it into a kind of cultural victory.

The other thing that so fascinates me is the inefficiency of Japanese culture. On the one hand, the Japanese are highly technical, with computerized train stations, buses, street corners, etc. On the other hand, it seems as if they always have six maniacally polite Japanese people doing the work of one rude Westerner, whether it’s manning the desk at a hot springs resort, directing people onto a bus, checking tickets for an attraction, etc.

I don’t know what Japanese unemployment is, but I’m guessing it’s pretty low, given the sheer numbers of people they assign to every task. Watching them at work, with their exquisite politeness (and their obsession about wrapping and packaging), I kept thinking of that Milton Friedman story about shovels and spoons. You know the one — someone mentioned a government job digging holes with shovels and boasted that it increased employment. Friedman said, if the only thing you want is to increase employment, why not use spoons?

The Japanese use lots of spoons. The thing is, though, that this excessive employment seems to be a product of culture, rather than government policy. Politeness demands that the public and consumers get the kind of attention that only too many employees (by Western standards) can provide.

Some very superficial impressions of Japan

For me, Japan was something of a tabula rasa, as I knew little about it and had very limited expectations when I boarded the plane. So far, I’ve been charmed by what I’ve seen.

I won’t make this post a travelogue, in part because it’s very hard to approach Japan that way. I already discovered that fact when I was trying to plan this trip. Unlike many places that have target destinations (e.g., the Tower of London, Versailles, the Vatican), Japan has cities that are must-sees, such as Tokyo (of course), Kyoto, Kamakura, etc. Within each city there are beautiful gardens or temples, but they’re a subset of the whole.

The real target site in Japan, or so it seems to me after a few days here, is the Japanese culture. Everything that we’ve seen so far is, for want of a better word, “precious.” I adore the obsession with cleanliness, which makes me feel very comfortable. There is no litter, which is a bit peculiar, because there are few garbage cans. Unless you’re unlucky enough to find yourself on a “squat toilet,” every toilet in every airport, train station, hotel, or restaurant has sprays and seat warmers and all manner of wonderful stuff.

The people are lovely to look at: they are immaculately groomed and, if young, often eccentrically dressed. They are all, without exception so far, almost painfully polite. One of the things I like best about them is that they make my petite height seem normal. Everything is sized to me, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

I’d love to write more, but bed is calling. We’ve had long days of sight-seeing and travel, and I’m still a little jet lagged. I’ll leave you with this link, to Yunessun. We spent the afternoon here, and a more peculiar and delightful place it’s hard to imagine.

Does a slight level of societal chaos drive creativity?

I was discussing James Clavell’s Shogun with a friend. I have to confess here that I’ve never managed to read the book. I think the world of James Clavell, who was a Changi Prison survivor and a confirmed individualist who believed in Ayn Rand style independence.  His books are wonderfully well-informed and have fascinating plots.  And yet . . . .  His writing style just doesn’t work for me.  Much as I want to enjoy his books, I don’t.  Every time I try, I end up abandoning the effort after a few chapters.

Nevertheless, since my friend was reading Shogun, I looked it up on Wikipedia and learned that it’s based on the life of a real Englishman, William Adams, who found himself shipwrecked in Japan at the very beginning of the 17th century, at a tumultuous time in Japan’s political history.  One of the interesting things about William Adams is how completely he embraced Japan.  He came to have the greatest respect for the culture, one based upon rigid social etiquette and one that was much cleaner than the Western world he’d left behind.

When I told my friend about this fact, my friend commented that Japan had a really great culture.  I agreed, but I pointed out that, as a general rule, while rigid cultures ensure internal harmony, they tend to stultify creativity.  The raucous, roiling, boiling, filthy, pushy Western world, while much less pleasant than the clean, organized Japanese world, was the one that drove exploration and innovation across the globe.

Am I on to something, or am I just letting my cultural chauvinism affect my thinking?  And is it even fair to compare one little country (Japan) to the whole of Judeo-Christian European/American civilization?

Paul Fussell, RIP

Paul Fussell, happy to have survived WWII

One of the best history books ever written, bar none, is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a book that elegantly and seamlessly manages to be a comprehensive overview of WWI from the English point of view and of British literature during WWI.  My copy of the book, which I got during college, still occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf.  I’ve read it so often that the cheap paperback binding has disintegrated and, when I open the book, the drift gently down around my feet.  Anyone who is interested in England’s transition from pre-War romanticism to post-War cynicism, or interested in rock-solid history, or is interested in early 20th century British literature and poetry, or is simply interested in beautiful writing, should read this book.

Paul Fussell also wrote one of my favorite essays ever:  Thank God for the Atom Bomb. In that essay, Fussell, an infantryman in Europe the Pacific during WWII, makes a very simple argument: the atomic bomb was a good thing, in that it saved both Japanese and American lives.  Had the bomb not dropped, the war would have continued onto the Japanese mainland, with substantially greater American deaths (up to 100,000 more) as well as Japanese deaths equal to or greater than those resulting from the bomb.  This was a total war, one that the Japanese started.  It was not America’s responsibility to kill its own exhausted Marines in order to keep the Japanese alive, especially because the Japanese Bushido ethos demanded war without surrender.

Aside from embracing Fussell’s logic, I have always heartily and personally agreed with his sentiment.  When the bomb dropped, my mother, who had spent the previous 3.9 years in various Japanese concentration camps in Java, was 21, weighed 60 or so pounds, had the edema of profound starvation, was suffering from two different types of malaria (so she had constant fevers), had beriberi, and was no longer interested in eating.  Had the war lasted even a few more weeks, it’s doubtful she would have survived.  No Mom, of course, equals no me.  Thank God for the Atom Bomb!

Fussell, incidentally, wrote his atomic bomb essay while revisionist scholars were mounting their decades-long, atomic-sized attack on the bomb drop.  Their contention — and the story I learned in school — was that Fat Man and Little Boy had nothing to do with the War in the Pacific, and everything to do with Truman posturing before Stalin.  Recently released documents, however, show that Fussell was correct.  While impressing Stalin might have been a by-product of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman’s primary and reasonable goal was to speed up Japan’s inevitable defeat, while saving the lives of tens of thousands of Americans.  (For more on this, check out this Dennis Giangreco bibliography.)

As you’ve already figured out from the heading to this post, Paul Fussell has died, aged 88.  He was a true scholar who wrote brilliantly and who possessed a rare intellectual honesty and curmudgeonliness that overrode his generic East Coast, Ivy League liberalism.

(A random aside:  Fussell’s son, Samuel, is a pretty darn good writer too.  He wrote the delightful Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, which chronicled his journey from weedy Ivy League scholar, to polished, Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque body building.)

Two very different shame/honor cultures

Years ago, I read in an Efraim Karsh book something to the effect that the Arab honor culture is actually a shame culture.  That is, in America, honor is a personal standard, one by which we measure ourselves.  Arab honor, however, is a public face one presents to the world.  If something goes wrong, shame kicks in, and it is that shame that leads to so-called “honor killings.”

Japan is also a shame/honor culture, one in which a loss of honor is manifested by public shame, rather than private embarrassment.

What’s interesting is the way in which the two different cultures react to what the Japanese so elegantly call a “loss of face.”  The Japanese person whose honor has been lost to a public shaming dispatches himself.  He quits his job or, if he’s a hidebound (or masochistic) traditionalist, he commits seppuku (aka hara kiri).  In any event, he expunges the shameful loss of honor by expunging himself.

In the Arab culture, however, the Arab person whose honor has been lost to a public shaming dispatches the one who destroyed his honor.  That is, he expunges the shameful loss of honor by expunging someone else, be it his wife, his daughter, his daughter’s boyfriend, a corporation, or a country.

I don’t have any conclusions to draw from this.  It’s just something I was thinking about when I was discussing the two cultures with a friend.

The nuclear plant problem in Japan — and the problem with ideologues in science *UPDATED*

Mr. Bookworm, New York Times reader, was telling the children that there was a total catastrophe in Japan, with the Japanese and the world exposed to the possibility of massive radiation poisoning.  I calmed the children’s fears by telling them that the paper could be right, but it could be wrong.  First, newspapers sell well on disasters, so it’s in their interest to play them up.  Second, I said, it’s doubtful that most of the reporters have any understanding of nuclear technology, so they’re winging it.  (What I didn’t add is that, almost certainly, the Times’ reporters have as their only “experts” anti-nuclear activists.  There’s nothing wrong with getting the activists’ point of view, but the reporting would be more honest if (a) the Times revealed their biases and (b) the Times talked to some people on the other, non-hysterical side.)  The children, bless their hearts, said “Mom, we know that!”

Anyway, if you want a view from the other side, written in the clearest English I’ve ever seen in a science-based article, read Charlie Martin on the nuclear meltdown and the media.  Whether or not you agree with him, he writes so well, you will certainly understand him.

By the way, this is a great place to tell a story I’ve had in my brain for several days.  I have to digress a teeny bit to set the story up, so please bear with me.

I own a Kindle.  I love the convenience (no more suitcases full of paperbacks when I travel), but I find the book pricing off-putting.  With the choice of free books at the library, or cheap books at Goodwill, I’m not thrilled about spending $10.00 on a book.  What makes it worse in my mind is that, while hardback books are marked down about 40-50% (hence the $10 or $12 Kindle pricing), paperback books are priced down only about 5%.  I’m too cheap to buy a full-priced paperback at the best of times (preferring to gamble that I’ll find something I like at Goodwill or the library), so I’m certainly not going to buy the same book for a mere 5% discount.

So I’ve got a Kindle, but I’m unwilling to buy the books.  The answer is to get the free books that show up on Kindle.  Sometimes, there are real finds there.  For example, if a reputable author is publishing the most recent book in a long-running series, the publishers will put out the first book for free, as a loss leader, to entice people.  That works for me and I have been enticed.  There are also free classics (or low priced, 99 cent, classics).  There are a lot of books that are pure garbage and are free because no one will or should pay any other price.  And there are books that see a publisher just trying to get titles out there and gin up some interest.

That last e-publishing approach is how I ended up with a free copy of Sherry Seethaler’s Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How to Sort through the Noise around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and Other Scientific Controversies. The publisher’s blurb promises that the book will help savvy news consumers understand the science in the news:

Every day, there’s a new scientific or health controversy. And every day, it seems as if there’s a new study that contradicts what you heard yesterday. What’s really going on? Who’s telling the truth? Who’s faking it? What do scientists actually know—and what don’t they know? This book will help you cut through the confusion and make sense of it all—even if you’ve never taken a science class! Leading science educator and journalist Dr. Sherry Seethaler reveals how science and health research really work…how to put scientific claims in context and understand the real tradeoffs involved…tell quality research from junk science…discover when someone’s deliberately trying to fool you…and find more information you can trust! Nobody knows what new controversy will erupt tomorrow. But one thing’s for certain: With this book, you’ll know how to figure out the real deal—and make smarter decisions for yourself and your family!

Watch the news, and you’ll be overwhelmed by snippets of badly presented science: information that’s incomplete, confusing, contradictory, out-of-context, wrong, or flat-out dishonest. Defend yourself! Dr. Sherry Seethaler gives you a powerful arsenal of tools for making sense of science. You’ll learn how to think more sensibly about everything from mad cow disease to global warming–and how to make better science-related decisions in both your personal life and as a citizen.

You’ll begin by understanding how science really works and progresses, and why scientists sometimes disagree. Seethaler helps you assess the possible biases of those who make scientific claims in the media, and place scientific issues in appropriate context, so you can intelligently assess tradeoffs. You’ll learn how to determine whether a new study is really meaningful; uncover the difference between cause and coincidence; figure out which statistics mean something, and which don’t.

Seethaler reveals the tricks self-interested players use to mislead and confuse you, and points you to sources of information you can actually rely upon. Her many examples range from genetic engineering of crops to drug treatments for depression…but the techniques she teaches you will be invaluable in understanding any scientific controversy, in any area of science or health.

^ Potions, plots, and personalities: How science progresses, and why scientists sometimes disagree
^ Is it “cause” or merely coincidence? How to tell compelling evidence from a “good story”
^ There are always tradeoffs: How to put science and health claims in context, and understand their real implications
^ All the tricks experts use to fool you, exposed! How to recognize lies, “truthiness,” or pseudo-expertise

At first, the book seemed to live up to its promises.  Seethaler explained that it was entirely legitimate for scientists to disagree, because science is not as black-and-white as elementary, middle and high schools imply.  Different techniques, different equipment, and different starting hypotheses can all result in differing outcomes that are open to legitimate dispute.  Seethaler explains that, quite often, conventional wisdom has proven to be plain wrong.  The nature of hypotheses is that they are tested, and then tested again, especially as new information and technology come along.

Seethaler also talks about modeling.  The way in which a scientist sets up a model — the parameters he chooses, the information he enters, and the calculations he applies — may dramatically affect the conclusions he reaches.

In light of all these variables, Seethaler acknowledges that, as she says, “scientific revolutions really happen.”  Conventional wisdom frequently gets turned on its head.  Few things are fixed in the world of true science.  What’s important, she says, is that “disputes are not a sign of science gone wrong.”  Instead, they represent scientists dealing with all of the problems, and variables, and information, and scientific development described above.  This can mean, Seethaler writes, that one person, one outlier, can turn conventional wisdom on its head.

After all this, you’d think, wouldn’t you, that Seethaler would carry these conclusions through to the subject of anthropogenic global warming, right?  Oh, so wrong.  Turning her back on everything she wrote in the preceding chapters, Seethaler has this to say on global warming, in the context of a warning the newspapers like to play up conflict, but don’t really understand scientific methodology:

Another problem is what sociologist Christopher Tourmey referred to as pseudo-symmetry of scientific authority — the media sometimes presents controversy as if scientists are evenly divided bewteen two points of view, when one of the points of view is held by a large majority of the scientific community.  For example, until recently, the media often gave equal time and space to the arguments for and against humans as the cause of global climate change.  Surveys of individual climate scientists have indicated that there is discord among scientists on the issue, but that the majority of scientists agree that humans are altering global climate.  One anlaysis of a decade of research papers on global climate change found no papers that disputed human impacts on global climate.  Also, all but one of the major scientific organizations in the United States whose members have expertise relevant to global climate change, more than a dozen organizations in all, have issued statements acknowledging that human activities are altering the earth’s climate.  The American Association of Petroleum Geologists dissents.  Therefore, there is a general consensus within the scientific community that humans are causing global climate change.  While it is legitimate to explore the arguments agianst the consensus position on global climate change, it is misleading for the media to present the issue so as to give the impression that the scientific community is evenly divided on the matter.

Have you read any media in the last ten years that “gave equal time and space to the arguments for and against humans as the cause of global climate change?”  I haven’t.  With the exception of Fox, the media has monolithically climbed aboard the AGW bandwagon, and ignored or discredited any contrary voices.

Also, considering that Seethaler spent pages and pages and pages warning against assuming that science is fixed, explaining how different approaches to models and hypotheses can affect scientific conclusions, and applauding outliers who challenged (correctly) institutional consensus, do you find it as peculiar as I do to have her suddenly announce that AGW is definitely proven and that any voices to the contrary should be ignored?  It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that, in this monolithic intellectual climate, the absence of published papers challenging AGW may arise from the fact that the challengers are being barred at the gates.

I deleted Seethaler’s book from my Kindle at this point.  The woman is a foolish ideologue, incapable of practicing what she preaches.  She’s also probably pretty typical of the science writers and “experts” bloviating about the very real nuclear problems in Japan.  That is, there are real problems, and real risks, but never trust an ideologue to be honest with you when it comes to the conclusions to be drawn from the facts.

UPDATE:  Another good example of the media’s gross (and, I suspect, intentional) scientific ignorance.

Controlling the hysteria about Japan

The earthquake/tsunami/potential nuclear meltdown in Japan is one of the great disasters to hit the Western world.  It’s worth remembering, however, that the media is a visual engine that lives to convey disaster.

This post is an excellent antidote to that media tendency, as it carefully explains why the world is not ending in Japan.  This is Japan’s Katrina — not politically, of course, but in terms of the scope of the disaster.  It was a regional earthquake, not a national one.

Further, Japanese systems handled the quake itself fabulously.  There is nothing that can be done against a tsunami, though, and that’s where the real tragedies unfolded, as can be seen vividly in this NYT’s interactive feature.

Ten thousand dead, the current estimate, is a heartbreaking number, especially in a small county.  Nevertheless, when you think of a 9.1 earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by nuclear reactor problems, you realize that the number is actually exceedingly low.  It’s low because (a) Japan was prepared and (b) the earthquake and tsunami, thankfully, affected only a relatively small area of the country.

The media coverage reminds me of the 1989 earthquake coverage in San Francisco.  I was out of town when the quake hit, and was absolutely paralyzed with fear when I saw reports that made it look as if the City was in flames.  In fact, the City was inconvenienced by the power outages, but the damage was local:  a small part of downtown, the Marina district, the Nimitz freeway in the East Bay, a few square blocks near UCSF Medical School, and one collapsed segment of the Bay Bridge.  But the media couldn’t downplay it, it had to up-play it.  This was the same media that reported cannibalism after only two days in New Orleans.

Sheep? *UPDATED*

There is a horrific story out of Japan today about a man who crashed a truck into a crowd of people, and then proceeded to complete the carnage by stabbing as many of them as possible. The story says that the man ended his spree only when surrounded by police:

A witness told NHK the suspect dropped the knife after police threatened to shoot him. An amateur video filmed by a mobile phone showed policemen overpowering the bespectacled suspect.

I’ve never been in a violent situation (thank God), so I have absolutely no idea what the dynamics are. I don’t know what it feels like to be paralyzed by gut-clenching fear. I don’t know what I would do if a maniac headed towards me (or anyone else) with a knife. And I don’t know how many people were already incapacitated because of the initial truck crash. But . . . . But . . . .

It’s always seemed to me that the nature of a knife is that, in a crowd, it’s a “one person at a time” weapon. When Brits used to boast about their lower death rate from crime, it was easy to point out that they had just as many violent attacks, only they did it less efficiently with knives in bars. In other words, back then, they were as willing to kill as Americans but, because they didn’t have a gun culture (something that has changed, as they now have both a knife and a gun culture), the damage was more limited.

How is it, therefore, that this guy was able to inflict such spectacular damage with a knife? Was there no one there who could take on a guy wielding a knife? It’s possible, of course, that everyone in proximity was already too damaged by the car crash to be of any defensive use, but I do wonder.

I suspect that, as Ymarsakar (who blogs at Sake White) might say, modern Japanese society has bred itself down to sheep-like status, with its individual members incapable of defending themselves any more. All they do is wait for the guard dogs to come to their defense. (Jews, between 1938 and 1945, learned that the guard dogs often do not come. That’s why Israel, up until recently, has done such a damn good job of defending herself.)

Do you all have more information or different opinions? As you can see, I’m just wildly hypothesizing here about a story that struck me as both horrible and peculiar.

UPDATE: I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. As 11B40 points out in a comment, CDR Salamander made exactly the same point, only better, because he knows about combat and combat training.

Quisling continues

Norway's government earned an ugly name for itself during WWII because of the conduct of one Vidkun Quisling. He was the leader of Norway's Nazi party and, after the Germans invaded Norway, he was the Government's first leader. For the remainder of the War, Norway had a collaborationist government. Unlike their leaders, most ordinary Norwegians acquitted themselves fairly well during the war.

Norway is again making decisions about dealing with murderous fascists, since its government just announced that it is planning on opening negotiations with Hamas. This would be the same Hamas that loudly cheered the murder of 9 people in Tel Aviv yesterday, and the brutal injuries inflicted on almost 70 others:

The Norwegian government says it is considering meeting representatives of Hamas during their visit to Oslo in May even though some countries have refused to recognize the new Palestinian government.

"The government believes in dialogue, including with groups whose actions we do not agree with," Norwegian Aid Minister Erik Solheim told public radio NRK.

Solheim did not specify at what level a meeting could be held, saying only that Norwegian high-ranking civil servants or members of parliament could take part.

The spokesman for Hamas' parliamentary group, Salah Bardawil, and Mohammed al-Rantissi are scheduled to visit Oslo on May 15 at the invitation of the Norwegian Palestine Committee, according to Norwegian news agency NTB.

Solheim said Tuesday: "Dialogue is the best way to stress that we cannot accept violence against civilian targets."

"The goal of a dialogue with Hamas must of course be to obtain a progressive change in Hamas' point of view when it comes to resorting to violence and recognizing the state of Israel," he said.

In post-Cold War politics, dialogue is everything; morals, values, and integrity are nothing. I have my doubts, by the way, that the ordinary people of Norway will replicate their WWII conduct and separate themselves from their government's newest Quisling act. Despite the damage Islamic immigrants inflict on ordinary Norwegians, Muslims can proudly announce that Norway as a whole sides resolutely with the fascists in the Middle East, and turns its back on the only Democratic government out there.

Interestingly, on the same day that Norway abandoned any semblance of decency, Japan announced that, while it will continue to honor prior commitments to the Palestinian people, it will not have any future dealings with Hamas. I'd prefer it, of course, if Japan would cut that entire rotten edifice off at the knees (since Hamas is controlling the Palestianians now and will benefit from all funds already promised), but it is still a step in the right direction, and shows Japan acting with a wisdom and integrity utterly absent from most of Europe. I don't know if this represents a Japanese cultural trait, the fact that Japan doesn't have any Islamists within its midsts (so it's not running so scared), or Japan's still close relationship with the US. Regardless of the reason, I'm grateful.

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