Saturday, December 14, 2013

Baby Offsets

One argument I often hear from my environmentalist friends is that overpopulation is a big problem, and therefore they are generously foregoing having children for the sake of the environment. I don't believe them.

First, as I noted earlier this month, the maximum sustainable population of the earth is far, far higher than either our current population of just over seven billion, or the UN's prediction of around eleven billion at century's end. Given declining fertility rates, something around the latter figure is likely to be our maximum population unless there is some drastic political or economic shift. It is clear that from a physical and biological point of view, our population will never reach its constraints. Any ceiling on our population is instead defined by poor political policy and human ignorance, which lead to inefficiency and waste.

Second, even if overpopulation were a problem, there is a simple solution - baby offsets. What are they? Well, they work just like carbon offsets, of which I am an annual purchaser, and highly recommend. With carbon offsets, you pay a qualify provider an amount based on your personal emissions, and they use the money to fund clean energy sources, focusing as best they can on ensuring they are additional and not just paying someone to do what they would have done anyway, in an amount sufficient to offset any emissions you made.

Baby offsets work the same way, but instead of carbon offset providers like Terrapass or Native Energy (both recommended), you donate your money to a good international family planning organization instead, such as Pathfinder International. It takes about $100 for such organizations to prevent one unintended pregnacy in a developing country, so even if you assume that your child will be a typical American and pollute far more than the world average, you can simply donate $1000-$2000 and be sure that the net impact of your actions is an environmental and social positive. Better yet, teach your children to be a friends of the environment rather than typical American pigs, and make it a win-win situation! And before you ask, if you don't have a couple grand to spare, you probably aren't ready to have kids anway. $2000 is much, much less than the several hundred thousand your potential child is going to cost you over the coming years. In any case, it would be fair to pay for the offsets over time, say $100 per year, rather than as a lump sum.

So there you go, my environmenatlists friends. Have all the children you want. There is plenty of room, and offsetting any messes they make is easy.


Post-script: Strangely, every time I bring this up with environmentalists they get a bit huffy. It is almost as if they didn't really want stinky, annoying, extremely expensive children in the first place, and were just engaging in the time-honored tradition of rationalizing their self-interest as an act of sacrifice. Who would have guessed...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So I lost my health insurance today...

Yep, I "lost" "my" health insurance today. It's annual enrollment time at work! I had a whopping three options, one of which was pretty similar to the one I had this year. It'll be disappearing next year, though, and I will have to switch to a quite different plan. None of this has to do with the PPACA ("Obamacare"), of course. In fact, the law caused several positive changes in our coverage. Price increases were modest with respect to other years.

Now let's compare my hideous, awful, evil situation, which is pretty much what everyone who has employer based insurance experiences almost every year, with those poor, woeful 5,000,000 or so souls who received cancellations from their insurer and have now "lost" "their" know, the ones Republicans are screaming bloody murder about?

Well, if they happen to be 38-year-old males residing in Ohio, like myself, they would have thirty or more choices of plans, easily found by going to sites like or even the now mostly-functional I happen to know how much my employer spends on health care per employee, and trust me, the prices at either of these places are very comparable to the gold/silver plan my employer provides. And of course, acceptance in these plans is guaranteed, thanks to the PPACA. They aren't the old bait-and-switch that only healthy 23-year-olds actually qualified for, which was the norm before this year.

As far as I can tell, the five million folks who have "lost" "their" insurance due to the PPACA actually have it at least as good if not better than I do, and I have what is considered good employer insurance. As always, this matter is just a tempest in a teapot. Yes, a few people will have to pay more (for generally better insurance), but just as many or more will pay less. The ACA did not re-invent actuarial tables, so while costs might get shuffled around a bit, the total remains the same.

While the PPACA is vastly less preferable than Medicare for All, or even VA for All, it is certainly better than what it replaced. It is time for Republicans to quit trying to sabotage the ship and start helping to polish it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

People, People Everywhere!

Yesterday, I posted my thoughts on the maximum sustainable human population, given current technology and land forms. But what if we got rid of those constraints and made some plausible guesses about future technology? How high can we go from 25 billion?

The biggest improvement would come from increasing crop yields. Yesterday's assumptions were a mostly vegetarian diet produced with modern organic yields. However, crop yields are slowly and steadily increasing, including organic at places like Rodale Intitute, a leading organic research farm. Additionally, if you combined organic with genetically modified organisms and otherwise got rid of some of the anti-scientific elements of the organic movement, it is easy to imagine increasing crop yields significantly.

There are other potential tricks up our sleeve as well. For example, climate change will have a mixed effect on crop yields, as CO2 fertilization battles it out with water stress and desertification. If we can mitigate the latter, crop yields for many staples could increase by 10-15%. Or we could get more wild, and used space-based reflectors to alter seasons, cooling the equatorial regions and warming the arctic areas in particular, perhaps by lengthening the evenings in the cooler half of the year. This would result in longer growing seasons (or multiple seasons) than is the current case, increasing yields. We could also engage in cloud seeding and increase rainfall in areas that are water-constrained. All in all, we might be able to increase crop yields by a third or half relative to modern organic practice, feeding an extra 8-12 billion, on current land.

Also, fungi are a possible food source that I did not mention yesterday. They can be grown underground using forest waste as their food source, providing us with just a bit more food. Another trick we might use is ocean fertilization, to increase the productivity of the oceans by seeding the relatively dead areas with the minerals that are constraining biological activity. Of course, land reclamation from the ocean is also possible in some places. This land could be used either for farming directly or more likely, used for living space, freeing up interior lands for farming. Synthetic foods are another real possibility, and may beat out photosynthesis on a total energy basis. If this were ever successful, the maximum population could be substantially higher. It is almost impossible to estimate at this point, however.

If solar PV efficiency increases (and it will), naturally less land will be used. So yesterday's land use assumptions were unnecessarily pessimistic, and the reality would be that some of the land assigned to PV could be reassigned to food production. Also note that we can (and do) get some of our energy from other renewable sources such as hydro, wind, tidal, and geothermal, which are more space efficient. Ignoring these made yesterday's estimates too high. Likewise, I assumed that the new population would live on the same land as we are currently using, but if we wanted to, we could go even higher density than that. It is certainly possible, and this would reclaim more land - often prime farm land - for food production. On top of all this, wide-scale terraforming is possible. Much of the marginal land that was assigned as "Other" or meadows or unfarmable forest is unfarmable precisely because it is hilly. We have bulldozers, and lots of time, making it possible to reclaim some of this land for productive use.

Oh, and there is no reason we cannot change ourselves. Using genetic engineering, we could make ourselves smaller and select for the most energy efficient among us, cutting our caloric needs dramatically.

Combining all this, I can certainly imagine something like 40 or even 50 billion people living on earth, in a sustainable manner, with a level of comfort similar to that of the citizens of modern industrial economies.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

To 25 Billion...and beyond!

What is the maximum number of people that could live in reasonable comfort on earth in a sustainable manner? It really depends on how you frame the question and the assumptions you make, but for the moment, my assumptions are current technology applied optimally (in other words, ignoring political restraints). The answer is probably a lot higher than you think.

Fundamentally, it boils down to land, food production, and energy production. The current distribution of our 32.4 billion acres of land looks something like this:

Over a third of the world is still covered in forest. Only a ninth is actively farmed. Our buildings, roads, and other human features only physically occupy a bit over one percent. Over 40% is covered with grasslands, scrub, or meadows of various quality, much of which is used for grazing. The remaining 16% is mountains, rocks, and ice. This land currently supports our population of 7.1 billion, but most certainly not in a sustainable manner. Can we do better?

Let's assume a world of 25 billion people. This article finds that crops based around a balanced, various and healthy vegetarian diet yield a combined yield of 2.4 million calories per acre using mostly organic techniques. Assuming 3000 calories per day per person (2000-2500 actually consumed, plus waste and spoilage), an increase in cropland from 11% to 35% (11.4 billion acres) would be required. Is this possible? Yes it is. In fact, only a fraction of the world's farmable land is actually farmed. This source indicates that there are actually 10.3 billion arable acres available, close to our 25 billion person target of 11.4 billion. It is fair to assume that we can grow, raise, or harvest 10% of our crops on non-arable land. For example, greenhouses for raising vegetables, or sustainably raised meat. Most of this new farm land would be found in the currently forested parts of the world, with smaller amounts coming from the grasslands, scrublands, pastures and meadows.

As for meat, we could no longer consume as we currently do, as we spend several calories of grain to make one calorie of meat. Obviously, in the 25 billion person world, every calorie counts. However, if we were to use half of the grasslands, scrublands, meadows and pastures for grazing, we could raise about half a billion head of grass-fed cattle (or equivalent weights of sheep or other animals), enough to provide each person with about 35 lbs of meat per year. Additionally, with diligent attention and management, we probably can harvest about ten pounds of fish per person each year. This would represent only about 80% of current production, which is clearly unsustainable.

What about energy? Assuming an entirely solar photovoltaic system, energy production averages 5-20 W/m2 depending on location. To provide everyone with 200 GJ per year (above the average Japanese, below the average American), and assuming we can average 15 W/m2 by placing most of our solar panels in the sunny deserts, it would require 2.6 billion acres to provide power to all 25 billion people. This is about 8% of the world's surface, the majority of which would come from the "other" wasteland category, scrub lands, or even piggy-backing on rooftops on developed land.

How about wood, cotton, and other fibers? For wood, the average American consume 1900 kg per person per year. Assuming we can cut that down to 700 kg of bamboo and 500 kg of hardwood, at 44000 kg and 6600 kg of wood/acre/year respectively, we would have to intensively tree farm about 2.3 billion acres, or 7% of the world's surface. Likewise, at current American cotton consumption of 3.3 kg per year and production rates of 700 kg per acre, about 100 million acres would need to be diverted to cotton production. Another 100 million would be required for other fiber or industrial crops. This amounts to 0.6% of the world's surface, which we can include in the cropland category.

So what does the distribution of land use look like after we make these changes?

Obviously, there are some things not to like. Half of the world's forest cover would be gone, and nearly half of what remains would be intensively managed. Somewhere between a quarter and a half of the other natural land types would be consumed as well, and half of the remaining lands potentially useful for grazing would be used as such. Less than a third of the world would be unused. However, that is more than you might think: only around 10-15% of the earth's land is currently protected as parks, national forests, or the like, so if this unused third was distributed intelligently, there would be plenty of natural areas accessible to people for recreation and at least a bare minimum for wildlife to continue to exist. This is obviously sub-optimal from this respect, but there is no way to achieve a high human population that doesn't demand sacrifices.

So yes, there is nothing stopping us from having a dramatically higher population than we currently do, or are ever projected to have, other than our own stupidity. Unfortunately, that is a vast mountain to climb.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

On Gerrymandering...

Gerrymandering - the process of drawing political districts in such a manner as to favor your political party - is an abhorrent abomination and its existence representative of a major flaw in our Constitution. At the US Congressional level, it has become so bad that Republicans were able to capture a solid majority of seats while getting fewer votes than Democrats. One question that came to my mind was to ask how common such an occurrence was, so I dug up the data going back to the WWII era (via Wikipedia), and combined it below.

In the 34 election cycles represented, only three times - 1952, 1996, and 2012, did a party win a majority of seats without winning the two-party vote. All three times favored Republicans. On only three other occasions (1994, 2008, 2010) did the party that won the two-party vote receive a smaller share of seats than share of votes (1994 pro-Democrat, 2008/10 pro-Republican). You would expect this to be rare in a winner-take-all districting system. Indeed, if people were distributed homogenously with respect to partisanship, 50.1% of the vote would be enough to capture every seat! Clearly, we are not distributed homogenously, so the minority party still receives substantial representation. However, in 28/34 elections, they have won fewer seats than their share of the vote.

So is there evidence of gerrymandering in that data? Yes, substantially evidence in fact, with a huge turning point coming in 1994. I have plotted share of vote versus share of seats below, split before and after the "Republican Revolution" of 1994.

Prior to 1994, there was clearly a pro-Democratic bias to the data, with Democrats receiving approximately 24 more seats than Republicans for the same share of votes. However, Democrats were winning those elections by substantial margins and basically this amounted to padding their already formidable lead. At no point did they ever steal control of the House. In fact during this stretch, Republicans managed to swipe one election.

In contrast, a sea change occurred in 1994. Not only did Republicans start winning elections, but the gerrymandering flipped in their favor, with an approximate 14 seat advantage since that time. A careful look at the data reveals something else as well: the slopes of the lines have changed significantly. Prior to 1994, a 1% change in the vote resulted in a shift of about 7.9 seats. Post 1994, this has shifted to only 3.7 seats, implying that incumbents are much more heavily protected than they used to be. This also implies that Republican's 14 seat advantage is actually harder to dislodge than the old 24-seat Democratic advantage, because the latter could be beaten with a 3% vote advantage while the current Republican advantage would take a 4% victory to defeat. In fact, it is likely worse than that now. The 2012 election, which occurred after very favorable redistricting for Republicans, resulted in Republicans capturing 234 seats vs a predicted 214 for the model, an over-performance of 20 seats. This districting, which is largely fixed until the 2022 elections, could be giving Republicans as much as a 6% advantage in the vote, implying Democrats would need to capture around 53% of the total vote just to win a bare majority. At no time in our modern history has such a wide gap existed.

I find it ironic that the Founder's will has been flipped on its head. Originally, Senators were chosen by the state legislatures, and Representatives, in accordance with the Constitution, were chosen by the people. The 17th amendment resulted in direct election of Senators by the people, but gerrymandering has largely caused the House election to be controlled by the state legislatures who draw the districts!

I call on all my fellow citizens to help end the practice of gerrymandering, by taking districting out of patently partisan hands and moving it to a commission-based model that has been successful in a number of states with respect to drawing more compact, fairer, and more competitive districts.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

How to Destroy a Planet

Relativistic Kill Vehicles

Seriously, if you are doing it any other way, you are doing it wrong. That includes Death Stars, Imperial Fleets, transphasic red matter quantum torpedoes, or any other silly nonsense normally found in the sci-fi canon. You just need to accelerate two ten-ton blocks of steel to 0.99 times the speed of light, aim them at your target planet such that they approach from opposite sides nearly simultaneously, detonate them a ways out so that they hit your target like birdshot, and then sit back and wait a few years for the dust to settle. Each 1 kilogram fragment (of which you just sent 20,000) would release an amount of energy similar to the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated.  Virtually all advanced life would be wiped out, and a few years you can move in and take over your fresh new planet.

I bet you thought this post was going to be political, didn't you?

Monday, October 21, 2013

On How Far Right We Have Come...

"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things … Their number is negligible, and they are stupid."

Thus spake the last Republican president to reduce the deficit.

Hint: Think "WWII general"

On Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)...

To my liberal friends:

There are plenty of reasons furiously oppose the pesticide spewing, herbicide belching, and fungicide farting, water table draining, soil depleting, animal torturing, antibiotic resistance fomenting, monocropping, colony collapsing, stench emitting, habitat destroying, planet roasting, poorly paying, immigration law mocking, dead zone creating, fossil fuel dependent, junk food hawking, mouth firmly attached to the government teat monstrosity that is Big Ag.

GMO is not one of them. If you are anti-GMO, you are wrong. Get over it, and move on. You are making the rest of us liberals look stupid.


That is all.


Monday, October 14, 2013

On Bananas...

There are a lot of things I love about living in Japan. Bananas are not one of them.

Generally, food quality is awesome in Japan, blowing the US out of the water. This is particularly the case with respect to fruit, where domestically-produced fruit is pampered and hand-tended into absolutely perfect forms. While $10-150 apples would be extreme even here, $2 apples are the norm, and worth every penny.

Bananas, however, are the exception. They are generally not produced domestically, but imported from southeast Asia or South America, meaning they are the same mediocre bananas you would be eating in the US at roughly the same price. What is worse, however, is that the Japanese package them incorrectly, and it drives me nuts.

As can be seen below, the Japanese only sell wrapped packages of 4-6 bananas that are already fully ripe. Yet being fully ripe, they only have about three days before they get all nasty and mushy! If you are like me and eat a banana a day, this means about half your bananas must be consumed past their prime, or tossed if they get too icky.

It's time that Japan got with the times, sold bananas by weight, and allowed shoppers to mix-and-match bananas along the still-green to fully-ripe spectrum. How about it, my Japanese readers? Can we throw a banana revolution? Up with firm, down with mush!
Rant over.



On Negotiation...

A term being thrown around the political arena a lot lately is the term "negotiate". The problem is that there isn't much actual negotiating going on. Rather, what we have been seeing is a whole lot of extortion and grandstanding. Republicans have shut down the government rather than negotiate. Obama (mistakenly, in my opinion) has said he is refusing to negotiate. And now our nation is stuck in the mud.

"Negotiating" with someone implies trying to reach agreement by mutual give-and-take. If you aren't offering anything of value to the other party, or if what you are "offering" is the lack of destruction of their or jointly-owned property, you are not negotiating. Indeed, the latter case is clearly extortion. Unfortunately, this is precisely what Republicans are doing today. Their "negotiations" have been nothing but constantly shifting their demands, while steadfastly refusing to offer anything in return. Repeal ACA? No? Ok, how about a delay. Or a repeal of some of the taxes? Or automatic spending cuts every time we refuse to sign a budget? And what are we offering in return that Democrats would want? Nothing, other than abiding by previously agreed-upon budgets and not defaulting on the debt!

Obama is infinitely better, but I think he has muffed the messaging. He should be very clear that he is (and has been) willing to negotiate and make major deals, under two conditions

1: That the government is running under the agreed-upon budgets with no immediate threat of shutdown, and that the debt ceiling is removed as an issue

2: That Republicans meet half way, and make concessions on taxes, military spending, and other Republican priorities

For the last five years, it has been Republicans who have refused to negotiate, balking at anything that even smells of a tax increase. Given our ultra-low tax rates (third lowest of the 34 OECD nations), there is no solution to our long-term problems that does not involve more revenue. Until Republicans realize this, and move beyond the childish extortion tactics they are currently engaged in, there will be no major progress politically. Republicans need to look back at the Ronald Reagan who actually existed and emulate him - a man who met Democrats in the middle, accepted a dozen tax increases, and made the nation a better place.

Red Up, Blue All The Way Down

This is an updated version of a post I originally wrote in March.

I've produced four different graphs below, all showing the same data but with slightly different adjustments. All data is calendar years, not fiscal years. Amazingly, the increase in our debt in Q3 of 2013 was less than $9 billion, in part due to the Treasury's efforts to avoid hitting the debt ceiling. The four graphs are:

1: Quarterly deficits vs GDP
2: Quarterly deficits, nominal
3: Quarterly deficits, inflation adjusted
4: Quarterly deficits, inflation adjusted per citizen

It's a lot of data, but the trend is rather obvious - vote Republican if you love exploding deficits, and Democratic if you love balanced budgets. This general trend holds true not only for the years on the graph, but all the way back to the post-war era. The last Republican president to oversee a reduction in the deficit was Eisenhower. The last Democratic president to oversee an indisputable rise in the deficit was FDR, and I think he deserves a pass due to WWII. Carter is the odd man out here. The deficit was largely unchanged during his term in office and whether it was a slight increase or a slight decrease depends on your measure. Also note that our projected deficit going forward is consistent with it approximately halving from its current level by the time Obama leaves office.

So when members of one particular party gripe about "fiscal responsibility", just show them these graphs, and remind them of how they have less than zero credibility on the matter.

Similar data can be found at AngryBearBlog here.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Chemistry salaries and the ACS Survey

So I woke up this morning to two emails from chemical industry-related reporters asking me my thoughts about the salaries of chemists. Why me? I really had no clue, until about an hour later, when I realized that a throw-away comment I made at the popular chemistry blog Chemjobber last week had turned into a full post by its anonymous author.

So what was my point? Basically I was mildly critiquing the annual salary survey of the American Chemical Society. ACS is a great organization, which I have been a member of since I was an undergrad, and I have filled out their survey every year I can remember. However, I have always felt it was biased a bit high for industrial chemists, for several reasons.

1: Chemists who choose to be members of ACS are not random. It is not uncommon for companies, especially larger corporate ones, to pay membership dues for their workers. This, of course, is more likely for better paid or higher ranking employees.

2: For chemists who don't work for such generous companies, those with higher level jobs, better connections to academia (which is the bread and butter of ACS), and higher pay are more likely to choose to pay their dues out-of-pocket

3: There is likely to be some non-random factors in the response rate as well. With only a quarter or so members responding, there is ample chance for bias to creep in. Perhaps better paid workers like to brag a bit, even if it is anonymous? Or exaggeration?

Overall, I have the feeling, based on my personal experience with several companies, that ACS is biased 5-10% high with respect to industrial pay as a result of these cumulative errors. As I mentioned over at Chemjobber, those interested in chemical industry pay may want to look at the data at, which is more HR-centric and in my opinion a little more accurate. Roughly,

Chemist I = Senior technicians
Chemist II = BS/BA
Chemist III = Master's
Chemist IV = PhD
Chemist V = Front-line manager, team leader, or senior individual contributors with strong track records

Of course, individual mileage varies a lot, and people might start one slot lower and can finish anywhere if they are good (I've seen former technicians rise all the way to management), but I think that looking at both the ACS data and the data is a prudent thing to do when trying to figure out if chemistry is the career for you, or if you are trying to benchmark your pay relative your peers. The two data sets are nicely complementary, with showing distributions, while ACS doing demographic breakdowns based on age, geography, etc, giving you more opportunities for understanding than either data set alone.

Update: I was quoted by Chemistry World on an article related to this topic.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Immigration, Foreign Family Members, and the Globally Mobile

There are a number of gaping holes in our immigration system. One is that their is no non-Kafkaesque solution for foreign-citizen family members of globally mobile American citizens. This is particularly ironic precisely because such mobile citizens are much more likely than average to have foreign family members in the first place.

When it comes to family members immigrating to the US, our system is permanent residency (a green card), or nothing. A would-be resident applies for a visa based on a family status such as marriage, and after receiving it generally has six months to arrive in the US and another ninety days to apply for a green card once he or she arrives. Assuming everything is in order, they get a green card a few months later, and everything is great - unless they ever want to live outside the US. In this case, USCIS throws a hissy.

If you want to live outside the US while holding a green card, you need to obtain a special travel document before you leave, and periodically come back to the US in a pair of closely-spaced trips or one extended trip in order to replace your travel permit if it is about to expire. USCIS also refuses to grant serial travel permits. While there is no fixed standard, spending more than half one's time outside the US as a permanent resident is likely impossible. If a permanent resident fails to maintain their travel permits, USCIS will strip their residency and green card upon entry to the US. This ends up creating tremendous headaches for the foreign family members of US citizens, forcing them to spend thousands of dollars in filing and legal fees, not to mention the cost and time of repeated trips back to the US from abroad at USCIS's whim.

Is there a solution to this costly, pointless issue? In fact, there are at least two, as exemplified by Canada and Japan.

The Canadian system simply allows its permanent residents to live abroad if they are living with their Canadian citizen family member, or if their Canadian employer moved them abroad. From the Canadian perspective, the maintenance of one's Canadian work or family ties is sufficient to protect one's residency, even if abroad for years at a time.

Japan is also very relaxed about its "permanent residents" living abroad. However, it has an additional feature - long-term family visas. In Japan, one does not jump straight to permanent residency. Instead, family members, like workers and students, start with 1-5 year visas that provide residency and work rights. These generally are indefinitely renewable unless there is a cause to deny them, and in many cases, Japanese foreign residents never bother to obtain their "permanent" residency and are content to remain in Japan on a series of family visas. If such people want to leave Japan for a few years, it is no big deal at all. Just leave. If your visa expires while abroad, apply for a new one before you come back. Or even after you come back, as unlike the US, you can apply for visas in Japan while in the country as a tourist. Given that Japan's visa applications require half the documentation, cost five times less, and are adjudicated in less than half the time than the US, it is perfectly possible to land as a tourist and get your visa after the fact.

It's a globally mobile modern world, yet our immigration policy is still based on archaic rules set in an area where coming to or departing from the US was a long, expensive one-in-a-lifetime event. It's time we moved our immigration policy out of the stone age and made it simple for our permanent residents to move in and out of the country.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

South Korea vs Japan, FIGHT!

Having spent a few days in South Korea for the first time, after having lived years in Japan, I couldn't help but to compare the two while I was traipsing around Seoul. Here are my thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages of each

Advantage South Korea:

Beef > fish
Know how to bury power lines
Newer, more modern high rises
Incheon > Narita
Trains are not completely cluttered with ads
Food quantity/price
Cheaper booze
Can speak English better
More foreigners in general
Friendlier with said foreigners due to three items above
Economy is growing rather than stuck in the mud
Has food vending machines
Extremely high butterfly to flower ratio
Hostesses give more ppo-ppo and chu-chu
Korean hangul may well be the most rational written script on earth
Better TVs and video billboards
More street food stalls
Big, cheap hotel rooms
Overall cheaper in almost all respects
Less ossified politically
Better city hall
Not quite as crowded
No crazy old guys riding around in black trucks blaring right-wing racist propaganda

Advantage Japan:

No crazy next-door neighbor with nukes
Better temples
Better trains
Better mountains
Much more bike and pedestrian friendly
Much better urban underground
Better convenience stores
More and better vending machines for drinks
Fewer extraneous zeros on the currency
Food quality
Most of the boorish US troops are cooped up in a little island rather than in the capital
Kimono > hanbok
Better maintenance of traditional arts and crafts
Women remain hot longer
More than a billion foreign people can at least guess at the meaning of written Japanese
Fewer (or better hidden) homeless people
Better cars
Better service
Smells better
Sky Tree > N. Seoul Tower


jgirls vs kgirls
jpop vs kpop
presence of American military

Monday, August 12, 2013

Welfare, Photo IDs, and Easy Money

How many times have you heard someone say that is permissible to require photo ID's for voting, because poor people also need photo ID's to apply for welfare? This meme has become conservative conventional wisdom, but is it true?

As far as I can tell, no. It is false. I got tired after having checked a dozen of our largest states, but Ohio, Virginia, and New York serve as typical examples of what I found. Generally, you need to prove you are poor, that you are a resident, and that you are a citizen (in some cases). A wide variety of documents are accepted, many if not most of which are not photo IDs. In the case of unemployment benefits, hardly any documentation was required and you could often do it online. Welfare benefits such as SNAP (food stamps) or Medicaid required relatively extensive documentation and an interview, but there is generally broad latitude for what counts and a waiver process that can bypass any obstacles.  Of course, having a photo ID is helpful and can be used to prove either residency (driver's license, state ID) or citizenship (passport), but they are clearly not necessary.

I did find that Republicans in some states such as Illinois are pushing for ID requirements, but haven't found one where they have passed. Other states, such as Massachusetts, appear to be turning SNAP cards into photo IDs, which is a perfectly reasonable idea, especially if these then count as voter ID. Also note that in every state I looked in, voter registration was connected to benefit applications. That's also good policy. But I could not find a single state where photo ID's were required to apply for or receive SNAP, Medicaid, or unemployment.

So here is the easy money part. The next time your crazy Republican uncle brings up the "you need photo ID for welfare" trope, bet him $50 that you don't in your state. Few things are more fun than deservedly separating a fool from his money.


Update: Fair Elections Legal Network has some related information on when you do and do not need photo identification. Basically, you need a photo ID to get Sudafed, and alcohol if you are lucky enough to be young. For everything else, there is a work-around. Basically, many people are confusing "situations where you are asked for a photo ID" and "situations for which a photo ID is necessary". There are many of the former, but few of the latter. If it is important, you can be sure there is alternative solution in place for people without a photo ID.

Update II: I suggest you take a look at Canada's voter ID system. The accept any of the following:

1: A state-issued photo ID

2: Two non-photo forms of identification from a list of several dozen, including things like leases, hunting licenses, library cards, credit cards, etc. At least one must contain your address.

3: Any registered voter may vouch for one other person in their district. The vouched for person cannot subsequently vouch for anyone else.

This seems to be an eminently reasonable compromise to me.

Update III: After looking through the laws of several states, I doubt that lacking a photo ID can prevent you from obtaining alcohol if you are over 21. It is generally legal for someone else who has an ID to buy alcohol on your behalf and give it to you, if you are of age.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

At What Price Kitten Videos?

I am not a civil libertarian, at least when it comes to government surveillance. The primary thing I have learned from the Edward Snowden affair is that the NSA is actually remarkably restrained and is actually snooping our data much less than I had previously assumed it was. Part of this is thanks to the Obama administration, which despite any flaws it might have in this matter, is decidedly better than the Bush administration had been.

In fact, with proper checks, balanced, and oversight, I would have no problem with domestic data being snooped, analyzed, and stored by the government in a widespread manner. It is not as if every last bit of our electronic communications is not already being snooped by numerous private corporations – an invasion of “privacy” that we are willing to trade for pennies-off discounts or a chance to see a new kitten video.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it was swept up by aggressive foreign governments as well.  To what end are we holding our own law enforcement agencies back?

Before you run off and start trying to quote Ben Franklin, let’s look at his actual quote

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”

Note that there are three qualifiers in that statement: “essential”, “little” and “temporary”. This quote is often abused and the qualifiers dropped, turning it into an absolutist statement that actually defies common sense. Without the qualifiers, the statement would logically imply that things like paying taxes to support a military, or speed limits, or airline or food safety regulations would be violations of Franklin’s maxim. This, of course, is absurd, and correspondingly we do in fact trade liberty for security all the time with little debate. The question is not whether we should ever trade liberty for security, but whether any particular trade is a good deal. Given that we are willing to sell our personal data for kitten videos, I find it pretty hard to buy the argument that we shouldn’t be willing to sell it for a substantial reduction in crime and terrorism.
Let’s not pretend that we can’t obtain security this way, either. It’s not hard to think of all sorts of real world examples of where ubiquitous data searching and storing would either prevent crimes, or afford their proper adjudication. For example, a book I recently read, People Who Eat Darkness, concerned a serial rapist in Tokyo, who was ultimately caught in 2001 in no small part due to cell phone tracking, which wasn’t possible for most of his spree that began in the 1980’s. His crime could not even be copied now due to improved surveillance and tracking. Or imagine if we had a recording of the phone call between Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantel. This recording would likely have either proven Zimmerman’s guilt, or clearly exonerated him. Instead, we are left in a state of a possibly-guilty man walking free but living in hiding, neither of which is optimal. Or simply imagine if the police could swiftly determine the identity of all nearby cars after a hit-and-run. There are countless similar examples.

I also fail to see the downsides to such a system of ubiquitous data analysis and collection. Yes, it is possible that an individual or small group within the NSA, FBI, CIA, etc could abuse the system for personal or partisan purposes, but is clear that there are systems in place to prevent this, and such behavior is indisputably illegal and would blowback a hundredfold onto any partisan group that tried it. Obviously, we need strong, transparent oversight from both the judicial branch and Congress, but I see little indication that these powers are being wielded irresponsibly and have a hard time even coming up with plausible scenarios where they could do much damage – certainly compared to the aforementioned serial rapist who raped hundreds of women and murdered two. Of course, there is the black helicopter argument: what happens if there is a total collapse of our democracy, and some evil dictator uses these powers for ill? To which I respond that such a hypothetical evil dictator will quickly obtain and implement such powers regardless of whether we do today or not. I don’t waste my time worrying about how to deal with WWIII or the zombie apocalypse and neither should you. The unknown unknowns of such a scenario dwarf any logic or reasoning we could apply to them today.

The big data genie is never going back into the bottle, and our data is and will be snooped by both public and private organizations. It is better to learn to harness this power, and install and monitor the proper oversight, than it is to tilt at windmills and shake our fists in vain. I, for one, welcome our new AI-XkeyScore-Googleplex-NSAFBICIA overlords.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Republicans vs King George

So, I happened across the Declaration of Independence today, and of the twenty five reasons our founders gave for dissolve our bonds with Great Britain, modern Republicans are violating at least fourteen of them.


He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good
Republican hostage taking, such as refusing to raise the debt ceiling, certainly qualifies.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
Republicans are refusing to attend to Obamacare out of little more than spite.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

Republican voter suppression tactics.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
Republican filibuster abuse.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

Refusing to allow any appointees through for some positions, and filibuster abuse for many more.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
Who knew the founders were so pro-immigration?

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
Filibuster abuse, yet again.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
The founders were environmentalists, too, apparently.

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

AT&T vs Concepcion, and American Express vs Italian Colors killed class action suits. Of course, they were 5-4 votes by SCOTUS. We now have no viable legal remedy for many types of small claims.

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

Extraordinary rendition and Gitmo

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments
Assaults on Social Security and Medicare

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever
Detroit and “emergency management”

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation
Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan….


At least they aren’t making us quarter soldiers or rendering the military superior to civil power yet, and I am pretty sure they will never tax us without our consent, erect a multitude of new offices to harass us with, or inflict the Indian Savages upon us. So congratulations, my Republican friends:  you are not quite as bad as King George, at least by 1776 standards.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

On Cycling...

I am a regular rider of bicycles both in the US and Japan, and it has become clear to me that a lot of folks out there really don't understand the law with respect to cycling. So as a friendly reminder, I'd like to make a short summary of car/bike/pedestrian interactions and rules. Obviously, rules vary from place to place, but in general, here are some handy reminders.

1: Bicycles, as per the law, are treated as vehicles. They not only have the right to be on the road, but in many locations, are required to be on the road. Cyclists have full rights to take and hold a lane of traffic if they feel the need to do so, or any time they are turning left.

2: Riding on the sidewalk may or may not be legal where you live. It is typically left up to local governments, and may be outright illegal, or only legal for children or small bikes, or entirely legal, or legal everywhere except downtown, or any of a thousand other variations on the law. A cyclist is never required to be on the sidewalk. They are, however, generally required to be in a dedicated bike lane, except when turning left.

3: Cycling on the sidewalk is generally considered to be 2-3 times as dangerous (accidents per mile) as riding on the road. While obviously this varies by context and on some particularly bad stretches of road or for certain types of bikes, riding on the sidewalk may be the better option, in general it is not. This is mostly because of drivers popping out of driveways without looking, or even worse, blind driveways where walls or plants block the view. This is why riding on the wrong-way sidewalk is particular dangerous - drivers simply have no reason to look in that direction, and often don't.

4: Slow-moving vehicle regulations usually apply to cyclists. This generally means they must move over to the right side of the lane and faster vehicles pass them IF it is safe to do so. It also generally means that the faster vehicles are allowed to cross double-yellows if it is safe. However, drivers should realize that it is often not safe for cyclists to slide over to the right. The shoulder may be littered with debris or parked cars, the lane may be too narrow for cars to pass cyclists safely and legally, or there may be blind driveways which are extremely dangerous for cyclists. Also, just about any major intersection is dangerous for a cyclist to navigate from the right shoulder. In all of these cases, cyclists have the right to take the lane and avoid the danger.

5: Depending on your jurisdiction, you owe cyclists 3-5 feet of space. Passing them any closer is illegal. If you can't give cyclists that much space, you have to wait.

6: Remember, virtually all adult cyclists are drivers as well. Cyclists generally have a very keen awareness of what the cars around them are up to, and are not trying to be in anyone's way*. Also please realize that automobiles and their infrastructure get in the way of cyclists at least as much as cyclists bother drivers, and that automobiles place a much greater amount of danger on cyclists as the reverse.

7: As for pedestrians, please remember that there is a good chance cycling on the sidewalk is legal where you live. Stay to the right in general, and be aware before you make any quick turns. Most cyclists will slow down, ring a bell or say "On your left" or otherwise give you warning. All you have to do is not lurch about randomly, and no one is going to hit you.

8: Cars kill about 2000 times as many pedestrians as cyclists. You should be worrying much more about the tons of steel hurling past you at 50 mph than the 30 lbs passing you at 10 mph. Note that the most common type of serious pedestrian/cyclist crashes is at red lights, and in many cases, an aggravating factor or even primary cause is pedestrians who start walking into the intersection before the crosswalk light turns green. These folks see the light turn red, can see and hear that no more cars are coming, and try to get a 1-2 second head start on crossing the street. Unfortunately, they didn't see or hear the cyclist who still hasn't cleared the intersection and may very well have entered it legally while the light was still yellow.

There is a lot we can do from an infrastructure standpoint to improve the relationship between automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians, but there will always be some level of conflict. Everyone needs to take a breath, learn to share, and realize that your preferred mode of transportation gums up the other guy's day just as much as his does yours. Also, please don't get all hypocritically enraged about the other guy breaking this-or-that law, because all three modes have their particular laws which are routinely ignored by most of their practitioners. For example, cyclists often pass through red lights or stop signs, pedestrians jaywalk, and autos routinely speed, tailgate, park illegally, and run through reds well after they flip. There aren't any saints out there, you included.


* Unless you are a real butthead and verbally or physically try to intimidate cyclists. In that case they very well might get in your way on purpose, and you more than deserve it. In fact, you deserve a reckless driving ticket if you are intimidating a cyclist with your vehicle, which unfortunately is not an uncommon occurrence.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Our Immigrant Journey...

There are a number of reasons the US has a lot of illegal immigration. One of the largest is that our legal immigration system is one of the most complex bureaucratic nightmares on the face of the planet, mostly consisting of a contradictory hodge-podge of decades-old or even centuries-old law that have little bearing on the modern world. This is our story of obtaining and protecting my wife's green card, a process that started about four and a half years ago.

Feel free to skip all the stuff between the dotted lines...the kicker is at the end.


First we had to get a special "fiancée visa" for my wife. This is rather silly in and of itself, as Japanese citizens are visa exempt and can come to the US freely. Getting the fiancée visa requires planning almost a year in advance in order to match up your fiancées arrival with the wedding, costs around $500, and requires two in-person interviews and a mountain of paperwork.

Once we were through that hurdle, my wife arrived, we got married, and we applied for her conditional green card. This took about four months, and cost another $500. At this point, we hadn't need a lawyer yet, at about $1000 per petition, because I was stubborn and wasted a lot of weekends sorting it out myself. Another issue that crops up at this point is that your fiancée cannot work, because they won't get their work permit until about the same time as their green card. Also, because they have a pending green card application, they can't leave the country. So they are simply forcibly unemployed. This is true of almost all family-based immigrants. In January, four months after our wedding and a year after we started the process, my wife received both her work permit and her conditional green card (conditional on being married to me...after two years, she could apply for her own permanent residency unrelated to me).

Now the fun begins. I am assigned overseas. My wife needs a special "reentry permit" to live overseas. You MUST be in the US to file and you have to do biometrics at the USCIS office a few weeks later. Our company pays for the lawyer and filing fee, she receives her reentry permit, which lasts as long as her condition green card, and we are good to move to Japan.

Fast forward a year and a half. My wife applies for her permanent green card. The mere act of applying extends her residency for a year, or until USCIS makes a decision. But we get put in an "overseas hold" because were are, well, overseas. She also needs a new reentry permit, because her old one will expire before we come back. So there is two trips to the US, merely for the purpose of "being present" and getting fingerprinted for the fourth time. Oh, and all of these are costing us or my employer $500 to apply, $1000 for the lawyer, plus travel expenses and time off from work. Since my wife's temporarily-extended residency is only for one year, the reentry permit lasts only until her residency expires. That's all good, because we are coming back a few months before it expires...

Oh wait, maybe not. The company asks me stay another year. Now she has to go back to extend her residency, merely showing up at the USCIS office to get a stamp in her passport. Oh, and to "be present" in the US when we file for yet another travel permit. Of course, she will have to make a second trip to be fingerprinted for the fifth time. At this point, Senator Brown's office is helping us too, but even they wilt before the insanity of USCIS. More money, more time. Who needs vacations when you can spend all your paid holidays and spare cash flying to the Cleveland USCIS office over and over?

So we are up to the present. If all goes well, the third reentry permit will be approved, we will return to the US safely next year, the "overseas hold" will be lifted, and my wife will finally get her green card. It will only have cost us or my employer something like $40,000 in cash and lost wages, and a few weeks' of vacation time. Pretty sweet deal, eh?

Oh, and did I mention that even though she has spent less than one year of her life in the US, she has to pay US taxes on the income she is earning here in Japan (as do I)? The US is one of the few countries that does this. Not only is it costly, but it is a huge pain for both us and my company.


Now I want you to imagine a world where everything is reversed. I go to Japan to marry my wife, she is transferred to the US to three years by her employer, and I follow, both with the intent of returning to Japan afterwards. Here is what we would have done.


I fly to Japan on a tourist visa and we get married. No planning necessary other than for the wedding itself. I apply for a spouse visa, which costs under a hundred dollars, requires half the paperwork of the US, and would have been received within the 90-day tourist window. Of course, I could have flown back to the US and worked in the interim if I wanted. My choice.

After receiving my first spouse visa, probably one year, I would be free to live and work in Japan, and travel in and out of Japan to my heart's content. When my wife were assigned to the US, all I would need to do is...nothing. Just turn in my visa and alien card on the way out of the country. That's it. About six months before our return, I would need to apply for a new spouse visa, using pretty much the same documentation as before. I could whip it together in a couple hours, and when combined with the interview at the consulate, you are looking at about one day's worth of bureaucracy.

Once back in Japan, I would apply for new spouse visas whenever the old ones ran out, which would eventually be extended to three or five years at a time. After three years, I could also apply for permanent residency. Or I could just keep rolling the spouse visas. Either would be cheap and easy. Oh, and Japan only charges me taxes on money I earn in or bring to Japan.


And THAT folks, is why the US has such problems with illegal immigration - we make it hell to do it the right way. Unfortunately, the Senate's immigration bill does almost nothing to change this.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Aggression...

Aggression is not a binary concept, neither as a matter of practice, nor as a matter of law in most jurisdictions. Unfortunately, many people who support George Zimmerman seem to be of the mindset that aggression is a particular magic line that is crossed, and he who crosses it is The Aggressor, and therefore all other parties by definition are not. It often doesn’t work this way in the real world, however, and when it does there is not much to discuss. In practice, however, many fights arise from a series of tit-for-tat escalations, without a clear beginning, or a beginning that stretches back far before the incident in question.

Human psychology is ill-equipped for these tit-for-tat scenarios. Numerous studies have shown that we tend to underestimate how much pain and fear we are inflicting relative to what we receive, and this is even more so if our opponent is of another race. Hence, while we think we are just pushing back no harder than the shot we just took, in fact we are escalating. Our opponent then completes the cycle, and the pattern repeats until things spiral out of control.

In the magic line theory of aggression, it is not clear who is The Aggressor in the case. The magic line, such as it exists, would exist somewhere in the few minutes where we have no data other than Zimmerman’s self-serving story. Hence, Zimmerman’s supports claim of his innocence – clearly, if we don’t know who crossed the magic line, we can’t prove Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt!

The problem with this logic is that outside of that small period of no data, Zimmerman unilaterally escalated the conflict at every point, including the conflict’s initiation and its final, ultimate escalation.

Zimmerman escalated the conflict at no less than six points:

1: By carrying a gun. Any conflict you find yourself in while carrying is automatically escalated to an entirely different level of danger for anyone involved or merely nearby

2: By tailing Martin in his vehicle.  

3: By cursing into his phone to the 911 operator. Reading the transcript, it is clear that Martin saw Zimmerman doing this and could sense Zimmerman’s hostility, which is patently clear in the transcript and would have been more so in real life. This is probably why Martin fled.

4: By exiting his vehicle and pursuing Martin

5: By confronting Martin in a hostile manner, using phrases like “What are you doing around here?” rather than something polite and calming like “Excuse me, I’m George from the Neighborhood Watch…”

6: By countering a punch to the nose with a bullet to the heart

Martin, in contrast, may have (and in my opinion, probably, legally, and morally justifiably) escalated the conflict once, between Zimmerman’s fourth and fifth escalation, while clearly trying to de-escalate it at least twice, by first walking and then running away. Any logic that finds Martin to be The Aggressor just because some magic line lies between #4 and #5, and ignores everything before and after, is a deeply flawed logic. Fortunately, despite its many short-comings, Florida law does not follow the The Aggressor logic – aggression is based on “provocation”, and is not exclusive:  multiple parties on both sides of the conflict can be An Aggressor in the same conflict, both in real life and under Florida law.

Under Florida law, it is hard to not find Zimmerman to have been an aggressor in this conflict, having engaged in no less than five aggressive, provocative behaviors before Martin engaged in his first, and during which time Martin repeatedly tried to de-escalate the situation. As for Martin being an aggressor, it depends on some specific facts that are only known to Zimmerman, and one’s interpretation of Florida’s self-defense provisions. Specifically, Martin would have been justified in the use of force if he

 reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force”.

Is the combination of #2 through #5 a “reasonable” reason to fear the imminent use of unlawful force? I believe so. Should we judge this standard of “reasonable” from the perspective of a minor alone with a “perv” on a dark, rainy night, rather than an adult? I believe so. Children, having a lower capacity for reason and less control of their emotions, should be expected to consider a wider range of behaviors reasonable than adults sitting safely at their computer might.

Given the facts we know, Martin probably was not An Aggressor, either morally or legally. Zimmerman, in contrast, was An Aggressor both under the law and under the eyes of God. Given the long deliberation and the clarifications they ask for, I believe the jury agreed with me on that point. Zimmerman got off not because he wasn’t An Aggressor, but because of the deeply flawed Florida statue 776.041 “Use of force by aggressor”, which is written in such a way that Aggressors can too easily escape punishment. It is this law, not Florida’s famed Stand Your Ground provision, that allowed a major injustice to occur in this case. I will address my specific concerns with 776.041, which is similar to other such provisions in other states, in a later post.

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Fear...

There have been two times in my life where I feared for my life more than a fleeting instance. The most profound occurred in the dark in the lonesome wild near Old Man Lake, with nothing but a fraction of a millimeter of nylon and an arm's reach separating myself and a grizzly bear. I can still recall my desperate wish to shut off my throbbing heart, and my conviction that its loud beating was certain to attract unwanted attention as I lay there otherwise paralyzed. That primal fear is a story for another day.

The second occurred long ago, during my freshman year of college. I was driving my beater old Cutlass Supreme back from East Lansing to my parents' home in rural northern Michigan on a twilit Friday evening. I think it was in the fall. Somewhere north of Bay City, I noticed a big pickup truck following me very closely. I ignored him at first, thinking he would soon pass me by at some outrageous speed. But he did not such thing. He stayed right on my tail, even after I deliberately slowed down. It was then I caught a glimpse of the driver, a scary looking man probably around thirty, who was clearly pissed. At me. Heaven knows why.

Perhaps I had committed some real or imagined driving faux pas. Perhaps he was drunk. Perhaps he was just in a pissed about this or that, and in the mood to mess with someone. All I knew is that he was tail-gaiting me very tightly, upset about something, and not going away.

So I got off at the next exit, outside Pinconning, and headed towards the town I knew was a few miles to the east. I was hoping he wouldn't follow, but of course the truck followed me. Then he started to pass me, pulled up along side, ranted something I could not remotely hear, and then fell back again to continue his tailgating. This continued until we reached town, where I tried to quickly turn off on a little side street. He was able to follow me though. We zig-zagged through the streets until we popped out on Pinconning's main street. It was getting dark, and for some reason that I can't recall, I decided that I wanted to go anywhere that was brightly lit. There was a McDonald's just down the road, so I slipped into their parking lot at the last second. The driver stopped at the drive's edge, blew his horn, shook his fist, and finally drove off.

As soon as he was gone, I fled somewhere else. I don't remember where anymore, just some other bright parking lot. I do remember, though, the fear. I was scared, more than I ever had been scared before, and would be again until the night on Old Man Lake. I was angry, too - a deep, dark undercurrent lay hid below the fear, waiting to explode. Looking back now with a couple more decade's worth of wisdom, I dread to think what would have happened if my car had stopped (thank you, my ancient Cutlass, for not conking out that night!), or I had had an accident in my panic, or the truck had boxed me in somewhere. Would I have fought? Fled? How? Argued? Could I have, or anyone have, kept their cool in such a situation? Doubtful. Nothing good would have come of such a situation, for either me or the ranting driver of the truck.

So the next time someone tells you that a kid walking down the street, minding his own business and eating his Skittles, wouldn't have been mortally afraid when a big, obviously angry guy in an SUV started hounding them before getting out of the SUV chasing the kid around in the dark, or if that someone tells you that the kid had no right to be in fear for their life or defend himself, or even be a bit irrational and angry, you can tell that someone that they absolutely, unequivocally full of it. Such a person has either never known real fear, or is being willfully dishonest.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Practical Guide to Obtaining a Japanese Driver's License in Tochigi

Converting your American license to a Japanese license (外国免許証切替) at the Tochigi-ken Driver’s license Center (栃木県運転免許センタ) is a cakewalk, consisting of four simple steps

1: Present your American license, residence card, passport and related documents

2: Pass the eye exam

3: Pass the written test

4: Pass the practical driving test

Sarcasm off.

Prepare for the fruitcakewalk from hell, and what I consider the second most incompetent pile of bureaucracy I have ever encountered (US immigration being #1 by a long shot, but that is another story).

Day 1: The only thing you are going to do on day one is Step #1, present your documents. Yes, that is all you can accomplish on the first day. Get a set of photos taken in the booth on the ground floor, then head up to the second floor. That’s where you will be spending all your time. According to their internet site and what is posted inside the center, the time to apply for foreign conversions is between 8:30 and 13:00. However, this is deceitful. They do not begin processing conversions until 13:00. The only advantage of showing up before 12:59 is that you will be earlier in the line at 13:00. Like half a dozen others that day, I showed up at 8:30. Given that the center is literally as far as possible from all of Tochigi-ken’s major cities, none of us could leave once we found out we had nothing to do for four and a half hours because getting anywhere and back again would take too long.

At 13:00, they will begin calling people. Wait your turn. It seems to take about 20 minutes per person, and they usually can do two at a time. There has been around ten people applying the days I was there. When your turn comes up, they will bring you to the back room and start pouring over your documents. Remember, the key thing they are trying to prove is that you have had a valid license for 90 days while residing in the country it was valid. They are going to record and dig through your passport, counting every day in which you were in the US, in Japan, or anywhere else. If you either received OR RENEWED your US license recently, beware. Proving the 90 days may be difficult. Also note that in many states, your license does not have an “issued” date, only an expiration date. I had recently renewed my US license, so I brought an official and a translated copy of my driving record, which I obtained by phoning the BMV in my home state.

Eventually they will boot you out of the room and your documents disappear into the back. A while later, someone will call for you, hopefully indicate that all is in order, hand you some forms to fill out….and you are done for the day. Go home.

Day 2: Come back a bit before ten with all the forms from last time, preferably already filled out. Put them in the box by the first window on the second floor. Around 10:15, they will start calling people into the eye exam room one at a time, in the order people showed up in the morning. Going first really has no meaning, as you will wait just as long in the end either way. When your name is up, head into the room, where they will check your documents. They you will do the eye exam, and then you will sit and wait. Around 11, those that need to take the written test will be called into the classroom for the ten minute test. There are ten questions, and you can take them in English, Chinese, and a few other language other than Japanese. About five will be comically easy. Three more would be equally easy if not for the poor translations. The last two actually will test something tricky, like signage or rules such as left turns on red (not allowed!). You need 7/10. Nobody really fails unless there is a language problem, especially if you make any effort to learn the signs. From there, you are done until 13:00, when the driving test begins.

During the interim, you should head out to the course, which is on the other side of the sky bridge. In the classroom at the far end, there is a book of course maps. You will be told which map is valid for that day, and have until one pm to memorize the map and walk around the course. During the test, the instructor will speak in Japanese, telling you “turn right at #11”, etc, so you literally do not need to memorize the map if you speak even minimal Japanese. However, having it memorized or close to it will give you one less thing to focus on during the test, so after having a quick bite to eat, walk the course twice, and then go back upstairs and trace the course in your mind until you know exactly where to turn without thinking about it.

At 13:00, one of the instructors will give a little speech about safety and how important it is to learn the “Japanese rules”, even if you were a safe driver in your home country. After that, you go downstairs, and the tests begin. Unless you are the first person to go, you get to ride in the back seat during the test of the person before you. This gives you one more chance to nail the course pattern. Note that there are generally two cars and one motorcycle on the course at any given moment in time, so you will have a bit of traffic to deal with. It is absolutely insanely important to cede right of way to those other vehicles if they deserve it. If they are at all coming anywhere near you, do not engage in aggressive turns or get close to them or anything. This is insta-fail territory. Even if you are sure you could make the turn, put it in reverse and go backwards, and then repeat the turn a second time before the other car made it to the intersection, WAIT. Do not go.

So what happens during the test? You fail. Period. End of story. Everyone fails the first time. I have never heard of anyone who passed it the first time in Tochigi. No one I know of has heard of such a person either. In fact, the fewest failures I have heard of is four. Plenty of fives, sixes, and sevens. A nine. A twenty-two….and counting! Why will you fail? Because the instructors are looking for details that mortals cannot understand, such as the seven-step mirror-checking and signaling process before making a lane change. Wrong order? Points off. Wrong order a second time? Double points off. Third time? You fail the test. Go home. Or perhaps you manage to do the mirror check dance properly on all twenty or so turns and lane shifts you will make during the test, but bump the curve on the crank or the S-curve. Or perhaps you didn’t hug the outer or center line tight enough on a couple turns, or turned your head too far when checking your blind spot, or checked it too early or too late or too long or too short. Or perhaps you didn’t signal when heading out of the starting parking area (yes, you need to), or you didn’t check for a baby under your car before you got in, or didn’t check for a bicyclist before you opened your door at the end of the test, or didn’t (pretend to) adjust your seat and mirror when you entered the car, or perhaps you forgot to set the parking break before exiting (even though it is flat), or perhaps you went too fast or too slow at some point, or took a turn too wide, or perhaps the instructor just makes stuff up in order to fail people. Or perhaps you signaled too long or too short or too early or too late or perhaps you bumped the wipers instead of the blinker, as is easy to do for an American as the controls are reversed. Or perhaps you are an actual honest-to-goodness inexperienced driver who needs practice. You never know. Anything is possible.

After you fail, you wait until everyone else finishes failing, then head back to the second floor. Around three, they will announce the results (you failed, get over it), give you a little slip of paper stating such, let you pick a new date to try again (which will be in about two weeks, depending on the backlog), and send you home.

Day Three: On your appointed date, bring your little slip that says you passed the eye and written tests but failed the driving test and enough money to pay the re-test fee. Pay at window 13, then put your documents in the box you have lots of experience with. Yes, you have to show up before ten. And yes, you will have to wait until 13:00 for the driving test. Why do you need to be there at 10? Because it’s Tochigi, and they like to waste your time. Repeat the test as before, fail as before, and weep.

Day Four/five/six/seventy: Repeat day three until the gods shine upon you.

So how do you actually pass the test? At this point, I don’t know, because I haven’t done so yet. But it certainly involves heading off to driving school, so you can practice the test. Most major cities have such a school. Unfortunately, outside of Tokyo, you are unlikely to find someone who speaks English, so I hope your Japanese is decent, and that you don’t get a little old guy who speaks thick Tochigi-ben like the last guy I had. For $50 or so, they will take you around a mock test course for an hour and tell you what they guess you are doing wrong. Expect to fork over $50-100 every time you fail at these driving schools. Need I even mention that they are usually owned and staffed by ex or moonlighting cops – the very same people that judge your real driving tests? Oh, and they are typically booked about two weeks in advance, so each time you fail your test, you better run straight to the practice school (located, of course, as far away as possible) to book your reservation before they fill up.

Oh, and as a final kick in the nuts – if your Japanese license is ever to expire for more than six months, you get to do all this again. Because you know you love it! So there you have it, folks – a simple guide to converting your American license into a Japanese one in Tochigi-ken. Best of luck to you, and may you only fail thrice!

Update: I passed in late September on my sixth attempt, five months after starting this miserable process. I can't really say that I got better. It felt more as if you simply got more points for proving you were stubborn. Just follow the guide here and keep plugging away.