January 28, 2013

Japanese finance minister: “elderly are an unnecessary drain on the country’s finances”

Filed under: Government, Health, Japan — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:32

The Guardian reports on recent comments by the new finance minister in Japan:

Japan’s new government is barely a month old, and already one of its most senior members has insulted tens of millions of voters by suggesting that the elderly are an unnecessary drain on the country’s finances.

Taro Aso, the finance minister, said on Monday that the elderly should be allowed to “hurry up and die” to relieve pressure on the state to pay for their medical care.

“Heaven forbid if you are forced to live on when you want to die. I would wake up feeling increasingly bad knowing that [treatment] was all being paid for by the government,” he said during a meeting of the national council on social security reforms. “The problem won’t be solved unless you let them hurry up and die.”

Aso’s comments are likely to cause offence in Japan, where almost a quarter of the 128 million population is aged over 60. The proportion is forecast to rise to 40% over the next 50 years.

[. . .]

To compound the insult, he referred to elderly patients who are no longer able to feed themselves as “tube people”. The health and welfare ministry, he added, was “well aware that it costs several tens of millions of yen” a month to treat a single patient in the final stages of life.

Cost aside, caring for the elderly is a major challenge for Japan’s stretched social services. According to a report this week, the number of households receiving welfare, which include family members aged 65 or over, stood at more than 678,000, or about 40% of the total. The country is also tackling a rise in the number of people who die alone, most of whom are elderly. In 2010, 4.6 million elderly people lived alone, and the number who died at home soared 61% between 2003 and 2010, from 1,364 to 2,194, according to the bureau of social welfare and public health in Tokyo.

The government is planning to reduce welfare expenditure in its next budget, due to go into force this April, with details of the cuts expected within days.

Sadly, expect more of this kind of comment from hard-pressed governments as the baby boomers move out of work and into retirement.

India’s Chinese border to be reinforced

Filed under: China, Economics, India, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:43

Strategy Page on the Indian government’s planned upgrades along the shared border with China:

The Indian Army wants $3.5 billion in order to create three more brigades (two infantry and one armored) to defend the Chinese border. Actually, this new force is in addition to the new mountain corps (of 80,000 troops) nearing approval (at a cost of $11.5 billion). The mountain corps is to be complete in four years. The three proposed brigades would be ready in 4-5 years. By the end of the decade India will have spent nearly five billion dollars on new roads, rail lines and air fields near the 4,057 kilometer long Chinese border.

The Indian Army currently has 37 Divisions including; 4 RAPID (Reorganised Army Plains Infantry Divisions) Action Divisions, 18 Infantry Divisions, 10 Mountain Divisions, 3 Armored Divisions and 2 Artillery Divisions. There are also 12 independent combat brigades (five armor and seven mechanized infantry). Most of the army has been organized and trained to fight the Pakistani army in flat terrain. The Chinese border is largely mountainous.

Three years ago India quietly built and put into service an airfield for transports in the north (Uttarakhand) near their border with China. While the airfield can also be used to bring in urgently needed supplies for local civilians during those months when snow blocks the few roads, it is mainly there for military purposes in case China invades again. Uttarakhand is near Kashmir, and a 38,000 square kilometer chunk of land that China seized after a brief war with India in 1962. This airfield and several similar projects along the Chinese border are all about growing fears of continued Chinese claims on Indian territory. India is alarmed at increasing strident Chinese insistence that is owns northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This has led to an increased movement of Indian military forces to that remote area.

India quickly discovered that a buildup in these remote areas is easier said than done. Moreover, the Indians found that they were far behind Chinese efforts. When they took a closer look three years ago, Indian staff officers discovered that China had improved its road network along most of their 4,000 kilometer common border. Indian military planners calculated that, as a result of this network, Chinese military units could move 400 kilometers a day on hard surfaced roads, while Indian units could only move half as fast, while suffering more vehicle damage because of the many unpaved roads.

Anthropology of the hacker community

Filed under: Books, History, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:17

ESR reviews a new book about hackers:

My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.

Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.

Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.

[. . .]

Far too much of the book exhibits this kind of theory-induced blindness. I am inclined to blame not Coleman for it but rather the people who trained and indoctrinated her in how to think and write like a ‘real’ anthropologist. If Coding Freedom is really the sort of book anthropology wants its bright young things to emit, the field is in desperately bad shape — far too inward-looking, over-abstract, mired in self-reference and tail-chasing, obsessed with politicized modes of non-explanation. I would actually prefer the theory that Coleman is a dimwit who has emitted a sort of unintentional parody of real anthropology if I could make myself believe it, but I can’t — her best moments seem too lucid for that.

She is very perceptive, for example, about the central role of hacker humor in promoting social bonding and affirming the culture’s values (I’ve explored this theme myself). Her ground-level reporting about the emotional atmosphere of hacker conferences and demonstrations is acute. Her discussion of how hackers as a culture have bootstrapped themselves to a state of legal literacy in order to fight their corner of the intellectual-property wars gives one of the gifts that ethnography should — to help us see how remarkable and interesting are practices we might otherwise take for granted.

There is even one significant thing I learned from this book, or at least learned to see in a new way. I hadn’t noticed before how ritualized the practice of writing damning comments about bad code is. Coleman is right that they display a level of pointed and deliberate rudeness that their authors would not employ face-to-face, and she is right about how and why the culture gives permission for this behavior.

Women in combat roles

Filed under: Cancon, Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:06

In the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente “celebrates” the recent announcement by the US government that American women will soon be allowed to take front-line combat jobs:

In a milestone for gender equality, the Pentagon is finally ending the combat ban for women – a ban that had become woefully obsolete. At last, women warriors will get the recognition and promotions they deserve. The brass ceiling has been shattered, and that’s good news for both women and the military.

But she admits that there are problems with the new rules:

But please, people. Let’s get real. Women cannot equal men in ground combat, the kind of dirty, brutal stuff that (fortunately) makes up a very minor part of modern military life, especially post-Afghanistan. It’s not that they can’t be trained to kill — they can. The issue is that the physical differences between men and women are very large, and on the battlefield, they really matter, and can’t be wished away. Men are better fighters because they are bigger and stronger and can endure far more physical punishment before they break down.

The average female soldier is “about five inches shorter than the male soldier, has half the upper body strength, lower aerobic capacity and 37 per cent less muscle mass,” Stephanie Gutmann, author of The Kinder, Gentler Military, wrote in the New Republic. “She cannot pee standing up … She tends, particularly if she is under the age of 30 (as are 60 per cent of military personnel) to get pregnant.”

And there’s the practical experience the Canadian army has accumulated:

Overall, women account for 14 per cent of all jobs in the Canadian Forces, a slightly lower percentage than in the U.S. As a result of a human-rights decision, front-line combat jobs were opened to women in 1989. Yet today, despite strenuous recruiting efforts, women hold just 2.4 per cent of these jobs. Their commanding officers praise their competence but treat them differently, by shielding them from combat. According to a Wall Street Journal report this week, the widespread impression among Canadian female soldiers — much to their frustration — is they are used “only sparingly.” Men serving next to women also exhibit a counterproductive battlefield trait: protectiveness. They want to carry women’s gear and keep them out of harm’s way. As one male soldier told the Journal, “That brother-sister protective thought was always in the back of your mind.”

When I was in the militia in the mid-1970s, our basic training was fully integrated: the girls did the same physical training and field exercises as the boys. Even in peacetime, it was quite obvious that the sections with girls in them were doing what they could to encourage the girls to pass the training (re-distributing their gear to the others in the section, and pairing the girls up with the biggest guys for the more physical duties like digging trenches, etc.). I can only imagine that the same thing goes on in actual combat conditions.

Fortunately, we didn’t have any of the girls drop out for pregnancy (it was a summer training course of just about two months duration), but the US military reported that over 10% of all women in combat zones (not in actual front-line combat) were evacuated from the combat zone due to pregnancy in 2008.

Let’s get real reform at the CRTC: eliminate “mandatory carriage” altogether

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:49

In the Toronto Star, Michael Geist calls for the CRTC to stop the “mandatory carriage” provision that forces cable providers to carry certain channels on their “basic” packages:

Canadians frustrated with ever-increasing cable and satellite bills received bad news last week with the announcement that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will consider whether to require cable and satellite companies to include nearly two-dozen niche channels as part of their basic service packages. If approved, the new broadcast distribution rules would significantly increase monthly cable bills with consumers forced to pay for channels they may not want.

Two issues sit at the heart of the broadcast distribution rules. First, whether the CRTC should grant any broadcaster mandatory distribution across all cable and satellite providers such that all subscribers are required to pay for them as part of their basic packages. Second, in the absence of mandatory distribution, whether broadcast distributors should be required to at least offer the services so that consumers have the option of subscribing.

[. . .]

While the financial benefits for broadcasters are enormous, the policy represents a near-complete elimination of consumer choice for the channels at issue. Rather than convincing millions of Canadian consumers that their services are worth buying, the broadcasters need only convince a handful of CRTC commissioners that their service meets criteria such as making “an exceptional contribution to Canadian expression.” That is supposedly a high bar, yet it is surely far easier than convincing millions of people to pay for your service each month.

Last year, CRTC chair Jean Pierre Blais emphasized that the Commission’s top priority was to “put Canadians at the centre of their communications system.” The mandatory distribution rules do the opposite. Rather than focusing on consumer interests and choice, the rules place broadcasters at the centre of the communications system by offering up the prospect of millions in revenue without regard for what consumers actually want.

There are few, if any, broadcasters that can be considered so essential as to merit mandatory distribution. Niche cultural broadcasters have a myriad of distribution possibilities and should be forced to compete like any other content creator or distributor. In fact, even broadcasters that position themselves as “public services” can often be replicated by Internet-based alternatives.

I always find it interesting how cable providers usually manage to group their offerings so that you can’t get the group of channels you actually want in the same package. I doubt that this would change even if the regulator allowed the change from “must carry” to “must offer”, however: there’s too much potential profit to the cable companies in crafty packaging strategies. You’ll almost certainly not see the opportunity to pay for just the individual channels you want, as that would be too consumer friendly (and, we’re assured by cable company reps, would kill off lots of niche channels because they wouldn’t get enough subscribers).

Of course, if a TV channel can’t attract enough subscribers, that’s usually a pretty strong economic signal that they shouldn’t be broadcasting anyway.

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