Death By Overwork

Here’s an amazing fact:  Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work.  And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.

p1010928Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication.  So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in.  The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork.  Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.

It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime.  But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week.  That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.

The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave?  And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one.  You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.

All About The Wall

You may have missed it, but Tuesday was the deadline for companies to submit bids for the design of “the wall” that President Trump proposes to build along at least some parts of our southern border with Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to review the bids and announce finalists in June, and then some of the finalists are expected to build prototypes of their designs on government-owned land in San Diego.  The AP reports that the government is expected to select four to ten finalists to build 30-foot-long prototypes at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each.  Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it is looking for solid barriers, made of materials like concrete, rather than “walls” that rely on technology.

a0af3a441932abf668a4b1a868ee7b0aWe don’t know exactly how many companies submitted proposals, although apparently about 200 companies expressed interest in the border wall project.   I’m guessing that there were lots of bids.  What construction companies could resist bidding on a project that potentially involves pouring enormous amounts of concrete to build a barricade that extends for hundreds of miles?  The “wall” would make your standard highway construction project seem like a minor matter.

And although all of the bids haven’t been made public, we know what some companies are proposing because they have voluntarily disclosed their bids.  One bidder thinks the wall will become a kind of tourist attraction, and proposes a 56-foot-high wall designed with a walkway at the top to allow visitors to enjoy the desert vistas.  (“Hey kids!  Where should we go on our summer trip this year?  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or the border wall?”)  A different proposal suggests that nuclear waste be buried in trenches along the wall — which presumably would quash any meaningful tourist activity, by the way.  Another company wants to erect solar panels on parts of the wall, to generate electricity that can be sold to communities in both the U.S. and Mexico to help pay for the wall’s cost, which would allow President Trump to say that he had met, at least in part, his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Will a wall actually be built, given the significant opposition to it?  We don’t know at this point, but we do know one thing:  the bids that have been made public so far indicate the this effort at large-scale wall building could be a very quixotic exercise.

The Car As Terrorist Weapon

Yesterday’s brutal terrorist attack in London, England — in which a terrorist drove a car into innocent people walking on the Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament, then jumped out of the car armed with knives and stabbed and killed a police officer before being shot by police — is just the latest terrorist attack in which the principal deadly weapon has been an automobile.

terror-attack-london-876957Not a car filled with explosives and fitted out to be a bomb — just an everyday car that becomes weaponized because it is driven by a fanatic who thinks that plowing into random people, leaving some dead and others grievously injured, somehow advances their twisted agenda.  Yesterday the everyday car that was turned into an instrument of evil was a grey Hyundai sedan.  How many grey Hyundai sedans do you see every day in your town?

Security experts call it “low-tech terror,” in which terrorists use common devices like cars and turn them into weapons capable of mass murder.  Terrorist attacks involving vehicles have happened elsewhere in Europe, but don’t think you can protect yourself simply by avoiding places like London, Berlin, Milan, or Nice, where those attacks have occurred — the terrorist attack on the Ohio State University campus, here in our heartland town of Columbus, Ohio, involved a car intentionally driven into a crowd that was created by the driver pulling a fire alarm that caused people to leave a building and congregate outside, where they became an inviting target.

So how do you protect yourself from an attack when any car that you see during your day conceivably could have become weaponized by a nut behind the wheel?  Security experts say you should exercise extra caution when you do anything that brings you into close proximity to lots of other people, like going to a baseball game or a concert or a busy shopping area.  Of course, the Ohio State attack did not involve any of those things — so perhaps we all need to keep our eyes open during the next fire drill, or when noon rolls around and workers leave their buildings to go somewhere for lunch, or family members gather for a high school graduation ceremony, or any of the other countless occasions that cause Americans to gather together.

It’s a new frontier in terror, and we’re just going to have to pay more attention when we’re out and about.  But I’m not going to avoid football games or musical performances or other events where people congregate just because some disturbed lunatic might drive a car into the people who are there, any more than I avoided such events because there was a chance that a nut in an explosive vest might be there, too.  The terrorists aren’t going to beat us or cow us into submission that easily.

Gardening As A Gateway

Russell’s friend Emily Staugaitis is one of those people who seems to be a kind of natural difference-maker.  Where other people see challenges she can identify opportunities, and she’s not afraid to tackle a big project — like trying to set up an urban apple orchard in a depressed part of the Detroit area.

https3a2f2fcdn-evbuc-com2fimages2f223578392f1807581212702f12foriginalOne of Emily’s projects is Bandhu Gardens.  It’s a collective effort that uses gardening to help Bangladeshi immigrants in the Detroit area use the green thumbs they developed while growing up in south Asia to connect with each other, and with local restaurants that are interested in fresh, locally grown foods.  It’s also a way for Bangladeshi women to make some extra money, achieve more autonomy in their households, and get a taste of the business world in our capitalistic society.

Last year, the Bandhu Gardens group collectively sold 120 pounds of greens, beans and peppers and 25 pounds of squash to restaurant accounts.  They’ve also hosted “pop-up” dinners, including some at local restaurants owned or operated by women, have begun to offer cooking classes, and this year will be selling their produce at a large public farmers market in Detroit.

It’s a classic American immigrant story, of how people come to our country and begin to make their way forward, drawing on their traditional experiences and know-how and applying them to realize opportunities in their new home.  Sometimes, though, it helps to have someone who can help to point out the openings and make the potential opportunities into realities.  Congratulations to Emily for helping to serving in that important role for some of the new arrivals to our land of immigrants!

Cart Culture

Ambergris Caye, where we’ve spent the last week, is an island.  It is home to a few  large trucks, a handful of minivans that serve as taxicabs, and lots of bikes and motor scooters — but by far the primary mode of transportation is golf carts.  They’re everywhere, and in San Pedro, the big town on the Caye, the carts are lined up and carefully locked with all kinds of mechanisms — chains, padlocks, and variations of The Club — as people go about their daily business.

One thing about golf carts:  although they seem puttery and slow and therefore safe, they remain motor vehicles, as capable of a fender bender as any car.  And, with no seat belts or other forms of passenger restraints, they can be dangerous in a collision.  We saw a rear-ender where a little girl in the trailing cart went flying into the windshield and came up stunned and crying.

For the most part, Kish and I stuck to bikes and our feet.

Sunrise, Sunset

When you go on a beach vacation, oohing and aahing about the sunrises and sunsets is an ironclad requirement.  There’s something about the combination of sun, clouds, water and a distant horizon that just grabs you — especially if you’re a landlocked Midwesterner.

Here at our resort in Belize, the sunrise part is easy.  Our cottage faces east, and when Old Sol peeks over the horizon you notice it immediately.  Step outside the front door, walk out onto the beach, and voila! 

The sunset requires a bit more work.  Just to the west of our resort is a kind of inlet, with small islands and plants dotting the surface.  You have to walk off the resort property, cross a dusty road, and stand and wait.  In some ways, it’s more visually interesting than the ocean.  Quieter, too — without the crashing surfing you can hear the birdsong and the lapping of the rippled water.  It’s a striking setting.

We’ve really enjoyed our trip to Belize, which ends today.

Sand Dollars

The basic Belizean unit of currency is called a “dollar,” but the $20 bill has a nice picture of a younger Queen Elizabeth on it, rather than Andy Jackson.  And if that’s not jarring enough, the dollar coin is a weighty hexagon — also with the Queen’s visage.  It would be a cool ball marker on the golf course, but it doesn’t seem like real money, does it?

After a while, you really don’t care.  It’s beach money.  Call it sand dollars.  You’re not taking it back to the states with you, and then trying to exchange it at some midwestern bank branch with a befuddled clerk trying to figure out the “exchange rate.”  If you brought it back, it would just end up in that box with the weird change in it, right?  So spend it while you can.  On your last day of Vay-Kay, head down the beach to that nice bar where the beer was especially cold, and give the barkeep and the cook an especially generous tip.  They deserve it!

The goal, ultimately, is to spend every paper and metal scrap of vacation currency before the departure plane leaves the runway.