Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Japanese Pension Mess Explicated

Japanese Pension Mess Explicated

On the evening of Tuesday 12 June, daughter Cornucopia went to sleep after her evening video was over, crashing out on the cushion downstairs in our one traditional tatami-mat room.

My wife, who had read my last blog entry, took the opportunity of this unexpected gift of extra peace and quiet to explain the pensions mess to me.

I knew that records for some people were missing, but how many people? I got conflicting numbers, one of my Japanese students of English suggesting that the number was as low as five thousand, and an online page uploaded by the Japan Times seeming (at least as I read it) to indicate that tax records for fifty million people were missing.

My wife clearly explained this to me.

There are, in the Japanese tax system, fifty million records which cannot be assigned to a specific individual. So, how many people have missing records? Not fifty million, that's for sure. It's entirely possible that there may be, say, five missing records that relate to one particular person.

The question on my mind was this: how many people have records which are missing?

As my wife explains it, this question is quite simply unanswerable. All that can be said is that there are fifty million records sloshing around without the identity of a citizen attached to them.

As to how this situation came to pass, my students gave me different answers. One said that people's records became confused because, from time to time, back in the past, people were assigned new numbers. Another student said that when records written in Chinese characters were computerized, the fact that there are alternative ways to transliterate the average Chinese character into one of Japan's syllabic alphabets led to confusion.

My wife told me that both students were correct, that there was a multiple number problem and also a transliteration problem (complicated, in some cases, by simple typing errors in addition to any mutations at the transliteration stage), and that in fact there were "many" reasons why the system became confused, one being as simple as the fact that Japanese women have, traditionally, taken their husband's name upon marriage.

According to my wife, the current government has a theory that most of the fifty million unassigned records probably relate to people who are now safely dead. As to how long this mess will take to sort out, she has no idea, but if definitely will not be settled in less than a year.

Meantime, when my wife has to front up at the office counter to take her turn at dealing with hi-I'm-here-in-person inquiries from citizens, naturally the citizens often have pension-related worries which they would like addressed. Right now, please, if you wouldn't mind.

I asked my wife about her own pension number, and she said she'd checked, and it was okay. As for daughter Cornucopia, being only three years old, she doesn't have a pension number yet.

On an entirely different subject, the graphic at the top shows two of the robot busters that I had to decrypt to be permitted to upload by blog entry. To prove that I wasn't a software robot, I had to decrypt the distorted letters and enter them correctly in the appropriate box.

The lower one is the buster I was confronted by first, and I thought I had it nailed down, but I failed the test. Fortunately, I wasn't put up against the wall and shot out of hand. I was given a second chance, and I passed the second test, being accepted as a living, breathing human being rather than as a cyborg intruder.

I routinely fail these tests, thanks to the fact that (a) my vision is trashed and (b) my brain is damaged, and easily revises, for example, "w" to "x." These busters have become, for me, one of the major negatives of the Internet, and, as I've said, one confronts me every time I try to upload a blog entry.

The most noxious ones, as far as I'm concerned, are the ones with numbers which go whirling round and round like those whirligig fireworks that never stop turning circles. But I've found I can freeze these in place by capturing them with PrintKey, the screen capture program that I always have ready to use.

I have also, on occasion, captured a robot buster with PrintKey and then, having saved it, have opened it up with Irfan View, the image-viewing program, and have doubled or redoubled the size, sometimes thereby decrypting the meaning of an otherwise incomprehensible glyph.

In reading the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, the print edition published in Japan on Tuesday 12 June, I discovered that these things actually have a formal name. Their true and proper name, as assigned to them by their inventors, is captchas.

(Parenthetical note: my psychic powers are telling me that my spellchecker definitely isn't going to like this word. It doesn't even like the word "spellchecker.")

Each of these gizmos is a captcha, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.

The credit for their invention "usually goes to Carnegie Mellon University."

The article, by one Brad Stone, makes it clear that I'm not the only human being on planet Earth who can't always successfully pass as being authentic.

He quotes a Michael Barrett as saying "You can make a captcha absolutely undefeatable by computer, but at some point, you are turning this from a human reading test into an intelligence test and an acuity test."

For me, that point has already been reached and breached.

I found out just yesterday that I'd failed a really important captcha, the most important captcha in my local universe, the secret three-digit confirmation code on the back of my credit card, which is almost impossible to read against the deliberately confusing multicolored background against which it is set.

Despite the obvious security risk, I keep all my passwords in a special password file. If I didn't do this, my life would grind to a halt as a consequence of password fiction. I have all my credit card details in that file, and I was under the impression that, in the past, I'd successfully copied and pasted them, and they'd worked, therefore they must be flawless.

Accordingly, when I recently tried to buy a registration for UltraEdit 13.00a, and their site rejected my credit card number, I refused point blank to accept that there could be anything wrong with my data, so just gave up on the idea of getting the new version of UltraEdit, and simply deleted it from my computer. (You can't run it without registration because it's time limited.)

However, yesterday I had a credit card problem that I couldn't simply walk away from. I got an e-mail from EasyDNS.com, the outfit from which I buy domain names, and it told me that one of my domain names was due for registration.

I went to the site and paid. Or tried to.

The first time, my address got back by the computer. You get asked to select a state or province from a pulldown list, but all the options are for North America, so I was forced to use "other/autre." That was what the computer spat back. But, when it had done so, I was free from the tyranny of the pull-down list, and was able to enter what is on my mailing address, "Kanagawa-ken," the word "ken" meaning "prefecture," as Japan is divided into prefectures, modeled on the French system.

I was then able to proceed to enter my credit card number, expiry date and secret three-digit confirmation number.

And this got spat back at me.

At this point I finally conceded that maybe my password file was in error, so I hauled out the credit card itself and started examining it with a magnifying glass. I mean, literally. I have a big magnifying glass which sits on the desk, and this has one small section which provides a patch of additional information, and by squinting this way and that at what was, in effect, one of the hardest captchas I've ever faced in my life, I finally realized my error. Once I'd corrected it, the credit card transaction was accepted, and a receipt duly arrived by e-mail.

The whole procedure took an exhausting two hours, lengthened by the fact that I sniffed very, very suspiciously at the incoming e-mail, and had to satisfy myself that it was authentic before I even got started.

Twenty-four hours later, I got an e-mail for another domain name that I definitely wanted to renew, so I went online and paid.

For the second purchase, from go to whoa it took precisely twelve minutes.

I won't be going back to the UltraEdit site to buy their latest and greatest, because I figure I can get by without it. I can do replace-in-files operations using my old and no longer reliable bought-long-ago version of UltraEdit; I can get my spell checking done with OpenOffice 2.0; and I can get my text editing done with NoteTab Light.

To supplement NoteTab Light, I am also using metapad 3.51 LE. NoteTab is far and away the more powerful product, with rock solid performance and a great tabbed interface, but the simpler metapad will associate correctly with text files, which NoteTab Light will not.

Or, more exactly, if you've associated text files with NoteTab Light, it will open a text file that you click on if it doesn't already have a text file open. But I often have half a dozen files open in NoteTab Light, and so I use metapad when I want to open a single file.

All these products, NoteTab Light, metapad and OpenOffice, are things you can find online, download for free and use legally without paying for them. None of them is perfect on its own, but, put together, they make a pretty good team.

OpenOffice 2.0 is what I'm using to make the Microsoft Word document that I need for the GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION. I'm actually making it as an odt document, this being the native format of OpenOffice 2.0 Writer, but this file can be painlessly converted to a Microsoft Word document.

I no longer bother installing Microsoft Word on my computer because OpenOffice 2.0 works just as well for me, and, in fact, is significantly more stable than Word.

I still have a couple of poems to add to the GENGHIS odt, so it will get a bit bigger than it is now, once I've added the last poems, have finished the table of contents and have done the index. Right at the moment, the odt runs to 287 pages, and I figure it will probably end up making a book of close to 300 pages, rather more than my really skimpy first book of poems, ARC OF LIGHT, which weighs in at a bare 120 pages, the last two of which are blank.

The GENGHIS LOTUS POETRY COLLECTION has its own domain name, genghislotus.com, which is the domain name I renewed in a lean twelve minutes. I renewed it for nine years, getting an eighteen percent discount by doing so. This second poetry book is quite probably going to be my last, and I want to give it its best shot at life.

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