Japanese petrol (gasoline) prices to fall 25c per litre

Following political gridlock in the Japanese parliament, a “temporary” tax on petrol (gasoline) that has been in force for three decades after being renewed every couple of years is set to expire on 01 April 2008 (to readers outside of Japan: No, this is not an April Fool’s joke). As a result prices of petrol are set to fall by 25 yen per litre (about US$0.95 per gallon, EUR 0.16 per litre).

I’m utterly unimpressed by how both major Japanese parties have handled this conflict.

Fuel taxes in Japan consist of the basic fuel tax and a “temporary” but de-facto permanent surcharge. The ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wanted to hold on to the surcharge, as well as to a peculiar rule that fuel taxes must only be used for road construction and repair. This road-use-only restriction was defended by the so-called “road tribe”, an informal group of politicians with cozy ties to construction companies which in turn support their election campaigns.

The opposition Democratic Party, which controls the less powerful Upper House of parliament, called for dissolving the fuel – road construction link, as well as abolishing the surcharge altogether and only keeping the basic fuel tax, as it was until the 1970s.

The two did not compromise in time before the set expiration date and so prices will fall from tomorrow. Most likely the Lower House, which is controlled by the LDP-led coalition, will override the Upper House about one month later and reimpose the higher tax rate. Meanwhile Prime Minister Fukuda offered to remove the road construction link from April 2009 in order to get the opposition to agree to an extension of the surcharge.

While motorists will welcome cheaper fuel, petrol stations are likely to collectively lose about US$200 million over night, as they hold stocks of some 800 million litres of petrol in their underground tanks on which the tax has already been paid and which will not be refunded to them. Motorists are likely to give their business to whatever petrol station that starts selling at the new low prices first, making it near impossible for other stations to pass on to the consumer the taxes these stations have already paid on stocks delivered before April.

To me it makes no sense to maintain the outdated restriction on how fuel taxes can be used, which serves primarily the interests of construction companies, not the general public. Japan as an aging society with a declining population will need more and more cash for supporting elderly people and their health care, not more and more roads. Why can’t taxes be used where they are needed the most? This pork barrel restriction should have been abandoned a long time ago!

On the other hand it would be irresponsible to cut fuel taxes while the government is running a huge budget deficit. It would just mean more red ink, piling up higher debts to be repaid by our children and grandchildren. Also, cheaper fuel today will do little to encourage consumers to switch to more economical cars or public transport and to cut their output of greenhouse gases. Japan is already way behind on its efforts to meet its obligations under the Kyoto climate treaty.

It would make more sense to maintain and even raise fuel taxes and use the revenue to subsidise CO2 conservation measures, from better home insulation to solar collectors for warm water and subsidies for hybrid cars. Thirty years from now the world will live on maybe half the crude oil output per year as today, shared amongst more consumers. Whatever country comes up with intelligent solutions for living with scarce and expensive oil will do best in the 21st century. Trying to sneak back into a “golden age” of cheap fuel is not the way to succeed.

First impressions of Vista and Ubuntu

Last week I was on a business trip to the USA and decided it was finally time for me to buy a new notebook computer. Here in Japan it’s difficult to get machines with US keyboards.

My previous one was a 650 MHz Pentium III whose RAM was maxed out at 512 MB while my main desktops and servers have 2 GB or more. Lack of RAM slows down PCs much more than a slow clock speed does. People who buy entry level Vista machines equipped with only 512 MB would be better off with a sub-1 GHz CPU but a full 1 GB of RAM.

I picked a Gateway M-6750 with a 1.66 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, a 250 GB 3.5″ hard disk and 3 GB of RAM. It comes with a built-in microphone and webcam, very handy for Skype-addicts like me.

Every single machine at Best Buy and Circuit City that I looked at came with some form of Vista preinstalled. Microsoft sure does not want to give customers any choice whether they stick with XP. Ideally, I would have wiped off Vista and installed Windows XP on it. Until now I had kept my office a Vista-free zone, but knowing that occasionally I will needed to test some software on it, I stuck with it for the new machine.

I spent some time reconfiguring the Vista desktop to be as Windows 2000 and XP-like as possible. The constant alerts to permit some actions I had requested soon became annoying. Often a single operation results in the user having to agree two or three times. Inevitably, agreeing to anything without giving it much thought soon becomes a habit. Does Microsoft seriously believe that training users to constantly click “Allow”, “OK”, “Yes” will lead to a noticeable gain in security?

So far I have seen little reason for anyone to upgrade from Windows XP or Windows 2000 (my favourite Windows version) to Vista. Sure, there is plenty of new eye candy, but who but the makers and vendors of graphics chipsets, CPUs and RAM benefits from that? Users spent countless hours relearning the user interface and getting old application working (or replacing them). Even for upgrades from Vista to Vista Service Pack 1 there were so many land mines that Microsoft decided to hold off general availability of SP1 via Windows Update for several more months.

One of the reasons I picked this model was its large hard disk, because I was planning to also run Ubuntu. I downloaded the ISO image and burnt it to DVD using the burner software included with Vista. Ubuntu initially boots off a live DVD that includes an installer. The installation was fairly straightforward. The installer shrank the Windows NTFS partition to make space for Ubuntu. After the main installation it downloaded close to 200 updated packages and fixes, then it was all done. The default configuration took up only 2.4 GB of disk space.

I was impressed that I can access shared folders and volumes on Windows machines from Ubuntu, as well as being able to read files in the NTFS (Windows Vista) partition on the drive.

There were two driver issues however, which I have yet to resolve [now partly resolved, see updates below!]:

  • The sound hardware is missing a driver. The loadspeaker symbol in the top right corner of the desktop is showing disabled and I can’t get sound output on the builtin speakers.
  • The builtin wireless card doesn’t appear to be suppported. I can only connect to the LAN and internet by using a wired connection.

In general, driver support in Ubuntu is good, but there are obviously still some rough edges. It would help if Gateway and other manufacturers were to offer pre-configured Ubuntu machines, as Dell already does.

Similar driver issues can occur on Vista. In fact, last week I was helping set up an AOpen MiniPC, which had been upgraded to Vista after a memory upgrade from 512 MB to 1 GB and it also had issues with its wireless, which wasn’t supported until a couple of Windows Update runs.

I think Linux and in particular Ubuntu will become an increasingly serious challenger to Microsoft’s de-facto monopoly on the desktop and not before time.

Update, 2008-03-14:
Ubuntu 7.10 (“Gutsy Gibbon”, released in October 2007) detects the sound hardware on this Intel chipset, but there doesn’t seem to be a driver for it yet. When I enter ” lspci -v” at the shell prompt, it lists this:

00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) HD Audio Controller (rev 03)
Subsystem: Gateway 2000 Unknown device 0380
Flags: fast devsel, IRQ 22
Memory at fa500000 (64-bit, non-prefetchable) [size=16K]
Capabilities: [50] Power Management version 2
Capabilities: [60] Message Signalled Interrupts: Mask- 64bit+ Queue=0/0 Enable-
Capabilities: [70] Express Unknown type IRQ 0

I checked the sound drivers for Intel chips listed at http://www.alsa-project.org/main/index.php/Matrix:Vendor-Intel and it appears the ICH8 chipset is not supported yet.

Update, 2008-03-18:
The Marvell TOPDOG wireless adapter is now working with Ubuntu, by following the advice given by others and installing the Windows 2000/XP drivers for the hardware using ndiswrapper. I had first tried the Vista driver, but had no luck with that. The Ndiswrapper project page on SourceForge specifically recommended to avoid Vista drivers and use Windows 2000 or XP NDIS drivers. For PCI device ID 11AB:2A08 you need the NetMW14x.inf file which references the two driver files NetMW143.sys (for Windows 2000) and NetMW145.sys (for Windows XP).

The following threads and instructions proved very helpful, please read them both if you have the same problem as I did:

  1. https://help.ubuntu.com/community/WifiDocs/Driver/Ndiswrapper
  2. http://ubuntuforums.org/archive/index.php/t-575785.html

Here is what I did after installing the Ndiswrapper software and copying over the Windows drivers from a Windows machine where I had run the installer:

$ sudo ndiswrapper -i NetMW14x.inf
installing netmw14x …
$ sudo ndiswrapper -a 11ab:2a08 netmw14x
WARNING: Driver ‘netmw14x’ will be used for ’11AB:2A08′
This is safe _only_ if driver netmw14x is meant for chip in device 11AB:2A08
$ sudo ndiswrapper -l
netmw14x : driver installed
device (11AB:2A08) present

After that I followed the instructions for Configuring Wireless Network Settings. Voila! Wireless network connectivity under Ubuntu anywhere in the building!

Update, 2008-04-16:
Drew’s advice on how to get sound working did the trick for me too: I can now use the audio on my Gateway M-6750. I ran this as he suggested:

sudo apt-get install linux-backports-modules-generic

and restarted the machine. Thanks, Drew!