Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Abraham van Linge: "Jonah and the Whale"

Jonah and the 'Whale'

A query surfaced on the Milton List concerning the comparison of Satan prone on the fiery flood to the sea-beast "haply slumbering on the Norway foam" (PL 1. 203). The question was whether the reference to Norway alluded to the Midgard Serpent (or World Serpent) of Norse mythology. I don't know about that, but Roy Flannagan provided us with a link to an image from Milton's time of the 'whale' that reportedly swallowed Jonah as another possible source. It's not the Midgard Serpent, of course, but it is rather reptilian.

I have 'borrowed' the image at that link, one of a series of photographs taken in Lincoln College Chapel, Oxford, by a certain "Lawrence OP" . . . or 'uncertain' since I'm not sure of that last name (so I'll refer to him as "Lawrence").

Concerning this image and the others with it, Lawrence tells us:
The windows are the masterpiece of Abraham van Linge, 1629-31. He was the finest glass painter of his generation.

They are not stained glass, but enamelled: the enamel was painted on then fired; the heat and length of firing determined the final colour. It is a tricky, sophisticated technique of which van Linge was the supreme master.
Not stained glass but enameled glass. I learn something new every day. Now, I've just realized that I don't specifically know what the "stained" in stained glass means. Why 'stained'?

But that's not my inquiry for today. Rather, I was wondering why this 'whale' has scales (the 'reptilian' quality alluded to above). I realize that the Medieval depiction of whales in those books known as bestiaries shows them scaled, but Abraham van Linge was painting in the 17th century, well into the scientific revolution. Did people not know any better by then?

Lawrence, by the way, has chosen the New International Version of the Bible for a caption to the photo above:
"For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:40)
This NIV text says "huge fish." Let's check the Greek:
ὥσπερ γὰρ ἦν Ἰωνᾶς ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ τοῦ κήτους τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας οὕτως ἔσται ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας
The relevant word is "kētous" (κήτους), which the Blue Letter Bible helps us to understand by directing us to its Lexicon: "a sea monster, whale, huge fish." The definition is borrowed from Thayer's Lexicon, which informs us further that the original Jonah story had "kētei megalō" (κήτει μεγάλῳ) in the Septuagint (Greek) version, which would thus suggest "great sea monster, great whale, great huge fish." The Hebrew behind this is "dag gadōl" (דָּג גָּדֹול) in Jonah 2:1, which literally means "big fish."

This raises a host of questions (e.g., where the "whale" translation comes from) that I cannot deal with at present, for my day is soon to start.

But knowledgeable readers are welcome to comment.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

"So, it's settled. Pullman is sinister."

Philip Pullman
(Image from Philip Pullman)

An old Ozark friend who teaches elementary children has posted an interesting response to my Pullman inquiry:
I might make a suggestion. I assume that all of you are adults; therefore, you are reading Pullman's and Rowling's books from that perspective. If you read Pullman's series along with 5th and 6th graders, then very rarely does any religious discussion arise. Children LOVE any book where a child overcomes adults. Books where they must survive using their wits against the adult world in general. When I was a child, it was the Boxcar Children who survived on their own, or Madeline l'engle's books. After having spent years now in discussion with children about Harry Potter, they identify with his struggle to overcome the adult world. Mean teachers, horrible foster family, etc. Bad guys out to get you, or the bad kid that the good ones ultimately overcome. I have always maintained that the genius of Pullman and Rowling was mixing the above with a little magic. It takes a rare elementary student to assess these books as good vs evil in a religious sense.

Well, just a few thoughts from an elementary literacy person!

Since these two authors have primarily made their retirement stash from selling to elementary students then I applaud them for cluing into the buying audience. Of course, the great aspect, of both writers, I believe, is giving adults something to discuss also!
Jeanie's central point is this:
"Children LOVE any book where a child overcomes adults."
As I wrote in my reply:
So, it's settled. Pullman is sinister.
I'm glad that this issue has been settled. I now know that I must forbid my children to read His Dark Materials. Still awaiting answer is the question of Pullman's shallowness.

But to be serious for at least one moment . . . Jeanie has clearly identified a crucial element in Pullman's appeal for young readers. Children defeating adults. That's also true of Coraline and The Graveyard Book, both by Neil Gaiman.

Now if only I could find a book that shows an adult like me how to defeat adults.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

En-Uk as Artist

My nine-year-old son, En-Uk, got interested in computer art sometime last year and created a number of images that I found rather striking . . . though I admit to bias. Perhaps I should submit these to the judgment of such professional artists as Terrance Lindall or Anahit Vart?

Anyway, for your viewing pleasure (or not), here are En-Uk's works of art -- the first one being a self-portrait:

I Got Hit (나는 맞았어요)

Trust me, I didn't hit him. The scene (whatever it bloody well is) springs purely from his crimson-and-clover imagination.

Next we see a screaming man, creatively titled "Screaming Man":

Screaming Man (소리지르는 사람)

Contrary to appearances, this screaming fellow is not me. Unless he's actually screaming a song. In which case . . . it is me. Capped, too. You can't top that.

We find next the plague of yellow dust blown from the Gobi Desert that annually descends upon the Korean Peninsula in springtime:

Yellow Dust (황사)

Not especially very yellow. More like a princely purple rain.

Now comes a figure typical to the Korean scene:

Mister (아저씨)

Mr. Ajushi. He's everywhere. All the time. He likes his soju and his kimchi. Hmmm . . . so do I. Well, not so much the soju, I guess.

Next, we see yet another scene typical to Korea:

Iguana (이구아나)

Iguana, but more commonly known as 'hoguana', it is typically seen in pet shops. (With a bit of paternal nudging, I might turn the artist into a Razorback fan.)

But here's something never seen on the peninsula:

Strange People (이상한 사람들)

No strange people here in Korea. None with navels so elevated, anyway. Plenty of aliens, however:

Alien (외계인)

Me, for instance. But I'm a legal one, and I promise never to abduct you. Much as I'd like to. For science.

Then, for some reason, this:

Stone Fish (돌 물고기)

Never seen a stone fish in Korea. But the following is currently rather common:

B-Boy (비보이)

Your typical B-Boy is something like a break dancer. Possibly "B-Boy" means "Break-Boy." Possibly. But probably not.

And what's this I hear in response to my musings:

Unpleasant Laughter (기분 나쁜 웃음)

I thought so. Unpleasant laughter.

But there are worse things than the laughter of ridicule:

Ghost (귀신)

The 'monster' known as a ghost, for instance!

Next, the fabulous "Zola Man," impersonating a lamppost for Félix Fénéon and his anarchist friend to converse behind:

Zola Man (졸라맨)

J'accuse! That's a misspelling, En-Uk! Should be "Jola Man"! But it ain't . . . according to the artist.

Finally, we turn to the old, very old, very paleolithic-old Stone Age. Out of Bedrock. It's a page right out of history:

Strange Dino (이상한 공룡)

Poor Dino. Very far from home, I fear.

Rather like me in that respect.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Philip Pullman: "shallow and sinister"?

Philip Pullman, April 2005
Photograph by Adrian Hon, MSSV
(Image from Wikipedia)

The Milton List has been having a discussion of Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" series because of its many allusions to Milton's writings, which some Milton experts are currently exploring. Other Milton scholars remain unimpressed by Pullman. For instance, Professor James Fleming wrote:
Am I alone in finding Pullman both shallow and sinister?

As far as I can tell, The Golden Compass ends with Lord Asriel, the good-scary guy, murdering a child (Roger). This is presented as a noble sacrifice, allowing the great man to open up the heavens in defiance of an authoritarian God.

A little Brothers Karamazov rids us of this deed.
I concurred:
You're not "alone in finding Pullman both shallow and sinister." Even worse, he can't tell a good story.

In the mid-90s, I was sitting in a cafe in London reading book reviews in some newspaper and came across two reviews, one of Rowling and the other of Pullman. An excerpt from the latter's book aroused my curiosity, but I didn't actually read the series until around 2005, long after I'd read most of the Harry Potter series.

I was greatly disappointed by the story's development in the Pullman's series. I started reading with high expectations, and the quality of his writing is certainly very good, but the story went nowhere. Even the writing seemed to falter in the latter books . . . but perhaps I was just getting bored.

Like Professor Fleming, I was troubled by the "noble sacrifice" -- though there may have been an allusion to Christianity in that -- but whatever Pullman might have intended by that, and by the entire series, I finished reading him with a sense of letdown.

In my opinion, he let his animus toward Christianity distort his story.

Despite Pullman's literary gifts, which are considerable and far better than Rowlings', the latter tells a much better story that kept me interested to the very end.

The 'noble sacrifice' in the Harry Potter series worked rather better, too.

For anyone interested, I blogged on my reaction to Pullman back in 2005, soon after having finished him in disappointment.
Other readers will certainly have had a different reaction, and I'd be interested in Written Wyrdd's opinion since she's a reader of fantasy and sci-fi and is also, I take it, a writer herself.

Was the Pullman series a letdown for anyone else?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

The 'uncultured fop' speaks again: Ban Good Omens

Good Omens
Ban The Book?
(Image from Amazon.com)

Faithful readers know that I have previously called for banning John Milton's writings for inciting violence, and I must now also call for a ban on the book Good Omens.

I realize that a mere three days ago, I was praising the book for its positive portrayal of a character with the good name of Hodges, but I have since come to see darker aspects to this book. In my opinion, it encourages suicide bombing. Consider this scene depicting the death of Agnes Nutter:
Thirty seconds later an explosion took out the village green, scythed the valley clean of every living thing, and was seen as far away as Halifax.

There was much subsequent debate as to whether this had been sent by God or by Satan, but a note later found in Agnes Nutter's cottage indicated that any divine or devilish intervention had been materially helped by the contents of Agnes's petticoats, wherein she had with some foresight concealed eighty pounds of gunpowder and forty pounds of roofing nails. (Good Omens, page 109)
As Hillary Clinton might say, "it takes a village" out entirely! The problem is that are intended to like Agnes Nutter. Why, her name even appears in the book's subtitle: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Granted, she's called "Witch" . . . but that seems to be intended in a positive sense, else why would her 'prophecies' be called "nice"? Kind of like how my paternal grandmother was a water witch. But unlike my grandmother, not all witches are nice! Agnes Nutter's final act hardly seems nice at all! Yet, she is portrayed positively, even more so than Mary Hodges! We should therefore not be astonished to discover a statistical correlation between the publication of this book and an uptick in suicide bombings.

Unconvinced? Then, go read Scott Atran's article, "The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism" (The Washington Quarterly 29.2 (Spring 2006), 127-147). See especially page 128 for Table 1, and note that for the decade of the 1990s, the annual number of suicide bombings shot up from 4.7 for the period from 1981 to 1990 to 16 for the period 1991 to 2000.

Good Omens was published in 1990.

In calling for a ban on this book, I realize that I shall no doubt once again be called "an uncultured fop, a boob, an imbecile!!!" Such are the slings and arrows of outraged ill humor.

I can do no better than to quote myself on this:
"I'll continue tilting the windmills of my mind as I call on my partron saint, Don Quixote, that great knight beatified for ultimately recognizing the danger of unregulated books."
May other noble knights of Don Quixote's order join me.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Model Body Paragraph

Long-time readers know that I occasionally blog about my teaching, and I once had an entire series on student plagiarism that I finally brought to a halt because no matter how much I complained on this blog, students everywhere continued to plagiarize, and I had to conclude, whatever Shelley might think, that bloggers, not poets, are the true "unacknowledged legislators of the world."

So rather than curse the darkness, I'm offering to light a candle by providing a little lesson in writing a body paragraph.

My Ewha Womans University students in a course labeled "College English" are using a text titled North Star 4: Reading and Writing (Pearson-Longman, Third Edition), and last week, they did an exercise on integrating two readings about animal intelligence.

The first reading was from the book How Smart Are Animals, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, a scientist and expert on animals whom you can obscurely see below:

A better image is available at her website, from which the banner above was borrowed.

The second reading was from the book Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin (with co-writer Catherine Johnson), also a scientist and expert on animals whose image is obscurely visible below:

Again, a better image is available at her website, from which this book image above was borrowed.

Anyway, in the original exercise on page 79 of North Star 4, students had to integrate material from both authors. They began by drawing upon both authors to fill in the blanks in a series of seven statements (the filled-in parts appearing in bold font):
1. Early 1900s

Gustav Wolff believed, "an animal can think in a human way." This belief was inspired by the fact that Clever Hans, at first, seemed to have understood human language and to have mastered arithmetic.

2. Oskar Pfungst's view of Clever Hans

Pfungst believed Hans did not think on his own. Instead, Hans "read" the responses of the audience.

3. Before 1960

Scientists believed that animals' reactions were based on instinct and not intelligence.

4. Current views on trained animals

Animals that are easy to train may be very intelligent.

5. Current veiws on trainability of animals

Trained animals may appear to be intelligent, but they are just repeating behavior patterns.

6. Current veiws on testing animal intelligence

When evaluating animal intelligence, we must test them in situations that have meaning to them, not just to humans.

7. Temple Grandin's view of animal intelligence

If an animal can recognize signs that they weren’t trained to and decide to act, then they are intelligent.
Once students had finished this filling-in exercise, they had to synthesize the statements. Since they would soon be writing a body paragraph on animal intelligence, I decided to have them integrate the statements above in a first draft of this assigned body paragraph. I told them to add transitional phrases and extra information to the statements above so that the synthesis would work. The result would be a series of supporting sentences that would then need only a topic sentence and a concluding sentence to fit the form of a body paragraph.

Many students didn't quite grasp the need for a topic sentence and a concluding sentence, and they handed in something like the following (albeit corrected for grammar, spelling, and punctuation):
In the early 1900s, Gustav Wolff believed, "an animal can think in a human way." This belief was inspired by the fact that Clever Hans, at first, seemed to have understood human language and to have mastered arithmetic. Pfungst believed Hans did not think on his own. Instead, Hans "read" the responses of the audience. Before 1960, scientists believed that animals' reactions were based on instinct and not intelligence. The current view on trained animals is that animals that are easy to train may be very intelligent. The current view on the trainability of animals is that trained animals may appear to be intelligent, but they are just repeating behavior patterns. The current view on testing animal intelligence is that when evaluating animal intelligence, we must test them in situations that have meaning to them, not just to humans. Temple Grandin's view of animal intelligence is that if an animal can recognize signs that they weren't trained to and decide to act, then they are intelligent.
One can see that this 'paragraph' has a number of problems. Not only is it almost entirely copied (hence plagiarized!), it provides too little information, it contradicts itself, and it lacks both a topic sentence and a concluding sentence. I therefore rewrote it as a model body paragraph:
Views on animal intelligence have changed over the years. In the early 1900s, the Swiss psychiatrist Gustav Wolff believed that animals could think in human ways. His belief was based upon the evidence of a very unusual horse named "Clever Hans" that seemed to be able to understand human language and to do arithmetic. However, a German experimental psychologist named Oskar Pfungst did not believe that Hans could truly think. By use of a "double-blind" experiment, Pfungst was able to show that Hans was instead 'reading' the unconscious 'signals' of his trainer and the audiences. From the time of Pfungst until 1960, scientists generally believed that animals reacted to training based on instinct rather than on intelligence. Since the 1960s, however, views have shifted. Currently, many scientists believe that animals that can be easily trained are also likely to be highly intelligent. But other scientists dissent from this and continue to argue that while trained animals might appear intelligent, they are probably just repeating behavior patterns without genuine understanding. Due to this skepticism, some scientists have recently proposed that if we wish to evaluate animal intelligence, we should test animals in contexts that are meaningful for them rather than for people. But we still need to have a working definition of intelligence, so the noted animal expert and scientist Temple Grandin has suggested that any animal capable of recognizing signs that it was not trained to recognize and then deciding how to act should be considered intelligent. In such ways have views on animal intelligence changed, even oscillated, but we are perhaps now closer to a more genuine, certainly more precise understanding of the phenomenon.
I then presented these two paragraphs to the entire class using the multimedia projector and went over each line to show the problems and the solutions.

I don't expect any of my freshmen students to write a paragraph as complete and correct as this one, but they appreciated being shown a model body paragraph, and it seemed particularly effective because they had already attempted to write this same paragraph on their own and could therefore see precisely where their own efforts fell short.

I'll find out this Friday whether they truly understood . . . though I half expect some students to plagiarize my model.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Density of History

The Armageddon Waltz?
(Image from New York Times)

A few weeks ago, Frederic Morton -- author of Thunder of Twilight: Vienna 1913-1914 -- wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that somewhat interested me. Titled "The Armageddon Waltz," it took a slice of time from Vienna in 1913, glorious capital of a ramshackle Austro-Hungarian Empire beset with economic problems, troubled from political ideologies, threatened through religious dissonance, wracked by ethnic discord, and headed for Europe's Great War:
"Austria," said Karl Kraus, who was Habsburg Austria's H. L. Mencken, "is the laboratory for the apocalypse." What would he say about America today?
Morton, apparently, sees a parallel. I'm not one to prophesy about the future -- not seriously, anyway -- but the parallel to America seems forced. After all, Vienna only celebrated with a Bankruptcy Ball, whereas America has an actual bankruptcy. No, what intrigued me instead was this paragraph:
Vienna was incubating in its own streets some of the century's prime virtuosos of violence. One of them was active close to the imperial palace, Schloss Schönbrunn, where the emperor had received his heir. An elegant building on Schönbrunner Schlossstrasse housed young Josef Stalin, dispatched by Lenin to explore the empire's explosive nationalities situation. It was during Stalin's weeks in Vienna that he initiated his lethal feud with young Leon Trotsky, who, a few streetcar stops away, was publishing the original Pravda. All this while on the other side of town young Adolf Hitler was seething obscurely, painting postcards for a living. What those three did the day after the Bankruptcy Ball history does not record. We do know that the Austrian Parliament voted against appropriating money for the housing bill. We also know that the emperor turned down the archduke's plea for negotiation rather than confrontation with Serbia. Franz Ferdinand walked out of the palace defeated -- to die 16 months later of a Serb nationalist's bullet, igniting World War I.
Except for the archduke, these men -- Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and Gavrilo Princip -- were then but nobodies, yet went on to make history in the way that it is too often made. Our world is thick with such discontented individuals, and we live in this thicket that becomes history.

Look around you. Perhaps a Mohamed Atta seethes obscurely in the next cubicle, intent on crashing the gates of history.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

The good name "Hodges" . . .

Good Omens
Neil Gaiman
Terry Pratchett
(Image from Wikipedia)

The good name "Hodges," oft maligned in this world through the literary works of the likes of Jane Austen, finds itself blessed in Gaiman and Pratchett's Good Omens.

Oh, you weren't aware that Austen maligns the good name of "Hodges"?

Well, consider chapter 27 of Emma, in which a certain cook named "Mrs. Hodges" -- in her depiction by the voluble Mrs. Weston quoting some servant named "Patty" quoting some other servant -- comes across as cross:
Mrs. Hodges, he said, was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring. He told Patty this, but bid her not mind it, and be sure not to say any thing to us about it, for Mrs. Hodges would be cross sometimes.
All this displeasure over missing apples! As though the fruit hadn't been intentionally "sent away"! As though Mrs. Hodges had inordinate charge over the Garden of Eden and had discovered her precious apples gone! What a proud, overbearing, self-important cook! (Not anything like a genuine self-effacing Hodges.)

By contrast, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett offer us in the "Wednesday" chapter of Good Omens a Hodges with character, a Hodges who develops, a Hodges who improves through adversity. Formerly known as Sister Mary Loquacious, she must rebuild her life when her Chattering Order of Saint Beryl -- a rather unusual order of 'nuns', admittedly, but let's not dwell on that -- finds its hospital struck by lightning shortly after a newborn baby destined to change the world is gently taken home by his unsuspecting 'parents'. Left for the first time to her own devices, her order disbanded, her convent largely destroyed, Sister Mary changes:
Then something very strange happened to her. Left alone in the rambling building, working from one of the few undamaged rooms, arguing with men with cigarette stubs behind their ears and plaster dust on their trousers and the kind of pocket calculator that comes up with a different answer if the sums involved are in used notes, she discovered something she never knew existed.

She'd discovered, under layers of silliness and eagerness to please, Mary Hodges.

She found it quite easy to interpret builders' estimates and do VAT calculations. She'd got some books from the library, and found finance to be both interesting and uncomplicated . . . . So she'd started reading the kind of magazine that talked about mergers. (page 99)
She decides to start her own business and advertises her newly founded Tadfield Manor Conference and Management Training Center:
It had turned out to be an overwhelming success, because Mary Hodges realized early in her new career as Herself that management training didn't have to mean sitting people down in front of unreliable slide projectors. Firms expected far more than that these days.

She provided it. (page 100)
I'm not yet certain what she's providing by way of service, for I've only reached page 100, but I'm sure that it's well-respected and highly successful, altogether a blessing -- rather than a blight -- on the good Hodges name.

Amen to Good Omens.

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Steve S. Sin: "Homegrown Terrorism: South Korea's Next Challenge against Terrorism"

Steve S. Sin
Expert on Terrorism
(Image from A Fencer's Musings)

Islamist terrorism has been in the news lately here in South Korea due to a couple of suicide bombings aimed at Korean tourists in Yemen. The first attack killed four Korean citizens, but the second attack failed to cause any Korean fatalities. In both cases, Al-Qaida has been cited by Yemen and Korean authorities as responsible for the attacks.

Robert Koehler, who writes for The Marmot's Hole, reports in a recent blog entry, "Inadequate Understanding Leads to Muslim Hostility: Expert," that a South Korean expert on the Middle East, Lee In-seop (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies), has suggested to the Chosun Ilbo "that because Koreans have an insufficient basic understanding of Muslim religious culture, they frequently earn unintentionally the enmity of Muslims."

One often hears variations on this sort of 'root-cause' argument as explanation for the thousands of Islamist attacks that have occurred throughout the world over the past decade, though such an explanation apparently would not account for Islamist attacks on other Muslims, which have not been infrequent.

Whatever the root causes of Islamist enmity, the Korean government is alarmed and taking measures against the threat of Islamist terrorism here in Korea itself. According to a recent article in The Korea Times, "105 Foreigners on 'Terrorist' Watch List" (March 21, 2009), "the nation's intelligence agency is watching closely 105 foreign passport holders for possible terrorist-related activities." The Times reports that "[a]mong the 105 foreign nationals, those from the Middle East topped with 87, followed by 10 from Africa and the rest from Asia and the Pacific regions," and adds that the intelligence agency "is particularly paying attention to those foreign individuals with suspected ties with al-Qaida and is checking their entry to and exit from the country."

In a blog entry of last September, I posted on this sort of Islamist problem faced by South Korea: "Korea Herald: 'Foreign terrorists active in Korea: NIS report'" (September 23, 2008). In response to that post, I was contacted by Steve S. Sin, who blogs at A Fencer's Musings and is a specialist on terrorism and related issues in Northeast Asia. He asked me if I would be willing to proofread an article of his on the potential for Islamist terrorism in Korea, for he intended to publish it. I accepted because I wanted to learn more, not because I consider myself an expert.

I did, in fact, proofread Sin's article, from which I learned a great deal. It has since been published as "Homegrown Terrorism: South Korea's Next Challenge against Terrorism" in Asian Affairs (Number 29, January 2009) and can be read online. Basically, Sin notes that experts have no doubt that Islamist terrorists are here in South Korea, so the big question is why these terrorists have not acted. Sin suggests that the terrorists might prefer to use South Korea as a 'safe' place where they can plan operations elsewhere throughout Asia and transfer money via hawala networks that allow for the informal transfer of funds. Terrorist attacks here would put a severe damper on those activities.

However, Steve Sin emphasizes that he is speculating on this point, and I have my own concerns, for Islamist terrorists don't do cost-benefit analysis in the same way as secular thinkers, and the 'benefit' of a successful suicide bombing is an eternity spent in sexual ecstasy by repeatedly deflowering celestial virgins, so even if major Islamist groups like Al-Qaida are not intending any major 'martyrdom operations' on the Korean peninsula, we can't be certain that 'freelance' Islamists won't take matters into their own hands.

The recent attacks on Koreans in Yemen might be a harbinger of attacks in Korea itself.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fashionable Gypsy Scholar

I guess that Gypsy Scholar is all the rage now, for I discovered a morning or two ago that my blog is being 'followed' by a fashion model . . . maybe even two of them, as we see from these two images:

I know what you're all thinking:
"Well, of course, fashion models read Gypsy Scholar! Everybody who's anybody reads Gypsy Scholar!"
True, but they don't usually officially 'follow' my blog. My seven other followers don't look like fashion models.

So . . . I checked the first fashion model above. She's the one actually linked as following me. Her name is Annalee Noir, and she has a blog: Noir: A Fashion Blog. The other model -- who I think is Edward Cullen (also an actor) -- doesn't officially 'follow' me, but I'm assuming that he must be an unofficial follower.

At least, I did think these things . . . that Cullen and Noir were fashion models following my blog . . . until I looked a bit more closely at the Noir site:
Annalee Noir is also known as "Annalee Hodges."
That set my mental gears whirring. Did I have a cousin named "Annalee"? I certainly have a lot of Hodges cousins, far too many to keep track of. But the name "Annalee" for a cousin struck no bells. But suddenly, something began to click. Annalee Hodges looked familiar.
"Gazer," I thought.
For a moment, I wondered why I'd thought that. But I knew that I'd met Annalee somewhere.
"Oh, of course," I realized, "she's Justin's wife."
Justin (the second 'model' above) is my nephew, son of my brother Tim. Gazer is his band. I met Annalee in Arkansas just over a year ago, in February of 2008, when I took my wife and kids to my hometown of Salem. Justin introduced me to her.

Mystery solved.

But they still look like fashion models to me. You can find more images at "Annalee Noir's Photostream," on Flickr, including photos of the band Gazer. The band also has its own website, where you can listen to some of its music:
Gazer on MySpace Music
I'll leave it up to my readers to puzzle out precisely what sort of musical genre Gazer belongs to. It ain't country, but it sounds good anyway . . . and vaguely recalls the music of Jim Morrison and The Doors, at least for me.

Consider this entry a plug for Gazer.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

"David Lynn Jones . . . the real one"

David Lynn Jones
A High-Ridin' Hero

Some readers may have noticed that I like country music and have occasionally posted entries about this musical tradition, sometimes mentioning David Lynn Jones, a very talented musician and songwriter who grew up in my region of the Ozarks.

Jones seemed to have disappeared at the beginning of this millennium, and his fans have wondered what happened to him. Well, the story is one that deserves a country-and-western song of its own, and maybe Jones will write it.

Okay, I've never done this before, but I'm going to post an entire article that has recently appeared in the Batesville Daily Guard because this fine article doesn't seem to be available online at that newspaper's website, so if you're a David Lynn Jones fan, you'll appreciate this, and if you're a lawyer for the Batesville Daily Guard, I hope that you'll be understanding since I'm not posting this for financial reward but to draw attention to Jones and also to the excellent newspaper in which this article appeared.

I assume that the photo above is related to the Jones story because it appears on the website for the Batesville Daily Guard and asserts that this is "David Lynn Jones . . . the real one" (March 18, 2009). But it's attributed to Melanie Heath and has no story, just this caption:
David Lynn Jones performs on the Independence County Fairgrounds stage a few years back. Izard County’s Jerry Bone is playing bass guitar in the group.
The photo itself must be quite old, perhaps the mid-1980s, but perhaps we'll be seeing some more current photos of Jones someday soon. Anyway, let's read the story, which was sent to me by way of a Jones fan named "Di" who'd received it from a friend who works for the Batesville Daily Guard. The story is by associate editor Larry Stroud, but I don't have the title . . . unless it's "David Lynn Jones . . . the real one":
After fighting identity theft for seven years, country singer/songwriter David Lynn Jones is ready to take back his life.

During that time, Jones, on paper, was three people -- and at times, four.

"Two guys were playing me," Jones said. "It's unimaginable, until you go through it . . . that someone who doesn't even look like you can steal your identity. The damage," he said, "is incalculable."

Jones may be ready to sing "I Feel A Change Comin' On" again. That's the title of one of his singles from his heyday.

During better times, Jones released four acclaimed albums -- "Hard Times on Easy Street" (1987), "Wood, Wind and Stone" (1990), "Mixed Emotions" (1992) and "Play by Ear" (1994).

His charting singles include "Bonnie Jean (Little Sister)" which was also a popular music video on television, "High Ridin’ Heroes" (with Waylon Jennings), "The Rogue" and "Tonight in America."

He may be best-known for writing "Living in the Promiseland," a No. 1 hit for Willie Nelson.

While Jones kept writing songs during the past seven years, he could not release them because the identity theft culprits were getting his royalty checks by having the checks sent to their address. Much of the time, that address was in Colorado.

Now, Jones and his wife, Illa, who live east of Cave City, are looking forward to teaming up to record and release a new album.

He also has unreleased albums from the past that can now be put before the public.

"There's five (previously recorded David Lynn Jones) albums that never were released," Jones said. He plans to make those available to buyers on the Internet within the next few months.

Fans should be patient, though, because it may take quite awhile, he said.

In February, Baxter County sheriff’s investigators arrested Danny James Sullivan, who was working at a McDonald's in Mountain Home under the name David Lynn Jones.

Sullivan was also drawing disability checks from the government under his own name while working at the McDonald's under Jones' name. His aliases include Danny J. Bass and Danny J. Rader.

A day later, acting on a tip, the alleged mastermind of the plot, Janis Rae Wallace, was arrested at a home in Fayetteville. Wallace is also known as Janis French and Janis Rae Jones, the name she used while posing as the real Davis Lynn Jones' "wife."

She's even booked into the jail as Janis Rae Jones.

Wallace and Sullivan, both 51, remain in jail -- she, on a $500,000 bond and he, on a $200,000 bond.

They are each charged with nine counts of felony financial identity fraud, according to an affidavit filed with the charges and signed by sheriff's Sgt. Bob Buschbacher.

The information filed with the charges and in arrest reports matches the story told by Jones -- the real Jones.

"Those are all federal charges," Jones said.

The theft started, Jones said, when Wallace stole his driver's license while working for him.

"At the time, my Social Security number was the same as my driver's license number, and with just that information, they infiltrated my life," Jones said.

Soon, he was getting no mail. It was all going to the fake David Lynn Jones' address via an address change. The mail included preapproved credit card applications that the thieves filled out; after they maxed out the cards, they reported them stolen.

"Among the stolen items via mail were personal checks and business checks from music royalties the victim had earned as a songwriter and musician," Sgt. Buschbacher said.

"They had 'me' moved to Colorado; my phone was shut off," Jones said. "This was back in 2002 . . . . By the time we realized what was going on, we couldn't get it stopped. They wound up with my royalty checks from publishing music," including royalties from "Living in the Promiseland."

Buschbacher said that in the beginning, to further the identity theft scheme, Sullivan, posing as Jones, filled out an identity theft passport request victim information sheet and submitted it to the attorney general's office. Then, he obtained an Arkansas driver's license in the victim's name.

Meanwhile, Jones' elaborate and well-known recording studio at Bexar was stripped of all its expensive equipment.

"I still own the studio," Jones said Saturday. "It's for sale and has been for some time. These people had gone out there and took down the for sale sign and put up no trespassing signs. They were drawing money out of my checking account, which eventually caused me to be overdrafted," he said. His interest rates were doubled because of a bad credit rating.

And to add insult to injury, Wallace convinced people who dealt with Jones financially that someone was trying to steal her identity ("She was speaking as my 'wife,'" Jones said). So, those who could have helped would not even listen to the real Jones.

"When we started talking to credit card companies and banks, they didn’t believe it (was me)," Jones said.

The crowning portion of the identity theft scheme was yet to come.

"They started telling everybody I'd been in a horrible accident in Colorado and I was in a wheelchair and I couldn't play and sing anymore," Jones said. "She even wrote a letter and sent it to all of my family saying that."

Since he had been busy with his work during the earlier part of the problems and hadn't been in touch with family members regularly, several of them even believed the accident story, he said.

"My mother (Verna Jones) passed away during all of this and we were trying to make funeral arrangements," and a check his brother mailed to help with those expenses went to Colorado into the thieves' hands, Jones said. "Even my own brother didn't understand what was going on. I told him I never got the check . . . . It's so crazy when you're actually experiencing it."

The investigation revealed that Wallace and Sullivan obtained a Social Security card, a Colorado identification card and the Arkansas driver's license, all in the name of David Lynn Jones. Wallace then obtained power of attorney over Jones, claiming he was mentally disabled due to the fake "accident."

Wallace and Sullivan were even filing joint federal income tax returns as Mr. and Mrs. David Lynn Jones. Those returns were filed in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Jones said as soon the investigation revealed the first name of the suspect, he knew who was behind the scheme even though she was giving her last name as Jones. Still, the identity thieves stayed one step ahead of authorities for a long time.

Before being arrested, Wallace and Sullivan were trying to get the title to some land Jones owns in Baxter County, authorities said.

A break in the case occurred 15 months ago when Wallace, as Mrs. Jones, and Sullivan, as Jones, applied in person for an identity theft passport at the Arkansas Attorney General's Office.

As soon as Wallace and Sullivan were arrested, investigators obtained search warrants for their houses. Jones said several items found in their homes could only have been obtained by their breaking into his home east of Cave City, where he and his wife have lived for five years.

"We've known for years things were being pilfered, things moved around. They were hanging out in the woods, watching for us to leave (so they could get into the house)."

Investigators found pictures and other items taken from inside Jones' house, as well as photos of the house taken from the driveway.

Jones said officers on the trail of the crooks had been advising Jones for months to be alert and stay well-armed, because one possible logical next step could be to eliminate Jones and his wife, so the identity thieves "could become us. That could have been the last (planned) step," particularly with them applying for the identity passport, Jones said. "Who knows what would have happened next?"

He has high praise for the attorney general's agent who felt something was wrong when Wallace and Sullivan approached him about getting that passport.

"That's what got them caught," Jones said.

The agent was suspicious enough to go into another room and look for pictures of Jones on the Internet. The pictures did not match the man claiming to be Jones.

"If it had not been for the attorney general's office, it'd still be going on," Jones said. "The attorney general's officer said it was the worst case he'd ever seen in all his years of investigating identity theft."

Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery said the investigation involved personnel from the attorney general's office, the Social Security Administration's Inspector General's office and the sheriff's office.

Jones said he expects he still has years to go to clear the damage to his name.

When asked what the identity theft has cost him, Jones did not give a dollar figure. Instead, he said quietly, "It's cost me seven years of my life."
Well, that's quite a story. I knew something about it before this story broke because in the comments to my first blog entry about David Lynn Jones, a 'discussion' took place concerning the 'real' Jones. Based on what a couple of my brothers who know Jones personally had told me, I stated that Jones was living near Cave City. But a man in Mountain Home posted a comment stating that he had met the real Jones there in Mountain Home. I had my doubts and asked another friend, Herschel Ducker of Melbourne, Arkansas, to check this out. Our 'private' investigation was operating parallel to the official one, though we didn't know about that. The authorities were aware of my blog and were, apparently, concerned that the fake Jones might be alerted by Herschel's inquiries. At any rate, Herschel and I quickly concluded that the Mountain Home 'Jones' was a fraud, but we had no absolute proof and left things at that. We were both enormously relieved to learn that the law had caught up with the identity thieves. Herschel found out before I did because the authorities contacted him to let him know that they were investigating the man in Mountain Home who was claiming to be Jones. Soon after that, the story broke.

Now that the real Jones has his life back, maybe he can get on with his life and give us some more great music . . . like "High Riding Heroes," which he sings with Waylon Jennings and which you can now enjoy on You Tube:
Daylight or midnight,
red eyes and that old hat,
whiskey-spent and busted flat,
and a credit to his faults.
He's a bad risk and a good friend,
small change and loose ends,
and he only regrets that he might've been
a little faster on the draw

Hey, those old high ridin' heroes,
they're anywhere the wind blows.
He's been to hell and Texas
and he knows how it feels
to be ridin' that hot streak,
drunk on some back street,
fallin' off the wagon,
and under the wheels.

Time was, when he was king.
Now the rodeo's just an old man's dream,
and the highs are few and far between,
and the lows get the rest.
But these old hard times ain't nothin' new.
Once you've done the best you can do,
You just tip your hat to the wider blue,
Ride off to the west.

Hey, those old high ridin' heroes,
they're anywhere the wind blows.
He's been to hell and Texas
and he knows how it feels
to be ridin' that hot streak,
drunk on some back street,
fallin' off the wagon,
and under the wheels.
Maybe Jones can finally get out from under those wagon wheels, back onto the road again, and those five albums released.

UPDATE: From Jerry Bone, I have a correction concerning the photo above, which I had mis-dated around the mid-80s: "I would say 91 was the correct time frame. The other two band members in the pic are Rick Richards on drums who lives in Houston Texas and on percussion Richie Albright former drummer with Waylon for 15 plus years. Richie played drums on all those old hits of Waylons. In fact he was back with Jennings when Waylon became ill and passed away. Richie was our road manager in those days . . . . I think he is working with Jessie Colter now Waylons wife."

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Uncle Cran's "Great Watermelon Heist"

Boris Kustodiev, The Merchant's Wife (1918)
Typical Hillbilly Scene in the Ozarks
(Image from Wikipedia)

In the typical hillbilly scene above (and by "typical," I mean that we see a watermelon), note the typical Ozark watermelon. You may protest that this scene is not of the Ozarks but of Russia. True, but that is not my fault, for I am not the long-dead Kustodiev and did not paint this scene. You may further protest that watermelons are found throughout the world and are therefore not 'typical' of the Ozarks. Pardon me, but I believe that no watermelons are grown in Antarctica. (Privately, I am told that penguins consider it beneath their tuxedo-clad dignity.) I acknowledge that one sometimes finds watermelons outside the Ozarks, but in my opinion, watermelons are indigenous to the Ozarks and were introduced elsewhere in the world after having been stolen from there.

Speaking of stealing, my Uncle Cran used to steal watermelons. I don't think that he made his living that way, at least not when he was a kid, but judge for yourselves in his true confession -- which follows after a bit of whining over my recent post about the dime that he once stole and never returned:
Some time ago I confessed to a youthful crime of stealing a dime from brother Jarrell, who had come home on leave from the army. I was eleven years old at the time, and bought a bottle of pop and an ice cream cone, but had pangs of conscience for years. I recounted my feelings of guilt, and subsequent attempt to clear my conscience in 2005, by confessing to my brother and handing him a dime.

He carefully examined the dime, then returned it to me, saying, "Cran, that's not the same dime."

His wife Corene suggested the Bible required adding the fifth part also. I at first thought she wanted compounded interest for nearly sixty years, but upon reflection, realized she only wanted me to put in another two cents (at least I hope so).

But then, if we followed the Old Testament, the Year of Jubilee every fifty years required that all debts be forgiven, so I am now clear of the crime, and forgiven.

However, nephew Jeffery, PhD, put this on his blog, Gypsy Scholar, and heaped scorn, ridicule, and a burden of guilt upon his poor uncle, which was more than I could bear. Let my response here be the answer to my unforgiving nephew.
Note all the whining that I warned about. And don't miss the Old Testament reference, more prooftext for Uncle Cran's tendency toward a works-of-righteousness view on earning forgiveness. He might object that forgiveness in the Year of Jubilee is unearned, but my point is that he is still appealing to the laws of the old covenant for his justification. Let us be alert to Uncle Cran's other subterfuges for lessening the seriousness of his crimes:
This [whining of mine] has cause me to recall another episode in my blighted past:

For many generations, the youth of my and previous generations observed a time-honored tradition called "Watermelon Stealing." In those days, most everyone raised a watermelon patch.
Already, Uncle Cran lies, asserting in his baldfaced manner that everyone raised a watermelon patch even though he knows that the patch remained at ground level. He should at least grow a mustache to avoid telling such baldfaced canards!
I always wondered why those who did so always raised more than they could eat. Upon reflection, I now realize that those faithful church-attending men remembered that in their youth they did their share of "hooking" a few watermelons, as Mark Twain would say. They knew the next generation would continue the practice.

Our neighbor, Wiley Hanes, always grew a huge melon patch along Big Creek. It was far more than he, his wife Leona (pronounced Lee-ony by hillbilly standards), and bachelor brother Hiram could possibly eat.
At this juncture, I must interrupt with an enunciation lesson provided by Uncle Cran, who claims what the "Scotch-Irish pronunciation of Leona should be for 'non-hillbilly' readers: . . . Leona = Le Oh Nee." Uncle Cran then adds the pronunciation for some other proper names that have nothing to do with this story:
Nora = Nor Eee

Cuba = Cube Er

And possibly worst of all:

Ophelia = Oh Feely Yer (what a distortion of a beautiful name -- it almost sounds vulgar).

And if the "a" is inside instead of an ending:

Japan = Jay Pan
Thank you, Uncle Cran. We all feel edified. Now, get on with your story about how your neighbor Wiley Hanes tried to reform you:
He knew, of course, that us nine Hodges boys would find it [the watermelon patch], and take advantage.

There was a tale current in those days that one farmer decided he would stop this crime in his melon patch, so he put up a large sign, ONE OF THESE MELONS HAS BEEN POISONED! Next day he looked, and someone had added below his writing, NOW THERE ARE TWO!

Now where was I?


One hot August day, I and the two Montgomery boys, and their cousin, the Mason boy decided to find a watermelon patch and have a feast. I will conceal their first names to protect the guilty.
Right. We'll see how long Uncle Cran shoulders the entire blame:
We got on our bicycles, rode the three miles down the dusty lane until we got near the farmer's field. We hid our bikes in the woods, sneaked (or snuck for you hillbillys) up to the edge of the patch, looked around to see if anyone was looking, then crept into the field. We found some nice big melons, picked one apiece, and started back to our bikes.

Just then we heard someone yell, HEY! Then there was a loud BOOM!

Terrified, we ran for our lives, imagining the sound of buckshot whistling by our guilty heads. Just as we cleared the barbed wire fence, we heard what sounded like someone laughing their head off, but weren't sure. But we got away safely, and enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

I believe that that it is written in the Bible that 'stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant,' but this practice is also condemned.
I seem to hear Uncle Cran "scoffing in ambiguous words" as he cites the Bible here. Is he confessing guilt or exculpating himself?
To my knowledge, that was the last time that Edward, Donnie, cousin Paul, and I ever sneaked in someone's watermelon patch.
And here to share the guilt are those other boys whose "first names" were formerly concealed "to protect the guilty." I anticipated that their anonymity wouldn't last long. Uncle Cran's snitching is followed by more self-exculpation:
I have always wondered if the man fired his shotgun straight up in the air? And do you suppose he might have "hooked" a melon or two in his day? But that was more than fifty years ago, the year of Jubilee is past, and I have forsaken that particular practice.
After this latter reference to regulations enjoined by the superceded old covenant, Uncle Cran claims to have reformed:
Perhaps nephew Jeffery will realize that I have reformed, and refrain from his practice of condemnation. But you never know what will show up on Gypsy Scholar.
Such a strong hint hardly being possible to courteously ignore, another of Uncle Cran's true confessions thus appears once again on this blog. I hope that he's satisfied.

But we should be wary in how we read Uncle Cran's 'confession' of this theft. Like Saint Augustine in his own youth, Uncle Cran has stolen some forbidden fruit, a recapitulation of that original theft from the tree of knowledge. Uncle Cran is not so much confessing his actions as justifying them. I see no contrition here but rather a smug self-satisfaction that says, "Everyone was doing it, but at least, I'm confessing" -- as though that made his actions somehow admirable.

Uncle Cran is still half in love with the uneaseful death consequent upon his theft of forbidden fruit. Let us leave him in that position.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Baylor University's Honors Program

Baylor University's Honors Program
(Image from Baylor Magazine)

Some readers may recall that Mr. Lane Murphy, a writer for Baylor Magazine, had recently contacted me and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed for an article on Baylor's Honors Program. I agreed and answered his questions, also posting my responses here. In retrospect, I wonder if I perhaps should have waited for Baylor Magazine to first publish Mr. Murphy's article. I had assumed that the interview would be used only as a source for the article, but my interview has been posted online as an addendum to the article, along with interviews of six others who graduated from the Honors Program.

Mr. Lane Murphy, however, seems not to have minded:
I laughed that you posted my email to you with what appear to be my typos on your blog. Thanks for that! I'll be more careful to measure my email correspondence now that I realize it may be shared with a somewhat broader audience.

I appreciate your help with my article. It turns out that my story was a little long, so the the editor decided it best to include the Honors alumni profiles as an online component. If you haven't seen it yet, you can find it at baylormag.com.
I hadn't recalled any typos in Mr. Murphy's email (though I note one on the profile page, where my name is misspelled as "Jeffrey"). Anyway, Mr. Murphy's larger article, "An Honorable Pursuit," Baylor Magazine (Spring 2009, Volume 7, Number 3), is also available online and provides a great deal of fascinating information about the history of Baylor University's Honors Program. Here's the official abstract:
In 1957, the U.S.S.R. took an early lead in the "space race" by launching Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit the Earth, sparking fear that the United States was losing its collective edge over the Soviet Union. That fear led to a renewed interest in programs that challenged and trained the brightest minds in science, technology and research at American colleges and universities, according to honors education researcher Dr. Frank Shushok, BS '91. Honors programs became a focus of efforts to reach these students and by 1959, the Baylor Honors Program had enrolled its first class; eleven of those students became Baylor's first Honors graduates in 1961.

Fifty years later, Honors education at Baylor is coming into its prime. A concerted effort by faculty across disciplines has resulted in a desirable, finely tuned experience for Honors students, who are enrolling and graduating at unprecedented rates. In the past six years, the Honors Program has tripled the number of graduates per year, the number of majors represented in graduating classes, and the program's retention rate.
I had no idea that Baylor's Honors Program was a Cold War 'project'! Academically speaking, I am a Cold War baby . . . albeit rather old for a 'baby'. Since 2009 marks the program's 50th anniversary, Baylor really ought to invite me as an honored speaker at its Honors celebration, being that I am one of its finest products, as attested by my astounding success in life. Okay, that's a pipe dream, but I'm nevertheless gratified to see that the program is flourishing:
In 2002, the Honors Program became part of the newly established Honors College, which bolstered and expanded Baylor's tradition of attracting and educating excellent students. The Honors College includes four programs: Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, the Honors Program, University Scholars, and Great Texts, in addition to student housing opportunities in the Honors Residential College.
The program has come a long way from the days when Betty Christian used to serve as advisor to Honors students. That "Great Texts" program sounds excellent, offering precisely the sort of courses that I would have wanted to take and would now love to teach.

I'll not summarize Mr. Murphy's entire article but leave it for those interested to read on their own. I will only add that I am honored to have been interviewed and proud to have been a part of the Honors Program.

Well, I will add one more thing.

Baylor University not only did an excellent job in preparing me for futher study at UC Berkeley but seems to have become an even more excellent university over the years since I left, so I would encourage any serious student to consider Baylor as a primary choice for a university education.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Michael J. Totten on Alitalia

(Distorted from Wikipedia)

Anyone who's flown on Alitalia has probably wondered how the Italians could successfully manage the powerful and efficient Roman Empire for hundreds of years but cannot run a measly airline for even one day.

Well, perhaps you haven't wondered about that, and I hadn't either until just now, but it's a valid question.

My worst experience flying was with Alitalia. I flew with my wife and daughter from Sydney to Rome, then on to Tel Aviv for a year in Israel as a Golda Meir Fellow at Hebrew University, but our luggage stopped in Rome and stayed there for several weeks while we made do with what we had in our carry-on bags. When our belongings finally arrived, several items were missing, though nothing especially valuable.

We were told by a fellow with a lot of flying experience that a normal airline would have provided money for clothing and new luggage as recompense . . . "but Alitalia isn't a normal airline."

After reading Michael Totten's recent experience in Rome while flying Alitalia, "The Worst Airline Company in the World" (March 13, 2009), I thank the airline deities for allowing us to fly on a good day with Alitalia. This is a man who works as a journalist in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq, and he has reported a lot on the painful events there, but his Alitalia experience sounds far worse:
After spending several weeks each in Iraq and Lebanon at the end of 2008, I bought a plane ticket to the U.S. from Beirut on December 22 and figured I had plenty of time to get home for Christmas. I had no idea, though, that I had purchased my ticket from the worst airline company in the world -- Italy's national carrier Alitalia -- and that a two-hour layover in Rome would turn into an ordeal that lasted longer than a week.
I'm surprised that that a world traveler such as Totten hadn't heard about Alitalia's 'service' . . . but he was soon to find out. His initial indication of trouble, though he didn't yet realize this, came as he was checking his bags:
I placed my most critical and expensive items in my carry-on bag so they wouldn't get damaged or lost. Yet the woman at the Alitalia check-in counter in Beirut's international airport said my bag was too large and would have to be checked. I wasn't happy about that, but I did as I was told and surrendered my luggage. She neglected to tell me that Alitalia's baggage handlers were on strike and that it would be a very long time before I would see my property again -- if I ever would see it again.
Only upon his arrival in Rome did he learn of the baggage handlers' strike:
A few moments passed before I absorbed what that meant. My laptop was in my carry-on bag that Alitalia had forced me to check. My work from Iraq and Lebanon was on that machine. My Nikon camera was in that bag. I didn't want to hand it over, but the airline forced me to hand it over and didn't tell me what was happening in the bowels of the company.
After countless lies from the Alitalia staff, reported in a way that simultaneously enrages and entertains, Totten -- along with fellow 'passengers' Sofocles and Tatiana -- takes on the responsibility of warning other would-be passengers not to hand over their baggage:
"Excuse me, sir" I said. "You might not want to check your luggage. The baggage handlers are on strike. The planes aren't flying, and once you check your luggage, they won’t give it back."

"How dare you!" said the Alitalia woman working the counter.

"You aren't warning this man," I said. "So I'm warning him. Somebody should have warned me before I gave you my luggage . . ."

"He's checking in!" she said.

Sofocles and Tatiana laughed out loud.

"He's checking in?" I said. "He's not going anywhere. Nobody's going anywhere." I turned around and made an announcement to everybody in line behind us. "They're on strike. You aren't flying today, and if you get them your luggage they won't give it back."

"That's not true!" the Alitalia woman said. "How can you say that?"

"How can you stand there and lie to these people?" Tatiana said.

Passengers in line behind us with luggage shifted and murmured to each other. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into until I told them.

"It's not my job to warn people," I said to the woman behind the counter. "It's yours. Have a little decency, will you?"

She angrily stabbed her keyboard with her fingers as she rebooked me on another Alitalia flight that was supposed to leave on Christmas Eve the next day. But it did not leave the next day. When I arrived the airport, my flight to Chicago wasn't even on the Departures board. It was cancelled before I even got there, as I figured it would be.
Perhaps making the Alitalia clerk angry wasn't a good strategy when rebooking, but from Totten's story, I suspect that the 'rebooking' was the airline's method of dealing with irate customers. In effect, the Alitalia staff was simply transfering the problem to other staff members at different counters or on other shifts. No real rebooking was done.

The story gets even worse. Go and read (and support his journalism financially if you can).

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

David Neff on Cheney's Rex Lex Political Views

Calvin and 'Hobbes'
Reading Right to Left
(Image from Christianity Today)

I've just read an informative article by David Neff, the editor-in-chief of the Christianity Today Media Group, which includes Christianity Today, Christian History & Biography, and Books & Culture, among other publications. He also serves as moderator for the Christian History Blog. From reading his recent Christianity Today article, "Long Live the Law: What would John Calvin say to Dick Cheney?" (March 2009, Vol. 53, No. 3), I finally understand the problem with Cheney's political views.

Some readers might ask, "What took you so long?"

Well, the world is full of things to know about -- and even fuller of perspectives about those things. I've heard a lot of overwrought emotional opinions about various political issues and exaggerations about every politician that I know of. So unless somebody spells an issue out for me clearly and factually, I maintain agnosticism (unless I happen to already know something about the issue).

Moreover, the passing of a administration is a time for taking stock of where we find ourselves.

I won't go into the entire argument about the West's historical rejection of rex lex (the king is the law) in favor of lex rex (the law is the king), as set out in the article, for readers can click on the link and quickly read for themselves.

For his views concerning the return of rex lex in the American context, Neff draws upon Charlie Savage's book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. I haven't read Savage's book (and its title sounds a bit over the top), but Neff presents a reasonable case that the so-called 'imperial presidency' heralds the return of rex lex (a twentieth-century American trend toward increasing presidential power that had been reversed in reaction to Richard Nixon's presidential overreach). Here's the crux of his argument:
[O]ne young staffer in the Nixon administration, future Vice President Dick Cheney, became a champion of expansive executive power. Serving in Congress and in subsequent administrations, Cheney helped promote the theory of the "Unitary Executive," the idea that, in Savage's words, the White House should exercise complete control over everything in the executive branch, which could be conceived of as a unitary being with the President as its brain. Attorney General Ed Meese, then-Representative Dick Cheney, and others pushed that notion in order to reclaim the de facto presidential powers that were squandered by Nixon's overreach.

But after 9/11, the push to consolidate presidential power over national security issues took on new momentum. Sometimes Cheney's rhetoric has gone to extremes. For example, he told Fox News's Chris Wallace that because the President always has at his side a military aide carrying the nuclear "football," and because the President therefore has the ability to launch a nuclear attack at any time without checking with Congress, he is free of any responsibility to check with Congress in exercising his national security duties.

This is clearly an example of category confusion -- mistaking ability for authority, confusing capability for constitutional powers.

This nuclear argument is a huge leap along a trajectory outlined in earlier arguments Cheney made. For example, in his 1990 conversations with President George H. W. Bush, he argued that the President did not need congressional authorization to go to war in order to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Indeed, Cheney later said that despite the fact that Bush sought congressional approval, if Congress had said no, he would have urged the President to launch Desert Storm over Congress's objections.

Despite the Constitution granting war-making power to Congress, Cheney has argued that Congress is essentially deliberative in nature, and therefore unsuited to deal with national security, something that always requires swift action. "The legislative branch is ill equipped to handle many of the foreign policy tasks it has been taking upon itself lately," he wrote. The executive branch, by contrast, was characterized by "decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch," and therefore far better suited to deal with national security.

Nixon White House lawyer John Dean noted the flaws in Cheney's argument: "Cheney seems to be oblivious to the fact that the type of government he advocates is not, in fact, the government our Constitution provides . . . . His argument also assumes that a more agile, energetic, and fast-acting chief executive is the better system, but history does not support that contention. Presidential leadership has consistently shown itself less wise and less prudent than the slower but more deliberative nature of the system that we have."
Neff continues:
Much of Cheney's perspective was summed up in a confidential memo written by former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo. He argued that the President's wartime powers give him, the CIA, and the military the discretion to do whatever he thinks is necessary, including coercive interrogation techniques that most experts consider to be torture. The President has a completely free hand, Yoo argued, simply by claiming national self-defense. Congress and the courts should have no say. The executive branch is not accountable.

This expansion of presidential power at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches has worried conservatives every bit as much as it has worried liberals. After all, it is a core conservative principle to mistrust concentrations of government power, especially at the federal level.
Neff presents a troubling picture of Cheney's views on presidential power as relatively untrammeled by limits set forth in the US constitution or by a division of powers among executive, legislative, and judicial branches. What is less clear to me is whether or not the Bush presidency consciously and actively adopted these views. That Cheney urged them is clear. That he succeeded is less clear.

Neff, in contrast to Cheney, urges us to champion certain principles:
[M]utual accountability among the branches of government; rule by law, not by the raw assertion of power; and government actions limited by the nature of the liberties government is called to protect.
He hopes that the Obama administration will hold to these principles, but also worries:
We are grateful that the new administration seems to understand this. But power has a way of corrupting. It shouldn't surprise us if this or future administrations are also tempted to expand their powers unreasonably.
The problem goes beyond Cheney's political views on the executive branch. Untrammeled power is ever a temptation, not only to the right but also to the left.

John Calvin would likely say, "It's in our nature."

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