Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michael Totten Interviews Ramez Atallah on Christians and Muslims in Egypt, Part II

Ramez Atallah
General Director
Photo from Urbana

On November 17th, I posted an entry about Michael Totten's interview with Ramez Atallah on "The Christians of Egypt, Part I" (November 15, 2011). Totten has since posted part two: "The Christians of Egypt, Part II" (November 27, 2011). As I noted with my first posting on Ramez Atallah, he is a Protestant Christian and the General Director of the Bible Society of Egypt, and he has some interesting things to say, several of which were counterintuitive to me.

The most surprising thing in part one was his assertion that the West should not focus on human rights specifically for Christians, despite their oppressed condition as second-class cititzens, for Muslims would think that Christians were being favored over Muslims. He also stated that the Christians of Egypt could live with the Muslim Brotherhood, but not with the Salafists, a surprise to me since I figured that both Islamist types were bad for Christians, but Atallah made a distinction. Go read that first interview if you want to know more.

In part two, Atallah also has some interesting things to say. Particularly noteworthy is his remark about the difference between Islam in an Arabic and in a non-Arabic country:
Islam in an Arabic-speaking country is very different from Islam in a non-Arabic country . . . . Like I told you before, Islam is very close to people's identity, like your gender is for you. This is most true in Arabic countries because Islam is Arabic. They are intertwined. The language and the religion are intertwined. Arabic is the only language in the world that has been frozen for 1400 years. If you ask any child here what his hardest subject is in school, invariably he will say Arabic. You as a Westerner may scratch your head and wonder how Arabic can be the hardest subject in school in an Arab country, but it's because the language we speak and read in Egypt is so different from classical Arabic . . . . Exactly. And how many kids did you know who liked Latin in school? . . . And it's only a written language now. That's exactly what kids are doing when they study Arabic. We have this old language that is very far from what we read and speak every day. It is imposed on us. There is this mystique about it, that we have to know it and live it. Arabs are more closely aligned to Islam because their language, their culture, and their faith are all one.

Atallah picks up on a point that he made earlier, in part one of Totten's interview, and clarifies that the West should support human rights in Egypt rather than focusing on the rights specifically of persecuted Christian, and he explains why:
My point is, what will the government listen to more? Will America get a better result by pressing for freedom for Christians or freedom for Muslims? If you pressure Egypt only for Christian rights, Muslims here will say, "if they're your people, take them with you." But if Americans care about my Muslim friend's wife, the Muslims will be tongue-tied. They won't know how to argue with you about that.
Atallah makes some interesting points, and since he's a Christian Egyptian who's lived in both the West (Canada) and the Islamic world (Egypt), he's a man whose opinion should be carefully considered, particularly when he tells us:
I need you to please understand that Muslims hate it when the West speaks up for Christians. They absolutely despise it and we become the victims.
That is a crucial point that would never have occurred to me, and knowing it would make reading this interview worthwhile even if Atallah had said nothing else of importance.

But, of course, he does say other interesting things . . .

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Linguistic Disability: Not an Excuse?

Google Translate
The Real Expert

In reaction to a recent article by Daniel Pipes at National Review Online, "Arabist Snobs: Languages are helpful, but don’t guarantee good analysis" (November 22, 2011), a dispute broke out over at the Marmot's Hole concerning the necessity of knowing the language of a country before passing oneself off as an expert, with some commenters implying that without knowledge of the language, an individual would have almost nothing of value to say, and suggesting that anyone who's lived in Korea for a decade or more really has no excuse for not knowing the language. Being one of those without excuse for my linguistic ignorance, I chose to take up the gauntlet, and wrote:
Some of us came to Korea at an older age, are very busy with work, and perhaps have little talent for learning foreign languages.

That describes me.

Of course, I don't claim to be a Korea expert . . . though after being with a Korean woman for nearly twenty years, living constantly in Korea for over ten years, teaching Korean students almost daily for over ten years, reading about Korean issues daily for over ten years, working with my wife as a translation team for articles and books from Korean into English for nearly ten years, and serving off and on as a Daesan Foundation judge concerning the literary quality of translated Korean literature for about five years, among other things, I might occasionally venture an opinion about Korea.

I'd also add that if we were to limit ourselves to expressing opinions only upon topics that we’ve studied deeply enough to be considered experts, we wouldn't have much to say, nor would there be much intercommunication across boundaries of expertise.

My friend Hamel, who is brilliant at languages and speaks flawless Korean, responded:
[I]t might not be unreasonable to expect that [such] a person would know more than taxi/supermarket Korean.

I replied:
Hamel, just read the first part again:

"Some of us came to Korea at an older age, are very busy with work, and perhaps have little talent for learning foreign languages.

That describes me."

Those of you with a gift for foreign languages simply have no experience with how difficult learning a foreign language can be for some of us.

You object that "it might not be unreasonable to expect that a person would know more than taxi/supermarket Korean."

Perhaps not, but life is not always reasonable, nor are talents reasonably distributed across populations.

Just try to imagine something for which you have no talent and which you find deeply frustrating. Perhaps math or chemistry or analytic philosophy. Could you master it? Perhaps . . . if you made it your consuming passion. But doing so would require all your time and energy.

For some of us, learning a foreign language is like that.

I don't doubt that those individuals with great linguistic ability, who can pick up a language within a year or so, are baffled at those of us who can't learn a language without years of intensive work, but there it is.

I'll just have to keep relying on Google Translate . . . and on Sun-Ae, my beloved Wortschatz.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Wherein we visit Benjamin Hale at Fortnight Journal . . .

The Mysterious Mr. Hale

I have the above image from Fortnight Journal, a project that explains itself here, beginning with these words:
Fortnight is a non-profit, multimedia online project that documents promising members of the "millennial generation." By featuring 14 contributors each edition from 14 distinct disciplines, Fortnight showcases young people who will define the ideas of tomorrow. In doing so, we document an important shift: Millennials are the first generation to grow up with the Internet, yet will be the last to recall a time when it did not exist . . .

There's a lot more to read on that if you're so inclined, but perhaps you're wondering how I learned of this site. Did I spend hours surfing the internet for sites featuring Ben Hale? No. I received a head's up from Ben's father, one of my high school friends from back in the Ozarks:
I happened upon some interesting stuff of Ben's last night, collected at something called the Fortnight Journal, itself a pretty interesting piece of work that I plan to poke around in more if/when I ever get all the stuff currently in front of me read/watched/listened-to and digested, etc. Anyhow, I just listened to this audio piece that he logged there, and liked it a lot. I think I can remember him describing the bulk of this tale to me several years ago (you'd think something as flipped out as this would have more of a "Oh, yeah, he DEFINITELY told me about that!!" stature in my head, but, all I can say is, he's got a lot of stuff like this that he talks about when he and I are around each other, and, often they get talked about after a half a bottle or two of wine has been expended . . . so.), and I believe the whole thing is by and large coming from real experience in Iowa City. See (or hear in this case) what you think.

Well, that sounded intriguing enough for me to investigate further, so I clicked over to the FJ and listened to Ben read the piece that Pete recommended. This required about 40 minutes, but if you're in a hurry, a transcript exists for busy folk like you. The story involves a doppelgänger. And a larger mystery. And for some reason, the voice reminds me of Bruno Littlemore's manner of speaking . . . though more evolved. Anyway, the story's titled "Epistemological Promises," and it's a sort of metafiction -- as we used to call such things back in the 1980s -- in which Ben Hale plays himself caught up in a mystery that eventually gets solved without getting resolved. The story begins in a mundane manner:
I attended, and this semester I’m currently teaching at, Sarah Lawrence College, a tiny liberal arts school in Westchester County. While at Sarah Lawrence, I took a writing class from the novelist Brian Morton, who was one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever had. It was a class where the personalities of all the students in it just had a way of meshing well together, and I still have some great friends that I met in that class. Brian became a great friend, and a great help to me in many ways later on. When Brian moved from Brooklyn to a house in Westchester near to the Sarah Lawrence campus, I built a lot of bookshelves and furniture for him, and even wound up babysitting his two young kids. So I was pretty close with Brian at Sarah Lawrence . . .

I'll leave the rest for interested readers or auditors. Like Pete, I recommend it. Oh, I nearly forgot. There's also a video interview (cf. the image above) of Ben talking about Arkansas and his earliest memory, which is of lying as a baby in a buggy bumping along as he looks up into a blue sky and suddenly being fearfully aware of the infinite depth up there, or what seemed boundless, I suppose, and falling into terror at the possibility of falling . . .

Though there would be an intriguing irony in falling from the corrupt earth into the pristine heavens.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

How the "Occupy" Protests Really Started . . .

"Dammit! I said 'two shots', not 'two extra shots'! You see what too much caffeine does to me!"


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Frozen Ozark Waterfall

Photo by Tim Ernst
Available at Tim Ernst Poster Prints

Ozark weather must be turning cold, at least in pockets of higher altitude in the Boston Mountain region if this image above photographed and posted by Tim Ernst can be believed, and I believe it can since he doesn't do photoshopping. Note the blue glow at the top of the frozen falls. This indicates light from above refracting down through the ice. My use of "waterfall" and "falls" is perhaps not quite correct since this can't be much of a drop, not more than a few feet, I estimate. Your judgment may differ (and should differ, as I now learn from Cousin Bill, for this falls has a twenty-five-foot drop, roughly eight meters!). Anyway, I post it this cold morning in Seoul because I'm feeling a bit homesick . . . as the video to these lyrics will reveal if you click on the title:
Ozark Mountain Jubilee
Recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys
Written by Scott Anders and Roger Murrah

I hear the rooster crowing
It's a frosty morning
I can almost see the sign
Going so fast I can't stop
I'm just a stone's throw from Little Rock
Heading for the Missouri line

Don't need a map to get there
You can get there from anywhere
When you're going in your head
I can see the arms outreaching
Just like the day I was leaving
It's been oh so many years

Let me get on the Frisco Silver Dollar Line
Take my time
And see all I can see
Fiddler rosin up your bow
We'll have our own
Ozark Mountain Jubilee

If I can't be a favorite son
I'll be the prodigal one
Cause I been gone too long
Oh how the years have flown by
Oh how I realize
How much of me is gone

Let me get on the Frisco Silver Dollar Line
Take my time
And see all I can see
Fiddler rosin up your bow
We'll have our own
Ozark Mountain Jubilee

Ozark Mountain Jubilee . . .

Nostalgia, I suppose, is the label to apply to these feelings, but I try not to be self-indulgent. I just want to remind myself of where I come from . . .

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Terrance Lindall - Paradise Lost Drawings from 1979

Yesterday, Terrance Lindall sent me several images of Paradise Lost drawings dating from 1979. I hadn't realized that his artistic interest in John Milton's epic poem went back so many years, but already in the latter seventies, he was working on images representing scenes from the poem -- the same time as his work for Heavy Metal magazine, which suggests that art critics and future art historians as well as Milton scholars should study Terrance's Milton illustrations in the context of his 'secular' art, or vice-versa. But today, let's just look at some of his Milton works, and perhaps watch a few videos.

The first image sent -- whose original is in the Wickenheiser Collection and which is discussed by Terrance in this video -- is Eve and Apple and Snake:

The second image sent -- whose original is in the Yuko Nii Foundation Collection (and which might appear on the video linked above) -- is Eve 2:

The third image sent -- whose original is somewhere -- is Satan on Foal 2:

The fourth and final image sent --whose original is someplace or other -- is Raphael Full:

I'm not actually sure that "Full" is part of the title, but such would make some sense if Raphael had just eaten with Adam and Eve . . . I guess. But I've probably misunderstood. More images from 1979 are to be seen in this mostly 'Satanic' video. Indeed, Terrance goes on to talk in this video for about eight minutes about his rough sketches from 1979 that later became some of the paintings we've looked at on this blog. Certainly worth listening to . . .

Anyway, I feel privileged to post these on today's blog entry. Never back in the seventies when I first encountered some of Terrance's secular artwork did I ever imagine that we would one day become acquainted.

Ah, the miracles wrought by the internet . . .

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Swept Away . . .

True Story of Hiromitsu Shinkawa
By Michael Paterniti
Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu

"Later, lost far at sea, when you're trying to forget all you've left behind, the memory will bubble up unbidden: a village that once lay by the ocean . . ."

With these words begins the story of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, a man who, two days after the Japanese tsunami, "was found, alone, riding on nothing but the roof of his house," nearly ten miles out at sea. I remember reading of this man in the news at the time, something like the rumor of a distant miracle, the report of a very lucky man who had survived the tsunami, but Paterniti retells the tragic tale as though it were our own poignant memory.

Hiromitsu Shinkawa's home survived the earthquake, as he and his wife discovered in returning from work immediately after the shaking had ceased, and they had sufficient time to head for higher ground, but did not, trusting that their property lay far enough up from the sea to be safe even if a tsunami should strike, which it does, a wave so large beyond all expectations that it comes to sweep everything away, even us:
And that's when you know you've been caught out, that you've squandered what time you had, that you must trust this house of concrete you've built to stand up to the sea. Your wife joins you on the second-floor terrace, reporting that she, too, saw the neighbor's house wash away. "We should run," she says, but you say, "It's too late." And then: "We'll be fine." Her arms circle your waist and lock there, while you stand stock-straight, gazing at the mountain, without daring to look back at the sea. These will be your last words to her -- We'll be fine. And you've already departed your body when everything seems to break beneath your feet and a roaring force crashes over you.

You never see your wife again, as you, improbably, survive. I owe a hat tip to my friend Malcolm Pollack, without whose link I would probably never have read this "almost unbearably poignant tale of the Japanese tsunami."

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How do you like them apples, Mister Hiss?

Visionaire Issue 61: Larger Than Life

If only Eve had been more like Lilith, she might have said, "Hell no, I don't want none of your stinkin' apples, Mister Hiss! I've a hunger of a different sort."

I saw this image of Marina Abramovic by Martin Schoeller in the New York Times, posted in a Suzy Menkes article, "Thinking, and Literally Looking, Very Big" (November 21, 2011), and just couldn't let pass an opportunity to bring in Milton's Paradise Lost . . . sort of.

The image comes originally from the magazine Visionaire, and you can click on a loud, flashly website to investigate further if you like that sort of thing.

Ms. Abramovic is a Serbian performance artist based in New York City . . .

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pinokio: More Art from En-Uk


My artistically inclined son has recently posted an intriguing image and 'explanation' on his art blog. The image is the one above, titled "Pinokio" and thereby distinguished, sort of, from the literary figure Pinocchio, yet sharing with the latter some generic characteristics, as we see from En-Uk's description:
This drawing is called "Pinokio." I made this drawing because I read Pinokio a lot when I was young, and because it is kind of funny that if you lie then the nose gets bigger. The pinokio that I drew is blind. If you look at the eyes, then you can see that his eyes are closed. I think this pinokio is ugly. This pinokio is from En-Ukistan, and there are a lot of pinokios there. Ugly pinokios, and handsome pinokios . . . I think En-Ukistan is the best place to live. I wish some people would come to En-Ukistan. This pinokio is a boy, but pinokios are really hard to distinguish as man or woman. It's a hard life for pinokios. If a pinokio wants to become a person, it has to eat grass for 2000 years, but they usually die before the 2000th year. Well, I don't have anything to say anymore, so I guess bye!
Apparently, En-Uk read about Pinokio a lot when he was younger, but he must have been reading stories in Korean because I didn't know anything about this, which would also explain En-Uk's transliteration of the name, rather than the correct spelling "Pinocchio." Interestingly, En-Uk has worked in some Korean mythology, an allusion to the foundational myth of the Korean people, according to which, a bear and a tiger asked the god of the heavens for permission to become human, but only the bear succeeded in the assigned task of eating solely garlic and mugwort for 100 days and becoming a woman, who then married a son of the heavenly god and gave birth to Dangun, the first Korean.

This art post received a couple of amusing comments, the first by our artistically gifted friend Dario Rivarossa:
Very nice story, and . . .
I read Pinokio a lot when I was young

. . . hope you will still be reading it now that you are an old man. It is a book full of wisdom.

My wife and I were also both amused that twelve-year-old En-Uk would wax nostalgic about his youth. As for the second comment, it comes from the warped mind of another artistically gifted friend, Kevin Kim:
I can imagine two Pinocchios telling lies for hours and hours, growing their noses longer and longer, and eventually engaging in amazing nose/sword fights.
Depend on Kevin for some image inventive and bizarre! For readers wishing to try their hidden hand at equally amusing remarks, click over to En-Uk's Art Blog and type away!

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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Pathfinder -- No, not James Fenimore Cooper!

Pete Hale's Website

I've posted several times on Benjamin Hale's novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and I intend to post more as soon as I have time to get back into re-reading it once this busy semester's over, but I've not posted about the creative work of Ben's father, my old friend Pete Hale. He's a physicist with expertise in lasers and goes by his business name Charley Hale -- just in case any readers are interested in doing business with him -- and he's currently reworking his website now that he's started his own small business, Pathfinder Research LLC, as he recently explained:
I'm increasingly gearing up my little website to get reasonably serious about selling my existing little laser R and D product, the "CoolCard" (I'm realizing you may not know about that site, it's down in my "main" site, which I'm also not sure you know of -- it's an amateurish effort at best to date, but gets the nominal job done at present, I think . . .) (mainly I need to get back in there and tone down the font size I used, which a smart-ass friend or two have told me, appears to be sized for the "vision impaired photonics community" -- ha, yeah, I guess it is . . .) (this BTW plays into the tired old lasers/photonics joke that runs, "Warning -- Avoid Laser with Remaining Eye" -- heh); I'm thinking I should make it possible for the dozen or two people on earth who NEED a CoolCard, to "buy it now" with a credit card . . . we'll see. I hate to see a % go to some bank, but, if it actually results in more sales, I reckon it would be worth it. The CoolCard has a storied history; I made the thing up (I can't quite bring myself to say "invented") in 1991, I find recently in my old notes I've had to dig up, and I did in fact sell about 30 of the things back in the mid-90's and up to about 2000 when I just got tired of trying to deal with it and way getting too busy at "real work" anyhow. But now in my ever-dicey new world of self-unemployment, I'm revisiting it big-time. It really is a very useful thing to folks out there in the world who deal with infrared lasers of a wide variety, so, I'll see what another concerted push might yield. And I definitely need to increase the price, lordy everything's gone up since the 90's!

As you can see by the red-fonting that I've added above, Pete is clearly a man who loves parenthetical remarks! Indeed, he apparently writes in parentheses, occasionally interrupting them to make a main point! I now see where Ben got his experimental literary style . . . and his interest in science.

Anyway, Pete -- or rather, Charley, since we're now discussing his business -- invented a cool device that he calls a "CoolCard" and describes here:
The ONLY hand-held infrared laser beam location and spatial evaluation technology for laser sources operating at wavelengths beyond 1.7 μm.

Well, I think that we can ALL use one of these, except for when we're dealing with wavelengths this side of 1.7 μm, which I'm usually not. But even if you don't need one at all (not even for wavelengths beyond 1.7 μm), check out this photo of Charley's CoolCard:

You see where the late Steve Jobs got his idea for the iPod's design . . . unless Charley was also influenced by the Braun T3 Pocket Radio designed by Dieter Rams. But I think Jobs more likely to have been directly influenced by Charley's device since both have a screen, unlike the Braun T3.

And we see that it really is a "cool" CoolCard (though a bit thick for a "card") . . . if we consider the designs of Rams and Jobs cool . . .

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Baylor University publishes my opinion . . . sort of.

Baylor Magazine
Fall 2011
Vol. 10, Issue 1

Some time back, I noted that my undergrad alma mater wanted my opinion on a question to which the above statement promises an answer. Apparently, Baylor didn't want just my opinion:
When we asked readers in our last issue to answer one simple question -- "Why does the world need Baylor?" -- we really didn't know what kinds of responses we would get. We were pleased to hear from every part of the Baylor family: alumni (young and old), faculty, staff, parents and even current students. And while many referenced Baylor's distinct place as a university that combines strong Christian faith with rigorous academics and research, that wasn't the only message we heard. The following pages give you a glimpse into how some of your fellow Bears responded.

Somewhat to my surprise, my response was printed in the hard copy. First, however, allow me to remind readers of what I wrote, which ought to be read carefully, with some attention to nuance:
Baylor University can be significant for the world if it successfully accomplishes three things that it's been attempting ever since I studied there in the latter 1970s. It must continue its commitment to the goal of being a great teaching institution. It must strengthen its commitment to the goal of being a great research institution. It must maintain its commitment to the goal of being a great Christian institution. Holding to these three will not be easy, for the tendency of other Protestant Christian universities, as they have developed into significant, respected centers of education, has been to lose their focus as Christian institutions, eventually secularizing themselves. Some might say that the attempt to reach the highest intellectual levels while remaining Christian is like trying to square the circle, for intellectual inquiry is an open-ended search for truth, whereas Christian doctrine is grounded in an unchanging revelation of truth. If Baylor can manage to do this, and also continue as a great center of teaching, then it has something significant to offer the world.

That also appears in the same format in the electronic version of Baylor Magazine, and I find my words factual, even matter of fact, and sedate. On page 24 of the hard copy, however, the same words have a slightly different appearance, a fine-tuning of my tone that subtly re-shapes the implications of what I say:
Baylor University can be significant for the world if it successfully accomplishes three things that it's been attempting ever since I studied there in the latter 1970s. It must continue its commitment to the goal of being a great teaching institution. It must strengthen its commitment to the goal of being a great research institution. It must maintain its commitment to the goal of being a great Christian institution. Holding to these three will not be easy, for the tendency of other Protestant Christian universities, as they have developed into significant, respected centers of education, has been to lose their focus as Christian institutions, eventually secularizing themselves. Some might say that the attempt to reach the highest intellectual levels while remaining Christian is like trying to square the circle, for intellectual inquiry is an open-ended search for truth, whereas Christian doctrine is grounded in an unchanging revelation of truth. If Baylor can manage to do this, and also continue as a great center of teaching, then it has something significant to offer the world.

The large bold font makes me appear to be raising my voice, of course, but more to the point, it puts all four phrases into the same voice, as though there were no nuance of distinction, whereas two different voices are used, the latter voice being that of a somewhat skeptical commenter who awaits to taste the proof in the pudding. As the text stands in this hard copy, I sound like a full-throated enthusiast for this as Baylor's mission to the world. My wife read it and remarked that I sound rather "pious."

I don't mean to complain, though, for I'm always fascinated to see what editors do with texts, such also being one of my own jobs . . .

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jeju Island: One of the New Seven Wonders of Nature?

Horsehead Nebula

Readers who keep up with Korean affairs will have heard the 'wonderful' news that Jeju Island is ahead in the running for one of the top seven natural wonders in a contest known as the "New7Wonders of Nature." The winners are determined by counting up votes received by telephone. Many non-Koreans who've visited Jeju Island will testify that the place is lovely and charming, yet demur that it might be one of the top seven wonders of nature. The issue has become quite controversial and is the subject of some rather heated debate over at the Marmot's Hole. I've grown weary of the chauvinism of many of the earthlings who gather at that rodents' watering hole, so I finally posted my genuine reaction:
I don't know why so many commenters persist in touting the relative merits of other spots around the world compared to Jeju Island. It's all so provincial.

The Great Red Spot of Jupiter is pretty neat for a persistent anticyclonic storm, and for my money, it's a greater natural wonder than anything on earth and surely deserves to be among the top wonders in the solar system. This storm has lasted for at least 181 years and possibly longer than 346 years, and it ranges from 24,000 to 40,000 kilometers east-to-west and 12,000 to 14,000 kilometers north-to-south, large enough to contain two or three planets the size of Earth!

But would I reckon it as one of the top seven? Ridiculous! While it's obviously better than Jeju Island, it isn't nearly as stunning as the rings of Saturn, and even those don't qualify among the seven greatest.

Besides, why're we limiting ourselves to just our little corner of the universe? The Horsehead Nebula is better than either Jupiter's Great Red Spot or Saturn's rings!

The egregious fact that Jeju Island won out over the truly awesome wonder that is the Horsehead Nebula simply proves just how biased this contest was. At 1,500 light years distant, who could afford the phone calls that would quickly mount up astronomically in cost? Even so, I think that the voting time should be extended by 3,000 years to allow any beings that might inhabit the Horsehead Nebula time to cast their vote.

It's only fair in such an unfair scam.

And that's how I truly feel about this issue!

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Friday, November 18, 2011

J. Todd Hibbard on Benjamin D. Sommer's Bodies of God

Benjamin D. Sommer

One of my friends from the postdoctoral year (1998-99) that I spent in Jerusalem has published what sounds like a very interesting book: The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge, 2009). I've read only J. Todd Hibbard's review of Ben's book in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (Volume 11, 2011), but I'm sufficiently fascinated to consider purchasing the expensive text. Meanwhile, I'll just quote from the review concerning the part that I find especially relevant to my interests, the chapters on what he calls "divine fluidity":
In Chapter 1 Sommer examines conceptions of divine fluidity broadly in the ancient Near East [ANE] (he points out that no such notion apparently existed among the Greeks). The idea was based on a radical contrast in the ANE between humans and gods. The divine self was fluid in two ways: first, through the fragmentation of divine beings (e.g., Ishtar); and second, through the overlap of divine beings (e.g., Asshur). He points out that it was also the case that some gods possessed the ability to be embodied in multiple objects in the ANE. For example, in the pīt pî and mīs pî rituals one can see how idols or ṣalmu were established as embodiments of a god. These were not simply representations of the god, but incarnations of the divine. These embodiments did not mean, however, that the god's body ceased to exist in heaven nor that other earthly embodiments were impossible. In the Northwest Semitic tradition, the betyl presents a similar picture: it is both a god and an animated stone with life (not just a house). Canaanite texts reveal similar notions of multiple embodiment centered on a multiplicity of Baals (and, to a lesser extent, El): "[T]hey, too, have shifting and overlapping selves" (p. 28). Interestingly, however, archaic and classical Greece (as well as Virgil) does not evince similar portrayals. This suggests that the idea Sommer is pursuing is not characteristic of all polytheistic religions.

Sommer's task in Chapter 2 is to address how the fluidity model outlined in the previous chapter was manifest in ancient Israel. In support of the idea he notes the multiple geographical manifestations of YHWH found in inscriptions (e.g., YHWH of Teman and YHWH of Samaria in the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions). In addition to geographical multiplicity, Sommer argues that YHWH fragments himself (think avatar) such that he takes on multiple embodiments. Two such cases include malāʾkh, which he argues is an example of YHWH's self-fragmentation, and YHWH's multiplicity in divine wood such as the asherim. On the basis of the latter, he argues that the much-discussed Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions are not references to a goddess, but rather to wooden cultic objects that are repositories of YHWH's fragmented self. He also argues that YHWH's multiplicity is present in stone such as maṣṣēbôt and stelae, embodiments that render YHWH's presence on a scale safely accessible for human beings. In Sommer's view, the two notions of divine fluidity and multiple embodiment reinforce each other and appear together. He concludes the chapter by noting that these twin conceptions appear to have been especially present in the northern kingdom.

Where this analysis gets really interesting appears in Ben's application of this fluidity model to Christianity:
The final chapter finds Sommer donning his theologian hat in order to answer the question, "What do the Hebrew Bible's fluidity traditions teach a modern religious Jew?" (p. 126). After noting that the antifluidity traditions in P [=Priestly Source] and D [=Deuteronomist] dominate the final form of the Hebrew Bible, he notes that fluidity traditions found elsewhere (notably in JE [=Yahwist-Elohist]) are still present. He briefly explores the development of these traditions in the postbiblical rabbinic literature, the kabbalah and early Christianity. With respect to the latter, Sommer insists that core Christian assertions -- the trinity and incarnation -- are not theologically impermissible within the world of Judaism, but rather are faithful to the fluidity model of divinity found in ancient Israel. For modern Jews, Sommer demonstrates how biblical notions of fluidity and antifluidity pose challenges for both liberal and conservative Jews, though not in the same way. He concludes by insisting that, contrary to customary positions, it is the fluidity model that offers the strongest statement of monotheism consistent with the personhood of God.

I actually recall Ben discussing something of this sort one Saturday morning in a synogogue that I sometimes attended in my attempt to learn more about Judaism, and he even hinted at its relevance for a proper understanding of Christianity and how it could have arisen out of Judaism, specifically mentioning St. Paul.

I'm glad that he's finally clarified that connection . . .

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Michael Totten Interviews Ramez Atallah on Christians and Muslims in Egypt

Ramez Atallah
General Director
Photo from LinkedIn

Yesterday, I posted about Islamist attacks on Christians in Nigeria and alluded to the fact that such attacks occur elsewhere as well. One of these places is Egypt, where Muslims -- presumably Islamists -- have attacked Christians and burned churches. The author and blogger Michael J. Totten, unable to obtain an interview wiith a Coptic Christian leader, recently interviewed a prominent Protestant Christian in Egypt instead, the General Director of the Bible Society of Egypt, Ramez Atallah, who had some interesting things to say, several of them counterintuitive, at least for me. Totten's interview, "The Christians of Egypt, Part I" (November 15, 2011), reports this surprising point of view from Atallah:
The issue in Egypt isn't Christians, it's Muslims. Christians are incidental to the issue. There is too much focus in the West on the Christians here . . . . The real limitations on human rights in Egypt's future will be focused on Muslims. The people here who are most afraid are the Muslims, not the Christians. If we get an Islamically-biased government -- and I’m being optimistic by describing it that way -- Christians won't be persecuted. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate at least compared with the Salafists. They won't persecute Christians. They will limit Christians, but they won't persecute Christians. The people who will be persecuted are Muslims . . . . Not just secular Muslims. Not all religious Muslims are with the Brotherhood. I just heard a speech from a religious Muslim woman -- she's veiled -- and she said, "please don't take my country away from me. Don't take my freedom away from me" . . . . She was saying this very strongly. A large number of Muslims are intellectual, educated, and liberal-minded. You have to understand that for a religious Muslim, Islam is as closely entwined with his identity and his being as your gender identity . . . .

Westerners think religious freedom in Egypt means Muslims can opt out of being Muslims. But it's a completely false supposition. No Muslim doesn't want to be a Muslim. It's part of their being. So when Egyptians talk about freedom and revolution, it has nothing to do with Islam. No Egyptian wants to be free of Islam. This is the most religious country in the entire world. According to a Gallup poll, between 99 and 100 percent of Egyptians say religion is very important to them.

So Islam is not the issue. What is the issue is the interpretation of Islam. Over the years, a large group of Muslims in Egypt have contextualized Islam in the modern world. They can practice their Islam and live as 21st century citizens. Women can dress modestly, yet also fashionably. They can go the beach in swimsuits. Maybe not bikinis, but swimsuits. They can drink alcohol from time to time. They are modern people.

Muslim society here as a whole has become more religious, but that does not mean they have all limited their lifestyle. So if and when the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, they'll say "Muslims are not allowed to show their body, so the beaches are only for Christians and foreigners." So if Muslim women want to swim, they will have to swim fully dressed. These women will be horrified to have these sorts of restrictions put on them.

Then the Muslim Brotherhood will say, "women will have to do such and such, and men will have to do such and such." Islam is a way of life as well as a belief, so if you don't interpret it in an open-minded way, your life will be very hard.

The Salafist movement is violent. Imagine if the Amish ruled America and used force to make everyone else live just like them. They wouldn't, of course, they are peaceful people, but imagine the Amish using force to rule America and require everyone in the United States to adopt their lifestyle. That's the Salafist movement. They’re the extremists. They adopt old-school Islam and also the old-school Islamic style. The Muslim Brotherhood is less extreme. They will let men wear a tie. But when it comes to women, the Muslim Brotherhood are much more conservative than the average educated Muslim would like. They also impose a lot of restrictions on men . . . .

The problem is that the Muslim Brotherhood will make more restrictions, but they will be tolerable. If the Salafists take over, they will start butchering us.

This is very interesting. Ramez Atallah considers the Muslim Brotherhood relatively tolerable -- compared to the Salafists! I hope that he's right -- and being Egyptian, he ought to know -- but I can't forget that the Muslim Brotherhood was for decades a violent organization that owes its ideological impetus to the anti-Western intellectual Sayyid Qutb, who also inspired Al-Qaeda and some other Salafist groups. In fact, I would consider the Brotherhood to have Salafist elements. At any rate, they are Islamists, and I don't think that Islamists are genuinely peaceful individuals. I think that their 'peaceful' methods -- when they are peaceful -- are merely tactical and that they would turn to violence again as quickly as they claimed to have renounced it.

Atallah has the opinion that if the West wants to defend human rights in Egypt, then it should focus not on the restricted Christians but on those far-more-restricted Muslims who want a more liberal Islam. Otherwise, Muslims will consider the West biased and the local Christian favored. Not a good scenario.

Incidentally, Michael Totten is an independent journalist, so keep in mind that even though he blogs for free, a donation to support his work will always be appreciated, as you'll see if you read the entire article.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Boko Haram's Attack on Damaturu Christians

Yobe State, Nigeria

Twenty years ago, while I was pursuing doctoral research early Christianity in Tuebingen, a Protestant friend of mine also studying in Germany, but who had worked in Africa on Bible translations during the 1980s, told me of a planned assault on churches in Nigeria carried out by radical Muslims, Islamic groups we now call Islamists, apparently. Hundreds of churches were burned on the same day, he told me, and added that he had seen photographs of burnt-out church after burnt-out church. I asked a Roman Catholic priest about the incident, and he confirmed it. Since then, ten years before 9/11, I've paid close attention to Islamist attacks on non-Muslims, often against Christian victims in poor countries of Africa and Asia.

One of the offspring of those radicals of the 1980s in Nigeria is the Islamic extremist sect officially called Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad." With a mouthful of a name like that, it fortunately has a more common one, Boko Haram, an expression that means, roughly, "Western Learning is Forbidden." With such a name as this for the radical group, we can imagine that it might attack schools, but it also attacks churches. Just recently, according an article in Compass Direct News, "Violence in Yobe State, Nigeria Aimed Mainly at Christians" (November 11, 2011), Boko Haram attacked Christians and their churches on November 4, 2011 in the Yobe State's capital, Damaturu:
Boko Haram bombed and destroyed 10 church buildings: those of St. Mary's Catholic Church, Church of the Brethren, Cherubim and Seraphim Church, All Saints Cathedral (Anglican Communion), and Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), African Mission Centre, Assemblies of God Church, ECWA Good News Church, Living Faith Church, and Charismatic Renewal Ministries.

Boko Haram appears to be 'ecumenical' in its attacks. In fact, it's even broader than that in its ideological interests, for this radical sect not only attacked church buildings, revealing its religious intentions, it also has political aims, for it clearly intends to destabilize the Yobe State capital:
More than 200 members of the Islamic extremist Boko Haram sect stormed the Yobe state capital, Damaturu, at 5 p.m. on Nov. 4, and soon the terrorists had blocked all four major highways leading into town. Some of them charged the police headquarters, commando style, killing all officers on duty, while the rest broke into two banks -- First Bank Nigeria PLC and United Bank for Africa, stealing millions of naira. Boko Haram also bombed police stations and an army base in and around Damaturu.

The militants seem to have been rather well organized and well armed if they can overwhelm the police and an army base! They must therefore be receiving weapons and training somewhere. The money for that probably comes from radical Islamists in the Middle East. Note that Boko Haram specifically targets Christians:
Having successfully dislodged security agencies after a series of gun battles and the detonation of explosives, the terrorists then led other area Muslims to the only Christian ward in town, New Jerusalem in Damaturu, home to more than 15,000 Christians, church leaders said.

The Christian leaders in Damaturu told Compass that out of the 150 casualties reported in the Yobe attacks, more than 130 were Christians. When the Muslim extremists went to New Jerusalem, they said, any Christian they met who could not recite the Islamic creed was instantly shot and killed or slaughtered like a lamb.

The demand that a Christian recite the Islamic creed -- the Shahada -- served two purposes, I presume: 1) to single out Christians, who would be likely to be unfamiliar with the creed, and 2) to force Christians to convert, for if one recites the Shahada before Muslim witnesses, one becomes a Muslim. A local Christian leader called the attack a jihad against the church, and he's undoubtedly correct, the aim being to kill, expel, or convert the 15,000 or more Christian living in Damaturu, roughly one-sixth of the city's 90,000 inhabitants. That's assuming that the Christian aren't offered the opportunity to submit in humility to Islamist overlords and pay the unbelievers' tax known as jizya.

There's a tendency among Westerners to pass these attacks off as politically motivated and thus not truly religious in their inspiration, but that's a Western view of politics and religion that sees them as two separate spheres, which is not how Muslims generally see things, and certainly not how Islamists see them.

Hence the bloody borders that Huntington infamously referred to . . .

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Menand Remembers Kennan

George F. Kennan
Pinnacle of Power
Photo: AKG Pressebild-Ullstein Bild/Granger Collection

Another fascinating article on George Kennan appeared recently, this one in The New Yorker, written by Louis Menand and titled "Getting Real: George F. Kennan's Cold War" (November 14, 2011), and it's even longer than Kissinger's article, or seems longer, and provides a fuller view of Kennan's life. Unlike Kissinger, Menand isn't concerned with defending his own legacy, for he never served in government making policy at the pinnacle of power. He's a Harvard professor of literature, not a political scientist. But he offers an interesting point about Kennan as the author of America's "Containment Policy" -- Kennan resented the attribution despite his seminal "Long Telegram" and his follow-up article, signed "X," published in Foreign Affairs:
Kennan's second major Cold War treatise [the first being the "Long Telegram"] was the 1947 article for Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." The essay began as a paper written for Forrestal. In many respects, it was an eloquent re-statement of the Long Telegram, and it is famous for a single sentence: "It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."

This gave a name to American Cold War policy, and, with a few tweaks and many exceptions, what Kennan had called "containment" remained American policy until the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wherever there was "Communist aggression," the United States pushed back. As long as the Communists remained in their box, the United States did not (except rhetorically) seek to intervene. And, as Gaddis says, even Reagan, despite talk of liberation and "rollback," stayed largely true to containment policy.

The article was signed with an "X" because Kennan did not want it to seem that, as a State Department employee, he was stating policy, but his identity was quickly revealed, and for the rest of his career he was known as the author of containment. He had reasons to resent this.

Menand explains the reasons underlying Kennan's resentment:
[A]s someone who proposed policy rather than administered it, Kennan was susceptible to the standard fate of policy intellectuals. Either he could get credit for providing a rationale for what was already the government's de-facto policy or his recommendations could be harnessed to purposes he did not endorse.

Kennan's fate was to have his idea of containment conflated with the Truman Doctrine's promise in March 1947 of military aid "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This might sound like containment if the outside pressure were Soviet Russia, but Truman made a general call to arms, and that was apparently not Kennan's intention:
Kennan was appalled when he read the draft of Truman's speech, and for the rest of his life he protested that he had meant containment to be a policy of selective confrontation, and its means to be diplomatic and economic, not military. But he was construed otherwise.

One wonders if Kennan doth protest too much. Knowing Russian history as well as he did and having had personal experience of the Soviets from his time in the diplomatic service in Moscow, did he really believe that diplomatic and economic confrontation alone would contain the Soviet Union? Absent the back-up threat of military confrontation? Diplomacy without strength offers merely a comforting blanket woven of words in a Hobbesian world of naked power, and economic sanctions alone would make a Bolshevik laugh. Kennan must have known these things. Perhaps he would not have pressed military confrontation in places like Vietnam, but one wonders if his resentment had less to do with foreign policy disagreement and more to do with the doors that closed him off from the corridors of power.

Kennan's life was no tragedy, but he did suffer the melancholy consequences of having been at the pinnacle of power and influence relatively early in his career, only to see his personal influence decline as he drifted further and further from the center of power in a long life of protest, like the anonymous voice in T.S. Eliot's poem Prufrock: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

Kennan lived to be 101 and died in 2005.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Kissinger Remembers Kennan . . .


As part of her English lesson yesterday evening, my soon-to-be-fifteen-year-old daughter and I read a fascinating article by Henry Kissinger in which he analyzes the man George F. Kennan as a foreign policy thinker. Titled "The Age of Kennan" and written for The New York Times (November 10, 2011), it displays Kissinger's own brilliance as much as Kennan's. For instance, at one point in our lesson, Sa-Rah read the following paragraph to me:
[N]o other Foreign Service officer ever shaped American foreign policy so decisively or did so much to define the broader public debate over America's world role. This process began with two documents remembered as the Long Telegram (in 1946) and the X article (in 1947). At this stage, Kennan served a country that had not yet learned the distinction between the conversion and the evolution of an adversary -- if indeed it ever will. Conversion entails inducing an adversary to break with its past in one comprehensive act or gesture. Evolution involves a gradual process, a willingness to pursue one's ultimate foreign policy goal in imperfect stages.

When she had finished reading this aloud, I stopped her and pointed out that Kissenger was speaking about himself and his own views as much as he was talking about Kennan and Kennan's views. I added, "When one great man analyzes the work of a great predecessor, you should be alert to signs that he's also defending his own legacy, as is especially the case in this passage." I urged her to keep this in mind, to read with an ear attuned to different levels. Kissinger, I explained, worked with one eye to the distant evolutionary goal and the other eye to the imperfect step to be taken now. He is defending his own method against charges of cynicism and opportunism, I told her.

After we'd finished, I asked her what she'd learned about Kennan, and she replied that he'd formulated the concept of containment in response to what he considered Soviet Communism's intrinsic aggressiveness, a concept that was elaborated in practical U.S. foreign policy as America's strategy during the Cold War.

Not that she used those exact words . . .

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Decline of American Universities?

Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Allemania (ca. 1355)
Laurentius de Voltolina (1300s)

The above image of a 14th-century university classroom has been used in a previous post or two here at Gypsy Scholar, and I still don't know anything about Laurentius de Voltolina. So much for my education!

In other areas, I'm also ignorant, as I learned from an article by Anthony Grafton for The New York Review of Books, "Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?" (November 24, 2011). Grafton reviews eight books on the state of American universities, and it's rather depressing -- astronomical tuition, disengaged faculty, overheavy administration, neglected students. This is the world's best system of higher education? Hard to believe, but perhaps not for long. Grafton doesn't despair, and he's not writing a jeremiad, but there seems no easy way out of this mess. Read the article if you want to know more, for it's too complex for me to summarize this morning, given my lack of time.

Instead, let me just quote three paragraphs that I can respond to, Grafton's remarks on a book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses:
In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.

Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying -- down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

Results varied to some extent. At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. In general, though, two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields -- humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics -- outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.

Concerning this CLA "exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond," I can readily imagine that I'd have difficulty doing well on such an exam. Such an exercise demands not just skills in analysis, synthesis, and composition but also some sense of what works in the practical world of business and politics, and that sense comes mostly from life experience in those worlds. As an impractical scholar, I'd likely perform worse than some of my students. Well . . . maybe not here in Korea, where undergraduates have far less practical experience than American ones. If I were teaching in the States, I suspect that my students performing best on this CLA would be the young men and women who'd served a few years in the military on tours in Iraq or Afghanistan and had learned to deal with complex situations requiring quick analysis and practical solutions. But there aren't many such students with that sort of experience.

I suppose I ought to feel gratified that students majoring in liberal arts and studying on their own tend to do best on the CLA, for that describes the sort of student I was . . . but if I'm one of those who'd outperform students in other majors, especially if they engaged in group study, then the CLA scores must be dire indeed.

What's the solution? I don't know. I'll just keep slogging away at teaching as best I know how. Encouraging students to think for themselves. Providing critical feedback to students on essays and research papers. Generally showing students the virtues of moderate irascibility. One ought to be a bit put out with the world . . .

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Call for Submissions: Emanations II

The call of Cthulhu is again resounding, as you can see above in the high-tech psychedelic rendering of Cthulhu's voice pattern, and it wants emanations from your brains. Originally, we had set the deadline for April 1st next year (2012), but I had second thoughts that readers might suspect a joke, so the deadline's been extended to the second of April to quell those potential suspicions. Here are the opening lines to main editor Carter Kaplan's invitation for submissions:

Emanations: Second Sight

Emanations is an anthology series featuring fiction, poetry, essays, manifestos and reviews. The emphasis is on alternative narrative structures, new epistemologies, peculiar settings, esoteric themes, sharp breaks from reality, ecstatic revelations, and vivid and abundant hallucinations.

The editors are interested in recognizable genres -- science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, local color, romance, realism, surrealism, postmodernism -- but the idea is to make something new, and along these lines the illusion of something new can be just as important. If a story or poem makes someone say, "Yes, but what is it?" then it's right for Emanations. Essays should be exuberant, daring, and free of pedantry. Length is a consideration in making publication decisions, but in keeping with the spirit of the project contributors should consider length to be "open."

Our editorial vision is evolving. Contributors should see themselves as actively shaping the "vision" of Emanations.
The rest can be read at Kaplan's blog entry on this issue, and he can be contacted through that post. For those readers interested in the first Emanations, just click here. I've blogged on that first one several times, and it's also been promoted by the other editors. One of them -- British avant-garde author and publisher Michael Butterworth -- gave it a plug in an interview for Soanyway of fellow avant-garde writer and U.S. scholar Richard Kostelanetz:
Have you heard of International Authors? It's a rather interesting publishing experiment going on in Brookline, Massachusetts, headed by Carter Kaplan. They have just brought out an anthology called Emanations, which includes an unpublished story of mine from the 80's, together with some of my early unpublished poems. They publish English-speaking authors from around the world and all forms of writing seem to be welcome.

Butterworth's now-published story, "Das Neue Leben" ("New Life" or "The New Life"), is very well written, a fascinating piece that plays on old conspiracy theories of Hitler's survival, this time within a fallen paradise in a tale that ends rather enigmatically. Despite the title, the story is in English and can be partly read on the Amazon page.

Anyway, if you consider yourself a writer and would like to publish something, visit Kaplan's site for more details.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Norweans, or Maybe Koregians, Visit Seoul . . .

Polar Neighbors

My daughter Sa-Rah was recently selected to act as one of the local guides for a group of Korean kids who are growing up as adoptees in Norway. I asked her to write on the experience, and here's what she left in my email inbox this morning:
Being a Guide for One Day
Sunday, October 30th, 2011, I got to meet eight kids from Norway. They were Korean kids adopted by Norwegian foster parents at a very young age. I was partnered by a girl named Marie, who was thirteen years old, and I had to be her guide around Seoul for the day. I came to having this experience because my mom introduced me to this activity. This activity wasn't just about introducing Korea to foreigners, but was supposed to give Korean teenagers a chance to think about "Coexistence." Relationships between other countries and understanding differences in culture have become very important, so I thought the activity would be good experience for me. That's why I signed up for this activity by sending an application, and got a yes from the Mizy Center. The Mizy Center is a organization that gives teenagers a chance to experience other cultures or help poor countries by hosting many activities.

After getting a yes from the Mizy Center, I also passed the interview and became one of the eight teenage students who were selected. I felt pretty good about becoming one of this program, but at the same time felt a sense of responsibility. I needed to show the Mizy Center that I could do a good job, and so a couple of days before the actual activity, I decided to investigate Seoul on my own. I visited the royal palace, went to a couple of museums, and went to a traditional Korean town. I also didn't forget to go to Insa-dong, which is a shopping and eating area, very famous for its interesting shops and foods. Tourists usually like to buy gifts for their friends at Insa-dong, so I took a walk around. I got used to the area, so that I could guide my partner around well.

Anyway, after all that investigation, I felt ready to be the Norwegian kid's guide. When I first met my partner, Marie, we had some time to get to know each other. I personally hoped for a energetic, talkative partner, but Marie wasn't that type. That didn't mean I didn't like her, but it was harder to get used to each other. I started asking her questions about her favorite subjects at school, and if she knew K-Pop or Girls' Generation. Marie said she likes Norwegian (the language), and wasn't so good at math, even though she actually kind of liked it. I agreed to her on that subject -– you know what I mean. She told me that she doesn't know any K-Pop, but was interested in Justin Bieber. She said she was a Beliber, and liked Justin Bieber's new song "Mistletoe" and one of his older songs, "Never let you go." Because I was a little bit interested in Justin Bieber, too, I could talk to her about how I liked his "Never let you go" Music Video.

We talked more about each other while designing shoes that would be donated for children in Ethiopia. As I talked to her, I could see that her English wasn't that good, and that we had some problems in communication. Many times, she wouldn't be able to understand what I was saying, so I would have to select easier words for her. Well, she was only thirteen. I could understand that. When we finished our shoe designing, we had lunch with the other teams and a Mizy Center supervisor, and had time to introduce ourselves to others. We had Bulgogi for lunch, which is like a Korean juicy beef barbeque. Marie seemed to be happy with our choice of lunch, because she said she liked Bulgogi the most out of Korean foods.

The lunch time was pretty interesting because I got to talk to other Norwegian kids, too, and we started the tour with other two teams. We all agreed that it may be awkward to walk around Seoul one-to-one for hours. One of the guides was two years older than me, and she was a type of person who liked to lead people. Also, she lived in the area we were going to take a tour, so she could explain the area well for our Norwegian partners. We first went to a police museum, and got to wear police officer clothes. I took some pictures and then we read the history of Korean policemen. It was interesting, because I didn't know much about police history either. We also went to the royal palace and saw some famous Korean actors filming a famous TV series.

After that, the Norwegian kids bought some coffee at Star Bucks, and we walked around the streets of Seoul. There were many make-up shops, and they seemed to be interested in make-up, so we went to many shops. They also bought some make-up stuff that I had no idea about what the heck it was –- I'm not into make-up at all. I don't mean having make-up on is bad. It's just different from what Korean teenagers do. All of a sudden, watching them buy makeup and talking to each other made me feel how different they were from me. They were "Korean," but they were not "Korean" at all. The environment that they grew up in made them so different from us. I imagined what I would look like and be like if I had grown up in a different environment. I would be a totally different person, and would have a totally different personality. That thought made me feel a bit strange.

Anyway, we went to Seijong Museum and went to the Korean traditional town that I investigated before. Marie and I joined three other teams and were guided by a couple of friends that lived in that town. They were friends of one of the Korean teenagers, and they showed us around the town pretty well. The Norwegian kids took many pictures, but were a bit loud. We did ask them to quiet down a little bit, because people actually live in that town, and are bothered everyday by tourists and people that go there, but they didn't seem to see importance in quieting down. I, of course, didn't like that, but tried to understand. I think I should have been more active so they would be quiet. After all the walking, we had dinner at Insa-dong, and the tour was finished.

I felt many things while doing this activity. One thing was that I should have been prepared more. I did prepare where to go and what to do, but I wasn't good at talking to my partner, Marie. I think as time went by, I spoke less and less to her. I tried justify myself by the fact that her English wasn't good enough, and that she wasn't so talkative, but after the whole activity was finished, I felt bad about myself. I should have prepared for situations like that, where people are different from what you imagined them to be, but I didn't. However, it was a very good experience for me, because I could learn from my mistakes and know what to do next time there is an activity like this. I now have more confidence in guiding people, and I understand what's important. Preparation. I believe I have earned a valuable lesson, and hope to do a better job from now on. I thank the Mizy Center for letting me have a good experience like this.

I've not yet talked with my daughter about this essay, so we've not corrected anything, but there aren't many mistakes, and none glaring. I found Sa-Rah's remark that her partner was "only thirteen" amusing since Sa-Rah's merely fourteen. Well, almost fifteen, and two years can make a big difference at that age.

If I had thought more, I would have tried to prepare my daughter better by having her read up on Korean adoptees, most of whom are overseas, and on Norway, for she knows almost nothing about that country.

Maybe we could have located a Norwegian greeting online and practiced it for when she met her partner . . . but I didn't think of that beforehand.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cultural References in "The True Origins of Pizza"

Messieurs Pizza

A recent advertising campaign for the Korean pizza chain Mr. Pizza created a satirical video, "The True Origins of Pizza," making the tongue-in-cheek claim that pizza originated in Korea and was 'stolen' by Marco Polo at the same time that he 'stole' pasta from the Chinese. The video is funny, especially the more one knows about Korean nationalism and its sometimes far-reaching claims, e.g., Confucius was Korean. The most surprising aspect of this ironic advertising campaign is that it seems to have originated in Korea! Actually, that shouldn't be surprising since irony was invented by the Koreans, but this invention seems to have been forgotten in the land of morning calm, where irony, especially self-irony, is nearly always misunderstood.

Some readers might be less aware of these issues concerning Korean nationalism, humor, and related stuff, but if anyone is interested, Stephen Epstein and Rumi Sakamoto have published an entertaining piece, "The True Origins of Pizza: Irony, the Internet and East Asian Nationalisms," in The Asia-Pacific Journal (Vol 9, Issue 44 No 5, October 31, 2011), which analyzes these things. Among the things analyzed are the images above:
[I]n one of the clip's most inspired strokes of marketing acumen, the voiceover asks "Then is there anyone still in the region making pizza the original way?" and introduces us to Woo-Hyun Jung, the "owner and CEO" of Mr. Pizza. Jung, indeed the genuine head of the corporation, has recently been designated one of the top businessmen in Korea for 2011, and his refusal to take himself too seriously is not only amply demonstrated in what follows, but on the Mr. Pizza website, where one of his titles is given as CLO: Chief Love Officer. The camera first shows him standing with a warm smile on his face, hand on chin. He then beckons his interviewers to a table, leaving visible behind him a portrait of himself in exactly the same pose -- in sunglasses. Jung tells us that his father, grandfather and all of his ancestors made pizza and we see a succession of portraits of such ancestors posed in similar fashion, hand on chin, and all, apparently, photoshopping Jung's features onto images that draw on Korean portraiture styles in accurate reverse chronological order.

Epstein and Sakamoto "thank Frank Hoffmann for the image and references to some of the other pieces of artwork that seem to be drawn upon humorously" in the video. Undoubtedly, Hoffmann is right to note the Korean portraiture styles (or is this the authors' contribution), but I have another suggestion that might also be a reference, that scene near the beginning of the animation Kung Fu Panda in which Po's 'father' tells him:
You are almost ready to be entrusted with the secret ingredient of my Secret Ingredient Soup. Then you will fulfill your destiny and take over the restaurant! As I took it over from my father, who took it over from his father . . . who won it from a friend in mahjong.

As these words are spoken, a series of images are shown. We see Po's father speaking, then a portrait of Po's father's father, then a portrait of Po's father's father's father -- followed by a gag portrait of Po's father's father's father's friend looking decidedly unhappy. I strongly suspect that the Mr. Pizza video is making an allusion to this scene. Both scenes -- in the video and the film -- are ironic, humorous presentations of culinary traditions that aren't much of a tradition. Po's 'family' has been in the noodle soup business for only three generations prior to Po, and Jung's family hasn't been making pizza for generations, either. So . . . there may be a connection. Unfortunately, an internet search this morning failed to turn up the images from Kung Fu Panda accompanying the dialogue above, the sight of which would better make the connection that I'm suggesting, but if any readers can locate a website showing those images, I'd be grateful.

Otherwise, we just have to rely on our memory of that scene in the film . . .

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