Saturday, April 30, 2005

This Courtesy and Discourtesy

Park Hyun-mo, professor of political science at the Academy of Korean Studies, has recently written an article in the JoongAng Daily on "History's lessons for Korea's future," and he presents a couple of noteworthy quotes.

The first presents Korea's reaction in 1832, when the British East India Company sent one of its ships, the "Lord Amherst," up China's northern coastline seeking new markets. This ship appeared off the coast of Chungcheong Province and requested trade negotiations. It received this reply from Lee Min-hoe, the magistrate of Chungju:

"As a vassal state of China, our country cannot engage in relations with foreign states on our own. So please bring some documents indicating that you have been in contact with China."

The second quote presents what I take to be the Chinese emperor's flattery of Korea for deflecting the British request:

"Joseon is a good vassal state, well-versed in the ways of courtesy."

By "courtesy," the good emperor meant Korea's proper deference to China within a Sinocentric imperial system grounded in a Confucian understanding of the correct hierarchical relations between juniors and seniors.

This story exemplifies what I previously (and half in irony) called "The Iron Law of Korean Thinking." Recall the words of Professor Kim Kyung-won, former ambassador to the United States

"Korea traditionally . . . pursued a policy of acknowledging the order of rank and hierarchy that starts with China at the top . . . . Korea could not imagine equality among countries, and international order was thought to mean a system of rank and hierarchy just like domestic order."

The United States took China's place and thus was treated for many years by Korea with the courteous deference due to Korea's senior. But the U.S. isn't a Confucian country and has never known how to treat Korea with the Confucian sense of courtesy that Koreans feel is due to a junior. Consequently, Koreans feel constantly aggrieved by America's 'discourteous' treatment, confusing informality for disrespect.

Let me give an indirect example.

Some years ago, I was teaching in a provincial university in Korea, and my mother came to visit. The professors in my department treated us to lunch at a nearby restaurant. In the course of a relaxed and humorous conversation over the meal, I happened to make an offhand, ironic remark to my mother about the great things that she would see me accomplish in future years "unless I die first."

Immediately, my Korean colleagues became grim-faced and told me, "That is the worst thing that you can say to a parent."

My mother and I just looked at each other. She was somewhat puzzled, but I knew the Confucian ethic, i.e., that a son is morally bound to outlive his aged parents and care for them, so I realized what I had done 'wrong.' I hadn't planned to offend Korean courtesy and wouldn't have uttered the expression if I had reflected first.

At the same time, I have to admit that I didn't care. I'm not Korean, I have a different ethic of courtesy, and I didn't feel guilty -- and certainly not 'ashamed.'

That, of course, is precisely the problem . . . for Koreans. And hence for Americans. Not sharing the same ethic of courtesy, we talk past each other. Americans grow annoyed at Korean 'obtuseness,' and Koreans at American 'shamelessness.'

By contrast, the Chinese know what to say to Koreans . . . and how to say it. China is the proper "elder brother."

America is just a crude elder step-brother -- and maybe not even elder.

Friday, April 29, 2005

A Sincere Apology

In yesterday's International Herald Tribune, this delightful 'sports' story appeared:

"Theo Toemion, the chairman of Indonesia's powerful Investment Coordinating Board, is, like most parents, passionate about his son's sporting activities. Just how passionate became evident one recent Sunday when he went on a violent rampage, assaulting a 14-year-old referee and several parents of other children in a dispute over a junior school basketball match."

What caused his rampage against foreigners at Jakarta International School? Why did he break the nose of the opposing coach?

Toemion's 7-year-old son Daniel was accused of too many fouls.

I know exactly how Toemion feels. I, too, was unjustly accused of a disqualifying foul number 5 in an important game in Beaumont, Texas way back in 1977. In those days, I could jump pretty well. They say that white men can't jump, so maybe it was my Cherokee blood. Anyway, because I could dunk two-handed, my Beaumont cousin invited me to play for his independent league team while I was visiting relatives during summer break from university.

I was doing a fine job on the court -- winning tipoffs, grabbing rebounds, blocking shots, scoring from above the rim, and generally playing an aggressive game.

That led to foul trouble, especially since I was playing an aggressive Ozark style that I learned from my high school algebra teacher, who used to go off on tangents and talk about basketball and his coaching days instead of the quadratic equation. In the course of those 'lectures,' Coach Cooper expressed a truth that I've never forgotten:

"If you drive for the basket, make sure that you charge like hell over the man in your way. You'll get a foul that time, but he'll get out of your way next time."

That's true, but you have to charge pretty hard. I guess the Beaumont referee didn't like that style, for my foul number 4 was counted as foul number 5!

"Does an egregious foul count twice?" I wanted to know.

They threw me out of the game. Unlike Toemion, however, I'm a peaceful man off-court, so I didn't throw any punches or break any noses. But a couple of years later, when I saw that referee in a Baylor University cafeteria in Waco, Texas, I confronted him:

"I remember you," I said, but he just looked at me, baffled. I dropped the issue.

Toemion, however, isn't one to let things slide, and he -- a "former foreign exchange dealer" and current "gatekeeper for foreign investors" -- has the advantage of being the victim of 'racist' foreigners. Angry words with the game's coordinator, Michelle Mabee, led Toemion to conclude:

"I was dealing with someone displaying a very racist behavior."

Several contrite days later, however, Toemion must have had some second thoughts, for he penned what he characterized as a "sincere apology":

"My sense of nationalism and Indonesian pride began to dominate and I was prepared to defend myself against all the foreigners who were accosting me."

Perfectly understandable. I certainly wouldn't put up with being 'accosted' by foreigners who have no business investing in my country and whose noses deserve to be broken for their disregard of my high social status.

As just like Toemion, I, too, would draw on my nationalist pride and threaten to have all foreign parents tossed out of my country.

Afterwards, of course, I would sincerely apologize.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Hi-De-Seoul, Hi-De-Hi . . .

My wife and I were discussing the "Hi Seoul" slogan over coffee this morning.

What sort of coffee, you say?

Why, thanks for asking. Arabic.

I learned to make it during our time in Jerusalem when I had a Golda Meir Fellowship for postdoctoral research at Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus for the academic year of 1998-99.

That was an interesting year. My daughter, Sa-Rah, learned Hebrew at an Orthodox Jewish Daycare run by Yona Weiss, and my wife (pregnant with our son, En-Uk) narrowly escaped being blown up by a terrorist bomb in the Mahaneh Yehudah Market. She ran from the explosion, then finished her marketing. One tough woman.

As for me, I had an easy life sequestered in the Mt. Scopus Library, doing research in obscure texts on even more obscure topics. Occasionally, I would emerge to attend a high-powered seminar that invariably overstimulated my brain.

Speaking of stimulation, I do brew a mean cup of Arabic coffee. How? Well, take one heaping spoonful of freshly ground coffee, dump it into a mug, and add boiling water. Let the grounds settle, then taste. If it's not mean enough, add more coffee grounds -- next time. You can try adding the extra grounds immediately, but that never seems to work very well.

The Arabs I knew in the Old City of Jerusalem would always add a lot of sugar. That reduces the coffee's meanness level, however, and I like a really mean coffee.

Which brings me . . . somehow . . . back to the "Hi Seoul" slogan. What does it mean? According to the official website:

"The city of Seoul has adopted a new slogan that symbolizes the dynamic image of the city and promotes its bright and friendly spirit to the world. 'Hi Seoul!,' a slogan representing the city's dynamic new image, is an easy and familiar greeting, expressing the warmth and friendliness of the citizens and embodying Seoul's 'high' visions."

The problem is this: Who's greeting whom here? If I were arriving as a tourist, I might expect to be greeted by the city of Seoul:

Seoul: "HI JEFFERY!"

Me: "Ahhh!"

Okay, a massive turnout of Seoul citizenry to greet my arrival at the airport might be rather frightening, but it would definitely express "the warmth and friendliness of the citizens."

Seoul's slogan, however, seems to force me to greet the city of Seoul first:

Me, reading the slogan on a banner: "Hi Seoul!"

No answer.

Me again: "Uh . . . 'Hi Seoul.'"

No answer.

Me again: "Um . . . hello . . . Seoul?"

No answer.

Me (muttering): "Well, it's a stupid slogan anyway. No wonder nobody answers."

And I wander off into Korea, softly singing . . .

"Hi de Seoul
Hi de hi
Gonna get me
A piece of moon pie
Gonna get me
Some of that old sweet roll
Singin' Hi de hi de hi de hi de Seoul . . ."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Oh . . . The Pope Isn't Catholic After All!

I recently came across this interesting blog from Egypt: Sandmonkey. He appears to be a secular Muslim (an oxymoron?), but here's how he describes himself:

"Be forewarned: The writer of this blog is an extremely cynical, snarky, pro-US, secular, libertarian, disgruntled sandmonkey. If this is your cup of tea, please enjoy your stay here. If not, please sod off"

I've added him to my sidebar. Check out his April 23 post on Pope John Paul II:

"Did you hear that the Pope converted to Islam before he died? No, you didn't? But that's all over Egypt. It's the latest rumor of the week. People who support it point to the fact that the Pope had dirt put on his corps[e] ( an Islamic burial tradition) and that he wanted his memoirs burned to hide his secret conversion of course ( why else would he have them burned they would argue), which he showed in his establishing of good relations with the Muslim community and opposition to the Iraq war. The Pope, they would say without a shred of doubt in their voice, died a muslim."

About which, Sandmonkey dryly observes:

"And some people actually believed that!"

For more of Sandmonkey, see his Airport Incident, a post-9/11 story that describes the contradictory way in which U.S. airport security was handled in the weeks following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

I don't ordinarily blog about bloggers, but this fellow interested me because he writes well, is obviously highly intelligent, works in investment banking in Egypt, appears to be a secular Muslim, and opens a door into a world that I know very little about. Click on his links, too, for other fascinating blogs.

The world is a very interesting place.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Some Good News, Some Bad News . . .

Paul the Apostle goes into a synagogue in the diaspora. He's asked to speak to the congregation. He steps up onto the bimah and says:

"I have some good news, and I have some bad news. Which would you like to hear first?"

The head rabbi replies, "Good news and bad news? Tell us the bad news first. The good news will console us."

Paul says, "Okay, here's the bad news. The messiah has come, but he's been killed."

"What!" exclaims the rabbi. "That's terrible news! What could possibly be good news?"

Replies Paul, "The good news is -- that's good news!"

Monday, April 25, 2005

Today's English Lesson: "Is the Pope Catholic?"

The rhetorical question "Is the pope Catholic" is an idiomatic way of saying "Yes! And you're a fool for asking!"

But idioms change with the times. Since April 20 of this year, it has come to mean "Yes! And you're a damned fool for asking!"

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Book Blogging: 'Chaosmosis'

I reached up on my nearest bookshelf and randomly pulled out another of those cultural studies books that I bought on an intellectual tangent. This one's by Félix Guattari:

chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm (1995; originally published in French as Chaosmose, 1992)

Let's see if it's worth reading:

"In the Eastern bloc, the fall of the Iron Curtain didn't happen as the result of armed insurrection but through the crystallization of an immense collective desire annihilating the mental substrate of the post-Stalin totalitarian system. This is a phenomenon of extreme complexity, since it intermingles emancipatory aspirations with retrogressive, conservative -- even fascist -- drives of a nationalistic, ethnic and religious nature. In this upheavel, how will the populations of central Europe and the Eastern bloc overcome the bitter deception the capitalist West has reserved for them until now?" (pages 2-3).

Basically, this says that the Eastern Europeans liberated themselves from totalitarian subjugation through a "desire for freedom" -- except that the text doesn't say "freedom," since that might connote a desire for the "bourgeois freedom" of legally defined political and economic rights in a capitalist democracy. Rather, the text says "emancipatory aspirations." The Iron Curtain was brought down by a desire for emancipation, with its strong connotation of revolt. For the left, true freedom is found and felt in a moment of emancipation from repressive structures. Emancipation is never a state to be maintained but a moment to be forever sought anew. Thus, leftist politics is always a politics of revolt.

Granted, Guattari is right to focus on the emancipatory aspirations here, for the Iron Curtain's fall was an emancipatory moment -- a revolt against totalitarian structures that presupposed a desire to set oneself free. He's also correct in noting the "nationalistic, ethnic and religious nature" of the revolt. There was the danger here of renewed authoritarian structures arising to replace the totalitarian ones. That's always a danger where civil society has been hollowed out by a paranoid political state.

But what is this "bitter deception the capitalist West has reserved" for Central Europe? Guattari doesn't immediately say, but we can infer that he means that while the West promises freedom, it imposes a new enslavement. But what sort of thralldom? At this point, I'd normally refer to the index to see where in the book I could quickly turn to find out. Guattari, cleverly, has not attached one. Clearly, he wants us to read his book, not quickly decode it. But he does have a table of contents, so let's try that:

1. On the production of subjectivity

2. Machinic heterogenesis

3. Schizoanalytic metamodelisation

4. Schizo chaosmosis

5. Machinic orality and virtual ecology

6. The new aesthetic paradigm

7. The ecosophic object

Hmmm . . . I'm stumped. These point obscurely in several directions. Like Lewis Carroll, Guattari is a man in love with portmanteau words. Does he take them as seriously as Humpty Dumpty did? Would he also say: "When I use a word, . . . it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less." To answer would entail reading more carefully, but let's just skim.

What luck! From page 121, jumping out at me, spring these words:

"The masses of the Eastern bloc threw themselves into a kind of collective chaosmosis in order to free themselves from totalitarianism, to live differently -- fascinated as they were by Western models" (121).

Clearly, we're back to "emancipatory aspirations" and "bitter deception." Good, I might find out what the deception refers to. The very next page says:

The [left's] objective would no longer be to simply take control of State power in place of the reigning bourgeoisie and bureacracy, but to determine with precision what one intends to put in their place" (122).

Thinking ahead is always a good policy, and one worth adopting by the left after some 70 years of totalitarian failure. Note that Guattari seems to be treating the statism of the Marxist left as little different than the statism of the capitalist right, for he implies that the left merely took "control of [a] State power" that was already there to be taken.

At any rate, he sees little difference between the two systems. Both tend toward centralization:

"Bureaucratization, sclerosis, the slide of State machines towards totalitarianism do not only concern the Eastern bloc but also Western democracies and Third World countries. The withering away of State power, once advocated by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, is more relevant than ever" (122).

Ah yes, the promised "withering away," that eschaton of early Marxist utopian socialism. Guattari would seem to be a variety of Marxian anarchist.

Okay, I think that I've skimmed enough to broadly understand Guattari's critique of the left and the right (the right being just as deceptive). I don't know what positive program Guattari "intends to put in their place," but given the obscure object of his desires (if his chapter headings are any indication), then I can wait till some other time.

Call it my delayed gratification.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Poetry Break . . .

This poem is from about twenty years ago:

Water Witching

From deep wells, you must have drawn your anger,
Deeper than ever I could have dug them
In the brief time that I have known you well,
For water you so willingly provide
Is fresh and cold and mineral-laden,
What back home, in the Ozarks, we called hard.

Had I my grandma's gift of divining,
I should have uncovered the hidden source
Beneath the porous, hollow limestone rock
With the skillful work of a willow stick,
As with a power not my own, the branch
Would sniff the moisture out through its descent.

Thus knowing the lay of your lonely land
From the water-witching walk I'd made,
I'd lay myself in a silent hollow
And lowly and quietly, solemnly
Pray that a shift in underlying rock
Might change the ancient course the water takes.

There could a river freely burst from that
Fractured foundation stone, a mammoth spring
To carve the contours of its way along
The surface of the land, and in the depths
Of night, not earth, reflect the brilliant stars,
In pools so crisp, and so carefully wrought.

(H.J. Hodges, 1985)

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Iron Law of Korean Thinking

Upon my first arrival in Korea for a 10-month stint teaching at Kyungbook National University (Daegu), way back in 1995-96, I quickly recognized the hierarchical nature of Korean society. I'm not claiming any great insight, for one need not be a genius to figure it out. The social fact immediately hits every newcomer in the face.

Why? Because it's visible in every human interaction in Korea, even down to minor differences of status. Granted, no society is completely egalitarian, but when a university student one year older is a "senior" who can order his one-year-younger "junior" to do some specific task and actually get results, then the hierarchy is fine-grained and pervasive.

Being trained as a historian, and having an interest in international relations, I wondered if Korea's social hierarchy extended to foreign relations.

I had reason to suspect that it did. At the government offices where I went to get my alien resident's card, I observed that whereas Western foreigners were treated with respect, non-Western foreigners were dealt with as people lower in hierarchical ranking. I inferred that this might be a reflection of how Koreans perceived the status of various states. But what I was observing was still within Korea and characterized by face-to-face, personal interactions. So, I couldn't be certain that it extended outside of Korea to relations with other states.

I had further evidence, however. I often heard Korean acquaintances remark that "Korea has to do what America wants." I heard it often enough that I began to wonder why. I had not heard Germans speak that way, despite their recognition of America's power and status in the world. So, I asked why. Most answers initially referred to America's economic and military power and mentioned the U.S. military bases in Korea.

"Yeah," I thought, "same as in Germany, but Germans never seemed to think like Koreans."

I asked further and then heard Koreans say that America demands that Korea carry out policies in American interests. But when I asked about specific demands, I could see from the wording that American requests were being interpreted as demands.

"But these are requests," I would point out. "So, why not just say no?"

The response to this was that America puts pressure on Korea to do what it wants.

"What pressure?" I would ask.

At that point, responses became quite vague: dire fears about the unarticulated 'things' that America would do. Or I was told that I was naive to think that Korea could say no to such a powerful country. Those sort of responses.

My retort: "Germany often said no. Nothing terrible happened."

So, what I had was a lot of anecdotal evidence that Koreans perceive foreign relations much as they perceive social relations: There is a hierarchy of seniors and juniors, and juniors had better do what the seniors demand . . . or else.

I called this (half in irony): "The iron law of Korean thinking."

Now, Korea University Professor Kim Kyung-won, former ambassador to the United States, confirms it. In his article "Balance is not just about power" (Joong Ang Daily, Wednesday, April 20), Professor Kim states:

"In international relations, Korea traditionally has pursued a policy of acknowledging the order of rank and hierarchy that starts with China at the top, rather than a policy of 'balance.' Korea could not imagine equality among countries, and international order was thought to mean a system of rank and hierarchy just like domestic order. The European idea of national sovereignty is unfamiliar to Asian countries. We never imagined that countries could claim to have equal rights.

Korea followed the pattern of traditional international relations even in the latter half of the 20th century. The only difference was that China, which was at the top of the hierarchy, was replaced by the United States. The logic of the system was the same as when China was at the top, in that the United States was the new superpower and suzerain state in all international relations."

How long will this iron law hold sway? That's hard to judge. Korea has changed a lot in the past generation. It's democratic, and younger people are more aware of foreign cultures. Many Koreans have studied and worked abroad. Also, many foreigners now live and work in Korea, bringing their ways with them. In particular, foreign English teachers are inculcating different ways of thinking in their students simply by teaching a foreign language -- and at the student level, I do see radical changes. No student these days avoids stepping on my shadow.

So . . . Korea might be learning to say "No" to America. Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that President Roh's name is really pronounced "Noh."

But I fear that Korea may be starting to say "No" to America because it's starting to say "Yes" to China.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

China: 1.3 Billion People, But A Labor Shortage?

It sounds surprising, but China is facing a shortage of workers. From Thomas Fuller's April 20th article in the International Herald Tribune comes the news that China currently has a labor shortfall. In a modernizing country with a population of 1.3 billion, how can there be too few workers? Here's how:

"Population experts say factories are seeking a very specific type of worker: young, very mobile, willing to work very long hours and be far away from their families. There are plenty of underemployed people in the Chinese countryside, but most of them do not fit this profile."

This is a long-term structural problem that China faces:

"Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, predicted in a recent article that the supply of entry-level, low-skilled industrial workers had started to shrink. Because of the effects of the one-child policy, which was implemented in 1979, the number of people between the ages of 15 to 19 will decline by 17 percent in five years to about 103 million from 124 million today. This decline of about 21 million people is the equivalent to about four times the entire population of Denmark."

The labor shortage is already contributing to rising labor costs:

"Chinese wages are still low by European or American standards, but a worker in a sneaker factory in southern China today is paid about 30 percent more than his counterpart in Vietnam and 15 percent more than a worker in Indonesia."

One might expect this wage-scale differential to bring about a shift of factories from China to countries with cheaper labor costs. To some extent, this is happening:

"Some big countries are moving production to Vietnam . . . . Kingmaker Footwear Holdings . . . makes Timberland and Caterpillar shoes and plans to hire about 2,000 workers in Vietnam to make up for a shortage of the same number of people in its factories in China."

Yet, companies are continuing to invest in China. Why?

"Companies these days are investing in China to be present in such a large market more than relocating because costs are cheaper than in other countries."

Thus, the large Chinese market continues to draw companies. But which market? As a non-economist, I usually understand "market" to mean "consumer market," but it can also mean "labor market," among other things. Since Fuller's frontpage article is written for the general public, I'd normally assume that "market" is short for "consumer market" and that companies are investing in factories within China in order to be positioned to make big profits when a sufficient number of Chinese become wealthy enough to generate a consumer-driven economy.

However, "market" might actually be short for "labor market" because the article emphasizes that China's total pool of labor continues to be attractive. According to Bob Charles, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt:

"[R]ising costs in China . . . [are] unlikely to lead to large-scale moves by the manufacturers to Southeast Asian countries, where total labor pools are considerably smaller."

This all suggests that large, global manufacturers will continue to locate factories in China even though Chinese labor costs are rising and are expected to keep on rising.

What does this mean for South Korea, "the economic 'hub' of Northeast Asia"? On the positive side, it might mean that rising labor costs in China could make local Korean labor appear more competitive. On the negative side, it suggests that China will remain more competitive long-term than Korea because of China's huge markets for labor, goods, money -- you name it. Overall, however, the enormous Chinese market can be a positive thing for Korea if it maintains good relations with China.

This, of course, is a really big issue in our time of rising nationalism in Northeast Asian countries. But that -- as Andrei Lankov likes to say -- is another story.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

I Meet Gargantua . . . Not!

I recently met the Big Ho (a.k.a. "Kevin"). I had expected a Rabelaisian character, but he isn't nearly as gargantuan as his blog implies. He is big . . . but not gargantuan. He has a hearty appetite . . . but not a gargantuan one. Intellectually . . . well, maybe that's gargantuan. It's certainly Rabelaisian -- just look at his big, bad, bold blogsite in all its (e)sc(h)atological glory.

We met on Monday, and he mentioned our meeting in his April 18th blogpost:

"Before I go: a quick shout-out to Dr. Hodges (a.k.a. Jeff), whom I had the great pleasure of meeting today for lunch. Yes, ladies, he does indeed wear an interesting cap."

Bill Vallicella, of Maverick Philosopher, remarked on the meeting:

"I see that he [i.e., Big Ho] and the estimable Dr. Hodges have finally met for lunch. Say Kevin, is Jeff as ugly as he brags about being?"

Then comes this interchange of their suspicions about me:

Big Ho: "I think the nifty cap he wears is to hide an exposed, pulsating brain. I'll have to take a pic of him and let the ladies judge how ugly he is."

Bill Vallicella: "Post it on your blog for all the world to see."

Uh-oh. The Big Ho is onto my terrible secret. Well, why hide it any longer! Great genius cannot hide itself under a bushel, or a bush, or a cap. Yes, it is true! I am he. I am the one. I am the one and only, the prolix, the verbose, the opposite of concise, the loquacious even:

I am Mojo Jojo!

I will conquer the world. I will conquer the solar system. I will conquer the universe. I will conquer parallel universes. I will colonize the mind of God and occupy all possible worlds. Nothing can stop me. Why? Because only the Powerpuff Girls have enough incredible powers to do that. And they do not exist! Ha, ha, ha!

Instead, I face only these two Rowdy Ruff Boys -- Big Ho and Maverick Philosopher! They hope to thwart me by posting my photo for all the world to see. Hah! Do they not know that no camera is powerful enough to capture my ugliness? It cannot be taken captive just as I cannot be taken captive.

Wait? What's that? There's a strange van outside! Two men in white lab coats are running up the stairs. They are carrying something . . . some sort of a coat . . . for me? Hey, I didn't have any dry cleaning done! What are you doing? I don't want to wear that! Let go of me! I'm trying to type . . .

I Need a New Shirt . . .

So much for my predictions:

"Therefore, if I were to place bets, I'd bet on yet another antimodern pope, this one arising from Africa or Asia, where Catholicism is growing, competing with Evangelicalism, and confronting Islam. I'd probably lose my shirt, but why not go for broke?"

I got it half right: an antimodern pope, but from neither Africa nor Asia. The new pope is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, from Bavaria, Germany, who has taken the title Pope Benedict XVI.

I've never met Rat . . . uh, Benedict, but I did meet an old friend of his, Hans Kung, because I took Kung's ecumenical seminar for about three years (ca. 1992-95) when I was living in Tuebingen. If you don't know the story of those two, here's a brief synopsis. Both Kung and Ratzinger were part of Vatican II, which opened up the Catholic Church to what it had previously castigated as "Modernism." They were close friends, and Kung helped Ratzinger obtain a position at Tuebingen. Ratzinger, however, reacted against the radical student movement of the 60s, perhaps because of some negative experiences as a professor in Tuebingen, and this may have been partly responsible for turning him in a conservative direction in the Catholic Church (to the extent that he became an opponent of his old friend). Kung certainly thinks so. It's possible that this could have happened. Roger Scruton explicitly attributes his own conservatism as stemming from his reaction against what he saw as the wanton destruction of property during the 1968 riots in Paris.

If so, then Ratzinger, for all his intellect, is not just intellectually but also viscerally antimodern.

He has previously taken a hard line against both Evangelicalism and Islam, much more so than Pope John Paul II, and we should expect that to continue. But Ratzinger is 78 and won't be a long-term pope. The next papal conclave will have occur within a few years. We'll see what happens then. Meanwhile . . .

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Yeah, And Monkeys Might Fly . . .

This deserves recording for posterity . . .

Given that one of the three titles for Steven Chu's lecture yesterday included the term "Biotechnology," then some readers might have wondered if Chu talked about this. He did indeed. He thinks that genetic engineering of plants might open the way to more effective use of solar energy by enhancing and utilizing their natural power of photosynthesis. The aim would be to produce enough power to supply a steady, renewable source of nonpolluting energy.

When the floor was opened for questions, the first person to speak had a different suggestion:

"Dr. Chu, don't you think that we could solve the energy problem by genetically engineering people to have wings so that they can fly?"

That nearly inspired me to suggest that we harness the force of laughter to generate clean, dependable energy for meeting all of our monstrous energy needs.

Well, as Dr. Chu noted, nine out of ten questions will be . . .

Monday, April 18, 2005

Steven Chu's Korea University Lecture

I have an admission to make, but it perhaps illustrates the importance of maintaining flexibility in one's thinking.

Originally, yesterday's post was going to be about Chu's use of lateral thinking, i.e., "problem solving by approaching problems indirectly at diverse angles." I even intended to title the post "Lateral Cogitating and Laser Cooling," which I considered a pretty cool and alliterative phrase. In my first reading of Chu's record of his own achievements, I had inferred that what he gained from his reading in and investigations of other fields was an ability to think laterally in his own field of expertise, for I assumed that these gave him the means of approaching problems in his own field from diverse angles.

But he doesn't describe himself as doing that. Instead, he speaks of how his expertise in his own field led him to see possible solutions in other fields. He also emphasizes the role of analogical thinking in the creative process of his thinking. Thus, I began to see that my original aim of writing about Chu's ability to think laterally was heading for a dead end. At first, I reacted by mentally trying to force the model of lateral thinking onto what Chu described himself as doing, but it just didn't fit. So, I finally gave in and changed yesterday's post to one on analogical thinking.

I suspect that Chu also uses lateral thinking, but I'd have to know more about his conceptual methods to show this. He didn't discuss this point in his lecture today, but I noticed that his lecture had three slightly different titles:

1. On the banner above the lecture stage: "Biotechnology as a Solution to Engineering Problems"

2. On the booklet for audience members: "Biology as Solutions to Engineering Problems"

3. On the powerpoint display screen: "Biology as a Solution to Engineering Problems"

It seems that Chu approached his title from "diverse angles" -- perhaps a sort of lateral thinking!

But to be more serious . . . his lecture focused on three areas: 1. how the human ear works, 2. how cells make proteins, and 3. how to solve the energy crises in a pollution-free way. All three of these show a pattern characteristic of Chu, moving from his own field to deal with complex issues in other fields of science. In the handout, he notes:

"An increasing number of physical scientists and engineers are beginning to study biological systems. As more physical/mechanistic understandings of biological systems emerge, we are beginning to develop a deeper, quantitative understanding of how these systems work."

I would therefore guess that he is applying his expertise to problems that he sees as analogical to those that he has encountered before.

During the question and answer session, I did, in fact, manage to ask him about his approach to creative thinking. I had feared that I wouldn't get this opportunity, for there were very many hands raised, but Professor Jae Chun Hyun, Dean of the Graduate School, allowed me to pose the last question. I introduced myself and noted that Korea University, as part of its globalization drive, is trying to develop creative thinking in its students, then asked:

"In your writings, you emphasize 'field jumping,' and you seem to use analogical and perhaps even lateral thinking, so could you give us any advice about how to develop creative thinking in students?"

Chu replied that it is important to develop expertise in a few areas but also to keep a broad vision by investigating other fields:

"Talk to people outside your own speciality. Don't be afraid to ask questions. One problem that we have in Asian culture is that we are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid. Well, don't be afraid to be stupid. I encourage my students to ask questions and to propose solutions. Nine times out of ten, the answers will be silly, but that one time out of ten, the answer might be useful."

This is precisely what my students need to hear, so I hope that they were listening -- or that they listen when all of this appears repeatedly on Korea University's closed circuit television.

Chu added that as for specific techniques of creative thinking, he had no special advice to give, but he then remarked, with a somewhat mischievous smile, that his being stupid had always helped him to ask the necessary stupid questions.

I think that I'm stupid enough to do that, too.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Chu's Creative Thinking Process

In yesterday's post, I neglected to mention why Steven Chu won a Nobel Prize. Chu (along with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William D. Phillips) received the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics "for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light," which has come to be called "laser cooling."

At a first reading, this is the sort of remark that baffles laymen like me. Something as hot and fast-moving as a laser being used to cool atoms and trap them?

As far as I've come to understand it (and physicists, feel free to correct me), the short explanation to this is that when photons strike an atom in the right way, they bounce back off and take some of the atom's energy with them. This slows the atom's speed, which means that its temperature falls. As the atom slows and is continually bombarded with photons, it begins to move randomly and thus remains more or less in one place. This allows it to be studied more precisely:

"Once you get an atom very cold . . . and cold is really the average speed that an atom moves . . . . Once you get an atom really cold, so it's moving as fast as an ant walks, a fraction of an inch per second, then very, very weak forces can push them around, and you can do what you want with them -- for example, using electric or magnetic fields, or light. You can hold them, you can push them around, you can do things that you simply cannot do when they're whizzing around like supersonic jet airplanes.

The ability to hold onto and control and manipulate these atoms means, for example, you can toss them up; they can turn around due to gravity in a vacuum can where there are no other atoms around, and you can make better atom clocks. You can make what are called, atom interferometers. You quantum-mechanically split the atom apart, so one part of the atom is the quantum wave going to one region in space; the other part is the quantum wave going to another region of space. That atom interferometer can be used to measure acceleration or gravity or rotations with very high accuracy -- in fact, in terms of acceleration or gravity, better than any other way of doing it. And in terms of rotations, certainly better than any commercial or even laboratory grade laser gyroscope."

As experimental physics goes, this is a pretty neat trick with lots of experimental applications. But that's not the complete reason that it got the Nobel Prize. According to Alfred Nobel's will, he intended to bequeath:

"a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind."

The emphasis upon "greatest benefit" suggests that Nobel Prizes will be awarded to those whose work has had profound practical applications.

So, what are the practical benefits of laser cooling to mankind?

"So all of a sudden, you can measure changes in gravity so accurately that it's going to become competitive with the current ways of measuring changes in gravity, which is useful in all [oil?] exploration. You can probably put it on an airplane or a helicopter. And with global positioning satellites to tell you the height and changes in distance, and inertial sensing systems, and something that measures change of gravity over distances on a scaled meter, it opens up the opportunity to do map gravity drains and pockets of oil, diamonds, things of that nature, minerals, on a very fast-moving platform like a slow-moving plane or helicopter. So there are real practical implications."

These sorts of applications factor into the calculations of the Nobel Committee. Interestingly, they are not the sort of things that Chu or others were thinking about while they were doing their research:

"The atom interferometer was totally unexpected. It just popped out. People, even the researchers in the field, [find it] hard to think about what you can do with it, even if you force yourself, until you have it in hand, and you can then begin to see the abilities of this new method or technique. It's only after we had it . . . and then not only me, my group, but the world in general. No one was talking about any of the applications that came out until we actually had it and we saw how powerful it was, and then began to appreciate it. You can force yourself to think of what might come about, and you can write down a few things, but you're going to get only a small fraction of them. That's the wonderful thing about science."

I suppose that Chu means that the applications of scientific discoveries go far beyond what one could ever imagine, which is a pretty wonderful thing (or perhaps alarming, if one is pessimistic). But might he have also meant that it's wonderful that one need not think about such things during the process of scientific discovery?

I ask this because he has repeatedly emphasized the wonderful experience of workng for Bell Laboratories, which for him was a time of pure freedom -- scientific inquiry untrammeled by practical considerations (oddly enough, given that he was employed by Bell Lab):

"So I joined Bell Laboratories. My department head said, 'Steve, you can do whatever you want. It doesn't even have to be physics. All we ask is that you don't go to a high-energy accelerator and do high-energy physics, because that would be hard on the stockholders.' (My thesis project, and when I was working as a post-doc, addressed a high-energy physics problem.) He said, 'And by the way, don't do anything immediately. Spend six months. Talk to the people around the labs, and just keep an open mind.' This was a devastating experience for me, because of the freedom to do whatever you want and being told, 'Don't do what you think you want to do now, but explore.' So I spent some time exploring and thinking. And there, I really felt pressure, because he would say, 'We expect great things out of you.' I didn't want to hear that. It's much nicer to have a little problem to work on; it's very cozy.

But it did have a real influence on me, because it got me in that mode of going and talking to people outside of my field. When I finally started doing things at Bell Laboratories . . . and I started, first, in an area that was in condensed matter physics that I knew nothing about, but using techniques in my old field, atomic physics and laser physics. But it got me into the mode of, 'I've got this crazy idea.' I'd go to some colleague in Bell Laboratories and say, 'How does this sound?' And they would tell me, 'No, this is the stupidest thing I've heard,' or 'Yeah, maybe you have something there.' It set the tone for what I've done for the rest of my life -- collaborating with people, especially outside my local expertise. It was a wonderful experience.

I also should say, in the years I was there, '78 to '87 -- there was an economic slump in the mid-seventies; Bell Labs just started hiring people -- and there were a group of us, maybe a few dozen, two or three dozen, and we all were young, energetic, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. We were all being put in this position: 'Do something important. Here are the resources of American Telephone and Telegraph System. We expect you to do something wonderful.' We were there at night. We were there on the weekends. We knew what each other's cars looked like, so we knew who was in there, let's say, on a Saturday or Sunday. We would party together. [Looking back,] I think either five or six of us [later] got Nobel Prizes. Over a dozen are in the National Academy of Sciences. It's like this: we all were growing up together. And we had these really wonderful senior scientists there as well.

It was a remarkable period of time. Everything was exciting, and something would come along that was not in my field, and I would say, 'Wow, this is really interesting.' We'd go in, we'd discuss it. People would jump fields, or jump areas. There was this feeling of the excitement of the science, that even though we were doing this, it was all right to move and do that. You wouldn't be considered a failure because you gave up this, because something else even more exciting came along, either from your own laboratory or from a colleague's lab, or from the outside world."

Significant here is Chu's emphasis upon the importance of thinking broadly and taking intellectual risks by leaping over the barriers between fields. This willingness to "jump fields" requires an ability to think analogically, i.e., approaching problems in other fields by applying an angle that he's already used in his own field. Chu himself often alludes to analogies. Referring to the laser cooling method of catching atoms as a kind of "optical molasses" (itself an analogy), Chu makes an explicit analogy to Brownian motion:

"When I was making a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how long the molasses would keep the atoms in this region, I was thinking of a way to simulate this by computer, and I thought, 'Well, you really don't need a computer simulation, because you can make an analogy to Brownian motion.' The situation is very similar to Brownian motion where you have a dust particle and you put it in a fluid. As the atoms hit against this dust particle it starts to jostle around, and the fluctuations in the number of atoms that hit from the left and the right actually make the dust particle move. But the fluid dampens its motion; once it starts to move it hits viscosity in the fluid and wants to slow down. It's exactly the same in optical molasses, only it's a fluid of photons from the laser that creates the dampening. If the atoms want to move in the fluid they slow down, and it looks exactly like Brownian motion.

So after scratching around for a half hour or so I said, 'Hey! I know about this, I learned this in elementary physics!' In fact, Einstein was the first guy to figure out Brownian motion; it's a lesson that everybody learns. Doing the calculation, this random-walk motion meant that if you had a region about a centimeter in diameter you could keep the atoms corralled for about a second . . . . [I]f you arrange laser beams in a certain way, amazing things should happen; namely, you should create a soup of photons that would damp any motion of the atoms, so if the atom wants to go any particular way it can't, it just sits there."

This is a pretty basic analogy to make since Chu learned about Brownian motion in elementary physics, but how does he manage to apply analogical thinking to other areas outside of his expertise? I think that this requires two parallel processes:

1. Concentrating on a few areas of intense interest as one's specialization (which necessitates attention to a lot of details).

2. Reading broadly even in fields somewhat distantly related to one's primary interests (which necessitates attention to a more general understanding of issues).

To see this, let's look again at yesterday's posting of Chu's views on this process of thinking:

" So I would look around, and I had some [knowledge] from reading newspapers and magazines such as Science, Science Times, The New York Times, Scientific American, things of that nature. I had an interest in these biological problems, and I would pick something that I was interested in. But, of course, since I wasn't an expert in biology, I didn't know, 'Is this a stupid question? Is this a deep question? What?' I would say, 'Well, I think I can do something here and I have some interest.' So I'd trot over to the biology department or medical school and say, 'Is this something we're studying? I think I want to do this.' And they would tell me sometimes, 'No, no, it's silly,' or 'It's been done before.' Or sometimes they'd say, 'This is a central problem in biology.'"

Note that Chu's interest in these other fields shows the same pattern of approaching problems as already exhibited in his earlier, Bell Lab days. As then, he here begins from the specialized field in which he is an expert and brings his expert knowledge to his more general reading in biology and science. This means that he can approach problems in other fields from perspectives unavailable to the experts in those fields.

Analogical thinking is only one aspect of the creative-thinking process, of course. There's also lateral thinking, i.e., "problem solving by approaching problems indirectly at diverse angles," which Chu surely must also do a lot of. Thinking by analogy, however, seems to play a very important, perhaps major role in Chu's approach.

Perhaps I should ask him about this tomorrow.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Korea University: Upcoming Nobel Laureate Lecture Series 2: Steven Chu

Last month at Korea University, Nobel Prize winner Daniel McFadden lectured on economics for the inaugural lecture in KU's Nobel Laueate Lecture Series.

The second lecture in this series is coming up Monday, April 18. Although a few posters announcing it appeared on campus early this past week, I've seen no English-language announcements anywhere else, not even on Korea University's English Website (when I last checked).

So, in the interest of those in the foreign community here in Korea who need announcements in English (and happen to be reading my blog), you learned it here:

Steven Chu (朱棣文: Zhū Dìwén) will lecture on Monday, April 18, at 1:30 p.m., in Inchon Memorial Hall, Korea University.

For those interested in knowing more, follow this pdf link to Chu's Nobel Lecture. To learn more about Chu personally, read his Nobel Autobiography. For the master site to these and other links, go here. Chu also has a webpage at Stanford's Department of Physics, but he's on leave and currently working as the Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Before I attend Chu's lecture, I intend to read up on his life and work. I've already been reading a bit and have come come across an interview with these interesting words (bold font mine):

[There's a] misconception that many people have about scientists, or doing science and learning science. The misconception is you go to school, you take classes, you study -- years and years of study. You learn everything there is to know in a certain sub-field, a very narrow sub-field, and then you do work in that area. That is the form, but it's rarely taken. It's especially not true the way I do it.

Maybe it goes back to my high school days, when I was not such a good student. In actual fact, if one wants to go into a new area beyond your school days, you can pick up a classic textbook and begin to read, and begin to read in the literature; but it's not as much fun. When I was going into biology maybe a dozen years ago, I did try that. I picked up a big, fat tome called Biochemistry, a classic textbook. I started reading; it was 1,500 pages. I got to page 150, and I was deciding, "Well, it's beginning to slip out of my head as fast as it's going in now." I reached a "steady state!"

So I said, "Well, this isn't going to work." So I would look around, and I had some [knowledge] from reading newspapers and magazines such as Science, Science Times, The New York Times, Scientific American, things of that nature. I had an interest in these biological problems, and I would pick something that I was interested in. But, of course, since I wasn't an expert in biology, I didn't know, "Is this a stupid question? Is this a deep question? What?" I would say, "Well, I think I can do something here and I have some interest." So I'd trot over to the biology department or medical school and say, "Is this something we're studying? I think I want to do this." And they would tell me sometimes, "No, no, it's silly," or "It's been done before." Or sometimes they'd say, "This is a central problem in biology." That rarely happened.

But what happened is then I would start to collaborate with these people who spent their career in this specialty, and who grew up in this culture. They would say, "You should read this article, and that article, and that article." We would talk, and it was wonderful to learn that way. So you could sort of leapfrog over the years of school. Now to be sure, I'm not pretending I have as broad or deep as knowledge of that. But you start with a little, thin sliver of a particular problem, and you start to build knowledge around that thin sliver. By the time you've done the experiment and you're starting to write the paper, you better have some knowledge of what's around, because you won't even get to publish in the paper if you haven't referenced the right people or the precursors before you. But it's learning in that way.

Then you go back to the books, but now you use the index. You say, "I want to learn about this." So now I've begun to teach my students -- many of my students are physicists wanting to go into biology. I say, "Okay, we'll use the index. This is the problem. Why don't you look here, read these five pages in this book, and these ten pages here, and these fifteen pages here." By the time you read this review article, within a month, you're reading the primary literature.

I'm no Steven Chu (not that anybody thought so), and even though I do my work in the humanities, not the sciences, I find that his statements here resonate with my own experience. I moved into the field of English literature from history and have had to make a home for myself rather quickly. When I first shifted over, I needed to find a niche. Milton studies interested me, and although I hadn't read any of his works in about 20 years, I turned to Paradise Lost, his epic poem. I had long wanted to read in its entirety and understand it fully, so I picked up a scholarly edition (Fowler's) and began.

Interesting questions popped up constantly, and rather than set them aside as something to return to one future day when I would know enough to know what I was doing, I would repeatedly set the book aside, flick on my computer, and start trolling the internet for insights. I began to find scholars of and websites on Milton that enabled me to reduce months, perhaps even years of work into a few days or weeks of accelerated research.

By the time I started writing, I knew the most important scholars, books, and articles as well as some rather obscure passages from orginal and secondary sources that I could use to supplement my main argument. Publications followed (e.g., here). I've since applied this method to Beowulf.

I wouldn't claim that my articles are great. (Editor: "What do you mean? Of couse they're great!" Me: "Well, okay, if you say so.") But they're at least worthy of publication.

I try to impart this approach to my Korean students: Genuine learning is not about memorizing; it's about asking questions that lead you somewhere. Start from what you know. Find some question that interests you. Let it lead you into new territory. Ask knowledgeable people for directions. Keep exploring until you reach your goal. Then draw a map to help others get there.

If that's too metaphorical, see again Chu's words above.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Storm From The Past . . .

Before the Storm

When northwest glowed an otherworldly green,
The ambient air drew tighter than a bow,
Then by that tension taught the crops to lean
Still tender stalks imperatively low.

Before grey dust rose to obscure that scene,
Before the cloud flowed over with its slow
And undulating roll, one fragrance clean
Imbued the air, to damp the northwest glow.

(H. J. Hodges, 1985)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Fates

My wife has long maintained that our meeting on a train in Germany was fate. It was certainly an unlikely meeting, but I'm not a believer in fate -- as I've already mentioned -- so I think that it was more a happy, lucky, fortunate coincidence. Incidentally, the term "coincidence" comes down to us via medieval astrology, but I don't mean to imply even a tinge of stellar fate to my initially meeting Sun-Ae. Perhaps God simply smiled on us.

In my previous entry, nomen omen, I noted some views on fate but didn't really attempt to distinguish them. Yet, there are distinct differences in the way that fate is understood. I first really noticed this about 15 years ago when I was living in a student dormitory in Tuebingen, Germany and speaking with a Japanese woman living there who was studying to become a pharmacist. Keiko was a very strong believer in fate. I don't know if she thought that fate ruled every detail of her life, or if it only determined the big things, but she considered its decrees implacable.

One day, she and I were discussing my research because she had asked me what I was working on. I began to explain what Gnosticism was and how the Gnostics believed that a malicious god had created the cosmos and had used fate to trap human beings in the world.

So far, so good.

Then, I mentioned that Gnostics believed that the true God of salvation had sent a revealer into the world to break the bonds of fate and free human souls.

"But," interrupted Keiko, "how can fate be broken?"

So, I explained at some length and in great detail how fate had been set up and how the Gnostic revealer had broken it by disrupting the heavenly spheres by which (astrological) fate was generated, channeled, and used.

When I had finished, Keiko asked:

"But how can fate be broken?"

Taken aback, I replied, "I just told you how."

"But how can fate be broken?" she repeated.

Slightly annoyed, I retorted, "I just told you how!"

"But how can fate be broken?" she insisted.

At this point, both of us were beginning to sound like broken records, and I realized that her question was not a true one about the details of how fate could be broken but an expression of profound disbelief that such a thing could ever occur. For Keiko, fate was the most fundamental thing in the universe. Nothing, not a god -- not even God -- could change it, let along break it.

I never asked Keiko for the Japanese word that means fate, but I assume that it is "unmei" (うんめい [運命]: pronounced "oon-mei"). This is the same as the Korean word for fate, "unmyung" (운명 [運命]: pronounced "oon-myung"). Both of them derive from the Chinese word for fate, "mingyun" (命運, "ming4 yun4"), albeit reversed. Could somebody clarify all of this for me, both linguistically and ideologically? Why the reversal? What ideology lies behind the terms? I know nothing about this. I did, however, find this online article (pdf text):

James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, "Spiritual Needs, Spiritual Nourishment in Shenzhen," Pacific Rim Report, Nr. 29, November 2003.

The authors explain the concept of "mingyun":

"The Chinese term mingyun describes fate as both fixed and flexible. Fixed: one's destiny originates beyond the individual in the 'command (ming) of heaven.' Yet flexible: it is also shaped by the particular 'movements (yun)' of an individual's life. Each person's journey is shaped by genetic inheritance and family background that lie outside personal control. And yet within this fixed pattern, Chinese wisdom recognizes that all is not simply 'given.' It is the lifelong discipline of self-cultivation that prepares one to embrace the opportunities that arise in and alter the course of a life."

I now have to wonder about Keiko's views on fate. She seems to have been fixated on the fixed aspect -- or so I understood her to mean at the time (and I certainly may have misunderstood). Whatever Keiko may have meant, I'd now be interested in knowing what Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese think that fate is. By this, I mean to ask if there are any scholarly articles that lay out the meanings.

I'm particularly curious because one of my graduate students is focusing on how fate is used in Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur. He thinks that the knight Balyn is a character who tragically succumbs to fate because he chooses a path that turns him into a non-Christian knight. As such a knight, God's providence no longer guides him, leaving him a pawn of fate as it was understood in the Old Anglo-Saxon tradition.

To my discredit, I've never read Malory's Morte Darthur (but I will), so I cannot yet judge if the student is correct or not. I have urged him to look into various understandings of fate, suggesting to him that his own Korean view will differ from the Medieval Christian one in Malory, which itself will differ from the old pagan Anglo-Saxon view. All three of these need to be sorted out in order to properly analyze Malory's text.

There's a common saying relevant here: "The past is another country."

So are other countries.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

nomen omen

I can't read Spanish, though I'm trying to learn . . . slowly, the same way that I'm learning Korean. Despite my linguistic limitations, I enjoy looking at Gabriel Laguna's blog, Tradición Clásica. Its aim, in his own words:

"A Blog dedicated to the Classical Tradition (influence of Greek and Roman culture on the modern Western world): notes, examples, commentaries, discussions."

These interest me as well, but Laguna knows far more than I. If you read Spanish, go there. Even if you don't read Spanish, go there, and look at the beautiful images from, of, and about the classical tradition.

One of Laguna's recent entries, nomen omen (which is fun to say aloud), has been translated into English by Dennis Mangan. Thanks to his effort, I can finally engage more fully with Laguna's views. In nomen omen, Laguna begins with a comment on a writer whom I've also read a lot of: Paul Auster. I accidentally taught his novel City of Glass in a composition course when I was a doctoral student at Berkeley. I say accidentally, but perhaps fate was guiding me, since one of Auster's books that I recommended to Sun-Ae inspired her to accept a risky future with me. But I don't believe in fate, so it must have been by accident that I taught City of Glass. Why by accident? Because I knew nothing of Auster at the time and simply accepted the recommendation of a fellow teaching assistant.

Thus began my journey through Auster's metafictional novels. Sometime after meeting Sun-Ae, I had finished everything that Auster had written by then, including his essays, and I set him aside never to return. Well, never yet. I may read him again, based on Laguna's blog entry. I stopped keeping up with him because I grew tired of his manner of ending stories. They seemed to just stop. I don't mean to suggest that all stories should resolve everything -- I loved Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow despite and even partly because it resolved nothing and disintegrated at the end. With Auster, I sensed that he was a potentially great writer who was still struggling to find his way, and I didn't want to share the struggle.

But let me return to Laguna, who says this about the protagonist in Auster's recent Oracle Night:

"[W]hat interests me here is that the protagonist, the author's alter ego, reflects upon a curious belief which I have shared since my youth: the enunciation of a future deed may occasion its fulfillment in reality. That is to say, a verbal enunciation, a word, a name (nomen), can have a performative force, conjuring the destiny (omen) and therefore determining the future."

A man who believes this should choose his words carefully. If I shared this belief, I would state, upon oath: "In future, the nomen omen shall have no performative force over me." That should take care of the problem. But perhaps Laguna holds his "curious belief" ironically, for he says:

"The Romans shared this superstition. They blindly believed that a verbal enunciation could determine the future. The very word for 'fate' in Latin is fatum, which literally means 'that which is said' (linguistically fatum is the neuter form of the passive perfect participle of the defective verb *for, 'to speak, to say')."

Laguna then takes us to the Roman world of the 3rd century B.C., specifically to the year 229, when they conquer Epidamnos. The city's name poses a problem:

"But the name of the city of Epidamnos raises a bad omen for the Romans, since they fear that their occupation would prove 'to the harm' (epi-damnum) of Rome. The solution?: they change the name, introducing the already existing denomination Dyrrachium."

Renaming was the way of solving a problem such as this one. For other cases, there was the aversio, a formula uttered to ward off the evil invoked by stating a possible misfortune. From Laguna:

"quod di omen avertant ('may the gods avert such an omen')"

The world of antiquity was full of such linguistic tricks to avert evils and quell fears. A similar example comes from 2.6 of the Vitae Prophetarum's "Life of Jeremiah," a Greek text that describes Alexander the Great taking the bones of the prophet Jeremiah and burying them in a circle around the city Alexandria, which he was founding in the Egyptian delta:

"2.6 And (thus) the race of asps was kept out of the land (i.e., Egypt, or at least the area around Alexandria) -- and likewise the crocodiles (were kept) from the river -- and thus (similarly), he introduced the snakes that are called argolas, that is, snakefighters, which he brought from Argos of the Peloponnesus, whence also they are called argolai -- that is, '(the) right (=good) ones of Argos,' for people (lit. 'they') express everything fortunate (as if it were) sinister (lit. 'left')" (from: Recensio Anonyma, my translation).

The apotropaic term here is the obscure name argolai, which is what the snakes are said to be called. The author of "The Life of Jeremiah" remarks that the term means "the good ones of Argos" because people express good things in a sinister way. What the author means is that argolai comes from argos and laios, which mean "Argos" and "left," respectively. Since "left" was widely considered sinister (a word in English that itself comes from the Latin for "left"), then these beneficial snakefighting snakes called argolai will be perceived by the evil eye as "the sinister ones of Argos" and thus will be 'left' alone, enabling them to do their secretly intended, beneficial task of keeping the poisonous asps at bay.

Incidentally, the etymology given for argolai by the author of "The Life of Jeremiah" is pure fantasy. The real etymology will have to wait until publication of the commentary that Ronit Nikolsky and I are working on for Michael Stone.

Otherwise -- God forbid! -- I might reveal our trade secrets.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Celibacy Not Required

The next pope may turn out to be antimodern, but he's not likely to continue John Paul II's insistence on celibacy for the priesthood. According to Nicholas Kristof ("The new pope will let fathers be fathers," International Herald Tribune, April 11, 2005), the coming pope "will allow married men to become priests . . . [as] a matter of survival . . . [because] the Catholic Church is running out of priests."

Interestingly, Kristof notes in passing a couple of points that resonate with my previous post, which mentioned the growth of Christianity in Africa:

"Christianity is at its most dynamic in Africa, but [Catholic] clergy in Africa have often complained that the effort to attract priests there is hobbled by a cultural emphasis on having children. In central Africa a few years ago, an Italian priest told me of a local bishop's children. I thought he was speaking metaphorically abut the parishoners, but the missionary shook his head.

'No, he has a wife,' the priest said of the bishop. 'Celibacy just runs against the culture here. In fact, if we find a priest who sticks to just one wife, we promote him to bishop.'"

That restriction on those promoted to the office of bishop likely follows from a literal reading of 1 Timothy 3:2, which rules that a bishop must be the "husband of one wife" (Revised English Bible, 1989). This suggests that regardless of the Vatican's official position, the Catholic Church has begun revising its practices to accomodate local conditions while retaining some semblance of scriptural foundation.

Excursus: Protestants have faced a related problem in Africa.

Walter A. Trobisch (in William A. Smalley, ed., Readings in Missionary Anthropology II (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1978), 233-235), tells an anecdote about meeting a polygamous man in Africa whose three wives attend a Protestant church without him because the church refuses to admit polygamous men. The man explains that his first wife wanted him to take a second wife because she needed help around the house. A third wife came his way when one of his brothers died. As a brother, his duty was to care for the widow and her children (a practice, incidently, consistent with Old Testament norms).

This polygamous man comments on the sort of church that develops when a pastor refuses to adjust to African culture:

"I feel sorry for the pastor," he said. "By refusing to accept all the polygamous men in town as church members he has made his flock poor and they shall always be dependent upon subsidies from America. He has created a church of women whom he tells every Sunday that polygamy is wrong."

For Protestants, this would potentially mean losing men to Islam, which allows for polygamy and often competes for converts in the same regions.

Trobisch's story probably reflects the circumstances back in the 60s or 70s, for his article was published in 1978, so practices may have changed enormously since then. How so? Because statistics show that Christians have grown from 60 million in 1960 to over 360 million today. It's therefore a good bet that Africans have largely appropriated Christianity to African conditions. This has, in fact, happened and has entailed the unstated, or even explicit acceptance of polygamy.

Evangelicals, and especially pentecostals, are perhaps especially flexible on such matters because their non-hierarchical organization readily allows for the reflection of local circumstances. Certainly, they have sprang up quickly in Africa. From Philip Jenkins's recent book, The Next Christendom, it would appear that evangelicals, particularly of the pentecostal variety, have been doing very well among Africans, for he shows that most of the Church growth there since 1960 has been been fueled by charismatic Christianity.

Which returns us to our original topic: the next pope.

Kristof thinks that pentecostalism is part of the reason that the coming pope will allow married priests:

"Faced with . . . [the] choice worldwide [between decline and transformation], losing ground to Pentecostals, the next pope will be forced to choose transformation."

Kristof reminds us that the early church had married priest and points out that not until the 11th or 12th centuries were "the rules for celibacy . . . formalized."

From this long perspective, I suppose that even a policy allowing married priests could be considered antimodern.

Indeed, it'd be downright pre-medieval.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Last Anti-Modern Pope?

Two days ago, I bade Pope John Paul II a distant farewell. Soon, the College of Cardinals, upon which hinges the future of the Catholic Church, will be meeting to decide on the new pope (and I'll have to bake another cake).

Whom will they choose?

According to Sandro Magister, Pope John Paul II was selected partly because his geographical position as archbishop of Krakow furthered the interests of clerical anticommunism:

"[W]hen on 16 October 1978, the archbishop of Krakow was elected to Saint Peter’s chair, his candidature had actually been launched by the cardinals of wealthy nations: Germans, Dutch, North Americans. The new Polish pope would be the thin end of the wedge driven into the Soviet empire."

Magister notes that these very Western cardinals got more than they had bargained for:

"But his powerful electors had underestimated the fact that Wojtyla’s criticism of communism was part of his more general condemnation of a West that no longer had morals nor faith, that was a lover of profits and a slave to consumerism. The antibourgeois Wojtyla was much more steadfast than the anticommunist Wojtyla. For him, communism was merely an unwelcome byproduct of a much deeper evil. The evil of the West."

From this pope's perspective, the "evil of the West" lay in its profound and thoroughgoing secularization, the political and intellectual essence of modernity's Enlightenment project. Thus Pope John Paul II's critique of the West's "culture of death," which he saw as the ultimate expression of its profane evil:

"In the pope’s opinion, the evil of the West was at its peak when it wanted to violate the sacta sanctorum of the life of a human being, from birth to death."

This explains the pope's anti-modern opposition not only to abortion, capital punishment, and euthenasia but also to such things as genetic engineering:

"In this attitude, John Paul II was definitely an anti-modern pope. He was the total adversary of the technocratic modernity that does not only want to interpret man, but also wants to rule over him, changing him, wanting to take possession also of his generation. Time will tell whether the pope was defeated in this. Or whether he was a prophet."

In such a view, the "culture of death" includes not only methods for killing particular individuals, such as abortion, but scientific developments in genetics appropriated for the purpose of transforming mankind into something else, e.g., genetic engineering, the 'death' of mankind.

These issues have not disappeared, but other issues have grown acute. The Catholic Church faces two great religious challenges looming for the next couple of generations. One is the staggering growth of evangelical Christianity. The other is the resurgence of Islam.

Evangelical churches compete with the Catholic Church for souls in Africa and Asia and have drawn millions away from Catholicism in Latin America. However, the possibility of ecumenism is strong, for due to John Paul II, many evangelicals have a far more positive image of the Catholic Church and Catholicism than in any previous period. Moreover, both face an identical threat: Islam.

The resurgence of Islam is hardly disputable. Nor can one reasonably dispute that this resurgence has often been characterized by hostility, even contempt toward Christianity. The next pope will need to be a leader who can counter Islamic hostility and nurture a more positive attitude among Muslims, if possible.

The next pope, then, would need to deal with these two acute issues even while assuming John Paul II's mantle as critic of the West.

Therefore, if I were to place bets, I'd bet on yet another antimodern pope, this one arising from Africa or Asia, where Catholicism is growing, competing with Evangelicalism, and confronting Islam. I'd probably lose my shirt, but why not go for broke?

Sunday, April 10, 2005

My Cap is Fine

Ms. Kyung-Eun, one of my literature students here at Korea University, has inquired about the health of my cap:

"Hello Sir Jeffery! How is your cap doing?"

The "Sir Jeffery" refers to my benighted state, a consequence of my long immersion in studies of the Dark Ages.

But why this touching concern for my cap?

Perhaps one day, I'll add my photo to this blog so that everyone will see what a fine cap I wear, and if I do so, then none need ask: "Why?"

But not today.

Today, I must answer the question.

Background: I wear a CAP.

Issue: I insist that it IS a CAP.

Problem: Some people, either from ignorance or perversity, call it a hat.

Ignorant or Perverse Person: "Hey, nice hat!"

More Knowledgeable and Righteous Me: "It's a cap, jughead."

Person: "What?"

Me: "It's a cap."

Person: "No, I mean the jughead part."

Me: "What?"

Person: "Jughead."

Me: "Look, just because I wear a cap is no reason to call me a jughead!"

Person: "I didn't call you a jughead. You called me a jughead."

Me: "Why would I call you a jughead? You're not wearing a cap."

Person: "Oh, forget it."

Me: "Forget it? Call me a jughead and then order me to forget it? Fat chance, jughead!"

Person: "You said it again!"

Me: "What?"

Person: "Jughead!"

Me: "Outrageous! You think that you can just walk up to a law-abiding citizen like me and start calling me names? Ever heard of fighting words, buddy? C'mon. Put your fists where your mouth is!"

Ignorant and perverse person walks away, perversely ignoring me.

See, you just can't reason with some people.

Anyway, I maintain that a typical hat must have a brim all the way around. A typical cap, by contrast, has no brim. The common baseball cap, therefore, is an atypical cap, for it has a brim in front. Andy Capp's cap is also atypical, for it also has a front brim, albeit tiny. Sherlock Holmes's cap is so atypical as to be almost a hat, for it has brims front and back -- practically brimming over with brims!

My CAP has no brim. None. Nada. It is a perfectly typical CAP, mine.

It is a light shade of blue cloth with a black lower margin and is embroidered with maidens and flowers, parrots and fish, elephants and curliques, and has a scattering of tiny mirror insets all around and above that reflect blue skies, starry nights, and profound secrets of the deep.

In this small way, it is not so completely typical.

But it is a FINE CAP. One to engage people's interest, move them to pose inquiries, settle itself firmly into memories.

And that is why Ms. Kyung-Eun asks me: "How is your cap doing?"

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Passing of the Pope

About twenty-six years ago, when I was living in Waco, Texas and finishing my English Literature studies at Baylor University, a girlfriend and I baked a cake for the pope. If I recall, it was a chocolate cake with white frosting. On top, we had written in sweet cherry syrup:

"Long Live The Pope!"

The pope didn't show up, but we celebrated as if he had. I no longer recall why we did this. Neither of us was Catholic. Perhaps we somehow felt that he symbolized hope for Eastern Europe.

Some fourteen years with a lot of history passed in which I seldom thought about Pope John Paul II . . . .

In 1993, I was in Rome on Christmas Eve to propose marriage to Sun-Ae. We were the only patrons to show up at the pre-arranged restaurant on this most family-oriented of Italian holidays. The courteous waiter greeted me as "Mr. Jeff." That's better than "Googly Bear," but I did briefly wonder why our Polish friends who had made the reservation hadn't used my family name.

We were soon seated and supplied with a menu. To initiate matters, I ordered a very fine, very dry, very dangerous champagne.

Let me explain.

For Sun-Ae, imbibing alcohol is ever a risky endeavor. On the first anniversary of our meeting, we visited the Austrian town of Mittenwald, celebrating with a glass of fine, dry white wine before beginning our meal in an Italian restaurant there. Sun-Ae had finished only half of her glass, when she suddenly began to fan her face, turn red, and grow faint. Then, she passed out. I had to grab her to prevent her falling to the floor. Every other patron was staring at us, probably wondering, "What's that ugly lug doing to that poor Asian girl? Has he drugged her? Look, he's carrying her out of the restaurant!"

Well, I didn't want that to happen again . . .

So, I opened the champagne to pour a careful amount for her but a healthy glass for me. Sun-Ae was just preparing to raise hers in a toast, when I said:


From my pocket, I drew a small, tastefully wrapped gift, handing it to her with a smile. Surprised but assuming that I was giving her a Christmas present, she accepted what I offered, carefully unwrapped it, and found a small box. Not immediately recognizing this for what it was, she began trying to pry the top off by force. It didn't loosen.

I was about to intervene, when her fingers inadvertently tripped the mechanism, the box sprang open, and the ring nearly flew across the room -- but she caught it just in time, then gasped in surprise to see what glittered in her hands.

"Sun-Ae," I asked, "will you marry me?"

At first, whether from astonishment or uncertainty, she didn't know what to say:

"Oh . . . I don't know."

I waited, patient and still confident but a bit tense from anticipation.

"It's really nice," she observed, turning it around to better see the brilliant diamond. "Can I keep it even if I say no?"

"No," I told her, adding, "I come with it."

"I really want the ring," she joked, "so . . . okay."

With that ringing endorsement, I -- and she -- toasted our love and future in various sentimental and increasingly tipsy ways . . . but she didn't faint, either from the champagne or before her looming future with me.

After a long, romantic meal, we left for midnight mass at the Santa Maria Maggiori. Next day, we visited a nearby Irish bar, The Fiddler's Elbow, for more celebrating and for Sun-Ae to get in touch with her Celtic roots.

One week later, we stood in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican and waved to the pope as he waved and greeted the world in dozens of languages, including Korean.

Twelve more years have passed, and so has the pope. I haven't thought of him much in this time either, I must confess. For now, however, I think of him and remember that obscure cake from a different, distant time and place.

And wave farewell . . .

Friday, April 08, 2005

High Stakes in Peninsular Gambling

Go to Gar's pokerman analysis of the high-stakes gambling going on between South Korea and the United States over military issues. Here's a sampler:

"The US spends billions of dollars annually on S. Korean defense and Congress is now starting to ask why? Lt Gen Campbell is merely stating the USFK (still) has a plan to defend Korea, but it costs $60M more than the Koreans are willing to pay this year. The money has to come from somewhere. When he says support and construction costs will be cut first, you have to wonder about the U.S. long-term commitment, and why is Korea balking at paying for her own security? The U.S. is not going to operate/fight with one hand tied behind it's back. Perhaps it would be cheaper if Korea went it alone?

The Korean government called the U.S.'s raise and promptly re-raised by declaring there would be no more negotiations on cost sharing, while almost simultaneously announcing they would seek China/ROK military ties on par with ROK/Japan ties. Whew boy. This is getting better than the celebrity poker games on cable TV; most of them don't really know what they're doing either."

It's interesting to see game theory applied in this way, though Gar appears to have more appreciation of the nonrational factors motivating players than do game theorists who calculate based on the assumption of purely rational actors. Nationalist emotions drive people to do things not clearly in their own rational interest (such as cutting off one of your own fingers).

The political maneuvering is fascinating to watch, but unnerving, too, for Americans like me who live and work in Korea -- especially for those of us who are married to Koreans, and particularly for those of us who have children. The haunting spector of anti-Americanism is ever present . . .

As for the game itself, Korea may seem to have a weak hand, but this is on the assumption that it is bluffing and hoping that the United States will make concessions. If President Roh's remarks about Korea's role as a balancer/stabilizer are merely tactical, then Korea is bluffing. But if -- as has been strongly implied -- the shift is strategic, then Korea is not bluffing.

This means that although Americans might think that Korea is holding a two, it's actually holding an ace that it is willing to play: an alliance with China.

I think that this would be a long-term mistake for Korea to make, but Koreans might not see it that way.

Let me make myself clear. I'm a friend of Korea (for whatever my friendship might be worth), and I'm not against China. I'm also critical of Japan for not being more honest with itself about its history and for maintaining official claims to Dokdo. But I'm not anti-Japanese.

In my view, Korea, Japan, the United States, and Russia ought to maintain good relations with China. Good relations, however, do not have to translate into an alliance with China. Korea might gain some short-term advantage over Japan by an alliance with China, but in the long run, Korea would benefit more by continuing an alliance with the United States. Ideally, even an alliance between Korea and Japan would be in the interests of both, but that looks increasingly remote.

I've said this before, but it's a truism of political science that bears repeating: A small country in the shadow of a nearby great power had better seek a more distant ally with even greater power. Why? Because the distant ally won't have any territorial ambitions, but the neighboring power might. Better safe than sorry.

So, think carefully, Korea.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Korea's Balancing Act?

I really need to get my wife's linguistic help on this "balancer" vs. "stabilizer" issue. As noted earlier in this blog, the same statement by Roh has gotten two rather different translations:

"In the future, the balance of power in Northeast Asia will be changed by the strategic choice that Korea makes" ("Not everything needs to be said," JoongAng Daily, March 29).

"Depending on what kind of choices we make in the future, the power relations of East Asia will change," ("Prime minister seeks strategic independence," JoongAng Daily, March 31).

The former version implies that Korea will engage in Realpolitik, choosing its shifting alliances based upon national interest and political calculations of power. This is consistent with language about Korea as a "balancer," which is the term used elsewhere in the March 29 article. The latter version is far vaguer, allowing for an idealistic foreign policy, and is consistent with language about Korea as a "stabilizer," a term that occurs elsewhere in the March 31 article.

Now, an editorial has appeared in which the "balancer" language is again used, but the explanation seems more consistent with viewing Korea as a "stabilizer." According to Kim Seok-hwan ("How Korea can be a 'balancer,'" JoongAng Daily, April 6), perhaps "Korea can do much as a sort of 'balancer of peace' in Northeast Asia." Surely, "stabilizer of peace" is intended here. Yet, the English version of President Roh's military-academy speech, in which he introduced his conception of Korea's proper role, uses the expression "balancing":

"[Korea] should play a balancing role not only on the Korean Peninsula but also for the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia."

Again, wouldn't "stabilizing" fit better here? Let me do what I should have done in the first place, i.e., go to the source:

이제 우리는 한반도뿐만 아니라 동북아시아의 평화와 번영을 위한 균형자 역할을 해나갈 것입니다.

The significant part is "균형," which according to Dong-A's Prime Korean-English Dictionary means "balance; (an) equilibrium; poise; equipoise." The meaning "stability" is not given. Moreover, the expression "힘의 균형" occurs prominently, and it means "balance of power," which probably explains why various commentators translated Roh's speech as though he were presenting a strategy of Realpolitik.

My wife says that Roh's construction "균형자" is a neologism that would not immediately be clear to people. It could be interpreted to mean "balancer," but she suggests that he probably intended to convey something like "안정시키는자," which would mean "stabilizer" but which would be a very awkward expression in Korean.

Keeping this in mind, let's look again at Kim Seok-hwan's editorial, which goes on to inform us that:

"A high-ranking government official, someone who deals with foreign affairs and national security, offered me his own explanation last Friday. 'The concept of a "balancer" [i.e., "stabilizer"] came about in our search for a diplomatic national security order, to be pursued with the goal of opening an era of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia,' this official said. 'This concept recognizes the situation that has been created in and around the Korean Peninsula as a result of friction and confrontation among world powers,' the official continued. 'To speak in more detail, it especially takes the conflict between China and Japan into consideration. It is a strategic idea more than a theoretical one.'"

This high aim of "peace and prosperity" surely fits the role of a stabilizer, and I'm all for stability. So is Kim Seok-hwan, and he has high hopes:

"If South Korea manages to advance the cause of Northeast Asian cooperation by neutralizing the rivalry between China and Japan, and if, as a model, it leads China and North Korea toward a market economy and toward the safeguarding of human rights, then South Korea would indeed be serving as a 'balancer [i.e., stabilizer] of peace' in Northeast Asia."

This is a grand vision of what South Korea can do. Would that it were so. However, given Korea's general animosity toward Japan, its powerful reactions to the Dokdo issue, and its seeming tilt toward China these days, one wonders if it can do anything at all toward "neutralizing the rivalry between China and Japan." More likely, in my opinion, is that China would use the Dokdo controversy to draw Korea further from Japan, away from the United States, and closer to China.