Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bomb Blasts in Yala, Thailand

Three bombs went off in the provincial capitol of Yala, killing eleven people. This has been reported in the American media. I found the reference on The Daily Beast web site; it was a re-print from an article in the New York Daily News. Muslim, or Islamist insurgents were blamed. That characterization is simultaneously true and not true, or insufficiently true.

Yala is one of the three provinces at the very southern tip of Thailand. The territory where Thailand and Malaysia come together has changed hands many times over the centuries, and these three provinces were part of Malaysia until about a hundred years ago. To this day most of the people in these provinces are ethnic Malays, Muslims whose first language is still Malay.

In my opinion, the divide is only coincidentally religious. These Thai/Malays feel that they suffer from second-class treatment in Thailand, lowered economic and educational opportunities, and it might be true. But there are Muslims in all parts of Thailand, Thai-Muslims, and they do not suffer similar treatment. In fact, they appear to be very successfully integrated into the predominantly Buddhist Thai culture. The difference in the south is the Malay thing.

So I think that the insurgency in Yala, Pattani and Naratiwat is more of a Malay insurgency. I think that it's a mistake to put it into religious terms. The insurgents do not seem to have any anti-Western or anti-Christian agenda, and any anti-Buddhist aspect is, I think, symptomatic of a hostility to the Thai government. I have traveled to the southern region to teach classes, and I asked my friends on the faculty if I should be worried for my safety. Not as a Farang (White foreigner), I was told, nor as a Christian, by extension (and perception), but maybe as a public official, a status conferred by my teaching at a public university.

There are enough Islamist rebels in the world, let's not go looking for more where they may not exist.

Friday, March 30, 2012

side-car téléthon carole 2006

Trans-channeling just now I came across motorcycle sidecar racing. A little bit surprising, because I had been thinking somehow that it might be extinct. This is some exciting stuff, the bikes are purpose-built and strange, the physics is all wrong, these things are dangerous. I'm happy to see that there are still guys brave enough to race them.

We used to call them "kneelers." Both the rider (driver) and the passenger have to kneel on the low, low frame. The passenger's job is to provide ballast, to make sure that the thing doesn't flip over in turns. In this video you can see the frame without the fairing; you can see just how weird the frame geometry really is.

Look for some race footage. Keeping these things flat on the track is a chore, it's fun to watch.

More About That Mess In Florida

The web responses to the shooting of Trayvon down in Florida display a huge outpouring of negativity from all conceivable points of view. It’s as if, lo and behold! we’re not so post-racial after all.


Reconstructing events like this is hard enough even after a timely and thorough investigation. In this case, of course, the little investigation that has occurred has been neither timely nor thorough.

The event was an interaction between two people in the dark, with no well placed witnesses. Only one person survived to tell the story. That makes after-the-fact understanding very difficult. The available witness testimony calls to mind the story of a group of blind men describing an elephant. (The blind man who touched the tail said that the elephant was a long, thin animal, like a snake.)

Witness testimony at the best of times is totally subjective, and must always be taken with a grain of salt. The motives of witnesses must always be questioned. People will claim to have seen or heard the damndest, unlikeliest things. Perception and memory can be quite unreliable.

Useful physical evidence has been lost, because the police, bafflingly, chose not to preserve it. It’s safe to say that this whole thing was poorly handled by the local police. The police interviews were amateurish and credulous at best; at worst they were exculpatory and biased.

There is, however, some evidence to sift through. Discounting the manufactured bullshit, it seems to me that in a state where reality had more of a foothold this shooter would be toast.


Web articles about this shooting, and their associated comments, have been all over the place. Things have been said about the kid that are frankly inflammatory and probably libelous. (He was dealing drugs; he attacked his shooter.) Many otherwise reasonable seeming people place complete faith in the shooter’s version of reality, and in every paid, contrived, spin-meistering utterance of his lawyer. The shooter was complying with police requests to break away and had discontinued the surveillance; he was returning to his car; the kid started following him; the kid attacked him; the kid broke his nose with a first punch; the kid knocked him down and jumped on him; the kid was banging his head on the sidewalk; the shooter feared for his life. Suddenly, Americans are disposed to believe what a lawyer says. (As opposed to ordinary reality, as summarized in the joke: how do you tell if a lawyer is lying? His lips move.)

But that’s not the worst of it. A big slice of the comments assume that the kid was up to no good in the first place, or worse, based upon the simple facts that he was Black, a teenager, and out after dark. He wore a hoodie! Somehow, he deserved his fate. Blacks are naturally violent; look at the statistics! Blacks are always the aggressors; Black men are rapists and muggers; the shooter was just trying to protect his neighborhood from . . . wait for it! . . . those people.

And, even worse, a considerable slice of the comments come from Black Americans who are ready to announce that they knew it all along, White people are all racists, there is no hope, they all hate us, they’re killing our kids and no one cares, we can’t live together, we knew it all along. Veneer broken, in extremis veritas, I could cry bitter tears (but I get it, and I’d probably feel the same if the race moccasin was on the other foot).

So this shooting not only got a kid killed, from all indications a nice kid, but it has also set us all back a bit on our shared task of getting along.

It’s got me doing the old so-woe-is-a-me-bop, and yes, my sympathies are with the poor dead kid.

Ode To A Simpler Time

I love my university students, and I must say that they are more disposed to actually study than my prior grammar and high school students, but sometimes I do miss the old days in my little northern town.

This was a class of seniors in whom I tried to instill an interest in the English language. Not to talk to me, I'd tell them, but to talk to other Asians whatever field of work you end up in. English is money! You can make more money! Which is indisputably true whatever field they would find themselves in. Very little interest there though. "Too hard."

Most of these kids couldn't answer simple questions after having "studied" English for eight or ten years. "What is your favorite fruit?" Answer: "Football!" (Actually, "footbon.") They were very nice kids though, and sometimes I miss them.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

This Florida Thing

It was a long time ago, but I was a teenager once upon a fairy-tale time. I was not one of those who stayed at home and studied, no, I spent my time "out," "doing nothing." (As in, "where are you going?" "Out." "What are you doing?" "Nothing.") My unsupervised friends and I had any number of semi-social interactions with the New York police. They brooked no nonsense, and they were not loathe to inflict the occasional extrajudicial physical punishment, even on teenagers as famously White as we were. So I learned a few things about dealing with police.

I have two sons myself, and when they came of, let's say, high school age, I shared these lessons with them. God bless them, they took these lessons to heart, and each of them, as adults, has shared with me a certain gratitude for the advice (with examples of their efficacy).

I told them that the police officer was like the umpire in baseball, always right, if he says it was a strike, it was a strike. Arguing gets you nothing, unless it's called out two innings later on a ball that was in the dirt. The police officer has a license to fuck with you, he speaks "ex cathedra," like the Pope. The best course is to be unfailingly polite, look them in the eye gently, keep your hands in plain sight and don't make any sudden moves, smile, and call them "officer." "Yes, officer," and "no, officer." Make it clear that you are going to comply with their requests, with no reservations at all. If you have made a mess, offer to clean it up before you go, to be much more quiet, and never to do it again. Police respond to this kind of treatment, most of them are not particularly looking for trouble.

This guy in Florida wasn't a policeman, but he was the guy with the gun, and he had adopted for himself the police role, maybe he was even looking for trouble. It's a different thing altogether, I know. Police have some training, and some confidence in their roles, and a job that is worth keeping, and at least a modicum of brains, while this Florida guy seems to have none of these things.

CNN is talking about Black parents instructing their teenage sons on how to act when they are out in public in these situations, desperately trying to save their childrens' lives. So my question is: how different must the instructions be for them and their children? My instructions were sufficient for my White sons, would they work so well with Black teenagers?

No, I don't think so. The racial information is controlling.

This dichotomy is obviously a problem, and one that is resistant to solution. "Post racial," my ass, this is still something that we need to work on.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I’m Not With These Guys

In February, 2012, the archbishop of the Diocese of New York was promoted to Cardinal, and the church’s public relations people lobbied the Empire State Building to honor the occasion by displaying “Cardinal Red” lights over the top of the great edifice. Their suggestions were not well received, which led the usual suspects to once again claim anti-Catholic bias.

Bill Donohue added a few media appearances to his already extensive resume. He is the Imperial Grand Wizard or something of the Catholic Anti Defamation League or something. Let me repeat for the record: neither Mr. Donohue nor the church speak for me.

I was raised in the Catholic Church. No, maybe that’s not a fair statement, nobody in my family ever took an active roll in my religious training. My family were all nominal Catholics, but they were a hands-off bunch. Rather, my education was entrusted to the Catholic Church, kindergarten through high school, that much is true. Along the line I received five of the seven sacraments (I’ve been lucky enough to avoid Extreme Unction so far, and Holy Orders is out of the question). So it’s safe to say that at one point, and perhaps to this day, my name contributes to the total whenever someone mentions the however-many-million American Catholics.

Religion never took root in my soul, and in the fullness of time I put the entire experience of religion behind me. I was always annoyed, though, to come across references in the news of this great number of American Catholics. What bullshit, I thought, how many of them are Catholics in number only, like I am? At one point I actually went to the rectory to speak to a priest about it. What must I do, I asked him, to get excommunicated? How to I quit this outfit? Can you get the ball rolling? Do you need doctrinal grounds? I can give you, I told him, a list of church doctrines that I think are foolish and that I do not in any way believe in. I wanted out of the number.

The priest didn’t quite know what to make of it all, and he opined that I was out already as near as he could tell and that there was nothing further that could be done about it. I took this non-answer for what it was worth, which wasn’t much, but at least I’d gotten it off my chest.

I still feel a twinge whenever Mr. Donohue spouts his nonsense on TV. His introduction always includes that mention of the number of Catholics, and they may still be counting me in their number. But I’m not with these guys.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Wedding

So we had our wedding, and it was good. My collection of daughters-in-law is complete, and it's a fine collection, I must say! I couldn't be happier with the pair of them. I mean the daughters-in-law, but I'm happy with the pair of sons too. A pair of couples!

To whomever the thanks should be directed for such things: THANK YOU!!!

FAIR WAGES: If Wishes Were Horses

We hear a lot about "income inequality" these days. Framed that way, it sounds suspiciously like mere bitching about the vast amount of money going to the so-called Job Creators. Although that is certainly true, I'd rather focus on the fact that real wages for most Americans have been driven down over the last thirty or forty years, mostly as a favor to those job creators.

Last Sunday I watched some of Fahreed Zakaria's CNN show, and he posed a trick question for the audience: what is the price of a gallon of gas in Norway? The answer is just short of ten dollars, and the instant message was that we are wrong to complain about the price of gas in America. For me, though, the real question was: how can they pay that? The answer is FAIR WAGES (with an assist from a good, comprehensive, heavily subsidized public transportation system).

I recently spoke with a Norwegian vacationer in Krabi, a divorced guy traveling alone. Nice fellow, his English was pretty good. During the cold season (i.e., almost all year) he worked at some kind of wildlife related job out in the wilderness; the remainder of the year he had an infrastructure maintenance job in the city. His annual salary came to about 90,000 a year, honestly I forget if this figure was in dollars or euros. He said that was about typical for a working man in Norway.

He also said that he paid almost fifty percent in taxes, but he wasn't complaining at all. No, he was perfectly satisfied with that combination of 1) Fair Wages; and 2) high taxes.

No surprise, really. He obviously had the money to enjoy nice vacations (not to mention more than a month of vacation time in which to enjoy them). Those are high service, high benefit societies. Medical care, retirement benefits, income interruption protection, handicapped assistance, all that and more are taken care of. Not like our own miserable country, where they are all huge sources of stress and insecurity.

Oh, sure, you say, that's okay for Norway. For one thing, they have all of that North Sea oil, and for another they have a small homogeneous population. But really, what country has more natural resources than the United States? Are there any that can say they do?

And why should a lack of homogeneity be a problem for us? Whatever the Kool-Aid drinkers might allege, aren't we all Americans here? The great variety of us is a fact on the ground, it exists already, and usually it seems that we all get along okay together. Most of us, anyway.

Make no mistake, our lack of fair wages and adequate protections derives from unstated policy decisions that are not in the best interest of the great majority of Americans. The benefits accrue to blah, blah, blah, because, etc. You fill in the blanks.

So, what about those Fair Wages? Any hope of progress on that front? How about greater security for working people? Any hope? One can wish for these things, but as my mother-in-law used to say: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Humans Behaving Oddly

I'll be back on the planes in a couple of days, going back to Bangkok. Flying is always interesting, and commercial flying is a wonderful laboratory of human behavior. Maybe it's the underlying stress of trusting the unequal pressure on the wings to carry the plane at six or seven miles above the earth, at five-hundred miles per hour. Whatever it is, it brings out something in people.

What I see very often is that there is a lot of perceived winning going on, many activities are reduced to little contests between fliers. For example:

We all got off the plane in Taipei and set off for the gate where we would catch the flight to L.A. It was like a land rush, a high stakes race, winner take all. I stand still on the inevitable long moving sidewalks unless there is any time pressure, in this case there was none. Everyone was rushing past me, and if they were blocked by a small group they bulled their way past. Some eschewed the devices entirely, preferring to run next to them. There was no reason for this, it would be two hours until the next plane took off. Somehow it was important to some of my fellow passengers to get there first, or among the first.

And watching several hundred people rush to be boarded first, before their rows are called, cutting into lines, as though it were a game of musical chairs, is always discouraging for me. The plane would take off, with everyone, at the same time, all bags would be stowed, and no one would be left in Taiwan, these are certainties.

What could make people so desperate to validate themselves like this? Life shouldn't be an incredibly complex series of constant, small contests.

We should just relax, and let judgment come when it will, if at all.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

More 'Zill Pix

The young lovers (not a great picture of Momoko, but Akira looks great); one of the really happening radios; the moody genius, Serizawa.

Movie Review: Gojira

Netflix has a great, full-length version of the original movie for streaming. It was the first time that I've seen a clear one.

Forget the Raymond Burr version, the original is a great movie, a very serious movie. It is also one of the few giant monster movies that is actually frightening. It has great human characters and a dramatic love-interest sub-plot. And it has the G-man, presented here as a mindlessly violent allegory of nuclear destruction.

The music over the opening credits is wonderful, consisting mostly of Godzilla effects generated entirely by the orchestra. The footfalls are drums that almost sound like drums, and the trademark Godzilla roar was done on a double bass (with a bow and some Bo Diddley style string scratching). Everything is thoughtfully done, and the whole movie hangs together beautifully.

Part of the interest here is that Japan in the movie was still very much the rubble strewn Japan of the post-war years. Prosperity was still far off, and hunger and bombing were still recent memories. So Tokyo looks like a shabby section of Jackson Heights, not like a modern city at all.

There are a lot of war references. One of the characters is a scientist who's war experience left him scarred and wearing an eye patch. It also left him so alienated and bitter that he is losing out to an emotionally healthy upstart in the movie's love plot. While Godzilla is stomping around the city, a woman and her two young children shelter in the lee of a big stoop. She says to the kids, "don't worry, we'll be joining your father in just a moment." Dead in the war is the message.

Lots of people are killed in detail. Killed in the scene by Godzilla's atomic breath, or by buildings crashing down on them. There's even a subjective camera scene of what a newsman sees as he is falling to the earth from a high place. Not unique for the genre, but unusual. Also some exasperated, non-Japanese behavior, like a woman who freaks out at a bureaucratic science meeting and starts screaming at the officials. That must have been a shocking scene to the original audience, and even the people in the scene seem to be shying away from her display.

The handsome love interest (Akira Takarada, at the beginning of a long and distinguished career) opines that Godzilla's presence is due to "the atomic bomb that still haunts us." After the big attack, there are lots of radiation checks on children at the hospital.

Oh, there are lots of beautiful vehicles and devices too. Police cars, emergency vehicles, old Isuzu fire trucks, American issue tanks, transport trucks and fighter jets, and a great Kawasaki that looks like a two-stroke version of a 1950 English motorcycle. Closeups of great radios too. If you like that kind of thing.

Very satisfying ending too. Godzilla is manifestly dead, having succumbed to the eye-patched scientist's device. The scientist himself has succumbed, heroically , partly to clear the decks for his girlfriend to move on with her new beau. Love is never easy in Asian movies.

So sure I recommend it. What's not to love?

You Can Relax Now, Professor Derrick Bell Is Not Dangerous To Most People

The website Weasel Zippers is always good for laughs. It's a "drink the Kool Aid and we'll all be together with God" kind of place. Funny, very, is the fact that many of the articles make perfect progressive sense unless one is already drunk on the Kool Aid.

For instance, there is the new tea-pot-tempest over President Obama supporting one of his professors while at Harvard Law. Prof. Derrick Bell is presented as a dangerous radical, but all of the presented evidence is pretty mild and unconvincing.

For instance, here are the Professors quotes that the site used to support the finding:

“Despite undeniable progress for many, no African Americans are insulated from incidents of racial discrimination. Our careers, even our lives, are threatened because of our color.”

“[T]he racism that made slavery feasible is far from dead . . . and the civil rights gains, so hard won, are being steadily eroded.”

“. . .few whites are ready to actively promote civil rights for blacks.”

“[D]iscrimination in the workplace is as vicious (if less obvious) than it was when employers posted signs ‘no negras need apply.’”

“We rise and fall less as a result of our efforts than in response to the needs of a white society that condemns all blacks to quasi citizenship as surely as it segregated our parents.”

“Slavery is, as an example of what white America has done, a constant reminder of what white America might do.”

“Black people will never gain full equality in this country. . . . African Americans must confront and conquer the otherwise deadening reality of our permanent subordinate status.”

“Tolerated in good times, despised when things go wrong, as a people we [blacks] are scapegoated and sacrificed as distraction or catalyst for compromise to facilitate resolution of political differences or relieve economic adversity.”

What's not to agree with here? I find all of these quotes to be utterly reasonable, and certainly they are all acceptable for a Law School professor who wishes to contribute to a reasonable dialog on race in America. It's not a Black thing either, I'd have done the same (from the back rows and in private conversations, but still).

The professor's proposed dialog is threatening to "post-racial" White Conservative America, maybe even to American culture in general. We all cherish our illusions, and many of us cherish the illusion of racial progress. Never good though to sweep these things under the rug. Real progress comes in the light of day.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The 15 Best Lunches In Queens « CBS New York

The 15 Best Lunches In Queens « CBS New York

I'm a Queens lad myself, and proud of it. This article proves that Queens is diversity central, and that diversity is one of the great features of our "American" culture.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Texas man killed over karaoke song choice | The Raw Story

Texas man killed over karaoke song choice | The Raw Story

So the Karaoke violence has spread to America.

I call these the "Country Roads Murders" in Asia. Whenever I am forced by polite circumstances to sing "Country Roads," I try to sing it as nicely as possible and only once. No sense in taking any chances! Kevlar clothes are too hot for Thailand.

"My Way" is also unaccountably popular in Thailand. I can't imagine why myself, it's a tough song to sing and not much fun for anybody. The unfortunate singer in the instant case struck an additional nerve with his song choice, the whole immigration thing, the question of who is an American. I'll probably never find out the ethnic information for the shooter, but I can imagine rationales for him being a whole variety of ethicities. Lots of anger to go around, and it is.