Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pyongyang street scene

Gotta admire that Dear Leader! He's out there every day, checking on the welfare of North Korea's people, most of whom for some reason are not as chubby as he is. Here he's checking the cracks in the pavement of the magnificent boulevard in this new block of empty storefronts and probably empty skyscrapers. Whatever caused the pavement to break up, it doesn't seem to have been the heavy commuter traffic. When I zero in on the photo, I can see exactly two people other than Dear Leader and his note-takers, and one of those (just over the shoulder of the note-taker on the left) may well be part of the entourage.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The very valuable Oxford comma

I have been a lifetime devotee of the "Oxford comma," which demands a comma before the conjunction in a series. Sadly, this valuable punctuation mark has largely disappeared from American usage, leaving readers regularly baffled as to what a sentence actually means. I notice it almost every day in the Wall Street Journal, which is otherwise nearly flawless in its use of the language.

Meanwhile, a Maine dairy company may have to spend $10 million because a comma might have been inserted in the following rule for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
If the final phrase means "packing for shipping OR distribution," then the truckers who delivered the products weren't eligible for overtime pay, because they didn't do any packing. This is what the Oakhurst lawyer meant to say. The truckers sued, saying that "packing for shipping" was a different concept than "distribution," so that distributors (the truckers) also qualified for overtime pay.

The appeals court agreed that the sentence was unclear, so decided in favor of the truckers.

Funnily enough, if the lawyer HAD inserted a comma, the truckers would have qualified for overtime pay without any argument. The solution here was to rewrite the sentence, which anyone would have done who regularly obeyed the Oxford comma. To exclude them, it should have said: "... marketing, storing, OR packing for shipping or distribution ..."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Two cheers for Middlebury College

The students at Middlebury, a pretty school in Vermont, disgraced themselves and their college the other day by running a speaker off the stage, then manhandling him and his faculty escort when they were escaping the campus. Unusually for an American educational institution today, the college president actually rebuked them -- one cheer for her! But what really redeems Middlebury in my eyes is the following statement, at first signed by 53 members of the faculty, though I believe the signatures now total more than eighty. Two cheers for the faculty!
On March 2, 2017, roughly 100 of our 2500 students prevented a controversial visiting speaker, Dr. Charles Murray, from communicating with his audience on the campus of Middlebury College.  Afterwards, a group of unidentified assailants mobbed the speaker, and one of our faculty members was seriously injured.  In view of these unacceptable acts, we have produced this document stating core principles that seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.
These principles are as follows:
Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.
Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.
The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.
The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.
Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.
Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.
A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.
No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain.
No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion.
The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices.
The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda.
The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.
A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.
All our students possess the strength, in head and in heart, to consider and evaluate challenging opinions from every quarter.
We are steadfast in our purpose to provide all current and future students an education on this model, and we encourage our colleagues at colleges across the country to do the same.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Still a soldier, no longer young

Hal Moore is dead, a couple days short of his 95th birthday. He is remembered as the hero who saved most of his men in the first major battle between US and NVA troops, at Ia Drang in 1965, but to me he is the guy partly responsible for the greatest book title ever penned: We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young. (Mel Gibson portrayed him in the movie, which did the unforgivable: left out the best part of the title!)

That's a Combat Infantryman's Badge on his left shoulder. Usually it annoys me to see generals wearing it, but in his case it seems perfectly appropriate. Shantih, shantih, shantih, General Moore!

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Three Flying Tigers come home (or were here all along!)

Seventy-five years after they died, three Flying Tiger pilots have come home -- or more accurately, they've been home since 1947, only nobody seemed to know about it. At left is John Armstrong, killed September 8, 1941. The others are Maax Hammer, killed September 22, and Peter Atkinson, killed October 25, 1941. Each was on a training flight in a Curtiss Tomahawk, similar to the US Army P-40B. They were buried at St. Luke's anglican church in Toungoo. Unknown to their families, the remains were exhumed after the war, taken to India, then reburied at the Punchbowl Cemetery on Oahu, Hawaii. And there they have rested ever since, while the next generation of relatives tried to find out what happened to them. Only last summer were the graves were dug up and the remains removed to the US military lab in Hawaii for DNA testing. Finally, a week or so ago, the word came back: Armstrong, Hammer, and Atkinson have all been positively identified. For more, go to the Annals of the Flying Tigers online. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A welder, a fighter pilot, and a scholar

I met many memorable people while researching the history of the American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers of Burma and China. My favorite, though, was Don Lopez, assistant director of the National Air & Space Museum and my mentor during the year I spent in Washington, translating Japanese accounts of the air war in Southeast Asia, 1941-1942. Don was the son of a welder in Brooklyn, He became hooked on flying, joined the U.S. Army at the age of eighteen, and was sent to China soon after the AVG was disbanded. He flew 101 combat missions, survived a mid-air collision with a Nakajima Hayabusa fighter of the Japanese Army Air Force, and was credited with destroying five enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat. Postwar, he served as a USAF test pilot and later went to work as an aeronautical specialist for the Smithsonian Institution. He helped create the Air & Space Museum, and served as its assistant director until he died at the age of 84.

Don had a son who continues his name, and I was delighted to see in the Wall Street Journal today that Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the author of The Lotus Sutra: A Biography, just out from Princeton University Press. Only in America! The Lopez family has gone in three generations from blue-collar worker to fighter ace to scholar. And if my mentor was any example, they have all been men to enjoy, to appreciate, and to learn from.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

How presidents are elected

My granddaughters are visiting from Alaska, so on Monday I went with them to the state capitol to watch the Electoral College in action. A band of ageing hippies with saucepans greeted up at the capitol steps with the chant: "We reject! The President-elect!" Inside, and up two flights, was the Executive Council chamber with its handsome brown leather chairs and portraits of New Hampshire notables dating back to 1686. (They were all men, a situation that would be corrected in a few hours' time. Misogyny had no chance on December 19, when all four Electors and the governor were women.) The room is a big one, but it was crowded with spectators, including schoolchildren sitting on the floor and the customary grubby assortment of journalists.

It was all very moving. The secretary of state, a bald gentleman of seventy or so, told us how the new states (only ten of which actually voted!) had to devise its own system to choose Electors, since the Constitution hadn't specified. Then the four ladies and the governor made pretty speeches, all but one choosing to talk about herself and the wonders of woman-power. The exception was my favorite politician, Dudley Webster Dudley. She took the opportunity to do a bit of business, urging New Hampshire to join the National Popular Vote compact, which would have us assign (shamefully, IMHO) our four votes to the candidate receiving the most votes nationwide. (I wonder how that would have gone down with the ageing hippies with their saucepans and their chant, had the national vote gone the other way, had the compact been in force, and had our Electors voted for Mr Trump though we had chosen Mrs Clinton?)

Then each of the ladies voted, with a pen, on a piece of paper, with a golden seal, and the package stuck together with red sealing wax! It was wonderful. I wonder if our four votes have reached Washington yet, or have they been delayed by the Christmas mail?

After an intermission, Dudley's portrait was unveiled by her granddaughter. It isn't a terribly good likeness of the lovely Executive Councilor of 1976, though she did fare a bit better than Winston Churchill in like circumstances. (He apparently arranged to have his portrait burned.) There was no explanation of how space will be made to hang the painting, since there is already a portrait for each vertical space on the walls. I was told that the oldest painting would come down, to make room for the newest, but this absolutely must not be done, any more than a people should vote to deprive themselves of their vote. The gentleman in question is Joseph Dudley, her great-great-something or other, the president (later governor) of Massachusetts Bay Colony, which at the time included New Hampshire. A better solution, I think, would be to have the two Dudleys share the same vertical space, with the woman of course on top.