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A Dotcom Commencement

Posted on Aug 1, 2000


That was the suggestion made to graduating seniors this June by Kevin Klose, the president and chief executive officer of National Public Radio (NPR).”You stand at a threshold, the very opening moments of a convergence of technology and society that is revolutionary in its potential,” he told the 600-plus students and thousands of guests.

With that promise, however, comes a question: “If society and technology obtain the knowledge to fully comprehend and play with human life at the level of genetic creation, what role can a single individual — far from the laboratory, far from the supercomputer — have in making decisions that will affect us all?”

For guidance, he suggested we look to the past, specifically, to Thomas Jefferson and his extraordinary collection of books that formed the basis of the Library of Congress. Jefferson believed that the promise of knowledge would embody the promise of democracy; if we could find the knowledge and devote ourselves to it, we could alter our lives and alter the lives of society.

“What I draw from this is the majesty of the individual search for knowledge, of information gained and then transformed through learning and through civil debate so that society may act in a civilized and enlightened way,” Klose said. “Embodied in you is the same thirst for knowledge. Keep learning, keep listening, keep thinking — and move this democracy to a place of civil dialogue and of common good for all who live here and who will live here.”

Klose received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. A graduate of Harvard University, he was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for twenty-five years, including stints as Moscow bureau chief and deputy national editor. He then moved to radio, serving as president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc., and president of U.S. International Broadcasting, overseeing the U.S. government's radio and television news service. He has been president and chief executive officer of NPR for a little more than a year.

Klose's theme was echoed by the student speaker, Michelle Tham, a biology/visual arts major who is participating in the College's accelerated program with Albany Medical College.

Despite living in a time when the economy is flourishing, she said, there still are blatant separations between the “haves” and have nots.”

“We have been given an awesome responsibility — to enter the world and, without fear, to do the best we can to enhance the character and vibrance of the life that breathes around us,” she said.

The College awarded two Ph.D.s, 100 master's degrees, and a total of 543 undergraduate degrees — 294 bachelors of arts, 190 bachelors of science, 19 bachelors of civil engineering, 8 bachelors of science in computer systems engineering, 17 bachelors of science in electrical engineering, and 19 bachelors of science in mechanical engineering. One person received two degrees (a B.S. and a B.S.E.E.), and two received their commissions in the Armed Forces. Twenty-one students graduated summa cum laude (a grade point average of 3.80 or better), forty-one graduated magna cum laude (3.6 or better), and ninety-six graduated cum laude (3.35 or better).

The valedictorian was Jonathan Chung, of Glenview, Ill. An interdepartmental major in economics and biology, he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Asian Student Union, and the Idol, the College's literary magazine. The salutatorian was Henry Michtalik, of Middletown, N.Y., who is enrolled in the College's accelerated joint-degree program with Albany Medical College (he also plans to earn a law degree).

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Teaching the Right and Wrong of Governing

Posted on Aug 1, 2000

For nearly three decades, Professor Byron Nichols has been challenging students in his “Moral Dilemmas of Governing” class to arrive at — and defend — their conclusions about the moral choices that ought to be made in politics.

The course is something of a natural for Nichols. His father was a Presbyterian clergyman, quick to speak out on public issues. His feeling that moral and ethical issues are of fundamental importance in governing was reinforced at Occidental and strengthened further when he became a Danforth Fellow; a primary concern of the Danforth Foundation was values in higher education. Today, Nichols says that one of the responsibilities of faculty members is to lead students to see the importance of the values that lie behind their actions and to think about their own values.

The course appeared in the winter term of 1970 — a time of questioning and demonstrations on campuses across America — and it proved so popular that it moved to the Political Science Department when the general education program disappeared.

Two steps forward, one step back

The class is “Moral Dilemmas in Governing,” the teacher is Byron Nichols, and the classroom style is definitely not a lecture.

In fact, the style could be described as inquisitorial.

One class this spring began with Nichols posing the following question to his fourteen students: “What are the properties of 'justice'?”

A brief hesitation, then a student offered, “Some sense of welfare.”

Nichols: “What does welfare mean?”

Student: “Some sort of social common denominator.”

Nichols wrote “welfare” on the blackboard and asked for other properties of justice. A student said “virtue,” and Nichols responded immediately: “Okay, but what do you mean by virtue?”

And so it went. For the next hour and a half, Nichols asked questions, accepted answers, posed more questions, and occasionally listened happily as students took issue with each other.

By the time the course is done, Nichols expects that each student will arrive at — and defend — his or her own conclusions about the moral choices that ought to be made in politics in the United States.

“The success of the course depends largely on the willingness of students to engage each other in serious discussion during class and to use the writing assignments to explore honestly their own beliefs and commitments,” he says. “Students often revise their thinking as they work through problems in discussions and essays.”

The course is not for the fainthearted. Another class this spring began with Nichols asking, “When are we entitled not to obey the law?” The ensuing discussion touched on emergency medical situations, the civil rights movement, slavery, the acceptability of violence, the Holocaust, Kosovo, civil disobedience, abortion, euthanasia, and other topics. Occasionally, students agreed with each other; more often, one comment (e.g., “violence is always wrong”) elicited a differing position (e.g., “violence depends on the circumstances”).

One reason for the liveliness of the discussion is the fact that students bring varying beliefs to the course.

Jim DeWan '00 acknowledges that he is an idealist who believes that the foundation of governing is to help people. “I feel there are a lot of good things that can come from governing,” he says. “The way we measure a society is the way it treats the poor and underprivileged, and that's a critical role for government.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Molly Shaner '00, a self-described conservative who says she likes small government. “The interesting thing about this class is that you can really discuss issues with people who have different beliefs,” she says. “I'm not sure we change anyone's views, but the class makes us scrutinize the issues and explore our own political views.”

To an observer, the process can seem to be two steps forward, one step back. Students try out a series of ideas, discarding some while refining others. In the first essay required this spring, for example, students were asked to lay out their own theories of political ethics. Nichols emphasized the tentative nature of the assignment: “Do not feel that you are committing yourself permanently,” he told the students. “You may alter your positions in future essays and in defending your arguments in discussions you have with others.”

The constant questioning is one reason alumni of the course remember it so fondly.

David Eppler'82, a lawyer in Bethesda, Md., says the course “probably affected me more than any other course in college or law school. It wasn't an epiphany, but it was very thought provoking, very challenging, and a lot of fun.”

Eppler says that the moral and ethical issues discussed continue to come up in real life in all kinds of contexts, from parenting to job. “It's stunning to me that some of the scenarios Byron put in front of us are in evidence today, such as the morality of the president,” he says. “I continue to think about some of the things we did when I encounter difficult situations in my professional life.”

Jo Anne Feeney '85, now a faculty member in the Economics Department at the State University of New York at Albany, remembers that part of the challenge of the course was to develop the ability to be concise, since the four-page limit was strictly enforced.

“More challenging was to try to minimize the numbers of 'so what' comments that Byron would invariably apply in the margin whenever our analysis would stray from a logical path.”

Feeney says the course promoted logical, concise discourse in writing and speaking, and that “is a skill that no college graduate should be without.”

Conciseness was demanded the day students described the properties of “justice.” In addition to welfare and virtue, students offered happiness (defined as a system that lets people pursue self interest), rights and responsibilities, fairness (defined as each person treated relevant to his or her circumstances), protection, the common good, and opportunities to meet basic human needs.

Each offering brought a quick challenge, sometimes from Nichols (“What is virtue?”), sometimes from classmates (“I think fairness needs to be replaced with equity, since a lot of systems are not fair but do provide equity”). Nichols pointed out that each characteristic provided by the students is vulnerable, depending on the political system (“in socialism, it's the opportunity to pursue self interest that's vulnerable”).

Finally, as the class wound down, Nichols asked a last question: “What is the logic of talking about justice as the start of talking about political systems?”

One answer: “It's the way you see mankind and the purpose of government.”

A second: “It helps explain why you believe what you believe.”

And a third: “It organizes your own political actions.”

Concluded Nichols: “Justice organizes the way you think about all political issues.”

With that, the students left to work on their essays, and Nichols smiled. “That was a great class today.”
More on teaching the right and wrong of governing: A discussion with Professor Byron Nichols

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Decorating the Sky

Posted on Aug 1, 2000

Glenn Davison '80 is a master of miniature kites.

Glenn Davison '80 says there is something magical about his hobby, and those lucky enough to see the results of his efforts are likely to agree.

Davison's “magical” hobby is to design and build miniature kites, and, during the past five years, he has become one of the world's experts in this unusual avocation.

Miniature kites are just what the name implies — small, lightweight versions of their larger cousins. They are ten inches or less in every dimension, excluding the tail, and they must be able to fly. The same shapes are used for kites of all sizes, but the materials used for the miniature kites are selected for their high strength and low weight. The spars, for example, are constructed with slivers of bamboo, boron, balsa, mylon, or carbon fiber, and the sails are tissue paper, mylar, tyvek, or polyester. Instead of string Davison uses fine silk thread.

“People find it fascinating that something as small and as delicate as a butterfly can by built to fly gracefully,” Davison says. “You can design and build one in as little as ten minutes, and if you use a garbage bag, a toothpick, a plastic soda bottle, and typing paper, I can show you how to make one for two cents worth of materials.”

Because of the complexity of his designs, Davison has spent up to eight hours constructing a kite. Most of the kites he has made have no tails, can fit in the palm of an adult's hand, and weigh less than two grams. To fly them he uses silk or spectra fiber or a strand of polyester filament. He often uses a motorized wand to fly the kites unassisted.

“When I design a new kite, it's always challenging because there are many forces at work, and they must all work together,” he says. “The forces include roll, pitch, yaw, weight, lift, drag, material strength, and flexibility. A bigger kite will need stronger spars, a flat kite will need a longer tail. The kites I build are so small that small changes can make huge differences in the way they fly.”

Davison's creations include a black and yellow eastern tiger swallowtail, a red and blue box kite weighing one gram, a “moose malay” with green antlers, a “beauti-fly” of bamboo and tissue paper that flies like a butterfly, and a “single cell” cube kite that “tumbles and dances.”

His creations also include what he says may be, pound for pound, the most expensive kite ever sold. Using extremely thin film and tiny fibers the thickness of a human hair, he created a kite with a wing span of only three and one-quarter inches. Its estimated weight was five ten-thousandth of an ounce, and it sold at an auction for $95 — or more than $3 million per pound.

Davison works as a technical marketing manager for FirePond, Inc., in Waltham, Mass. and he has both his bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from Union. So where did the interest in kites come from?

“I've always been fascinated by flight,” he says. “I built twenty-one rockets while I was in high school and then, after college, became interested in lightweight model airplanes. Five years ago I started making miniature kites, combining the techniques of making lightweight model airplanes with kites. Many of my kite designs are based on the dynamics of airplane flight.”

To Davison, the delights of miniature kites are many:

they fit in your pocket and fly any time;

they can be beautifully made with little effort;

they can be used as prototypes for larger kites;

they easily demonstrate flight characteristics and kite styles;

they can be used to experiment with the dynamics of tail and bridle;

they surprise people by flying well;

they are inexpensive and make great gifts;

they make people smile.

As an ambassador for kites, Davison has lectured and given workshops and demonstrations to middle school students, teachers, and scouts. One of his kites was on a Martha Stewart television show (“just the kite, not me”); he has been interviewed by PBS for a documentary on wind and profiled in the Boston Globe; he has written for Kite Life magazine; and he's been a “featured flyer” at the international kite festivals in the United States and Canada.

Last fall, at the American Kite Association's annual convention, he set up a gallery with more than 800 miniature kites submitted by more than sixty individuals. “It was the biggest collection ever with a wide variety of styles, materials, colors, types of kites, designs, and sizes from many countries worldwide,” he says. “When I asked people to name their favorites, they often laughed because there were so many beautiful kites to choose from.”

Kiting has a long history

Kites date back as far as 2,000 to 3,000 years, when they were made of bamboo and silk in China. Sometime in the sixth to eighth centuries, kites came to Japan, where the basic rectangle of the Chinese kite took on new forms, such as dragons and turtles.

Kites have been used for scientific experiments (e.g., in 1752, Benjamin Franklin investigated atmospheric electricity by flying kites), transportation (e.g., in 1903, Samuel Franklin Cody crossed the English channel on a vessel towed by kites), and in war (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries kites lifted military observers to heights from which they could observe enemy forces).

Experiments with kites played a role in the development of the airplane. In 1894, Lawrence Hargrave, the Australian inventor of the box kite, linked four of his kites together, added a sling seat, and flew sixteen feet, thus showing a skeptical public that it was possible to build a flying machine.

Today, the American Kitefliers Association has about 5,000 members and the Japan Kite Association has about 1,000. During National Kite Month (April), some 200 kite festivals and workshops were held across the United States.

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Going Home Again

Posted on Aug 1, 2000

The photos show white sand beaches, children on bicycles, farmers, fishermen, and gardens, and the emotions captured include modesty, playfulness, sadness, and pain.

Family photographs, yes, but also a vivid reminder of a childhood spent in a country whose name can still evoke haunting memories.

The country is Vietnam and the photos were taken by Khang Vodinh, a twenty-six-year-old senior who spent his first nineteen years in Nha Trang, a picturesque coastal community in south central Vietnam. A grant from the College's Internal Education Fund enabled him to return to his homeland last fall and recapture his childhood in photographs that were on exhibit in the Arts Building this spring.

It was a poignant homecoming for Khang, whose grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins still live in Nha Trang. Khang doesn't remember the war, but he does remember his family's two failed escape attempts — one in 1978, after which he and his mother, uncle, and four siblings were held for four months, and another a decade later when he and his brother were intercepted by soldiers who shot and killed a number of their fellow boat passengers. This time, the two-month imprisonment included torture, beatings, and solitary confinement.

Khang, his parents, and his four siblings arrived in the United States eight years ago after a long emigration process and settled in Albany. Khang came to Union intending to become a doctor, studying biology so that he might be able to diagnose the headaches that had plagued him since his torture. The countless doctors he had visited could offer no explanation, so “I wanted to be a doctor to find out what was wrong with me,” he explains.

But those very headaches prevented Khang from excelling in biology. He eventually met with Walter Hatke, chair of visual arts, to discuss his love of taking pictures and drawing, and Hatke, who saw talent in Khang, encouraged him to study visual arts.

Khang admits that he did a “lousy job at first” as a photographer, but he thrived when given the opportunity to choose his own projects. Although his memories of Vietnam never left him, he hadn't seriously considered returning to the country until Sandy Wimer, artist in residence, suggested it. A conversation with an elderly woman in an Albany nursing home where he volunteered planted the seed for his project. “We talked about life and the idea that you can preserve the memories of happier times. It touched my heart,” he recalls. “I do this in the hope that my American friends can learn about the people and culture of Vietnam.”

The journey back to Vietnam was both exciting and frightening. While Khang welcomed the reunion with his family and friends, he feared that he might never be able to complete his photography project because he was unsure of what to expect in Vietnam. Twelve years after he had been imprisoned, he still feared people in uniforms — police officers, customs officials, airport guards. When a police officer at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City approached him, he froze in terror. The policeman pointed at his suitcases. “They look pretty heavy,” he said. “Why don't you take a cart?”

“At that moment, I felt a little alleviated from all the fear of people in uniform,” Khang says. ” 'They have changed,' I thought.”

Khang worked closely with Professor of Photography Martin Benjamin to prepare for the project, completing a similar study of his life before returning to Vietnam. At first Khang was uncomfortable taking self-portraits and photos of his family. But Benjamin and a friend of his, photographer Thomas Roma, taught Khang to make everything possible. They explained to him that he had to overcome his modesty (or fear). “Thomas Roma talked to me about his experience as a photographer. Essentially he did everything he could just to take the picture he wanted,” Khang says.

The lesson paid off, and Khang began to take self-portraits and photograph his family in America — and enjoyed it. “It's not like you're taking a picture anymore,” he says. “It's an adventure — it's trying to do something impossible. You have to make things possible and not just say 'I cannot do it' and then not do it.”

In his first two weeks in Vietnam, Khang traveled throughout Nha Trang, snapping pictures and speaking Vietnamese, explaining his project. But he was often taken for a spy, and he was yelled at, threatened, and chased away.

Khang was crushed, fearing that he wouldn't be able to complete his project. He tried Roma's tip of hiding his camera, but says he simply wasn't comfortable that way. One day, though, he found a way to “make everything possible” — become a tourist. He noticed that all tourists were able take pictures of whatever and whomever they wanted. “I decided to start my new day of photo-shooting as a foreigner,” he says. “I would speak English from that day on. Then I went out and became a tourist. I became what they wanted me to be.” When Vietnamese citizens asked him where he was from, he asked them where they thought he was from. If they suggested China, he assumed the role of a Chinese tourist. If they said America, he agreed.

Khang finds it ironic, and saddening, that he had to rely on the guise of a tourist to capture the Nha Trang of his childhood. “How could I talk to my people in a different language and pretend to be a different person?” he asks. “But that's what I had to do.”

Still, he is proud of the resulting photographs of smiling children, a shy grandmother, disabled people selling lottery tickets, arts students at the beach. “They are all my favorites,” he says of the thousands of photographs. “Every single one of them is different. I took each one with my heart and soul.”

Khang Vodinh's photographs are included on his Web site: http://www.vu.union.edu/~vodinhk/.

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Talking with Killers

Posted on Aug 1, 2000

Martha Huggins, Roger Thayer Stone professor of sociology, is author of Political Policing: The United States and Latin America.

Martha Huggins still shudders when she recalls one of the trips she made while doing research on police vigilantism and death squads in Brazil.

“One time a guy I was interviewing about torture said he wanted to take me on a drive to show me something,” she says. “We were about an hour outside of town and going through a dark forest when he said, 'This is where we buried a lot of the people we killed.'

“I had told my friends exactly where I was going, so I wasn't really worried,” she says. “But, still, it was troubling.”

Episodes like this are not exactly rare in the research career of Huggins, who is the Roger Thayer Stone Professor of Sociology at the College. She began doing research in Brazil twenty-five years ago, when the country was under a military dictatorship, and her work has led to three powerful books. The most recent, Political Policing: The United States and Latin America (Duke University Press), is a study of United States penetration of Latin American police systems to control internal security. The book contains more than 400 sources, most of them primary, with many obtained through diligent use of the Freedom of Information Act. It won two prizes in 1999 — the Michael J. Handelang Award from the American Society of Criminology for outstanding contribution to research in criminology, and a best book prize from the New England Council of Latin American Studies.

In one sense, Huggins's research path is accidental.

She first went to Brazil in 1975, when she was a Fellow of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Her intention was to study labor unions, but a colonel in the military regime told her she wasn't going to be able to do that since labor unions were illegal. Quickly deciding to do historical research on slave labor, she received permission to work with the political police, who had the historical archives on crime.

“Working in the political police building I would see these big vans drive in and the police jerk people out,” she says. “It really was my first glimpse of military repression, and it got me interested. After a while, I started to work on vigilantism and the death squads — visiting morgues, interviewing people in the death squads. I was able to do it because I said I was 'doing a study of policing' in times of crisis and change,” she continues.

It was during this research that she had her first attack of high blood pressure — a condition she still has to fight.

“I was afraid,” she says. “You know they did awful things to people. But you also realize that these torturers and murderers are real people, too. Often, they were working class people who entered the police with some idealism, and they got funneled into the torture teams. They got trained to be true believers — and then they couldn't get out. They wound up doing the dirty work of the system while the higher-ups got off.”

Because she was an academic working on a book, she apparently was not considered much of a threat by Brazilian authorities (“The people who might harm me don't even read books,” she says). But her work and her opinions led to criticism back in the United States. In 1986, for example, she wrote an opinion article that was distributed nationally by The Los Angeles Times and internationally by the International Herald Tribune. In the column, she discussed U.S. training of foreign police, concluding that it “improved neither the security of those nations' citizens nor the democratic practices of the police and security forces.”

The column was denounced by various right-wing commentators and organizations.

In another sense, the kind of research Huggins has done seems perfectly suited for her. Since she joined the Union faculty in 1979, she has been involved in numerous social causes, both on and off the campus.

“I would have to say I do it for human rights,” she says. “All my research is about what goes on in the margins of society, where people don't usually look. I would much rather write about something happy. But I get pulled back to focus on power and repression and people losing their democratic freedoms.”

And, as a persistent defender of those she sees as downtrodden, she reacted strongly to the inequities around her.

“I've tried to decide over the years which parts of my research have upset me the most, and it was the street children” she says. “Young children, huddled on the streets, sniffing glue, living under blankets, getting victimized sexually, getting murdered by the death squads ….”

She pauses.

“To distance yourself with this kind of research, you have to become very cold, very hard,” she continues. “You can't react negatively when you talk to murderers, or they won't talk with you, and you certainly don't want to be positive. So you become a little bit frozen. It's narrowed my emotional range a lot.”

When the talk turns to the Brazil of today, however, she brightens. With the military regime long gone, Brazil is a “tourist-friendly place full of nice people who love Americans.” The Union students she takes there on a term abroad study women and economic development, Portuguese, and make a research trip to visit human rights groups in northeastern Brazilian cities. “These days it's a good place to visit, and our students have had some wonderful experiences,” she says.

It would be easy to dismiss the agonies she has written about as the product of a different and faraway culture, but Huggins feels that Americans should not be complacent.

“The research I did provides a kind of window into what could happen in this country if we don't protect the safeguards we have, ” she says. “In any society, when the police are encouraged to see themselves as involved in a war, you'll see abuses of power. Increasingly, with the spread of the drug 'war,' more and more police are becoming more and more militarized. And, of course, we're seeing an increase in private police forces — at malls, for example — where justice is determined by what nurtures a 'business climate' for them.”

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