Monday, October 26, 2009

Why Files: Sonny Bono assassination claim and Ted Gunderson, initial post

Introduction: Although the bulk of this blog for the past several months has been about refugee resettlement issues and Burma (Myanmar), most of my published writing has either been in the realms of Asian studies or else combating bizarre claims through skeptically analyzing them. And thus it is that I've decided to resurrect the title, "The Why Files," the name of the newsletter of the The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, an organization intended to promote science and critical thinking, and occasionally jot down my thoughts on such things here.

Last night, I got two hits on this blog seeking information on "Bono assassination."
It turns out that approximately a year ago, a bizarre claim was made that Sonny Bono, the late pop-singer and congressman, did not die ten years ago from skiing into a tree and striking his head but instead was assassinated.

For instance, see:




Although there is nothing on this blog about Sonny Bono, there is information here on Bono, the lead singer of U2 and his work on Burmese human rights, as well as the threat of assassination that some Burmese dissidents live under. But nevertheless, fearing that someone was conspiring or threatening to assassinate Bono of U2, a public figure who works hard to improve the world, I google the terms myself and then took a moment to look over the results. I discovered that while no one is apparently plotting to assassinate Bono, the singer, instead there is a Sonny Bono Assassination Conspiracy Claim. (Actually, I thought the entire notion of Sonny Bono as a congressman was sufficiently bizarre in itself, and now we have a conspiracy about his death.)

Where did these ideas come from?

They came from Ted Gunderson. Who is Ted Gunderson? Ted Gunderson is a former FBI agent, now turned private investigator, who periodically appears in the media making statements that lie well outside the mainstream. These often involve giant conspiracies, the illuminatti, Satanism, and other increasingly bizarre things. For the record, I do not find these ideas believable. I first came across the name Ted Gunderson, a couple years ago while watching a DVD called Disinfo TV.

Disinfo TV showed its origins in the sort of "Southern California scary, transgressional fringe journalism" stuff of the '90s that Adam Parfrey and his associates did so well in works such as the book "Apocalypse Culture." However, it also showed the limitations of that genre quite well too. Although some portions of this brief series, self-described as "'60 Minutes' reaches for the meth pipe," are fascinating and mind blowing other parts simply seem to degenerate into displays of the mentally ill and random cruelty being shown for entertainment value. Ted Gunderson appears on two segments, one featuring Brice Taylor, and both segments involve sensationalistic and over-blown conspiracy claims. On the Brice Taylor segment the claims, claims confirmed by Ted Gunderson, were just bizarre. Even considering that I've heard related and very bizarre claims before these were the weirdest ones I'd ever heard.

Brice Taylor is one of those sad people who describes herself as a survivor of extreme forms of unlikely abuse, abuse she discovered through recovered memory therapy, and claims to be suffering from multiple personality disorder. (This entire realm of "recovered memories," "multiple personality disorder" and "Satanic ritual abuse claims" have been discredited repeatedly and all involve distortions of human memory, resulting in people coming to very strange conclusions about their own pasts.) The forms of abuse she describe includes being forced to suffer through being used as a sex slave by former presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, George Bush (the father) as well as Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and others. She says that she was sold as a mind-control sex slave to celebrities at public auction. She also says she was forced to have sex with dolphins while Silvester Stallone filmed it and that he then later distributed the films to other celebrities. You may, if you'd like, see all of this on Episode One of Disinfo TV in the segment labeled Brice Taylor. Please be advised that these are only some of the very strange claims Brice Taylor makes about her life on this show.

Also, just for the record, one of the reasons I became burnt out on this sort of journalism is that it is very difficult to know how to deal with a person like this when one is the media. Do you present them as a reliable source? Portray them as an amusing eccentric and make fun of them in front of your audience? Attack them mercilessly so they will be discredited and the gullible will be spared their views? Or not cover them and their statements at all and then let your audience only see part of the picture? There are no easy answers. None are good options when dealing with someone this far off the deep end.

Regardless, on the segment one could also see Ted Gunderson, former FBI agent, presented as a reliable expert on the claims of Brice Taylor. And are the claims true? According to Ted Gunderson on Disinfo TV all the above has been confirmed multiple times including confirmed to him by people inside these giant, far-ranging conspiracies that involve celebrities, mind control slave auctions and dolphin pornography. I do not believe in these things. By his statements, Ted Gunderson says he does. Therefore when one considers the claims that Sonny Bono was assassinated consider the source. Also consider that the story was never, as near as I can tell, picked up by any non-tabloid reliable news sources.

In conclusion, if Ted Gunderson is the only one who claims that the late Congressman and pop-singer was assassinated, I for one, feel perfectly able to ignore the claims. Ted Gunderson is a name that comes up again and again in the media surrounding bizarre and often disprovable claims. In the absence of corroborating claims or evidence, I'll just skip this one for as long as I can.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

More South Asian immigrant domestic violence

Some time ago, I became upset as one of the local Nepali-Burmese was mistreating his pregnant girlfriend, terrorizing her, slapping her around and stealing her money, and I vented on this blog. In response, an ignorant bonehead commented that the real problem was not that the (very small) local Nepali-Burmese community consists of a bunch of low-life troublemakers, but that I am not sufficiently sensitive to accept her world-view. Well, I've since drifted away from the local Nepali-Burmese community, a situation that has improved my life (and the only comment I received on it from other refugees are snickers and "Ha. Ha. We told you those people were no good, didn't we?"'s) I can also truthfully say that I have done everything I think I can to assist that woman and at this point it's her problem and she's got to decide what she wants out of her life and how she wishes to live it.

This experience got me directly involved with the folks at Equinox, the local organization that handles domestic violence issues in Albany. I am, by background and inclination, a rescuer. I have no problem, for instance, with grabbing a suicidal or mentally ill person and throwing them on the ground so that one may then restrain them and prevent them from further harming themself. In fact, I can think of twice when I have done so. Not to mention jumping into fights to pull people apart (hint, let them tire themselves a bit by pounding on each other first), but the fact is the "rescuer" approach does not work in these cases.

One thing I liked about Equinox is that their literature did not say "We save battered women." What it said, more or less, was "if you are ready to try to change your own life we will help you do so." This is the same approach they take with their drug addiction programs and actually there are a lot of parallels between being addicted to drugs and being in an unhealthy relationship.

There were many good things about Equinox that I saw. On the other hand, one weakness in the program is that they are not used to dealing with people from other cultures, and although they tried to do so, they weren't quite sure how to do so competently. (In part, because as a friend told me, the bulk of these "save the world" organizations are staffed in large part by young twenty-somethings who mean well but don't really have much life experience.) For instance, one person tried to start a conversation with a refugee on an extremely important matter by just talking without checking to see if anything was actually being understood. If you talk to most refugees, what they will do is nod their head and smile, whether they understand or not. And, no surprise, this is exactly what happened until I jumped in and said, "Hey, this isn't working. She understands nothing you say."

So if you deal with one of these organizations bring your own translator and expect to handle a lot of the details yourself.

But, switching gears, I read the other day on the skeptics list that domestic violence in Bangladesh, a South Asian Muslim country, ranks number two in frequency among all the nations of the world.

Therefore I started doing some cursory research on the subject. There is indeed a problem with domestic violence among South Asian immigrants.

First, we have this report from the BBC:

Apparently in the United Kingdom, an increasing number of complaints about domestic violence are coming from men of South Asian descent who are being abused by their wives. In a previous post, I noted that an academic journal reported that one distinctive feature among South Asian violence was a tendency for it to become a family affair with the abuser's siblings and other relatives joining in to heap further abuse upon the victimized party. That does indeed seem to be the case here.

And to think, not that long ago some of these Nepali-Burmese folks were suggesting to me that I marry their relatives in Thailand. (I'm sorry, I have a firm policy of no-marriage on the first date. It only leads to a lack of respect later in the relationship.) And I've received hits on this blog with google key words such as "Nepali Burmese wives" and so on --my advice, don't do it. Even if you wish a mail-order wife there are probably nicer places to find one.

Note the BBC article includes links to domestic violence assistance organizations for both men and women in the U.K.

Which brings me back to the issue of Bangladeshi domestic violence.

According to a 2004 report from the Guttmacher institute, see domestic violence is, in fact, the norm in marriages in rural Bangladesh. (67% being a majority.) You may, if you'd like download the entire 10 page report for free by following the link.

The following is a summary from the organization's web site.

"CONTEXT: Although the pervasiveness of domestic violence against women in Bangladesh is well documented, specific risk factors, particularly those that can be affected by policies and programs, are not well understood.

METHODS: In 2001-2002, surveys, in-depth interviews and small group discussions were conducted with married women from six Bangladeshi villages to examine the types and severity of domestic violence, and to explore the pathways through which women's social and economic circumstances may influence their vulnerability to violence in marriage. Women's odds of experiencing domestic violence in the past year were assessed by logistic regression analysis.

RESULTS: Of about 1,200 women surveyed, 67% had ever experienced domestic violence, and 35% had done so in the past year. According to the qualitative findings, participants expected women with more education and income to be less vulnerable to domestic violence; they also believed (or hoped) that having a dowry or a registered marriage could strengthen a women's position in her marriage. Yet, of these potential factors, only education was associated with significantly reduced odds of violence; meanwhile, the odds were increased for women who had a dowry agreement or had personal earnings that contributed more than nominally to the marital household. Women strongly supported educating their daughters, but pressures remain to marry them early, in part to avoid high dowry costs.

CONCLUSIONS: In rural Bangladesh, women's social and economic circumstances may influence their risk of domestic violence in complex and contradictory ways. Findings also suggest a disconnect between women's emerging expectations and their current realities.

International Family Planning Perspectives, 2004, 30(4):190-199"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Refugee driving lessons --preparation -book recommendation

[One in a series on teaching refugees to drive -To see the other posts on teaching refugees to drive, click on the driver education link at the end of this post.]

Oh my! It's been a long time since I've added to this blog. Why? I've been busy. Busy with school and other activities. Putting on my writer's hat, I moderated a pair of panels on publishing and the future of magazines at Albacon, the local science fiction book convention. As mentioned, I'm enrolled in a graduate program in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) and this has kept me busy, at times with activities that directly affect refugees. Been doing other things here and there to assist refugees, some through the TESOL program, some on my own. (Although it has nothing to do with refugees, I even took a salsa dancing lesson, something that lay way outside my comfort zone!)

One of these refugee related activities is that I still teach driving, a time consuming and at times frightening activity. Although, as written before teaching refugees to drive is surprisingly difficult, I do think that I may beginning to learn how to do it efficiently and properly (and it only took how many tries?).

Therefore consider this an initial proposal on how to go about it.

Refugees tend to drive badly because they do not have much experience with driving, automobiles or the basics of American rules of the road. They usually do not read their road book before starting to drive. (In a surprising number of instance, they don't bother to get their driver's license before starting to drive but that's another issue that I've written about elsewhere.)

Therefore the key to teaching them driving is that one must fill in this knowledge gap *BEFORE* you get them behind the steering wheel.

To do this you need materials they understand. One good resource for doing this is a book entitled "Studying for A Driver's License," by Dr. Frank C. Kenel and Beverly Vaillancourt, (-1994, The People's Publishing Group, Inc., Saddle Brook N.J. ISBN-1-56256-208-8). It's a wonderful book that teaches how to drive using simple English. Topics that tend to confuse refugee driving students such as right-of-way and choosing lanes are clearly explained and done so in a much better way than I ever could have. Then there are answer the questions worksheet pages where you can check your students progress *BEFORE* putting your life and financial future at risk by letting them drive your car with you in it!

This book is very good and can be read and understood much better than the NYS road book by an immigrant or refugee with limited English. Unfortunately the book is priced outrageously, being $25.00 (US) for a 100 page 8 1/2 by 11" paperback. What were the publishers thinking? Although there is a discount for buying in bulk, if one were an outlaw and willing to live life on the edge, one could easily photocopy the entire thing and save a great deal of money. I found the copy I read at the Schenectady County Public Library and suspect other libraries can find you a copy too, either from their own collection, through special purchase by request or by inter-library loan.

All in all, a wonderful book! I like it. My current driving student likes it too and since he often speaks of hoping to attend college when his English improves, learning to poke through a book and find answers is often a very good experience for him that has helped not just his driving but also his reading, his English and his academic skills.

I recommend it highly and wish I'd discovered it almost a year ago when I first began trying to teach refugees to drive.

Monday, October 5, 2009

More quick thoughts on refugee driving lessons.

[One in a series on teaching refugees to drive -To see the other posts on teaching refugees to drive, click on the driver education link at the end of this post.]

As mentioned I am studying education now. Although I find the program (largely) dreadfully boring and the work tedious, the truth is that it is making me a better teacher. (The signal to noise to intense challenge ratio is not the same as Cornell.)

But, like I said, it is making me a better teacher.

And, as mentioned, I probably now know more about the ways refugees learn to drive than anyone I know. (Which does not make me an expert, by any means. It just puts me in a position where I've got to look to myself to judge how to proceed as there's no one around to ask.)

And, out of all I mentioned in a previous post, plus two more, just one passed her road test on the first try. Which means the rest failed on their first try. When a person fails their road test in New York they are given a print out from a machine that lists their errors. Of those I've seen, a handful, each and every one included the statement "showed poor judgement."

Which makes sense. And I've mentioned they only rarely study the road book.

Here's my current thought. Driving is not a single skill. It is a set of many, many skills. Many of these skills an American takes for granted. However, if one is to teach a third world refugee to drive, one must learn to divide those skills into their individual components and teach them one by one.

Now many of these folks are impatient to drive. Many have educational deficits. Many come from indigenous cultures where long term planning is largely a foreign concept. Many are insecure and lack confidence in their ability to learn. Many have high anxiety and often need this assuaged a bit before they begin to drive.

My current thought is that the best approach to all these things is to divide the skills one by one. Teach each one. Celebrate each small victory with them and make them feel good, and make yourself feel a sense of satisfaction (this is a time consuming, sometimes draining process), before moving on. Let them know they are part way there and did accomplish something before going on to the next part.

This Tuesday (today technically) I am scheduled to begin teaching my latest student, a student who just failed his road test. We will focus on learning "right of way techniques." Much of this will be done in the library using matchbox cars and such. We'll see how it goes.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Thoughts on refugee driving #2

[One in a series on teaching refugees to drive -To see the other posts on teaching refugees to drive, click on the driver education link at the end of this post.]

From time to time, I intend to jot down my thoughts on teaching driving to refugees here.

Clearly it's a big project and not one that has been researched much as far as I know. Don't expect full essays or complete works here. Like so much, it's a work in progress. (Work with refugee sort of involves people from exotic places getting dumped in ones town with the result being people saying, "There are some people here who need help?" "What kind of people?" "Sqaw Karen people." "What? WHO? Huh? A what kind of people again?" It's a learn as you go situation.)

Here's the current thought. Ideal way to teach refugee driving would begin with a combination "English for driving" and "Rules of the Road" course of classes.

These would teach the concepts underlying driving, concepts that would probably not be otherwise known or even considered important by refugees. These would be divided into units and testing done before the student is allowed to proceed.

(Will I actually do this? I have no idea. The liability issues scare me, for starters. What I do intend to do is to teach the people I do teach driving to in a new manner from a new angle and a new perspective.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Garbage in Rangoon *Yangon"

I'm experimenting with new ways to put media on the net. This includes embedded videon on this blog. This was posted on YouTube on 9-11, 2009.

Quick thoughts on refugees and driving.

[One in a series on teaching refugees to drive -To see the other posts on teaching refugees to drive, click on the driver education link at the end of this post.]

[Note. there's a fuzzy set of lines between stereotyping, generalizations about cultures and accurate assessment of intercultural differences. When working with refugees, however, you learn as you go and therefore as one needs to seek to accommodate cultural differences and overcome them before one really understands them it's often a feel your way along process of simultaneously working with and understanding a group of people from a different culture with a different background. I'm not completely comfortable with everything I have written here in terms of "cross-cultural sensitivity issues." On the other hand, this is the current state of my constantly changing thinking on the relevant issues as I struggle to achieve a goal of mine which is to see my driving students get their licenses and become safe drivers. With time, they will evolve.]

Over the past several years, I've taught various people to drive, either from beginning to finish or else just a few lessons to supplement someone else's driving.
This has been a learning experience for me and I am trying to assess and sort the results.

Here's the track record.

Two Chinese graduate students, one from beginning to end and she passed on the first try.


One Burmese Chin woman. Quit with valid excuse but obviously underestimated the time required to learn driving when she began. Thought one could learn to drive in just a few lessons.

One Nepali Burmese male. Learned reasonably well but had a great deal of difficulty grasping some basic concepts, such as choosing lanes. He also tended to put great pressure on himself, panic under pressure and feel great stress after making a mistake. This stress caused his mental functioning to go down and that meant, for instance, after making a mistake he would then confuse left and right. Finally he failed the road test twice, began canceling out on lessons at the last minutes using purposefully bad excuses and ultimately bought himself a van and began driving it without a license.

Nepali-Burmese female. Drove very badly, time management problems, asked for lessons like two weeks before the road test. Failed. Then I dropped her as a student after she began driving without a license and showed a bad attitude towards it after hitting a car in a parking lot. (Same person who asked "Can I drive myself to the road test?") The traffic violation case resulting from this was dropped due to a technicality (cop put the court date down for a holiday) and she passed on her second try.

Second Nepali-Burmese male. Had been driving in Thailand for years and bought himself a car and began driving it to work and elsewhere without a license. Asked for help with his parallel parking only. I decided that the best thing to do was to help him in the hopes that he would get a license and the situation become legal. He learned parallel parking easily but failed his road test twice. Last I heard was still driving without a license. (He also mistreats his girlfriend badly. I think people might be beginning to get a picture of why I don't deal with the eight local Nepali-Burmese I know anymore. On the other hand, one thing I'll give the Nepali-Burmese credit for is that the bulk of them don't hesitate to ask others for assistance, sometimes whether they need it or not.)

African male refugee. Wanted parallel parking lessons. Said he had been driving for years in Africa but no one in Africa ever parallel parks. I gave him the lessons. He failed his first road test, reportedly for being over-cautious at an intersection where he had the the right of way (probably makes sense in Africa to drive that way) but passed on the second try.

Nepali-Burmese female. Taught one day only. Quit because her life was in chaos and her boyfriend was mistreating her badly. (Lovely people, the Nepali-Burmese.)

Karen male. Taught for months. Frequent problems with basic concepts, failed his road test badly on first try.


Refugees are a funny bunch of people. Let's look at some of the things that often mark them as different from mainstream Americans.

1. History of trauma. This effects anxiety levels and thinking and decision making.

2. Low education in many cases. This effects the ability to learn as ability to learn is a learned skill. Also affects the ability to set, assess, plan and achieve goals involved with acquiring a new skill or set of skills. Tendency to gloss over underlying weaknesses in driving in order to get to the new stuff.

3. Often speak poor English. Affects communication. At least two of my refugee driving students have confused verbal instructions to go left and right while driving. This often affects their initial knowledge of the rules of the road and expectations of a driver in the USA. (Most Burmese speakers do not read the DMV road book. Instead they just download lists of questions and answers in Burmese with English translations of the answer and focus on getting enough questions to pass the test and get the learner's permit. This has serious ramifications. Another admitted she sat through the five hour class but did not understand any of it as her English was quite poor.)

4. Poverty and low exposure to technology. These people did not grow up sitting in their mommy and daddy's car while mom shuttled them around to soccer practice. They did not spend their childhood looking out the window's of the family car trying to read the signs and asking occasional questions about driving.

5. Often come from non-legalistic, often pre-industrial, often even indigenous cultures. This has a thousand little ramifications in mental behaviors including attitudes towards road rules, expectations and even lane changing. In some cases, the cultural background also affects the ability to plan for and achieve long-term goals. Right-of-way laws are often a completely foreign concept to people from a non-legalistic culture. (Don't believe me? Check out the traffic in Taiwan some day.)


Teaching refugees to drive is not an easy thing to do and one who does it should expect to put in a great deal of time on each refugee one teaches. One needs to make expectations clear up front, including the possibility that they might drive without a license and that you will take this quite seriously. (As noted three of the folks I taught. all Nepali-Burmese, do this or did this. I spoke to some folks at the Rensselaer Open Bible Church and although we are theologically miles apart, they know refugees and how they think and act and agree completely that it is extremely important that if one assist refugees with car related issues one either ensure that they have a driver's license already or else tell them of the consequences, including consequences with your relationship with them, if they drive without a license.)

My experience with Burmese refugees is that they are tough, hard working people but that they somehow aren't good at setting goals and following through to achieve them. A plan that involves incremental steps over a long period of time and frequent set backs (failed road tests) along the way does not come easily to them.

Driving is not a single skill. It is instead a set of different skills many of which we as Americans take for granted. (i.e. knowing road signs or knowing when to choose lanes.) Therefore driving should be taught to refugees as a set of skills with frequent assessments and it made clear that if they do not have a certain skill one will not move ahead in the lessons until one guarantees they know that skill. Assess constantly and use those assessments to stop and reteach missing skills. You do not want to find out that your student does not understand a "Left turn only" sign at a red light after he drives into the intersection assuming it means he can ignore the light if he wishes to go left (true story.)

Assess constantly, set low incremental expectations, do not assume they have the background knowledge an American would,