Saturday, December 20, 2014

a re-re-repost of "guys, the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol!"

[NB: This is a re-re-repost of a post that originally appeared here in 2009.]

Very often you'll hear some wiseacre deconstruct Christmas. He'll talk about its components—the date of Jesus' birth, the elements involved in Christmas celebration, etc.—then claim that Christmas is a sham in both form and content: no element of Christmas is originally Christian, after all. What usually follows, after this scholarly lecture, is the non sequitur that "the Christmas tree therefore isn't a Christian symbol."

Well, no: the tree is a Christian symbol, because Christians have made it so. Christians who use Christmas trees aren't focusing on the tree's pagan, pre-Christian origins when they set such trees up. Celebrants of Christmas belong to a tradition that has appropriated the tree, i.e., made the tree its own.

Some people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of appropriation, which isn't the same as the concept of theft (another idea associated, often rightly, with Christianity's frequently unhappy history). Here's a general example of how appropriation works: as Buddhism moved out of India and into other Asian countries, it took on the trappings of those countries. In Korean Buddhist temples, you might see imagery that's not originally Buddhist: mountain spirits, deities of magico-religious Taoism, etc., might all make their appearances somewhere on Buddhist ground. Buddhism appropriated the local colors and flavors, and was changed thereby. This is a natural sociological process, and it's not limited to religion: it happens in other human spheres as well—culture, politics, art, and all the other human endeavors you can think of. Ideas are memes; they cross-pollinate.

A more specific example: the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara represents the sort of change that occurs as religions move from place to place. As the Indian name implies with the ending "-ishvara," this entity was a "lord," i.e., male. As the concept of Avalokiteshvara moved northward into China, however, it became associated with the Chinese deity Kwan Shih Yin (or just Kwan Yin)—a deity that was arguably native to China, and usually portrayed as female. Whatever Avalokiteshvara was, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is now thought of as female in all of East Asia. More philosophically minded Buddhists, aware of the bodhisattva's Indian origins, will say the bodhisattva transcends gender, but folkloric Buddhists in East Asia will be comfortable with Kwan Yin's femininity. East Asians appropriated Avalokiteshvara.

People who claim "X is not really X because it was originally Y" are demonstrating a lack of understanding about how symbols work. Culturally speaking, symbols derive their power and significance from a widespread agreement as to their general meaning. This agreement is often induced and enforced diachronically, when the older generation teaches the symbol's meaning to the younger generation.

It may sound strange to give so much legitimacy to the "because we said so" crowd, but the saying-so is integral to what symbols are. The implication, then, is that the critic of Christianity can't afford to be too smug about the "original" significance of the Christmas tree. Those pagans came to an agreement about what their tree meant, after all, and they may have done it in consonance with—or in defiance of—some even earlier, pre-pagan tradition.

If religious symbols are too abstract for you, let's think about this problem in terms of language. The sound "ah" occurs in American English, but it's also an ancient sound—one of three sounds common to all languages (the other two being "ee" and "ooh"). Does the ancient pedigree of "ah" make it somehow un-English? To put matters another way: "ah" might have come from our distant past, and might currently be found in other languages, but does that make it any less a part of English phonetics? Conclusion: "ah" is English—not originally English, nor exclusively English, but legitimately English all the same. And why? Because users of English have, through a massive and self-perpetuating agreement, chosen to include the sound as part of their language.*

By the same token, then, the tree known by Christians as "the Christmas tree" is certainly not exclusively Christian, nor is it originally Christian, but it is nonethless legitimately Christian. Why? Because Christians have made it so.

There's another side to this issue, though: we should take a moment to consider the Christians who get upset upon hearing that their precious symbol doesn't originate with their tradition. My question to them would be: why are you upset? Did you really think Christianity wasn't composed of non-Christian elements? As Thich Nhat Hanh notes in his Living Buddha, Living Christ, all religious traditions are composed of elements not of that tradition. Viewed in terms of Buddhist metaphysics, religious traditions are dependently co-arisen: they form out of a matrix of intercausality. The late Father Cenkner, one of my mentors at Catholic University, used to say: "It's all syncretism!"**

I personally have no trouble with the claim that the Christmas tree isn't originally Christian, or that prayer pre-dates Christianity, or that Madonna-and-Child imagery is very likely derived from Isis-and-Horus iconography, or that sacred birth narratives and the concept of resurrection are pre-Christian. None of this changes the fact that almost all Christians pray, that many Christians set up Christmas trees for Christian purposes at Christmas, or that the Madonna and Child are wholly integral to the Christian tradition. A healthy Christian attitude would be to realize that one is part of a constantly evolving and interwoven global network of tradition-streams. In the meantime, the non-Christian who attempts to claim that "aspect X of Christianity isn't originally Christian" needs to realize that this in no way implies that "aspect X isn't Christian"—a claim that is demonstrably false.

*Some scholars have proposed a "language model" of religious pluralism that makes religious traditions analogous to languages. The model is helpful in elucidating certain aspects of how religions may have evolved over time, but I question the model's effectiveness in resolving what many pluralists see as the basic problem of religious diversity—namely, the fact that the various traditions, in their doctrines and metaphysics, often make conflicting or even contradictory truth claims. If the language model is meant to be used normatively, it implies that no one religion is any more legitimate than another—an implication rejected not only by divergent pluralists but also by inclusivists and exclusivists. Even convergent pluralists exclude certain traditions from the sphere of legitimacy; Satanism, for example, immediately comes to mind.

**You're allowed to make sweeping generalizations about the universe when you're over 70, even if you're an academic. In his defense, I'll note that Father Cenkner said this outside of the class context. While the sentiment lacks the usual scholarly hedges and qualifications, I still think it's basically correct when applied to religion. Can you name a causa sui religious tradition?


"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies": review

[NB: I'm taking a break from working at the office to write this review, banging it out while the film is still fresh in my mind.]

I wanted to see "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" last night, but once I got back to my place, exhaustion fell upon me and I went to sleep. Such is the plight of old men. I resolved to catch a matinee showing, which I did at 10:30AM today. Was the 144-minute film worth a W5000 ticket? In a word: yes. A bit more detail: the movie was good but not great, and overall the second film gets my vote as the greatest of this trilogy.

"Armies" is, I suppose, Peter Jackson's last attempt at putting his stamp on the Lord of the Rings saga, to which he was at great pains to tie JRR Tolkien's humble little novel for children, The Hobbit. I had thought the final film in this very stretched-out series was going to be titled "There and Back Again," but much like "Revenge of the Jedi," this title proved to be a red herring (for titling issues, see here).

Here's an impressionistic summary: there were moments that wowed me thanks to the always-capable cinematography and the fantastical melding of actual New Zealand scenery with CGI landscapes and structures. There were moments that touched me, too, especially in the way the film dealt with Thorin's and Kili's demise (surely this isn't a spoiler for you, is it? you did read the book, yes?) and with the final moments of Bilbo's return to the Shire. There were moments that made me laugh, especially with the welcome introduction of Billy Connolly in a role he was born to play: that of Dáin the dwarf, cousin of Thorin, and proud wearer of the most aggressive facial hair I've ever seen.

Then, alas, there were the long moments that bored me. I think Peter Jackson, who took Akira Kurosawa's battle scenes and amplified them, through CGI, into massively bloated martial tableaux, has pretty much shown us everything he's capable of when it comes to land warfare. As much as I love fight choreography, I'm not sure I'm any longer a fan of war choreography. It's all CGI these days, and CGI sucks the life and meaning out of every battle: it's just pixels striving against pixels. Even on a more personal scale, CGI tends to remove much of the charm from a fight. You can watch Orlando Bloom's spry Legolas leap impossibly from rock to rock only so many times before you have to stifle a yawn.

I also found it strange that quite a few of this movie's most powerful moments come through characters who either aren't in Tolkien's novel at all, or who are in it only peripherally. Tauriel weeps over Kili, and Thranduil (whose character arc in this movie was nearly impossible to understand) is there to comfort her. Bard shows mercy toward Alfrid (a character, like Tauriel, created for the movie), the simpering sidekick of Lake-town's Master. And while we're on the topic of things not in the book, I can't remember whether the book ever mentioned a condition called "dragon sickness," which serves as the movie's explanation for the temporary twisting of Thorin's otherwise sterling character, but fails to explain why Thorin's grandfather succumbed to a similar ill. "Dragon sickness" felt awfully contrived to me; it screamed plot device, much like the umpteenth deus ex machina appearance of those Eagles.* At this point, I'd almost rather see a dwarf point to the sky, shout, "The Eagles!"—and have the Philadelphia Eagles come charging into battle.

But there were positives. My favorite fight scene was the utterly non-canonical one involving Saruman, Elrond, and a bevy of ghosts. Galadriel, after spending most of her time protecting Gandalf, went into Valkyrie mode late in that fight, dismissing every malign spirit that had chosen to congregate in the fortress of Dol Guldur—even the specter of Sauron himself. This was enough to make me wonder just what sort of being Galadriel was. Other positives included a cameo by Radagast the Brown and a very brief glimpse of Beorn, airdropped into battle by an Eagle. Also enjoyable were the actors' respective performances, although with an ensemble cast as overstuffed as this one is, it's only natural for some performances to upstage others. Billy Connolly's Dáin wins the prize for most memorable character. Finally, it was amusing to see the various animals used as destriers in battle: Thranduil rode his enormous moose-caribou-thing; Dáin had his war boar; the dwarves of Erebor somehow got hold of armored mountain goats, which proved useful in climbing up to Azog's lofty perch.

One major plot hole, though, involved enormous rock-eating worms capable of boring gaping tunnels into mountains, facilitating the movement of Azog's and Bolg's goblin/orc armies. Those worms struck me as the chthonian answer to the Eagles: a deus ex machina from below, they could have won the battle for Erebor—the dwarves' mountain kingdom and rightful home—with ease, swallowing up treasure by the megaton and leaving the dwarf kingdom in tunneled ruins. Instead, the worms appear only briefly, making a few large holes and then retreating, never to be heard from again. That was disappointing, but maybe Peter Jackson understood that we've had our fill of sandworm-like menaces, which have appeared as recently as "The Avengers" (a picture of a Leviathan is in my "Avengers" review here). Still, if I were Azog, I'd use those worms to reduce the Lonely Mountain to rubble, and maybe even to punch holes into the Earth's crust, cause some major quakes and eruptions, and turn Middle Earth into a far more goblin-friendly zone.

Overall, I found "Armies" extremely flawed but watchable for the price of a five-dollar ticket. It was consistent with the previous film in its overt departure from Tolkien's vision, but in terms of its major battles, it held absolutely no surprises. A few judicious cameos (Dáin, Beorn) leavened the plot with a little extra mirth and excitement. The non-canonical characters received too much screen time and were given too much emotional heft, in my opinion, but the movie hit all the major plot points of the book: the death of Smaug by Bard's hand, Bilbo's ferrying of the Arkenstone to the Elves, Thorin's rage at and reconciliation with Bilbo, the deaths of Kili and Fili, and Bilbo's eventual return home. In short, the film was both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

My final view of Peter Jackson's latest trilogy is that, really, he should never have expanded a lone book into this bloated monstrosity of a series. I also think it would have been better to see Guillermo del Toro's vision of The Hobbit rather than Jackson's. Jackson didn't really show me anything I hadn't seen before in his magnificent LOTR trilogy, and the feeling I'm ultimately left with, when all is said and done, is a pining for what might have been.

*This site describes dragon sickness and says it's a concept from Tolkien's novel, not a contrivance cooked up for the movie version. I honestly don't remember the malaise's being mentioned, but the site contends the sickness was a rather important concept, so I suppose it's to my shame that I don't recall it. The sickness still fails to explain why Thorin's grandfather Thror, who ruled before the dragon ever came to the Lonely Mountain, fell prey to the lure of Erebor's treasure. ("I am not my grandfather," Thorin repeatedly grates to himself at one point in the movie, alluding to his grandsire's temptation.)

A further wrinkle: Wikipedia suggests that Thorin's father Thráin, not Thror the grandfather, is more likely the one whose heart was corrupted by his possession of a Ring of Power. Did Peter Jackson get this wrong? Did he pin the moral failing on the wrong generation?


Friday, December 19, 2014

all that remains is paperwork

I've got some jjong-party pictures to upload (with the students' permission, of course), but we're all jjong'ed out, now: I'm done teaching for this semester. All in all, it was a good first semester here. The students were, without a doubt, the saving grace. I still have no idea how badly they're going to zing me on the evals, but I had a good time teaching these kids, who were a far better crop, collectively, than the kids I'd taught at Daegu Catholic.

My class of advanced-level reading/writing students gave me fond farewells. There were plenty of "We'll miss you!"s, but no hugs. I got a few of my students, in several classes, to allow themselves to be photographed while giving me the finger. That was fun. Although I got permission to upload their pics, I might either fuzz out their faces or fuzz out the rude gesture so they don't get in trouble (assuming, of course, that one of this blog's five readers is evil and/or stupid enough to report my students' behavior to someone).

With classes done, I have three major things left to do: (1) I have to upload and publish my students' final grades; (2) I need to print out and upload something called a "portfolio," and (3) I have to scan, photocopy, and upload my attendance records. All of these obligations are annoying and tedious, but they're part of life at Dongguk University. The "portfolio" in question is a stitched-together PDF composed of copies of my syllabi, tests, and assignments given throughout the semester, along with a writeup of how I handled the semester—what my course objectives were, what my teaching method was, etc. Uploading these, and handing in hard-copy versions to our office, is one of the duties we're required to fulfill. Failure to do so in a timely manner will result in a downgraded performance evaluation.

But you know what? I'm going to say "fuck it" tonight, go have myself a decent dinner somewhere, then go watch "The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies." I'll be back in the office tomorrow and Sunday, and will be done—we hope—by Monday.


the skunk works

My gray hair is starting to proliferate right at the front, at the top center of my forehead. I think I can see where this is heading: I'm going to become one of those people who suffer from skunk-stripe grayness, just like Mrs. Spettel, my aged eighth-grade English teacher (she's probably long since shuffled off this mortal coil, so I don't mind naming her). Mrs. Spettel had a habit of dyeing her hair over the weekend: she'd arrive on Monday with perfectly black hair, and by Friday the skunk stripe would be back in full flower. I have no intention of ever coloring my hair: I'm vain in some ways, but not vain about that. So I surmise, at this point, that I'm doomed to a couple decades of skunkitude until my hair either goes entirely gray or falls out completely.

Oh, yeah, that's another thing: no fucking combovers! Although I doubt I'll ever suffer from horseshoe pattern baldness, if such a fate does befall me, I refuse to do combovers. Combovers are silly and sad—the mark of a pathetic, delusional man living a risible fantasy, somehow convincing himself that no one notices his shiny pate. If I ever reach that stage, boys and girls, I'm going to go full-on Buddhist monk and just shave all the hair off. Life will be much simpler that way.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

have I fucked myself?

Some coworkers overheard me speak of my plan to give out the students' final grades during the final day of class, and they collectively said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." Like my supervisor at my previous job—a man who was cautious, private, and circumspect by nature—they worried that, in giving the students their grades now, I'd be shooting myself in the foot when it came time for evaluations. I shrugged and said I'd be continuing with my plan because "more communication is better than less." One of my current supervisors replied, "That would be true if you were dealing with rational adults, but these kids all want an 'A.'"

I agree that the kids all want an "A," but I suspect that, even if they haven't checked their grades, many of them are instinctively aware of whether they'll be receiving "A"s or "B"s or something lower. True, young people are experts in the art of self-delusion, and kids the world over walk around with an over-exaggerated sense of entitlement, feeling they "deserve" a higher grade than whatever they get. (As Clint Eastwood's William Munny said in "Unforgiven": "Deserve's got nothing to do with it.") Still, I discovered today that most of my kids weren't all that surprised at their final grades. They still enjoyed themselves during today's jjong-parties, and my advanced students even took the time to shake my hand before leaving the class for the last time. One of my intermediate students texted me, saying, "You have a great passion for teaching."

So have I fucked myself? Maybe. I suppose I'd been hoping for that brass ring, the one that comes from getting a 99% average on the evals. But I'm pretty sure that wouldn't have been in the cards even if I had chosen not to reveal the students' grades early. I may have guaranteed myself a lower eval score, but it won't be lower by much, I'm pretty sure.

The breakdown for my intermediates today: 4 "A"s, 11 "B"s, and 4 "C"s.
For my advanced students: 6 "A"s, 5 "B"s, and 1 "C."

Two more parties to go, then I'll be spending the weekend, and possibly Monday, finalizing everything that needs to be finalized. After that I'm home free, and for the next two months I can fantasize about what I'd do and where I'd go if I had a million bucks.

ADDENDUM: The Golden Goose is giving me the day off on Christmas Eve, but I've got to come in to the office on New Year's Eve. Such is the price I pay to earn extra moolah. We're all whores about something.


hell in a handbasket

I'm not normally one to side completely with my friends on the right who gloomily intone that "the country is going to hell in a handbasket." But certain recent events have me in a rather ugly mood regarding the way things are going in the United States: rape fantasies and the attendant false inflation of campus rape statistics (and more important, how all this affects the credibility of the many, many women who actually are raped), racial tensions egged on by the media, Obama's sudden turn towards a very ill-advised Sunshine-style policy vis-à-vis Cuba... and now, to top it all off and break the camel's back, the knuckling-under of Sony—and quite possibly the United States as a whole—in the face of North Korean cyber-terrorism, apparently perpetrated in response to the upcoming "The Interview," a movie lampooning North Korea and starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.

Lawyer, blogger, advocate, and all-around mensch Joshua Stanton is just as flabbergasted as the rest of us are by Sony's rank cowardice. He writes:

I’m not sure what leaves me more speechless—the brazenness of a direct attack on our freedom of expression in our own country; the cowardice of Hollywood, Sony, Japan, and the theater chains; or the idea that the U.S. State Department agreed to review scenes from The Interview, thus putting a stamp of government censorship (or endorsement) on the film.

The US is doing an excellent job of projecting an image of weakness. I'm not so naive as to contend that we've been a moral paragon on the world stage, but it feels as if our collective moral confusion has reached new heights. One article snidely referred to a "post-truth America" in which lying and evasion are more the norm than ever. The end result of this erosion has been the steady loss of our diplomatic capital on the global scene. While some idiots cheer the diminishment of American prominence, I have to wonder whether those dim bulbs have thought about what might replace America after she's gone.

So with reluctance, I find myself climbing slowly and hesitantly aboard the "hell in a handbasket" bandwagon. Obama has gone on and on about the mess he supposedly inherited from Bush the younger; all I know is that the next president is going to face an even steeper uphill battle once the current empty chair finally vacates the stage.

Give Joshua's post a read. Like all of his posts, this one is worth your while. He writes:

This time, will our President stand up for our freedom of expression unambiguously? That would require him to act swiftly and firmly against those found to be responsible. Unfortunately, the Times‘s reporters end an otherwise excellent report with the tired, cliche falsehood that the President has no options because “[t]he North is already under some of the heaviest economic sanctions ever applied.” Pish-posh. I don’t know how many times I have to say it–people who write about sanctions should read them first. People who’ve read the sanctions know they’re weak.

Nothing good can come of any of this, and things are looking bleak these days. A return of the arrogant, unilateral America would be a welcome change at this point. We've seen where humility on the world stage gets us: it certainly hasn't gained us any more respectability. The language of diplomacy is the language of the street: if I may channel the ghost of Heinlein, the only thing people truly, fundamentally respect is force and the threat of violence. If that makes us look like arrogant, tyrannical despots, well... good. People can call us or miscall us whatever names they like, but in the era of a tougher America, you can bet your ass that no jihadi will be cutting our citizens' heads off, and no North Korean hacker will be messing with our computer infrastructure.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

suddenly safe

So a few days ago, the temps were above freezing and the snow was coming down in heavy, wet flakes that created a nasty, slippery slush. Since then, the chill has dropped to sub-zero (Celsius) levels, and somehow my campus has largely cleared up: almost all the dangerous surfaces are now dry and devoid of danger. I can't say I understand the physics; it seems strange that slush can turn to ice, which melts in sub-freezing temperatures just because the sun is shining. How does that work, exactly?

I have to admit that I saw a few scattered granules of what was probably calcium chloride or some other melting agent on a few of the steps and hilly spots on campus. There wasn't much of it: the chemical looked to have been grudgingly and stingily sprinkled, as if an unreconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge had been placed in charge of de-icing. It makes me wonder how a university as rich as Dongguk could be so cavalier about its students' and faculty members' safety. Ah, well. The Sewol disaster taught us nothing, it seems. Or it could simply be that not enough Koreans are falling, breaking their hips, and suing universities for negligence. I said it before and I'll say it again: although I don't like how litigious American culture has become, it's for damn sure that the threat of a suit motivates people to be a bit more careful, conscientious, and considerate.

So I have no fear about tonight's walk home from campus. There's one dicey sidewalk near my neighborhood, but it's not a big deal: I can walk on the street to avoid the remaining treacherous ice patches.

Tomorrow, I've got two jjong-parties to host. I had wanted to go to Costco today to shop for the food I intended to prep tomorrow, but my Golden Goose boss reminded me that the local Costco was closed on Wednesdays thanks to an anti-capitalistic Korean law that shuts down big stores, once a week or so, to allow little stores a chance to sell their wares. It's a stupid law (if it is, in fact a law and not merely some regulation), and very inconvenient. So I did my shopping at the Seoul Station Lotte Mart, which had the basil I needed for a caprese (but not the mozzarella or the pesto). I still need to grab some other items tomorrow morning; I'll have plenty of time to do so as my first class isn't until 3:30PM.

It's nice to be at a point where it's all over but the partying. Actually, that's not entirely true: I'll be spending this coming weekend in the office, finalizing all sorts of admin-related crap in an effort to be totally done by the beginning of Christmas week. I'm revealing my students' final grades to them tomorrow and Friday, and I'm telling them that, no matter how much they beg, I'm not going to be changing their grades. The problem with this strategy is that the students might strike back by writing nasty teacher evaluations: that's why many teachers don't reveal the students' grades to them.* But my feeling is that more communication is better than less communication; this is true for all human relationships. So even if it costs me a few brownie points with my evals, it's better to lower the boom on the students' heads now than to surprise them later. (The question of why the students should be surprised at all about their grades is a separate issue, worthy of its own blog post.)

*A further explanation of this point: students can't see their grades online unless they first fill out the teacher evaluations. This is obviously done for psychological reasons: if students could see their grades first and then were allowed to fill out evals, the ones receiving bad grades would definitely strike back by dinging the teacher on the eval forms. That's why I say it's a risk to let the students know their final grades now.

The flip side of this is that students usually get incensed about their grades (and then call or text their teachers, begging for or demanding a grade change) because they're surprised by them. As I hinted above, the issue of being surprised by one's grade is a topic in itself, but the short version of the problem is that a student has to be fairly uncaring about his or her own future not to check, periodically, on his or her grade. Unfortunately, most Korean students are like this: they claim to be eternally worried about their grades, but they almost never bother to check routinely, or to keep their own records. In other words, they don't act as if they're worried about grades. Hence their surprise when they see their results.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ave, Jason!

Jason is a Korean middle-schooler who lived in the US for about three years. He says he's new to YouTube, and he's just put out his very first YouTube video, "Dear Korea," which I thought was excellently done, especially for a kid his age. The expat comments below the video are almost universally positive and encouraging; I hope Jason makes more such vids.

I learned about Jason via Twitter, which is how I keep current with most things these days. A French e-acquaintance (we've never met in person), whose Twitter updates I follow, retweeted another Frenchman who linked to Jason's video and wrote:

Quand un ado sud-coréen démonte le système éducatif de son pays....

When a South Korean teen takes apart the educational system of his country...

Jason's video is bluntly critical of Korean education. I suppose he acquired his skeptical perspective after having spent three years in the American system, which doesn't place such an insane emphasis on investing time in one's studies. In Korea, seeming is often more important than being,* so seeming busy is often more important than actually being productive. If, in order to seem busy, a child has to sleep only three or four hours a night, then so be it: sleep goes out the window. Jason also notes that the Korean system works best for those who are "average," while those who are creative or individualistic are viewed dimly by the system: they don't "fit in." (This is reminiscent of the proverb, known throughout East Asia, that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.)

Jason also speaks ominously about the apparent correlation between a child's academic achievement and a parent's love for that child. Even more powerfully, he likens the Korean education system to the doomed Sewol ferry: it's a vehicle filled with good people, going to a wonderful destination, but it's heading for disaster, so what is anyone going to do about this? Jason wonders aloud whether we hapless bystanders will do nothing but mourn our losses and impotently mull over what we could have done.

These are pretty deep insights for a tween. I'd be hard pressed to hear such depth from American high schoolers, most of whom are too self-absorbed to care or to be critical about the system into which they're plugged.**

I have no idea what Jason's destiny is. He's already proven himself, in a single YouTube video, to be something of a cultural critic. I hope he doesn't curdle into a bitter cynic later in life. At the same time, I hope he doesn't become a wild-eyed, idealistic activist preaching fiery sermons from the mountaintop with febrile urgency. I hope he keeps his head and continues on the course he seems to be on right now. He's a smart kid, and likable. And I'm very impressed by his video.

*My high school's Latin motto is awesome: Esse non videri—or roughly, Being, not seeming.

**To be fair, I'd have trouble hearing this sort of depth from some of my own college students here at Dongguk, many of whom breeze through life quite uncritically.


home alive

My worst nightmare came true as I made my way home well after midnight tonight: the steep, hilly, slippery route back to my yeogwan was completely and utterly un-fucking-salted. At one point, I locked my legs and started sliding heavily toward the street, where cars were whizzing by even during the witching hour. As I slid, it felt almost as though some movers in San Francisco had lost control of a piano, which was now starting down a steep hill. I came to a halt, luckily, and all was well once I began to walk on the ice- and slush-free street itself, but the first half of that walk was a living hell.

Someone needs to design an ass-mounted airbag that, when it deploys, explodes into a balloon version of a La-Z-Boy recliner. Consequence-free slipping! No more falling on your ass and breaking your tailbone! For much of my walk, I crept along by sliding my feet in near-millimeter increments, shuffling forward tentatively and fearfully, negotiating dangerous staircases with painstaking slowness, inwardly cringing every time a group of skinny Koreans would gallop around and past me, perfectly balanced and oblivious to the gelid danger beneath their feet. I took comfort, though, in sharing my struggle with one especially tall, gangly Korean guy who obviously had the same fear of falling. For a few minutes, he and I created a comic tableau as we each tried to negotiate a particularly smooth and steep part of the brick-covered sidewalk at the bottom of our college's jung-mun (central gate) exit. There were long moments during which each of us simply stood stock still, doing nothing but contemplating our next move, like rock climbers figuring out the riddle of the hidden footholds and handholds above them. An outsider would have found this hilarious.

I'll be bringing my walking stick along with me for tomorrow's trip to the campus, and on Wednesday, after I leave the Golden Goose in Daechi-dong, I'm going to hunt down a goddamn hiking store and buy myself some snow cleats. If I recall correctly, the Dongdaemun neighborhood, which is walking distance from where I live, has plenty of sporting-goods stores. I ought to be able to find something somewhere.


Monday, December 15, 2014

goddamn winter

I love winter... when it behaves itself. But on days like today, when the temperatures are above freezing and the snow has been coming down in big, wet flakes, leaving slick slush on the ground, I'm hatin' life. My path to Dongguk is hilly, and many of those hills are paved over in smooth red brick, which makes them ripe for slippage. For most Koreans, who are light as a feather and likely to be carried away by a strong breeze, this isn't a problem: they somehow manage to walk along icy surfaces without missing a beat. For a big, bumbling, lumbering guy like me, though, slick surfaces are a nightmare, and I'm always worried about falling on my ass, twisting a knee, or doing something horrible to an ankle.

The obvious solution would be snow cleats, but I haven't bought any yet, and am not quite sure where I'd get them. So tonight, when I walk home late, after the slush has frozen and turned Seoul into a fucking ice rink, I'm betting that I'll be falling on my ass at least once. I'm seriously considering calling a cab to pick me up, but I'd feel somewhat guilty about asking a driver to slip and slide his way uphill to our campus. (Which is why I'm also going to forgo ordering a delivery dinner tonight: I watched those poor guys on mopeds struggling up and down our campus's hills earlier today, and it wasn't a pretty sight.)

This also means that my intended Namsan hike is going to have to be canceled. Grrr.

ADDENDUM: As far as I know, Koreans don't normally salt or sand their sidewalks and roadways. Part of that culture of ignoring safety, I guess. This is in tune with how Korean college campuses power down late at night, leaving stragglers to pick their way across campus in near-total darkness. Better watch that footing.


this is a job for Bill Keezer

The Weather Channel is currently hosting an article titled "BOOM" that is, I think, right up my friend Bill Keezer's alley. The article is about the aging state of American railroads and how the dangers of this failing infrastructure relate to the current shale-oil boom: trains carrying millions of gallons of oil are occasionally exploding (thus "boom" takes on two meanings).

I believe the state of our rail system is indeed a legitimate concern, but the problem of infrastructure and explosions isn't insoluble. My impression is that the article was written with an anti-shale-oil agenda in mind, but I think it can be interpreted more positively as a wake-up call for us to shore up our rail system in order to prevent disasters, like the one that occurred in Canada and killed 47 people, from occurring on US soil.

The article begins this way:

Regulators in the United States knew they had to act fast. A train hauling 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota had exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Now they had to assure Americans a similar disaster wouldn’t happen south of the border, where the U.S. oil boom is sending highly volatile crude oil every day over aging, often defective rails in vulnerable railcars.

On the surface, the response from Washington following the July, 6, 2013 explosion seemed promising. Over the next several months, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued two emergency orders, two safety alerts and a safety advisory. It began drafting sweeping new oil train regulations to safeguard the sudden surge of oil being shipped on U.S. rails. The railroad industry heeded the call, too, agreeing to slow down trains, increase safety inspections and reroute oil trains away from populous areas.

But almost a year and a half later—and after three railcar explosions in the United States—those headline-grabbing measures have turned out to be less than they appeared. Idling oil trains are still left unattended in highly populated areas. The effort to draft new safety regulations has been bogged down in disputes between the railroads and the oil industry over who will bear the brunt of the costs. The oil industry is balking at some of the tanker upgrades, and the railroads are lobbying against further speed restrictions.

And rerouting trains away from big cities and small towns? That, too, has been of limited value, because refineries, ports and other offloading facilities tend to be in big cities.

A fascinating read, especially for the train-savvy. Bill, if you're interested, I'd love to hear your insights as to where we should go from here, and how this situation can best be handled. I'm all for the shale-oil boom; my brother tells me that gas prices are, in fact, coming down these days, and that $1.99/gallon gas is just around the corner in northern Virginia. So I think it's in our best interest to make sure the oil gets where it needs to go with zero mishaps.


ask me anything

I now have a presence over at, a weird sort of social-networking site in which you, O Random Visitor, can pop over to my account (here) and ask me as many questions as your heart desires. I might not answer them all, and I might not answer immediately, but feel free to ask me whatever's on your mind.

I'm wondering whether this site might serve as an English-class tie-in—something to get my students dialoguing with each other. Anything's possible, right?


Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Why'd you kill that bird, asshole?"

In which I recount a recent, and bizarre, KMA experience.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

"standing over the grave of another dead president"

In which I discuss slackerism among certain colleagues.


Friday, December 12, 2014

all sexualed up

I just emerged from a required lecture on sexual harassment. According to our office, all faculty members are required by law to attend such workshops (although I have no idea how often we must attend). I had missed the one I'd signed up for—overslept, basically, after somehow convincing myself that the lecture I'd registered for was on Friday and not Thursday. I emailed my department's office to find out which alternative lectures I could attend to make up for my absence, and the only one to fit my schedule was a Korean-language lecture set to begin while I would still be in the middle of teaching a class: the lecture was slated for 4PM today, but I would be in class until 4:45PM. The office told me this would be no problem; I wrote the Korean coordinator of the lecture and apologized in advance for my future lateness; she was very nice and said I could pop in at 5PM.

The lecture hall was in a building all the way across campus. As seemed apropos for a presentation on sexual harassment, the air inside the lecture room was humid and sweaty. The lecturer, Ms. S, was the same lady with whom I had corresponded by email. She lectured with humor, citing personal anecdotes about harassment, along with anecdotes she had heard, all while moving us through a PowerPoint slide show. The slides were mostly text: each frame would describe an incident in some detail, and our job, as the audience, was to count up how many clear instances of sexual harassment we could detect in each narrative. This was done theatrically; Ms. S would say, "Who counted three instances? Raise your hand! Four? Five?" After that, she'd reveal the actual number of instances, and her revelation would be met with the predictable "ooh"s and "aah"s of a Korean audience. In all, it was lively. I got to the hall around 4:50PM and the lecture was over by 5:20PM. I received a suryo-jeung, a certificate of completion, at the end of the course; I promptly ferried the document over to my office, and the office assistant told me he'd give the certificate back to me soon. Maybe I should frame and mount it somewhere: "This certifies that Professor Kevin Kim has received his legally required education and is how ready to sexually harass all manner of colleagues and students in venues both public and private."

I'm going to sound like a damn sexual-harassing perv for saying this, but the lady giving the lecture was wearing extremely high heels, pants that may have been a bit too tight and revealing for a middle-aged woman, and a figure-hugging sweater. Was she serious when she dressed herself for a presentation on this particular topic? Not that I have any sympathy for the Taliban's burqa-happy sartorial aesthetic, but Koreans who speak publicly normally dress in such a way as to look the part of a dignified, learned personage. This lady, by contrast, dressed in a way that matched her relaxed, humorous speaking style, but it might have been better had she worn something a little less revealing. For what it's worth, though, I didn't harass her. I simply noticed.


Happy Birfday, Tom!

My buddy Tom turns 45 today. By way of wishing him a happy birthday, I asked Tom a rude, possibly unethical, blowjob-related question via text. The man is too busy, today, to do much of anything, so we might try to do something tomorrow to celebrate, or mourn, this milestone on the way to an old and ragged 90.

Hard to believe I've known this old fart since 1994. Good God, it's been twenty years!


Thursday, December 11, 2014

file under "bullshit"?

I do unpaid work for my current university in the form of something called "English Clinic." This is essentially a tutoring service in which I sit with students up to two hours a week, helping them in half-hour blocks with whatever English-related problems they bring to me. I actually enjoy the work, despite the lack of pay; the students have been great and the work we do tends not to be boring or dull. Besides, there's little point in complaining since I agreed to do such work when I signed the employment contract.

Today, a student showed me a speech she's going to give for her advanced-level English class. She decided to write on the topic of basketball—why she likes it and what benefits the activity provides. While reading her speech, I came upon this claim: playing basketball makes you grow taller by stimulating the cartilage in your body to gain more mass.

That bowled me over. I had never heard such a claim before, and I immediately filed it under "bullshit that proves Koreans will believe fucking anything," right along with fan death, the notion that blood type correlates with personality, and that eating a tiger's penis will turn you into a sexual dynamo. I actually had to pause, at that point in my reading, so I could try to hash the issue out with the student. I gave her my gut reaction: human growth is largely genetically determined, and it's doubtful that playing basketball can influence your height by more than, oh, a millimeter or two—and if basketball did influence your height, it would be for reasons similar to human "growth" in zero gravity: it's not so much growth, per se, as it is decompression. Perhaps all that jumping does something to stretch the spine. Then again, do basketball players really spend that much time actually jumping while on the court?*

As it turns out, there are websites that earnestly contemplate this question (here's one that looks at the issue and comes to a relatively sane conclusion), although I personally have trouble taking it seriously. I think the student has reversed cause and effect: naturally tall people gravitate toward playing basketball, a sport in which height is an advantage. It's not as though millions of short and average kids grow tall from playing basketball.

But some websites insist that the jumping aspect of basketball somehow stimulates the pituitary to release growth hormone. Others rattle on about stimulated "growth plates" (a new term for me, which I initially thought was voodoo bullshit, but which turned out to be a legitimate anatomical term). I'm trying to see whether the anti-ignorance sites like The Straight Dope have anything on this question, but I've had no luck thus far. (Granted, I've been searching online for only about ten minutes.)

Anyway, I think my intuition is correct and basketball has little to no significant influence on a person's height. It's just screamingly obvious to me that height is genetically determined. You might also say it's hormonally determined, but the glands releasing the relevant hormones are controlled by genes, which brings us back to genetics.

In the end, I told the student she was free to make whatever claims she wanted, and I simply tweaked her speech for grammar and usage. Inwardly, I realized her audience of fellow Koreans would be credulous enough to swallow her outlandish claim unquestioningly. Koreans sometimes are masters of the hermeneutic of suspicion: witness the way a flinty ajumma will squint cautiously at a display of produce as if each fruit or vegetable were potentially poisonous. Witness, too, the ways in which impending FTAs with foreign countries are parsed and re-parsed in public discourse by those who are leery of a more open market. But in other areas of life, Koreans really do believe some ridiculous things, a number of which I listed above. To be fair, there are Americans who believe in the vibratory power of crystals, the efficacy of homeopathic medicine, the existence of ancient astronauts, the sinister nature of the number thirteen, the healing power of prayer, and so on. These beliefs are no less wacky. But basketball? Making you taller? That caught me off guard.

*There's a form of exercise called plyometrics that is all about jumping. It might be useful to ask whether plyometrics has any effect on height. At a guess, it has none: if it did have a significant effect, plyometrics classes would be graduating platoon after platoon of suddenly tall people.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014


My step counts for December haven't been auspicious:

12/1: 7,791
12/2: 5,770
12/3: 7,869
12/4: 7,979
12/5: 6,721
12/6: 8,083
12/7: 7,483
12/8: 8,060
12/9: 15,324 (the day I went hunting for my lamp)
12/10: 6,829 thus far

I'm going to try to break 20,000 steps tonight, but I'm not hopeful. There's been some precipitation today, and things are a bit slippery—probably more so on the mountain. (In fact, I might not even do the mountain.) I've also got a very achy right knee; the ache has been with me for over a week. It's more annoying than debilitating, but the pain is enough to dampen any motivation to walk long distances. Still, when I see the above numbers, I feel ashamed enough to want to push through the pain and get my steps in, by hook or by crook.

Back when my yeogwan was cloaked in darkness, I didn't bother to weigh myself, but I'm pretty sure I've gained a couple kilos from both eating and not exercising enough. I'm actually afraid to step on the scale right now. Vacation is going to have to be devoted to losing weight faster; one of my advanced students told me she'd somehow managed to lose 30 kg in two months—a claim I find dubious, but she's sticking to her story. If such rapid weight loss is possible without outright starving oneself, I might give her regime a try. Once I find out what it is, of course. Maybe she did the Christian Bale "Machinist" diet: "water, an apple, and one cup of coffee per day, with the occasional whiskey" (approximately 55-260 calories), according to Wikipedia. Yeah, I suppose that would do the trick, right?

Another reason for the lack of motivation is undoubtedly that it's crunch time: this is Week 15 at Dongguk University, and all I have left to do this week is to conduct final-exam reviews. Next week, on Monday and Tuesday, we've got the final exams, then on Thursday and Friday I've got back-to-back jjong-parties. I've been prepping review materials and exams, and next week I'll be grading, grading, and grading some more. I then have to gather my teaching materials, scan them, turn them into a massive PDF "portfolio," and upload that portfolio to an online FTP space for God-only-knows-what reason. All of this has to be done by a certain due date, otherwise I'll be cursed and flung into a Buddhist hell. Or something like that.

So it's almost as though December is a lost cause—a major step backward in terms of average step counts. Perhaps this is just my month to slack off. I'll do what I can to stay afloat with my walking stats, but to be honest, I'm really not expecting high numbers. Not until January.


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

pup 2: the sequel

My first trip back to the pet store, this afternoon, resulted in bad photos because the sunlight caused too many reflections on the glass: I wasn't able to get a clear shot of the puppy. So I resolved to walk back to the store in the evening, and this time around I actually went inside. The pet store, which specializes in both dogs and cats, is kept cozily warm for the animals' sake. As I lumbered into the shop, many of the older dogs went nuts, yapping and pawing the glass, trying desperately to get my attention. But I had eyes only for this little guy:

I felt a pang, knowing that this tiny, fragile dachshund would never be mine, especially not when he costs W400,000 ("How much is that doggie in the window," indeed!). I took plenty of photos of him, though, including one in which he put his paw back up against the glass, just like the other day. Quite an extrovert, this one.


"Interstellar" redux

The website iO9 finally catches up with me and publishes an article titled "Stop Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction," which makes the same complaint I'd made about the spooky way in which the power of love is referenced in Christopher Nolan's new movie. An excerpt:

But there's a difference between wormhole travel, which is depicted superbly in Interstellar, and the idea that love is a "fifth dimension" that can allow a man to jump inside a black hole and travel backwards in time to communicate with his 10-year-old daughter. This is what we are asked to believe in Interstellar, whose climactic scene involves Cooper flying into the black hole Gargantua. Once he's gone inside, he's rescued by mysterious, fifth-dimensional beings who put him inside a tesseract box where time behaves like space — we can see millions of versions of his daughter's room around him, each representing a slice of time.

So far, we're on weird but still relatively solid ground when it comes to speculative science. Physicist Kip Thorne, who consulted on the movie, writes in a book called The Science of Interstellar that he could imagine such an event being plausible. Other physicists disagree with him, but that's not the problem. The real issue is that Cooper figures out how to contact his daughter by recalling what his colleague Brand told him — that love is a "force" that transcends dimensions just like time does. Using the force of "love" to guide him through the bewildering array of time-rooms, he finally finds the exact right version of his daughter to communicate with. And then he sends a message to her through time.

This is an example of confusing physics with metaphysics, or assuming that observable phenomena like gravity are the same as psychological states like love. Put another way, it blurs the line between science and spirituality without ever admitting that's what's going on.

Anyone who has seen the movie The Fifth Element is no stranger to this idea. The "fifth element" of the title is, in fact, love. Which turns out to be a physical force that can save the world. This idea is hinted at in widely-condemned pseudoscience documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, which suggests that quantum mechanics have revealed that anything we believe can come true — because our minds affect quantum reality. That is most definitely not what quantum physics suggests.

Again, the issue here isn't with saying that spiritual beliefs can intermingle with scientific reality. The problem is with category confusion. Just because two things are equally important does not mean they are the same. There is absolutely no evidence that love transcends time, but there is significant physical evidence that other dimensions do.

I'm not sure I agree with the writer's accusation that Nolan is never "admitting that's what's going on." I think the love thing was a conscious part of Nolan's agenda. It was hokey and definitely pseudo-sciencey, but Nolan knew what he was doing, and he knew that audiences would pick that up as one of the movie's central messages: the transcendent power of love. As I mentioned in my own review, though, I felt Nolan may have done a disservice to love by abstracting it from the spiritual and reducing it to a mere physical force:

The biggest problem for me, though, is tied to the movie's central theme. For my money, "Interstellar" descends into sentimental mush when it takes a concept like love and turns it from something metaphysical into a mere force of nature that—thematically, at least—resembles gravity. What exactly is the movie trying to say about love, and the ability it supposedly gives us to transcend time and space? Does love make us psychic, telepathic, prescient, or telekinetic? Is love truly one of the fundamental forces that bind the universe together? Is love a quantum-entanglement homing system that allows a father to find the right moment at which to contact his daughter from across the stars? This is, I felt, the point at which Nolan took his otherwise profound sci-fi film and handed the story over to religion. He was obviously trying to use gravity as a metaphor for the all-pervading, all-transcending power of love, but I'm not sure it worked. In fact, by reducing love to something merely physical, he may actually have cheapened the concept. Nolan succeeded at evoking a proper sentimentality early in the movie when he showed us Murph's sadness about her father's departure, but I feel that, the closer the director got to the ineffable, the more he stumbled.


close encounters

1. First encounter

While walking out of the vegetarian buffet today, I was waylaid by an older Korean gent who gestured at me as if he wanted to say something. I stopped politely by his table and waited. His lunch companions, all younger than he was, waited as well. The gentleman goggled at me, mouth agape, for about ten seconds before he finally asked in English:

"Are you Korean?"

It was a disarming question, despite coming from left field, because so many idiots fail to see any Korean blood in me, even though it's painfully obvious—to me, anyway—that I've got Koreanish traits: dark eyes, dark hair, a certain Asian roundedness to my facial features. Most Koreans look at me and see only a white guy, which I find astounding: when I was in France, a few people looked at me and told me right away that I looked Asian (I wrote about this here and here). I tend to view the Korean inability to see me for who I am as a function of the tightly meshed cultural filter through which Koreans perceive the world. If you don't exactly fit the Korean paradigm, that precise look, then you're screened out and not considered Korean. It's idiotic, as I said above, but there we are.

Anyway, this gent didn't exactly start off on the wrong foot because his question was, at the very least, more perceptive than what I usually hear. So I said, "Well, half-Korean" as a way to be polite. I could see where this was going, though, and I anticipated his next question before he asked it:

"Do you have time to sit down and talk?"

You see, this wasn't really about me: it was about him. He could obviously speak English, and he wanted to show that fact off to the juniors sitting at the table with him. I've been in situations like this before. Koreans are status-obsessed, and one way to up your status is to show off your ability to interact more or less fluently with foreigners, especially with admiring observers around you. I've been with Korean guys who spoke unnaturally loudly as a way of alerting all bystanders and passersby that, yes, they could speak the language of the foreigner. For this older gentleman, I was just a prop that allowed him to display his own prowess.

My feelings about this are complex. On the one hand, I privately consider it a point of pride to be able to navigate several different cultures—in my case, those cultures would be primarily American, French, Swiss, and Korean (add on some extra cultures, like Kiwi, Aussie, Brit, and Canuck, thanks to the diversity of my coworkers in the jobs I've had in Korea). I agree with the loudmouthed show-offs that being able to interact with The Other is actually a good thing, like being able to navigate the multicultural, polyglot environment of the Mos Eisley cantina. On the other hand, being obnoxious about this ability is just a turn-off, and the obnoxiousness itself actually hints at the fact that the loudmouth in question maybe isn't navigating the cultural waters as ably as he could.

I told the older gent that I didn't have time to talk right then, but I gave him my business card (he gave none in return, which was odd), so it's possible he'll be tracking me down again at some point. God help me. It's one thing to meet someone new and start up a conversation; it's quite another when the motivation for the conversation is obviously a chance for English free-talk and for showing off. I also don't like being used as a damn prop.

2. Second encounter

I went out after lunch and walked down to the Chungmuro/Eujiro district. I wanted to snap a pic of that adorable puppy that I'd written about before, and I also wanted to shop for a proper vertical lamp. While walking past the Ambassador Hotel, a taxi driver suddenly reversed his car, which placed him right alongside me but at a slight diagonal, such that I began to run out of space as I began walking along the hotel's driveway. The taxicab was eventually going to grind me against the hotel's well-manicured shrubbery, so I made my left hand into a fist and rapped sharply on the cab's surface, twice, to alert the driver to my presence. He hit the brakes quite suddenly, indicating to me that he wasn't deliberately trying to be obnoxious: he really had no clue I was next to his cab. So: not obnoxious—just an idiot.

3. Third encounter

In the Euljiro district, I finally found a lamp store selling a stand-up lamp for only W50,000, which comes out to about $45, US. That was perfect for me, so I snapped it up and bought two of the large bulbs that went with the lamp (bulbs were extra, alas, as was the electric cord, but the guy gave me a W1,000 discount). If I don't have an extra extension cord hiding in one of my boxes, I'm going to have to go buy one of those, too. The shopkeeper was one of those doofuses who refused to understand me when I spoke in Korean to him; I did what my buddy Tom does in such situations, and shamed him by speaking in slow baby-talk to let him know that his listening comprehension was the problem, not my pronunciation.

One stranger and two geniuses. Never a boring day.


Monday, December 08, 2014

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2": review

Some possible two-word reviews for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," a misbegotten sequel in a misbegotten reboot series:

Enormous turd.
Abysmally bad.
Frighteningly awful.
Just shite.

I'd heard the bad press surrounding Jamie Foxx's performance as Electro. Personally, I thought Foxx did a fine job with a poorly written character. As the YouTube spoof video Cinema Sins pointed out, the character made no damn sense, and seemed to gain powers at random—powers that eventually made Electro into a low-rent version of Dr. Manhattan from "Watchmen." And as other critics complained, the movie was overstuffed with villains: along with Electro, we've got the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, essentially reprising his role as the freaky telekinetic kid from "Chronicle") and The Rhino (essentially a cameo by a Russian-accented Paul Giamatti).

On top of these problems, there's Andrew Garfield and his Spidey character. Garfield has a huge fan base, and I respect the choices he's made to portray Spider-Man in a way that's distinct from what Tobey Maguire had done in the Spidey role, but I'm just not buying it. Maguire's Spider-Man is diffident—something of a lovable loser who, despite his awesome powers, would never engage in cruel or malicious activity. Garfield's Spidey, by contrast, is an unpleasant smart-mouth who won't hesitate to web a criminal in the crotch just for shits and giggles. There's also the matter of the inconsistent portrayal of Spidey-physics: there are moments when Garfield's Spider-Man is unaccountably weak despite having only recently displayed enormous strength. All in all, I thought the protagonist was written almost as poorly as the villains.

The Cinema Sins video points out far too many embarrassing plot holes and continuity problems for me to list here, but it essentially brings together everything that's bad about "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which is pretty much the whole movie. The story was awful from start to finish, and it's incredible that I managed to write even this much.


Sunday, December 07, 2014


In coming home from my KMA gig yesterday, I got sick of the Saturday crowd on the blue line and exited the subway early, at Chungmuro Station, which is walking distance from my neighborhood. I went out Exit 1, which took me past a couple of the many pet shops that line that section of Chungmu Street. As I walked by one particular shop, a little pup, all brown and black, caught my eye. I stopped and stared, utterly enchanted by the pup's fragile cuteness—the scrub-brush hairs sprouting from its muzzle, the huge eyes, ears, and paws. The pup, curled up and resting, sensed my presence and looked over its shoulder at me. When it saw me staring, it awkwardly stood up and moved toward the corner of its glass container. Then it made a gesture that nearly broke my heart: it placed a paw on the glass and wagged its little tail, and I felt as if I could read its mind: will you be my friend?

I wanted to buy the pup right then and there, scoop it up in my arms and bask in its uncomplicated loyalty and love. But I live in a yeogwan, and I'm gone from my residence all day. What kind of life would that be for a tiny, helpless little dog? Plus, I have no idea how much a dog costs, and have no clue as to what's involved, legally, in keeping a pet in Seoul. There are probably veterinary costs, ID forms to fill out, and who-knows-what else. Could I afford all that? Probably not. Not for years. Sadly, I turned away and walked on. I imagine the pup went back to the spot where it had been resting, curling up and waiting for the next potential friend. I hope it finds a good, loving owner.

I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again: if I ever do get myself a dog, I'm going to name it Joongsaeng, the Buddhist term for a sentient being. This would be a bit like giving it the name Living Creature in English, a thought that amuses me to no end, because although joonsaeng can be roughly translated as "living creature," the phrase "living creature" has a somewhat different connotation in English, seeing as it comes out of the Bible. I'd be curious to know whether the biblical phrase "living creature" is rendered as joongsaeng in a Korean Bible. At a guess: probably not.*

*Why guess when one can do online research? This page suggests that "living creatures" is rendered as saengmul-deul (living things) in a Korean Bible (Ezekiel 1:15).


no vert-lamps for old men

The fluorescent light in my yeogwan conked out late last week. A few days before it died, the light began strobing entertainingly, which made me feel I was living inside a nightclub. Then, just like Jesus, the damn thing chose to die on Friday. Unfortunately, there's been no resurrection, and I somehow neglected to tell the yeogwan ajeossi about my situation until yesterday, after I had gotten back from an all-day teaching session at KMA in Yeouido (that session deserves a write-up in itself: it was probably the weirdest class I've ever taught at KMA). The ajeossi gave me a new fluorescent bulb to put into the fixture, but the fixture itself was ancient, and something snapped irrevocably when I twisted the old bulb out. I'm now unable to put the new bulb in, which means I'm trapped in the dark. For the moment, this is more entertaining than it is inconvenient, but I can sense that this might get old fast.

So today, Sunday, I went hunting for a simple vertical lamp—just a plain old stand-up doohickey that I could stick next to my bed, and which would provide plenty of light. Walmart sells the sort of lamp I'm looking for for under $40. After visiting various lighting shops in the Euljiro/Saeun-sanga district, I was unable to find anything comparable for under $70, which was a ridiculous, wallet-raping price. I might be willing to go as high as $50 for the Korean version of a vertical lamp, but after having talked with several shopkeepers today, I despair of finding such an animal unless I turn to, say, the online flea market (or some hidden corner of Namdaemun Market), or try my luck with Costco and/or Craigslist. All the shopkeepers I interviewed seemed convinced that I'd find no such lamp for under $70—this after having shown them, on my cell phone, the very same Walmart lamp that I linked to above.

Prices for household items in Korea generally aren't that exorbitant, but when it comes to electrical and electronic products, you can expect to lube up and be ass-fucked. This is one aspect of life in Korea that still boggles my mind, even after ten years here: the peninsula has become a global power in terms of electronics, so how can its prices for such products be so goddamn high? All I can think of is that it's a bit like the prices for Korean-produced fruit: the market is largely closed to competition (and any foreign products are tariffed to death, making them prohibitively expensive), so the companies controlling the market can run the prices up as high as they want.

A further wrinkle: it's not as though Korean consumers are stupid and completely oblivious to what's happening, either: enough Koreans travel to America and return with reports of cheap electronics that most of my own students know full well what's going on. But this awareness somehow doesn't translate into a sense of injustice—a desire to open the Korean market to competition or to demand that companies lower their unfair prices. There's been only one recent exception: Koreans got wind that the Korea-based branch of Swedish furniture giant IKEA has been wildly overcharging Korean customers. For some reason, this knowledge produced blowback, but in most other cases, there's been no comparable reaction. That's a shame, but apparently that's how it goes in Korea: selective outrage.*

Anyway, what all this means for Uncle Kevin is that I'm going to try to find a cheaper alternative to what's available up the street from my neighborhood. The shopkeepers I'd spoken with during today's reconnoiter suggested that I try more shops during the week: it's Sunday, after all, and many of the shops are closed. But I suspect I'm just going to hear more of the same, unless by some miracle there's that one shop in Saeun-sanga that's selling vertical lamps for super cheap in honor of the Buddha or something.

*To be fair, Americans are pretty good at selective outrage, too.