Friday, November 28, 2014

"to punctuate the dreariness"


One of my students makes a piss-poor fashion choice.


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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans! I'm working today and shopping tonight, but tomorrow evening, after work, I'll be heading out to my buddy Charles's place to sit down for a non-traditional post-Thanksgiving dinner with my friend Tom and my KMA boss Patrick. It's potluck-style, so I'll be bringing a load of choucroute alsacienne; Charles will be making chicken pot pies, cranberry sauce, and green salad; and Tom's wife will be cooking up a load of Asian-style pork tenderloin—all of which sounds magnificent to me. Dessert will be Charles's apple crumble, and I'm bringing along a Costco-purchased tin of Belgian-chocolate "crêpe" cookies. Photos of bloated bellies to appear soon, I'm sure.


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Ferg without the Craigy

Man, I love the smell of racial unrest in the morning!

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri has been commented to death, but I thought I'd add my two cents before the dust of the riots actually settled.

My own position on this situation is a bit nuanced and is, admittedly, based on only a couple bits of evidence that I think are both important and relevant. Obviously, my thoughts are those of a complete non-expert in legal matters, so feel free to commit the genetic fallacy and dismiss what I say because of who I am. That dismissal might not be so fallacious in this case.

As I told my Golden Goose coworker yesterday, I don't think Officer Darren Wilson is completely innocent. This isn't like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, which I found to be a clear-cut case of self-defense. True: Brown was much larger, and very likely was enraged, perhaps even to the point of murderous rage. I haven't examined the testimonies closely enough to form an opinion. What I do know, though, is that Darren Wilson undeniably shot Mike Brown six times, and that Wilson, in the hospital photos that finally showed up online, didn't really appear injured, except for a slight discoloration on his face that might have come from a fist or an open hand.

Mike Brown is as large and bulky as I am—maybe larger. If I were of small stature, and if someone like that came down on me like a ton of bricks, I'd probably fear for my life, too. But would I shoot him six times? I doubt it—especially if I had received police training and knew the necessity of keeping my head in a crisis situation. By my reckoning, firing six shots is excessive force, and there's just not enough photographic evidence of Officer Wilson's injuries for me to feel he was justified in emptying most or all of his gun into Brown (I don't know what sort of firearm Wilson had).

I'm not saying flat-out that Officer Wilson murdered Mike Brown in cold blood. That would be committing the fallacy of the excluded middle: going from one extreme notion to another without considering the middle ground. And the middle ground in this case—or maybe we should call it the muddled ground—is that the truth is very likely that neither party was a saint in all this. Officer Wilson could have exercised restraint, and Mike Brown is responsible for making the poor choices that led to his death. The injustice, as I see it, is that Officer Wilson has escaped indictment, thanks to a grand jury's decision that there is nothing to charge Wilson with. (Grand juries aren't the same as regular juries.)

Reason.com recently published an article, linked to by Instapundit, that I largely agree with. On Instapundit itself, plenty of conservative commenters have been expressing vehement disagreement with the article, but I think they're all letting their emotions cloud their ability to think. Most of the comments are along the lines of "putting Wilson on trial would simply be to appease the mob." That's not how I see it at all. I think there are legitimate questions about how Officer Wilson handled himself, and by rights he should take the stand in a court of law to answer them. His hands aren't clean, despite his claims that his conscience is clean.

There are, of course, larger questions of ambient and institutional racism in America that deserve civil, intelligent discussion. I'm not sure how likely it is that we'll ever see such discussion, alas: race in America always leads to the circus. This is Tom Wolfe's world, this bonfire of the vanities, and we're unlucky enough to be living in it.

One final comment: the riots and the rioters are idiots. My coworker pointed out that many of the rioters aren't even from Ferguson, which is sad when you think about it: people actually made the effort to come to another town to trash that town's property. Businesses will be crippled; damage will create huge financial setbacks; nothing remotely like "social justice" will materialize from all this sound and fury. Ferguson has become a cosmic joke, and all truly is moving according to Tom Wolfe's cynical plan.


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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

night hiking

I'm a nocturnal hiker. Here's a selfie from last night (i.e., Tuesday night), when I was on the short path that connects Dongguk University's campus to the main Namsan hiking path. I stood facing a lamp for this shot, hence the harsh lighting conditions. One thing that leaped out at me was how unbelievably old I now look:


I walked 22K steps yesterday. My current average is now over 14K, and I think I'm no longer in any danger of slipping below my October performance. I won't be anywhere near a 15K average by the end of the month, but at least I'll be able to say there was improvement—not to mention room for even more improvement. December awaits.




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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

golbaengi row

I love golbaengi (sea snails), and I've blogged about them before (here and here, for example). With golbaengi, it's as if God had made a special effort to develop a living creature that could fit perfectly inside a human mouth, all while tasting fantastic.

Years ago, my buddy JW introduced me to a golbaengi pasta restaurant in the Chungmuro district of Seoul. The pasta was a chewy, spicy, jjol-myeon style, and it was fantastic. This dish struck me as the fiery Korean answer to spaghetti with meatballs—with the golbaengi, those fat little dollops of goodness, as an analogue for the beef and pork.

I live right up the street from Chungmuro now, and whenever I walk along Euljiro and reach Euljiro 3-ga Station's Exits 11 and 12, at the intersection of Euljiro and Supyoro, I find myself right by Golbaengi Row, where a cluster of golbaengi restaurants is located. One of these days, I need to hike on over to those restos and give them all a try.


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Monday, November 24, 2014

"Interstellar": review

To the great frustration of atheistic fans of so-called "hard" science fiction, we religious-studies majors are kept in business by Hollywood's vexatious—or is it amusing?—tendency to use science fiction as a cover for religious messages, imagery, themes, and concepts. Christopher Nolan's latest film, "Interstellar," seems to follow this well-worn path, so strap in, Dear Reader, because this review is going to be a long and bumpy ride, much like Matthew McConaughey's trip into that awesome wormhole. And a warning: there will be spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, you should probably stop reading now.

Still with me? Well, good. Eh bien, continuons.

I'll start with a general impression: "Interstellar" was much, much easier to decipher than "Inception" was. (In fact, I probably need to re-watch "Inception" a second, third, and fourth time before I begin to understand its wrinkles.) Despite the weirdly recursive nature of the plot of "Interstellar," the story isn't that hard to follow. That being said, I'm not sure I stand with the majority of critics and viewers who unreservedly liked this film. There was one powerful moment that moved me to tears, and there was imagery that, while not exactly mind-blowing, was nevertheless fascinating, but the whole seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. Some of this review will be devoted to exploring why, exactly, that might be the case.

"Interstellar" stars Matthew McConaughey as "Coop" Cooper, a frustrated pilot/astronaut/farmer and widower who finally receives the mission he's been waiting for: the salvation of humanity. The Earth is dying, you see: it's the near future, and our planet is suffering from massive waves of a mutating blight that has been progressively destroying crops the world over, leaving little but dust in the blight's wake. American growers have been reduced to cultivating corn, which seems to be one of the last crops able to withstand the blight. For some odd reason, never explained in the movie, militaries no longer exist, and people are apparently left to police themselves: the random dust storms maintain civic order by making people focus on them instead of on each other. University entrance has become highly selective; most students are tracked to become farmers, as happens to Coop's son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, then Casey Affleck as the older Tom). Along with his son, Coop has a plucky little daughter named Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then later the not-so-little Jessica Chastain). Stubborn and inquisitive like her scientist father, Murph claims she's being visited by ghosts—poltergeists, to be more precise—that she feels are trying to communicate with her. Coop is skeptical, but he suggests that Murph approach the problem scientifically, gathering empirical evidence and filtering that evidence through inductive and deductive reasoning. Surprisingly, it turns out that someone or something is trying to communicate by leaving signs in Murph's room: a sort of bar-code message, neatly laid out as piles of dust, appears on Murph's floor, and Coop immediately understands that the dust landed in this pattern because some intelligence can manipulate gravity. The bar code turns out to be map coordinates: the map coordinates lead Murph and Coop to a hardened NORAD facility, where Coop stumbles upon his old mentor, Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine), who now works with what remains of NASA. In mythological terms, this is the moment when Coop, our hero, receives his Call to Adventure from the Wisdom Figure.

Brand brings Coop up to speed: a gravity-manipulating superintelligence has opened up a wormhole near Saturn, and information coming through the wormhole has allowed our scientists to surmise that, first, it leads to a completely different galaxy and, second, it will deposit any travelers near several potentially habitable planets. A multi-pronged project, called "Lazarus missions," has sprung up around this discovery: "Plan A" involves eventually depositing all of humanity on the most viable of the candidate worlds, and "Plan B" involves a "population bomb" in which human embryos by the hundreds or thousands will be "seeded" onto one world (presumably with caretakers). By the time Brand paints this picture for Coop, three intrepid astronauts—Miller, Edmunds, and Mann—have already gone through the wormhole, each having been assigned a world to explore. These alien planets orbit close to Gargantua, a supermassive black hole whose temporal horizon causes major Einsteinian time dilation, and whose gravity, even at distance, affects planetary surface and tectonic conditions. The earthbound scientists have had little news from the Lazarus astronauts aside from a tantalizing "thumbs-up" signal or two; Coop's mission will be to track the Lazarus astronauts down in a ship called the Endurance, accompanied by a mixed team of scientists and blocky-looking AI robots. He will then recover any data related to the planets, send the data back to Earth and, assuming the success of Plan A, act as the vanguard for the eventual exodus of humanity from its homeworld. Coop says yes to the mission.

This brings me to what was, by my reckoning, the most heart-wrenching moment in the film. Coop knows he'll be gone for years; he's aware that time dilation near the black hole might even mean he'll be gone for decades, in Terran terms. All the same, he has to say goodbye to his son and daughter. Tom is stoic about the whole thing and promises to maintain the farm as best he can; Murph, by contrast, refuses to speak with her father, angrily rejecting his attempts to have them part on good terms. In tears, Coop leaves the homestead and heads for Saturn and the wormhole. As he drives away, Murph runs out of the house, screaming for her father, but it's too little, too late: he doesn't see her, and he keeps on driving.

The movie's focus now shifts to the Endurance, and to Coop and his team of fellow astronauts. Among them is young Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), the prickly daughter of Coop's mentor. Also aboard are Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley of "American Beauty" fame). We fast-forward past the two-year sublight journey to Saturn, and it's not long before we approach the wormhole and dive in. The special effects for this ride, and for other cosmic events in the movie, were guided by physics god Kip Thorne, so this is, supposedly, a more or less faithful representation of what it might be like to plunge into a wormhole: there's plenty of rumbling and shaking (Nolan was, however, smart enough not to use any sound effects during the external shots in space, as space has no air or other medium through which to propagate sound), and Hans Zimmer's grandiose, pipe-organ-heavy score swells like an apotheosis happening inside a planet-sized cathedral. The visual feel of the wormhole strongly reminded me of both "Contact" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." I'll have a lot to say about the Clarke/Kubrick connection later. For now, it's enough to remark that the encounter with the wormhole is played as an encounter with the ineffable: young Dr. Brand is actually able to "shake hands" with some mysterious being during the transition to the other side, almost as if she were greeting a god.

I suppose we could divide "Interstellar" into four movements. First is the terrestrial prelude, during which we learn about the blight, about humanity's need to relocate off-planet, and about Coop's call to adventure. This movement ends with the trip into the wormhole. The second movement is the team's exploration of the worlds orbiting Gargantua; this phase ends when Dr. Mann (Matt Damon, looking a bit timeworn himself) proves to have survived planetfall, but betrays the Endurance crew and damages the Endurance itself, thus transitioning us to the movie's third movement: Coop's plunge into Gargantua and his encounter with an extradimensional view of time. The fourth movement, a sort of coda or epilogue, finds Coop back among fellow humans, young-looking but over 120 years old by Terran reckoning, where he encounters his aged daughter (now played by Ellen Burstyn) and is given another life-mission—perhaps his most important one, which is to find love again.

The most major spoiler of this film has to do with the central mystery about the alien intelligence: we learn bits and pieces about this intelligence throughout the first two-thirds of the plot, but the full reveal comes in the final third of the movie, when Coop realizes that the aliens are us: future humans who have successfully moved offworld and have mastered the navigation and manipulation of more than the three physical dimensions with which we're all familiar. It is we who created the wormhole; it is our future selves, reaching into the past, who are the catalyst for our race's salvation. God only knows what sort of time paradoxes this maneuver evokes; at the very least, the idea of humanity rescuing itself from disaster implies a "Star Trek"-style causality loop: for future humanity to evolve into its time-transcending form, the rescue has to happen, and people have to get offworld. The future humans' ability to manipulate gravity has given them the power to reshape black holes into gravitational tools: when Coop falls inside Gargantua, he ends up in a weird, Escher-esque, interstitial space (called a "tesseract" by TARS, one of the robot companions who also dropped into the black hole*) that allows him to navigate moments as if they were physical instantiations.

One prominent theme of "Interstellar," albeit not the most important one, is betrayal. Ten-year-old Murph feels betrayed and abandoned by her father when he leaves Earth on the wormhole mission. Decades later, and now a NASA scientist herself, she's still bitter, although she seems to have reconciled herself to the notion that her father will never come back. Matt Damon's Dr. Mann, a coward who is desperate for rescue, places himself in hibernation after faking data that advertise his assigned planet's viability. Dr. Mann attempts to kill Coop during a walk on the planet's surface, cracking Coop's faceplate but turning off the audio of Coop's gasping because he doesn't have the stomach to listen to someone die. Mann seems a bit of a paradox: he wants off his planet, but he also seems to want to continue with Plan B of the mission, which means heading toward Edmunds's world. The third major betrayal is from Michael Caine's Professor Brand: Brand had been trying to find a way to effect a gravity-powered mass exodus from the Earth, but because he claimed to be unable to reconcile quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity—to establish a Grand Unified Theory, in other words—no solution was in sight. In reality, Brand had worked through the math to understand that, given the current state of human knowledge, mastery of gravity was impossible, which in turn meant the Lazarus missions to the alien worlds beyond the wormhole were little more than a vain gesture. Secretly, Brand understood that Plan B was truly humanity's only hope: through Plan B, Earthlings would seed another galaxy with life and begin again.

What's left of the Endurance's crew (Doyle is killed by a rogue wave on Miller's time-dilated planet,** and Romilly is killed in an explosion set by Dr. Mann on Mann's planet) figures out that data from the singularity at the heart of Gargantua might lead to a breakthrough on Earth, allowing the earthbound scientists to create the grav-tech needed to evacuate the planet and fulfill Plan A. After Dr. Mann betrays the Endurance's crew and damages the Endurance, Coop points the vessel toward Edmunds's world and jettisons himself and TARS toward Gargantua, leaving Dr. Brand fille to head toward the final planet alone. Based on a surmise by Romilly, Coop is banking on surviving entry into the black hole, and is further hoping somehow to transmit data back to Earth to help Murph, now all grown up and working beside old Professor Brand, solve the riddle of gravity and salvage Plan A (humanity's mass exodus).

Coop's trip into the black hole ties several major story strands together, and it also reveals what I believe to be the movie's fundamental theme: the transcendent power of love. Young Dr. Brand gives a speech, at one point, after the crew discovers she's been in love with Edmunds (whom we never see). She puts forward the idea that love offers a type of connection that bypasses the strictures of time and space: like gravity, love is a phenomenon that pervades reality and exceeds the physical dimensions we know. Also like gravity, which unaccountably operates over great distances,*** love is an attractive force, but it's a force that brings sentient beings, and not mere physical objects, together. Coop uses his love for his daughter to guide him through the tesseract's maze of moments in order to find just the right time in which to transfer the black hole's telemetry. The ghost that Murph thought she was dealing with turns out to be Coop himself. Coop is also the author of young Dr. Brand's spooky "handshake" moment inside the wormhole.

I'll give Nolan credit for not taking the easy route and pinning all this mystery on godlike extraterrestrials. It is, when you think about it, a very Nolanish maneuver to find human answers to human questions; there's a sort of comforting solipsism that underlies the plot of "Interstellar." In the end, it won't be some deus ex machina that saves us: it'll be us. Just us. It's a bit trite to say that Nolan has written a story in which the journey into outer space becomes a journey into inner space, but that's about the way this movie plays out.

There was a lot to like about "Interstellar." Nolan, as is routine with him, doesn't insult his audience's intelligence by making things too simple: a viewer of Nolan's movies is often required to think his way through the plot, and that can even mean pondering the images and concepts long after leaving the theater. The visuals in this movie were generally magnificent—on a par with "Gravity," evoking the majesty and grandeur of space, of wormholes, of black holes, and of alien worlds with no aliens on them. The corny problems normally associated with benevolent aliens are neatly dismissed by making the aliens human: why else would an alien species take so much interest in humanity's survival, anyway? And why would Murph's bedroom be the focus of gravitational disturbances? In terms of its story, "Interstellar" was fairly solidly constructed. The acting was also top-notch; Matthew McConaughey was the perfect leading man for the job, and little Mackenzie Foy, as Coop's daughter Murph at age ten, now has the distinction of making me cry during a movie. Her performance was deeply affecting. Anne Hathaway did a decent job of evoking her inner Catwoman-bitch as Dr. Brand; she walked the fine line between unlikable and sympathetic. Michael Caine, as the scientist who fooled everybody, was as solid as he's ever been. The quirky AI robots, imbued with a sense of humor and the ability to dial down their frankness to preserve delicate human egos, were amusing to watch. They moved about with a certain blocky charm, producing extra appendages at need like giant, living multitools.

But the movie had problems, not least of which is that it was amazingly weepy. Korean audiences love mawkish over-sentimentality, but I prefer my characters to show a little spine and not to break down every fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, in "Interstellar," tears and snot flow freely for much of the story. At the beginning of this essay, I noted that the whole seemed less than the sum of its parts. One problem was that I felt Nolan recycled certain visual tropes from "Inception." Most obviously recycled was all the zero-gee maneuvering in both real, physical space and the uncanny interstitial space of the tesseract inside Gargantua (an effect that could have come courtesy of Spike Jonze, a man who likes weirding people out visually). Also recycled were the "terrain folded on itself" motifs: there's a scene in "Interstellar" in which a craft is flying through a planet's atmosphere, mountains simultaneously above and below it, as if we were revisiting the folded-over city of Paris from "Inception." Later on, when Coop wakes up inside a huge, cylindrical ship (orbiting Saturn?), we see the ship's interior curving upward and overhead, all objects held in place, we can assume, by the ship's axial spin.**** Hans Zimmer's pipe-organ music was intrusive and overbearing; the swell-to-crescendo of the organ was effective the first time I heard it (at the moment when the Endurance first arcs delicately into the wormhole); by the second or third time, I felt the crescendo was overkill. Also, I was highly annoyed by Matt Damon's character, Dr. Mann. Mann doesn't speak naturally: he sermonizes and soliloquizes like a character from an early Michael Crichton novel. Mann seems to be little more than an exposition-spewing plot device; when he finally dies—as I knew was going to happen—his death comes as a great relief. And speaking of things I knew would occur: I knew, the moment I saw the old people on the video screens at the beginning of the story, that those decrepit folks were voices from the future, and that their testimonies had not been filmed on Earth. Nailed that prediction.

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 binds 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.

This brings me to the topic of the movie's deep creative debt to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name. A quick side note: Kubrick and Clarke worked simultaneously, and in dialogue, on their respective projects. Clarke provided the germ, but after that, he and Kubrick essentially worked in tandem to create the story of one astronaut's journey through a stargate in inadvertent pursuit of mankind's ultimate destiny. "Interstellar" often felt like a rehash of Kubrick's "2001." Nolan's wormhole, and its trippy interior, was an analogue for Kubrick's monolith-stargate. Mankind's ultimate destiny was a major concept in both films as well. The fact that we never get to see the future humans, those inscrutable masters of gravity and time, echoes the way in which the alien minds that crafted the Monolith in "2001" remain forever behind the scene. Nolan himself didn't deny the Clarke/Kubrick influence: "You can't pretend '2001' doesn't exist when you're making 'Interstellar,'" he averred. "Interstellar" may as well be 2014's "2001."

I'll grant that the movie was fascinating enough for me to want to write at length about it. Christopher Nolan isn't shy about being an idea guy; his movies—even "The Dark Knight"—are charged with grand, compelling themes. In "Interstellar," Nolan tackles the familiar territory of the mystery of human nature, but he also attempts to say something about the respective natures of time, gravity, and love. I'm not so sure that this works, and the fact that Nolan recycled tropes from previous films gave me the impression that he may have been a bit too creatively exhausted to handle the concepts he wanted to handle in "Interstellar." But Nolan gets credit for trying, and that's more than I can say for most directors out there, who seem content to spoon-feed information to the audience.

In the end, "Interstellar" aims to be a message of hope for humanity: we can evolve; we can self-transcend; things can work out in the end for us. This is a big, ponderous, loud, deep, recursive, convoluted, well-acted movie. There are elements of the story that work well enough to move an impassive guy like me to tears, and other elements that fall flat. As several critics have noted, the movie's sound design does tend to drown out dialogue, but these auditory difficulties happen at points where a lack of audibility makes the most sense, such as when engines are firing or when we're rumbling through the innards of a wormhole. "Interstellar," which could easily have been titled "Intergalactic," is earnest and un-cynical. It doesn't quite succeed in its attempt to be profound, but it's an impressive ride. That said, I'm not sure I'm in any hurry to rush out and see it again.


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ADDENDUM: After writing this massive review, I realized I had left out a couple important remarks. The first regards theme: another major theme of "Interstellar" is the will to survive. "Do not go gentle into that good night," intones old Professor Brand, quoting Dylan Thomas, when the Endurance team launches. "Do not go gentle" is also Brand's dying utterance to Murph. Dr. Mann, after cracking Coop's faceplate, tells Coop that the desperation Coop is feeling is thanks to that ancient survival instinct kicking in. The Lazarus missions, Plan A, and Plan B can be seen as humanity's last gasp as it attempts to escape its own fate.

My second remark regards the point of view we're privy to while Coop is inside Gargantua's tesseract. This is a theological moment, because even though Coop can move and breathe and think like a typical, spatiotemporally constrained, three-dimensional being, he's floating around in a space with substantially more than three physical dimensions—a space that puts him in the godlike position of being beyond time. This allows him to navigate moments and, also in a godlike way, to interact with them physically. (In a bit of humorous NPR commentary, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wonders aloud as to why Coop felt obliged to send his message to Murph in binary or Morse when he could simply have spelled his message out in plain English. This should have been possible if Coop, from within the tesseract, was able to manipulate matter in whatever moment he targeted. Instead of bar codes, why not letters?)

Although survival is a pervasive theme in "Interstellar," I'd still contend that Nolan's basic thrust is about the all-encompassing nature of love. The love/gravity connection or association is a sly way of implying that the supernatural is woven in and through the natural, and that humanity, per Teilhard de Chardin's vision, is on its way to an evolutionary Omega Point sometime far in the future. We want to survive, but we survive through love, and love fills the cosmos. This is an interesting, and potentially comforting, idea—comforting in the way many religious notions can be comforting. Perhaps by making the concept of love into a physical force, Nolan is simply trying to say that love is the most natural thing there is.




*This is a somewhat more proper use of the term "tesseract" than the silly appellation we get in "The Avengers," where "The Tesseract" refers to a cube that is an extradimensional portal through which massive amounts of energy can flow.

**An hour on the surface of Miller's world is seven years outside the influence of Gargantua; because of the planet's immense rogue waves, the away crew takes more than three hours to return to the Endurance; Romilly spends twenty-three years in orbit, whiling away the time and trying not to go insane or start engines and move on to another world.

***Most physical forces follow an inverse-square law, i.e., the amount of force varies inversely with the square of the distance in question. Example: let's say two objects at a distance of 1 unit from each other experience 1 unit of attractive pull. If those objects moved to a distance of 2, the force of the pull (assuming the inverse-square law is in operation) would be 1/4 of the original force (1/22). If they moved to a distance of 3, the force would be only 1/9 the original pull (1/32). And so on: F = k/d2. The inverse-square law means that most forces fade rapidly to insignificance over large stretches of space. Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation is also an inverse-square law... and yet gravity obtains over unimaginably huge distances, holding stars together in galaxies, and perhaps even holding galaxies together in galactic clusters. Gravity's ability to operate over galactic distances is still something of a mystery; see here. Christopher Nolan, in writing this story, may have been aggressively exploiting this gap in human knowledge to craft his tale of love and time.

****I'm at pains to avoid saying "centrifugal force," since there's a great deal of debate as to whether such a force even exists.


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Sunday, November 23, 2014

family tragedy

I'll keep this short: I just learned that the mother of one of my best buddies in the States very suddenly died of a heart attack not even an hour ago. For his family's privacy's sake, I won't elaborate. It's enough to say that I feel the bottom has dropped out of my world, and if that's how I feel, I can only begin to imagine how my friend feels, and how this must be impacting my friend's father, who now finds himself bereft of his life-long companion.


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Saturday, November 22, 2014

...for tomorrow we walk

I'll be meeting my two girls from Sookmyung again tomorrow for a nice Sunday promenade up Namsan. Da-jeong and Yeon-ji don't sound ready to try double-summiting, but they've consented to single-summit the mountain, then walk into Jongno with me to sit down and eat dinner somewhere. I hope Jongno isn't as crowded on Sunday evenings as it is on Saturday evenings. Tonight, I might or might not walk very far, and in all likelihood, I won't be heading up the mountain. I double-summited again last night and ended up walking 21.8K steps. Tonight, I'll be happy just to make 15K.


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coming soon

A slew of movie reviews will be headed your way:

•"Interstellar," which I just saw today (Saturday the 22nd)
•"Joe," staring an uncharacteristically subdued Nicolas Cage
•"God Bless America," a film by Bobcat Goldthwait, starring Joel Murray, brother of Bill
•"Jiro Dreams of Sushi," which is pretty much what it sounds like
•"Tim's Vermeer," which explores the mystery of how Vermeer painted so photo-realistically
•"127 Hours," starring James Franco: true story about the dude who cut off his own forearm


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my brother's canine

My brother David sent me another clutch of pictures of his cute dog Penny. Here she is, thinking deep thoughts while communing with the squashes:








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Friday, November 21, 2014

21.2K last night

21.2K steps done yesterday. We'll see whether I'm a go for another 21.2K steps tonight. November is coming to a close, and I feel that I'm no nearer to bringing my average up above 14K steps per day. I've been sick, I've been lazy, I've been tired, and all these lapses have resulted in a sagging average. It could simply be that I'm close to the asymptote: trying to hit 15K steps isn't as easy as it seems.

What's interesting, though, is that double-summiting has now become routine. It's the new baseline: single-summiting feels like slumming, as if I were letting myself down. It's no longer enough just to walk the 12K or 13K steps that a single-summiting involves; when I double-summit, I'm normally going for about 20K, give or take a thousand steps. I'll very likely be double-summiting tonight.


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my little leftists

My reading/writing students are, this week, presenting the results of their projects. The students were given two projects to do this semester, and we teachers were allowed to pick what type of projects we'd have our kids doing. I chose a problem/solution scenario; for the first project, the students only had to do some research into a problem—social, economic, whatever–that had some relevance to their majors, after which they had to present their findings to me orally.* For the second project, the students had a three-part task: (1) teach the class some English vocabulary words that they had encountered in their research, (2) write a 5-paragraph problem-solution essay, and (3) sit in for a Q&A session with the teacher.

The essays have been a bit depressing. Although these kids generally write at a higher level than the equivalent intermediate-level kids at my previous job, they have all, thus far, advocated some sort of government-centered measure for every problem they've researched. It doesn't seem to matter what the problem is: whether it's nuclear waste or the need for college grads to find decent jobs right out of school, my kids seem to think that the Korean government has all the power and all the answers. How to get more kids studying the natural sciences instead of medicine? Have the government offer more scholarships in that area. How to deal with nuclear power plants? Government regulation and funding. How to get kids more interested in math? Get the government to revamp the math curriculum. And so on. This has been a bit disappointing, but it hasn't been surprising.



*This is not how I would have designed the project, but the decision to format the projects this way wasn't mine. Were it up to me, a project for a reading/writing class would involve only reading and writing, not oral components. I'd probably assign an essay or a short paper.


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Thursday, November 20, 2014

in a strange place

This is turning out to be a singularly weird week. I'm not sure what it is, but things feel out of balance, off-kilter. Just plain weird.

I didn't walk up the mountain last night, as it turned out. I stayed in and watched "Joe" (starring Nicolas Cage) on my laptop, then went to sleep fairly early—if 2AM is early. My yeogwan isn't equipped with an ondol (heated floor), so it's cold indoors. The bed has a large heating pad on it, but I'm afraid to turn it on for fear that I'll die in a fire. This isn't completely irrational: the yeogwan manager uses huge safety pins to lock down the bedding, and he punches those pins right through the electric heating pad, quite possibly nicking some wires in the process. My fear of an electrical fire is, pardon the electrician's pun, grounded.

Can't quite put my finger on what the general problem is, but time and events are flowing strangely this week, and I don't have my bearings. Maybe there's a Korean term for this mental state—hell, for all I know, there's a proper English term for it. But I don't know the term any more than I understand why I feel so off-balance.

Will meditate on this. My starting point will be: what would need to happen for things to feel right again? Maybe I just need to win the lottery, buy an island, and chill.


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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

heading home

A long day in an office in Daechi-dong, and now it's time to head home. Heading up the mountain tonight. Not yet sure how far I'll walk.


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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

the things you see when you don't have a gun

The complaint used to be that Seoul didn't have much interesting going on in terms of art and architecture. I can't speak for the city's architecture, but I beg to differ when it comes to art. On one of my nightly walks, when I wasn't far from Cheonggyae Stream, I came across this stately fellow, whom I've passed by several times since:


When it's dark, it's easy to imagine the above whale, obviously undead, swimming lazily through the air as it patrols downtown Seoul, paradoxically light and heavy, like a bus floating in interstellar space. Is it a predator? Does it fight for justice? Is it on a mission of revenge, after which its bones will return to their underground repose? Only Cthulhu knows.


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Monday, November 17, 2014

Pritz und Fritz

My take on the whole Pritz thing:


I love it when the Koreans trot out the Nazi regalia, then feign wide-eyed innocence in the age of the Internet. A bit like Koreans in blackface, eh? "We honestly had no idea that this would be offensive to anyone!"

In case you missed the brouhaha: Pritz is apparently an obscure girl group who decided to wear outfits that look suspiciously like Nazi uniforms. The costume designer denied this, unconvincingly citing a completely different inspiration for the girls' gear. What Pritz gets out of this is free publicity, so I suppose the whole thing is a win-win, unless you're Jewish.


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QUADRUPLE SUMMIT, BABY!

I'm desperate to bring my November walk average back up, so on Sunday I decided to take matters into my own tentacles: I did my usual double-summiting... twice. I also decided I wanted to hit 40K steps, but because I started walking at 7PM, I knew I wouldn't be able to rack everything up before midnight. 40K is more than a quadruple summit: it's a quadruple summit plus a walk from my neighborhood to Jongno and back.

Hitting Namsan's modest peak four times was tiring but glorious, and because I hadn't eaten all day, I was pretty sure that I had lost a significant amount of weight. When I got back to my place and weighed myself, I was astonished: I clocked in at 114.7 kilograms (253 pounds)! That's the lowest I've been in years, and that weight actually puts me at or slightly below my best Sookmyung-era weight of 255 pounds.

The walk took me past midnight and into Monday morning. Here are my stats, according to my pedometer:

Sunday: 29,701 steps, 14.4 miles, 2250 calories burned.
Monday: 10,616 steps, 5.0 miles, 697 calories burned.

Combined: 40,317 steps, 19.4 miles, 2947 calories burned.

So I burned almost a day's worth of food (253 pounds of body weight times 12 calories per pound equals 3,036 calories per day to maintain weight) by walking around 20 miles. And since my pedometer shortchanges me when it comes to distance, I can multiply 19.4 miles by 1.2 and get 23.28 miles, which is probably closer to the actual distance I walked. So I almost walked a marathon.

My left hip joint started bothering me toward the end of the walk; I'm going to have to go easy on that because I don't want a return of the hip-joint pain. Walking myself into a crippled state would feel like a bitter irony.

To end November with an average of 15,000 steps per day, I'll probably need to mix double-summiting with single-summiting for the rest of the month. Easier said than done: there are, to be honest, days when I'd rather not walk at all. Walking, as much as I love doing it, takes a lot of time, and now that there's a chance I might have a social life (uh, more on this later, maybe), I might have to start switching over to more intense, less time-consumptive exercises. It might no longer be about the steps: instead, it might be about the gasping and the subsequent hours-long metabolic boost that comes from paroxysms of extreme effort.

What I find most delightful about tonight's ultra-megawalk, though, isn't the four times I reached the top of Namsan, nor is it the 3,000 calories burned or the 23 miles walked or the over 40K steps: it's the weight loss. 114.7 kilograms is my lowest low point yet, and it means I've broken through the 119-kilo barrier and fallen through several more floors to a whole new level. I hate to say it, but a combination of starvation and walking seems to be the royal road to weight loss. (As I mentioned above, I hadn't eaten all Sunday.) Although it's not a habit I want to get into, there are undeniable benefits to fasting for a whole day.

No time to sit on my laurels, though: I need to do a double summit Monday night. I'm out of the 12K doldrums and back in the 13K range, but I need to up the average to 15K by the end of November, and I have less than half a month in which to do it.


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Sunday, November 16, 2014

today's big effort

I'm excited to announce that, today, Sunday, will be devoted to a rather large physical effort, but I don't want to spoil things by saying exactly what that effort will be. So stay tuned, and much later tonight I'll fill you in on what will, ideally, have happened.

Right now, though, I simply want to do some laundry, but the laundry room is locked because some dude is using it as a shower. Apparently, his own yeogwan room's bathing facilities aren't good enough. Consequently, my Big Effort must suffer a delay until Shower Guy sees fit to reopen the laundry room to the general public.

And in a sad, "this too shall pass" vein, I'll note that my laptop's touch pad has started to go wonky. I used to be able to click the bottom of the pad with conviction, but now the pad barely moves and clicks at all, almost as if something is wedged underneath it, preventing the full range of movement. There's still a barely audible and palpable click, but it's a faded echo of what it used to be. I'm worried that the pad will soon become totally unclickable. That would be a damn shame. More frustrating is the notion that a problem has developed in my laptop so early in its lifespan: I bought this computer only last year.

UPDATE: The trackpad is clicking normally now. Go figure. Perhaps all it needed was a public shaming. My instinct, though, is that if I can't figure out why something previously wrong has gone right, then it's best to expect the wrongness to reoccur.


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Saturday, November 15, 2014

d'oh

Yesterday, I barely walked, so my average has plunged yet again. I'll try a double-summiting tonight, and might try a revolutionary triple-summiting tomorrow, just to bring the average back up. I'm also fasting today; I had dipped back down to the 117-kilo mark, but I binged on pizza twice yesterday (naughty, naughty), so I have to reverse that karma today.

Right now, I'm off to buy gloves (again), then heading to the office to do a mass of grading and paperwork. Tonight, I'll try double-summiting. Hopefully this won't take me past midnight, but it might, depending on how late I stay in the office.


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