Tuesday, August 23, 2016

skip this post

This post is just another in a long line of bitching-and-moaning posts about the summer heat and humidity. Korea's in East Asia, not Southeast Asia, but the heat and humidity are nevertheless oppressive during the four-month-long summer. Walking outside, even at night, is no longer a pleasure; whether I'm out doing a creekside walk or inside my building doing a staircase trudge, it all feels like work, and I have no motivation.

I've truncated my creekside walks: taking my own advice, I now stop after staircase #14, then just walk on back. This has the dual benefit of both cutting my walking time almost in half and preserving my feet from the aches and pains of a routine five-plus-hour, thirty-plus-thousand-step walk. These days, my walks are under 20K steps, but I still sweat as if I were doing the full megawalk. I guess the summer heat is good for something.

I have, however, had the wild thought of doing the creekside staircases on the way back—something I've never done. That would bring me up to twenty-eight staircases: fourteen out and fourteen back. The total number of stair steps in such a walk would be more than the number of steps I do when walking three times up my apartment building: around 1800 steps as opposed to around 1600. I'd also be guaranteed to sweat out even more water weight. To be honest, I'm not keen on pushing myself to do such a walk, but I might try it, anyway, out of morbid curiosity. My only worry is that the creekside staircases aren't as safe as the staircase in my building: the wooden steps are often creaky and/or tilted and/or warped, and the railings are often shrouded by drooping tree branches, which means I often walk down the center of each staircase. If I get dizzy from doing twenty-eight staircases, I'll have nothing to hold on to, which could be a problem. Again, we'll see. I might give the 28-staircase thing a try tonight. Or not. I may need to psych myself up for this.

Fuck, it's hot. I hate Korean summer.

*This would be twenty-eight full-size staircases—another daunting prospect. On my megawalks, I normally do thirty-three staircases, but after #14, the staircases shrink down to a half or a third of the size of the first fourteen.

Monday, August 22, 2016

today's lunch: sliders 3 ways

To celebrate my having paid off my second major debt, I decided to throw a slider party at the office. With beef chuck still being on sale at my building's grocery, I bought 980 grams, asked for it to be ground up into hamburger, then took it back to my place to make sliders. I was able to make ten; the plan was to bring nine to the office so that we three guys could eat three each, so I ate the tenth slider right after having cooked it. It was juicy and delicious. I also brought along a ton of sauces and trimmings so that my boss and coworker could make American, Tex-Mex, Argentinian, or Italian sliders as they saw fit.

Here's the spread (my coworker had already taken one burger):

Above, you see Costco bread, beef slider patties, mayo, barbecue sauce, ketchup, jalapeños, chimichurri, fried cheddar cheese, fried Parmesan cheese, pesto, Gorgonzola, Tex-Mex-style mushrooms (lots of cumin), sweet pickles, chili, spaghetti sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, and thick-cut bacon. A person could make the burger at least four ways according to a standard flavor profile: American, Tex-Mex, Argentinian, or Italian.

Here's what I did—I started with American first:

Above: slider with pickles, tomato, cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce.

Below, I went Tex-Mex: chili, cheddar wedge, and jalapeños. I also added a hunk of thick-cut bacon (see it under the cheese?). I must say, the bacon was a surprise: my grocery was selling it for fairly cheap (by Korean standards, anyway), and it was a generic brand, but it turned out great when I cooked it in the microwave and finished it in a pan.

Finally, I did Italian—pesto, Parmesan wedge, and tomato:

My boss ended up having only two sliders, so my coworker gobbled four. I had three.

My apologies to all you onion-lovers, but I hate onions, so I didn't think to include any. I got no complaints from my fellow diners, so I don't think the absence of onions was tragic.

And a good time was had by all.

POST SCRIPTUM: the fried-cheese wedges tasted great, but instead of being crunchy, they were thick and leathery—a bit hard to chew. I'm pretty sure the problem was that they were all too thick, and I had containerized them before they'd had a chance to cool completely. This means that any remaining steam was trapped inside the container with the cooling cheese, destroying any crispness and turning the cheese leathery. It's a bit of a Catch-22, though: when the cheese is thin and crispy, I often find that it tastes too burned. Too thick, and you get the textural problems I had. My solution, next time, will be to cook the cheese thick again, but to (1) let it cool completely before containerizing, and (2) cut it into thin strips for easier eating. Otherwise, everything tasted amazing.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Last Days in the Desert": review


"Last Days in the Desert" is a biblically themed film directed by Rodrigo García and starring Ewan McGregor as both Jesus and Satan. It tells the non-canonical story of one final temptation of Jesus as he's leaving the desert to return to civilization: on his way out after having put himself through a forty-day trial, Jesus encounters a small family: a father (Ciarán Hinds), a mother (Ayelet Zurer), and a son (Tye Sheridan). Persuaded by the father to accept the family's hospitality, Jesus elects to stay with them a while, helping the father with a house-building project (Jesus does have carpentry skills, after all). As time goes on, Jesus learns that the son has ambitions that would lead him into the big city (Jerusalem, in this case) while the father intends for the son to remain in the desert and to carry on his work. The mother, meanwhile, is sick and dying. On top of all this, Satan seems not to be finished with Jesus: he is portrayed here as a constant companion, unseen by others but seen by Jesus, quietly mocking and hectoring the prophet, occasionally lying as is his wont, occasionally providing answers that seem quite honest.

Artistically speaking, the movie sits somewhere on the spectrum between Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" and pretty much anything by Terrence Malick, whose movies are nothing if not meditative. There's conflict, symbolism, and pain in "Last Days." The family that Jesus encounters is obviously a metaphor for Jesus' own internal struggle: the father, while present, is hard and distant toward his son, a sensitive boy who likes making up his own riddles. (The father tells Jesus that he himself dislikes riddles.) Satan reveals much about himself, but we're never quite sure how much of it is a lie. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks Satan what it's like to stand face-to-face with the Father, and Satan's reply is chilling: "There is no face. There is no face." Satan also mockingly asks Jesus whether people a thousand years hence will even care about what Jesus has done, and the film's final scene—in which modern-day tourists snap photos of themselves at a cliff's edge that Jesus had visited—seems to reinforce the idea that Jesus' efforts amount to little more than vain striving. The movie is quiet, and quietly bleak.

"Last Days" could be read as a demythologized version of part of the Jesus story: Satan can be chalked up to a hallucination; there are no miracles (Jesus attempts to heal the mother, but she rejects his ministrations); when Jesus' suffering, death, and burial occur near the very end, there is no resurrection. As with Mark Salzman's fantastic novella Lying Awake, the movie's approach to spirituality is fairly Zen: emphasis is placed on ordinariness, not on cosmic drama. The movie is also mostly about the dialogue—Jesus' exchanges with Satan, as well as Jesus' exchanges with each of the three family members.

In all, I found "Last Days in the Desert" to be a thoughtful drama. It's not quite as intense as Scorsese's take on Christ, nor is it quite as dreamy as a Terrence Malick film, but there is a subtle depth to be found here. The story might resonate with non-Christians to the extent that it's been demythologized; as with many such films, God Himself never puts in an appearance, which is consistent with God's increasingly apophatic role as we move from the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—to what Christians call the New Testament.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

From the "Kubo and the Two Strings" soundtrack comes this charmingly updated version of The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

"Kubo" has been released to great reviews in the States; it'll be in Korea soon, I hope.


Friday, August 19, 2016

does the Brexit represent the will of the people?

I've heard the media-supported narrative that the Brexit was a revolution fueled by the old. At the same time, I saw articles in the early aftermath that said the stats don't bear this narrative out. Here's another article in that vein.

And just a reminder: all that's happened thus far is a vote for the Brexit, not the event itself. The actual Brexit will be a years-long process that probably won't begin at all this year, and maybe not even next year. If the Brexit is truly a revolt by the old, it's likely that many of those oldsters won't live to see the grand exodus begin in earnest. And that's a shame.

While you're at it, enjoy this: "Unemployment Falls After Brexit [Vote]."

"ParaNorman": review

I watched my second Laika production last night: "ParaNorman," the story of another eleven-year-old kid involved with the supernatural. Long story short: I liked this movie a hell of a lot more than I did "Coraline." "ParaNorman" is plenty weird and quirky, but those elements aren't nearly as much the focus of the film as is the plot itself: I found the plot of "ParaNorman" to be much more sensible and coherent than that of "Coraline." The rules of magic are easier to follow in this film; most of the ghost-and-witchery-related exposition is front-loaded at the beginning of the story.

"ParaNorman" tells the tale of young Norman Babcock who, just like Odd Thomas and little Cole from "The Sixth Sense," sees dead people: ghosts all over town who know that Norman can interact with them. At school, Norman is a social pariah because of his ability; at home, Norman's father is frustrated with Norman's tendency to make a spectacle of himself every time he reacts to supernatural events (including talking with Norman's dead grandmother, in a nod to "The Sixth Sense"). Norman's crazy uncle, Mr. Prenderghast, finds our protagonist and babbles that Norman will henceforth have the duty of protecting the town from the dead—a duty that Prenderghast himself had fulfilled up to now, but can no longer fulfill because his poor health has put him in mortal danger. Sure enough, Prenderghast dies shortly after his encounter with Norman, but his spirit finds Norman in a restroom cubicle and finishes the spiel he had begun while alive.

Norman is tasked with finding an old book—currently clutched in the hands of Prenderghast's corpse—and reading the text aloud at the grave of a witch who had been executed in the 1700s. Along for the ride is his tubby friend Neil; we also meet Norman's nemesis Alvin, Norman's sister Courtney, and Neil's hunky-but-dim older brother Mitch. Alvin, being a jerk, prevents Norman from completing the book-reading ritual before sundown, as Prenderghast had commanded. It turns out the ritual wouldn't have worked, anyway: Norman was at the wrong gravesite. Zombies—objectively real and not merely a seeming figment of Norman's imagination—erupt from the earth at the location of Norman's botched ritual; the malign spirit of the witch dominates the sky as an evil, tendril-clouded thunderstorm; everything goes haywire. Norman must somehow solve the zombie problem and the witch problem to restore order, and these efforts occupy the remainder of the film.

As I wrote above, "ParaNorman" was much more enjoyable than "Coraline" was. Part of the reason for this is that it was damn funny. There's plenty of visual and spoken humor for the kiddie crowd, but at least half of the humor is aimed at the adults in the audience, and it all works together smoothly. I laughed out loud throughout most of the movie, whereas I laughed not at all while watching the lugubrious "Coraline."* I also felt that the resolution of "ParaNorman" was much more emotionally compelling—a tribute to Norman's bravery and to the power of gentle compassion. In all, I heartily recommend "ParaNorman."

(My friend Steve Honeywell offers a well-written, and more detailed, review here.)

*Granted, "Coraline" is a horror-fantasy while "ParaNorman" is a horror-comedy, so there may be an unfair, apples-and-oranges aspect to this comparison. That said, I can only go by my experience, and laughter is one metric for how much I enjoy a film.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

ça y est—c'est fait

It is accomplished.

I've put in the "pay off" request with OneMain Financial, so after the request processes through in a few business days—first at OneMain, then at my bank—I'll have completely paid off the second of my four major debts. Everything is proceeding perfectly on track per my unsinkable budget, which really is a well-oiled machine. Although making that budget was one of the more boring things I've done, I also think it's one of the most important, and I'm very glad I did it. It makes up for the terrible life-choices I had made in my youth, and it resets the crooked tent pole of my life back to the vertical. Freeing myself from the OneMain debt means giving myself $250 a month of extra breathing room, which is now added to the extra $213/month of breathing room that came when I paid off my car earlier this year.

I chose this debt-payment strategy because it made psychological sense to me: chop away at my smaller debts first, saving my larger debts for last. This lets me feel a sense of accomplishment as I work my way upward while also allowing the savings to gain momentum by freeing up progressively more cash with every successive payoff. As things stand, I'll have almost $10,000 in the bank by this December; by August of next year, that total will have ballooned to $15,000. By December 2017, that will have gone up to $27,000.* By the time my budget "ends" (it never ends, really) in December of 2019, I'll have almost $40,000 in the bank. At that point, if I continue saving at the same rate—and with no major debts to hold me back any longer—I'll be saving at an insane rate once I'm in my fifties.

*The reason for the seemingly sudden jump has to do with how Korean companies (at least those involved with education) handle severance pay. In the 90s, the rule was that, for every year that you worked, you'd receive one month's pay as part of your severance. In other words, if you worked at a given company for five years, then decided to quit, you'd be paid five months' severance pay. That's not a bad bit of cash, although it's undoubtedly less than you'd be getting, over time, if you had a more American-style retirement package.

Many schools and educational institutes (like hagweons, including the one I'm working for now) have reinterpreted the rule to mean that you'll be paid one month's salary every year, pending renewal of your one-year contract. Mathematically, this works out the same, but the difference is that you get paid at renewal; the severance money isn't saved up until the very end. I've built that fact into my budget such that, once a year, my savings will suddenly jump because I've effectively been paid double in September or October. (My contract ends on my birthday, August 31, so I'd expect my extra month's pay to happen in either September or October, depending on how quick the finance office is. That office is often asleep at the switch when it comes to any sort of non-automatic payments, so Murphy's Law suggests that I won't get my pay boost until October.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Coraline": review

I re-watched "Coraline" last night. The film is a Laika production (the same group producing the upcoming "Kubo and the Two Strings"), and is directed by Henry Selick, from Selick's screenplay, which is adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline. The story centers on eleven-year-old Coraline Jones, a spunky tween whose family has just moved into a spooky mansion called the Pink Palace Apartments, an enormous house that has been divided into several living spaces. The Joneses occupy the central living space; above them lives an eccentric, over-the-hill Russian acrobat who talks to his mice; below live two equally eccentric—and eternally bickering—British ladies who own a gaggle of frisky black terriers. Bored out of her mind and unable to engage her parents' attention, Coraline goes exploring. She encounters Wybie, a bizarre boy of roughly the same age, and dislikes him immediately, but Wybie proves quirkily interesting. As the story unfolds, Coraline falls asleep, wakes up, and follows some mice to a mysterious door that leads to an entirely different universe—one populated by people and beings that have buttons for eyes. Coraline's button-eyed mother, in this universe, calls herself "the Other Mother," and unlike in Coraline's boring real-world existence, her alternate parents pay attention to her, cook only the best food, and let her have all the fun she wants. A black cat from Coraline's real world follows her into this alternate universe, where it acquires the power of speech and acts as a sort of Greek chorus, warning Coraline that she's in danger, and that the Other Mother is not who she appears to be.

Let's talk first about what "Coraline" gets right. The film doesn't pander: the plot is complex and will require kids to think hard and keep track of events. The visuals also eventually reach a level of intensity that will scare much younger kids: this isn't anything like the stop-motion-animated "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" Christmas special that we all grew up on: this is the full darkness associated with typical British children's stories. The eccentric characters that populate the plot are bona fide eccentric, and the mansion is the animated equivalent of a standard horror-movie mansion, with all the requisite nooks, crannies, shadows, and extradimensional portals. One nice touch is the obstreperous carpet at the beginning, which almost always has a wrinkle in it, no matter how many times Coraline tries to stamp the wrinkle smooth. The interactions between Coraline and her parents (who are writers) also strike me as emotionally valid; kids around Coraline's age will relate to the frustration of dealing with stupid, inattentive parents.* I can also see Neil Gaiman's ontological murkiness infused throughout the story: to what extent are all these events merely part of a dream? Could all of this simply be happening inside Coraline's head? (Gaiman uses the same trick in his novel American Gods, in which we're never quite sure what ontological status those gods enjoy: are they merely figments of the imagination? If so, then how are they affecting real-world events?) There are mature and heady themes floating in and through the story (feminism among them; the movie easily passes the Bechdel Test), so no one can accuse "Coraline" of being just superficial fun and games.

But despite all the positives, I didn't really get into "Coraline," and I'm still trying to figure out why. Part of the problem may be that the animators went full-on Tim Burton with their storytelling and their visual aesthetic. I had originally thought that "Coraline" had been either directed or produced by Burton, but as far as I can tell, he had nothing to do with this film. I suppose "Coraline" belongs to a "Burton wave" of stop-motion animation that focuses on misfits and marginals, the good-hearted ugly and the well-intended bizarre. Burton's style is fairly charming, but I wasn't charmed by the characters in "Coraline." Coraline herself is rendered in a way that I found visually unpleasant, and hunched-over Wybie even more so. Same goes for Coraline's father, and for the talking black cat. The musical score, which often relies on vocals, was also somewhat annoying. Deeper than these problems, though, was the problem of how the film dealt with magical reality. In any fantasy, including a horror-fantasy like "Coraline," when you employ magic, the rules for that magic need to be consistent, otherwise the viewer has no idea what to expect next. In a story with consistent rules for how magic works, the storyteller can build suspense. "Coraline" relies too heavily on exposition to explain what's going on and why, and the rules of magic in the alternate universe have been left so vague that I often wondered how on earth Coraline was able to decide on a specific course of action. This, to me, was a far more annoying problem than the musical score.

That said, "Coraline" isn't a bad film; it's just a film that didn't hit me the right way. I won't say that I don't recommend it, but I also can't say that I give it a thumbs-up. You have to have a certain aesthetic sense, I think, to appreciate the movie.

*It's only years later that kids realize just who, exactly, had been stupid and inattentive. Unless they have the misfortune of being born to shite parents.


My buddy Charles is back from his boozy hiking trip across the wilds of Scotland, and he and I are meeting up for dinner. I've proposed a second shot at 9 Ounce, near his campus, so we're meeting there. More later.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

more on the way

Fear not: more movie reviews are on the way, including ones not on the original list. I saw "Coraline" years ago but didn't review it, so I ordered it on Amazon Prime to rewatch, and I've also ordered "ParaNorman." Both of these movies come from the animation house Laika, which has released the tremendous-looking "Kubo and the Two Strings," a movie I've been dying to see ever since I saw the first preview trailers a few months ago (have a peek). So you could say I'm Laika-ing up before "Kubo" comes to Korea.

Meantime, expect reviews of:

• "Sherlock Holmes" (2009)
• "Machete"
• "Machete Kills"
• "The Expendables 3"
• "Last Days in the Desert"
• "Coraline"
• "ParaNorman"

Coming soon to a monitor near you.

Monday, August 15, 2016

inauspicious holiday

August 15 is Liberation Day in Korea, where it's known locally as Gwangbok-jeol (光復節, 광복절: light-healing-day*). President Park Geun-hye apparently gave a speech in which she laid out terms for getting along better with North Korea; commentators are describing her speech as "blasting" the North, but I don't see it that way. You don't have to speak in an incendiary manner to offend the oversensitive, easily angered North; I found Park's words to be fairly mild, but South Korean media, which often see things from the North's point of view, thought Park was being provocative.

Absent from the speech, as usual, was any mention of America and other nations' role in liberating the peninsula, which was released from Japanese subjugation at the end of World War II, in 1945. This is a shame, but I've gotten used to—as John McCrarey once described it—quietly saying You're welcome to the peninsula on this day. I strongly suspect that Korean children from the 1990s onward have been implicitly taught that Korea somehow liberated itself; the idea that Korea was liberated by a foreign power is meant to be quietly tucked away and not referred to publicly. Ideally, it should be shut out and forgotten.

A person I follow on Twitter recently tweeted a pic of a poem titled "Liberation is a Cruel Hoax." The poem reads in part:

But this otherwise glorious and joyous date still mocks our dreams
and aspirations as one people.
We cry out for our unrequited liberation from our unacceptable fate.
It doesn't matter where we live. We are all exiles from our memory
of the Land of Morning Calm, once in one piece even under the
brute force of a savage neighbor.

So the poet seems to be saying, "Under the Japanese, at least, we were united," which is, I suppose, a reference to how the peninsula was split into North and South by other global powers. The poem expresses a wish for reunification. I agree that the North-South split is a bad and painful thing, but is the poet, perhaps by extension, wishing for a return to the bad old days of Japanese occupation? I'm no longer a cheerleader for reunification. Germany has made it work, sort of, but I don't think Koreans are psychologically in the same place as Germany. Koreans in general have a much more pronounced grievance culture that prevents them from moving forward in certain areas, and an inability to let go of the past doesn't bode well for any sort of future sociocultural progress.

I don't think of Liberation Day as an auspicious holiday for South Korea. The day is an uncomfortable reminder that Korea was liberated by foreign powers; it did not gain freedom on its own. That's a sore fact—one that Koreans these days try their damnedest to ignore, but in ignoring that fact, they simply turn it into the unspoken elephant in the room. If Koreans are, as I suspect, rewriting history to make it seem as if they somehow liberated themselves, then what separates Koreans, morally speaking, from Japanese textbook writers who have been whitewashing Japan's role in World War II?

Believe me, I love South Korea, and I want to see it happy and prosperous. But I also want to see it being honest about its past, and being grateful—just once a year—to the people who fought and died to help make current prosperity a reality, not a cruel hoax. It is indeed tragic that a South Korean-style economy and a South Korean-style political system are not regnant across the entire peninsula, but 50 million people have taken the reins of their country's fate and made their land into a global power; meanwhile, above the DMZ, 23 million people have chosen fatalism instead of throwing off the shackles of oppression. That's the fault of those people, not the fault of the powers that divided Korea into North and South.**

*Gwang is the Sino-Korean word for "light." Bok refers to healing or recovery, as in the verb hwaebok-hada, i.e., "to heal." The word jeol normally refers to a season (as in gyejeol, which refers to the four annual seasons), but can mean a particular measure of time—a period, a point, a day, etc.

**But if the Japanese occupation is any indication, North Koreans may be constitutionally incapable of throwing off the yoke of oppression and must instead wait passively for foreign intervention to liberate them. Self-liberation could be too much to expect.

"Weiner": review

Man, that was brutal. I cringed pretty much the whole way through "Weiner."*

"Weiner" is a documentary film by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg that chronicles the most painfully awkward moments of former Congressman Anthony Weiner's life. You may recall that Weiner used to be a member of the US House of Representatives for New York (9th District). A sexting (i.e., sexual text messaging) scandal erupted in 2011 when photos of Weiner's "bulging underwear" surfaced online and were spread all over social media. Weiner had apparently been sexting with around six women over the course of several years. Ultimately, he resigned from Congress, but in 2013, he resurfaced as a Democrat candidate for mayor in the 2013 New York City mayoral race. "Weiner" documents the ex-congressman's unsuccessful bid for mayor while a second sexting scandal erupts around him. As other reviewers have observed, one of the most incredible points to note is that the documentary team was still allowed to film everything even as Weiner was imploding a second time.

The documentary gives us a good look at Weiner's personality, which is a weird-but-compelling mixture of pugnacity and smarts. Weiner is a passionate debater on the floor; he can be arrogant and cold, but off the floor, he can also be self-deprecating and caring. In person in a public forum, he can be amazingly charismatic. In a sequence that happens later in the film, Weiner is shown campaigning in front of a crowd that initially wants him just to go home; through a combination of brutal self-honesty and humor, Weiner ends up winning the crowd over, and people are loudly applauding and cheering by the end. I was impressed, in spite of myself, by the man's drive and charisma.

The problem, of course, is that Weiner's drive and charisma are of a piece with his randy online behavior: the good and the bad both flow from the aphrodisiacal nature of power and celebrity, even if that celebrity counts as little more than infamy. The story of Anthony Weiner is, in many ways, the story of many men in positions of power and authority—men who end up abusing those things to take advantage of women, or of anyone in a weaker position. Weiner, as a married man with one child, caused plenty of collateral damage in his marriage; that damage spread even to his campaign staff, who had to deal with the fallout from Weiner's reckless behavior. Whom the gods destroy, first they make proud.

Weiner's wife is Huma Abedin, who works as one of Hillary Clinton's closest aides. Much of the documentary focuses, naturally, on her, but she tries her best to put up a brave front in the face of all this scandal. In one candid moment, she says her life is like "living a nightmare," but through it all, she elects—bizarrely, in my opinion—to stick by her husband's side and help him with his mayoral campaign. One newscaster is shown as saying that Huma is living in an abuse dynamic, making excuses for her unscrupulous husband. Others suspect that she is too attracted to power to let go of Anthony, but this explanation begs the question of how and why divorcing him would endanger her position at the side of Hillary Clinton (Mrs. Clinton is indirectly cited as quietly encouraging Huma to separate from Anthony).

Weiner's most candid moments come during formal sit-down sessions with the camera, much as happens during those "diary room" shots you see on reality-TV shows, where a reality contestant confesses his or her deepest, darkest feelings to the camera and straight to viewing audiences. Weiner is at his most candid—and, arguably, at his most eloquent—during these scenes. Externally, at least, he seems willing to take full responsibility not only for his misdeeds but also for the damage those deeds have done. At the same time, his actual pattern of behavior suggests that something pathological might be going on: he might claim to love his wife and child, but he seems willing to get right back into sexting. (Some time after this documentary had been released in theaters, Weiner was recently caught in yet another bout of sexting. Weiner claims to have been aware that his sexting partner was a "catfish," i.e., someone trying to entrap him, but the actual content of the sexting dialogue shows no such awareness. Weiner later bitterly blamed the media, Rupert Murdoch in particular, for trying to ensnare him.)

This was a painful documentary to watch, but it thoroughly engaged the rubbernecker's reflex, making it impossible to look away from the inexorably unfolding disaster. The film also raised as many questions as it answered. In particular: was it truly possible for a man as obviously intelligent as Anthony Weiner to be so consumed by lustful impulses that he would sabotage his career over and over again? I suspect that only a clinical explanation would suffice. The same could be said for long-suffering Huma, who comes off as a victim, but who makes the conscious decision to "stand by her man," to use the Patsy Cline lyric that Hillary Clinton mocked before her own husband's randiness became the top story of the day, for many days. (For what it's worth, I give Anthony Weiner more credit than I do Bill Clinton for actually fessing up and acknowledging responsibility for his actions.) Huma's case could be seen as a window into the mind of Hillary Clinton, an inveterate politician who undoubtedly weighed her options in considering what to do about Wild Bill vis-à-vis her own future.

As to the question of why Anthony Weiner allowed the documentarians to continue filming while all was collapsing around him, I suspect that this, too, was an ego-driven decision. On some animalistic level, Weiner (as he openly admits in the film, in reference to a basic desire of all politicians) craves attention, no matter what kind. Some of us are like that: ego-affirmation comes only through the reactions of others, be those reactions positive or negative. It's how we know we exist. Others of us have no such needs.

Weiner, the man, has had trouble finding and keeping work since his 2013 mayoral flameout. His most recent sexting scandal occurred while he was working as a consultant at a PR firm. His stint there lasted only two months. "Weiner," the film, is hard to sit through, but I highly recommend the harsh light it shines on a riveting person, and on the damage that that person did—and probably still does—to the people around him.

*Disdaining Germanic rules of pronunciation, Weiner pronounces his name "wee-ner," not "vhy-nah." He could have cut the ridicule down by half simply by following German phonetics.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Can We Take a Joke?": review

"Can We Take a Joke?" is a documentary film directed by Ted Balaker and featuring insights from comedians Pen Jillette, Gilbert Gottfried, Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Heather McDonald, Karith Foster, and Christina Pazsitzky. Sponsored by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization that primarily defends the free-speech rights of university students and professors, the documentary explores the trouble that many standup comedians find themselves in, these days, as they face modern American "outrage culture," i.e., a culture in which people are easily offended by the sort of humor that used to be considered merely off-color. The film strongly contends that pro-free-speech liberalism from the Sixties, especially as pertains to Lenny Bruce and the cultural climate he created, has become a repressive monster that is now the ideological opposite of what it used to be. This problem is especially prevalent on college campuses, where students these days (often termed "crybullies" or "screaming campus garbage babies") will actually shout down people whom they consider to have opposing, or at least politically incorrect, points of view. The irony seems to be lost on these kids: university is supposed to be where a student confronts ideas that are foreign to him or her and debates them on the basis of their merits. College was, ostensibly, to be about a supposedly liberal value: the free exchange of ideas without fear of repression. Now, however, repression is the primary mode of interaction.

I found the documentary to be most enlightening, but a trip over to Metacritic shows that the film currently has a 49 score, indicating "mixed or average" reviews. Given that most movie critics for newspapers skew liberal, it's no surprise that they see the documentary as "biased" and "one-sided"—terms that surfaced repeatedly when I surveyed the various critical reviews of the film. I had to laugh: most documentaries skew wildly liberal—completely unashamed of their own bias—yet receive heaps of praise from this same journalistic establishment. A single not-so-liberal documentary shows up, and the critics execrate it, thereby proving how deaf they are to their own hypocrisy. Michael Moore, at least, has the honesty to make his agenda clear when he does his documentaries. He crafts his films according to that agenda, not according to any principle of objectivity. He has shown, in fact, that media people can safely and freely do away with any pretense of objectivity. Journalism, meanwhile, still labors under the delusion that its methods remain even-handed. The fact that this isn't true is one of the worst-kept secrets in American culture, and "Can We Take a Joke?" is just one attempt to declare that the emperor has no clothes, and that the self-delusion must end. If not—if a free exchange of ideas is no longer possible—the larger culture is doomed.

Personal note: it's an axiom among conservatives that "liberals eat their own." Based on what I've seen, I think this is very true. When Robin Williams died, there were video tributes to him that clearly showed his delight in making ethnic jokes. Many of the voices and impressions he did involved accents and utterances that were cartoonish distortions of the cultures he targeted. Quite a few liberals were vocal in posthumously bashing Williams for his perceived racism and bigotry—a charge that Williams himself would have responded to with confusion and hurt. I might not agree with Williams's politics, but I respect his liberal self-consistency in believing that there are no sacred cows, a comedian's doctrine that the great George Carlin also subscribed to. (Carlin mercilessly skewered conservatives, but he also famously targeted people on the left like environmentalists, users of politically correct language, and liberal race-baiters.) "Can We Take a Joke?" begins with a montage of comedians apologizing for having made offensive jokes that hurt the feelings of such-and-such demographics. The irony: these comedians are mostly liberals themselves. Liberals eat their own, and as several comedians in the documentary bitterly note, Lenny Bruce would not recognize today's America.

"Hardcore Henry": review


According to the Wikipedia trivia for this movie, the eponymous Henry in the brutal, non-stop actioner "Hardcore Henry" was played by around ten different actors. The only other major stars are Sharlto Copley ("District 9," "Elysium," etc.) as a series of "Jimmy"s, Danila Kozlovsky as the villain Akan, and Haley Bennett as Estelle, Henry's maybe-wife. The movie most resembles a first-person-shooter (FPS) video game in its speed, intensity, and insistence on a Henry's-eye-view of all the action. Henry is literally a point-of-view character in this film—the only such character.

As the film begins, Henry wakes up in a lab, two of his limbs missing. The female scientist attending him says she's an expert on memory, and that she understands Henry may be confused as he remembers almost nothing previous to waking up. She calls herself Estelle and claims to be Henry's wife. Henry is also unable to speak; it turns out that he was involved in some sort of disaster—a firefight, an explosion, or something—that ripped away body parts and left him barely alive, hence both the memory loss and the muteness. Henry receives a robotic arm and leg, along with artificial skin for the arm, but doesn't have time to receive his speech module before the lab is attacked by the evil, telekinesis-using Akan (apparently a mutant; his telekinetic ability is never explained). Henry and Estelle manage to escape Akan, but Henry discovers that the lab is actually aboard an airship, so the only way down to the ground is an escape pod. He and Estelle climb aboard the last remaining pod, crash-landing on the streets of Moscow. Akan's goons quickly find Henry, who manages to escape, but he does so without Estelle, who is captured by the goons.

From this point on, the film is about Henry's attempt to figure out who and what he is and to recover Estelle while avoiding Akan's minions. Henry receives help from a series of people who are all called "Jimmy" (and all played by Sharlto Copley). Each Jimmy has a distinct look and personality, a fact that itself becomes a clue as to what larger plot is afoot. Along the way, Henry figures out that he's made for combat: he's an expert at hand-to-hand fighting and can use any weapon that comes into his possession. Henry's first task is to find a power cell so that he doesn't deactivate/die within the next thirty minutes. This proves to be a grisly task, as Henry has to dig into another man's chest cavity (and into his own) to retrieve and install the cell. From then on, it's a chase, with Akan's minions ever in hot pursuit.

Questions loom for Henry: who is Akan, and why does he want Henry dead? What is Akan's larger purpose? Who is Estelle, really? Who are these Jimmys who keep appearing in rapid succession, and why are they trying to help Henry? Most important: who is Henry himself?

"Hardcore Henry" was filmed almost entirely with GoPro cameras—the tiny, lightweight ones that you strap to your head to record a first-person perspective while skiing (watch this amazing video) or performing other stunts. The technique works marvelously for most of the film, but the frenetic nature of the film's action sequences left me feeling numb by the beginning of the third reel. And despite the intensity of the first-person action, which includes confusing gunfights and some dizzying parkour stunts, there was an overall lack of suspense: as a viewer, I knew that Henry would have to survive to the end of the film because the only perspective we have on anything is Henry's. That's a bit ironic when you think about it: FPS-style filming is supposed to ramp up the intensity, but instead ends up leaving the viewer reassured that nothing seriously bad will ever happen to the protagonist.

The story does a good job of slowly expanding our knowledge of Henry's world. Friendly characters appear (Sharlto Copley shows off his versatility and his comic chops in playing a series of different characters), leave a little bit of tantalizing information, then get killed off. The action is comically over-the-top, which suits me fine. As I get older, I prefer to have a story accompany the action, but I'll still indulge in some good, stupid fun now and then. I enjoyed the parkour scenes, which did add some high-wire-ish tension even if they couldn't help with the larger narrative problem mentioned above. By the end of the movie, not all of our questions have been answered, but most of them have.

The movie is directed by Ilya Naishuller, a Russian who is part of the new wave of cartoonish, CGI-heavy, Russian-inflected action movies spearheaded by the likes of Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, who produced this film (Bekmambetov, who is as unsubtle as Joel Schumacher, made such films as "Day Watch" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"). There's a definite sense that the Russians are trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood, and this isn't necessarily a good thing. "Hardcore Henry" provides enough story and humor to remain interesting for the duration of its running time, but it is an exhausting experience, and the final major action sequence is disappointingly repetitive.

The movie currently has a 51 over at Metacritic.com, but I hear it got raves in Russia, where it enjoys a 78% approval. All in all, I'd call the film entertaining, but even though it's already short at 96 minutes, it could probably stand to shave some of those action sequences down a bit to make the film even leaner and meaner.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

on good versus bad art

I'm a stodgy elitist when it comes to art. I don't say "everything is art," a claim that sucks all meaning out of the term art. For me, good art demonstrates talent and effort.

Here are two like-minded YouTube videos—one ranty, the other more sober in tone. Do you think it's possible to speak of good and bad art, or is all art basically the same?

Friday, August 12, 2016

ha ha—Kakao Taxi!

Koreans Koreanize. When something nifty and/or novel comes from overseas, South Koreans will adopt it as their own instead of buying that foreign product or using that foreign service. It's somewhat analogous to North Korea's notion of juche, often translated as "self-reliance." Now, in North Korea's case, juche is a joke since the country is so obviously dependent on the largesse of other countries just to survive. South Korea doesn't have an explicit juche policy, but it's economically strong enough to stand on its own two feet; if anything, it's one of the foremost global economic powers at play in the world today. But South Korea also likes to indulge in the myth that everything good comes from inside itself, hence the quick adoption and Koreanization of anything foreign that's nifty and/or novel.

One example of what I mean—and this is my favorite go-to example—is Doritos corn chips. When Doritos came to Korea, Koreans loved it, but instead of allowing the US to have a significant share of the Korean market, Koreans copied the formula—resulting in a much-inferior chip—and have been selling their own Doritos clones ever since. Koreans like Doritos (and you can still find Doritos in Korean stores), but buying Doritos is a reminder that Koreans like—and in this case crave—a foreign good. Much better, then, to create the same good (well, something similar) in-house, thereby shutting the Americans out and allowing the public to forget that the concept of this tasty corn chip came from... out there.

Name your extra-Korean product, and there's a Korean clone for it, whether we're talking cars or electronic devices or services like Uber. Yes: Uber tried to break into the Korean market, but Korean taxi drivers went nuts, and despite this being, at times, a wildly capitalistic country, this is also a wildly xenophobic country, and the thought of Uber taking over was just too much. So Korea Koreanized, and Kakao Taxi was born. Fuck you, Uber.

For those who don't know: Kakao Talk is a Korean software program (an "app," for you fogeys reading this) that allows people to send each other instant messages as text, audio sound bites, photos, or even short videos. Texting has, of course, been around for ages, and Kakao Talk is user-friendly and usable internationally: I chat with my brothers, for free, using Kakao, which I convinced them to install on their phones. (Actually, David is off Kakao but on Skype, thereby supporting Microsoft, whose software Skype now is.)

Kakao Talk has other services, like Kakao Groups for group chatting, or Kakao Story, which is a sort of limited type of Facebook-style social-media software for sharing photos. Kakao Taxi, then, is yet another tentacle in the Kakao octopus, and its purpose is to allow a cell-phone user to call up a taxi after naming his or her destination. The phone's GPS locator generates a map pin that allows the taxi driver to get within a few hundred feet of where you're standing; you receive a message telling you which 4-digit taxi serial number to look out for so that you don't get into the wrong cab when many cabs are whizzing by.

So tonight, I tried my hand, for the very first time, at calling a cab via Kakao Taxi. I typed in my destination (Daecheong Station), hit "call," then waited. Within two minutes, a cabbie had responded, and I saw on my phone's screen a real-time, moving map pin that pointed out the cab's position in relation to me. I also received ETA updates: "2 minutes to arrival... 1 minute to arrival..."

I had hit the 1-minute mark when a cab swung up and I got in. I suspected that this wasn't the cab I had called, but I'd already gotten in. I asked the driver if he'd received my Kakao message; he said he hadn't. I told him to just go on ahead; the other guy had taken too long, anyway (I'd already been waiting in the evening heat and humidity for ten minutes before I'd decided to try Kakao Taxi). I sent a text message to the Kakao'ed cabbie saying that I had taken a different cab. Best to be up-front, I thought.

While we were rolling along, my phone rang. Guess who it was. The Kakao'ed cabbie said, "I'm waiting in front of the store," and I replied, "I've already gotten in another cab."

"What?" the driver said.

"I said I've taken another cab."

A second later, I hit "end" because the cabbie was screaming curses into his phone. It was almost like something out of a comedy. I felt guilty for having inconvenienced him, but he had seen my destination and knew the fare would be under W7,000. Was it really that huge of a deal? Was it that traumatizing, losing a W7,000 fare? It's not even as though the guy had wasted a ton of time driving across town: when he pinged me, he was only two minutes away. Granted, I was at fault for having blithely taken the wrong cab. But the cabbie's screaming, "Fucking son of a..." seemed a bit out of proportion. I rode in silence for a minute, then felt my phone vibrate. The furious cabbie was trying to call me again. I slid my finger over the red "X" that meant "reject call." He called again. He called one more time. I calmly went into my phone's menu, hit "Add to Reject List," and that was the last I heard from the guy. It's been blissful radio silence since then.

I imagine that Kakao Taxi allows taxi drivers to warn other taxi drivers about unpalatable riders, just as I'm sure there's a function that allows customers to report obnoxious or generally bad drivers. If I get blacklisted because of this, I won't mind: it really was my mistake, and to some degree, I understand the guy's anger (although not his fury). I feel bad about what happened, and the experience helped reinforce the idea that I'd rather just old-school it when it comes to taxis: just wait at the curb and flag a random cab down.

I wonder if Uber drivers get this angry.

—Oh. Yes, they do.

behind schedule

Over the past week or two, I've seen several movies that I'd like to review, so I might be spending a chunk of my upcoming three-day weekend (Monday, August 15, is Liberation Day in South Korea, which is a national holiday*) churning out the reviews I've been meaning to write. I've also got to write my three-fer review of the two Machete films plus "The Expendables III." So expect the following reviews:

1. "Last Days in the Desert" (Ewan McGregor as both Jesus and Satan)
2. "Can We Take a Joke?" (documentary about outrage culture, sponsored by FIRE)
3. "Sherlock Holmes" (2009, starring Robert Downey, Jr., and directed by Guy Ritchie)
4. "Hardcore Henry" (Sharlto Copley)
5. "Expendables III," "Machete," "Machete Kills" (three-fer)

*August 15 marks Korea's emergence from under the thumb of the Japanese (the occupation ran from 1910 to 1945, i.e., 36 years). On this day, Korean luminaries give big speeches, none of which thank America for its role in liberating Korea. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that young Koreans somehow think Korea liberated itself. The lack of gratitude dovetails with ongoing resentment about US troop presence here, and I've long advocated pulling our troops out. Why stay where we're not appreciated? Besides, I actually sympathize with Korean resentment at the presence of US troops: how would I feel about, say, French soldiers patrolling the sidewalks of Washington, DC? Thanks to technology that allows for rapid force projection, we can still keep our promises of military aid without having to maintain bases on the peninsula. I want us out. I want South Korea at least 95% responsible for its own self-defense. A "tripwire" force composed of American sacrificial lambs is ludicrous.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

national-security nightmare, Hillary edition

I recently posted some thoughts about how Donald Trump would be a national-security nightmare if he became president. All of that is counterfactual, of course: Trump isn't president yet, hence the conditional "would be." Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a proven and ever-growing record as an actual national-security nightmare, and the latest horror is the execution by hanging of nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri—an execution that is very likely the result of two emails from 2010 that were transmitted via Hillary Clinton's jury-rigged server. For a closer look at the whole sordid affair, see here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

you have 90 seconds

It took me about a minute and a half to solve this problem, which I saw on YouTube:

In the comments, leave your answer in terms of pi, or use a calculator to give an answer in 4 decimal places (please round).

For confirmation, go watch the video, which offers two solutions: a simple solution involving commonsense geometry, and an unnecessarily complex solution involving higher math.* One of the commenters to the video notes that even sixth-grade Chinese kids might have trouble solving this. Since I used to tutor this stuff, though, I found it easy. Every once in a while, it's good to flex the brain muscles by doing little math problems like this.

(My handwritten solution is here.)

*CORRECTION: the video actually goes on to consider a substantially more complicated problem: how to calculate the irregularly shaped area of one corner of the figure. That's a different animal altogether, and that's what I get for watching the video in my office with the audio off! Serves me right.


This morning, I took out a kilo of shredded (well, julienned) pork, ran it through my tiny Braun food processor to produce ground pork, threw in a bit of red-wine vinegar and an assortment of herbs and spices, then massaged the whole thing into Italian sausage. The meat needs several hours to settle; the flavors inside the pork must have time to marry, so the whole happy mess is sitting inside my fridge right now, and when I get back from my walk tonight, I'll have a kilo of Italian sausage waiting to be incorporated into spaghetti sauce. Am very much looking forward to this. For the curious: the recipe I used is here.

not the Russians?

When Democrat emails were recently leaked, word was that there were Russian fingerprints all over the job—telltale code that pointed toward foreign espionage and mischief. The conservative response to this has been that the media were constructing a "narrative" that pointed the finger at the Russians while at the same time trying to establish links between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom have publicly praised the other. These two narrative strands were supposed to slot into an even larger narrative: that Donald Trump is a traitor willing to sell out US interests to whichever foreign power flatters him the most.

There's no doubt in my mind that Trump, if he became president, would be a national-security nightmare, given his inability to control his own mouth. I also admit that I was leaning toward believing the Russian angle based on early reports that spoke with some authority about the electronic fingerprints associated with the DNC-email leak that was exposed by WikiLeaks. But now, it may be that the Russians are a giant red herring: this article claims that the email leak may have been the result of a Democrat staffer named Seth Rich.

If this is true, one has to wonder why Rich would leak these emails. Was he motivated by conscience? We'll never know: Seth Rich was shot in the back in northwest Washington, DC, exactly a month ago, on July 10, a little after 4AM. Some are calling this a random murder; others see this as yet another tick in what has been ominously labeled the Clinton Body Count. I'm not partial to wild-eyed conspiracy theories, but I will be interested to see what more turns up as the Seth Rich story develops. WikiLeaks is now offering a $20,000 reward to anyone who has information on Rich's death.