Wednesday, November 30, 2005

100 Below: Volume 15

The storm was fierce. I was truckin' along southbound on Route 95. Trees, barely visible, were thrashing wildly. The universe was a giant mosh pit.

Something white slammed into my windshield, spidering the glass.

"SHIT!" I hollered.

The white thing turned out to be furry. My passenger side window was open; the fur crawled across the windshield and threw itself into my truck like a living mop.

It was a rabbit. It sat there gasping, then turned to me.

"You believe in Jesus?" it asked.


"You ran over him about five miles back and he's fuckin' pissed."


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

drop and do 108!

Which appeals to you more:

a Buddhist dog performing bows,


...a kid who-- supporters claim-- hasn't eaten or drunk a thing for six months?

Sorry, but I gotta vote for the dog.


the chalice of bitterness


you spread your ass cheeks
and shat loudly upon my heart

you violated the hole of my soul
with a splintery broom handle

you dunked the testicles of my passion
into the lava pit of your disdain

the ambrosia of my happiness
has curdled into the diarrhea of despair

the Twinkie of my contentment
has withered under the fart of your hatred

the dong of my love
had risen to meet you
but you whacked it off at the root
with the lawn mower of spite


you suffocated the hamster of my sincerity
inside the cramped asshole of your treachery

so I'm not sure
I'll be calling you tonight


Monday, November 28, 2005

100 Below: Volume 14

Tobias had unzipped his fly to allow his massive erection to hang out. It flapped wildly as he rounded the corner at a run and found Melissa’s digs.

“Ah, 2803,” he giggled. “Nice to meat you!”

He knocked and waited.

The door opened.

“HA HA!” Tobias yelled, ramming his schlong through the opening.

Melissa screamed. Slammed the door.

Tobias screamed, too. He couldn’t move.

His sausage was trapped between door and jamb. The pain was intense.

“Help!” Tobias sobbed.

He felt something. Something warm.

Something on the other side.

Hooray! His heart leapt. Melissa!

Then he heard a low growl.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sunday potpourri

Wandering to Tamshui links to a hilarious beer commercial.

The Lost Nomad links to another hilarious beer commercial, and offers us this bizarre spectacle.

Justin ponders naughtiness.

Justin's brother ponders naughtiness.

Charles at Liminality finished his NaNoWriMo novel with ten days to spare. That, ladies, is focus-- a quality I lack. Check his novel out here. While he's been privately modest about the novel, I found it a compelling read, and got frustrated toward the end when Charles didn't post his chapters in time for my nightly reading session. The story follows the adventures of college-aged Chris through Italy, and offers us a parallel adventure through a fantasy realm-- the magical world inside Chris's journal.

In other nudes: Never be at a loss for words again! Carl the Poet has the solution!

Jelly has a good day.

In a "Tapeworm Tuesday" post from a little while back, the Maven links to an old, hilarious bit by the Greaseman. I've listened to a few of the Grease's recent podcasts (he's back to DJing in DC-- thanks for the links, Maven), and I might just give him another chance.

I found it exceedingly strange that even the spammers were silent for most of yesterday (Saturday, Korea time). I went out and had a second Thanksgiving dinner at the behest of a friend of mine. Good food, lots of expats I didn't know. Not being the sociable sort, I sat around taking the atmosphere in, but it was still interesting.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Alien meditation


ululate: Pat Morita is dead

Nooooooooooo! Mr. Miyagi can't die!

Sadness. Another childhood icon proves mortal.

I now retire to my clamshell meditation chamber to ponder the nature of existence, after which I will telekinetically strangle Admiral Ozzel for coming out of lightspeed too close to the Hoth system.


Friday, November 25, 2005

100 Below: Volume 13

Once upon a time there was a cow. She could shoot laser beams out of her udders. Nobody fucked with the cow.



smart solutions

Know what's cool?

The water cooler dude's strategy for getting two huge water bottles down the hall: carry one, roll the other. Kick ass. This happened not five minutes ago in the B1 level of my building at Smoo. I was impressed.


Thursday, November 24, 2005

Smoo follies

We celebrated Turkey Day in grand style at Smoo today: a 4PM "lupper" call (that's lunch + supper, in case you're wondering), and turkey prepared by the Seoul Intercontinental Hotel. Not bad: we got two fifteen- or sixteen-pounders, which yielded a hell of a lot of meat for the twenty of us. I was selected to carve one turkey, while my Aussie colleague was chosen to perform surgery on Bird Number 2. The stuffing was an interesting shade of pink, and we soon found out why: red wine. I'll have to remember that the next time I make stuffing.

The meal had most of the Turkey Day trappings: mashed potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots-- and even some Korean-style boiled chestnuts in a sweet soy sauce. One colleague was kind enough to bring cheesecakes.

A few things were missing though. A meal at the Hominid residence in the States would also have included peas; baked mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow, walnut, and brown sugar crust; corn; cranberry sauce; ham; and of course, a whole slew of Korean dishes: bulgogi, kalbi, chap-ch'ae, kimchi, oi-kimchi, doraji-namul, rice, and so on.

The Koreans obviously thought something was missing as well. "We need kimchi," one of our number groaned. Another staffer popped out of her seat, left the room, and returned a few moments later with a pile of kimchi. Faces brightened noticeably. Quite a few of the Korean teachers knew about the Thanksgiving tradition in America; some of them joked that we needed to flip on the TV and catch a football game. I was the only Yank in the bunch, but it still felt good to sit down and eat with the faculty and staff. I'm not usually that sociable, but today was something of a special exception.

One of the Korean teachers is several months pregnant, and she's always eating for two these days. Another teacher pointed at my belly and joked, "Kevin's got to feed his baby, too!" Oh, ha ha ha. She's lucky I didn't beat her to death with my overlarge uterus.

Happy Turkey Day, all.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005


[reprinted from my book, Scary Spasms in Hairy Chasms: A Panoply of Paeans to Putrescence and a Cornucopia of Corrosive Coprophilia]

“Here it comes!” I announced as I proudly set our immaculately browned avian treasure down at the center of the table. My family obligingly made all the appropriate oohs and aahs as I seated myself between my son Stevie and my wife Kristi. “OK, everyone— dig in!”

But before we could start forward, 5-year-old Stevie, wiser than his years, cried, “But, Dad! You forgot the blessing!” I rapped the table with my spoon, calling everyone to order as I turned to my father. “Care to lead us in a blessing, Dad?” I asked. Dad grinned proudly. We linked hands and bowed our heads as he began his special Thanksgiving prayer.

“Lord, we thank you for so many things this time of year. We thank you for family and friends, for good food and companionship, for the coming cold of winter and the warm fireplace, and especially for your holy shit on a stick!”

Confused, we opened our eyes and looked quizzically at Dad, then followed his horrified stare to the center of the table.

Painfully, arthritically, the heretofore inert turkey struggled erect, standing up on its wings as we looked on in bovine stupefaction. Its drumsticks waved menacingly in the air like antennae on a satanic beetle as it pivoted to glare at each of us in turn. Then it spoke.

“You asswipes know nothing of pain,” the turkey boomed through its stuffing-filled butt. Its voice was a combination of Jack Nicholson and James Earl Jones. “Come-- I will teach you what it means to suffer.” The turkey gathered itself as if to leap at our throats. I pulled my wife and son behind me, using myself as a shield, but the turkey didn’t leap.

Instead, it rotated until it faced Aunt Ellie, who stood petrified and unable even to squeak. With a coughing, rasping “Pfaugh!”, the turkey disgorged its load of stuffing, which impacted Ellie’s chest with the force of a cannon. Ellie was thrown through the wall as the turkey cackled and began lining up on Uncle Sid.

Not willing to wait and see what else the turkey could spit, I charged the bird as Dad yelled, “Remember your training!” I launched a flying side kick that caught the turkey broadside and slammed it into the kitchen cabinets. The cabinets shattered as friends and family squawked and ran directionlessly. I followed my quarry into the kitchen and stopped. The turkey had picked up two knives that had spilled out of one of the drawers, and it handled them now with the ease of a master, motioning me to come get some. Dad moved to my side.

“Badass bird, huh, son?”

I nodded. “But we’ll do him.”

The turkey roared and charged us. I spun out of the way as Dad did a backflip and kicked the turkey in its plump and tempting breasts. Basting juice squirted in all directions. Stevie was in the living room and yelled, “Go, Grandpa!”

The turkey gagged and lost its grip on one knife as it flew over Dad’s head and crashed into a wall, but it immediately dusted itself off and charged again, leaping onto the dining room table to get some altitude. I was ready for this, and when the turkey made its move, I yanked the tablecloth up and over the bird, netting it. The turkey, sensing its impending demise, screamed like a woman as it vainly poked holes through the tablecloth with its one remaining knife.

Gasping for breath, I said, “Ready, Dad?” as Dad positioned himself in the living room and settled into an attack stance. “Do it, son!” Dad yelled. Grunting, I threw the bundled turkey toward Dad, who leaped into the air and did a jumping, spinning roundhouse kick which connected solidly with the bundle. We all cringed at the terrible crunch of bone.

Fearfully, we formed a circle around the tablecloth as Dad began uncovering the turkey. When the last fold of cloth was moved aside, we saw that it was nearly dead. Its butt cavity trembled as it tried to speak. “Assholes,” it said, now sounding more like Jay Leno with broken teeth. Then it died. Dad looked at me, looked at the turkey. Then he stood up and faced us all.

“Let’s eat! I’m starving!”

Except for Aunt Ellie dying, it was the best Thanksgiving ever.


strategic realignment of forces

November is winding to a close. Thanksgiving is tomorrow, Thursday, and I have to start thinking about packing up and shipping out to America for my first visit there in two years.

I'll be concentrating on my new book's manuscript while I'm in the States. The blog is therefore going to undergo some thematic changes to make life a bit easier on me. The basic paradigm shift: moving fully into humorblogging.

My humor isn't for everyone. If you're easily offended, consider this post fair warning. I hold very little sacred. An interview with Christ's woefully underused penis is, therefore, a possibility. I also have no compunction about depicting Kim Jong Il having sex with a-- oh, wait-- here it is:

So if you see more "100 Below"s, weird short stories, sick cartoons, and inbred pomes than usual, don't be surprised. The blog is simply settling on a single theme for the time being.

Weekly schedule (subject to change without notice)--

Monday: 100 Below, regular style
Tuesday: The Chalice of Bitterness
Wednesday: 100 Below, religious edition
Thursday: Smoo Follies
Friday: 100 Below, genre-raping edition
Saturday: your Saturday cartoon
Sunday: the Rotten Pot (le pot pourri)

More than one post may appear each day. Nothing to be frightened of.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

gotta read it to believe it

A while back, my brother David gleefully announced:

George Takei is GAY!!!

Because I don't have a fine-tuned gaydar, this isn't something I would have guessed. Takei, a.k.a. Star Trek's Mr. Sulu, bares all in this interview for Frontier with Alexander Cho.

You know, this revelation gives new meaning to Sulu's line in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," in which Sulu looks out at a 1980s-era California cityscape and purrs:

"San Francisco. I was born there."


PainWatch: you get what you pay for

I visited the on-campus doc today. The general clinic is located in the basement of Smoo's main building, across the street from where I work. I lumbered in without an appointment, but as I suspected, that wasn't a problem: the friendly receptionists told me I could step into the next room and see the on-duty doc.

The doc turned out to be an ancient, warty being-- part Korean, part toad: a sessile Yoda, rooted to her dwarf-sized stool. Despite her obviously advanced age, her hair, cropped fairly short, was a marvelous, shiny black, perfectly matching the spots on her skin. She barely acknowledged my presence as I walked in; her attention seemed focused primarily on her computer. I'd like to imagine that she'd been surfing lesbian porn sites just a moment before.

After some time, she broke communion with her monitor and peered at me through her Far Side-style glasses. She asked me where it hurt. I explained the salient features of The Pain. She nodded. She asked me to open and close my left hand, then raise and lower my left arm. She asked whether the pain had progressed much over the course of the week-- has it weakened? Has it become more intense? "No," I told her. "About the same." Have you taken any medication? "Yes," I said. "Aspirin and topical application of Ben Gay." (Does the latter count as medication?)

She nodded through all my answers, still more intent on her computer screen than on me. Although I couldn't figure out the Korean terms on the monitor, I guessed from her mouse clicking that she was taking me through a diagnostic algorithm. The computer would lead her to the proper determination.

Finally, the doc croaked: "It's muscular, not a pinched nerve. I'm printing out the prescription. You'll find it at the front desk. A massage is OK, as is a warm shower. You're going to be taking some pills and using cold patches. Pick those up at the front desk, too."

I thanked the gnome and headed out to the front desk. The receptionists expressed relief that they could speak with me in Korean. The usual exchange:

"Seems like you've been in Korea a while."
"About five years."
"Some foreigners have lived here longer and still can't speak much Korean. The foreign teachers who come in here always speak in English."
"Hm. Yeah, a lot of them don't bother to learn."*
"Where'd you learn your Korean?"
"Mainly at university in the States, and from living here, and from taking an intensive class at Korea U."
"Ah. You speak Korean very well."
"No; I have a lot to learn." (My standard reply, always uttered with a smile. It's a ritual formality, but it also happens to be true.)

The cost of my ten-minute consultation, plus prescription drugs and patches: W1,500, or about $1.50, US. I didn't have to show my insurance card; I doubt insurance would have covered such a brief consult, anyway.

It's many hours later. I've taken one set of pills; no effect. I'm going to down some more drugs in a few minutes, then slap on one of the cold patches-- icy, not firey. Ought to be interesting. Maybe I should slather on some Ben Gay first and let the competing sensations of heat and cold duel it out on my skin.

...Nah. Maybe not. Chemical reactions are unpredictable. Mixing Cold Patch and Ben Gay is probably the quickest way to mutate my sperm and shrink my testicles into dried jujubes. I don't want to risk ejaculating retarded kids for the next ten years.

*If this was my moment to defend the lazy-ass expats, then I guess I dropped the ball. I sincerely believe that if you plan to suck the teat of another country's economy for several years, the least you can do is acquire more than minimal competence in the language. Is that too much to ask? I knew a dude who'd spent four years in Korea and hadn't even learned to say "yes" or "no." Nice guy to me, but uninentionally an asshole to his Korean hosts.


Ave, Rory!

If you do nothing else today after reading Jeff's stellar takedown of Cultural Sensitivity Dude, visit Rory's blog and watch this. I busted a gut.


Ave, Jeff!

Jeff in Pusan considers it a waste of time to respond to certain commenters, but I highly recommend that you read Jeff's answer to a particularly long-winded comment.

The post in question is here.

The comment is here.

Jeff's response is here.


Monday, November 21, 2005

the long, long Monday

The day, much like my ass, dragged and sagged and seemed to expand outward forever. Time oozed and bubbled like pus from the diseased vagina of a retarded goddess.

For about a month now, the beginning of the week has meant staying at school from 7:50AM until about 8PM or so. Every Monday, I teach a 3-hour block from 7:50AM to 11:10AM (that includes two 10-minute breaks, in case you're puzzled by the math), then teach from 1PM to 2PM, then again from 4PM to 6PM. Luckily, all my classes are pleasant.

I manage to get some stuff done during my two-hour breaks, but I have a lot of work to do, and much of it gets shunted until after the last class is over. Mondays are long. Today was no different: I was in the office until 10:30PM.

Along with the burden of classes-- not a burden in the same way that hagwon classes used to be-- there's the problem of my body, which appears, at long last, to be falling apart.

Up to now I've been relatively free of back and joint pains-- chronic pain-- of any sort. Then, as of this past October, right after my folks shipped back to the States, I started getting pounding headaches.

I've still got them. They never went away. I simply stopped blogging about them until tonight.

Last week I acquired a new pain, which I'm tentatively attributing to a pinched nerve, probably due to a herniated disc. How the disc became herniated is beyond me; I don't recall having violent sex with a sheep anytime recently. I imagine I must have slept oddly one night, and then woke up with The Pain.

The Pain lies coiled in the base of my neck, on the left side. As I wrote to one friend, The Pain starts there, then radiates down two paths: one path slithers down to the inside of my left shoulder blade, the side closer to the spine; the other path roller coasters over my left deltoid, plunges into my biceps (or feels like it does), then makes annoying sensations in my elbow and, occasionally, my forearm. My left arm is painful to lift, and noticeably weaker.

The combined assault of the headache and the putative nerve pinch has convinced me to visit a clinic, which I plan to do tomorrow. I'm not looking forward to this, unless it leads to the doctorly insistence that I visit a massage parlor.

"Gimme the works!" I'll boom upon entering the parlor, fully expecting nubile young ladies in belly-dancing outfits to stream out of the back rooms to service me seventy-two different ways-- toe sucking, finger massaging, nipple gnawing, sac chewing, and of course, applying a hot iron to my schlong: every man's unspoken wish.

Alas, I'm pretty sure the reality will be nothing like the fantasy. Two hairy old women will waddle out, enormous knuckles dragging on the dirt floor. One will pull on a Gimp-style S&M mask and grab a whip; the other will pry a large axe from out of the skull of her previous customer, sharpen it absently against her granite toenails, then growl, "The poyne's by yer shyolda' bloide, roight?" as she brings the axe down on my spine, not caring whether I give answer.

It doesn't help matters that, along with the fatigue and the pain, I can't shake a certain refrain from my mind:

It takes a tough man to rape a tender chicken.
It takes a tough man to rape a tender chicken.
It takes a tough man to rape a tender chicken.

So-- how was your fuckin' day?


Sunday, November 20, 2005


You might want to click on the Dalma Daesa image on the sidebar. He's trying to tell you something.


Korean self-criticality and other cultural issues

I've heard it said by certain expats (and seen it written on blogs as well) that South Koreans have no capacity for self-criticality. I think this is demonstrably false: the Korean news is filled-- as far as I can tell, given my limited Korean-- with critical commentaries about Korean society, politics, and culture. Westerners who don't speak much Korean might not be aware of how deep this self-criticism runs.

On Friday, I gave my advanced conversation students copies of one of Dr. Hodges's blog entries, in which Dr. Hodges juxtaposed his own reflections on Korean society with those he'd found in an article about Cho Se-mi, an international business consultant.

Dr. Hodges distills the article down to five claims (by Cho) about Koreans:

1. Koreans lack initiative
2. Koreans don't pursue excellence
3. Koreans don't think
4. Koreans are closed-minded
5. Koreans don't listen

I'll agree with Dr. Hodges that my own classroom experience dovetails with his. However, Korean society and culture have been in rapid flux since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and it's my belief that some or all of the above claims will, sooner or later, no longer be true.

My focus in this post, however, is on how my students reacted to Dr. Hodges's post-- or, more accurately, how they reacted to Cho Se-mi's claims. My students knew from the outset that the above five contentions were made by a Korean, i.e., this was a critique coming from within the culture, making it somewhat harder to dismiss than the standard Western complaints.

Regarding (1), the claim the Koreans lack initiative, my students contended that this depended on the person. I agreed that this had been my experience as well: many Koreans are passive, especially in teacher-student relationships, but there are more than a few who do take charge.

My students laughed at (2), "Koreans don't pursue excellence," not because they thought Cho was wrong but because they thought she was right. One student used a personal example: she had been given a certain type of project to do, and had planned to expend a lot of time and energy to put together a magnificent presentation. Her classmates, however, were wise to the professor's biases, and told her that, with only a fourth of the effort she planned to make, she could cut corners and get the "A." My student confessed that she opted for the easier route. After all, why bother going to all that trouble if your classmates can get the same grade with no sweat?

"So," I joked, "You were thinking only about the grade and about getting whatever your classmates got."

"Yes," she replied, unblinking.

I told her I didn't blame her, and I don't: in a system that favors laziness, laziness represents a certain wisdom, especially if you've spent most of your educational formation worrying more about the grade than about the education you're receiving. Teachers, if they are honest, will all remember instances from their pasts in which they, too, sidestepped the challenge of learning for learning's sake, opting instead to grab the "A" via the path of least resistance.

My students unanimously found (3),"Koreans don't think," offensive. I explained that the verb "think" likely referred to a certain style of thinking. Dr. Hodges, in his comment on that contention, writes the following:

Koreans really do have problems here. Although my students can usually draw conclusions in clearly defined problems requiring deductive reasoning, they tend to lose this ability if they have to define a problem for themselves. They also show weaknesses in using inductive reasoning, being unable to generalize from similar cases. I think that this latter weakness stems from weakness in thinking analogically. Many students lack ability to transfer insights gained in one case to another, structurally similar but superficially different case.

In his book The Geography of Thought, psychologist Richard E. Nisbett takes a nuanced stance in comparing Eastern and Western thinking patterns. He is quick to note, for example, that the claim that "Asians can't think logically" is manifestly false given the number of Asians who excel in areas requiring logic, such as science and math. However, Nisbett also notes that Asian culture in general doesn't inculcate the same style of inductive, categorical, analogical thinking strategies learned at an early age by most children in the industrialized West.

But Western friends of mine who deal with Asians in science (I'm thinking in particular of a buddy who's an aeronautical engineer) report that many Asian scientists, logical though they be, lack the ability to "think outside the box," or, even more basically, to move from textbook-style reasoning to practical reasoning when faced with difficulties in the lab. Obviously, this observation isn't meant to apply to all or even most Asians (one grand exception sits on my blogroll-- I wonder if he noticed that I'd changed the sidebar image), but it does apply to many of them.

Nisbett's data also seem to confirm the Asian difficulty with analogical and inductive thinking. He notes, however, that Western tendencies to apply categorical thinking to problems can be nonproductive, too. He cites some classic intra-Western debates that have generated "more heat than light," as he puts it.

From p. 154 of The Geography of Thought:

The obsession with categories of the either/or sort* runs through Western intellectual history. Dichotomies abound in every century and form the basis for often fruitless debates: for example, "mind-body" controversies in which partisans take sides as to whether a given behavior is best understood as being produced by the mind independent of any biological embodiment, or as a purely physical reaction unmediated by mental processes. The "nature-nurture" controversy is another debate that has often proved to generate more heat than light. As evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander has pointed out, nearly all behaviors that are characteristic of higher order mammals are determined by both nature and nurture. The dichotomy "emotion-reason" has obscured more than it has revealed. As Hume said, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of passion"; it makes sense to separate the two for purposes of analysis only. And it's been suggested that the distinction between "human" and "animal" insisted upon by Westerners made it particularly hard to accept the concept of evolution. In most Eastern systems, the soul can take the form of any animal or even God. Evolution was never controversial in the East because there was never an assumption that humans sat atop a chain of being and somehow had lost their animality.

Perhaps my girls have a right to be a mite offended by the claim that they can't think-- after all, there's no agreed-upon, universal definition of thinking. As with (1), my students' feeling is that much depends on the individual.

As for (4), "Koreans are closed-minded," my students didn't like how this claim was worded, but they found themselves nodding in agreement as we reviewed Dr. Hodges's elaboration on the claim. "Yes," they confirmed: many Korean teachers train their students to look for a single "right" answer to questions that might have multiple and/or interrelated answers. Obviously, the search for simplicity in the midst of complexity can be convenient, but it can also be dangerous, whether we're talking about the hard sciences or the humanities-- fields that both require an appreciation of the complexities and subtleties of Reality as she reveals herself.

The students ended up disagreeing with Dr. Hodges on (5), "Koreans don't listen," because they strongly felt that part of the problem, at least in the case of Korean students sitting in on an English-language lecture, was simply the language barrier.

I, however, think Dr. Hodges may have a point about Koreans in general. Koreans don't listen, and it's one of my major gripes when I'm trying to explain something to a Korean in detail. Perhaps I'm just an over-talkative windbag, but very often I find myself cut off by my Korean interlocutor, who has determined that I've given him or her enough information, and that the matter is now closed. The signal for this, especially if the conversation is in English, is a brusque, rapidfire "Okayokay"-- said just like that, in that almost offensively dismissive manner. Bugs me to no end.

Koreans who are familiar with the West and/or who grew up there generally don't have this hasty tendency. But here on the peninsula, it's quite common to see people leaving conversations half-cocked, convinced they now know enough to go about their day. They don't, and the attitude underlying the "Okayokay" mentality is what gets Koreans in trouble with each other and with foreigners. Michael Breen, in his book The Koreans, remarks on the incredible Korean capacity for hard work and post-haste action. The result, he says, is often great, prompt service... that usually turns out, over time, to be poor in quality. Breen marvels at what appears to him to be massive incompetence at every level of business and industry, compensated by the hasty and unceasing post-hoc repair work Koreans do.

I began this post noting that Koreans are indeed self-critical, and that Westerners, especially those who don't speak much Korean, may not be clued in to this. I can imagine rebuttals from Western Korean speakers, many of whom are more fluent than I, who will doubtless note that Koreans seem wrapped up in a culture of blame and victimhood. To some extent, I agree, but my basic point is that Koreans are constantly engaged in critical reflection about who they are and where they're going. The fact that a person like Cho Se-mi can offer such critiques of Korean culture is, in my opinion, laudable. And she's not alone. Koreans might not be reflective enough in areas where I think they need to improve, but who am I to impose that viewpoint on them? Koreans will, I have no doubt, figure things out on their own, and I'm sure the world will learn something from their example.

In fact, let me end this piece by citing an article (found through Oranckay) about two Korean sisters in America who explore the question of superior academic performance by ethnic Asians in American schools and on standardized tests. In something of a reversal from the Korean-on-Korean critique by Cho Se-mi, these two sisters offer their own "critique from within the culture"-- this time, American culture-- and come to conclusions that Americans, if they will listen, are sure to find valuable.

One interesting irony, though: the sisters' basic contention is that parents should instill in their children a love of learning. I happen to agree, and I agree with the Kims that the American system, especially through high school, isn't particularly conducive to instilling that love. But as bad as that problem is in the States, it's far worse here in Korea: very few students, in my experience, do what they do simply because they love learning. For most students, effort is about achievement, and achievement is defined fairly strictly in terms of grades. True, there are plenty of grade-grubbers in the States (and everywhere else), but for Koreans this is a special problem, and the next step in Korea's cultural evolution will involve breaking the intellectual shackles and truly inculating a sense of the value of education: a value not tied to a distant material goal, but to something occuring now, a spiritual progress the student herself can notice and track with joy.

*I've been guilty of this dualism, too, but in my defense I'll point out that I did explore a more nondualistic approach to the mind/body problem in a brief post here.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

hop to it!

Now's the time to be thinking about the gifts you'll be giving your loved ones, and nothing says love quite like a Big Hominid product.

From my Cafe Press store, we've got:

1. Christmas Cards

2. Mugs

3. Tile Coasters

4. Tee Shirts

5. Sweatshirts

6. Mouse Pads and Other Thingies

An overview of the store is here.

From, you can buy my book, Scary Spasms in Hairy Chasms: A Panoply of Paeans to Putrescence and a Cornucopia of Corrosive Coprophilia.

Or buy it directly from yours truly here.

I'm working on my second book, Water from a Skull, which I hope to publish sometime next year, quite likely through

While Water from a Skull will be serious in tone, a second humor book is also in the works. No title yet.

What're you waiting for? Stop scratching your balls and go BUY SOME SHIT!


asking the impossible of God

Someone named Anonymous found an old post of mine about God and logical paradox, and left a comment. Given how old the post is, I've decided to report the person's comment here, along with the reply I made in the comment threads. If you're a good analytical philosopher, you will, of course, disagree with me and side with my critic.

The comment:

Kevin writes: "A lot of theistic philosophers claim God's omnipotence is limited by logical necessity. I've always contended this is absurd: a truly omnipotent God isn't chained by logical necessity. Why, then, do many of these same theists accept what we know to be the physical absurdity of a man walking on water, but balk at the logical absurdity of God making a round square?"

I think you are misconstruing the concept of logical impossibility here. It isn't just very hard to achieve. It is impossible. The reason is not that it is infinitely hard to achieve, but that it is impossible in principle. It is our human understanding of a statement, or proposition, that if it is true then it is not also false. To ask a god to achieve the conditon of something both being the case and not being the case is to ask him to both succeed and fail at the same task. You are saying that for god something impossible should also be possible, by which you mean not impossible. So for god you are saying something can be both possible and impossible at the same time. It is our concept of contradiction that ensures the impossibility of the task. Not the impotence of god as the doer. You are setting him a meaningless goal.

My reply:

Dear Anonymous,

First, I'd like a name!

Second, I've heard this objection far too many times, and it falls on deaf ears. You write:

"The reason is not that it is infinitely hard to achieve, but that it is impossible in principle."

...and that's precisely the point where I disagree. "Impossible in principle" is a conclusion reached through limited human reckoning. We can't envision a universe in which 2 + 2 = 5; we assume, therefore, that such a thing is impossible, meaningless, etc.

You're saying this is a limitation built into the (onto)logical structure of reality-- including the divine reality. I'm saying it's a limitation built into the human mind.

Besides-- if we grant that God is unable to perform paradoxes, then we have to assume that miracles-- such as Dr. Vallicella's floating bar of iron-- are also impossible.

My point in that post was that physical absurdity = a subtype of logical absurdity. Given the nature of the physical universe, certain things are possible while other things are, as you say, "impossible in principle." The theistic philosopher is going to have a hard time explaining on what, exactly, he bases his theistic beliefs once miracles are entirely stripped from the equation.


So allow me to lay out the dilemma for the theistic philosopher.

He must either (1) believe that God is incapable of performing logically contradictory actions, in which case he must allow that miracles are impossible, or (2) believe that God is not chained by paradox, in which case miracles are possible and God can be seen as ultimately responsible for the existence of evil (since miraculous capabilities put one in a position to do something about suffering).


"That is the sound of inevitability."

Are you listening, Japan?

You can hear it. Like a whisper. A subtle murmur, the fell susurrus of fate. From the heart of the Dark Lord's mechanical respiration, the cosmos delivers its verdict.



Friday, November 18, 2005

another nail in the coffin of substance dualism

Scientists have found a gene linked with the fear response.

(via Drudge)

One uncomfortable implication: genetically engineered terrorists, born without fear. We will, of course, stop them by creating an army of equally fearless hamsters.

PS: If you're new to this blog and don't understand the title, let me suggest this post for your edification.


more teacherly notes

My brother writes in the comments section:

Maybe you're thinking into the whole thing too much. You're thinking as though the entire class represents one character, one personality, one person. There are too many variables to concentrate so much on the details.

Brush with wider strokes and you'll be happier with the results.

I guess I didn't make clear that I wasn't accusing every single student of cheating or of seeking loopholes in the mixer quiz. I do think, though, that the problems I've been encountering arise from some sort of large-scale, mutual misunderstanding, possibly cultural in origin. This means I'll need to revise my procedures somehow.

However, I want to note that most classes do, in fact, possess a collective temperament, this being more evident in Korean classrooms than in Western ones. While it would be wrong to pretend all the students are identical, there is nevertheless a certain "feel" to each hour of the day. I teach, for example, four sections of the same level of English conversation, and each class has its own corporate bunwigi, or ambiance.

Andrew R. writes in:

Hi Kevin,

Re: your mixer quiz problems

Have you thought about starting the activity as usual, then doing spot checks? That is, have the students start, then take the paper from a random student. With random student's paper in hand, have the student repeat the activity with you in place of the other student. If/When the answers don't match up - have them do it again.

Best regards,

I sent him this reply by email:

I'm constantly proctoring; I never leave the students alone for a moment. But it's a bit like when I taught high school French in the States in the 90s: the moment I walk away, someone's bound to get sneaky.

The cheating problem is bad, in American terms-- a couple students per class. But in absolute terms, I can handle one or two cheaters in a class of 10-15.

The Smallholder offers encouragement in this post on Naked Villainy:

You know the Big Hominid is a good teacher.


Because he is always thinking and evaluating the success of his lesson plans.

I appreciate the backup.

Speaking of backup, I have to thank EFL Geek for alerting me to Gord's fine post titled "Using What You Know." The post reassures me that my own stance about occasional Korean use in the language classroom is justified. At one point, the post says:

I am of [the] opinion that nothing turns a class off faster than being told not to speak their mother tongue, especially by a foreign language teacher who is refusing to speak the local language in class. While I'm not sure the term "imperialist" is quite the correct one for this, the criticisms about why it's wrong (found under the heading of "linguistic imperialism") are often quite sensible. Certainly there are severe problems with a classroom in which the mother tongue is a bad thing. However, it's not useful to students to develop a habit of continually leaning on the mother tongue in such a way that it slows and impedes advancement in the target language.

My thinking is that when a student is engaged with second/foreign language study for extended periods of time-- 2 to 4 or more hours in a row-- short reversions to the mother tongue, far from being undesirable, are quite natural, important to the learning process, and frankly unavoidable. However, the important thing is that one must revert back to the target language when study begins again after the short break. This "macro-reversion" pattern is natural and healthy, and not a barrier to language acquisition.

Likewise, the use of the mother tongue in momentary explanations of grammar is, often, quite useful. [This] is also natural: one finds grammatical parallels in the mother tongue, understands, reexamines the structure in question, and then experiments with it. Sometimes a degree of code-switching-- translation and retranslation-- is very useful at this stage of acquisition. As long as this stabilizes towards a temporary domain of second-language practice, then there's no problem.

This is exactly how I use Korean in the classroom when I do use it. Not being fluent in Korean, I'm unable to rattle on at length, however much I might be tempted to get selfish and practice my Korean with the students instead of helping them practice their English. I also refuse to speak Korean in my higher-level classes unless we're dealing specifically with elements of Korean thought and culture that have no direct translation in English. Unfortunately, this attitude gets me branded a heretic by linguistic absolutists who insist that the "throw enough mud and some will stick eventually" approach-- i.e., speaking always and only in English while teaching-- is the only approach worth considering. Such absolutists need to understand that Korean use is not an all-or-nothing issue. In practice, I too am against overuse of the native language in the classroom: interactions (both teacher-student and student-student) should be as close to 100% in the target language as possible.

But some students, who've had part of their formation under said absolutists, will still complain that I'm using too much Korean-- never mind that I'm throwing in only a phrase or two now and again (and not without reason). Unfortunately, this uncompromising pedagogical ideology seems rather prevalent in Korea, and it's based on the silliest of theories: that language learning follows some sort of "more is always better" rule. Sometimes more isn't better. If I waste ten minutes flapping my arms while trying to explain a word to a student without resorting to translation, how am I benefitting the other students, who are patiently waiting for the lesson to continue? Because no language class has an infinite amount of time available to it, teachers have to make command decisions that sometimes end in compromises-- such as the quick translation versus the amusing, but time-wasting, arm-flapping spectacle.

I recommend Gord's article. His basic point is about more than the issue of Korean usage. To find out more, click the link above.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

rethinking the mixer quiz

It's now apparent that my English conversation students don't quite know how to handle my mixer quizzes. The quiz's basic concept is simple: forbid students to write on their own papers, forcing them to tell their partners-- in English only-- what to write. The product-- i.e., what gets turned in to the teacher--would be written, but the process would involve speaking because, as I've said, it makes little sense to give students a written exam after they've spent all their class time working on speaking skills.

But my students have continued to find ways around the obvious, and it's obvious to me that I've made some critical misjudgments. Consider the following problems, all of which have cropped up at some point or other this semester:

1. Many students have no qualms about cheating if that's what gets a correct answer onto the paper. My original instructions were simple: sit with one partner at a time, work only with that partner in the method described above, then move on to another partner. Any behavior not in line with those instructions is, quite simply, cheating. These conditions were made clear at the outset, but they have done nothing to prevent cheating. Students clump together in large groups, speak to each other in Korean, grab their own papers back and mark corrections on them, etc.

2. Students don't get the basic premise that they're supposed to talk their partners through each answer. Instead, I sometimes get what happened today: the partner receives a paper, writes her own answer on it, then hands it back to the paper's owner, who gives it an approving nod. Not a word spoken-- no attempt made by the paper's owner to delve into her active vocabulary and produce a meaningful utterance.

3. Because of (2), some students who are actually quite good are ending up with lower grades than less capable students. This is because the good students aren't policing their own papers well: they're trusting the partner to write whatever, and somehow hoping that that will suffice. Also: the conversation class isn't for credit, so no one feels any sense of ultimate urgency about their grades. This was unexpected. However, paradoxically:

4. Students will skip class on quiz day, probably because they have already built up such negative associations with tests and quizzes, based on years in the Korean system. They are aware that a poor grade on a quiz in my class will have no effect on their GPA, but the very prospect of a poor grade is enough to drive some students away. The whole thing is amazingly childish.

I'm viewing all this-- the ups and downs of this quizzing method-- as experimental data. The data lead me to conclude that the method, as it stands, needs to be either improved or completely rethought. Obviously, some sort of change is necessary, but I'm attached to the basic design of the mixer quiz. Some possible solutions present themselves:

1. Reduce the quiz to a series of highly regimented steps which the students must explicitly follow. As things stand, I hand each student a paper with ten questions. Perhaps I should do the quiz in "rounds"-- handing out only one or two questions per round. Or, instead of handing out quizzes to all the students, I should hand out quizzes to only half the class at a time, thereby reducing the illicit traffic in paper-trading.

2. Keep the basic idea of the mixer format, but use a totally different mixing procedure.

3. Chuck the whole thing.

The main reason I chose the mixer quiz format for this course (Level 2 English conversation) is that the textbook I'm using, Jazz English (pardon the corny title, but ESL literature is filled with corny titles), is billed as a mixer-style book. Because my mixer quizzes worked well with my French classes in America, I was convinced they'd work equally well here. While the mixer has met with some success here-- at least at the beginning of the term-- this hasn't panned out over time.

So maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board and find more effective, more culturally appropriate formats for quizzes and tests. Or maybe it's time to strip everything down and return to some simple, hardcore basics-- newfangled teaching methodologies be damned. Here's a rundown of the most popular conversation exam formats, along with their respective merits and demerits:

1. Multiple choice tests targeting isolated aspects of language-- e.g., listening comprehension, grammar points, etc.

Advantage: Easy to grade.

Disadvantages: Where to begin? First, there's the "luck" factor: a canny student can guess their way through part or all of such a test. Second, there's the question of language in isolation. Multiple choice tests don't confront students with language in context. Third, there's the passivity factor: no matter how cleverly you build your multiple choice test, there's more reliance on passive vocabulary than active vocabulary to get through. Finally, it's something of a joke to give conversation students a multiple choice exam. This kind of test simply isn't a serious option, in my opinion. Koreans, in particular, have been conditioned to take-- and ace-- tests of this nature since the beginning. A student learns almost nothing about his true ability from such a test.

2. One-on-one short interviews.

Advantages: When the student is asked to come to the front with no notes and no textbook allowed, there's almost no way for the student to fake her way through the interview. Because interviews can be conducted in a variety of ways, there's an inherent flexibility in the process. Interviews can also be used to gather a holistic impression of the student's abilities, or they can target specific areas. The holistic aspect of interviews makes them, in some ways, more realistic (keeping in mind that no test is completely realistic) than multiple choice exams: dialogue has a certain direction and flow, and creates its own context as it progresses.

Major disadvantages: First, such interviews take time and are cumbersome to conduct. The teacher will often need to occupy the rest of the class with other activities while each student awaits her turn. Another disadvantage is that, unless one has a precise, thorough, and consistent way of evaluating student output, the single grade assigned to the interview contains a large amount of "fuzziness"-- what, exactly, does a "B+" mean? Compare two "B+" students: one whose pronunciation leaves much to be desired but whose grammar and fluency are impeccable; another whose fluency and pronunciation are nearly flawless but whose utterances contain grammatical errors. How meaningful is a single grade? That grade hides as much as it reveals.

A possible solution to that problem is simply to assign multiple grades. When I took my Korean class at Korea University, I did end up with a single final grade, but my report card also showed what grades I'd received in each of the four language macroskills: listening, speaking, reading, writing. A colleague of mine has suggested a similar approach to our conversation classes-- as always, in the knowledge that these grades would be for informational purposes only, not for credit.

3. Write-and-recite-a-dialogue. In this exam format, somewhat similar in nature to the interview because it takes place in front of the teacher, students work in pairs or groups and create (i.e., write) dialogue using language elements from the material on which the students are being tested. They then recite their dialogue in front of the teacher. Dialogues can be either open-ended or rather directed in nature.

Advantages: students work cooperatively, which is a reflection of how conversation actually happens: it's an interchange. Students also have the chance to correct each other's mistakes before they even reach the teacher. While this may result in artificially "clean" grammar, etc., it "lowers the affective filter," as Stephen Krashen might argue, and still includes use of active vocabulary.

The obvious disadvantage is that certain important aspects of language, such as listening comprehension, can't be tested for, and the dialogue's lack of spontaneity is problematic. Furthermore, as with one-on-one interviews, there's the problem of time: students need time to create their dialogues, and even in pairs or groups, it will take time to interview all the students.

This sort of exam also presents a special problem: diffusion of responsibility can result in unfair exam results. Let's say that Students A and B create a dialogue. Because they've collaborated on it, it will be difficult for the teacher to know which student committed which grammatical (etc.) errors on paper. If the teacher is grading only the verbal utterances, then the student who utters the erroneous English will be penalized, even if she wasn't the one to commit the error to paper. This is obviously unfair. One way around this problem might be to ask students to write their own lines with no help from their partner, but this is nearly impossible to enforce in practice, as the partners have to work in tandem to create dialogue that makes sense.

4. Task-oriented activities. These come in all shapes and sizes, and it'd be impossible to discuss them all here. Like interview examinations, these sorts of activities would have a fairly holistic bent, which means they have some of the same advantages and disadvantages of other holistic evaluative methods.

5. Dictation-plus... In France, the dictée is an educational staple, especially in the early years of education, because so many French words have endings that sound alike, yet are spelled differently. An exam that couples dictation with other, more active aspects of language-- say, speaking-- can test a student's listening and speaking skills, but depending on how the speaking element is to be tested, the exam might fall into any of the traps noted above. Also, it's questionable as to whether dictation is really testing listening comprehension, per se.

One's theory of language learning will affect how one teaches and tests students. Is development of L2 (second language) more a matter of acquisition (implicit, osmotic, holistic), or of learning (explicit, self-conscious, atomistically rule-governed)? To what extent is language a matter of habit-formation? Rote memorization? Precise pronunciation and application of grammatical elements? Is the holistic maxim "Be understood!" a good enough criterion for grading students?

Is a communicative approach to language teaching-- in which students are encouraged to make generally sensible, creative utterances that convey their intentions, but are likely to develop bad speech habits-- superior to something more along the lines of an audiolingual approach, in which decontextualized elements of language are "plugged into" larger grammatical structures, then taught to the students according to some theory of language-as-habit-formation?

Some might look at the above choices and say, "The answer lies somewhere in between." I'm no longer convinced that the "compromise" solution offers any greater wisdom than explicit, distinct approaches to language teaching. Compromise approaches, which attempt to integrate what's best about various older methods into themselves, often end up as little more than a confusing mishmash of teaching techniques. With no clear idea as to how much of each method to integrate into one's compromise syllabus, one risks creating an impotent concoction that helps the student not at all.

There is, we all know, no "perfect method" for language teaching and learning. The process is as much art as it is science-- imprecise because there are so many human factors to consider. Statistics, which linguists use to bash each other's pet approaches to language, are susceptible to multiple interpretations and don't provide us with a trustworthy means to know for sure that such-and-such an approach is an absolute failure or clear success. How to explain, for example, the numerous European examples of English- and French-speakers from centuries ago, who wrote (and likely spoke) in impeccable Church Latin (not to mention other European languages) despite having little more than the clumsy grammar-translation method at their disposal? If that method-- now almost universally despised-- was so poor, how did these scholars, many of whom were linguists in their own right, ever come to be?

There was once an amusing story in some magazine or newspaper about an African marathoner who, by running-- and winning-- the marathon while shoeless, was making those fancy shoe companies nervous. It's a good analogy for language teaching: sometimes what "works" is the old, simple, unadorned formula of hard work, hard drills, and uncompromising focus on the basics, like grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. Newfangled techniques that preach communicative competence (itself a pretty vague notion when you stop to think about it) and stress keeping the students interested might provide language learners with some benefits, but ultimately, how much better are those new methods than the older ones? I'm not saying we should go back to the Stone Age, but I am wondering whether, given the kaleidoscopic, market-driven nature of the ESL field, the Emperor's new clothes aren't a bit too much like thin air.

Perhaps my problem isn't just a matter of quiz design. Perhaps I need to be looking at how I approach my whole curriculum.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

the temptation of believing yourself unique

A bit of humble pie for all bloggers, courtesy of Julie.


postal scrotum: cultural commentary

My good friend Tam Gu Ja writes in--


I appreciated your article about The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Given my current line of work I am often astounded by the patterns of willful ignorance and revictimization of the victim that occur in society-- even ours. I often encounter patterns of behaviour about which society tends to pay far too little effort or attention as a whole. Some good examples would be instances of rape in general society (about 1 in 8) versus military society (about 1 in 5), patterns of child abuse, and similar things. There is plenty of ability to quantify, measure, and categorize behaviour in such a fashion that it is easy to see a course of action that would improve the situation, but the flat fact is that most Americans simply don't want to know, or, if they do, don't want to expend the effort to correct matters. It pissed me off to no end.

-Tam Gu Ja

They say you can tell what people really value, individually and collectively, by where they put their money. By that reckoning, what does American society value? Where does most of the consumers' money go? What does Korean society value?


à propos de la France...

...Justin Yoshida scrawled a comment, which I repost here as its own entry:

Last week, I asked my Frenchie pal Stephanie why they were rioting and she immediately answered, "because they are stupid, violent idiots." She also said anybody who claims that religion is not a factor is just as stupid.

That was the word from a Mimizan native, at least.

There's going to be plenty of debate over the role religion has played over the past three decades in France, but there's no denying that religious issues are, now and for the foreseeable future, crucial factors in where France-- and by extension, Europe-- heads next.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

reflections on The Aquariums of Pyongyang

Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang chronicles the author's struggle to survive ten years in a North Korean gulag, Yodok Camp 15. While it's probably unjust to make comparisons between horrors, I couldn't help noticing that his book seemed a bit colder than Elie Wiesel's shorter, but more heartfelt and horrifying, Night.

This isn't to diminish the suffering Kang went through, but it does mean that I took him at his word when he avowed, at several points in the book, that he'd been extremely lucky. Kang had a hardy constitution; other camp laborers became sick and died not long after beginning their arduous tenure. Kang's family was also rich and had connections, which proved useful once inside the gulag. Kang held on, as did his family. Even his grandmother, a faithful communist who arguably suffered the greatest disillusionment when communism showed its true nature, survived the ordeal (she passed away soon after her release from the camp).

Perhaps I'm being uncharitable to view Kang as unsentimental. Kang is, after all, a Korean man-- one of the tougher, cannier ones, I think. He's not blessed with the soul of a poet; his narration is spare, even brusque, and while he's careful to note how certain horrors rose above others in his memory (hangings and firing squads come to mind), he doesn't dwell on those horrors.

Kang does, however, return to certain themes-- the sort you'd expect in a Korean story. Chief among these is family: Kang worries for his beloved sister, is chagrined at forgetting what his mother looked like (she was forced to divorce Kang's father and separated from the family), and is concerned for his father's and uncle's health. After leaving the camp, Kang expresses regret that his final conversation with his grandmother-- who took care of the entire family during their decade of hell-- was an argument about some food she'd made him. A little while after that argument, she was found dead in a field, possibly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Kang notes these things, and the reader can hear him sighing with deep regret.

Kang's portrayal of life in the camp is revealing. His internment occurred during the 1980s, thirty years after the Korean War, and one thing he makes clear is that the camp prisoners aren't all brainwashed drones: if anything, they're full of contempt for the system that holds them under its thumb. In the camp, informants are everywhere, monitoring their fellow prisoners' every move, and they are-- as with collaborators the world over-- among the most hated individuals. The guards are brutality incarnate, having no compunction about kicking people-- even children-- to death or making them perform hard labor at a cruel whim.

For a child, life at Yodok Camp 15 meant schooling along with labor, but the schooling was, by Kang's lights, a joke: a mishmash of Party ideology that amounted to little more than memorization of portions of the Great Leader's major speeches, and listening to readings from clippings of articles from North Korea's paper, the Nodong Shinmun (Labor Paper).

Food was scarce for prisoners, who lost their human dignity soon after entering camp and facing extreme deprivation. They learned to scrounge around for rats, earthworms, insects, and whatever else could get them through the winter. At one point in the book, Kang recalls with some amusement one prisoner who subsisted quite well on rat meat, having devised a system for attracting and trapping the little creatures. But malnutrition was an ever-present reality; bizarre conditions like pellagra cropped up quite often.

Corruption, a recurrent theme in Kang's book, was everywhere, both inside the camp and beyond its borders. Kang takes corruption to be emblematic of the Kim regime as a whole: a nominally communist system that is able to function only because the breakdowns in distribution-- not to mention the breakdown in common human virtues like trust-- have forced North Koreans to create their own local markets and ply their trade by their own means.

After ten years, under circumstances as irrational and arbitrary as those under which he was initially imprisoned, Kang leaves Yodok Camp 15 with his family and eventually finds his mother. Consistent with the rest of his narrative, Kang handles the mother/son reunion unsentimentally. Given what happened next, I wonder whether Kang the narrator wasn't holding back on his true feelings of love toward his family. He had to make a terrible choice, you see: in the end, Kang decided to escape North Korea. It might have been (and it might still be) too much for Kang to delve into the depths of his regret, to explore his fear that his family has come to a bad end because of his defection.

Kang had reasons to leave the North. One was that he was already under suspicion for illegally listening to South Korean radio. Another was that he was convinced that life in North Korea was little better than hell. With the help of kind people and a decent supply of money (Kang's family was rich; his relatives in Japan sent money and supplies to North Korea, and Kang himself worked odd jobs and knew how to distribute bribes), Kang crossed into China with his best friend, and eventually made it to South Korea.

While I found the story of his escape into China interesting, what interested me most was Kang's treatment upon arriving in South Korea. If there are two types of South Korean whom Kang cannot stand, they are (1) journalists, especially from leftist rags like the Hangyeoryae, and (2) leftist college students, who knew their marxist ideology inside and out, and peppered Kang with arguments in favor of the North's regime. It's obvious that Kang would have none of it. His reply to such people cut to the heart of the matter: "Go to the north!"

Kang speaks movingly of his initial impressions of the apparent chaos of South Korean society. I quote him here (p. 222):

What most struck me, however, was the way people [i.e., South Koreans] led their lives. Everyone seemed free to do as they wished. No system organized their movements and activities. I have to admit that it rather worried me at first. This sort of society just couldn't last; it could never face a crisis. I later realized that this only seemed like disorder. A pervading logic governed people's interactions. Though the principle of everybody for himself reigned supreme, people here appeared honest; they thought about others and shared common values. Seoul was teeming with cars. I'd never seen so many. I was amazed to learn that most of them were actually manufactured in Korea itself. This was never mentioned in the North. I remember the pride I felt at this discovery-- my first feeling of pride for South Korea. I eventually became enamored of that sprawling city, with its millions of inhabitants, its forest of modern skyscrapers, its dense traffic, its bustling life and nocturnal energy.

Kang is speaking here against the leftist lie that an overarching, all-pervasive, top-down system solves problems. To the contrary, such a system creates more problems than it solves. This isn't an argument against government per se; it's a caution about what happens when government becomes God. South Korea, from Kang's point of view, is a much different animal from the North. And he gets the point: the chaos isn't chaos at all: it's a subtler, more robust form of order.

In the closing pages of his story, Kang puts the matter directly to his South Korean brothers (p. 230):

The citizens of South Korea should realize they have an important role to play in welcoming refugees. They aren't just people who have fled something; they are people who have a hard time adapting and a hard time forgetting what they have endured. ...It is not enough for people to say they are for reunification. Their actions need to prove it. The rhetoric of reunification is one thing, people's attitudes toward North Korean renegades quite another. I don't question the South Korean population's desire for reunification, even though a large segment couldn't care less one way or another. What I do wish to denounce-- based on my own experience-- are the countless prejudices that are held against people from the North.

With the piercing gaze and circumspect mindset of a foreigner, Kang picks up immediately on the disconnect noted by Koreabloggers of all political leanings: the inconsistency between SK "brotherhood" rhetoric, and the actual attitudes held by SKers toward those "brethren." In my more cynical moments, I imagine that the perfect NK defector, from the leftist South Korean's point of view, would be a person who already speaks in a recognizably SK dialect, who sings the praises of Kim Jong-il and his regime, who preaches the gospel of communism while at the same time blending seamlessly into the über-capitalist swirl of SK society. A person with such traits would be a mass of self-contradictions, but then again, isn't that precisely what the present SK psyche is? Unfortunately for the SK leftist, Kang brings bad news about how workable leftism really is.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is, ultimately, part accusation and part exhortation. Kang accuses the North of terrible crimes, and accuses the South of willful ignorance. Kang exhorts the world to put pressure on the North, and exhorts the South to live up to its pious utterances. Will the South listen? Will we?


postal scrotum: entities, quantities, and shit

Jason W. writes in with some serious questions:


A couple of rambling and probably incoherent questions-- one philosophical and one purely practical-- which have been literally bugging the shit out of me recently:

Question #1: I am a person who isn't happy until I've had my daily shit. Usually I can time it to the minute (10:35 a.m. most days with one cup of coffee, 10:07 if I also choose to have a muffin, 35 minutes earlier still if that muffin happens to contain bran) before I roll up my Washington Post and take the Dead Man Walk to the elevator to the 5th floor men's room (for some reason the toilets up there get better suction than the ones down on the first floor, but that is neither here nor there).

Anyway, here's my question: How can we accurately quantify "a shit" as a measurable unit?

Is "a shit" the sum product of each time you relax those intestinal muscles? Of course it is. But what if, by some unfortunate turn of events, you're forced to leave a few torpedos in the tube? Maybe you're constipated and have to leave the rest for later, maybe you need to wait for it to rotate nose-down in order to avoid a breached birth, maybe some stupid jackass coworker pulled the fire alarm when he meant to turn on the lights, but whatever it was, that session abruptly ends in feces interruptus, and you know there's still more left to come. Can that leftover slop still be considered part of the original "shit", or does it by virtue of of its tenacity to cling to the lower GI for a bit longer earn the right to claim full shithood?

I personally think two artificially separated bowel movements still deserve to be lumped together (if you'll excuse the choice of words) in the singular. Just as a mother refers to giving birth to twins--who can hardly say they were born at the exact same time--in the singular sense, the two sessions are actually part of a larger (w)hole. I came to feel this way after coming home and proudly announcing to my long-suffering wife one day that I had taken three shits at work. However, after dwelling perhaps excessively on this triumph, my boasting began to ring hollow in my own ears since I knew full well that those were the sum product of a single bulgogi frenzy the night before. Following the G.I.G.O. principle, I began to wonder where the end truly begins here.

But simultaneously, we encounter the variable of time. For example, most people accept the fact that the Koreas were once one country, but after being split for so long, can they truly be considered "one" now? Most would say no, because somewhere along the the course of 60 years the "One" became in reality "Two". Perhaps the same holds true for shit. Of course, time is relative here (after all, a 60 year old shit wouldn't still be considered shit, would it?), and proponents of the "Two Shits" theory can use this to argue that any passage of time renders the two parts of a cable divided distinct and independent of one another. (I know I'm undermining my own argument here, but this is what's been driving me crazy. Every time I make up my mind I think of a new reason why the other way of thinking is better.)

So tell me, as a non-consuming connoisseur of scat, where do you see the cut-off line here? Is it temporally based? Geographically? Is it based on ratios (say, if over 1/2 of the total comes out during the first go)? Differing textures and colors? Dammit, we need answers, man---for science!

Question # 2 also has to do with shit, but this time its role in back country wintertime survival strategy.

Having grown up in eastern Washington, I know about cold winters and long hikes to find entertainment. Sometimes my boyhood wintertime hikes would take me so far away from home that I would have to squeeze one off in a snowdrift and watch it sink like Superman's green shard of Kryptonite (the one he threw in the snow to make his Fortress of Solitude in Superman 2). Having stopped to take a dump and then admire it steaming there in the cold January wind, I would invariably begin to feel cold, even after continuing with my hike. Would I have been better off keeping that steaming turd in my body, so as to more easily maintain my core temperature? What do they teach the Swiss army (who, with the lower air pressure, I would think encounter this motherfucker on a daily basis)? I mean really, when you think about it, a choco-brick really is nature's ideal way to retain heat, and unless you've got serious emotional problems and don't mind getting your hands messy, once it's out, it's out. So I suppose my question is more along the lines of WWGAD? (What Would Grizzly Adams Do?)

Have a good Tuesday.



Jason, I'm pretty sure the only reason you wrote this missive is that you were keen to try that clever "part of a larger (w)hole" joke on someone.

My own view is similar to the Buddhist one: the division of shit into shit-units is a function of the mind and not a reflection of shit's nature, which is, of course, empty. At what point does shit become shit in your digestive system? The question is just as vexing as the question of when a group of cells "becomes a human life," as they phrase it in the ongoing abortion debate. At the very least, with shit, we don't have to deal with the question of DNA and cloning: thanks to cloning, it is now possible to view any viable cell as harboring the potential to bring about a human life. There's nothing to stop anti-abortion activists from singing, Monty Python-style, that "every cell is sacred."

Regarding the "three shits" versus "one shit" issue in your bulgogi example: Dr. Vallicella has dealt more seriously with this question on his fine blog. While he hasn't used shit as the object of speculation, he has used such things as parcels of land and the Holy Trinity (the concept of which appears to him incoherent*). I highly recommend that you visit this link to his blog, which also includes a post about the input end of the GI tract: what's going on when you eat a cookie?

A practical answer to your question would be that you can reckon shit output the way hospitals reckon the output of shit, puke, and other emissions: You measure only what fully leaves the body in a single incident/instance. Given that your shits occur so regularly (hats off, by the way), it would be easy to gauge your shitticular output over time. Just pick a metric and stick with it like a fly on... well, a dead cat.

As for your second question, I'm pretty sure Grizzly Adams and the Zen masters and the Swiss Army would all agree that, when it's time to drop that load, there's really little use arguing with Mother Nature. When the ass-baby is screaming to get out and kicking violently against your "bomb bay doors," to use a favorite term of the now-debased radio personality, The Greaseman, then any mountain becomes a Fortress of SoliTurd.

Release the beast!

*Matters of faith, I'm sure we all agree, often do not require logical coherence. To call an article of belief "incoherent" is not to be deliberately offensive, but merely to use a less-polished term than "holy mystery."


Monday, November 14, 2005

NK: Nightmare Paradise

As promised, I've transcribed the Marc Epstein narrative on North Korea at L'Express. As a bonus, I also have the URL for the article he wrote-- his voice commentary is basically a brief summary of his (much longer) article; French readers are encouraged to look here.

French transcript follows. A couple phrases are in brackets (brackets might be removed if/when I update) because I wasn't quite sure I'd heard them correctly, and they don't look right as transcribed. After the French transcript, you'll find the English translation. Enjoy.

Ça faisait 10 ans, en fait, qu'un journaliste de l'Express s'était rendu en Corée du nord; la dernière fois, c'était en 1995.

Kim Il-sung, que la propagande lequel décrit comme le Grand Leader, le Grand Dirigeant, était mort l'année précedente, et la rumeur affirmait que son fils, Kim Jong-il, connu sous le nom de Cher Dirigeant, allait prendre sa succession.

Ça, c'était en 1995, et en 2005, dans des conditions au fond assez semblables, c'est-à-dire posant comme touristes puisqu'il est pratiquement impossible de se rendre dans ce pays avec un visa de presse et en y allant légalement en quelque sorte comme journalistes, c'est donc avec un groupe de touristes néerlandais que nous nous sommes rendus sur place en septembre 2005.

[C'est à dire] que la Corée du nord, pour un journaliste qu'il soit rédacteur ou photographe d'ailleurs, c'est un des pays les plus curieux à couvrir. On sait parce qu'on (l')a lu avant de se rendre sur place, que, par exemple, 40% de la population souffre de malnutrition. On sait qu'un enfant âgé de 9 ans pèse en moyenne 7 kilos de moins que son alter-égo du même âge en Corée du sud, la Corée du sud étant démocratique et prospère, tandis que la Corée du nord [on leur a compris] croupit dans a misère, et abrite malheureusement l'une des pire dictatures de la planète.

Que ce soit le spectacle qui vous entoure, ou tout ce que vous racontent les guides touristiques qui vous accompagent pendant votre séjour, tout cela décrit au fond une sorte de paradis terrestre, un pays merveilleux. L'une des banlieues de la capitale s'appelle Le Paradis, d'ailleurs; un pays dont l'idéologie nationale, le djoutché, vous est décrit à foison et dont il semble accepté par tout le monde, en tout cas sur place, que cette idéologie jouit d'un rayonnement planétaire incontestable.

Il n'y a rien de nouveau, évidemment, dans cette volonté de mise en scène, que ce soit dans la Chine de Mao, ou dans l'Union soviétique de Stalin. On connaît des pays qui ont tout fait pour projeter une image très heureuse, triomphante même, alors que la population croupissait dans la misère.

Ce qui est impressionnant évidemment dans le cas de la Corée du nord, c'est que nous ne sommes plus au 20ème siècle, nous sommes déjà en 2005, et qu'à l'époque d'Internet, a l'époque de la mondialisation, et en particulier la mondialisation des échanges, la mondialisation de l'information, eh bien, il subsiste un pays de quelques vingt, vingt-deux millions d'habitants qui peut rester, à ce point, coupé du reste de la planète.

It had, in fact, been 10 years since a journalist from L'Express had gone to North Korea; the last time was in 1995.

Kim Il-sung, whom propaganda describes as the Great Leader, had died the previous year, and the rumors confirmed that his son, Kim Jong-il, known under the title of Dear Leader, was to succeed him.

That was in 1995, and in 2005, under basically similar conditions-- i.e., posing as tourists because it is practically impossible to enter this country with a press visa, going there legally as journalists-- we found ourselves on site with a group of Dutch tourists in September 2005.

For a journalist, be he editor or photographer, North Korea is one of the strangest countries to cover. We know, for example, because we've read it in advance, that 40% of the population suffers from malnutrition. We know that a 9-year-old child weighs on average 7 kilos (approx 16 lbs.) less than his alter ego in South Korea. South Korea is democratic and prosperous, whereas North Korea wallows in misery and harbors one of the worst dictatorships on the planet.

Whether it is the spectacle that surrounds you, or everything you hear from the tour guides who accompany you on your trip, everything evokes some kind of earthly paradise, a country of marvels. One of the capital's suburbs is, in fact, named Paradise. This is a country whose national ideology, juchae, is described to you ad nauseam; it seems to be accepted by everyone (at least by those around you) that this ideology enjoys unchallenged worldwide influence.

Obviously, there is nothing new to this ruse, whether we are talking about Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union. We know of countries that did everything to project an image of happiness, even of triumph, while the population lived huddled in misery.

What's impressive in North Korea's case, of course, is that we are no longer in the 20th century: it is already the year 2005, and in the age of internet, the age of globalization, and in particular the globalization of interchanges and information, there exists a country of some 20-22 million people that remains, at this time, cut off from the rest of the planet.


Van Gogh to hell

Never again.

After yesterday's awful dinner at a restaurant called Van Gogh (capitalized "V" is intentional; that's the restaurant's name), I'll never go back.

I'd been there twice before. The food wasn't all that bad, though it was a bit pricey. The first time I went, which must have been barely two months ago, the restaurant was still spanking new. I had a Caesar salad, which was quite nicely done (parmesan cheese sliced paper-thin, not grated), and a very tasty spaghetti bolognese.

The next time I went, however, the Caesar salad was no longer available, and though I tried to order a calzone, I was told it wasn't available, either. I went for a quesadilla (Korean style, of course) and cheese pizza (they billed it as a "pizza margherita," which was laughable); both were fine, though served without much care. I felt as though the wait staff had already decided I was to be marginalized-- a feeling I don't get at the typical Korean restaurant here. It was French snootiness, but with Koreans standing in for the French.

The lack of available menu items and the sub-par service that greeted me on that occasion should have been a warning. But stupidity, like hope, springs eternal, so yesterday evening I decided I'd give Van Gogh another try.

It was worse than ever. I was ignored by the wait staff until I pushed the goofy little call button on my table. I once again discovered that half the menu items were not available. "We're going to be reprinting the menu," the waitress said, sheepishly. I ordered the quesadilla-- without onions this time-- and got my spaghetti bolognese. I also ordered a Coke.

Ten minutes later, I was still waiting for utensils and my Coke. Not long after that, everything arrived at once-- quesadilla appetizer and spaghetti, swiftly followed by the Coke. No eye contact from the server. Perfunctory dialogue instead of the expected twenty-something perkiness. I don't think I'm being too much of a grumpy old man to say the service sucked the ass of a 90-year-old, HIV-positive, bull-raped grandmother. By the end of my dinner, I knew I'd be filing for divorce from the place.

And you know... I couldn't even vouch for the food this time. It tasted fine on the way in last night, but today, all goddamn day, I've had some nasty-ass runs. Fuck, that's inconvenient when you're trying to teach three hours in a row. Thank Jeebus for ten-minute breaks between classes.

My asshole's about empty now, having heaved and gagged since 6:30 this morning. But even emptier than my asshole is my heart: broken by Van Gogh.

FUCK Van Gogh!


Sunday, November 13, 2005

and for my next linguistic stunt...

Over at L'Express, there's a great slide show (no link: Javascript window from the homepage-- scroll way down and find the fat face of Kim Il-sung) about North Korea called "Corée du Nord: Un paradis de cauchemar," which translates, as you might imagine: "North Korea: A Nightmare Paradise." The pictures in the slide show speak for themselves, but the audio commentary by Marc Epstein (which, by the way, I'd recommend to students of French as a way to brush up on listening comprehension-- it's very slow and clear) is also well worth transcribing and translating. So that's what I'll be doing next for you: presenting you, as best I can, with both the French script and the English translation of Epstein's spiel. Might take a while. Other posts might appear before the transcription and translation are finished.

Speaking of NK, I'm almost done with The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Expect some commentary on that, and on Breen's The Koreans, sometime later this week.

And while we're talking about posts I've promised to do, I haven't forgotten that one Buddhism post I mentioned a while back. That ought to appear this week as well. Sit tight. Stay tuned.


RiotWatch: return to normalcy

Just a moment ago, I posted about continued violence in France. This L'Express article notes a downward trend in violence.

Retour progressif à la normale dans les banlieues

Un retour progressif au calme se confirme dans les banlieues françaises au lendemain d'une 17e nuit consécutive d'incidents marquée par une baisse des incendies de véhicules en province et en Ile-de-France.

Progressive return to normalcy in the suburbs

A progressive return to calm is noticeable in the French suburbs following the 17th consecutive night of incidents marked by a reduction in vehicular arson in the provinces and in Ile-de-France.

(If you want the whole translation, leave a comment.)


England and France

On a video from several months ago, Al Qaeda calls the Queen an "enemy of Islam." More here.

(link via Drudge)

One passage I found disturbing:

[The video] also contains inflammatory material from Mohammad Sidique Khan, ringleader of the London bombings which killed 52 commuters. He is urging Muslims to take part in jihad and seek martyrdom.

Khan, 30, incites British Muslims to ignore the moderate Islamic leaders who want integration with British society.

“Our so-called scholars of today,” he said, “are content with their Toyotas and semi- detached houses” in their desire for integration. The message is believed to be the first of its kind in which a British suicide bomber calls on fellow UK Muslims to follow his example.

To the people who insist this isn't a war, I say Think again. It's not a war because we define it that way: it's a war because they define it that way.

Meanwhile, in France...

17th night of violence, and it's not over yet.


Namsan hike with Joel

Joel and I went for a Namsan hike this morning, starting around 6:35AM (I was 5 minutes late to the meeting). We did the scenic route this time.

I hadn't been to Namsan in over a week, and it was embarrassing that I couldn't answer some of Joel's questions about the state of renovation on the mountain. The Seoul Tower remains closed; they're replacing the huge glass panels on its sides. As you walk along the road that first passes by the National Theater, you now see that the park service has constructed new "overlook" areas-- large wooden platforms where walkers can stop and take in the view (such as it is: with so much foliage, it's often hard to see Seoul).

Joel was a good sport about the hike, just like last time, but he kept reminding me that he's over ten years younger than I am, the bastard. He also told me that his girlfriend, Seon-haeng (well, she spells it "Sunhang," but I wasn't sure how to pronounce that spelling the first time I saw it on Joel's blog-- I thought it was pronounced "soon-haang"), took second place in her speech contest on Saturday, which means she kicked ass. I congratulate her. You're treating her to a series of very expensive dinners in honor of her achievement, right, dude?

As before, conversation involved matters that shall remain private, so I'll leave it at that, and wish Joel a safe trip back to Gunsan. Happy trails, man.


you guys go fight it out

Joseph the Infidel comments on the situation in France in this entry. The upshot for him: there should be less focus on religious issues and more focus on failed governmental policies.

Meanwhile, a Canadian blog written in both English and French has a post that sees religion as the central problem. Go visit Tout le Monde en Parle (Everyone's Talking About It).

My own view is that we can't reduce the riots to a single cause, be it religion or governmental policies. The problem was long in coming, apparently; at least, that's what all the commentators are telling us. If true, then it'll be years before a proper disentanglement and analysis of causes can be achieved. The French government will likely tender some solutions now, but you can rest assured that those solutions will be half-assed, as they must be: a large-scale disaster requires large-scale planning and response.


Saturday, November 12, 2005

on biblical literalism

Smallholder over at Naked Villainy has written about Intelligent Design theory and his opinion of certain Christians who espouse it. In a recent post, he writes:

Please note carefully that I'm not bashing all Christians.

As a Christian myself, I'm trying to advance the spread of Christianity by denying the validity of errant thought. The Christian God is not a vengeful, intolerant, hate-filled, anti-science God.

He is a loving, forgiving God who gave us [our] brains for a reason.

Perhaps he intended us to learn about his creation instead of shivering in caves and breeding better cattle through the proper placement of carved sticks.

Query: Why is it that the most hateful Christians wrap themselves in the cloak of literal translation? And why does their literal, inerrant translation ignore the words of the Bible that aren't congruent with their hatred?

Query: Why aren't Christians condemning [Pat] Robertson's idiocy? Why do so many Christians tune in to CBN every day for their daily [dose] of narrowminded bigotry?

Over on his blog, Memento Moron, a self-avowed literalist Christian named Brian agrees with Smallholder that a certain stripe of Christian acts in un-Christian ways, though Brian points out-- rightly-- that not all Christians who believe in the Bible's literal inerrancy act in that manner.

But regarding his style of literalist Christianity, Brian writes:

When I say that I interpret the Bible literally, this is what I mean: I believe that the Bible is Divinely Inspired, that it is inerrant and self-consistent, and that what it says is so, is. However, I also believe in interpreting the Bible Literarily. [sic] By that I mean that the Bible, while true, is also a piece of literature, and as such must be read as one.

Divinely Inspired means God-Breathed, not God-Dictated. God inspired the writers to write certain truths, but he allowed them to write them in their own style, while at the same time ensuring that the writer's style did not interfere with the accuracy of what they wrote. It was a partnership between the Holy Spirit and the writer that I'm sure only they understand.

But this means that the writers of the bible wrote in certain styles, used literary devices, and themes, turned certain phrases in certain ways to convey not only facts, but ideas and emotions, to evoke specific moods. The Bible is a story, or a series of intertwined stories. As C.S. Lewis once said, it's the Myth that happens to be True.

So when we interpret the Bible, in order to do so literally, all that is required is that we accept that what it says is the truth. To then go on and interpret it literarily, we must pay attention not only to WHAT truth it presents, but HOW it presents it. This means taking into account things like style, device, context, etc.

Brian's notion of literalism is unconventional. If we go by the conventional* notion, the one I heard repeatedly in theology and religious studies classes, then Brian is no literalist-- or, at least, he's far from being one in the full and proper sense.**

Literalism as Smallholder and I understand it entails certain ontological commitments-- one of the most basic being that all the events described in the Bible happened exactly as they were recorded. In other words, if we had a time machine and a video camera, we'd be able to go back and witness things like the sun stopping for three days, people walking on water, manna falling from heaven, and so forth.

There are, of course, degrees of literalism. Most Christians take it as a basic article of faith that the man Jesus did, in fact, rise from the grave-- i.e., that the resurrection was a historical event, not simply a "new reality" that had sprung up in the minds of Jesus' disciples. Christians may differ, however, about the historicity of other events described in the Bible. A Christian might believe, for example, that Jesus rose from the grave while simultaneously dismissing the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 as myth***. This inconsistency is strange but common. I suspect that many Christians simply choose not to think about it.

But biblical hermeneutics presents a special problem: the Bible does include a great deal of historical fact. This is where matters get dicey. How to parse fact from myth? The Bible mentions names, places, and events whose historicity can be independently verified or disproved, but those story elements are interwoven with other elements not so easily verifiable.

For example, God himself is an active player in much of the Old Testament: talking, planning, emoting, physically acting on behalf of his chosen people. Do we take his presence, his words and actions, literally or figuratively? The problem of factuality leads immediately to the matter of the brute truth or falsity of a historical claim, and let's not forget the meta-question of whether a given claim is meant to be read as a historical one-- an eternally vexing question for biblical exegetes.

One of the most interesting scholarly questions is: were the writers of the Bible aware they were writing in a literary manner? There is a strong argument to be made that they were aware of this, at least to some extent. An expression like "forty days and forty nights" is, scholars agree, a literary convention, and would have been understood as such by ancient listeners and readers. But when we reach the part of the story where God says something or does something... do we know for sure how the writer understood the passage he wrote? Even more important for us: does it matter? We have no camera. We have no time machine. Why strain our brains trying to be transtemporally telepathic?

All the above is just to say that the scriptures, which combine myth with history, don't make the interpretive task easy. Full-blown literalists-- the kind Smallholder and I are thinking of-- make the disingenuous move of claiming that no interpretation is necessary, or that only one interpretation is possible: that the scriptures, being literally true, are equivalent to a journalistic account of events. This is a genre mistake. I've written on that before.

And what, in the end, is Brian's argument with Smallholder? If both Smallholder and Brian are nonliteralists (by the conventional definition of "literalism"), and both are disgusted by the un-Christian behavior of their more literalistic coreligionists, what's to disagree about? Brian is right to urge caution in critiquing Christians; overly broad generalizations can target the innocent. But Brian's nuanced redefinition of literalism may have been an unnecessary detour from more substantive issues.

*The common definition is here:

Main Entry: lit·er·al·ism
Pronunciation: 'li-t(&-)r&-"liz-&m
Function: noun
1 : adherence to the explicit substance of an idea or expression
2 : fidelity to observable fact : REALISM
- lit·er·al·ist /-list/ noun
- lit·er·al·is·tic /"li-t(&-)r&-'lis-tik/ adjective

What the above definition makes clear is that a literalist goes no further than the surface meaning (i.e., "explicit substance") of the text. Surface equates to substance. A literalist reads the sentence "He exploded with anger," not as a metaphor, but as literally true: the dude got pissed off and actually blew up on the street, showering meat everywhere. The sentence "Jesus rose from the dead" would be treated the same way-- as a factual, historical claim, not as "myth" in the Campbellian or Bultmannian sense: a symbolic narrative containing existential meaning.

**I'm not saying that Brian should bow to mainstream pressure. He's free to define his terms any way he likes. It is, however, a simple fact that the Webster's definition of "literalism" is the received meaning. In my opinion, it serves no constructive purpose to redefine the term. But while the Webster's definition is the common one, I won't insist on calling it the only one. Definitions do change, after all. As long as we agree on terms, it doesn't really matter what terms we use.

We could, for example, refer to the people Smallholder is targeting simply as Assholes, and define "Asshole," for rhetorical purposes, as "someone whose scriptural literalism leads to hurtful and/or harmful thought, speech, and behavior." Having agreed on that definition, we can proceed on the assumption that neither Brian nor Smallholder is an Asshole, whereas the avid readers of are, very likely, all Assholes.

I am, however, confused about what Brian is doing in his post. He seems to be saying, at least initially, "I'm a literalist, and Smallholder's making us all look bad." But when he reveals his own definition of biblical literalism, it becomes obvious that he's not the kind of person Smallholder is targeting.

Imagine a Republican who fancies himself a Democrat. He votes Republican, talks about Republican issues, and is in every practical sense a Republican, but for some odd reason he likes to call himself (and envision himself as) a Democrat. One day, someone casts aspersions on Democrats and this de facto Republican feels himself to have been personally insulted. But why? Does he have grounds to feel insulted? Not really: he is, in every sense, a Republican, but his off-kilter self-conception makes him think he's been targeted. Of course, he's free to label himself as he pleases-- no one can stop him from doing that. But his labeling is going to cause unnecessary confusion, because everyone else has adopted a different conceptual schema. This, I think, is the essence of Brian's confusion about Smallholder's position. Brian was never a target of Smallholder.

***Order of creation, Genesis, Chapter 1: Cosmos, earth, plants, astral bodies (????), lower life forms, then people. Chapter 2: Cosmos/ground, mist, male human, plants, then animals, then female human. Contradictory order, if the creation stories are taken literally. Kinda hard to explain the contradiction without some fancy mental tapdancing. I've read attempts at reconciling the inconsistency; they're quite clever, but also somewhat desperate, often relying on linguistic trickery re: how to read Hebrew verb tenses.