Saturday, September 29, 2012

Happy Chuseok!

It's that time of year again: Korean Thanksgiving.

Go visit Charles's Liminality and take a gander at a lovely grilled cheese sandwich, and be sure to click that Star Wars/Gangnam Style link-- the one enshrined in the Lando Calrissian quote.

Happy Chuseok!

PS: The "Star Trek II" version of the above-mentioned Star Wars/Gangnam Style link is here.


Korean street food 2: big, spicy hot dogs


The sauce coating the dogs is a combination of gochu-jang (red pepper paste) and corn syrup. I started cooking the dogs in my grill pan on medium-high heat, then reduced the temperature to medium for slower cooking. This allowed the dogs' surface to become almost candied.

The franks are Costco's Kirkland Beef Dinner Franks. Immodestly proportioned, sexually frightening, but delicious to man and woman alike. You'll notice that I didn't go for the spiral cut; I was too lazy.

Below, you see a shot reminiscent of the street food you'll find in Seoul: a dog with a stick up its ass.

All in all, I got the look right, but Kirkland franks don't taste quite like the dogs they use in Seoul. Those are fattier and more sausage-y, which makes me think they're made from pork. That said, these Ameridogs were still pretty damn good.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Korean street food

South Korea has amazing street food. Those food vendors, ceaselessly laboring away at their stands day and night, in fair weather and foul, were one of the highlights of my time living in Seoul. One of the most popular street dishes is ddeokbokgi: sliced rice cakes, fish cakes, and vegetables in a spicy (sometimes spicy/sweet) red chili sauce (see here for a typical example). Another popular combo is ddeokbokgi with fried mandu (gyoza, potstickers). Order a half-and-half plate, drown those crunchy mandu in that lovely red sauce, and go to town.

Last night's dinner was an attempt at recapturing that crunchy, spicy ddeokbokgi/mandu experience. I regret that the following photo doesn't seem to show any ddeok (the rice cakes themselves), but they're in there. As for the presence of hot dog... I had to try that. There was a vendor in Kangnam who put sliced sausage in with her odaeng (fish cakes), and I recall that being one of my all-time favorite ddeokbokgi experiences.

Speaking of hot dogs: there's another type of street food I enjoyed while living in Seoul: close to Namyeong Station, there was a lady who sold grilled and fried street food from her kiosk, and among her menu items was sosiji (sausage, i.e., hot dog). The franks were spiral-sliced and lovingly coated with a super-sugary chili sauce, then left to cook very slowly for a long time on low heat. This process worked a weird and wonderful bit of alchemy on the meat: the outer layer would become hard and sugary while the inside remained soft and juicy. Each frank cost about a dollar, and right before she served it to you, the vendor would sprinkle it with sesame seeds for that extra bit of tastiness. Eating one of those puppies in the dead of winter was sheer bliss for me.

I'm gonna try making those franks next.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

two degrees of separation

So my colleague Lily (not her real name) told me that a student of ours, Seamus (not his real name), was looking glum this evening. When Lily asked Seamus about his long face and distracted behavior, Seamus told her that a friend of his had died with the rest of his family in the nearby town of Herndon. This sounded mighty strange to me. Did they all plunge off a cliff or something? Was there a gas leak in the house? How could they all die together? Lily told me that "foul play was suspected," so the first thing I did when I got into my car after work this evening was to Google "family dies in Herndon, Virginia." That led me to this article:

A family found dead in their Herndon, Va., home Tuesday is believed to have died in a murder-suicide, Fairfax County Police say.

Police said Albert Peterson, 57, killed his wife, Kathleen, 52, and their two sons, Christopher and Matthew, before turning the gun on himself.

Police were asked to check on the family about 10:30 a.m. after Kathleen failed to show up for work for the second consecutive day. Police entered the home in the 13300 block of Point Rider Lane just after noon Tuesday and found the bodies of the Peterson family.

All four died of gunshot wounds to the upper body, according to the Office of the Medical Examiner.

A candelight vigil will be held Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. at the family's church, Floris United Methodist in Herndon.

So I find myself in a pensive mood tonight, now that I know I'm two degrees of separation from a massacre. I have yet to talk with Seamus about any of this; Lily was quicker to notice that something was up with our student, and Seamus left the premises before I had a chance to say anything to him.

I imagine that such a ghoulish and tragic situation can provoke a host of questions in a teen kid's mind, What actually happened? foremost among them. At times like this, the imagination can run away with you, leading you through your own Hollywoodized version of what happened. And with all four family members dead, there's no one left to explain what really occurred, to offer any sort of rationale for why the father might have snapped and destroyed his precious family. So we, in our pain and confusion, can do little but speculate. The human imagination stubbornly continues to function in the face of the unimaginable.

I plan to offer myself as a person for Seamus to talk to, if he's willing. At a guess, he won't be. Like a lot of teen guys, he'd probably rather internalize this. But he shouldn't.


yeah, that soup

The soup I was talking about before:


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Nutella versus... Jif

I bought myself a big-ass bottle of Nutella, and out of sheer primate curiosity, I also bought a bottle of Jif's attempt at a chocolate hazelnut spread. Brought them into the kitchen, cracked open the bottles, and...'s no contest. Nutella kicks Jif's ass up and down the street. The Jif spread isn't horrible, but it's far too heavily focused on hazelnuts and not nearly focused enough on chocolatiness. I'm going to have to find a creative use for the Jif. Serving suggestions welcome.


tomorrow's shopping objective

Costco didn't have those big, plump, chicken-and-vegetable potstickers that I like to buy-- the ones in the 10-dollar bags. They're pretty generic, but tasty enough to do the job, and the Costco I go to, in Winchester, normally has them. Today, however, they were plumb out. As Cheeseburger Brown would write, that fellates.

So we move to Plan B: the Korean store. There are at least two Korean groceries close to YB Near; I'll invade one after work (I finish around 9:30PM; these stores close at 10) and get what I need. And what I need is this:

1. mandu (potstickers, dumplings, whatever)

2. kimchi

3. ddeok

4. green onions

There's a soup I like to make, you see: I make a broth from dashida, add chopped green onions and kimchi, toss in the mandu, ddeok, scrambled eggs, and sliced-up hot dogs, and have myself a Komerican version of ddeokmandu-guk. Now, classic ddeokmandu-guk has no kimchi in it, but what I'm going for is something of a mishmash effect. Maybe I'll make my version and take a photo of it; Korean purists will likely find my soup disgusting. By adding the sliced hot dog, I drag the ddeokmandu-guk a little ways toward budae-jjigae-tude. Budae-jjigae has a certain fun, rough-and-tumble quality to it, but ddeokmandu-guk is more staid and dignified, in my opinion; I normally associate it with special occasions. Adding those hot dogs, and the spicy kimchi, vulgarizes an otherwise subtle, well-meaning soup. But I'm a fan of the vulgar, and I've eaten kal-guksu with kimchi before, so I don't think that what I've done is too far off the mark in terms of Korean flavor profiles.

Et demain... à la chasse!


I almost killed someone last Tuesday

Last Tuesday, September 18, was the day of the Big Rain. I was tearing home at night on Route 66, humping along at 75 miles per hour and passing car after pussy-ass car: everyone else was crawling fearfully through the wetness at a puny 60 mph. I hydroplaned for a brief moment on one of the straightaways; that woke me up. But a greater scare was headed my way: as I topped a rise on the freeway, I saw a parked car on the right shoulder of the road, its hazard lights blinking mutely. And up ahead, in front of me, barely visible through the ground-level mist and the thick curtain of rain, I saw a shadowy form that seemed to be crossing the road.

Whafuck? was my first thought. My brain was slow to connect the parked car with the shadowy form, so I didn't immediately realize I was looking at a fellow human. I did, however, retain enough presence of mind to let go of the accelerator, so I began to slow down a bit as I approached the phantom shape. When the figure resolved itself, I saw that it was a dude in shorts running desperately across the freeway-- for what reason, I had no idea. He had parked his car on the right shoulder and seemed intent on finding something over on the left shoulder. This made no damn sense to me at all, and as I passed him I bellowed, "You stupid motherfucker!" --as much out of fear as out of fury.

I don't want to over-dramatize this incident, but it really was a close call: had I not released the gas pedal, there's a good chance I would have plowed into the guy. Had I jammed on my brakes in the torrential rain, there's a good chance that that maneuver would have ended in disaster as well. The physical margin for this near-collision was only a couple feet; the time margin must have been no more than a quarter of a second.

I almost killed a dude in shorts last Tuesday. The moment of near-impact was amazing. I relived it several times during the last twenty minutes of my drive home, asking myself over and over why the hell that asshole felt he had to cross a busy freeway at night, in the rain.


let's try this again, shall we?

Take 2! I'm off to Costco in a little bit. Things I gotta buy:

shampoo (approx. $7)
terlit paper - large pack (approx. $9)
paper towels - large pack (approx. $9)
mouthwash - 2-pack (approx. $7)
cold meds (approx. $8)
Pepto Bismol - large (approx. $5)

garlic powder (approx. $5)
thyme (approx. $5)
McCormick Montreal Steak mix (approx. $5)
bay leaves (approx. $6)
bacon crumbles (approx. $10)

pine nuts (approx. $10)
basil leaves (probably Wegmans, not Costco)* (approx. $6)
parmesan cheese (approx. $10)
Gruyère (approx. $10)

butter (approx. $5)
heavy cream (approx. $4)
tomato paste (approx. $8)

naan - 2 packs (approx. $10)
10-pack spaghetti (approx. $10)

frozen chicken breasticles (approx. $12)
Italian sausage (approx. $15)
ground beef - large pack (approx. $12)
Kirkland porn-size dinner franks (approx. $10)
potstickers - 2 bags (approx. $20)

Now that I'm looking at the above list and prices, I'm thinking that I won't be able to afford the lot in a single go. Will have to do a bit of strategic cutting, not to mention some serious Costco coupon-ing. Now, where did that coupon book go...?

Revised list:

shampoo (approx. $7)
terlit paper - large pack (approx. $9)
paper towels - large pack (approx. $9)
mouthwash - 2-pack (approx. $7)
cold meds (approx. $8)
Pepto Bismol - large (approx. $5)

Kirkland porn-size dinner franks (approx. $10)
potstickers - 2 bags (approx. $20)

Yeah... that's better. I can buy vegetables at the local Food Lion.

Today's post-Costconic adventure includes laundry (ironing, really), proofreading, and reading. I'm on the fifth book in the Harry Potter series; the reads are much quicker this time, and I seem to be averaging about a book a week. It's probably because I'm no longer sitting in front of my computer, watching "24" on Amazon Prime video.

*For pesto, if fresh basil is scarce, as it often is in my part of the world, I can substitute fresh baby spinach leaves fortified with dried basil, of which I have plenty.


Monday, September 24, 2012

a good sleep

Slept well last night, despite a slight sore throat (it got better during the day, Saturday) and continuing neck and shoulder pain. Feeling much better today. I might even put in a few hours of proofreading (the Big Boss wrote me back and essentially gave me permission to work overtime, with the understanding that any overflow time would be "comp"ed to the next pay period, so still no overtime pay), and might try knocking off the last of my sore throat with Elisson's suggestion of ginger tea (I have plenty of insam-cha in storage; can't stand the stuff).

Right now, I'm off to Costco, that temple of Big-Boxitude, to go shopping for some necessities-- paper towels, food, meds, etc.-- after which I'm likely to get back to scrutinizing manuscripts in need of linguistic repair.

UPDATE: Scratch Costco. They close at 6 today, and it's 5:15. The drive to Winchester is a half-hour from where I live. Tomorrow, then, God willing.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

sore throat

They say our immune systems are vulnerable when the seasons are in transition. God knows why. But whatever the real biological causes, I've got a very painful sore throat-- have had this bastard since yesterday. Oh, and a bit of a runny nose, too.

My throat kept me awake, combining nicely with a stiff neck that I've had for several days, such that I got zero sleep last night. Time to whip out all the relevant potions, tinctures, and other reagents of recovery. And maybe consider gulping down an energy drink before class.


the refusal to grant overtime

YB has been very generous in allowing me to work extra hours, but the company's generosity has limits: I'm not to exceed 40 hours per week. This is probably because the company doesn't want to pay its employees for overtime work, which is a bit disappointing.

I work a maximum of twenty-six hours per week as a tutor, now that we're off the intensive summer schedule and are back on the regular fall/winter/spring schedule. This avails me of fourteen extra work hours. I had modestly told my bosses that I could give them an extra eight hours or so of my time, but I later wrote one boss to say I had low-balled that figure, and could give up to sixteen. He responded that he was glad I'd be able to contribute so much time, but that I had to watch the forty-hour ceiling.

After a few days of proofing, it became obvious to me that I would need more than fourteen hours per week to complete the assigned tasks: some of YB's textbook manuscripts are very text-heavy, and I'm constantly fact-checking them (the maximum velocity of land snails comes to mind; our text claimed they move at two feet per hour, but in truth they're around seventy times faster). I wrote my boss again, and he said that, personally, he didn't care whether I worked an extra 100 hours a week, but that I'd have to clear the arrangement with his superior, one of the co-founders of YB.

So I'm going to write the Big Boss and see what can be arranged. I'm hoping for something like comp time to catch my spillover hours: roll those extra hours over into the next pay period, thus avoiding the overtime issue. It bugs me that YB doesn't want to offer overtime to its workers (perhaps part of the reason why our teacher retention rates are so poor), but them's the breaks.


Friday, September 21, 2012

the no-lotusing zone

I've borrowed the following picture from here.

See the monk?

Did you notice that he's not doing a full lotus? That he's not even bothering to do a half-lotus? That's pretty awesome. If nothing else, this monk's posture gives hope to plump, pathetically inflexible blokes like me. Even barefoot, I have trouble doing a half-lotus (only one foot tucked into the fold of a hip). Plus, I bet this posture-- known as "Burmese" or "monk's" posture-- is better for the circulation in your legs.

Meditation isn't about self-torture or even about lesser forms of mortification of the flesh. I've written more extensively on meditation here.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

fucking retard

I have no words to describe this, aside from the two with which I've titled this post.

UPDATE: Perhaps I spoke too soon. Some YouTube commenters are saying this guy is just joking. I dunno... I'd need to watch his other vids to get an idea of his sense of humor. I'll suspend judgment for now; it could be that we're witnessing comedic brilliance.


Oy gevalt.

From here:

The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.

Our panic and moral confusion were at first sublimated in attacks upon the hapless Governor Romney. I am no fan of Romney’s, and I would find the prospect of his presidency risible if it were not so depressing, but he did accurately detect the first bleats of fear in the Obama administration’s reaction to this crisis. Romney got the timing of events wrong—confusing, as many did, a statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for an official government response to the murder of Americans in Libya. But the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle. It may seem a small detail, given the heat of the moment—but so is a quivering lip.

Our government followed the path of appeasement further by attempting to silence the irrepressible crackpot Pastor Terry Jones, who had left off burning copies of the Qur’an just long enough to promote the film. The administration also requested that Google remove “Innocence of Muslims” from its servers. These maneuvers attest to one of two psychological and diplomatic realities: Either our government is unwilling to address the problem at hand, or the problem is so vast and terrifying that we have decided to placate the barbarians at the gate.

Go read the rest.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

proofing and training

Today's already been a long work day, and I won't finish it until 9:30 this evening. I started proofreading at 9:30AM, stopped around 12:30PM, then started working on a self-paced workshop that YB says I need to take in order to be able to teach college application essay-writing to my YB seniors. I have to attend a one-hour "webinar" this coming Thursday as well.

Working from home is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it's great that I can telecommute: just flop out of bed, walk ten feet, and I'm at my work station. On the other hand, working from home means that YB can reach into my private life and call me up for duty. Being "on call" is something I associate more with firefighters and medical personnel, not with teachers.

But such is life. If'n Ah wants da money, Ah gots ta be awn cawl.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

in the pudding

Starting today, I'm proofing for YB. YB doesn't pay much for this extra service, which involves proofreading YB's upcoming textbook material, but some pay is better than no pay at all. I need to stay current with my rent, if nothing else. I'm hoping to add another sixteen work hours to my severely truncated work week. This, plus some possible extracurricular help from those barbershop ajummas, ought to be enough to keep me, if not exactly comfortable, at least financially afloat. We'll see.


the draining-away of Korean masculinity

Korean men have, it seems, fully embraced metrosexuality.

See John's post here.

See Bobby McGill's post at the Marmot's Hole here.

The day you see me put makeup on my face for anything other than theatrical reasons is the day I spontaneously explode, taking half the planet with me.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Ave, Charles!

With his energetic post-mortem flogging of an equine, Charles thoroughly annoys himself.

White horse!
Don't ride a white horse!
White horse!
Don't ride a white horse!

(Lyrics here. If I remember correctly, this song is supposedly about cocaine use.)


Sunday, September 16, 2012

new customers

Who says you can't network while getting a haircut? There's a chance I may have snagged some new private students at the local barbershop. Those ajummas love to chirp, cluck, and squawk over me, and today their discussion of YB, my place of work, morphed into curiosity about whether I taught privately. I hesitated a bit, then confessed that I do indeed have a tutoring website, which they were welcome to visit. One lady has a child or two needing help; two other ladies are very curious as to whether I'd teach them English conversation. I have no idea whether these ladies are seriously interested, but I can see they've been looking for alternatives to YB, which they've all heard rumors about, and which they all poo-pooh as too expensive.

I gave them my site's address as well as my tutoring-related email address. I guess we'll soon know what comes of all this.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Menander/Nagasena redux:
on the grilled-cheese "heap" problem

Greco-Bactrian King Menander and Buddhist monk Bhante* Nagasena, done with talking about the infamous chariot, turn their attention to grilled cheese.

NAGASENA: O Lord, is it your contention that a grilled-cheese sandwich contains only cheese between its slices of bread?

MENANDER: Verily, Bhante.

NAGASENA: And, with the addition of any meat whatsoever, the grilled cheese would then cease to be a grilled cheese?

MENANDER: It is so, Bhante.

NAGASENA: O Great One, how do we smell things?

MENANDER: That is easily answered, Bhante. Molecules of whatever we smell drift inside our nostrils and make contact with our olfactory nerve. This is how we smell.

NAGASENA: If a single molecule of a substance were to drift into your nose, would you smell it?

MENANDER: No, verily, Bhante. Molecules are exceedingly small. A single molecule of any substance would be unnoticeable to the human sense of smell.

NAGASENA: Suppose I were making grilled cheese in my kitchen, with an open, ten-dollar bag of Costco crumbled bacon next to the stove. Would I be able to smell this bacon?

MENANDER: Verily, Bhante, it is so.

NAGASENA: It is safe to assume, then, that many molecules of bacon are in the air?

MENANDER: Verily, Bhante.

NAGASENA: And if I were to place my cooked grilled-cheese sandwiches on a plate, and pass the plate over the open mouth of the bag, would not many bacon molecules adhere to the sandwiches?

MENANDER: They would indeed, Bhante.

NAGASENA: O Most Worthy One, would the grilled-cheese sandwiches cease to be grilled-cheese sandwiches because of those tiny molecules?

MENANDER: That is ludicrous, Bhante. The grilled-cheese sandwiches would of course still be grilled-cheese sandwiches!

NAGASENA: Earlier, O Lord, you had affirmed that, with the addition of any meat on your grilled-cheese sandwich whatsoever, it would cease to be a grilled-cheese sandwich.

MENANDER: In truth I did, Bhante.

NAGASENA: Is there not then a contradiction, O my King?

MENANDER: Forsooth, Bhante, there is.

NAGASENA: How do you explain this contradiction, O Lord?

MENANDER: A few molecules on the sandwiches cannot be enough to change them from grilled-cheese sandwiches to something else.

NAGASENA: O King, how many molecules of bacon does it take for a grilled-cheese sandwich to transform into a different sandwich? A thousand? A thousand and one? A thousand and two? Can you name the ordinal number of the molecule that effects this change?

MENANDER: In truth, Bhante, I cannot.

NAGASENA: Is there, then, a clear distinction between a grilled-cheese sandwich with meat and one without?

MENANDER: There is not, Bhante.

COMMENT: The king could have doubled down and insisted that even a single bacon molecule would violate the grilled-cheeseness of his sandwiches. But, being a wise king, he knew that to do so would be to call both his intelligence and his sanity into question.

*Bhante is an honorific title for a monk in Theravada Buddhism. Nagasena (naga + sena) means "snake (or dragon) army."


Friday, September 14, 2012

the birthday barrage

September 10: my goddaughter's 15th birthday.

September 12: Dr. Steve's 43rd birthday.

September 14: my brother David's 36th birthday.

Then a slight respite, followed by

October 15: my brother Sean's 33rd birthday.

Lots of January sex (cuddling in the cold) leads to lots of early-fall births.


a dirty but fun way to make a point

This from The Onion:

Anyone incited to violence? Anyone? Anyone?


what my brother is doing now

My brother Sean, when he's not attacking me for my stance on grilled cheese, is a professional cellist. He just sent me an email with a link to Photo-Op: A Political Satire, a minimalist musical that lampoons American campaign politics. Sean is one of the musicians performing in Photo-Op, which looks mighty interesting. Be sure to watch the video clip at the bottom of the linked page, and if anyone ever asks you, "What is Dada?" --point 'em to that video.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

lesson learned

One lesson I've learned from engaging in the silly, pointless debate over the nomenclature of grilled cheese is that naming is important-- even though, by all rights, it shouldn't be. We can get into long, drawn-out fights over appellations, as has happened with gay marriage: some benighted, knuckle-dragging conservatives contend that gay marriage isn't "real marriage." Or female Korean restaurant workers can declare that they'll no longer answer to calls of "Ajumma!" (very roughly, "Auntie!"). Designations matter. But of course, as soon as you make a designation, you draw a boundary, and the moment someone tries to cross this boundary, there's an uproar. The fact of the matter is that the uproar is silly: reality is constantly oozing out from under the labels we apply to it. Whether we're talking about grilled cheese or gay marriage or names for female servers and cooks, we need to be flexible in our concepts. Flexibility leads to far less suffering than does inflexibility.


a bright September morning

Today is not unlike that bright day, eleven years ago, on which four plane crashes occurred: two in New York City (Flights 11 and 175), one near Washington, DC (Flight 77), and one near Shanksville, Pennsylvania (Flight 93).

I've never been quite sure what to do on this day. It's certainly not a day to celebrate; we don't, as a nation, indulge in mass celebrations of Pearl Harbor Day, either. As far as I can tell, today is best approached as a time of quiet remembrance, a grim and sad moment in our history. It's also a time to think on the fact that the 9/11 attacks constituted an act of war, and that we are at war still, with people who, on that day, poured by the thousands into the streets and celebrated our many killed.

Remembrance. Resolve.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

if you're tired of arguing about grilled cheese

If you're looking for a debate about something more impactful than what to call a particular sandwich, try this "penis mutilation" debate on for size.


Ave, Charles!

My buddy Charles of Liminality sends me this NK/SK link.


Ave, Mike!

With his usual verve and humor, Mike takes up the Great Grilled-cheese Debate over at Naked Villainy.


Monday, September 10, 2012

freedom: out of the corner of one's eye

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and one of the "Four Horsemen" of the New Atheism, has written another blog post, "Life Without Free Will," in which he restates his basic argument against the existence of human free will. His argument sounds Buddhist at first blush: we human beings, as nexuses or agents of moral action, quickly disappear into the noisy background of crisscrossing intercausality. The acting self, the moral agent, is impossible to find in all that noise. As Harris writes:

Might free will somehow be required for goodness to be manifest? How, for instance, does one become a pediatric surgeon? Well, you must first be born, with an intact nervous system, and then provided with a proper education. No freedom there, I’m afraid. You must also have the physical talent for the job and avoid smashing your hands at rugby. Needless to say, it won’t do to be someone who faints at the sight of blood. Chalk these achievements up to good luck as well. At some point you must decide to become a surgeon—a result, presumably, of first wanting to become one. Will you be the conscious source of this wanting? Will you be responsible for its prevailing over all the other things you want but that are incompatible with a career in medicine? No. If you succeed at becoming a surgeon, you will simply find yourself standing one day, scalpel in hand, at the confluence of all the genetic and environmental causes that led you to develop along this line. None of these events requires that you, the conscious subject, be the ultimate cause of your aspirations, abilities, and resulting behavior. And, needless to say, you can take no credit for the fact that you weren’t born a psychopath.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can become a surgeon by accident—you must do many things, deliberately and well, and in the appropriate sequence, year after year. Becoming a surgeon requires effort. But can you take credit for your disposition to make that effort? To turn the matter around, am I responsible for the fact that it has never once occurred to me that I might like to be a surgeon? Who gets the blame for my lack of inspiration? And what if the desire to become a surgeon suddenly arises tomorrow and becomes so intense that I jettison my other professional goals and enroll in medical school? Would I—that is, the part of me that is actually experiencing my life—be the true cause of these developments? Every moment of conscious effort—every thought, intention, and decision—will have been caused by events of which I am not conscious. Where is the freedom in this?

But Harris parts ways with Buddhism, not so much in the notion of the disappearing self as in the notion that people don't make their karma. "Making karma" is probably the closest Buddhist term we have to human freedom in the Western sense. Buddhists say there are "three karmas" that we are constantly making: thought, word, and deed. How we think, what we say, and what we do are all ways in which we make karma, which I take to mean the momentum of all cause and effect. If we're not free, we don't make karma: karma instead becomes everything-- it's all forces and no particles.

Most of the world's great religious traditions have some notion of moral cause and effect, which usually manifests itself as a sense of responsibility for one's actions, that actions are praiseworthy or blameworthy. This moral sense, by its pancultural nature, seems to be rooted in a basic ontological and deontological intuition. Harris at least partly agrees: he affirms that responsibility still figures in the equation even without freedom. But like Herbert Fingarette (mentioned a few times on this blog-- here, here, and here), Harris seems to divide responsibility into two principal senses: (1) moral agency, and (2) locus of action. Harris's emphasis is on sense (2). A crazed killer, according to Harris, is not unlike a charging bear: both are the proximate cause of death of someone, and something must be done about such beings to maintain social harmony.

Something about Harris's approach rings false to me, however. I can't shake the intuition that moral responsibility is intimately linked with human freedom, so the question then becomes how to prove that such freedom exists. I'm not sure that a direct proof is possible. Harris's intercausality argument seems to cover all the empirical bases; we'll never be able to parse a human being's consciousness and point to a particular region: "There's where freedom lies!"

Instead, I propose that freedom's existence can be inferred through an indirect method. For me, the main component in this act of inference is predictability. Truly free beings, according to the classical philosophical definition of freedom, have the ability to do otherwise, i.e., at any given moment in which two or more alternative paths present themselves to the mind, a truly free human being has an equal chance of choosing any discrete path. This equality is a necessary component of freedom: without it, we'd simply trace the lines of intercausality to see in what direction a person is most likely to be "pushed." I don't deny that the weight of previous circumstances may influence a person's choices, but at the very moment of choice, all opportunities present themselves as equally viable options, and that parity confers on the person the power to do otherwise than he would have done.

So there is something about freedom, and free beings, that resists prediction. The test of whether a person or animal has free will comes down to whether one can predict where that being will be, and what it will be doing, at the end of its life. I can't say for sure just what freedom is, but I suspect it's an ontological condition tied both to sentience and circumstance, a natural outgrowth or epiphenomenon of consciousness interacting with the world. Does this mean that an atom is free, simply because we can't predict where it's going to be at the end of its long atomic life? I'd say no: atoms are subject to Newtonian laws of physics; their paths through space-time are, to a great extent, complex but predictable-- at least in theory if not in practical reality. But with a human being, you can know all the possible initial conditions of a person at birth, and that won't help you one bit in understanding where that person is going. Freedom entails unpredictable worldlines. It's a quality that can't be seen directly: it has to be seen out of the corner of one's eye.


go, Veep!


the Great Grilled-cheese Debate

So my buddy Mike expressed horror ("Noooooooooo!" --he tweeted) about the photo in the previous post-- the one showing a sandwich that I had called "grilled cheese." As far as Mike is concerned, it's not a grilled-cheese sandwich if it's got meat in it, but I say the label is perfectly fine. I joshingly accused Mike of the Buddhist sin of attachment to name and form, i.e., allowing oneself to be so fixated on a rigid concept that one gets worked up when that concept is "violated" in even the smallest way. Such attachment is unhealthy because of the suffering it generates: (1) it generates suffering in the mind of the attached person, whose narrow, fragile concepts are too easily messed with; (2) it generates suffering in those around the attached person, because those people are forced to hear the attached person's doctrinaire rants on what constitutes a real or proper X or Y. (Full disclosure: I plead guilty to having engaged in such rants myself-- especially when it comes to language, but in other matters as well.)

In response to my accusation, Mike whipped out a reductio ad absurdum and asked how any discourse can be meaningful without notions of name and form. A Buddhist would agree with Mike, of course; Buddhism is the middle way, after all: you do have to be able to distinguish your car from your cat if you want to drive to work. But you should never get so attached to the supposed meaning of the words car and cat that you fail to see how flexible these concepts can be-- this pace Mike's appeal to a "Platonic ideal of grilled-cheeseness." (Plato-- and his ideal forms-- lies at the opposite end of the metaphysical spectrum from Buddhism. I find Platonic metaphysics to be stultifyingly rigid to the point of being dangerous.)

I decided to do a bit of research on grilled-cheese sandwiches, thinking to myself that, if I can't convince Mike in Buddhist terms, I should at least try to do so in Platonic terms. Wikipedia, that sublime, unimpeachable authority, seems to be of two minds as to the question of what constitutes a grilled-cheese sandwich. When you look up "cheese sandwich," Wikipedia has this to say:

A cheese sandwich is a basic sandwich made generally with one or more varieties of cheese on any sort of bread. In addition to the cheese, it may also include meats, vegetables and/or condiments. Cheese sandwiches can be uncooked, or heated so that the bread toasts and the cheese melts (a dish referred to as a grilled cheese sandwich, toasted cheese, cheese toastie or simply grilled cheese).

Score one for Kevin, right? Wrong. Immediately after this, the article says:

Cheese sandwiches with added meat (such as ham, bacon, turkey and other meats) are generally referred to by more specific names. If ham is included, for example, the result is a "ham and cheese sandwich".

Note, however, that the phrase "are generally referred to" indicates that Wikipedia doesn't consider its own pronouncement authoritative: the passage has a descriptive, not a prescriptive, tone. All I needed to prove my point was an authoritative source that shows it's possible to call a sandwich "grilled cheese" even if it has meat in it. And in that regard, I scored big. What greater authority can there be than The Grilled Cheese Academy of Wisconsin? Here, in fact, is their website's splash page:

Front and center, what do we see? A grilled-cheese sandwich with meat in it. Take a tour of their sandwich menu, and you'll quickly see that almost every sandwich features meat and/or vegetables. Now of course, some people will still stubbornly refuse to be convinced even by authoritative evidence, but I trust that my long-time buddy will expand his notion of grilled-cheeseness to include more than just cheese. Conclusion: if your grilled-cheese sandwich has meat in it, you can still call it a grilled-cheese sandwich. To deny this is to run afoul of The Grilled Cheese Academy's doctrine. A dogmatic Platonist can surely appreciate that.

(Written with love, Mike. With love.)

DIGRESSION: I hate myself for making a move reminiscent of the dirty pool played by theologian and philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga, a conservative Christian, has made a career out of annoying, lawyerly arguments that stress the mere possibility of Concept X's being true as a way to shove a foot in the door for the legitimacy of Concept X. Plantinga's arguments against evolutionary theory, as well as his free-will defense in discussions of theodicy, stink of this approach, and I have done the same in the above post. Mike was arguing for the impossibility of calling a "bemeated" grilled-cheese sandwich a grilled-cheese sandwich; I was merely arguing for the possibility of doing so.


things you can do with ciabatta

Food Lion makes an edible ciabatta. No Italian will ever confuse Food Lion's version of it for the real thing, but Food Lion's ciabatta has its uses.

Make the world's thinnest-- and greasiest-- grilled-cheese sandwich, for example:

Or make pizza fingers:


Sunday, September 09, 2012

arduous day

I had three sets of three students, plus one set of two students, to teach today. Eleven students might not sound like much to you, but keep in mind that every student is following a unique lesson plan, which means I'm teaching eleven different lesson plans-- a nightmare scenario for most normal teachers. With three students in front of me, I'm constantly swiveling in my seat, helping Student A, then Student B, then Student C. A tiring day. I was so tired that, at one point, I lost my concentration for a second and very nearly said "driving erotically" when I meant "driving erratically" --which of course got me thinking about how, exactly, I would drive erotically if given the chance. Would I describe long, lazy S-curves on the road? Would I park my car partway in an alley, then drive in, reverse, drive in, reverse, drive in, reverse, all while flicking my tongue madly? I'd love to have one of those cars with the crazy hydraulic brakes. I'd make my ride hump the earth-- bounce, bounce, bounce-- every time I passed by a cute chick. ¡Venga, muchacha bonita!

Stay horny, my friend.


Saturday, September 08, 2012

Clint Eastwood: "mission accomplished"


I have mixed feelings about Clint Eastwood's recent Republican National Convention spiel. First, I've never been a believer that the person who occupies the Oval Office should be, as Clint puts it, a "stellar businessman." America is a country, not a business, and although business is a large component of our country's lifeblood, reducing the country to its business-related elements is a serious mistake. Ask the ill-fated Ross Perot, who went that same route and flamed out spectacularly.

Second, my mixed feelings extend to the "meta" level as well: I've never liked the idea of actors talking politics. For me, the general rule is that actors, talented though they be, are fundamentally idiots whose opinions I don't need to hear when I'm making my own electoral decisions. Sean Penn, the dictator's paramour and blowjob queen, comes immediately to mind. But it's hard to classify Clint as an idiot: he's a sly bastard, and although his speech to the empty chair was a rambling mess, he knew what he was doing: he traffics in images and impressions for a living. If his primary purpose was, like Spike Lee, merely to stir up discussion, then I'd agree that his speech was most decidedly "mission accomplished."

None of this convinces me that I should vote for Romney, of course. The man's a flip-flopping cipher, with no more appeal to me than his rival, the incumbent president. I'm probably going to end up voting my conscience again this November, which will mean writing in my desired candidates. If the menu is nothing but shit sandwiches, it's time to order off-menu.


Friday, September 07, 2012

Ave, Nathan!

My buddy Nathan tackles the Tao Te Ching in this insightful post.


why PSY?

So PSY's song and video, "Gangnam Style," is apparently a hit with the Western crowd. My brother David sent me an article that purports to explain why PSY has succeeded at penetrating the US market where so many well-machined Korean groups have failed.

PSY himself claims that he had never intended to target anything more than a Korean audience. In this vein, Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal theorizes:

But that may actually be a part of “Gangnam Style”‘s transnational allure. Susan Kang of Soompi recently spoke to former K-pop idol Danny Im (of the boy band 1TYM) about PSY’s out-of-the-blue success, and says that his take on was quite insightful. “He said all the K-pop groups trying to enter the U.S. market are singing songs they think Americans will like, which at the end of the day, makes them foreigners trying to sing Western-style songs,” says Kang. “What sets Psy apart is that his song and video are completely catered to the Korean audience, in terms of style and humor. He wasn’t trying to make it in the U.S., so what we saw was something completely novel and unexpected.”

There may be something to this. Most Korean attempts at marketing Westward are woefully tone-deaf. But PSY doesn't come off as a slick, calculating poser; he actually seems to be having fun-- and in a freewheeling, fuck-you, devil-may-care way, no less. Americans respond to this: in true Taoist fashion, PSY succeeds without even trying.

But my own theory about PSY's success is simpler: he's a nonconformist square peg in society's round hole, and this quirky individualism is what grounds his appeal in the West. Whether PSY is parodying the rich or engaging in massive self-parody makes little difference, pace the Wall Street Journal: the point is that PSY isn't a Cylon (PSYlon?). Most Korean groups fail in the West precisely because they have a manufactured, unspontaneous, overly saccharine look about them. PSY, by contrast, doesn't have the air of someone who has undergone massive plastic surgery to make him into an aerodynamic sex doll. Far from being a boy-band clone, he's channeling the rough-edged, uncouth John Belushi, but with a bit of a Korean twang.

By all indications, PSY has been around for a while. I do hope, though, that he and his "horse" dance don't become a one-hit wonder, as happened to MC Hammer (then just plain Hammer, then just plain Nobody). Give it a year or so. By September 2013, will Americans be saying, "PSY who?"?


Thursday, September 06, 2012


My thanks to Malcolm for linking to this open letter to Mitt Romney by Mike Rowe (he of "Dirty Jobs" fame), which emphasizes the need, in America, for people willing to forgo college education in favor of pursuing careers in skilled labor. To be clear, Rowe's appeal to the governor isn't consonant with a disturbingly anti-intellectual trend among conservative pundits over the past few years; he's not saying that a college education has no value. Rowe's agenda is more in line with what Malcolm says here:

One of the absurdities of modern political life is the assumption that everyone, regardless of innate qualifications, should have a college education (indeed the assumption, at least on the Democratic side, seems to be not only that everyone belongs in college, but that every citizen person within our borders also has an inalienable right to a government-subsidized degree).

This is ridiculous, of course — but to admit that not everyone is endowed by Nature with the capacity for college-level intellectual work would be to discriminate, and thereby would violate the Prime Directive of modern liberal thought. Instead, the result of this obsessive and hallucinatory fixation on non-discrimination has been to flood colleges with unqualified students who have been indoctrinated to believe that they are capable of things they aren’t.

I teach at a tutoring center that preaches the college myth. Everyone who comes through our doors is told that college is their focus and their goal. We've got two or three students who would obviously do better in a vocational school; they're not so good with books and figures, but they're very good with their hands. I'm not always sure that what we do at YB is all that helpful for such kids. Are they wasting their time with us?


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

quite a change in schedule

I've gotten accustomed to getting up early and rushing off to work for an 11am-7pm schedule. Today, we're back in our "regular" fall/winter/spring mode, so I don't have to be at work until 5PM, and will work only four hours this evening. No hurry getting ready.



I just saw, on my Twitter feed, that burly actor Michael Clarke Duncan has died of a heart attack at the tender age of 54. That, friends, is a damn shame. The man was a talented actor-- an Oscar nominee, in fact-- and a good all-around soul, despite his massive, daunting frame. Personally, I thought he was the best thing about that horrible Ben Affleck movie, "Daredevil," in which Duncan played the Kingpin. He seemed to be about the only person having fun with his role, and as has been true in other movies, he didn't seem to take himself too seriously. Such a lack of arrogance is rare in Hollywood.

RIP, Mr. Duncan.


Happy Labor Day!




Monday, September 03, 2012

head trip

I have finally-- finally-- seen "Oldboy." The DVD was a loaner from Dr. Steve. Add this movie to the list of reviews I have yet to write:

1. "Inception"

2. "The Hunger Games"

3. Ender's Game

4. "Oldboy"


awesomeness to ensue

My buddy Dr. Steve will be here in a few hours. I've been promised a birthday meal, possibly at the Apple House. If so, I may gorge myself on the Apple House's infamous one-pound burger-- that, or their bison burger. And perhaps we'll go around the corner, get some of that lovely Apple House soft-serve ice cream, sit at a nearby picnic table, and leer at the female customers. Assuming the rains will have stopped by then, of course.

It's hard to be pervy in the rain.


Sunday, September 02, 2012

can it be?

Here's what's become of a large sand sculpture in Charlotte, NC:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A torrential downpour that struck Charlotte Saturday afternoon damaged the Mount Rushmore-style sand sculpture bust of President Obama — an ominous beginning to what many fear is a plagued convention.

Workers were trying Saturday afternoon to reform the base of the sculpture, built from sand brought in from Myrtle Beach, S.C., pounding and smoothing out the sand that had washed off the facade of the waist-up rendering of the chief executive.

The sand sculpture was protected from above, and Mr. Obama's face didn't see too much damage. But the storm was so strong that its heavy winds blew the rain sideways, pelting the president's right side and leaving the sand pockmarked and completely erasing his right elbow.
[emphasis added]

Good Lord-- an attack from the right!


from 40 to 22 hours

After Labor Day Monday, my work week drops from 40 hours to 22. Ouch.


Saturday, September 01, 2012

one last hurrah

Tomorrow, September 1st, marks the end of the salad days for yours truly-- the final day of our center's intensive summer schedule. For the past few weeks, my work schedule has been chock full as the summer session at YB has been winding down. For most of the year, I almost never have the chance to work full, 40-hour weeks there, and next week we'll be back to a maximum of 32 weekly work hours (six hours Monday through Thursday, eight hours on Saturday). My paycheck on September 7 is going to be nicely bloated; I'll likely use some of that money to replace two balding car tires and pay back part of a personal loan.

Ah, money. In my callow youth, I used to think money didn't matter. These days, however, I know that money represents freedom: it provides the means to act according to one's will. While I still have no desire to be filthy rich, I know that money equates to breathing room, and for the past four years, I've been living in a corset.