Tuesday, January 31, 2012

unkept promise

I know, I know... I had promised a post on panentheism, but never got to it. Instead, I devoted my time to doing all the items on my to-do list, and am proud to say I've gotten all but one item done. Am about to work on that last item-- my tax forms-- right now.

Looking forward to a damn refund from both state and federal.

UPDATE: Goddammit! I earn so little money, and I'm going to owe nearly $300 for federal income tax. That is bullshit. On top of all my other troubles, eh? Christ. At least I'm getting an $84 refund from Virginia. That'll offset the Fed.


at the TEF blog

I got last week's problem right.

Here's this week's problem (with a complaint... and two possible solutions).


a Marissa Parks update

As you may recall, Marissa Parks was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the same brain cancer that took my mother in January of 2010. I had been worried about the lack of tweets and blog updates in recent weeks-- Marissa had been doing her own updating for most of the time she's been dealing with her cancer. This latest update, on Marissa's blog A Day in the Life, is by her cousin* Megan. The entry is short on medical detail (as Megan herself notes: she's speaking as a loving relative, not offering a detached clinical assessment) but offers a theological perspective, for those inclined to approach illness in that light.

Marissa's apparently going in soon for her fourth surgery. Please keep her in your thoughts. Whatever your religious perspective, I think we can all agree there's no harm in thinking positively.

*UPDATE, 2/2/12, 1:41AM: I had originally referred to Megan as Marissa's friend, but after a long conservation with Marissa's dad, I found out that Megan is her cousin.

UPDATE, 3/12/12, 3:10PM: Marissa has passed away. See my post at my other blog, here.


Monday, January 30, 2012

from East to West

A few weeks back, I tried a novel money-saving strategy that paid off-- quite literally: I spent $90 on a bunch of ingredients to create a huge mess of Korean soup-- three different types, in fact-- then I ladled the soups into single-serving Ziploc bags and froze them. I had enough to last me a little over three weeks, which was pretty damn cool, and since I was eating roughly two servings' worth of soup per meal (when I'm teaching, I eat once a day, and that one meal functions as two meals), my $90 came to about $1.80 per meal.

I'm about to try a similar stunt, but this time I'm going Western: I went to Costco and bought $62 worth of groceries-- mostly pasta, Italian sausage, a huge container of Kraft Parmesan, and some sweets to stretch over a several-week period. The biggest dilemma was the sauce: bottled sauces are more expensive (even the higher-end, Costco-sanctioned brands), but they're convenient, whereas starting with a tomato sauce or paste means work. All the same, I opted for work when I saw that a nearly gallon-sized can of Contadina tomato paste was under $3. None of the bottled sauces came close in value.

So last night and this afternoon, I set about creating my huge load of spaghetti sauce. Since it was a taste-as-you-go method, I don't have a recipe for you, and I doubt I could replicate this exact sauce ever again. But based on a tasting from a few minutes ago, the sauce came out quite well for a humble suburban version of the glorious Italian original.

My secret: Korean beef dashida. A good Italian tomato sauce normally starts with pork as its base, and you're supposed to build on that over the course of many hours, patiently allowing the simmering process to remove excess water and thicken the sauce naturally. Since I was starting with tomato paste and didn't have the budget for ideal ingredients, I was working with what I had in my pantry. For the sauce, there was no need to go through any thickening process: instead, I had to thin the paste out with water. I added the dashida, little by little to avoid making the sauce into a salty mess, added powdered garlic, powdered onion, some crushed red pepper, dried thyme, basil, Italian seasoning, marjoram, white pepper, black pepper, celery seed powder, and of course-- bay leaves. Four, in this case, because I was making a ton of sauce. I added a bit of sugar later in the process, and was delighted that the flavors all seemed to be marrying well. Having kept the herb and seasoning input understated, I allowed the flavors to combine without becoming overpowering (always a danger with dried herbs, which can become surprisingly bitter if cooked too long). I let the sauce rest for the night, and was delighted, this morning, to discover that it tasted even better than it had the previous night.

I reheated the sauce, added about a cup of grated Parmesan for more savor, then broke out a huge brace of Premio Hot Italian sausages (Costco sells them in packages of 24 for $14). These I skinned, plopped into the massive turkey-roasting pan I'd inherited, and cooked for a half-hour at 350 degrees-- far easier than doing this on a stove top. I then drained the meat of most of its fat (what's more disgusting than spaghetti sauce with grease blobs?), used meat scissors to cut the sausages into manageable chunks, and mixed the meat into the sauce. Right now, the sauce is undergoing the final steps in its preparation as the meaty pork flavor adds its own spin to the beefy dashida. At this point, I've probably got enough sauce to feed a party of fifteen to twenty-- two servings each. Along with my eight pounds of pasta, I'd say I'm ready to last out the month of February.

But what about vegetables? I hear you roar. That's a legitimate question. Well, since my shopping trip was a Costco run, and since I live out in the sticks, I'm not much of a fan of the local Costco's vegetables. At best, I'd buy potatoes in bulk from Costco, and that's about it. Costco's variety is fairly limited, anyway, and it makes little sense for a single guy to buy perishables in bulk. When I made my Korean soups, the cost was a bit over $90; this time around, I've managed to make never-ending spaghetti for two-thirds of that price, which leaves me with money to buy vegetables as needed from the local grocer.

Had I done the sauce my normal way, I'd have used fresh basil, added ground carrots and minced green peppers, tossed in a pile of chopped mushrooms of several types (portobellos, criminis, oysters, buttons), and would have started with something less processed than tomato paste-- probably a combination of sauce, paste, canned whole tomatoes, and skinned fresh tomatoes. Wine might have made an appearance as well, and real meat would have replaced the dashida. But we work with what we have, within the constraints of the budget that's available to us, and for all intents and purposes, I think I've come up with a pretty good sauce. My switch from East to West is going to work out just fine. That was Zen; this is Ciao!

Wish you were here.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seon Joon vs. Frank Miller

Dogs bark on the ridge's far side, the sea-facing edge of the city. I also want to whet my voice on the bone of night salt air.

--Seon Joon Young, Small Stone #29, Twitter

The wind rises, tearing dead leaves free. Frogs croak like a cartoon car alarm. Crickets pick up the chorus. A wolf howls. I know how he feels.

--Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns (1986)


Ave, Lee!

From my Twitter feed: Lee links to this beautiful tribute to Vaclav Havel.


what's ahead for this weekend?

(NB: This is a scheduled post.)

Stuff to do this weekend once I'm home from work:

1. send off an email requesting information about another set of proofreading jobs

2. make spaghetti sauce-- enough to last two weeks (store in serving-sized bags)

3. pay my electric bill (this means dropping off the check in the payment slot of the town financial office)

4. do my taxes (I finally got both of my W-2s)

5. send pictures of my mother and aunt to my cousin, who's putting together a retrospective photo album for his mom

6. do laundry

7. make and attempt to sell some artwork

Regarding taxes: I've found that the best and easiest way to file is to use the H&R Block website, which I've relied on since 1999. Register, follow the easy, step-by-step instructions, and file your federal return for free. Your state return will probably cost you about $15 to file, unless the price has gone up.

None of this Turbo Tax bullshit for me. Why pay through the nose for a program that can be used only once? H&R Block's site is constantly updated, absurdly easy to use, very convenient, and provides quick service. Mail in your paper documents, and your refund checks (if you're expecting refunds, as I am) will arrive in just a couple weeks-- well before the April 15 deadline, in fact. I'm expecting mine to arrive before the end of February.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

to all you ESL/EFL teacher types out there

Problem: getting East Asian students who are at, roughly, the low-intermediate level in their English ability to move significantly beyond that proficiency level in a short amount of time (i.e., 3-5 months).

Solution: ???

I have three students at YB right now-- two South Korean, one Chinese-- who are showing subtle signs of improvement, but who are still at roughly the "3" level (using the 5-point TOEFL essay-rating scale) in terms of their writing ability. Their essays' overall content and organization isn't bad, and they don't normally engage in fallacious argumentation. The problem-- what keeps them from rising above the "3" level-- is, for the most part, their numerous and repeated errors when it comes to basic issues in sentence structure, diction, and style. I see these same errors over and over again, and they're familiar to anyone who's had to teach English to East Asian students. The litany, in no particular order:

poor tense control ("if" conditional grammar, participial confusion, etc.)
omission of third-person singular "s" for verbs
poor control of singular/plural inflection
poor understanding of mechanics (capitalization, punctuation, etc.)
misuse of definite and indefinite articles
incorrect or awkward diction (due to poor understanding of a word's semantic field)
basic spelling errors (guessing at the spelling of easy words, names, etc.)

At YB, we tutors all take both atomistic and holistic approaches to teaching these students. They're given drills that isolate certain problem areas (e.g., improving run-ons, identifying and correcting dangling/misplaced modifiers, eliminating wordiness, etc.), as well as essays to write (SAT-style, TOEFL-style, etc.). So it's not as though these students need to hear that they should just "try, try, try": they're already doing that. But the results are always the same: a score of 3 or 3.5 out of 5. It's time to find more effective methods.

The problem lies with output-- the two "productive" macroskills of speaking and writing. Even though I've tried to make these students aware of the kinds of errors they've been making, they keep falling into the same traps. Part of the problem may be cultural: Asian thinking involves a great deal of "field dependence," as Richard Nisbett (he of The Geography of Thought fame) would say. It could be that, when I tell my students about a particular error, they're unable to extrapolate from the specific context in which the error has occurred. To do so requires the ability to abstract the error, then reinsert it into a different discursive context. Field dependence may make them blind to the need to do this.

As I've argued before, increasing the emphasis on receptive macroskills won't necessarily lead to improvement in the productive skills: voracious reading doesn't guarantee good writing. At the same time, I could order my students to write essay after essay on the assumption that "writing improves writing," but that too would be useless. At this point, it's as if we're all banging our heads against a wall, and I'm as frustrated as my students are. So I'm writing this post in the hopes that some of my readers might have some creative suggestions for new and better approaches to this problem.

One possible idea, which I've already tried but haven't pursued: have students list the types of errors they've been making, then oblige them to use the list as a checklist while they're writing, i.e., on a sentence-by-sentence basis, and not only when they've finished writing. The point is to raise their consciousness about the need to be scrupulous from moment to moment. As things stand, I give my students an essay topic; they blunder heedlessly through the essay, then passively wait for me to mark their papers up in red ink. That method hasn't been working, obviously, so it's time to make the students shoulder more responsibility. Getting them into a more self-checking frame of mind could be the key.

I may also need to go more multimedia. This was a suggestion I received years ago, from one of my older Korean relatives who speaks fluent Japanese. For him, the path to success in Japanese lay in immersing himself in Japan's audiovisual culture: TV shows, movies, etc. All three of my students are fairly introverted and uninvolved in American culture; this definitely hampers their ability to learn much English while they're away from the tutoring center. Making involvement in the culture part of the learning process seems crucial at this stage. All of these students have been in the US for more than a year, but it's unclear how much they really understand about the country.* I'm thinking that (1) assigning my two TOEFL students some note-taking work from TED Talks and YouTube and (2) having my third student begin to maintain a journal based on reactions to one or more US TV shows would be a good move. They all need to break out of their cocoons.

In the meantime, I'd like to hear what's worked for you. I'm at wit's end, and I've got students who need to take the TOEFL in the late spring.

*As an aside, the same could be said about expats in Korea who spend years in an ignorant fog, the result of a combination of factors like a language barrier (often self-imposed) and unevolved social skills.


Jesus is watching

Has Willem Dafoe simply stopped aging? If so... that is a miracle.


placating you with Chuang Tzu

I've actually got some important stuff to do at the moment, so the promised religion post (re: panentheism) isn't up at the TEF blog. Instead, I've thrown a famous Chuang Tzu story up there for you. Take a look.


Friday, January 27, 2012

look elsewhere

I'm too tired to write my promised reaction to the James Anderson piece tonight, and since Fridays are designated "religion days" at the TEF blog, I think that my piece will appear there instead of here. Just FYI.


coming soon

I feel a reaction to James Anderson's "Why I Am Not a Panentheist" burbling up in my brain. I don't think Anderson does this form of theology much justice in his post, which at times feels almost like a willful misreading or mis-extrapolation. Substantive replies to Anderson have already appeared in his comments section, and he's replied to them, but I think there's more to be said on the matter.

So a post may appear sometime later this evening. As an aside, I find it interesting that Michael Sudduth's conversion (Sudduth is a professor of religious studies) has generated so much squawking in the philosophy-of-religion corner of the blogosphere. Conservative religionists have expressed disappointment; some have even called Sudduth's conversion "apostasy"-- a word I didn't think was still in use among modern, civilized folk. (For years now, extreme religious language has been on the wane in mainstream Western Christianity, which is a reflection of the disappearance of extreme attitudes. Even Catholics today rarely speak of excommunication, this despite what John Kerry's gotten away with!)

For myself, I congratulate Sudduth on being "bold to go wherever dreaming goes," as Stephen R. Donaldson might say. I see no apostasy in what he has done, but at the same time, I admit I'm skeptical of most accounts of conversion experiences-- especially the vivid ones.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

France on its way to bringing a socialist back into the Elysée

At the TEF blog.

(Don't do it, France!)



I was starting to worry, but yes: I've been paid for my first proofreading gig. Money arrived today, and just in time, too. All praise to Cthulhu.

While I'm referencing divinities, I should point out that Dr. V has linked to a post by James Anderson, friend of the recently-converted Michael Sudduth, titled "Why I Am Not a Panentheist." I haven't had the chance to read it through yet, but it appears to be yet another expression of disappointment in Sudduth's conversion.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ave, Neuroskeptic!

I learned a new word just now: pareidolia. All thanks to this post.


Michael Sudduth crosses over

Dr. Vallicella has blogged about the conversion of one Dr. Michael Sudduth, formerly a Protestant Christian in the Reformed tradition, who recently converted to Gaudiya Vaishnavism (devotion to Vishnu). Dr. V's posts are here:

Michael Sudduth Converts to Vaishnava Vedanta!

Belief Change

From Calvin to Krishna

The Sudduth Surge Continues

Dr. V has also linked to a very interesting post by Daniel Silliman on the topic of Sudduth's conversion. I felt strangely impelled to leave a comment, so I did. See here.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

at the TEF blog

It's math day, and that means MGRE Math Beast Challenge problems! Check out how right I was with last week's MGRE problem, and while you're at it, check out this week's problem (warning: my solution is already in the comments, so don't peek if you're aiming to solve the problem yourself). Have fun. This week's problem is one for which you have to provide the answer: there's no multiple choice. The new GRE has many such problems now; I'm glad to see MGRE providing practice in this area.


Happy Lunar New Year!

It's the Year of the Dragon! May it be a happy and prosperous one for you.

The rope dragon you see above isn't Korean, but it has special importance for me as the last gift my mother ever gave me. May it be a herald for a better year.


quick reminder

I do have a comments policy, and it appears above your comment window every time you press the comments link. Please take the time to read the policy before commenting.


Monday, January 23, 2012

at the TEF blog

An article on "tone of passage" questions on the SAT.


Pinker and PoMo

I can't see how people on the postmodernist left could possibly like Dr. Steven Pinker. PoMo thought is dismissive of the notion of universals; the idea that something called "human nature" might exist is anathema to the postmodernist. Instead, according to PoMo theory, what we have-- all we have, in fact-- is a web of social constructions.

Along comes Pinker with his 2002 The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, a book that critiques this attitude and submits that humans do indeed have a knowable, hard-wired nature. Pinker actually takes postmodernists on directly at several points throughout his book.

But as much as postmodernists hate the idea that human beings might have a discrete nature, they despise even more the notion of "totalizing metanarratives," i.e., large, overarching explanatory paradigms that purport to render major aspects of both human experience and the surrounding cosmos intelligible. Rationality (or the rationalist metanarrative), say the PoMo-ers, is an oppressive construct that has done little to promote social justice or reduce alienation. It is a tool of the powerful to be used against the powerless. From this perspective, a human endeavor like science is all about privilege: as Michel Foucault, one of the deities of PoMo thought, would argue, scientists form a hermetic "priesthood" that distinguishes itself from the rest of society by, among other ways, how scientists dress (easily identifiable lab coats) and how they talk (impenetrable, esoteric jargon*). Rationality has also led to the development of increasingly effective killing technology; the twentieth century is evidence of the ironic price we've paid for being rational.

And yet... there stands Pinker yet again, providing a new metanarrative in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: viewed from a global historical perspective (precisely the perspective that postmodernists believe is either impossible or unethical to adopt), violence everywhere in the world appears to be on the wane thanks to the evolutionary forces of ever-modernizing culture. Pinker's stance has gotten him in trouble with hawkish people on the right, who see his position as support for the utopian leftist notion of the perfectibility of human society, but how can he be any less of a problem for the PoMo crowd? Taken as a group, postmodernists, while firmly in the leftist camp, aren't evangelists for progressivism: they view the notion of progress as just another totalizing metanarrative to be jettisoned. Pinker, meanwhile, has spent years presenting evidence of the salubrious effects of human progress.

I sometimes wonder whether Pinker's entire life project has been the slow, methodical, rational deconstruction of the postmodernist project. I'm sure he'd never say that that's what motivates him, but the effect has been the same nonetheless: with every book he publishes, Pinker erodes the plausibility of PoMo thought. This is a good thing.

*I'd say this is a problem for PoMo academics themselves. Refer to my recent post on bad writing for a reminder.


stuff I won't live to see

A whimsical meditation.

I'm sad that I won't live to see:

1. Korean taco trucks roaming the surface of the moon, selling their spicy fare along with bottles of oxygen.

2. Regen porno: regeneration technology will reach a point where we'll be able to sever each other's limbs for fun and not think twice about it. Come to think of it, such severing may become an alternative path to the fountain of youth: newly-regrown limbs ought to be much more vigorous than their decrepit counterparts... and since the skin is itself an organ ripe for removal and regrowth, I can imagine wrinkle removal becoming synonymous with skin removal. And why stop there? We could replace bones, muscles, internal organs-- you name it. A person could rebuild him- or herself every few years, and if even the brain can be regenerated, there's nothing to stop us from 100% rebuilds. This will initially be the province of the rich and privileged, of course, but will eventually trickle down to most of the rest of society. "I feel like a new man" will take on new meaning.

3. Shuttles to Jupiter's moons. And news of the first-ever politician to die in the oceans of Europa.

4. Solar system comm methods that use quantum entanglement to send instant messages from Earth to Pluto. Imagine how that will change our remote navigation of probes.

5. The evolution of cutting-edge molecular gastronomy. If this field could somehow be merged with biotech efforts so that we could produce pets that shit out our meals in clean, edible sausage casings, I'd buy several such pets. "Fifi the poodle-- handle the salad! Rover, you're on mashed potato detail! And Rico the chihuahua... you're making the Porterhouse steaks."

6. Asteroid homes for the very, very rich. Which brings up a thought: let's say you get two groups of people who see potential in asteroids. One group is the settlers who build biospheres on the larger asteroids; another group is the miners. This immediately brings up the question of debris management, because in both cases you'd be excavating the asteroids and flinging out a lot of rocks. What sort of shielding would we need to contain the flying debris? And since there's probably already free-floating debris out there now, what sort of shielding would homes and mines need? What kind of culinary culture would develop among Belters (Larry Niven's term, if I'm not mistaken)? I imagine a lot of mushroom-based food.

There's also the question of architecture: an asteroid home would be a hollowed-out asteroid, but since such rocks are irregularly shaped, you'd need to impart spin to produce a simulation of gravity. A given asteroid's irregularities would make such spinning problematic unless it were possible to add "ballast" to the asteroid to keep the spin on an unwavering axis. This ballast could be an aesthetic addition to the asteroid. Another, more complex, architectural possibility would be to affix thrusters to the asteroid so that one could have a maneuverable home (mail delivery might be a pain in the ass for the mailmen), and the hollowed-out interior could feature a huge, revolving chamber (again, to simulate gravity) into which the features of a home could be installed.

7. True AI. I doubt I'll see this in my lifetime, but because I'm something of a Kurzweilian functionalist, I think "strong AI" is possible. This won't mean machines that play chess well or are super-strong: it'll mean machines that handle new situations-- social, environmental-- with the same skill and aplomb that humans do: machines that speculate and wonder, that draw their own conclusions and have the initiative to act on them.

8. Detailed time-flow maps of our galaxy. Einstein's theories tell us that absolute simultaneity doesn't exist in the universe: time is woven into space as one integrated continuum; just as space and matter can be dense or thin, fast or slow, time flows differently in different regions of space. We may start plotting the flow of time and discover that time has "weather patterns."

9. Overcrowding on Mars. I expect a great deal of terraforming there, and with the thin atmosphere, plenty of genetic mutation. Mars might end up even more diversely peopled with life than Earth... unless we discover that it really is a planet whose resources have been spent.

10. First contact. Up to now, I think we can safely say that aliens have never visited our planet, and there's a real possibility that we truly are alone in the universe. But as we continue to discover just how numerous "Earth-like" worlds are (the amount of data we've collected in a single decade is insane), the chance that some of them may have evolved spacefaring intelligences would seem to go up. I suspect it's only a matter of time. Just not my time.


just seen on Twitter

Paul Carver retweets this little Korean joke (which sounds suspiciously American) tweeted by Tom Seungmin Lee:

대박. 남자가 집에 왔는데 아내가 요리 프로그램을 보고 있자, "당신 요리 프로그램 뭐하러 보는거야? 요리 할 줄 몰라?" 그랬더니 아내 답변 "뭐, 당신은 포르노 보잖아!"

Rough translation: A man came home and saw his wife watching a cooking show on TV. "What's the point of watching a cooking show?" he asked. "You don't know how to cook?" The wife shot back, "But you watch porn!"

The first word in the tweet is daebak, which means "jackpot," but which in this case might more naturally be translated "bingo." It didn't fit in with the joke, so I assume it was the tweeter's own commentary on whatever human truth he thought the joke was illustrating. Since I don't know the structure of Korean jokes that well, I have no idea whether daebak is usually the natural thing to say at the beginning of a joke. It feels almost like the corny expression "Zing!" that some people use at the end of a joke in English, especially if the joke's punchline is a sharp, one-line rejoinder.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

space daggits

If you haven't seen Volkswagen's hilarious new "The Bark Side" commercial, ready to air for the Super Bowl, here's your chance. Full-screen viewing recommended. Granted, the commercial does nothing to convince me to buy a VW, but that doesn't make it any less funny.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

still for sale

I'm still trying to sell off the remaining few dozen copies of Scary Spasms in Hairy Chasms. I had been attempting to do this on eBay, but eBay charges you monthly if you use the fixed-price display option when listing items. I've moved my ad to Etsy.com, a site for creative folks to sell their wares. There's no bidding to worry about, and all I had to do was pay a one-time fee to get my books hosted.

Etsy's home page is here.

My shop is here.


Monday, I'm off

I've worked the past two Mondays at YB because a coworker had gone on vacation (to Hawaii, the lucky bastard). This coming week, I'll be back to my usual schedule, which goes from Tuesday to Thursday, then jumps to Saturday. I've already told my supervisor that, if it turns out I'm able to score as many proofing gigs as I've secured for February (I've been guaranteed three manuscripts comparable in size to the one I just proofed), I'll very likely cut one more day from my YB work week-- probably Saturday.

Working on weekends has long been against my religion, and working Saturdays at YB truly sticks in my craw. I do it because I need the money, and although I enjoy the kids I work with on that day, as well as my coworkers, it's the fact that it's a Saturday that detracts from my enjoyment. I have to be at YB tomorrow, in fact.

Right now, though, I'm not in a position to change my schedule-- not until I know more about whether I'll be guaranteed a certain steady amount of work from Seoul. We'll see how that goes, but I'm hopeful that the Powers That Be will like my proofreading work enough to start relying heavily on me-- a good symbiosis. Korea saves me yet again.

But the real reason why I'm writing about this coming Monday is that it also happens to be the Korean lunar new year-- we're moving into the Year of the Dragon. So I'll be kicking back and celebrating that quietly (unless my international-transfer payment from Seoul comes in that day, in which case I might celebrate it loudly). At the very least, I'll slap a dragon image up on the blog on Monday.


one man who can't help but be Maudlin

A link is going around to an article in Atlantic Magazine about the philosophy of cosmology. The article is an interview with Tim Maudlin, a philosopher of physics. Give it a read. In the meantime, here's an excerpt:

What occurred to Newton was that there was a force of gravity, which of course everybody knew about, it's not like he actually discovered gravity-- everybody knew there was such a thing as gravity. But if you go back into antiquity, the way that the celestial objects, the moon, the sun, and the planets, were treated by astronomy had nothing to do with the way things on earth were treated. These were entirely different realms, and what Newton realized was that there had to be a force holding the moon in orbit around the earth. This is not something that Aristotle or his predecessors thought, because they were treating the planets and the moon as though they just naturally went around in circles. Newton realized there had to be some force holding the moon in its orbit around the earth, to keep it from wandering off, and he knew also there was a force that was pulling the apple down to the earth. And so what suddenly struck him was that those could be one and the same thing, the same force.

That was a physical discovery, a physical discovery of momentous importance, as important as anything you could ever imagine because it knit together the terrestrial realm and the celestial realm into one common physical picture. It was also a philosophical discovery in the sense that philosophy is interested in the fundamental natures of things.


If ... it turns out there aren't these many worlds, that physics is unable to generate them, then it's not that the only option is that there was some intelligent designer. It would be a terrible mistake to think that those are the only two ways things could go. You would have to again think hard about what you mean by probability, and about what sorts of explanations there might be. Part of the problem is that right now there are just way too many freely adjustable parameters in physics. Everybody agrees about that. There seem to be many things we call constants of nature that you could imagine setting at different values, and most physicists think there shouldn't be that many, that many of them are related to one another. Physicists think that at the end of the day there should be one complete equation to describe all physics, because any two physical systems interact and physics has to tell them what to do. And physicists generally like to have only a few constants, or parameters of nature. This is what Einstein meant when he famously said he wanted to understand what kind of choices God had --using his metaphor-- how free his choices were in creating the universe, which is just asking how many freely adjustable parameters there are. Physicists tend to prefer theories that reduce that number, and as you reduce it, the problem of fine tuning tends to go away. But, again, this is just stuff we don't understand well enough yet.

Go give the article a read.


Friday, January 20, 2012

fat doors and other things

Over the past few years, I've seen so many news reports about morbidly obese people who need to be cut out of their own homes to receive hospital care (see here, for instance) that I think the time has come to propose some solutions.

1. Fat doors. Morbidly obese people, especially those who spend their time trapped and festering on above-ground floors, should pay to have something akin to an airplane escape procedure: a triple-wide door that opens in case of emergency, paired with a slide system that will allow rescue workers to roll/slide/bowl the patient out of the domicile both quickly and efficiently. We can call the doors "Jabba hatches." No more cutting through walls!

2. Amputation nanotech for convenient disassembly and reassembly. I'm stealing this idea from Stephen R. Donaldson and his Gap Cycle. One horrific scene involves a futuristic stripper who does more than strip: she cuts off her own breasts for the amusement of the club's patrons. How does she survive the experience? Easy: she's got nanoclamps on all of her major blood vessels, so when she saws away at herself, the clamps activate and prevent her from bleeding out before she can receive medical attention (such strippers do this more than once, after all). It's a nauseating moment in the series, but it occurs to me that such tech would solve the whole "can't get Fattie into the MRI" problem. Instead of wasting money constructing ever-larger MRI machines, just prep the patient with the nanoclamps and chop him into pieces for easy scanning-- not to mention easy removal from that second-floor bed.

3. In-house ICU. Since most of us are going to end up in an ICU at any rate, I'd say that this solution is applicable to more that just the fattest among us. But since the truly obese will find themselves in ICUs much sooner, on average, than the rest of the populace, I'd suggest bringing the hospital to them.

Just a few modest proposals.


note to the self-deluded

If you think our country has done away with racism and everything's all hunky-dory now, you might want to click on this link. Have a barf bag ready.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

my second job

A friend and former colleague in Korea contacted me a while back and asked whether I'd be interested in doing some proofing work for the company she works for. I said yes, and this past Wednesday morning, I finished a marathon proofing session. The gig will pay $450 (some money lost in international transfer; my bank will take $10-$15), and I've got three more gigs, of comparable size and pay, lined up for February. Which rocks. I hope this becomes a trend.

On a practical level, the extra work means I can breathe again. Up to now, I've had almost no extra money to do anything large-scale. One of my old debts, Sallie Mae, reactivates in February after a year in forbearance, which means another $320/month to pay, so I need enough income to cover that. I've also got to purchase a year's worth of contact lenses (my 6-month supply runs out next month), and that's going to set me back about $100-$150. Then there are my car tires, all of which need replacing-- another $280. On top of that are the debts I still owe friends and family, totaling almost $2000...

Yeah. Extra income from a second job is a good thing.


Ave, Neuroskeptic!

Neuroskeptic offers, in this post, two fascinating videos about the brain's occasional unwillingness to see things as they are. First, the hollow face effect; and second, the magic dragon (not the one from the folk song).


medication, not meditation


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Kevin (re)learns geometry

Yesterday, while helping a student with geometry, I got reacquainted with a nifty triangle property described by the Triangle Midsegment Theorem. Read all about it here. This will be a useful piece of knowledge should I take the GRE again in the next few months.


Scalzi on "Troopers"

John Scalzi writes in defense of 1997's "Starship Troopers," a movie that was very loosely based on Robert Heinlein's fantastic adventure/manifesto of a novel. Scalzi's post is uproarious at times, but I was disturbed to see that he glossed over a point picked up immediately by my buddy Dr. Steve all those years ago: our young heroes all seem to be close cousins of the Nazis-- good-looking Aryan types who dress like the SS when they're not loaded for bear. (True: the troops, taken as a whole, evince some racial diversity, but all the non-white characters are minor, and "Troopers" is no exception to the "Black Guy Dies" rule of science fiction in film.)

I don't think Scalzi is unaware of this uncomfortable dimension of the movie; he's aware of Paul Verhoeven's experiences in World War II, experiences that would have led the Dutchman to a cynical interpretation of Heinlein's material (Verhoeven allegedly made the movie without reading the novel, but I doubt a reading would have made much difference). Verhoeven's agenda was subversive; for him, the protags weren't heroes so much as "heroes." Putting them in Nazi drag was a statement, a way to throw our own militaristic enthusiasm into confusion. This is why Scalzi's silence on the Nazi issue is troubling: he seems to be ignoring a major layer of subtext. His commenters, however, have picked up on it.

I loved "Starship Troopers" when it came out, although I wasn't nearly as aware of the movie's subtext as was Dr. Steve-- then a graduate student whose bread and butter was the semiotics of pop culture. The special effects were amazing for the time, and there was enough nudigore* to keep a guy like me happy. Scalzi points out that the movie falls flat on several fronts: (1) it's not a faithful adaptation of its source; (2) it makes little sense militarily (on that note: I've linked to this article on "Starship Troopers" before); (3) it makes little sense biologically. But Scalzi sees "Troopers" as a fable, and feels that the film's value lies in what it has to say about the hellish nature of war. I can see that, but I'd prefer to see a remake that's more faithful to the original, even at the risk of losing business because of Heinlein's manifestly un-PC agenda.

In 1997, the state of the art in special effects hadn't reached the point where it would be easy to create CGI battle armor such as what Heinlein describes in his novel. The suits in the novel aren't mere football pads: they're fully automated robotic suits that weigh a literal ton, which can become a dangerous liability if the suit's power plant is somehow shut down. A single soldier can lay waste to an entire city in such a suit, and troopers almost never fight shoulder-to-shoulder. In 2012, I think we've got the effects technology to create fully-realized battle suits that look the way Heinlein intended: Robert Downey's Iron Man movies show that this is possible. I'd love to see the novel done justice-- with great special effects and a stellar script-- but as Scalzi says, this isn't going to happen.

Go read his article.

*I just came up with this portmanteau, and as I usually do after coining a neologism, I Googled it to see whether anyone else had come up with it before I had. Unfortunately, the answer this time is yes, dammit.


a birthday on January 17

Happy Birthday to Benjamin Franklin and Muhammad Ali. Ali was born on January 17, 1942. He's 70 years old today. Mr. Franklin is doubtless hunting turkeys in heaven.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

at the TEF blog

1. I got last week's MGRE math problem right.

2. Here's this week's problem, with my solution posted in the comments.


comment glitches

Although I personally haven't run into trouble, I've had reports from readers that they've been unable to write comments or even to read them. These complaints have come in at around the same time that Blogger has re-tweaked some commenting features. I've noticed, for example, two tiny "reply" and "delete" links that now appear beneath comments. These features were already in place before, but they were known, respectively, as "post a comment" and the trash can icon. The real difference may that, if Blogger has changed "post a comment" to "reply" (or has added "reply" to the list of features), it may be configuring the comments feature so that comments can now be threaded. Threaded comments have been commonplace on other blogging platforms for years. As always, Blogger is a bit behind the times, and as my buddy Charles once groused, Blogger's template coding is "a mess," none of which helps when the central office decides to make "improvements" to the blogging experience.

So if you've been trying unsuccessfully to comment, I think that's the reason for your frustration. Once enough user complaints pile up, the good folks at Blogger will blearily lift their faces out of their mounds of cocaine, pick up their M-16/M-203s, and blast their way to a solution. Expect smooth functioning in a few days to a few weeks.

In the meantime, feel free to email me.


Monday, January 16, 2012

when religion is for show

NB: I've already blogged the real secret of Tebow's power.


on polyglot politicians

Jon Huntsman, currently jockeying for a GOP presidential nomination, made the mistake of speaking in Mandarin during a recent debate among presidential hopefuls. He scored no points among conservatives who viewed him as overly friendly to China and Chinese politics. While there is a whole network of issues swirling around at the subtextual level, I'd like to deal with only two of them.

1. Speaking a foreign language means you're sleeping with the enemy. Someone sympathetic to Ron Paul produced a video that essentially accuses Huntsman of holding "Chinese values" because of his ability to speak Chinese. (More disturbingly, the video seems to imply that Huntsman's choice to adopt an Asian daughter indicates the degree to which he's sold out his country. Candidate Paul has wisely distanced himself from this vid.) I know nothing of Huntsman's record as US ambassador to Singapore and China, but I imagine that his Chinese ability, acquired largely in the context of Mormon language education, comes with a certain understanding of Chinese and Chinese-speaking cultures; how can it be otherwise? To learn a language is to learn a culture, after all.

At the same time, I imagine that Huntsman is quite capable of disagreeing with his Chinese-speaking interlocutors-- and he's not alone in this. All I have to do, to find people with similar abilities, is look to the Korean-fluent commenters at The Marmot's Hole who, far from being brainwashed by Korean culture, voice disagreement with it routinely. I myself have, on occasion, expressed deep disagreement with France's and Switzerland's politics, this despite (a) having lived in both countries and (b) being able to speak French. The ability to speak another language, and the knowledge one has about certain foreign countries, carries with it no obligation to agree blindly with citizens of those countries.

2. The ability to speak multiple languages is the sign of an intellectual, and intellectuals aren't to be trusted. This sentiment, never far below the surface in modern "conservative" thought and discourse, is part of a larger anti-intellectual current that sees academic types as detached from reality and thus unfit to manage a country. The current gained prominence, I think, during the Dubya years as people did their best to defend the inarticulate stumblings of the two-term president. Sarah Palin's prominence in right-wing discourse is also a sign of this anti-intellectualism. This is unfortunate, because conservatives are at their best when they're from the William F. Buckley school of thought: clear-headed, intellectual, aware of their ideals and ideology. The notion that being intellectual means being divorced from reality strikes as me wrong-headed: it's the natural response of insecure dumb people who find themselves seated alongside confident smart people.

Where Huntsman may have gone wrong is in sounding like a show-off: the optics of flaunting one's Chinese ability are poor in the current political climate. What he should have done (and the Chinese themselves would appreciate this) is to keep his Chinese ability as much to himself as possible, but slyly market it to his potential constituency as a sort of "secret weapon" to be used during negotiations with China. Of course, the temptation to show off one's linguistic ability can be hard to resist, and I suspect that Huntsman's ego got the better of him. In that sense, his fellow conservatives may be right to take a dim view of what he did: if Huntsman was indeed showing off, then he revealed himself to be socially tone-deaf and thus not sufficiently "in touch" to relate to a wide swath of American citizens. But again: there is no firm, logical link between being out of touch and being a polyglot intellectual.

There may be plenty of reasons to critique Jon Huntsman as both a politician and a man. His ability to speak Mandarin Chinese isn't one of them, and people who critique him based on his language skills are only revealing themselves to be uneducated bumpkins. I certainly wouldn't trust one of them to run the country. If the reply to this stance is that intellectual candlepower is no guarantee of successful leadership, I'd heartily agree. But a few extra IQ points are more likely to help a leader than to hurt him or her.


on Tom Bombadil

Several days ago, I sent out an email to two friends:

Have either of you seen this theory about Tom Bombadil?


I'm with some of the commenters: I disagree with the theory, but find it interesting all the same.

One friend replied:

I disagree with it completely, but it is definitely interesting. More later (if I remember) when I'm not on my iPhone.

I said:

I sympathize with those who responded to the post by saying that Bombadil is best thought of as something like a nature-spirit in the Celtic sense. Then again, after reading that author's hilarious Star Wars piece (R2-D2 and Chewbacca are the real masterminds of the Rebel Alliance, with C3PO and Han Solo as their respective, and unwitting, front men), I'm now convinced that he's writing with tongue at least somewhat in cheek.

My friend wrote:

On the nature of Bombadil, there is a much better discussion at http://www.tolkienprofessor.com. There is a lecture called "On Wingless Balrogs and Tom Bombadil" that can be found via iTunes U for free. I'm not sure where it is on his web site.

I tried to cut and paste the lecture link from iTunes and this is what came out. The lecture is about the 5th one down. Look for the mp3 file.


Ultimately, from the point of view of Tolkien, I think Bombadil is an anomaly. He fits in as a potential Maiar or Valar spirit, although there are only 14 Valar, so if he is one of them, he has to be a specific one. If he is a Maiar, then that opens up what he is because he's at the same level as Gandalf, Sauron, etc. My understanding, from reading fan pages and Tolkien's essays, is that Bombadil is an artifact from an earlier story that Tolkien loved, so he included him in LOTR. He doesn't fit nicely in.

However, I dispute the article on several levels. First of all, it's my understanding that Bombadil is one of most readers' favorite characters. He doesn't make sense in the large scheme of things, and he provides a side adventure that does little to advance the plot, with the one exception that the side adventure eventually leads to Merry's possession of the only sword in existence that can defeat the king of the Nazgul.

I also think the writer of the article gets another thing wrong. The wise (i.e. Gandalf, Elrond, et al.) seem to have some idea of who and what Tom Bombadil is, although they aren't sharing their knowledge. The main concern of the wise is that Bombadil is not an acceptable alternative for aid in the war of the ring, therefore consideration of him is irrelevant. Gandalf rides off to have a long talk with him once all is done. My own personal take on it was Gandalf was catching up with a long-lost friend or acquaintance.

I replied:

I'll have to check these references out when I'm home from work tonight. Thanks.

My other friend wrote:

Feel lost on the Bombadil talk.

I wrote back to this friend:

re: Tom Bombadil

I've been slowly rereading LOTR, for the first time in years. The last time I read the trilogy was probably in late high school or early college, which is why I wasn't too enthralled by Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" when I first saw it. I'd forgotten all the place names and character names. "The Horn of Gondor" had no significance for me. But now that I've seen the Jackson trilogy-- several times, in both its short and its long versions-- it's been an interesting exercise to go back and read Tolkien's text.

Tom Bombadil, who originally struck me as something of a nonsense/nuisance character years ago, makes a lot more sense to me now, especially after my experience as a student in religious studies. He is indeed a mysterious and awesome figure, very much in the mold of a "holy fool" in Catholic Christianity: his relentless good cheer, his inane poetic babble, his seeming obliviousness to the goings-on outside of his patch of forest-- these are all smoke screens obscuring the fact that he's an ancient figure of great power, very likely the first of the exalted beings ever to set foot on the physical Earth. Like some other readers, I thought I saw hints that Bombadil might actually be a sort of god incarnate, perhaps even the God in Tolkien's universe (Eru/Eä). But after listening, yesterday, to the lecture by the prof that [Friend #1] linked me to, I came away convinced that Bombadil, while assuredly a cosmic figure, doesn't have the stature of a deity. (You might like that lecture, which begins with a discussion on whether Balrogs have wings. The prof argues that they don't, which makes Jackson's rather literal depiction inaccurate.)


Sunday, January 15, 2012

sorry-- distracted

I've been "live-tweeting," sort of, the Broncos/Patriots game, mostly as a way to let off some steam about the stupidity of people who think Tebow's good fortunes this season are the result of divine intervention.



They talk about "monkey mind" in Buddhism, too. (OK, OK, so the link is about apes.)


Saturday, January 14, 2012

verbal pretzeling

[NB: this post has undergone quite a few revisions. Such are the perils of perfectionism.]

Here's an example of the sort of sentence you might find on the new GRE:

Jared sees no demerits in the arguments against the position of those who oppose the detractors of the ban on smoking in restaurants.

Question: is Jared likely against smoking in restaurants?

I'll be honest with you: I find this sort of sentence very hard to decipher without breaking it down and analyzing it (see below). The new GRE is rife with such sentences, which usually contain a few blanks into which you have to insert the correct vocab words. It's hard to know the right words until you un-pretzel the sentences and divine their general sense. Admittedly, most of the new GRE's sentences don't exhibit quite this degree of pretzeling, but they come damn close.

Some people, whom I envy, have the ability to follow the twisting roller-coaster path of these negations without getting confused. I squirm whenever I hear something on the news along the lines of, "Senator X has come out firmly against the lifting of the temporary suspension of the moratorium on Y." (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)

Anyway, let's break the above sentence down to see whether we can answer the question.

ORIGINAL: Jared sees no demerits in the arguments against the position of those who oppose the detractors of the ban on smoking in restaurants.

First, the beginning:

1. Jared sees no demerits in the arguments = Jared finds no flaw in the arguments

Now, let's move to the back and work our way forward.

2. the detractors of the ban on smoking in restaurants = people who are pro-smoking in restos

3. those who oppose the detractors = people who are anti-smoking in restos

4. the position of those who oppose = the anti-smoking position

5. the arguments against the position = pro-smoking arguments

So, stitching (1) and (5) together:

Jared finds no flaw in the pro-smoking arguments.

To answer the question, then:

No: Jared is not likely to be against smoking in restaurants.


Friday, January 13, 2012

the queen and the sage

Queen Elizabeth II... and Chuang Tzu?

Over at the TEF blog.


Ave, Philosophy Bites (Nigel Warburton)!

I saw this tweet just now from Nigel Warburton's Philosophy Bites Twitter feed: free philosophy courses. Looks like a winner, if you're looking for informal instruction. And the sidebar has links to other useful courses, e.g., free language courses. I may hit those links up to improve my German and Spanish.

One of my Korean cousins lives in Germany and doesn't speak much English, so the German might be useful should I ever visit him in Europe. As for Spanish-- well, there's hardly a need to talk about the prevalence of Spanish in the US.

At my job, I often get Spanish questions from students. No one being tutored at YB seems to take French: it's either Spanish or Latin. That may be a reflection of the student demographic at our tutoring center: mostly Korean, Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese, with a smattering of white and black students. Spanish is the language of choice for most students thanks to its unjustified reputation as an "easy" language to learn.* Latin, meanwhile, is the choice of academically driven students (or the driven parents of those students) who have been told that "Latin will help you on the SAT."**

Vast are the fields of cyberspace. There's much to explore-- much of it free.

*For US English speakers, Spanish is easier to pronounce than French, and the spelling of Spanish words corresponds very closely to how they sound, with few exceptions. Aside from that, however, Spanish and French are equally complex in terms of grammar (a Cuban-American classmate at Georgetown once told me that the Spanish subjunctive mood is actually more complex than it is in French) and other subtleties.

**This strikes me as a dumb reason to take Latin, and if SAT-mastery is what Latin is all about, then public schools should also be offering classes in ancient Greek. I had only two weeks of Latin, yet have managed to build up an extensive knowledge of Greek and Latin roots through my own classroom and independent study. There are other reasons to take Latin, some of which may have something to do with edification and character-building thanks to the discipline involved in learning the language, but most of which have to do with the ability to access classical works of literature directly.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

at the TEF blog

A French translation exercise.


"such a waste"

Interesting conversation with my supervisor last night. She told me she's doing her best to try and find me more things to do-- extra teaching hours at other centers, text materials design, etc.-- but there's nothing yet. January is slow. We talked a bit about the future, and she remarked that my presence at YB was "such a waste." She was trying to be charitable; I think she sees me as over-qualified for the job I'm doing, and thinks I should be getting a Ph.D. and lecturing at a university.

While I appreciated her sentiment, I bristled at it, too: I'm coming off a bad time in my life and getting back on my feet. Working at YB has been a way of reinserting myself into the human stream. It's a little early to be judging whether I'm wasting my life.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

my answer

My answer to the latest MGRE Math Beast Challenge problem is now appended to the original blog post. See here.


bien sans sa peau

So I followed the Instapundit link to the Vatican's new 3-D virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel, which is pretty darn incredible, and found myself zooming in on this image:

What the hell is that all about? Is there a biblical reference that I'm missing, here?


we'll file this under "How Not to Teach"

As soon as I saw the Drudge headline, I knew this had to have taken place in the South:

3rd-Grade Math Homework Uses Slaves Picking Oranges, Number of Slave Beatings to Teach Multiplication

The first [math homework question] asked, “Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” The other said, “If Frederick [Douglass] got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

Upon learning of the assignment, the school’s principal collected the assignment sheets that were still at school.

“We’ve been working with human resources to determine what staff development is needed for the teachers and what actions may be warranted,” Roach said. “The principal is addressing parent concerns as he’s meeting with them.”

Parent concerns? Yeah-- no shit.


at the TEF blog

1. Vindication: I got last week's problem right.

2. This week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

yet another diction error

Thank you, journalists! The hits just keep on coming.

From here:

Shoving her way through the hoard of reporters, Karen Hiller found her way to [Ron] Paul’s SUV and demanded he come back to the restaurant and meet the voters he would be facing at the ballot box on Tuesday.

It's horde, not hoard.

Strange to think of horde as a homonym: horde, hoard, whored.


Monday, January 09, 2012

diction error

I love journalists. They often provide me with the most amusing errors. Here's one:

Romney shirked the fire of his rivals with confidence and a cool composition, his feathers seemingly unruffled.

I'd be tempted to say that shirked is problematic, since the writer probably meant shrugged off-- i.e., Romney was hit, but the hits didn't affect him. But shirked is barely passable, since it can mean dodge or avoid. Still, such a usage of shirk doesn't sit well with me, since it's a word I associate with concepts like duty and responsibility. In the above sentence, Romney is implied to be "shirking" barbs and accusations, not duty or responsibility.

The real diction problem, though, is the word composition. The proper term is composure.


Santorum and the baby

I've been reading, with a mixture of amusement and chagrin, the various defenses of Rick Santorum's actions regarding the death of his son Gabriel. My own first instinct, upon learning of what Santorum had done, was to feel revolted. Defenders have been pointing out, however, that the American Pregnancy Association recommends that "it is important for your family members to spend time with the baby [to] help them come to terms with their loss." In other words, what the Santorums did, in bundling up their dead child and taking it home for the child's siblings to see, carried no odor of the strange.

I beg to differ. If the point being made by the APA is that siblings might benefit from an encounter with death, then I'm on board.* But taking your dead loved one on a trip, outside of a proper funerary context, still strikes me as macabre. I just celebrated my mother's gi-il, and I find it hard even to imagine doing something like this with Mom's body. As I type this, the thought fills me with disgust and horror.

Call me old-school. The dead deserve to be treated with respect, which means, in part, shifting their mortal remains around as little as possible. (The Jews have it right on this score.) What would have been so wrong with having Gabriel's siblings brought to the hospital? That scenario is much more common. Extramural show-and-tell, by contrast, is not.

So I'm going to be the lone voice of dissent, here. I still believe that the Santorums' actions were creepy and just plain wrong. I'll grant that people may do strange things in moments of extremity; I certainly don't want to jeer at Gabriel's death, despite my long-standing visceral dislike of his father. But the doing of strange things is still a choice, and my feeling is that the Santorums could have handled this tragedy very differently.

So even though Mark Steyn refuses to answer the question,** I find it worth asking: would you bundle your recently-deceased loved one up-- a baby, a parent, a sibling, an uncle or aunt or grandparent-- and drive him or her across town for the benefit of survivors who weren't there when the loved one passed away? I know for a fact that I wouldn't.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, Santorum's actions-- taking the dead baby home-- are not recommended by current experts. I mention this out of a sense of fairness: if people are going to quote outdated chapter and verse from the American Pregnancy Association, then it's only proper to counterbalance that information with more current information:

But some mental health experts believe the Santorums may have been ahead of their time by ritualizing their son's death in order to exorcize their grief, though they say taking a body home is unusual and not recommended.

In the context of the times -- the year was 1996 when the family buried Gabriel -- their behavior was understandable, according to Dr. David Diamond, a psychologist and co-author of the 2005 book "Unsung Lullabies."

Helen Coons, a clinical psychologist and president of Women's Mental Health Associates in Philadelphia, said couples are not encouraged to bring a deceased fetus home.

*Jessica Heslam very touchingly makes a similar point in her recent article about Santorum's and her own family's tragedy in "Our Bereavement is Our Own." She's more forgiving of Santorum's strangeness than I am, but I can't help noticing that she seems not to have done what the Santorums did.

**Steyn's piece takes advantage of Gabriel's death to make what is essentially a political point. From the article's title onward, Steyn's rant is less about a dead child than it is about perceived leftist hypocrisy. Sorry, Gabriel-- you're still somebody's football, mainly because we live in an age of manufactured, choreographed outrage.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

at the New Hampshire debate

I'm just waiting for Santorum to have his Ted Haggard moment. (Also, I like how my Firefox spell-check underlines "Santorum" and offers to replace it with "Sanatorium.")


Happy Birthday, Stephen Hawking!

Hawking turns 70 today, January 8. An interview (found via Instapundit).


on Cylon "resurrection"

My friend Andy in Japan writes:

I had a thought this morning, and immediately thought of asking you. Since my twitter account is a bit dusty, and perhaps slow, I thought I'd email. About religion and Battlestar Galactica. Since you're the Go To Religion Guy™ (with a new edition of his book out... it's out, right?), I thought I'd ask you.

- The Cylons in BSG were "physically indistinguishable" from humans.
- The Cylons could have their "souls" re-inserted to new bodies, over and over, as needed when "death" occurred.
- How did the "re-incarnation" meme fit into the mythos of the show? Were the Cylons a 3rd wheel to the human ideas of 1-or-Many gods? I mean, I caught the first 10, and last 10, episodes, which seemed to brush over some of the larger issues, in favor of plot advancement.

Can you fill in the blanks for me?

It's hard to talk about Cylon resurrection without also talking more generally about how the series as a whole deals with death and the afterlife. I don't recall that the series explored the post-mortem realm in depth; series creator Ronald D. Moore teased out, for as long as he could, the ambiguity of whether there were any divine forces at work. We don't really learn the truth about the divine until the very last episode-- and even then it's not obvious as to whether the deity is worthy of worship.

Among the humans, Laura Roslin has a few visions in Season 4 that indicate the possibility of life after death: during an episode in which her visions are triggered by the jumps of a Cylon base ship, she sees (1) one possible scenario for her death, and (2) a vision of the priestess Elosha, who was killed early in Season 1. In another episode, "Faith," Roslin has a vision of a river, a boat, and her mother standing on the far shore. At the time these visions occur, we viewers have no idea whether to interpret them as metaphorical, psychedelic, or literally true.

Among the Cylons, resurrection (reincarnation, really) was a practical alternative to the afterlife, since it allowed a Cylon that had been "killed" to "download" into a new body. Permanent death was also possible, though, if a Cylon got killed while too far away from a "resurrection ship." But the Cylons apparently put all their eggs in one basket when they created a single resurrection "hub" that was the source of all their resuscitative powers. Once that got destroyed in Season 4, all the Cylons were doomed to die (although we have no idea how long a Cylon can actually live; they seem incapable of aging, unlike the Final Five Cylons (who were from the first Earth, and who had mastered biological reproduction).

We don't learn much about Cylon metaphysics. Certain themes are repeated throughout the series, especially the idea that the Cylons are monotheistic, unlike the polytheistic human colonials (with Baltar as the prominent exception). The Cylons themselves suspect that their "hybrids," who are fused into the core of every base ship, are somehow in mystical contact with God and/or other levels of reality. Base ships may be the source of some of Laura Roslin's visions, since she was on one when she experienced them. Baltar's "Head Six," who turns out to have been a sort of angel, gives Baltar hints that God is loving (an idea I dispute in the above-linked essay) and has a plan for humanity. Cylons also firmly believe (along with the humans) that the drama of life is eternally repetitive: "All this has happened before, and will happen again."

While metaphysics and religion are pervasive themes throughout the series, the characters don't spend that much screen time exploring any of these topics in depth. We, the viewers, are left with hints and glimpses, and must make our own inferences-- which was Ronald D. Moore's stated intention. Cylon resurrection is primarily viewed in material terms, as it involves the streaming of data from one body to the next. But the theme of "life after life" ties into the metaphysical conviction that we are all caught up in cycles of eternal return.

One quirky final note: Cylon resurrection is an unpleasant process. The Cylon fighter nicknamed "Scar" comes back angrier and angrier every time, and the Cavil Cylons have expressed how disagreeable it is to die and be reborn. The writers may have been hinting that, with each successive resurrection, something is lost in translation. Perhaps Cylons can't resurrect indefinitely.

I do hope you get the chance to watch the series from beginning to end. It saddens me that you've seen only the first and last ten episodes. The series was, arguably, at its best in the middle-- especially as it moved from Season 2 to Season 3. The rescue of the colonists on New Caprica is not to be missed. (Those episodes also feature a fat Apollo!)


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Peter Berger on Muslim philosophy and the Arab Spring



Muslims and others like to point out that the Bible contains enough bloodthirsty teachings to compete with any Salafist ideology. Judaism has moderated these teachings early on, and then profited (if that’s the word) from the fact that there was no sovereign Jewish state in all the centuries from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans to the establishment of the modern state of Israel—no state which, even if it wanted to, would have been able, for example, to inflict the criminal penalties enjoined in the Book of Leviticus. The New Testament is less carnivorous than the Hebrew Bible, but the history of Christianity, from its establishment in the Roman state onward, shows that Christians have had little difficulty legitimating every kind of violence and bloodshed in theological terms. Yet, at least in modern times, there have been sophisticated efforts to separate the core messages of Biblical revelation from various passages, which are deemed to be morally offensive but which can be ascribed to the contingencies of their historical context. I think that the advent of modern historical scholarship has greatly helped this process of separating core and periphery in the scriptural texts. Liberal Protestants have been in the forefront of this development, followed (initially with some reluctance) by Catholics, and then by liberal Jews. Of course there continues resistance in all branches of the “Abrahamic tradition” by conservatives who insist on the “inerrancy” of the scriptural texts.

Such a development is much more difficult in the case of Islam. I think that a major reason for this is the Muslim understanding of the Quran. It is misleading to compare the Quran with the Bible. For most Muslims, the Quran is “inerrant” to a degree far beyond the understanding of this term by even very conservative Christians or Jews. It has been suggested that Christians, rather than comparing the Quran with the Bible, should compare the Quran with Christ—especially the Christ described in the prologue to the Gospel of John—the Christ who is the Word (Logos): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Thus it is very instructive that the earliest controversies among Islamic scholars concerned the question of whether the Quran was eternal or created—a question which curiously resembles the Christological controversies of the first centuries of Christian history.

In my MA program at Catholic University, I learned that one way to think about this issue-- the ontological status of the Quran-- would be to say that, for Christians, there is the incarnatio, the enfleshing of the Word, whereas for Muslims there is the inlibritio, i.e., the "en-booking" of the Word. The Christ/Quran analogy is not new.

Be sure to read the whole article. I'm not sure I agree with Berger completely; his stance strikes me as both a bit too optimistic and a bit too conventional. Some form of the "Islam needs an internal Reformation" argument has been floating around for years-- forwarded by non-Muslims, of course, and I've written as much on this blog in years past. But how realistic is such a hope? I have no doubt that Islam will continue to evolve-- that it's evolving even as I write this post-- but I descry no sea changes in my near future.

I wonder what Muslims would make of this Zen story:

[Master Hakuin] asked the crazy monk, "They say you are using Buddhist scriptures for toilet paper. Is that so?"

The crazy monk said, "Yes. I myself am a Buddha. What is wrong with using Buddhist scriptures to wipe a Buddha's ass?"

Hakuin said, "You're wrong. Since it's a Buddha's ass, why use old paper with writing on it? You should wipe it with clean white paper."

The crazy monk was shamed, and he apologized.

--from Zen Antics, translated and edited by Thomas Cleary

I have to say... if I could add a line to that story, it would be:

And then he went right back to wiping his ass with the scriptures.


Mr. The End of History's dangling modifier

Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, writes:

Reading over this history, it’s remarkable how little the US has changed in the succeeding century.


Despite this gaffe, his article on American exceptionalism is worth a read.


at the TEF blog

Commemorating my mother's passing.


Friday, January 06, 2012

with a big grain of salt

I'm eternally suspicious of all articles that claim our political leanings are firmly and clearly rooted in biology. So take this with a big grain of salt.



Tomorrow, Friday, January 6, will be Mom's jaesa day: two years since her death on a gray morning in the Intensive Care ward at Walter Reed Medical Center. Unfortunately, we won't be performing the small ceremony we performed last year: I had wanted to do things right this time around, but was never in a position to be able to afford the materials for a proper ritual.* So this year, we're going to celebrate in a more explicitly Western manner by dining at Chima, a Brazilian restaurant in Tysons, Virginia.

They say time heals all wounds. I try to look back with fondness on Mom's life, but the memories are always colored by how her life ended, and by what happened with my father afterward. I haven't written too explicitly about my father on any of my blogs, but you can get a hint of where things were going-- even at the beginning of Mom's illness-- by reading this post at Kevin's Walk.

I eventually plan to write about all of this, the whole experience, in detail. But not now: the pain is still there, and is sometimes still fresh. I do my best not to be maudlin on this blog, but every now and again some sadness is going to peek through. For those made uncomfortable by that, you have my apologies, but on the bright side, the advantage of writing an omnibus blog, instead of a blog with a specific theme, is that it shouldn't be surprising to see a little bit of everything on these e-pages: moments of joy and sadness, anger and vindication, salaciousness and saintliness. The blog contains multitudes.

*My buddy Mike very kindly offered to "bankroll" the ceremony, just to preserve the tradition. I was touched by the offer, and said I'd keep it in mind for 2013.


Thursday, January 05, 2012

at the TEF blog

A post on some not-quite-regular French verbs.


nothing comes from nothing? nay!

Sam Harris interviews Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. Excerpt:

HARRIS: One of the most common justifications for religious faith is the idea that the universe must have had a creator. You’ve just written a book alleging that a universe can arise from “nothing.” What do you mean by “nothing” and how fully does your thesis contradict a belief in a Creator God?

KRAUSS: Indeed, the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” which forms the subtitle of the book, is often used by the faithful as an unassailable argument that requires the existence of God, because of the famous claim, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” While the chief point of my book is to describe for the interested layperson the remarkable revolutions that have taken place in our understanding of the universe over the past 50 years—revolutions that should be celebrated as pinnacles of our intellectual experience—the second goal is to point out that this long-held theological claim is spurious. Modern science has made the something-from-nothing debate irrelevant. It has changed completely our conception of the very words “something” and “nothing”. Empirical discoveries continue to tell us that the Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not, and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not theology or philosophy. (Indeed, religion and philosophy have added nothing to our understanding of these ideas in millennia.) I spend a great deal of time in the book detailing precisely how physics has changed our notions of “nothing,” for example. The old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly. I then go on to explain how other versions of “nothing”—beyond merely empty space—including the absence of space itself, and even the absence of physical laws, can morph into “something.” Indeed, in modern parlance, “nothing” is most often unstable. Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur.

Now, having said this, my point in the book is not to suggest that modern science is incompatible with at least the Deistic notion that perhaps there is some purpose to the Universe (even though no such purpose is manifest on the basis of any of our current knowledge, and moreover there is no logical connection between any possible “creator” and the personal God of the world’s major religions, who cares about humanity’s destiny). Rather, what I find remarkable is the fact that the discoveries of modern particle physics and cosmology over the past half century allow not only a possibility that the Universe arose from nothing, but in fact make this possibility increasingly plausible.

Philosophers will give Krauss a hard time, I think, for not addressing the logically prior question of why a universe might have the property of being able to arise from nothing. A topic for another post, perhaps?


teaching philosophy

From my Twitter feed, this article, which concludes this way:

Ensure you know exactly what is wanted of you. Because then there will be no surprises come appraisal time. And if your personal philosophy and the school's do not match up, it would then be worthwhile considering if the school you're in is actually the one for you. Not everyone will drop into a school they immediately fall in love with in terms of ethos, so don't be afraid to try a new environment if your ideals or lofty impressions of the profession haven't matched up immediately with the often cold and calculating reality of the education sector in the league table culture we currently live in.

Go read the article from the beginning.


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

when ddeokbokgi just isn't enough

Rabokgi! Yes, ladies: ramyeon plus ddeokbokgi!


interconnection and environmentalism (repost)

[NB: this is a repost, somewhat edited, of a post that originally appeared at Kevin's Walk here, in 2008.]

An interesting discussion with a Buddhist commenter led to a two-pronged exchange, dealing with (1) nondualism and (2) the ethical implications of interconnectedness. I'm going to drop the nondualism prong for now because it's a fruitless pursuit, and will instead concentrate on the question of interconnectedness and what that state of affairs may or may not imply, ethically speaking.

One theme of the Buddhist's response to my post was that, because all phenomena are interconnected, our actions affect the environment and vice versa. S/he also seems to think that my attitude toward human development of the land-- and the environmental damage such development causes-- is to shrug my shoulders and say "Oh, well." No, no, no.

Let's take it as given that it's a bad idea to live in your own toilet (pity the poor goldfish). To that extent, I agree we need to keep the environment clean, but what I've been trying to hammer at is that "clean" is usually conceived anthropocentrically. Ask rats and cockroaches whether urban overdevelopment and decay are bad ideas. My point all along has been that it's perfectly fine to engage in the environmentalist project, but we need to be open about why we're doing what we're doing: it's to preserve ourselves. In the end, it isn't, as my Buddhist interlocutor and others would have it, about respecting the earth; it can't be. We don't know enough about the earth to know how to respect it. Let's look at a current topic: global warming.

As has been repeatedly noted in the endless debate over climate change, some areas of the earth are heating up, but other areas are cooling down. The relentless, exclusive focus on the heating-up indicates a blindness brought about by ideology. A recognition of the actual state of affairs would be better, and the actual state of affairs is not-good, not-bad: climate change happens with human intervention or not; it's simply a given. We need to worry about climate change only to the extent that it affects humanity-- we can't be so arrogant as to think it's our job to preserve all extant species. What a ridiculous project that would be! Species die out all the time, and in terms of geologic history, they often disappear completely after a major natural-- not anthropogenic-- cataclysm. Is the environment thrown out of whack thereby?

The planet is not a balanced, harmonious, "self-correcting" system (pace George Carlin, with whom I nonetheless largely agree!); there isn't much evidence to support such a notion, especially when it comes to large timescales. The planet simply is what it is, and we're still discovering what that means. People who see the world in terms of the interplay of yin and yang would do well to note that the yin-yang symbol, depicted as a swirl, indicates a constant dynamism, i.e., a universe that's always a little off-kilter. I'm not sure this should be read as "balance" or "equilibrium," which are the terms in which many environmentalists view humanity's current problems. The earth isn't off-balance: it was never balanced to begin with. That one or another species might become dominant on the surface of the earth is simply how things are; even at this point, it'd be hard to say which form of life is truly the dominant form. I would, in fact, contend that humanity's probably not it.

The fact of interconnectedness-- that we affect and are affected by our environment-- isn't enough of a foundation on which to build a strongly "green" argument. Acknowledging our "interbeing" (to use Thich Nhat Hahn's trendy term) isn't the same as knowing what the fruits of our actions will be, or whether those fruits will be "bad" or "good." Environmentalists are on solid ground when they posit that pollution is generally harmful to humans and to certain other living elements of the food chain, but when they begin recommending specific pollution-fighting strategies, they truly have no idea what the consequences of those measures will be. What I resent is that they act as though they do know.

I agree with my Buddhist interlocutor that it's not a stark either-or situation. We don't have to choose between preserving nature "in its pristine purity" (thereby forcing humanity to suffer) or doing nothing (thereby forcing nature to suffer). I think the best we can do is to take measures that we know will be beneficial to us, then worry about the consequences to the rest of the environment as the effects of our actions become obvious to us. Right now, many of those effects simply aren't obvious enough for people to adopt alarmist stances. We don't know the extent to which current warming trends on some parts of the planet are anthropogenic in origin. There's good evidence that those trends may in fact be part of a natural cycle, in which case we find ourselves in the position of having to fight the natural cycle to preserve certain swaths of human civilization.

Another reason to relax is that people have already proven themselves capable of living in extreme conditions. There are folks who live in regions of months-long daylight and darkness; who live in constant cold and wind; who live in arid desert; who live in cacophonous jungle. People adapt. This is part of who we are. If certain regions become too hot for humanity to live in, people will move, or they'll learn to deal with that heat. This sort of thing has been part of human history from the beginning: the volcano erupts; the locals flee if they can and start up new lives elsewhere. That, or they come back and stubbornly rebuild.

Extreme conditions include human-created extremes. Seoul, where I lived for eight years, is the kind of place that could drive some people nuts: the press of the population, the traffic, the vehicle exhaust, the tainted rain, the constant noise, the sewage stench, the light pollution that prevents one from seeing the panoply of stars at night. But twelve million people seem to be doing just fine there, and the same could be said as we move across the globe to places like Mexico City or Shanghai or Tokyo or Paris. As I said, people adapt.

So I remain unconvinced that the mere fact of interbeing is enough to spur us to heroic efforts on behalf of an environment that, truth be told, doesn't really need our help (hell, it might breathe a sigh of relief when we finally disappear and stop "helping" it!). If we broom and groom the place, it's for our own benefit, not because we're preserving some sort of sacred equilibrium. It's not obvious that we need every single element of the global ecosystem to survive; people in different, "extreme" parts of the world seem to get along fine without some of those elements (no verdure for the researchers camped out in Antarctica, for example). What is obvious is that we not only multiply and build, but we also adapt. As a result, the actual environmental picture is more complex than the one being painted by alarmists and romantics.

Part of Michael Crichton's point, in the speech to which I linked in my previous post on environmentalism, is that humanity has never existed in total harmony with nature. Nature has done violence to humanity, and vice versa; this conflict has always been a major theme of humanity's existence. Which brings us to a crucial metaphysical point: interconnection is not always harmonious, and people who try to portray interconnection that way are doing a dangerous disservice to the rest of us. This is why I part company with folks like Benjamin Hoff, whose bestselling The Tao of Pooh presents the reader with only the happy face of the Tao-- harmony, tranquility, balance. But anyone who's taken time to study even a little philosophical Taoism can tell you that the Tao is also disharmony, disturbance, and imbalance: water can be a calm, limpid, life-giving pool, or it can crash down like a monster, eradicating entire cities. Nature is red in tooth and claw and tidal wave, and that fact is just as important as nature's calmer, more beatific face.


Ave, Dr. Hodges!

Jeff writes another interesting post on why lecturing is an inferior teaching method.

Maybe this is why so many Zen dharma talks are in Q&A form.


at the TEF blog

This week's Math Breast-- uh, Math Beast-- Challenge problem. (NB: Please avoid looking at the appended comment if you don't want to see my solution!)


what to do with extra ddeok

When I had my $90 shopping spree almost two weeks ago, one of the things I had to buy, for the budae-jjigae, was a huge, family-size bag of ddeok-- Korean rice cakes. I've been using the ddeok as a supplement for all my soups, but even in so doing, I can't eat the supply fast enough, and I'm worried about what's going to happen when the ddeok begins to go bad. I'm averse to freezing the rice cakes, which never seem to thaw well, so I've been keeping them in the fridge.

In an effort to increase consumption, I did something last night that I haven't done for years: I fried some ddeok up for dessert. This was something I did a few times while living in Korea; I have no idea whether Koreans actually do this, although I've seen fat chunks of grilled ddeok before (Zen Kimchi has a good article here). My method:

1. Put a bit of vegetable oil in a plastic bowl.
2. Dump in two fistfuls of sliced ddeok.
3. Toss the ddeok in the oil, separating any pieces that are clinging to each other.
4. Make sure all ddeok slices are coated on all sides.
5. Toss the pieces onto a pan at high heat. Add a tiny bit more oil.
6. Lightly salt the pieces as they fry. Stir constantly, but every once in while, let the ddeok sit for a few seconds to allow browning. Some pieces of ddeok will bond with other pieces, despite the pre-coating precaution. Don't worry about this.
7. You're done frying when a good fraction of the pieces-- about a third or a half-- are lightly browned. Many pieces will have puffed up in the frying process.
8. Remove ddeok from pan and pile onto a plate. Peel apart any bonded pieces. Their insides will be soft, which provides a nice textural contrast.
9. Drizzle honey over the plateful of ddeok.
10. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the lot.
11. Congratulate yourself on having done some kick-ass work.

Results from 2005 are here. Results from this morning: