Thursday, January 31, 2013

the un-Carboniferous Period

As of nearly three hours ago, my life changed: I am no longer consuming carbs. From here on in, I am a disciple of Gary Taubes.

I'm going to supplement the change in my diet with a change in lifestyle, and I'd like to put up some sort of regular update on this blog, but I've yet to decide just which metrics to post. Weight? Obviously, yes-- probably weekly. What about workouts? A few candidates:

•miles walked (with elapsed time)
•pushups done
•crunches done
•pullups done

I've gone to my apartment's little gym and have taken phone pics of the facilities to help me decide which exercises I can do. On my phone, I've got several exercise apps ranging from simple to highly advanced. Perhaps the most advanced app I have is the JE Fit program, which offers a muscle-group-by-muscle-group breakdown of just about every conceivable exercise that can be done on a universal. I'm going to study the photos I took of the weight machines in our little gym, determine where the gym's equipment overlaps with the JE Fit exercises, then design an exercise program from there.

More on this as it happens.


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I told you so

Stumbled upon an old post from 2004, in which I wrote about my predictions of a Democrat backlash in 2008 while my buddy Mike and his friend Smallholder disagreed with me.

The Maximum Leader, siding with Smallholder, disagrees with me about a Democrat backlash in 2008. To wit:

Your Maximum Leader must agree with the good Smallholder on a whole bunch of other observations. First, concerning the [Big Ho's] predictions that the Democrats may be well positioned for 2008 or beyond. As it stands right now, your Maximum Leader doesn't think they are well positioned. But he does think that if they can find a moderate midwesterner/southerner with some charisma[, they] could easily make a presidential race [competitive]. Your Maximum Leader just hopes it is too early for anyone to be thinking seriously about 2008.

I think the Dems will end up doing the smart thing and not field Hillary Clinton in the 2008 race. I somehow don't think the country will be ready for her as president-- in part because she's a woman (and unlike the Brits, we don't seem too partial to the notion of a female at the top of the hierarchy, à la Thatcher and the Queen), but also because she's Hillary. I don't think she has anything like the political savvy of her husband. I think she's been largely riding on his coattails, which is probably why she didn't divorce him despite the fact that he was regularly filling Monica Lewinsky's nostrils with cock snot.

I don't claim to be an astute prognosticator. I think I read the national mood rightly this time around, but only because it seemed too obvious. I have no idea what the nation will be like in 2008, but for now I stand by my feeling that four more years under this administration will produce a more focused lib/Dem outcry. As the younger generation continues to trend more socially liberal, the gay marriage issue will be revisited, as will other social and geopolitical issues. If Bush makes a major gaffe in foreign policy, or if an attack occurs on American soil during his watch again, Bush and his party will lose what little mandate they received from the people this time around.

This was a classic battle between history and philosophy: whose field of study holds more predictive power, the one that scrutinizes and interprets past events, or the one that delves into the eternal nature of people and the cosmos? Ahistoricality wins again.

I am, of course, gracious in victory.

Suck it, bitches.


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more sausage links

Gord writes a wide-ranging meditation that begins with Min Byeong-cheol's facile-but-classic Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans, then balloons into... well, you should go read it. I learned new, trendy vocabulary from his post: heterosocial and homosocial. What's most interesting, though, is Gord's ambivalence toward the concept of ahistoricality: like any good PoMo thinker, Gord (at least initially) views ahistoricality as a dirty word, because postmodernists love to couch everything in historical and social context and avoid talk of eternal or history-transcending truths and universals. Those grand concepts are like garlic to a PoMo vampire. But later in his post, Gord (wisely, in my opinion) speculates on the commonalities that all humans share, starting with basic biological sameness and noting that the variety of possible human social structures is limited. In speculating this way, Gord tiptoes toward PoMo heresy by implying there may indeed be universals-- the same move that caused Steven Pinker to catch flak with his ironically titled The Blank Slate, a book that also argues for the existence of human universals.

Oh, what's a good liberal postmodernist to do? By declaring that there are no universals, the PoMo-ist is positing a universal! My thoughts from 2004 are here.

Meanwhile, in a different part of cyberspace, Lee continues his doomed defense of Saint Anselm's ontological proof for the existence of God by invoking process theologian Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne confirms Lee's belief that Anselm's argument in the Proslogion gets stronger as it progresses, for Anselm is, perhaps without knowing it, making an argument from modal logic (the four basic modes: possible, impossible, contingent, necessary), to wit: the impossibility of conceiving of God's nonexistence stems from the fact that God, truly to be God, must be a necessary being.

Anselm's argument didn't impress me even back when I was a young Hoya in my The Problem of God course. His argument struck (and still strikes) me as an attempt to "logic" God into existence. At best, Anselm scores points by defining God in such a way that God must be conceived of as existing, but Hartshorne fails to persuade me that Anselm's positing of God's ontological necessity is somehow a powerful argument that God actually exists. There's a crucial "if" that constitutes an impossible hurdle. As Lee puts it in his post:

What Hartshorne is saying, I think, is that, for Anselm, if it is possible that God exists, then it is necessary that God exists. That is, necessary-existence is an essential part of the concept “God,” and so if that concept is internally consistent or coherent, then it must be instantiated in reality.

So has Anselm successfully proven that it is possible for God to exist? That's a big "if."


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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I am content

My place of work cheesed out and shorted me two hours today; everyone's 7:20PM classes were cancelled. Finding myself very suddenly with time on my hands, I decided that tonight-- ah, tonight, good gentles-- would be my Maggiano's night. I texted my brothers and invited them to join me; David said he'd be there, but Sean texted (with a sad-face emoticon) that he had to work. So I met David and his wife Patricia at the Maggiano's in Tysons Corner, about half an hour from YB Near.

The meal was fantastic. David and Patricia ordered a couple's menu; I got everything à la carte. For me, this meant a Maggiano's salad (lettuce, red onions, bleu cheese, crispy prosciutto, and a light vinegar dressing) along with a subtly battered calamari fritte for starters, followed by a main course of chicken rustica and shrimp al forno on pasta-- all in a silky cream sauce. For dessert, the world's best crème brûlée brought up the rear. I'd forgotten how vulgarly huge the crème brûlées are at Maggiano's; mine was nearly the diameter of a ping-pong paddle. David and Patricia, meanwhile, had a stuffed-mushroom appetizer, and their main courses were lasagna for Patricia and a veggie bowtie pasta for David. Their dessert: a monstrous slice of Maggiano's chocolate zuccotto cake, a multilayered miracle of cake, chocolate mousse, and unrepentantly chocolatey icing. Patricia, not a big fan of overly sweet desserts, thought the cake was only so-so, but David and I enjoyed picking at its bones. In the end, we were all stuffed and barely able to move. My Maggiano's gift card came in handy when I paid the bill; it lopped $50 off the final tab.

Tonight marked the last of my last hurrahs. There's really nothing more that I might want from a culinary bucket list. As my Kiwi buddy John might joke, "I am replete." What's more, I am content.


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interesting leads

The benefits of female ejaculation.

Lee on Anselm. I appear in the comments and disagree.

A hilarious, blow-by-blow iPhone reproduction of the recent "Star Trek Into Darkness" trailer.

Beautiful photos of wolves and The Wolf Man. (Thanks, Steve.)

Frightening photos of a Korean chick who likes taking pics of herself on dangerous ledges.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

squash pasta: trial run

With January 31 looming ever closer, it's become obvious that I won't be able to use my $50 Maggiano's gift card before I begin my carb-free Taubesian regime (I emailed both of my brothers about a last hurrah at Maggiano's; neither responded). So today, I went on a Costco spree and bought a ton of meat: ground beef, pork sirloin tip (you'll recall the lovely pulled pork I made last time), Hebrew National hot dogs, chicken breastuses, and dingle-damn salmon. I also bought a ton of cheeses: American cheese, cream cheese (mainly for creamy, Stroganoff-style sauces), and bleu cheese.

Later in the evening, I decided to test out my new spiral slicer, so I went out again and bought (along with two super-cheap bottles of psyllium fiber) some spaghetti sauce, Italian sausage, shrooms, and a package of "mixed" squash-- yellow and green. I ran the yellow squash through the slicer; most of the squash wasn't spiral-cut at all, but instead formed little Cs. There were a couple longish spirals, though, so it wasn't a total loss.

I gathered the sliced squash up in a plastic container and stuck it in the freezer while I worked on my spaghetti sauce. This involved removing the skins from the Italian sausage and breaking the sausage up into little pieces. I fried the sausage in my weird little wok-cum-skillet, added the shrooms, then added the sweet basil tomato sauce. Veddy nice, veddy nice. I set some water to boiling, then dumped in a mess of Montreal steak seasoning (it's mostly sea salt and heavy-grained black pepper, plus some other seasonings; thanks again, Hahna, for that huge-ass container!). I took out the now-cold squash and let it boil for about three minutes-- the recommended time I've seen on all the recipes for veggie pasta. The squash came out perfectly, but it was quite watery, as was the tomato sauce.

In the photo below, I've tried to minimize the wateriness by tilting the plate upward, away from the camera, so that the liquid would drain behind the food and thus not be visible:


All in all, the squash turned out to be a not-bad substitute for regular pasta. The long spirals behaved like fettuccine; I was able to twist my fork and wrap the "pasta" around it. The mouth-feel was satisfactorily al dente. I think I'll be able to live with this as a surrogate for regular pasta. I won't be fooled or reassured, of course; the squash still tastes like squash, not like pasta. But it's better that way: when vegetarian food tries too hard to simulate other types of food, that turns me off, almost as if my taste buds were experiencing a gustatory version of the uncanny valley.

Obviously, I won't be making tomato-based sauces once I start this diet. According to Taubes, cream sauces are just fine, but as any Atkins dieter knows, tomatoes are technically fruits, and as fruits, they're naturally sweet, which makes them carby and thus verboten.

So! Veggie pasta is in my future. Big time.


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no "check engine" light? no problem

I finally took my car to the local auto shop for repairs. Saw right away that there was a line of cars, but when I went in to see the head guy, for whom the shop is named, he came right out to look at my car. I told him about the stall-outs, and he asked me whether the "check engine" light tended to come on before, during, or after these stall-outs. I said no. He shrugged and, after listening to my Honda's engine purr for a bit, suggested that the problem was a simple clog in one of the lines, and that I should visit an auto-parts store in town and buy a product called "C-Foam." "Just dump it in your gas tank," he said. "With no 'check engine' light, it's a waste of money trying to figure out what's wrong."

I thanked him, trundled down to one of our town's many auto-parts stores (we're definitely the town to live in if you've got car trouble; mechanics and parts people are everywhere), and bought the product, which turned out to be called "Sea Foam," because it was originally developed for use by the US Navy. The auto-parts lady who told me about Sea Foam noted that you can dump a can of it into any part of your car: the gas tank, the carburetor, the oil-- makes no difference. It's a universal de-clogger.

So I dumped the Sea Foam into my gas tank, and I suppose we'll see tomorrow whether my engine's idle continues to bottom out, or whether the de-clogger has done its job. If I'm still stalling, I might try buying more Sea Foam and dumping it into the oil.

Assuming today's "repair" has worked, I've saved myself a goodly $200-$300 in wallet rape. That can only be a positive thing.


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again: sadly...

I just heard from one of the two moms I'd met yesterday. She said that Sunday sessions would be impossible because of church (Korean Protestants tend to spend their entire Sundays at church, which boggles my decidedly un-churchy mind). She wanted to know whether Mondays would be better. I assume she means Monday evenings, since her kids are going to school. I'm about to write her back with a "no": if I work Mondays, then I'm pretty much working seven days a week, which is a recipe for insanity.

Too bad. I could've used the extra cash.


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Monday, January 28, 2013

sadly...

I contacted a gent in Singapore-- someone who knows Mrs. Z-- about the Korean publishing job. He responded very promptly, clarifying that the job requires Korean fluency and a head for marketing. I thanked him for his time.

Next!

(Too bad. The job really would have paid $65,000/year.)


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my final Bonefish Grill meal

As I get closer to January 31, the first day of my no-carb Taubesian diet, I'm trying to cram in my final last-hurrah meals. Yesterday, I hit Foster's Grille for the last time; today, I went to the Bonefish Grill for a valedictory repast. My meal in a nutshell:

Amuse-bouche: Ciabatta with pesto in olive oil

Appetizer: Lobster Rangoon (eight gyoza-style dumplings)

Main Course: Wolf fish stuffed with crab, scallop, shrimp, capers, parmesan, and Gruyère, with a side of garbanzo beans and garlic whipped potatoes

Dessert: chocolate crème brûlée (!!)

Beverage: my usual Coke

Wonderful meal. Any Rangoon is automatically a tacky, low-rent, bad-fusion item in my book, and after years of downing the occasional crab and/or cheese Rangoon, I thought that lobster might kick the dish up a notch, so I admit I was curious. The sweet-and-sour sauce that came with the dish was nothing to write home about; it was pretty typical. The lobster, however, did come through clearly. The server mistakenly asked me how I liked my "won-tons," and I had to bite my tongue. Won-tons are Chinese, and are made with thick won-ton skins; these Rangoons were made with thin gyoza/mandu skins.

The main course was also quite good. The garbanzo beans were cooked up with a mixture of sausage bits and finely diced vegetables; the potatoes were silky and delicious, and the fish was rib-stickingly good. "Wolf fish," which I'd never heard of, turned out to be a whitefish not unlike cod in its simultaneous robustness and simplicity. I can easily imagine wolf fish being used in English fish and chips.

I was intensely curious about the dessert. As an ardent lover of crème brûlée, I was eager to try this chocolate version; the specialties menu noted that it also contained a hint of Grand Marnier. As it turned out, the Bonefish Grill was not shy about its Grand Marnier. As with those Bananas Foster that I'd eaten on my very first trip to the Grill, the alcohol came through clearly. Once I got over that shock, the dessert was quite pleasant: as with any good crème brûlée, there was a marked textural contrast between the sugary surface and the chocolatey depths of the dessert-- which also featured a healthy pile of fresh whipped cream topped with a sassy spearmint leaf. As I'd learned to do on a tour of George Washington's property at Mount Vernon, where Washington grew spearmint among other plants, I took the leaf between thumb and forefinger, crushed it, and smelled my fingertips. Very nice.

Not a bad way to move from afternoon to evening. Every trip to the BFG leaves me full but not stuffed. Tonight's visit, in which I ordered everything off the specialty menu, wasn't cheap, of course; my wallet lost weight even while I was gaining it.


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two meetings (post)

My first meeting went well-- better than expected, in fact. I didn't learn anything new about the publishing opportunity, but I did, happily, come away with a better impression of the ajumma whose son I'm supposed to be contacting. Mrs. Z is nicer in person than she is on the phone, and she apparently came away "very impressed!" by me after our hour-long talk, which was mostly in Korean with a bit of English sprinkled in (I did far more listening than talking; she's quite verbose). We met close to YB Near, at the tiny food court of a nearby H-Mart (H-Mart is a very large, almost warehouse-style Korean grocery); I found out she's about to finish renovating the downstairs portion of her house, and she invited me to move into it for cheap rent (how cheap, I have no clue). I politely declined, having only just met the woman, but she told me to call her anytime-- "Just to talk"-- or to come over and visit, and she'd cook me something tasty.

I got the feeling that Mrs. Z warmed to me quickly, and also that, because she's an empty-nester who's lonely and in her seventies, she's just looking for company. She probably knows something of my personal story regarding Mom and her brain cancer, thanks to the constant scuttlebutting of the northern Virginia Korean-American wives' community, so she may, like many ajummas before her, be auditioning for the role of surrogate mom. Her attitude about the job opportunity turned out to be more along the lines of "Take it or leave it, but at least keep an open mind for now," which is about where I find myself, anyway. I'm supposed to send her, her son, and another contact my résumé; I promised to do so tonight.

The second meeting was unintentionally hilarious, and was a brutal reminder that I really need to improve my Korean skills. The woman I met today (one of the barbershop ajummas) was there with her friend, and they had brought along their kids... who turned out to be elementary schoolers. I had thought Mrs. Y had said, over the phone, that her son was a high-school senior (sa hak-nyeon, i.e., fourth-year), but she had meant that he was merely a fourth-grader. Disappointingly, she also wants me to teach for only one hour per week, which means that, if she purchases a ten-hour package from me, she'll be paying me only once per ten weeks. My next payment won't be until April. That sucks.

On the bright side, the kids seem well-behaved. They're going to be learning math with me, as it turns out (where in hell did I get the idea they'd be doing SAT work? my hearing must be shot). Even though their math grades are currently pretty good ("pretty good," to an Asian, means an "A" average), the mothers want their sons to progress more quickly in math so that they can be placed in more advanced middle schools. I've seen this happening at my regular job in YB: I teach several fourth- and fifth-graders pre-algebra because their parents want them out of regular public education and into accelerated programs.

So today's meetings weren't that bad, overall. As an introvert, I'm not usually comfortable meeting new folks, so I cooled down today by eating a last-hurrah meal at the Bonefish Grill, which isn't far from YB Near. I suppose, in the coming weeks, we'll see what comes of all this.


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two meetings (pre)

As you'll recall, I've got two meetings coming up later today. The first is at 1PM with an old ajumma who's got a publishing-related job offer. She doesn't have all the details about the job: her son, who works for Pearson, will fill in the details. All I know is that the job may be high-paying. Today's meeting is mainly to let the ajumma suss me out and decide whether I'm worth recommending to her son. (Whatever.) I already know that, if the job isn't sufficiently high-paying, I'm not going to bother considering it. Sanity trumps salary.

Today's second meeting is with a mom (whom I met yesterday when I went to get a haircut) whose high-school senior son needs help with the SAT. Whether this be SAT writing or reading or math, I have no idea. All will be revealed at 4:30PM today. The mom is another staffer at the barbershop where I get my monthly cuts; she complained about how expensive YB is to join (I've heard nightmare stories of $20,000 and $40,000 tuition fees, all of which makes me wonder why the hell we teachers aren't paid more generously).

I'm happier about the second meeting, because it means that word of mouth about my teaching is spreading, at least among that tiny community of barbershop ladies. My life is slowly drifting toward the crazy-quilt pattern followed by my brother Sean, who works professionally and teaches privately, often seven days a week. I hope to retain at least one free day, but that might not be possible, given the extracurricular work I do for YB, which requires me to work at home during my free (or, really, not-so-free) time.

This new gig comes at just the right moment, though: as I also mentioned previously, my Sallie Mae scholarship loan debt gets reactivated in March when my forbearance runs out, so I'll be needing that extra cash. Alas, I imagine that the cash flow from the second gig will be temporary: I'm going to be helping two dudes with the SAT, so our professional relationship won't last much longer than the time it takes for them to take (or re-take) the SAT. After that, it's adios. Perhaps I'll acquire a third gig in the meantime-- something to occupy my Fridays.

Meantime, wish me luck with my two upcoming meetings. I'll give a "post" report later today.


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Sunday, January 27, 2013

the switch

I'm about to shift gears with the extracurricular work that I do with YB. I had originally been tasked with reworking the manuscripts of five different textbooks, and had been given a rough due date of mid-February to complete them all. I had just finished my first textbook when I got the news that my long-distance supervisor (with whom I've been in contact via email only) was being replaced by another, equally anonymous dude. Corporations, right? Everyone's an interchangeable cog in the machine. With the new supervisor comes new work: I'm now to put aside those textbook manuscripts and learn how to write ACT English essays, and I have to write ten of these puppies by the first week of February. This ought to be interesting. Simulating a particular essay-writing style will be a challenge; I've been given guidelines to help me out. We'll see how it goes.


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Saturday, January 26, 2013

whoops—my mistake

Did I fail to mention that I came back from dog-sitting at my brother Sean's place this past Monday? I probably mentioned it on Twitter, so those of you who bother to read my Twitter feed here on this blog's right-hand margin may have caught the update.


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Friday, January 25, 2013

JJ Abrams and the Star Trek/Star Wars fusion


(props to Hahna K. for first alerting me to the existence of this image)

My old friend Dr. Steve emailed me a link to this article announcing that JJ Abrams, he of "Star Trek," "Star Trek Into Darkness," and "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" fame, will be directing the new Star Wars film.

I think Abrams is a good choice to carry the Star Wars banner, despite his Trek connections and all the snarky "May the (Lens) Flare Be With You" jokes. His visual aesthetic is a gleefully kinetic combination of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's styles. Lucas has long professed a fascination with vehicles and raw speed, and this sensibility informs both his classic and his prequel Star Wars films: the Death Star trench scene from "A New Hope," the asteroid field chase in "Empire Strikes Back," the speeder bike chase on Endor in "Return of the Jedi," the podracing in "The Phantom Menace," the asteroid field redux (Kenobi versus Fett) in "Attack of the Clones," and the awesome battle scene that opens "Revenge of the Sith." Abrams will doubtless remain faithful to this boom-and-zoom tradition, but he also brings something to the table that Lucas doesn't: a better-honed sense of acting and dialogue. While I would have preferred that Lawrence Kasdan helm the new Star Wars movies, I think Abrams will do just fine as both director and idea factory.

One thing that makes me cringe, however, is the notion that the old lion, John Williams, might be jettisoned in favor of up-and-coming composer Michael Giacchino, who often works closely with Abrams and who did the music for "Star Trek." I think Giacchino is talented and versatile; I respect the amazing work he did for "The Incredibles." But his work on "Star Trek" was, overall, much less impressive to me. As I've mentioned before, the soundtrack for "Star Trek" amounts to little more than Giacchino's beating a single, 16-note leitmotif to death. If Star Wars is in for a reboot and needs a young composer to design its score, I'd rather it be Bear McCreary, the boundary-pushing (yet paradoxically humble) force of nature behind the music for the TV series "Battlestar Galactica." The Star Wars franchise, which started in the mists of prehistory back in 1977, could probably use a rejuvenating jolt of youthful creativity. McCreary, whose music contains all the gravitas missing from Giacchino's efforts, is far less likely to write a one-trick-pony score for a much-beloved cultural icon.

I trust Abrams to get a lot right with the Star Wars franchise. We'll have plenty of ship-to-ship battles, gymnastic Jedi combat (I do hope Abrams keeps the amazing Nick Gillard-- the West's fight-choreography answer to Yuen Wo-ping-- on board), snappy repartee, clashes in personality, and women in slinky outfits. I'm hoping, though, that Abrams will avoid the temptation to make more corny "Alias" references (e.g., "red matter" in "Star Trek"), and to play fast and loose with the metaphysics of this fictional realm. I wasn't entirely satisfied with his treatment of the Vulcan mind meld in 2009's "Star Trek"; I hope he won't do anything strange with the theology and philosophy of the Force. And as much as I enjoyed "Star Trek," I hope that his vision of the Star Wars universe won't include people endlessly sprinting through corridors (I'm imagining Admiral Ackbar flapping his flippers and shrieking, "It's a trap!" like an opera singer on fire). Because, God help us, Abrams loves to make his actors run: it happened in "Star Trek" and it happened again in "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol." (In that latter movie, even the aged bad guy sprints a lot. "Mission: Impossible" was directed by Brad Bird, but it was produced by Abrams.)

In all, though, I'm hopeful. I think JJ Abrams has the chops to pull off a crowd-pleasing return to the Star Wars universe. He's got a good command of story structure; a keen sense of kinetic pace and editing; a sense of humor that, while not as amusingly quirky as that of his rival Joss Whedon, still gets laughs; and a respect for the numinous that ought to do the Force justice, if his TV series "Lost" is any indication (Abrams, a polymath, also composed the theme music for that series). Will Abrams succeed in this new venture? Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future. But I'm optimistic.


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Dear Diarrhée


Dear Perplexed,

First, please remember that you live in America and should therefore tuck your period inside the quotation mark. You're not a snaggle-toothed Brit, and as a grown woman you should know how to dispose of your periods.

Second, this is your chance to break out the Princess Leia slave-girl outfit and not answer to any name other than "Princess Clitoria of Kuna Linga." Then you whip out your laser dildo and engage in that mystical activity that surrounds, penetrates, and binds us all together.

And remember: size has no meaning. It matters not.


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job prospects

This coming Sunday, I've got two meetings coming up. The first meeting is with a rather pushy-sounding, 70-something Korean lady who says she had met my mother several times. This lady's son is an editor for Pearson Publishing, based in New York. The son apparently knows of a possible job opportunity in Pearson's Seoul branch. The lady doesn't seem to know much more about the job, although I thought I heard her say the job would pay around $60,000-some. That got my attention. At the very least, I'll hear the lady out, although I'm not too excited about working in publishing: 40-plus grinding hours per week of high-stress, deadline-oriented slavery to the almighty Cubicle and Monitor, with a meager 2 weeks per year of vacation. I'd much rather go the university route: $45,000/year, 9 months of teaching 18 hours/week, 3 months' vacation, and the respect that comes with being a college instructor and not a cubicle-bound prole. Still, I might take the publishing job if it means living on the peninsula, thereby placing me physically closer to a potential university job.

The second meeting, later that afternoon, is with a younger Korean mom who wants me to tutor her son, a high-school senior, in SAT strategy. She also mentioned that her son's friend needed help. I don't know whether the kids need help with math or reading or writing or all three; I suppose I'll find out this Sunday. This is just another tutoring gig, which ought to net me between $300 and $400 a month extra, so there's no dilemma about accepting this work. I'll do it for as long as I can. And the gig comes just in time, too: I had deferred my Sallie Mae student loan repayments until March (a forbearance, actually-- not a deferral-- which means accrued interest is capitalized into the principal), so in about sixty days I'll once again be hemorrhaging an extra $340 a month. Given the increase in my apartment's rent (from $750 to $780) and the increase in my monthly insurance premium (from $90 to about $130, thanks to last year's accident), I could use the extra cash.

So I've got these two meetings on Sunday. We'll see how they go.


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nuisance bleeding

I didn't even know that "nuisance bleeding" was an actual term, but apparently it is.

I'm a nuisance bleeder. I bleed from all sorts of random spots on my body-- tiny bleeds whose origins remain a mystery. I often wonder whether the bleeds result from my zealous daily consumption of aspirin (four tablets a day), which can act as a blood-thinner. Today, I blew my nose to rather scarlet results, so I can add nosebleeds to my long list of nuisance bleeds. Most of my exsanguinary incidents occur on my forearms, my thighs, my back, my ass, or my calves. A rare few occur in the dark, cavernous regions where Shelob makes her fetid home.

Nuisance bleeding is a huge inconvenience because it means I have to take special care of a certain article of clothing, or I have to clean up a droplet of blood that's mysteriously appeared on the carpet, or I have to use a spray-cleaner to scrub down a piece of furniture onto which I'm losing blood.

More than anything else, these bleeds are annoying-- hence the term nuisance. They certainly aren't painful: most of the time, I have no idea why they even start. One bleed happened, just recently, above my right eye, in the hollow where the upper orbit and the bridge of my nose meet. I don't recall scratching myself there, or poking myself with a pin, so what gives?

Maybe it's aliens. Aliens having a little fun. Maybe they're sampling my DNA and constructing an army of Kevins therefrom.


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Thursday, January 24, 2013

remembrance

Charles writes a touching post commemorating the one-year anniversary of the passing of his beloved Korean mother-in-law.


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the faces of Hillary

My take on Hillary Clinton's latest Benghazi discourse:


And the LOLCATS version for you fans of the genre:






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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Nagel's nonsense on evolution"

In a tweet, Steven Pinker alerts us to an article by H. Allen Orr titled "Awaiting a New Darwin," a piece that Pinker characterizes as "another devastating review of Nagel's nonsense on evolution, in NYRB [The New York Review of Books]." Nagel is an atheistic philosopher who is nevertheless unsatisfied with the current reductionist-materialist explanation of the universe, life, and consciousness. His counterproposal is the sketch of a theory that Nagel styles naturalistic teleology, i.e., the idea that nature tends toward certain physical/evolutionary ends. Without this teleology, Nagel argues, science has no plausible explanation for the existence of evolved life, which could not possibly (according to Nagel) have reached its current level of proliferation and complexity through a mere series of accidents (in my opinion, this is a common misinterpretation of current evolutionary theory).

On reading this, I was reminded of Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity (Le hasard et la nécessité in the original French), which speaks of "teleonomic" behavior in living organisms: ordered behavior tending toward definite ends, such as survival and reproduction.* Nagel seems to be suggesting that the entire universe has a teleonomic aspect-- a claim that Pinker, who may be in line to replace the acerbic Christopher Hitchens as the fourth of the Four Horsemen of atheism, obviously scoffs at. Nagel critic H. Allen Orr writes in his review:

Nagel’s teleological biology is heavily human-centric or at least animal-centric. Organisms, it seems, are in the business of secreting sentience, reason, and values. Real biology looks little like this and, from the outset, must face the staggering facts of organismal diversity. There are millions of species of fungi and bacteria and nearly 300,000 species of flowering plants. None of these groups is sentient and each is spectacularly successful. Indeed mindless species outnumber we sentient ones by any sensible measure (biomass, number of individuals, or number of species; there are only about 5,500 species of mammals). More fundamentally, each of these species is every bit as much the end product of evolution as we are. The point is that, if nature has goals, it certainly seems to have many and consciousness would appear to be fairly far down on the list.

Similarly, Nagel’s teleological biology is run through with talk about the “higher forms of organization toward which nature tends” and progress toward “more complex systems.” Again, real biology looks little like this. The history of evolutionary lineages is replete with reversals, which often move from greater complexity to less. A lineage will evolve a complex feature (an eye, for example) that later gets dismantled, evolutionarily deconstructed after the species moves into a new environment (dark caves, say). Parasites often begin as “normal” complicated organisms and then lose evolutionarily many of their complex traits after taking up their new parasitic way of life. Such reversals are easily explained under Darwinism but less so under teleology. If nature is trying to get somewhere, why does it keep changing its mind about the destination?

Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy (and, by extension, the process theology of exponents like Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, et al.) makes a similarly anthropocentric move: it contends that humanity represents something of a leading edge, the wave-front of a creative (and wastefully destructive) evolutionary process. Process philosophy is comfortable with the idea that life tends ever towards greater complexity, a notion that makes sense only if one assumes humanity (or any sapient life) to represent a sort of culmination, Omega Point, or crème de la crème of cosmic process. Orr is right to dismiss Nagel's pretensions, so similar to the claims of process philosophy, by citing the empirical fact that most life on earth is neither sapient nor particularly complex: the idea that life on the whole tends toward complexity is demonstrably false.




*On the pop-culture front we have Agent Smith in "The Matrix Reloaded" who, right before he and a hundred Smith replicas engage Neo in a massive kung fu battle, gives an impressive speech about the importance of purpose for any living being.


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the good, the bad, the weird

Sophie Schmidt, articulate teenage daughter of Google tycoon and chairman Eric Schmidt, has written a much-talked-about blog post regarding her recent trip to North Korea. As other bloggers have pointed out (here in particular), Sophie's post is better-written and more frank than the fluff being churned out by the useful-idiot Pyongyang branch of the Associated Press. Among Sophie's insights:

I can't express how cold it was. Maybe 10-15 degrees F in the sunshine, not including wind chill. The cold was compounded by the fact that none of the buildings we visited were heated, which meant hour-long tours in cavernous, 30-degree indoor environments. It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they're proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.

[...]

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village:

[image of people in carrels, staring intently at flat-screen monitors]

Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in--a noisy bunch, with media in tow--not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.

[...]

Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not smart phones).

North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet. Our understanding is that some university students have access to this. On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo'd their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real Internet. Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable. We also saw virtual-reality software, video chat platform, musical composition software (?) and other random stuff.

What's so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it's not like they're going to export this technology. They're building products for a market that doesn't exist.

Surreal.


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lame duck or juggernaut?

President Barack Obama now begins his second term in office. By constitutional mandate (specifically, the 22nd Amendment), there will be no third term. Does this make Obama a lame duck, or does it make him a nothing-to-lose juggernaut? The Democrats control the Senate; the Republicans control the House of Representatives. This term, I expect plenty of deadlock and scandal. Second terms are usually about scandal.


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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lotus Vietnamese resto in Shirlington

Since I'm dog-sitting for my brother, who lives in a part of Alexandria that's very close to Shirlington, I ate at Lotus (a.k.a. Lotus Grill & Noodles) in Shirlington's restaurant district. The menu has an impressive array of Viet/generic Asian dishes; I flipped to the back and was pleased to see a French-style menu prix fixe, which is what I went for.

The waiter who helped me make my selections was friendly but rather insistent that the $26 menu, which I had been eying, would be too much for me, and that the $22 menu was plenty filling. I was skeptical, but since the guy was talking me down, I decided to trust him and go with the $22 option: an appetizer, a soup, a main course, and a dessert. For the appetizer, I chose a typical fried spring roll; the soup was crab-asparagus (I had no idea what that might mean, but I had visions of the Bonefish Grill's crab-corn soup in my head). Both of these courses came out at the same time, and both were disappointingly small. The spring rolls were essentially one spring roll sawn diagonally in two, with a sweet-vinegar dipping sauce. Not bad, but not enough. The soup, which turned out to be translucent, with lumps of crab and little soft cylinders of asparagus visible in it, tasted good, but it had a snot-like consistency that reminded me of bad egg-drop soup. Too much cornstarch, most likely.

For the main course, I had ordered a beef-and-vegetable vermicelli. This course turned out to be both impressively sized and very, very delicious. I could suddenly understand why the server had warned me against ordering a larger meal. The menus at Lotus don't even bother to list the correct Vietnamese names for the dishes, so I have no idea what the main course was actually called.* It consisted of thin, marinated strips of beef laid in a bowl of delicate, bone-white vermicelli, alongside neat piles of fresh, julienned and chiffonaded vegetables-- soybean sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and romaine lettuce-- and a healthy sprinkling of peanuts. A sweet/spicy vinegar sauce was placed next to the noodle bowl; I assumed I was supposed to dump the sauce onto the noodles and then go to town. I did so, and was rewarded with a magnificent fragrance and flavor combination. The tender cooked beef made for a pleasant contrast with the fresh-cut and crunchy vegetables, and the sauce and noodles unified the whole.

So the main course was pleasantly filling without being overly heavy. Dessert was an interesting banana-in-a-spring-roll, plus two tiny scoops of ice cream-- insignificant in size, but a flavorful way to cap off the meal.

All in all, I found Lotus overpriced and under-portioned for most of its meal components, but if the beef vermicelli main course was any indication, Lotus takes its plats principaux very seriously. Was it all worth the trip? I'd tentatively say yes, although I wish the dinner had cost about ten dollars less. If I go to Lotus again, though, I'm getting that $26 fixed-price menu.





*The dish might have have been bún bò xào. See here. The pic looks almost exactly like what I ate.


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Monday, January 21, 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

the miracle

I woke up one hour late for Saturday work. I had planned to wake up at my usual 7:15AM so that I could be out the door by 8AM or so. For whatever reason, my phone's alarm didn't wake me. I had either turned it off when it first rang, or it had never rung. Either way, I peeled my eyes open, already instinctively suspicious that I was waking up late, and saw that the time was 8:05AM. In theory, I needed to be on the road by 8:15.

"Fuck!" I declared to no one. My mind raced. The last time I had stayed at Sean's place, I had discovered that YB Near was only 35 minutes away in decent traffic. Because it was Saturday morning, I assumed that traffic would be good-- no rush hour to worry about. This meant I had until 8:25AM to get my big ass ready for a 9AM start at work.

I brushed my teeth, slapped on my contacts, and pooped in record time. I showered quickly (about four minutes, which isn't as quick as the classic one-minute Army shower), dressed in my informal Saturday duds (much faster than dressing in my normal battle regalia of slacks, button-down shirt, tie, and tie pin), and was out of Sean's condo by 8:26AM. I was gambling that I would be, at most, a minute or two late.

Traffic turned out to be beautiful. It was a bright, clear Saturday morning, and nothing impeded my progress. Route 395 South to 495 North was unblocked; 495 to 66 West was smooth sailing; 66 West to the YB Near exit was problem-free. I even passed two police cars along the way, but despite the slow-down those cars caused, I still made it to the tutoring center with, miraculously, five minutes to spare.

No sweat, right?


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Saturday, January 19, 2013

anticipatory pessimism as creative visualization

One problem with pulling into my brother Sean's neighborhood late at night is that his condo's parking space is usually filled to the gills. Realizing this long before I was to arrive in Alexandria, I grumbled, "Bet I'm gonna have to park way out on the main street, goddammit."

So it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered a parking space not too far from Sean's condo. I chalk it up to anticipatory pessimism: the Fates tend to conspire against me, confounding my normally optimistic expectations, so whenever I begin thinking dark thoughts about an imminent outcome, the Fates surprise me with something positive, just to mess with my mind. The problem, of course, is that I can't purposely strive for a positive outcome by deliberately thinking dark thoughts: the Fates are too smart for that.


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still stuck in the sticks

I only just finished that student report. For what was originally supposed to be a piece of fluff written to mollify an unjustifiably distraught parent, that report ballooned into an 18-page monster that includes stats and even a four-page appendix. Christ. I hope somebody fucking appreciates what I've done.

Upshot: I'm only just now prepping to leave for Alexandria. If I'm out of Appalachia by 9PM, I'll arrive at Sean's place around 10:30PM. Late. The dog will be lonely. And he'll have left me some impressive lumps of poop to clean up.


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dawg-sitting

I'll be trundling over to Alexandria, my old hometown, later today to begin a three-night stint of house- and dog-sitting for my brother Sean, who will be away for music-related business. Sean pays me for these stints, so that pads my bank account just a little bit more. I'm still writing that student report (mentioned previously), so I don't know when I'll take the car for repairs. Perhaps Monday, since I have Mondays off.


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Friday, January 18, 2013

wishing for a laptop

It's 5:37AM as I begin typing this. I've just spent about five-and-a-half hours compiling performance stats for the mother of one our students, whom I'll call Magda (the student, that is-- not the mother). This is part of a massive report I'm writing as a way of reassuring the mother that (1) Magda's lack of improvement in her SAT score, despite several months of training at YB, shouldn't be viewed too pessimistically, but also that (2) we at YB plan to do what we can to help Magda out of her apparent rut.

Personally, I'm pissed off that the mother is freaking out: Magda has improved by only 40 points on her composite SAT score, true, but because this latest test was only her second, it's impossible to deduce a trend from only two data points. Until Magda has taken the mock SAT several more times, it'll be hard to say just where she stands, performance-wise.

So I took Magda's dossier home with me and spent several hours combing through her records. I created three charts of her chapter-by-chapter performance in our SAT curriculum; this includes both classwork and homework. I used my Excel wizardry to insert formulae to calculate percentages and averages, and after I'd made those three charts, I turned my attention to curriculum design: I created a detailed course calendar extending from now to early May, listing all the textbooks and page numbers we would be plowing through over the next few months.

But there's still more. I promised my supervisor that I'd summarize my findings, interpret Magda's performance stats (such as they are), and offer a proposal for how to proceed. It's too late for me to work on that report right now; I need to sleep. The problem is that, once I wake up, I also need to take my car to the shop (you'll recall why). That's going to take some time out of my day, and that's precisely why I wish I had a laptop: I could work on my report while the car's being repaired.

Laptops are very liberating. With a laptop, you can do almost everything that you can do on a regular desktop computer. I'd love to blog from a restaurant or coffee shop, for example, instead of being constantly confined to my apartment. Like Django, I want to be unchained!

In the meantime, I hope Magda's mom appreciates all the work I'm doing for her oversensitive, micromanaging ass.


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"north Korea (nK)" versus "North Korea (NK)"

Why do some Korea-hounds write "north Korea," or "nK," with a lowercase "N"? I can only guess that something ideological is going on in such people's heads: they imagine Korea already to be unified, such that "north Korea" indicates "the northern part of the unified Korean peninsula," somewhat like the way "northern Virginia" refers not to a distinct political region (e.g., West Virginia) but to a vaguely defined part of the commonwealth.

But if that's the case, then it would be more proper to refer to the area north of the DMZ as "northern Korea," not "north Korea." And once we do that, we see how ridiculous this move looks: the DMZ is nothing if not a very political boundary. "Northern Korea" is an incorrect designation: the country is, according to convention, properly called "North Korea": a politically distinct entity. North Koreans are the ones pushing the notion that Korea is still essentially one nation; people who write "nK" are upholding the North's ideology.


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yesterday sucked ass

There are students I enjoy, and then there are students I endure. Yesterday was perhaps my worst day of work at YB Near. I had three tutoring sessions in a row with dud after dud-- almost all of whom I had to endure. The first session, I had two students: one studying for the SAT, and another studying pre-algebra. The first-- let's call him Vikram, has his heart in the right place, but his mock-SAT scores are in the dismal 300-something range; we spent time reviewing his latest mock SAT, in which he had skipped problems right and left. At the end of our review, Vikram, a senior, told me somberly he knew he was destined for community college (NVCC in his case: Northern Virginia Community College), and that his plan was to go that route for a year or two, then transfer, in theory, to a better college.

Sitting next to Vikram, during that first session, was Sam (not his real name; in fact, let's just assume I'll be using pseudonyms from here on in), a seventh-grader studying pre-algebra. Sam is probably the goofiest Korean kid I've ever met, and I don't mean goofy in a cute way. I generally have to say everything to him twice, because my first utterance tends to elicit a long blank look followed by a delayed-reaction "Huh?" How this kid can survive crossing the street is beyond me. Sam is generally compliant when I give him things to do, but he's terrible with homework: he almost never does the work I assign, which means a large chunk of class time is wasted while Sam does the unfinished homework. Teaching Sam is a slog, as a result.

My second session was far worse than the first, mainly thanks to one little fourth grader, Maximus, a little terror who simply would-- not-- shut-- up the entire two hours. This was confusing and disappointing: last week, Maximus was docile and relatively studious. The other two students were high-schoolers: Donnelly sat to my far left; Mustang Sally (about whom I've written before; she's mellowed out and gotten better over the intervening months) sat in the middle; little, chatty Maximus sat to my right. Donnelly kept creepily staring at Mustang Sally, a fact that Sally complained about after class. Sally was also bothered by Maximus's constant chatter.

"God," Sally whispered when Maximus started up again. Maximus, aware of the discomfort he was causing, furtively glanced at Sally.

"You're so annoying," Sally said at another point. Maximus, smiling at the damage he was causing, took her complaint in stride.

"That's your opinion," he shot back, insouciant.

I felt completely unable to manage Maximus, whom I would have gladly dragged outside and beaten to an unconscious pulp. So, yeah: I endured him. For two fucking hours.

My third session was with Iblis and Parvati (I've written about them before). After two hours of goddamn Maximus, Iblis actually came as a relief, which is saying something. Iblis was, surprisingly, pretty good during last night's final session, but ADHD kid that he is, he kept bumping the chair next to him, which in turn hit the dividing wall separating me from a colleague and his group of students.

"Stop hitting the wall, Iblis," I said several times. He tried to comply, but his compulsions took over and he would bang that wall again a few minutes later.

Thank God Parvati was there; she was the only real pleasure to teach all that day. Parvati's a big fan of history; she quoted detailed facts about the life of George Washington that I never knew. I often found myself nodding in amazement as she talked. She reminded me a bit of myself when I was her age, lecturing excitedly about octopi. I joked that we would eventually have to call her "Dr. Parvati, professor of history." She got a kick out of that.

I did a bit of a mental self-diagnostic at the end of that horrible day, and realized, to my delight, that I didn't have a stress headache. My blood pressure didn't seem elevated; other markers for stress and frustration were equally absent. I suppose this means I was able to "pull a Lily," so to speak, and retreat into my Happy Place during most of those six grueling hours. But my memory of those three sessions is bitter. I hope never to have a day like that again, but I suspect that my Wednesdays are going to be like this for a long time yet.


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not on the same page

Presented without comment:






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Thursday, January 17, 2013

the Korean answer to spaghetti with meatballs

Ramyeon and fish balls! Bet you never knew fish had balls, eh? Big, swingin' balls!


The above is actually more of a rabokgi, i.e., ramyeon plus ddeokbokgi.


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bad idle ends idyll

My poor little Honda Fit, as if it hasn't already been through enough, has developed a super-low idle. This problem actually began before my accident, so I can't take the car back to Collision Experts for a repair done under warranty. Over the past few months, the problem has worsened: my car now stalls out with some regularity. The stalls happen only when the car's just been started up: once the engine is warm and I'm on the freeway, there's no problem. Not being a mechanic, I looked the problem up and found this About.com entry, which says regarding my idle problem:

Symptom: The engine will not idle smoothly, or it stalls during idle when the engine is cold. When the engine is cold and you take your foot off the gas pedal, the engine runs very rough and may even stall. When you run the engine at higher speeds, it seems to run fine.

Possible causes:

1. If you have a carburetor (grandpa), you may have a bad accelerator pump or power circuit.
The Fix: Replace accelerator pump or replace carburetor.
2. There may be a vacuum leak.
The Fix: Check and replace vacuum lines as required.
3. There may be some type of ignition problem.
The Fix: Check and replace distributor cap, rotor, ignition wires and spark plugs.
4. The ignition timing may be set wrong.
The Fix: Adjust ignition timing.
5. There may be a fault in the computerized engine control system.
The Fix: Check engine control systems with a scan tool. Test circuits and repair or replace components as required. (Generally not a DIY job)
6. The EGR valve may be bad.
The Fix: Replace EGR valve.
7. The engine may have mechanical problems.
The Fix: Check compression to determine engine condition.
8. Idle speed set incorrectly.
The Fix: Set idle speed to specs.
9. The fuel injectors may be dirty.
The Fix: Clean or replace fuel injectors.

That's quite a confusing constellation of possibilities. What worries me, as always, is the expense. I'm going to guess that this'll be around a $250 job, which doth suck mighty donkey balls. As I just complained to my brother Sean, there's always something in my life, every month, needing a $200-some fix. Most frustrating.

Next month: contact lenses!


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thanks, Sean

My brother Sean sends me the following YouTube video link: Big, Disgusting Booger Pulled Out of Nose. It's apparently so horrifying that you have to confirm your age before YouTube will permit you to watch it. When I saw that booger, I thought the doc had yanked an oyster out of the guy's head. Good thing I hate oysters, or I might've felt hungry.

While you're at it, follow that viewing up with this lovely ear-wax removal video. In honor of Elisson's recent experience.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

pie-rex

Pics of a not-very-successful apple pie, baked in a Pyrex container:




The filling, which I made by hand from fresh apples and Korean pears, was great, but the crust sucked. I made the crust from an ancient box of pie crust mix-- for all I know the box was ten years old-- and that pretty much ruined the pie. I'm thinking of buying flour tortilla shells, putting the leftover stuffing in them, deep-frying the apple burritos, and dusting them with confectioner's sugar. That, or buying mandu skins and making honey-drizzled apple mandu.


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on Korean alcohol

Thanks to my Twitter feed, I happened upon an interesting article about Korean makgeolli. Is it rice wine or rice beer? To answer the question, the article takes a fascinating historical approach (Mike, you history lover, take note!). Aside from the article's silly, pandering spelling of my mother's country's name ("Corea"-- a spelling that puts the country before Japan in European languages that write lists using Roman alphabets), it's informative and enjoyable.


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Iblis, Iblis, Iblis

My coworker Lily (not her real name, etc., etc.) now shuttles back and forth among two or three different YB tutoring centers. As a result, she can no longer be there for Iblis at our particular YB center; she'd normally teach him about three times a week. That means Iblis must default to one of Lily's colleagues, and on Wednesday (tomorrow), that colleague is me. I do hope this is not going to be a permanent arrangement, but I suspect that this will be my harsh, dismal, soul-crushing reality for the next few months.

Damn.


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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Prometheus": a one-paragraph review

Just saw "Prometheus." I can't even begin to express how disgusted and disappointed I am in this unbelievably stupid film. Do yourself a favor and watch the video "Everything Wrong with 'Prometheus' in 4 Minutes or Less." That vid pretty much sums up my own disagreements with the movie. The biggest problem: total incoherence. The movie suggests that human life comes from an alien race that humans dub "The Engineers." Engineer DNA, it turns out, is an exact match for humans'. This fails to explain why chimpanzee DNA is a 96% or 97% match with homo sapiens'. Apparently, we're not part of the evolutionary continuum. In any case, the plot of "Prometheus" goes something like this: the crew of the Prometheus, around the year 2094, is led to a distant moon whose coordinates were transcribed as star patterns by ancient earthlings. Once the crew lands, the members explore a hollow, mountainous structure. They encounter mysterious, mutagenic ooze, along with several varieties of alien life, each of which seems to affect different crew members differently. No attempt is made to provide a taxonomy of these life forms, or to explain their varying effects on the crew, and David the android (it's an "Alien" movie, so of course there's an android, and of course he's going to have his head ripped off at some point) turns out to be a sneaky, murderous bastard for no clear reason. There's a subplot involving Peter Weyland, the tycoon funding the mission; Weyland has secreted himself on Prometheus so he can gain firsthand Engineer knowledge of how to prolong his life. Yeah, he ends up dead. Big surprise. Why the Engineers are over ten feet tall, have pale, translucent skin, yet are a 100% DNA match with humans is never explained. Why the ship's captain so readily accepts a sudden kamikaze mission at the end is also never explained. The philosophical and religious questions that the movie mentions are never dealt with in a serious way. A head explodes, and we never find out why. No one follows standard infection-control protocols. All in all, "Prometheus" is a towering pile of shit. And it isn't even scary: I laughed during all the scary moments. And now I want my two hours back.


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Monday, January 14, 2013

"Auf Wiedersehen": review of "Django Unchained"

The key to deciphering the message of "Django Unchained" may just be the lyrics to Jim Croce's "I Got a Name," a song that features at one point in the movie.

Like the pine trees lining the winding road
I got a name
I got a name
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad
I got a name
I got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I'm living the dream that he kept hid
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won't pass me by

Croce's song is a paean to identity and individualism, but also to freedom and depth, to living life both broadly and deeply. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave at the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, but he is soon to be known as Django Freeman, master gunfighter and bounty hunter partner of King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an ex-dentist turned bounty hunter. To gain a name, even if the name is a generic designation like "Freeman," is to gain one's humanity, to have the right to be addressed as a fellow human being, and not merely to be considered property. Being human, by extension, means being free: "moving ahead so life won't pass me by."

Although the most obvious reading of Tarantino's bloody cowboy film (which the director lovingly and rebelliously dubs "a Southern") is as a revenge fantasy in the spirit of the director's two previous works ("Inglourious Basterds" and, before that, "Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2"), another, equally plausible, reading is that "Django" is a heroic tale of humanization, as Django the slave journeys from bondage to bounty hunting to blissful reunion with his love. As King Schultz notes during the story, Django is a real-life Siegfried, the Germanic/Nordic hero who, according to the legend, braves fire and a dragon to reclaim his love, Brünnhilde.* In "Django Unchained," this love is Django's wife, Broomhilda (the gorgeous Kerry Washington; and yes, the name's spelled "Broomhilda" like the comic strip); what's more, sie spricht Deutsch.

The plot of "Django Unchained" is fairly simple: King Schultz is looking to kill the Brittle Brothers. The problem is that he doesn't know what they look like. Schultz tracks down Django's slave procession, frees Django, and makes a deal with him: help Schultz track down the Brittle Brothers, and Django can have his freedom. In the process, Django and Schultz form a partnership that becomes a friendship, and when Django tells Schultz his personal story, Schultz, enthralled by the Siegfriedian overtones of Django's life and mission, resolves to help Django find the latter's lost love, Broomhilda. Schultz and Django find and kill the Brittle Brothers at the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson); after outsmarting Big Daddy's attempt at revenge, they then move on to Candyland, the plantation realm of francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where Broomhilda languishes as a slave. Does Django succeed in rescuing Broomhilda? Do the three friends survive to the end of the movie? Well, I shouldn't spoil things, now, should I?

In his review of "Django," Skippy wrote the following insightful observation:

I'm not going to lie to you, even if ["Django" were] a lesser film, I'd still love it because it so upsets loathsome race-hustling assholes like Spike Lee and Tavis Smiley. Neither of those dickheads actually [comes] out and [says] so (and neither has actually done anything crazy, like see it,) but I suspect that if a black director made Django Unchained exactly the same way Tarantino did, they would be demanding a fucking parade for it and insisting that it be shown in grade schools. Their problem with the movie isn't so much the depiction of slavery as much as it is that Tarantino is insufficiently dusky. (italics added)

I think this is spot-on. I respect Spike Lee's films because they're issue films: as much as they're meant to entertain, they're also meant to provoke discussion and argument. I don't think Lee is happy unless he's ruffled a few feathers, especially on the white side of the aisle. Lee's complaints about Tarantino's films center almost exclusively on Tarantino's perceived overuse of the ugly epithet "nigger." But Lee is hypocritical in complaining about this: anyone who has seen Lee's "Do the Right Thing" has watched and laughed at the hilarious montage in which people of different ethnic groups spew strings of racist vituperation about other races. Why should Lee be allowed to traffic in racist language-- for the sake of art, for the sake of illustrating a point-- and not Tarantino?

And what exactly is Tarantino's point? I think "Django" makes it over and over again: for a shamefully long period of American history, white people were fantastically, unimaginably, casually cruel toward black people. I felt great pangs of empathy for almost every black character in this film (except one; we'll get to him soon): their suffering and misery were front and center in almost every scene, with Django himself being the lone, positive, redemptive exception. One slave, a Mandingo fighter** named D'Artagnan, suffers a dismal fate after he attempts to escape from Candyland. The actor who played D'Artagnan (Ato Essandoh), a man with one half-closed eye, did a magnificent job of projecting total debasement and abjection. After witnessing so much on-screen cruelty, I took grim satisfaction in watching Django vent his fury on a white slaver, whose whip Django had grabbed from him and used against him.

Tarantino is front-loading all this incredible racism in a two-pronged attack on our sensibilities: he wants us to feel its omnipresence in our subconscious, and he wants to appall us at the conscious level as we realize the extent to which such medievalism permeated late-1850s society. Because Tarantino laced his script with so much black humor (no pun intended), it often became an ethical conundrum as to whether it was appropriate to laugh. In one scene, for example, Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie says, "What is the point of having a nigger that speaks German if you can't wheel 'em out when you have a German guest?" (source) I had a very hard time deciding whether I should laugh at that witticism. Some audience members did-- heartily. I kept silent. At the same time, I understood what Tarantino was trying to do subtextually: he wanted to put us in a weird, liminal place where we would experience a kind of self-critical confusion. My ethical dilemma was Tarantino's goal.

All this racism talk brings me to the character of Stephen, played to evil, scenery-chewing perfection by Samuel L. Jackson. With his beady eyes staring out from under graying eyebrows, Stephen is the house slave (I'm using "slave" instead of the standard, odious label) of Candyland, one of the lowest of the lowlifes in the eyes of most slaves. Stephen manages the plantation slaves of Candyland, and does so with the same racist contempt as his white betters. When Django and King Schultz arrive at Candyland, ostensibly to dicker over the purchase of a Mandingo fighter but in truth to rescue Broomhilda, it is Stephen who quietly informs Calvin Candie that Schultz and Django have come primarily to save the girl. Stephen, old but wily, correctly surmises that Broomhilda is actually Django's wife, and Calvin Candie then has to decide just how long to continue the ruse of pretending to negotiate over the Mandingo fighter.

The scene in which Stephen reveals to Candie the machinations of Schultz and Django is striking: Candie stalks into the parlor to speak with Stephen; the latter is seated calmly in a plush, high-backed chair, swirling brandy in a snifter, and looking for all the world like the true master of Candyland. Stephen obviously knows how valuable he is to his master: he's valuable enough that he can get away with acting as privileged as the white folks. For a few moments during that scene, I genuinely wondered whether Stephen was going to reveal that he was the master of Candyland, and that Candie himself was a sort of slave or servant. The moment passed, however, and Stephen remained what he was: a loyal servant betraying a fellow black man. I fervently wished for his comeuppance.

My buddy Dr. Steve saw "Django Unchained" with me. Steve is notoriously hard to please, and he came away feeling this movie was one of Tarantino's weaker efforts. He did say something that stuck with me, though: Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Johnson's roles should have been switched. I've chewed this over for the past week or so, and I think I've come to agree with Steve: DiCaprio, despite the fact that he's pushing forty, still looks fifteen and is too small in stature to be particularly menacing. Don Johnson, with his predatory smile and flinty stare (both on display in the guise of Big Daddy), might indeed have been the better choice to play Calvin Candie.

My own feeling, coming out of the theater, was that "Django Unchained" worked well as an epic tale, a blood-soaked épopée. Although the Siegfried story was the most obvious mythological template, I saw elements of Homer's The Odyssey as well as hints, now and again, of Shakespeare's grand geste, especially during those lengthy, orotund monologues that Tarantino is so fond of. "Django" was also a loving retread of any number of black/white buddy action movies dating back to the 1980s, not to mention a chance for Christoph Waltz to cleanse himself of his Nazi typecasting by playing the role of a noble-hearted, chivalrous German. One joke in particular had me laughing: as Schultz and Django are entering Candyland, one of Candie's lackeys informs Schultz that Monsieur Candie is a francophile, to which Schultz, subtly sneering and obviously proud of his own Teutonic culture, replies, "What civilized man isn't?"

"Django" works as a Spike Lee-style issue movie, even if Lee might resent that fact. It also works as a simple, bloody actioner-- a hybrid of Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma. Tarantino himself appears as an Aussie slave transporter (his accent initially sounds South African, then resolves itself into faux-Aussie), which is good for a few moments' amusement until he's blown up by dynamite.*** The script is laced with dark humor, and as is true of so many Tarantino films, it's often hard to know when you're supposed to laugh at the proceedings. In this case, the viewer's hesitancy has everything to do with racism, which the film isn't shy about portraying. Spike Lee, far from refusing to see "Django," should screen it and realize that Tarantino is actually on his side: the movie asserts, in every frame, that slavery is a huge, damning stain on American history. Tarantino takes liberties with that history and constructs yet another revenge fantasy (I had to wonder, at one point, whether he was following the template of Korean director Park Chan-wook, who crafted his "Revenge" trilogy), but "Django" is more than that: in my opinion, it's a grand adventure-- it's Siegfried rescuing his Brünnhilde, or Odysseus regaining his Penelope and clearing out the trash, or more simply, a man recovering his name and his humanity, and following that tree-lined, winding road.

The German expression Auf Wiedersehen, "good-bye," or more literally, "to [the] again-seeing," is a repeated trope throughout the film. Its presence reminded me of another epic tale that features the Quenya word Namárië.




*At least, this is the story as King Schultz lays it out in the movie. The actual myth may be a bit more complicated.

**The factuality of Mandingo fighting is in dispute. See here, for instance.

***IMdB's entry for "Django" notes a historical gaffe: dynamite wasn't invented until the 1860s, but the movie takes place in 1858.


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"Dredd": review


I just watched "Dredd" on iTunes. I admit to being morbidly curious about the film, and to having a naughtily prurient interest in co-star Olivia Thirlby, who proves to be as winsome and engaging as the preview trailer makes her out to be.

"Dredd" is a 2012 remake of Sylvester Stallone's 1995 "Judge Dredd," itself a film adaptation of a British comic-book series. The new film stars Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy in 2009's "Star Trek" and Éomer in "The Lord of the Rings," among other roles) as the eponymous Dredd, a gun-toting Judge who embodies and enforces the law in MegaCity One, a massive, futuristic dystopia of 800 million souls that runs from Boston to Washington, DC. Beyond the boundaries of the city lies the Cursed Earth (which figured prominently in the Stallone version, but which is merely mentioned in the new film, and then forgotten). I'm inclined to classify "Dredd" as a "tentative buddy film": the plot is mainly about the evolving relationship between the unemotional Dredd and his empathic young trainee, Anderson (Thirlby), who has failed her Judge training but is put on duty under Dredd's supervision because she is a mutant psychic (shades of Verhoeven's "Total Recall"), and could prove useful as a Judge in that capacity. The story is basically about Anderson's first day on the job, and one of the things she quickly learns from Dredd is that one rookie in five fails to survive the first day.

The plot of "Dredd" is simple and straightforward, like the character of Dredd himself. Dredd and Anderson respond to an alert regarding three murders in an enormous tower called Peach Trees: the three murder victims have been skinned alive, dosed with a drug called Slo-Mo-- which causes one to perceive reality moving at one percent of its natural pace-- and thrown off an interior balcony to splat on the floor one kilometer below. Dredd and Anderson find themselves trapped inside the building, which is controlled by Ma-Ma, an ex-prostitute turned drug lord, who uses Peach Trees as her base to manufacture and distribute Slo-Mo to all of MegaCity One. Ma-Ma orders her thugs to hunt down and kill the two Judges, and after that, the chase is on.

In a typical buddy film, the two main characters start off on the wrong foot, then gradually warm to each other, and eventually become inseparable. I call "Dredd" a "tentative buddy film" because Dredd seems incapable of warmth (in the Stallone version, Dredd eventually responds to the feminine charms of Diane Lane's Judge Hershey, but who wouldn't warm up to Lane's charms?); there are no stolen kisses to brighten this story. But "Dredd" is also a satire: the ultra-violence is bloody to the point of cartoonishness, and the film never truly explores the sanctity of the law being upheld. As a result, we don't really come to understand what motivates Judges to do what they do day after day, year after year. Instead, we see a series of summary judgments, and are left with the sickening feeling that the Judges merely enforce a joyless police state, one in which any misstep carries a severe penalty, up to and including death. How heroic, then, are the Judges? Why should we root for them? Karl Urban's voiceover narration is cryptic: from his point of view, Judges are the only thing preserving order in the midst of chaos.


"Dredd" is part "The Matrix," part "Total Recall," part "Blade Runner," and part "Shoot 'Em Up." That latter movie, in particular, came to mind as I watched the exaggerated gore: bullets shattering cheekbones, causing hilarious ripples in fat gangsters' torsos, and tearing through scenery. For a while, I thought "Dredd" and "Shoot 'Em Up" had been directed by the same guy, but no: it turns out that "Dredd" was directed by Pete Travis, and "Shoot 'Em Up" was directed by Michael Davis. Despite the way the movie references other movies, "Dredd" ended up being its own thing-- a much leaner, meaner version of the Stallone film, without the annoying sidekick (played by Rob Schneider in 1995), the operatic soundtrack, and the grandiose scenery. This "Dredd" made good use of Peach Trees as an action setting: part labyrinth, part cavern, part abyss, the superbuilding was an uncredited character in the story.

Karl Urban doesn't try to play Dredd as cartoonishly as Stallone did. Urban's Dredd is more of a Dirty Harry (right down to the voice: as Christian Bale knows, when in doubt, you channel Eastwood): perpetually pissed off, reliably ruthless, menacingly monolithic. Thirlby's psychic trainee, by contrast, goes through a more visible character arc. Dredd notes, early in the film, that Anderson has the shakes. "You don't look ready," he growls, right before they enter a fire zone. But by the film's final act, Dredd's assessment has changed: "You look ready," he admits.

Most striking was the normally gorgeous Lena Headey (the sexy Queen Gorgo, wife of Leonidas in "300"), looking for all the world like a strung-out, beaten-up meth addict in this film. Headey's Ma-Ma is a ruthless, calculating killer, an incarnation of the city's decay, not afraid to dirty her hands by getting behind a minigun and blasting away an entire floor in an attempt to kill Dredd. Headey took to her role with obvious relish; it was a pleasure watching her work.

In all, I thought that "Dredd" was good, stupid fun. On one level, it was a satirical self-parody, and possibly even a cautionary tale about police states. On another level, it was a tentative buddy film, as Dredd's attitude toward his young protégée thawed ever so slightly over the course of the story. And on a visceral level, it was just an action flick about two people doing their best to survive a massive assault and take down the bad guy. Girl. I think "Dredd" deserves at least one viewing. As remakes go, it managed to avoid the cheeseball mistakes of its 1995 predecessor; all the corniness had been stripped away, and plenty of gore had been put in its place.


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Elisson's spy cat

Elisson's new cat Levon is apparently the stretchable sort. Perhaps his bones are made of rubber or Gummi gel. Whatever the case may be, Levon has found work in British intelligence as one of MI-6's master spies:






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Sunday, January 13, 2013

last-hurrah meals

At the end of the month, on January 31, I plan to switch over to a "Taubesian" diet regime. To that end, I've promised myself that I'll purchase a spiral slicer so that I can make vegetable pasta, because God knows I'll be craving some sort of pasta while I'm shunning the carbs. My two best bets, pasta-wise, are zucchini and butternut squash, neither of which has a high carb count even in large volumes. The Taubesian regime, like the Atkins Diet, requires not going over 30 grams of carbs per day. This is going to be painful: the last time I seriously attempted the Atkins Diet, I ended up depressed, and after a mere two weeks I backslid. My inner beasts, Sloth and Gluttony, are powerful-- very difficult to master.

And like Dr. Hodges's main character in his The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, who wants one last drink before going on the wagon, I want one last, carb-filled hurrah before I shun carbs for the long term.

So... what to eat?

I've become a huge fan of Foster's Grille, a local burger joint that serves a fantastic "charburger" and fried-chicken sandwich. Slap some bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo on those bad boys, and I'm a happy, happy man. I was also shocked to discover the new, renovated Joe's Steakhouse, also in town. It's pricey, but definitely worth my while. I'm also a diehard fan of the Maggiano's Italian ristorante chain; big food, bold taste, great quality. The closest establishment is in Tysons Corner, Virginia, over an hour away. In the town where I work, 40 minutes from my residence in Appalachia, there's my newest love, the Bonefish Grill, which I now know-- thanks to a recent visit there with Dr. Steve-- serves a great ceviche along with a memorable crab-and-corn chowder.

A last hurrah wouldn't be complete without talking about desserts-- undoubtedly the thing I'll be missing the most once I embark on this diet. A few desserts on which I'd like to gorge myself:

1. chocolate mousse
2. Bennigan's Death by Chocolate (I'll probably have to make this myself)
3. banana creme pie
4. Wegmans apple pie
5. Lindor truffles
6. a baked Alaska (haven't had one in literally decades)
7. a simple baguette with butter and Nutella

So! I have my bucket list. From now until the end of January, I guess I've got my work cut out for me. (Oh, and I can't forget my love of fruit juice.)


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the power of galbi

Korean short ribs, Kevin-style:


Sorry for the lack of green onions or chunks of garlic or dots of sesame seeds; this galbi was relatively unadorned. But it did marinate in a delectable mix of soy sauce, corn syrup, sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, powdered ginger, and the very last dregs of my lone bottle of Johnnie Walker. I was worried that the above batch might have marinated too long: sitting in soy sauce for three or four days is tantamount to brining, after all. But the meat proved sweet and tender and eminently edible, so no worries.





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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Oscar predictions

As I've done in years past, I'm going to lay out my predictions for the winners of the 2013 Oscars. These predictions are based on nothing scientific; they reflect only my intuitions. In most cases, I'll be lifting up films I've never seen, but may have heard some buzz about. Where applicable, I'll try to lay out the reasoning (lame justifications, more like) for my selections.

Without further ado, then--

BEST PICTURE (my pick in boldface; asterisk* indicates I haven't seen this film)

Amour*
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild*
Django Unchained
Les Misérables*
Life of Pi*
Lincoln*
Silver Linings Playbook*
Zero Dark Thirty*


Lincoln seems the obvious choice, here: stellar acting by the protean Daniel Day Lewis, and the fact that the film is a historical costume drama (cue tympani and majestic angel farts)-- two major points in its favor. Having seen Django Unchained, I can vouch that Tarantino's film's abusive language makes it too controversial to win.

By the way: are you as annoyed as I am by the title of Zero Dark Thirty? I've almost never heard that expression: it's Oh Dark Thirty in my book.

BEST ACTOR

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook*
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln*
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables*
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master*
Denzel Washington, Flight*

This seems like a no-brainer to me, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that either Joaquin or Denzel nabs the statue-- Denzel because, as Cintra Wilson pointed out years ago, racist Hollywood deigns to reward black actors every few years; and Joaquin because, well, the Academy was feeling unusually brave. As much as I like them, I have to say that Bradley Cooper and Hugh Jackman are on this list because someone felt sorry for them.

BEST ACTRESS

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty*
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook*
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour*
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild*
Naomi Watts, The Impossible*

I honestly have no clue who among the women might win, but I've heard the most buzz about Amour, a poignant movie about the trials of senescence. (And hats off to the Academy for considering foreign films for honors other than "Best Foreign Film"!)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook*
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master*
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln*
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

If it were up to me, I'd stuff those ballots to make damn sure that Alan Arkin would win the Oscar. I thought he was brilliant in Argo. It was a perfect role for his well-balanced, wisecracking style. But I have a feeling that the award will go to PSH, who despite being a boring person in real life (you ever see him on "Inside the Actor's Studio"? awful!), is a very talented actor. I'm also pretty sure that lightning won't strike twice for poor Christoph Waltz.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, The Master*
Sally Field, Lincoln*
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables*
Helen Hunt, The Sessions*
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook*

Amy Adams is talented and versatile-- a true character actress. But does she have the candlepower of a Sally Field, who may very well be enjoying a second wind thanks to Lincoln? And who wouldn't like to see Ms. Field clutching her Oscar, all these decades later, so that she can re-utter her famous 1984-era, "You like me right now-- you like me!" (Wikiquote)?

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Brave, Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
*Frankenweenie, Tim Burton
*ParaNorman, Sam Fell and Chris Butler
*The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Peter Lord
*Wreck-It Ralph, Rich Moore

Pixar normally dominates this sort of thing, but even though I'm selecting Brave for the win this time, I don't feel that its story holds up to those of previous Pixar efforts. The trailer for Brave looked magnificent, but the movie was just meh. A shame, considering all the fun that Pixar could have had with Scottish history and culture. And what was up with those sighing blue sprites? Damn annoying. I'm sticking with Brave, though, because I can't say that I heard anything truly positive about the other nominees in this category. I recall seeing the trailers for all of these films, and being completely uninspired by them (except maybe for Frankenweenie, which might-- might-- beat out Brave.)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

*Anna Karenina, Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained, Robert Richardson
*Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda
*Lincoln, Janusz Kaminski
*Skyfall, Roger Deakins

This is a tough one. The films that win "Best Cinematography" usually feature sweeping vistas and gorgeous panoramas. Although Django has some such scenes, I suspect the film is too intimately brutal to win this category. When in doubt, go with the huge, costumed epic boasting vaulted palace interiors, which is why I pick Anna Karenina, despite not having seen it. Palaces easily trump the Civil War and being stranded on a boat with a tiger. Skyfall is sure not to win, and if it does, there will be much scoffing.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

*Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran
*Les Misérables, Paco Delgado
*Lincoln, Joanna Johnston
*Mirror Mirror, Eiko Ishioka
*Snow White and the Huntsman, Colleen Atwood

A little voice in my head keeps whispering "Pick Les Mis!" But I'm ignoring it. This was a difficult choice, because this category features three immense costume dramas. I have a feeling, though, that Lincoln won't win because of the relative lack of complexity of 1860s clothing (all black and white, with stovepipe hats) compared to the ambitious regalia doubtless on display in Anna Karenina. And because neither Mirror Mirror nor Snow White and the Huntsman was a particularly well-reviewed film, I seriously doubt that either will win the prize. That leaves Les Misérables, which could very well take Little Oscar away from Anna, if only Jackman, Hathaway, and Company can overcome their tepid press.

BEST DIRECTOR

*Amour, Michael Haneke
*Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin
*Life of Pi, Ang Lee
*Lincoln, Steven Spielberg
*Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell

Not having seen any of the above films, I'm lost. At a guess, though, Lincoln will beat the crowd, since Best Picture and Best Director are often linked. Amour won't win: it's French-Austrian, and how often do foreign films win the big awards, anyway? Silver Linings Playbook is a comedy, which automatically takes it out of the running (too bad: Jennifer Lawrence has a fantastic sense of comic timing), and Life of Pi might just be too pretty to win.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

*5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
*The Gatekeepers, Nominees to be determined
*How to Survive a Plague, Nominees to be determined
*The Invisible War, Nominees to be determined
*Searching for Sugar Man, Nominees to be determined

Totally random guess. I'm assuming, here, that war-- literal or figurative-- draws the most people in. The documentary is about sexual assault in the United States military.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

*Inocente, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
*Kings Point, Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider
*Mondays at Racine, Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan
*Open Heart, Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern
*Redemption, Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill

An even more random guess than with the previous category.

BEST EDITING

Argo, William Goldenberg
*Life of Pi, Tim Squyres
*Lincoln, Michael Kahn
*Silver Linings Playbook, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
*Zero Dark Thirty, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

I'm handing this to Argo mainly because I've seen the movie, and can attest to the power of editing: editing determines, to a significant extent, a movie's tone and pace. Argo very nicely builds tension in its third reel when Iranian security holds the entire group back from its Swissair flight out of the country. I'm going to predict that, if Argo doesn't clinch this award, it'll go to Zero Dark Thirty, which I assume to be another suspense-filled work in much the same spirit as Argo.

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

*Amour, Austria
*Kon-Tiki, Norway
*No, Chile
*A Royal Affair, Denmark
*War Witch, Canada

I'd normally vote first for A Royal Affair, the costume drama, but the positive press for Amour (which, despite being a French-language film, has an Austrian director, thereby making this an Austrian film) makes me think that Michael Haneke's story (he wrote Amour) is going to nail this.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

*Hitchcock, Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel
*The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
*Les Misérables, Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell

Although this category is the one in which Les Misérables has the best chance of winning an Oscar, I don't think that even Les Mis can stop the juggernaut that is Peter Jackson. Jackson is a Kiwi with the heart of a Texan: he doesn't do anything small. Of course, it's possible that the Academy might snub Jackson twice and award him only when his third film comes out, as happened with Lord of the Rings, but given the competition, I think fantasy will win out over period. It's going to come down to those amazing dwarf beards in The Hobbit, I'm sure. Did you know that, in many scenes, those beards are actually CGI? And from what I saw in the trailer for Hitchcock, the latex covering Anthony Hopkins's face looks awful. If Hitchcock wins, I'll be very, very surprised.

BEST MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

*Anna Karenina, Dario Marianelli
Argo, Alexandre Desplat
*Life of Pi, Mychael Danna
*Lincoln, John Williams
*Skyfall, Thomas Newman

As much as I liked Argo, and as much as I appreciate Alexandre Desplat's work on the final two Harry Potter films, Argo's not going to win this category. I don't recall the music playing a very significant role in the film; for the most part, the movie was laced with pop tunes from the late 1970s and very early 80s. I think a more reliable bet would be John Williams for Lincoln: I can imagine a sweeping, portentous score intermixed with subtle harmonies reflecting President Lincoln's pensive nature.

BEST MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

"Before My Time" from *Chasing Ice, Music and Lyric by J. Ralph More
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend" from *Ted, Music by Walter Murphy; Lyric by Seth MacFarlane
"Pi's Lullaby" from *Life of Pi, Music by Mychael Danna; Lyric by Bombay Jayashri
"Skyfall" from *Skyfall, Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
"Suddenly" from *Les Misérables, Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil

This might be Seth MacFarlane's best chance to win an Oscar, but I'm almost positive the prize will go to the highly-YouTubed Adele for her "Skyfall." This will likely be Skyfall's only Oscar.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

*Anna Karenina, Sarah Greenwood (Production Design); Katie Spencer (Set Decoration)
*The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Dan Hennah (Production Design); Ra Vincent and Simon Bright (Set Decoration)
*Les Misérables, Eve Stewart (Production Design); Anna Lynch-Robinson (Set Decoration)
*Life of Pi, David Gropman (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration)
*Lincoln, Rick Carter (Production Design); Jim Erickson (Set Decoration)

Fantasy will trump castle intrigue here: The Hobbit will probably beat out the next most likely contender, Anna Karenina. Why? Mainly because The Hobbit features the ultimate prop: New Zealand itself. Ka Mate! Ka Mate!

BEST SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)

*Adam and Dog, Minkyu Lee
*Fresh Guacamole, PES
*Head over Heels, Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
*Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare," David Silverman
*Paperman, John Kahrs

I'm going to predict that Adam and Dog will take the cake. Korean pride!

BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

*Asad, Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
*Buzkashi Boys, Sam French and Ariel Nasr
*Curfew, Shawn Christensen
*Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw), Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
*Henry, Yan England

Total guess. The title alone sounds cool.

BEST SOUND EDITING

Argo, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn,
Django Unchained, Wylie Stateman
*Life of Pi, Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
*Skyfall, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
*Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N.J. Ottosson

At last! A category for which I've seen more than one of the nominated movies! I feel almost competent to judge this. Sound Editing is one of those categories where lesser genres can dominate: action, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy. Providing a movie's auditory elements is no small feat; so much depends on the sound. I think Skyfall is a strong contender here, but I'm going to go with what I know and vote for Django. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Zero Dark Thirty took this one home.

BEST SOUND MIXING

Argo, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
*Les Misérables, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
*Life of Pi, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
*Lincoln, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
*Skyfall, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson

Sound mixing provides a film's auditory dimensionality; it's all about producing a seamless listening experience for the viewer. I'd say it's going to be a close run between Lincoln and Life of Pi, with Lincoln clinching this. It's a good bet that a movie nominated in twelve categories is going to take home at least some of those twelve.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

*The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
*Life of Pi, Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
Marvel's The Avengers, Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
*Prometheus, Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
*Snow White and the Huntsman, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson

I've seen (and reviewed) The Avengers, which had some pretty amazing special effects, but if I know the mind of the Motion Picture Academy, I think it'll pick The Hobbit. Peter Jackson's Weta special effects house has, since 2000, gained the stature of an ILM; they do great work there, with an international team. The Hobbit is a massive project, only one-third of which is visible in the current film. At the very least, Jackson and Weta deserve points for their ambition. The other contenders are strong, though, so I'm a bit shaky about my choice, here. Except regarding Snow White: I'm positive that Snow White won't win, unless the Academy has a cruel sense of humor.

BEST WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

Argo, Written by Chris Terrio
*Beasts of the Southern Wild, Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
*Life of Pi, Written by David Magee
*Lincoln, Written by Tony Kushner
*Silver Linings Playbook, Written by David O. Russell

My instinct, when it comes to screenwriting, is to go with whatever's quirkiest. By that criterion, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook are the strongest in this category. I'd really like to see both of these movies, each of which possesses a singular charm, if the previews are any indication. Of those two films, I think Beasts will take home the prize.

BEST WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

*Amour, Written by Michael Haneke
Django Unchained, Written by Quentin Tarantino
*Flight, Written by John Gatins
*Moonrise Kingdom, Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
*Zero Dark Thirty, Written by Mark Boal

I have a sad, sinking feeling that Wes Anderson is going to nail this one, because he's the quirkiest of the quirky when it comes to weird, deadpan, comedic storytelling. I'm not a fan of Wes Anderson-- not at all. I don't like his sense of humor, and I've come away from two of his films (Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) feeling as if I'd wasted my time. I love Bill Murray as an actor, but can't fathom why he keeps working with Anderson. I'd much rather see the poignant Amour or the gritty Django win the statuette, but I think the Academy is too preoccupied with fellating Anderson for that to happen.

So those are my predictions for the upcoming Oscars. Like last time, I'm sure I'll get only about 30% of my predictions correct (all the ones that have to do with Lincoln), but this won't stop me from making Oscar predictions next year. There's something fun about prognostication: you may end up making a total ass of yourself by the end, but in the meantime, you're measuring yourself against reality, using reason and intuition to try to understand and foresee its flow. It's a test of mettle and acumen.

Feel free to make your own predictions in the comments section.


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