Saturday, November 30, 2013

this past Tuesday's meal

A shot of the "Course B" cafeteria meal I had this past Tuesday: weird spam spaghetti and assorted veggies, including, of course, kimchi (which I wrapped around clumps of spaghetti and ate). The fries could have been from Ore-Ida. Click to enlarge:






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about that "prehistoric toilet"

My buddy Tom insisted that I blog this story, so... here you go, Tom. Happy now?

The BBC reports that the world's oldest "prehistoric toilet" has been found in La Rioja Province, Argentina: a patch of ground containing numerous examples of desiccated dinosaur feces, ranging from small to gigantic, that may be as much as a quarter of a billion years old. Scientists rejoice at the trove, which has the potential to reveal much about the ancient world.

A bit of trivia: our galaxy takes approximately 250 million years to revolve once. Assuming cosmologists are correct that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, this means that our galaxy has revolved, at most, only about 54 or 55 times. It's amazing to think that a single galactic revolution brought us from dinosaurs to modern humans. (I have to wonder, along with the Beatles, what the earth was like during Revolution Number Nine.)


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Friday, November 29, 2013

the new segregationism

I'm an unapologetic cultural assimilationist. I think that people who come to live in America, no matter their original culture, have a duty to assimilate into the larger culture and to obey the law of the land. If a Korean lives in America for thirty years, but still can't speak a lick of English, I think English-fluent Americans have a right to be annoyed and to grouse, "Why can't you speak English?" The subtext undergirding that question is assimilationism: Why can't you be more like the rest of us—the majority of us? Why haven't you made the effort?*

It used to be the case that America celebrated its ethnic/cultural diversity while also lifting up the values that were—supposedly—common to us all, the values that bound us together as a people who were together by choice. E pluribus unum. Nowadays, however, it's becoming much more difficult to find that balanced perspective: there's much more pluribus than unum.

This pluribus-mania manifests itself on both the left and the right. On the left, we've got the strong push toward a heedless "multiculturalism" that is essentially a form of blind relativism. According to this point of view, no culture can ever be superior to (or "better than") another culture; all cultures are equal, and no intercultural disrespect—even humorous—will be tolerated in thought, word, and deed. Along with these notions is the idea that people of diverse backgrounds must live and work together: if diversity is our strength, then to be as strong as possible, we should be forced into culturally diverse situations.

On the right, there's been blowback against this liberal push: increasingly among political and social conservatives, the dominant paradigm has become "stop the mixing and let everyone self-sort the way they want to because diversity is unworkable." According to this view, like favors like: Qui se ressemblent s'assemblent. Birds of a feather, and all that. More and more sociological studies are confirming what, to conservatives, has been a long-standing truth: the more cultural/ethnic diversity there is in a given region, the less the sense of true community, and the more the potential for verbal and physical conflict. Better to stop integrating schools, for instance, and just let people sort themselves however they want. Better to stop those nonsensical "diversity workshops" and "diversity appreciation" courses at universities: cultivating a simple sense of decency should be enough for us all to live together.

While I agree with conservatives that people naturally come together with people who are like them, and that the result is greater social harmony (cf. Scandinavian countries with their low diversity, low crime rates, and great education), I often feel as if there were something more sinister going on under the surface. This creepiness pops up at certain moments in public discourse: Michelle Malkin infamously advocated both "internment camps" for illegal immigrants as well as rounding the illegals up and simply trucking them out of the country. Both of these ideas hark back to darker moments in the history of the twentieth century.

While I agree with liberals that living in the midst of diversity can confer a sort of worldly wisdom and make us more aware of our common humanity, I often feel there's something sinister in the liberal project as well: it's a social-engineering experiment that is leading the country to a nihilistic dead end via the path of relativism. If a person can't condemn honor killings, clitoridectomies, and other horrifying acts against women because "we can't judge other cultures," something is deeply wrong with that person. There is, in my view, absolutely nothing the matter with judging other cultures from the axiological perspective one has. Values are, by definition, not negotiable, not provisional, and not parochial: they apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times. If you believe all women should have the right to express themselves as loudly and as proudly as they want, then you believe that's true not just for the women of your own culture, but for others as well: ALL women should have this right. Otherwise, your convictions aren't really convictions, and you reveal yourself merely to be a shifty, lying coward. Sorry, Star Trek, but I do not subscribe to the Prime Directive: it is possible for us to judge other cultures—just as they can legitimately judge ours.

Quite the opposite of "diversity training," I think there should be a stronger push toward "unity training"—a reminder that there's an unum that's worth preserving, worth dying for. This is the hard path: far from trucking people out or throwing them into internment camps, this path involves relentless education. Sure, let people self-sort into their ethnically un-diverse communities, but remind the citizens that something still binds them together, namely, a set of ideas that all American citizens should take as gospel: the primacy of the US Constitution, the gubernatorial paradigm it delineates, and the basic freedoms it proclaims; the value of free markets/free trade; the necessity of federalism to keep state and local powers in check; the need for a culture of free expression, free discussion, and free debate; the crucial role that science plays in technological progress; the simple belief in, and love of, liberty in all its forms. There should also be an obvious limit to our society's tolerance: we cannot tolerate intolerance. Let those who rail against this vision of America leave, if they're so convinced that greener pastures lie elsewhere.

The "new segregationism" that I sense among modern conservatives is disappointing because it's a turn away from the old assimilationism. Instead of "Why can't you be more like us?", it's become "You live with your people; I'll live with mine." The result of the new attitude will be exactly the thing that conservative thinkers like Allan Bloom, writing in the 1980s, feared: balkanization, resulting in an even deeper fragmentation as "undiversity" becomes the rule and incestuous amplification builds up within each "pure" group, leading to precisely the sort of racial and cultural ignorance I see daily in undiverse South Korea. It's an ignorance that, if it takes deep enough root, will lead to conflict just as surely as the multiculturalist route will.



*This is, by the way, how I feel about living in Korea. An expat has a duty to learn the language, understand the culture, and respect the laws of the country that feeds, clothes, and otherwise nurtures him. This is the most sincere thank you an expat can give. Most Koreans aren't assimilationist at all; they have low to no expectations when it comes to foreigners, which is why Koreans are eternally surprised whenever they encounter a foreigner who has bothered to learn any amount of Korean. I was happy to discover one Korean lady, however, who stands as a welcome exception to this Korean tendency: my new barber. She's loud, her accent is almost incomprehensible to me, but she goes on and on about how the foreigners who come to her salon really need to learn Korean. Good for her, I say!


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living planet

Assume for a moment that our earth's total mass, which would be the sum of its biomass and its abiotic mass, is relatively constant. Assume, too, that the amount of biomass has been increasing (which has certainly been the case with the human population). Will there come a point when the entire planet becomes biomass? If not, why not?* Is there an asymptote somewhere—some threshold that defines just how much earth-matter can sustainably become biomass? Has anyone ever tried to map this out before? What would it be like to live on a planet where every iota of matter is or was alive?



*If you say it's because gravitational pressure will always mean there's a superheated (and thus uninhabitable) core, I'd counterargue that humans may be clever enough to start building their civilizations inward, toward the core, and perhaps all the way through it, possibly even cooling down the superheating along the way.


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my Thanksgiving nightmare story

Koreans have no reason to celebrate American Thanksgiving, so it was business as usual for me at the university: I still had to teach my regular 3PM Thursday class. Toward the end of class, however, I was suddenly hit by the urge to take a massive dump. As normally happens in situations where I have to shit but can do nothing about it immediately, I began to sweat and to act in a slightly more agitated manner than usual, growling and pacing back and forth in front of my students like a zoo tiger impatient to rip apart the deer that's cowering the next cage over. When class was finally done, I hastily dismissed my students and charged out of the classroom with them—something I almost never do. Because I had arrived barely on time at the beginning of class, I had toted my travel bag with me. Normally, when I arrive earlier, I have time to stash the bag in my faculty office. As you'll soon see, the fact that I had my bag with me was rather important.

I rushed down the hallway to the men's room, weaving deftly and desperately among the milling students, envisioning nothing but the sweet release of the raging shit-creatures from the confines of my ass. Unlike the tiny restroom on the fourth floor (where our offices are located), the second-floor men's room was huge, and my introverted self was delighted to see that the stall at the very end of a long row of stalls was empty. I made a beeline for it, slammed the door shut, ripped down my pants, dropped heavily onto the toilet, and proceeded to release the fetid demons from my guts. They screamed wetly as they left me. I closed my eyes in pleasure. Yes: it was that good.

When I opened my eyes again, I instinctively looked right, toward the toilet-paper dispenser... and that's when the horror began.

Almost no paper on the roll.

In my fevered rush to set the monsters free, I had neglected to perform my standard precautionary: normally, one of the very first things I do is look to see whether there's any toilet paper. In this dispenser, there was barely anything—just the wispy remains of a once-proud rouleau, puny and evanescent, like the lingering sigh of a dying man. My mind began, Terminator-like, to calculate all the alternative scenarios in drop-down-menu form. With almost no toilet paper, and knowing full well that the demons had not exited cleanly from my anus, I could:

1. stand up, ass full of shit, and move one cubicle over to get toilet paper. The risk of falling chunkage, and/or of between-the-buttocks smearage, would be unacceptably high.

2. try to scrape the dregs of toilet paper off the roll in the hopes that that would yield enough paper for at least one good wipe—just potent enough that I could safely enact option (1), but with less shit coating the ass. But when I tried scraping, my fingernails were unable to get a purchase on the paper: it was too thoroughly glued to the cardboard cylinder.

3. wipe my ass with my bare hand, as I've heard, time and again, happens at public toilets all over India. But what would I rinse my hand with? The water from the toilet? Flush for clean water, wipe ass, rinse fingers, flush, wipe again... the scenario was just too disgusting.

And finally:

4. create a toilet-paper analogue.

Option (4) seemed like the least repulsive plan of action, and was doable because I had brought my bag with me. I hopefully searched my bag for any sort of tissue-like paper, but there was none. I did, however, have inside my bag a plastic slip-cover in which were stored several sheets of A4-sized printer paper. If I could convert at least one sheet of printer paper into usable toilet paper, I could rip the sheet in half and get two good wipes from it. For you see: along with thinking about how to create toilet paper on the fly, I had to consider my mission parameters—what was the object of the game, here? The object of the game was simply to prep me for a quick move to another toilet stall. My asshole had to be clean enough that, when I began to walk and my buttock cheeks began inevitably to slide against each other, there wouldn't be enough shit to produce massive smearing, like a kindergartener finger-painting the inner walls of my hairy chasm.

So I rifled around inside my bag, found the plastic cover, and took out two A4 sheets. The paper was smooth; there was no way that it would lift any of the shit off. Lifting action required paper with a surface that was rough enough to grab the fecal matter, but smooth enough not to snag and disintegrate during or after a single wipe. To roughen the paper, I had to crumple it thoroughly. I did so, crushing it into a ball several times until the sheet was covered with a million tiny triangles. I stroked my finger across the paper, and came away unconvinced that the paper was rough enough for proper wiping. Something more needed to be done. Then it hit me.

I wadded the paper up, popped it into my mouth, and chewed.

The taste of laser-printer toner was terrible—bitter and artificial—and I imagined all those free-floating toner carcinogens nestling in weird places inside my body, biding their time and blossoming into cancers twenty years later. But when I pulled the paper out of my mouth and felt its surface again, it actually felt like toilet paper. Mission accomplished.

I ripped the paper in half and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had created a most effective wiping implement. I used both halves of the sheet and realized that I didn't need to crumple the second sheet of printer paper, which I slipped back into my bag. I flushed, pulled my pants back up, buckled my belt, and got the hell out of that cubicle, happy that my fingertips were shit-free. I washed my hands and went up to the fourth floor, dropped my bag off at my office work station, went over to the smaller fourth-floor men's room, and finished the wiping job. As it turned out, there wasn't much to finish: the ad hoc toilet paper had been so efficacious that over 90% of the ass-goblins had been airlifted out of the kill zone.

The whole situation made me marvel at what happens to people in desperate situations. They become clever and inventive, for one thing—their minds open up and consider previously unthinkable alternatives. But people also easily reduce themselves to barbarism: there was a moment, early on in my nightmare, when I seriously considered digging into my quivering asshole with my bare fingers. For a few seconds, that was actually a plausible alternative.

There we have it, folks: the story of my Thanksgiving nightmare. I can only hope that your own Thanksgiving was less... shitty.


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Thursday, November 28, 2013

another thing to be thankful for

My buddy Charles recently received an award for his translation of Black Flower by Kim Young-ha. At Liminality, he offers us another translation: that of his acceptance speech.


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bursting with joy

My buddy Dr. Steve sends me a link to this YouTube vid, which depicts the sort of effusiveness and plenitude that one would expect on a holiday like Thanksgiving.

How different would "The Empire Strikes Back" have been had the same thing happened between Han Solo and that tauntaun?


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what am I thankful for?

I'll just let you figure out what I'm thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving.






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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

dharma + logos = dharmalogian...?

It's been a while since I wrote anything about religion. Perhaps my last major piece was The Tao of Chance, which covered a good bit of interreligious ground in its exploration of Christ-figures and notions of sainthood from various traditions. In recent years, I've felt as if I have nothing left to say about religion, religious diversity, or interreligious dialogue: I've shot my wad. Every once in a while, though, something will come along that piques my interest. In this case, I was—for whatever reason—roped into a Twitter conversation that began this way:

What do you all think about the term dharmalogian (as in Buddhist theologian) ? Term by @courtneybruntz

My off-the-cuff reply, in two tweets:

I'd rather stick w/nothing but Greek roots.

"Nomos" means "law," which is also one meaning of "dharma"... nomologian?

Other people disagreed. Seon Joon sunim wrote the following over two tweets:

Too restrictive. And a hybrid term (Sksrt/Greek) better exemplifies the hybrid nature of Western academic work in Buddhism.

If anything, dharmalogian is more restrictive, given the specificity inherent in cleaving to the Sanskrit: when a Westerner hears the word dharma, there can be no mistaking that the term refers almost exclusively to the Hindu or the Buddhist tradition. Nomos, by contrast, is a bit more open-ended. Seon Joon sunim's point about an etymological hybrid is well taken, but I squirm whenever I see such terms. There's a dude on Twitter who goes by the handle Lupus Anthropos, which strikes me as a clumsy fusion of Latin and Greek. (He should have called himself Lycos Anthropos; that, at least, would have been consistently Greek.)

Not that such hybrid terms don't already exist in Buddhist studies: a major example would be the noun Buddhology (capitalized or uncapitalized) and the adjective Buddhological, both of which take their cue from the older terms Christology (the study of the significance of Jesus as Christ) and Christological. Buddhology, then, is the study of the significance of Gautama as the Buddha; the analogy is fairly accurate.

But with dharmalogian, the word dharma is being used in such a way that an analogy is formed with theos (theos + logos, dharma + logos), and I'm just not seeing that. Theos is the undisputed core term in Christian theology, but in Buddhism, there are a few terms that are jockeying for that label: sunyata (emptiness) might be one; pratitya-samutpada (dependent origination/co-arising) might be another. Each of these terms—along with dharma—says something fundamental about the ontology of the cosmos.

Dharma is, of course, a hellishly tricky word to translate. There is a sense in which it means something like "fundamental nature," but I associate that particular meaning more with Hinduism than with Buddhism. Buddhists often use dharma to refer to the Buddha's teachings, which are a reflection of the cosmic law that is the engine of the universe. Dharma can also mean "phenomena," as in the Heart Sutra's famous formulation, jae beop gong sang (제법공상, 諸法空相): all-phenomena-empty-character, i.e., all phenomena (dharmas) have the character of emptiness. The Chinese "法" (beop in Korean pronunciation; fa in Chinese) means "law," but in a Buddhist context it means dharma and, by extension in the Heart Sutra and elsewhere, "phenomena."

So dharma might—might!—be a plausible analogue for theos, but there are major disanalogies, first among them being that dharma doesn't refer to a supreme being possessing personhood and a will. If theology is ordered discourse about a personalistic ultimate, is dharmaology (or dharmology) ordered discourse about an impersonalistic ultimate? The Buddhist takes a risk in saying yes because, if s/he is striving to establish an analogy between theology and dharmaology, it's important to recognize that, for Christian theologians, there are actually three Logoi: theology (about God), Christology (about the Christ), and pneumatology (about the Holy Spirit). Is dharmaology supposed to sit alongside Buddhology and some as-yet-unknown third term? When I think of John Hick's label impersonae, which Hick used to designate impersonal absolutes, my first thought, when it comes to Buddhism, is that the word dharma doesn't represent the impersonal ultimate reality: that would be sunyata.* Why not sunyatology and sunyatalogians, then? Probably because dharma is more widely known among laypeople... and besides, it sounds more charming.

Facetiousness aside, this is a fascinating terminological question, but an aging, crotchety, curmudgeonly part of my brain is wondering why a separate term is needed at all. What's wrong with "Buddhist theologian?" This term already exists, along with "Buddhist theology," and in both cases the word theos has been semantically stretched to accommodate more than the Christian notion of theos: in the Buddhist context, theos is re-understood as ultimate reality, be that dharma or sunyata or pratitya-samutpada or buddha-dhatu (bul seong, 불성, 佛性: Buddha-nature).

But that's just me being curmudgeonly. Dharmalogian sounds like a fine term, and while I still think it is, at best, a shaky analogue with theologian, it at least has the advantage of focusing the layman's attention on South Asian philosophy and religion (though it is, perhaps, not quite restrictive enough to denote Buddhism exclusively).



*This is in line with Hick's own thinking. Taken simply and literally, the word dharma has no clear ontological or metaphysical valence: it merely indicates that existence has a nature. A word like sunyata, by contrast, reveals what that nature is. The same goes for pratitya-samutpada and buddha-dhatu, both of which say more about the nature of existence than does the neutral term dharma.


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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

the conversation went like this

A student walked up to me after I had dismissed today's beginner-level class.

"One of my friends asked me about this class," she said.

"Oh?" I said.

"He asked me who is my speaking teacher."

"Hm," I said.

"I said 'Kevin is my teacher.' He said, 'Big Kevin?'"

I had a sinking feeling. My student continued:

"I said, 'No—cute Kevin!'"

I smiled hollowly. The damage had already been done.

"'Big Kevin,'" I repeated, grinning and nodding absently in defeat.

"Don't worry," said my student in a reassuring tone: "My friend is big, too."


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126.6

I'm down to 126.6 kilograms (279.15 pounds). Pound-wise, this finally puts me in the 270s.


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Monday, November 25, 2013

weird dream

Woke up from a very strange dream. In it, my cousin stabbed me in the neck with some sort of hypodermic needle, and he nicked my neck-innards in such a way that, if I moved my head around too much, I'd end up paralyzing myself. I was then compelled or impelled to drive to a different city, all while keeping my head as stable as possible.

It was a relief to wake up from that dream.


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your dose of Huxley

I noted earlier (thanks to Dr. V) that JFK shares his death day with both CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley. I just saw this Huxley quote at Dictionary.com:

Give me Catholicism every time. Father Cheeryble with his thurible; Father Chatterjee with his liturgy. What fun they have with all their charades and conundrums! If it weren't for the Christianity they insist on mixing in with it, I'd be converted tomorrow.

—Aldous Huxley (apparently a lover of pomp and ritual, but not of religious content)


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Sunday, November 24, 2013

the great downhill

Except for a couple school-sanctioned makeup classes, I will be done teaching all my classes this coming week. This coming week, then, will be devoted to reviewing for the final exam, and after that, it's up to the students to remember everything they've been taught. They've got a major listening test coming up at the beginning of December, followed by my final exam, which they'll be doing in groups the week after the listening test. So after this week, it's the mop-up: for my Wednesday and Thursday classes, we've got two makeup days, then it's all downhill: the kids take the listening test and the final, I grade everything, then punch in the grades... and it's two months of gloriously paid vacation for this fat boy. I won't know what to do with myself. But I'm sure I'll figure something out.


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Saturday, November 23, 2013

thank you, America

My mother's Korean name was Kim Suk-ja. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a sister-act singing group called The Kim Sisters rose to prominence—perhaps an early example of the so-called Korean Wave. Of the three sisters in that group, the eldest was also named Kim Sook-ja (note the different romanization). I'm poring over a 75-page interview transcript with Mrs. Kim from 1996 (Kim was 55 at the time); she appeared along with her sisters on "The Ed Sullivan Show" twenty-two times—quite possibly the most that any given act ever appeared on that show. At one point in the interview, my mother's namesake says the following:

I was not born here, and I was not spoiled. I come from nothing and I came to this country with God's help and my mother's, and I feel that I am so fortunate to be here in the U.S.A. I've been around the world three times and I've seen it all, but there is no place like the U.S.A., and this is the honest truth. Unfortunately, people who've been living here all their lives, they didn't go anywhere. It's hard for them to visualize what it's like to me. I feel bad for them, but they don't know any better. You following me? So, I cannot say they're wrong or they're right, but my image of America was more than I even dreamt about, you know, and I would like to show everybody as a mother, as a woman, as performer, that all I know is that I am grateful.


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Friday, November 22, 2013

Ave, Elisson!

Elisson writes a respectful tribute to JFK, assassinated 50 years ago today.

UPDATE: Dr. Vallicella observes that JFK shares this death date with Aldous Huxley (he of Brave New World fame) and C.S. Lewis (he of Narnia/friend-of-Tolkien fame). All three men died 50 years ago today.


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photo assortment

I once again find myself extremely busy as I deal with some weekend projects (designing my final-exam review materials, for example), so I'm going to slap up pictures, thereby cleverly dodging the responsibility of writing something substantive. Some food pics first:



Next: my friend Seungmin's gift to me, from her mom—a pair of jangseung keychains, which Seungmin says were carved by a famous monk. I told her that I wouldn't use them as keychains, as I didn't want them to get all scratched up in my pockets.


Below: Seungmin saw my Boogie Board, which I had brought over from the States. She wrote the rough Korean equivalent of a Keanu-style "Whoa!" of astonishment on the board: Shin-gi hada! Charles once told me that there were at least two ways to render "shin-gi" in hanja (Sino-Korean characters); one of them was "神氣," where "神" (shin) means "god" or "spirit," and "氣" (gi/ki) means "vital force," "material force," "energy," or even "breath" (cf. pneuma). That's my preferred rendering; I've forgotten the other one. Shin-gi hada refers to a feeling that's a mixture of being creeped out, awed, and mystified. It's a distant cousin of Rudolf Otto's famous formulation for one's experience of the holy: mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the frightening, compelling mystery.


And finally, a modest Seungmin herself, standing in front of the Blessed Virgin last week:


She just texted today to say that she finally passed her test (second try!) to get into Ehwa University's Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation (GSTI). Her hope is to become an interpreter who does a lot of work in English. I've got my fingers crossed for her.

And that's it for now. More Pohang, etc., pics later.


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100 Below: Volume 43

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” asked the master, eyes narrowed and accusing. 

“Mu!” responded the student proudly, parroting the classic rejoinder.

“Don’t imitate a cow,” groused the master. “Now for a more difficult question: hard liquor or lick her hard?”

“Huh?” asked the student, taken aback, yet strangely titillated.

“Exactly!” shouted the master, grabbing the student’s crotch with age-taloned fingers and shaking it violently.

You know what I like about the above story? I like that it’s impossible to determine the sex of either character. And deep down, you know you like that fact, too.


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Thursday, November 21, 2013

almost as expensive here as it was there

At my apartment in Front Royal, Virginia, the only power bill I had to pay was for electricity. On average, my electric bill was about $60-$80 per month. There was no separate gas bill. Here in Hayang, my electric bill went from about $30 (US) to about $15 once I stopped using my air conditioning. The gas company didn't bill me until just today, however, and the bill I got floored me: W50,800, or just about $46, for the period from October 4 to November 1. So for power, i.e., gas plus electric, I'm paying about $61 per month—this despite the fact that my studio is about a third of the size of my previous digs. Ouch.


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connectivity weirdness

So my Internet service was out when I signed on this morning around 9AM. I normally tutor my goddaughter in French every Thursday at 11AM (when it's 9PM the previous day in Fredericksburg, Virginia); service was still out when tutoring time rolled around, so I had to cancel. The strange thing was this: a repair guy came to my studio and said he'd received a call that service was out in 302—my room. But I had made no such call. He told me that service would likely be restored "in the afternoon." After speaking with me in Korean the entire time, he reinforced his point by saying "afternoon" in English. I almost laughed.


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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

tonight's mini-conference presentation: review

Whew—glad that's over. The presenter before me was excellent, so I had a tough act to follow. While I won't say that I was raked over the coals, I did come away feeling as if someone had taken a hairbrush and combed my scalp pretty violently. I didn't present the conventional way, which caused some antsiness; I went the experiential route and put my twelve listeners through the round-robin method (they had to teach each other some basics about Buddhism—its metaphysics, its praxis, its anthropology,* its major concepts/doctrines). As I hoped for, this had the effect of making the audience's questions more focused than they might otherwise have been, because the questions were now rooted in experience.

Some folks admitted feeling confused at the beginning of the round robin; one person questioned the value of using this approach more than infrequently because he found the three-round format boring. Others thought that, because a given team will teach its lesson three times, the team might learn its own material very well, but wouldn't internalize the information coming (only once) from the other three teams. I responded to that critique by noting that the English textbook we use contains plenty of interlocking, mutually reinforcing information: the eight sections in a given chapter repeat grammatical structures, vocabulary, and expressions, which means the students are always reinforcing each other's learning.

On the more positive side, some colleagues said my method was great for getting the students talking for an extended period of time while minimizing the professor's role in the classroom. Other colleagues agreed that the students doing this method would remain on task and energized. Another person liked the way my format kept the students physically moving. Yet another commented that he uses similar student-centered strategies in his classes. One gentleman liked my method enough to say that he planned to implement it, to some degree, in the coming semesters. I naturally had more sympathy for these observations than I had for the complaints and criticisms.

But I did find most of the criticisms useful. No one was overly vicious; most of the questions I heard, even the ones that made me squirm, were perfectly legitimate. Dr. Hodges returns often to the notion that the West cultivates a culture of discussion and critique: you can't seriously expect to enter a room full of academics and hear only blind praise. And when it comes to critiques, I keep my own counsel: I possess a strong enough sense of what I consider right and wrong, pedagogically speaking, to weather complaints; this sense allows me to evaluate or dismiss any criticism that comes my way. So I'll respectfully consider much of what I heard tonight, but I'll also respectfully disagree with some of the criticism that I thought was wrongheaded.

That said, it was a tiring experience, and I was operating on only two hours' sleep. So I'm going to sign off and, very likely, go to bed early.




*By anthropology, I mean Buddhism's take on the human condition.


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"one reality" redux

Polemarchus: So you say that, if there are multiple universes, then they are all encapsulated in a larger, unifying context, like eggs in an egg carton?

Socrates: I do say so.

Polemarchus: And what if I say that there are many egg cartons?

Socrates: Then I say that there is one egg truck in which all the egg cartons may fit.

Polemarchus: And if there are many egg trucks?

Socrates: Then there is one land containing all the egg trucks.

Polemarchus: But if there are many lands, then...?

Socrates: Then there is one world on the surface of which all the lands exist.

Polemarchus: And if there are many worlds?

Socrates: Then there is one solar system containing those many worlds.

Polemarchus: But if there are many solar systems? Then what?

Socrates: Then there exists one galaxy that embraces them all.

Polemarchus: Indeed? And if there are many galaxies?

Socrates: Then there is one universe that contains all galaxies.

Polemarchus: You flabbergast me! And if there are many universes?

Socrates: Then there is one multiverse or omniverse. No matter how many "manies" there are, there will always be the One—the one all-encompassing context that includes the multitude of manies.

Polemarchus: But what if the one/many progression simply goes on and on forever—for all the manies, a One, for the many Ones, a meta-One, for the many meta-Ones, a meta-meta-One, and so on?

Socrates: Then, my dear Polemachus, there exists a single, unifying context in which resides that infinite progression. There is no escaping the One.


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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

wut I B dreadin'

Tomorrow, I'm giving a 45-minute presentation on my round-robin teaching method. I have no idea how it'll go over with a critical crowd of fellow language teachers, but my biggest worry is that I'm going to end up offending some of them: I'm going to be hammering home the point that, if you're up in front of the class speaking at length, then you're lecturing, and that's never a good thing. Classes should ideally be task-oriented, student-centered, and cooperative where possible.

To be fair, I have no idea how many teachers might feel put on the spot by what I'll be saying. Perhaps none will. Perhaps no one lectures, in which case there ought to be no problem. But if some of my colleagues are the types who declaim at length from their lofty perch (our classrooms actually have raised, stage-like platforms that subtly increase the teacher's air of authority), they won't like what I have to say, and they'll feel defensive. I, of course, have no control over how secure or insecure my colleagues might be, but I still worry that I'll be ruffling the wrong feathers tomorrow. I hope I won't be. I'm going to try to avoid sermonizing, which means I won't be saying things like If you're up in front of the class speaking at length, then you're lecturing, and that's never a good thing.

Diplomacy. Diplomacy.


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Monday, November 18, 2013

the problem with the simulation hypothesis

Are we living inside a simulation? This was a question posed and tentatively answered by UK philosopher Nick Bostrom, who famously contended that it would be reasonable to suppose that we are, in fact, merely sentient programs navigating a simulated universe (see here).

But does this mean there's no such thing as a real reality? Not at all. However many universes you posit, there must always be some larger, unifying context in which those universes are nestled, like eggs in an all-containing egg carton. Whether you envision multiple universes as sitting side-by-side, or as nestled within each other like the layers of an onion, the fact remains that there can only be one overarching reality that contains everything. As thought-experiments go, this one's a bit of a no-brainer.

So even if we're sentient simulations, living out our vain little lives, this doesn't change the fact that there's only one reality. If we do turn out to be simulations, I don't see how that would affect my life, either. Would my life suddenly become devoid of purpose? Would such a realization cause me to contemplate suicide? No. Not at all. I'd continue to bumble through my everyday existence, secure in the knowledge that, even if I'm a simulation, I'm a simulation that exists.

And how is that state of affairs all that different from any number of ancient philosophical and religious insights? Plato's analogy of the cave, for example, claims that the human condition is a benighted one: we traffic in shadows without understanding that there's a deeper, more significant, more real reality—the reality bathed in light. Hinduism's other-worldly focus sometimes reads this phenomenal world as maya, or illusion (NB: it would be a grave misconstrual of Hinduism to say that maya simply means illusion). Buddhism also posits that the basic human condition is one of avidya, or blindness to/ignorance of the actual nature of reality. What is the simulation hypothesis, then, but another way of saying that our existence is a frail, shadowy thing compared to the reality inhabited by the cosmic programmers?

(And who is to say that those programmers aren't themselves programs inside an even greater reality? And where does that progression end?)


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Sunday, November 17, 2013

the tiniest meal

I was at the local convenience store, buying my drinks, when I saw a box full of gumball-sized hamburgers, each burger in its own tiny plastic container. The burgers looked like waxy keychain trinkets, but I guessed they were candy. The girl at the counter confirmed this: they were Gummi burgers, she said. I immediately grabbed one, but the girl gave me a dubious look and asked me whether I was sure I wanted to buy one. "Students really like these," she said, implying that I was too old to enjoy such frippery. Responding to the subtext of her remark, I said, "I'm young at heart." She nodded seriously, obviously not sensing my humorous intent.




The burger tasted just as Gummi-ish as typical Gummi candy. I could eat several.



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Saturday, November 16, 2013

otherwise occupied

Sorry for the lack of Saturday blogging. I was, uh, entertaining someone. Or, as you see here, she was entertaining me.







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Friday, November 15, 2013

have I been doing it wrong this whole time?

While shopping for budae-jjigae ingredients this afternoon, I had an interesting exchange with the local butcher. I had told him I was going to be making my favorite stew, and that I needed some ground beef. He gave me a look and said, "For budae-jjigae, you're supposed to use ground pork." This floored me. I gaped, but the guy was adamant.

"I've made it with beef many times," I said.

The butcher shook his head. "In Korea, we use ground pork."

Pork was cheaper—about half the price, per 100 grams, of the beef. So I relented and asked the man to grind up 400 grams of pig. He grabbed what looked to be half of a pig's ass, ran some ass-meat through the slicer, then took the sliced meat over to a grinder. 420 grams. Not a bad guess for having eyeballed his measurement.

Curious, I went online after coming back from the grocery and looked up some budae-jjigae recipes. Some recipes do indeed call for pork (see here, for instance). Some, however, go with beef (see here, and try to ignore the vomitous Christmas-lights border, as well as the ridiculously small amount of beef recommended: 50 grams, i.e., not even two ounces). Given how many types of budae-jjigae there are, I'd say it's up to you as to how you prepare your stew. There's no "This is how Koreans do it" rule. That's bullshit.

So fuck it—next time, I'm insisting on beef.


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127.5

Down to 127.5 kilograms, from 128.3 at the last weigh-in. Imagine that.

My ass is still huge, though.


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Thursday, November 14, 2013

proud of my kids

We've been doing presentations in my speaking classes. After a slew of fairly uninspired speeches and slide shows—all of them centering on food—the final team of intermediate-level students did something very different: they chose to talk about jobs, and they crafted a presentation that took the form of a vocabulary lesson.

It was very well put-together. The students covered most of the jobs featured in our textbook: pilot, architect, model, designer, teacher, police officer, etc. First, they displayed pictures of a given job and asked the audience (their fellow students) what they thought each job was before revealing the vocabulary word. The presenters then took turns explaining the various jobs. After all the jobs had been explained, there were two reinforcement activities: first, there was a listen-and-repeat section. Second, at the very end, there was a "fill in the blanks"-style quiz in which audience members were encouraged to shout out the vocab. The audience participated with gusto; everyone enjoyed themselves.

It was obvious that my kids had internalized the lessons they had learned from a semester of teaching each other: they understood how to introduce their target concepts, how to lift the audience out of a passive role and get people engaged in the learning, how to convey information via more than one of the five senses (they used PowerPoint visuals), and how to review and reinforce the concepts covered. Their presentation was easily the best of the day, and I was proud of them.

POSTSCRIPT: The kids weren't modest about their achievement, either. When I asked them why they had chosen jobs as their topic, and why they had chosen to format their presentation as a classroom lesson, they cheerfully declared that everyone else was talking about food, so they wanted to do something unique.

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signs of fall

You know it's fall when November 11, a.k.a. Pepero Day, rolls around. Occasionally, students give gifts, usually Pepero, on Pepero Day. In this case, a student got me something called Tonk, a box of crunchy, vanilla cream-filled sticks. Quite tasty. The name "Tonk" put me in mind of Nymphadora Tonks from the Harry Potter books—a striking minor character with a tragic arc: she's a young, cute, twenty-something "metamorphmagus" witch (she can shape-change at will) with a naughty thing for older men. First, she hangs around with crusty old Mad-Eye Moody, then she hooks up with grizzled veteran Remus Lupin, who must be pushing 50 when he and Tonks meet. She and Lupin are killed in the final book of the series during the Battle of Hogwarts Castle, but Tonks gives birth to a son before that happens.

My box of Tonk:


Switching gears, now: below, I took one of my better shots of some fall color on campus. This is a picture of the gentle uphill path I often walk to get to my office. It's a sweaty walk for me in the summertime; now, with morning temperatures around freezing, I still sweat (yes, it's true—I'd sweat on the summit of Everest), but not nearly as much. Enjoy the colors.






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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

on cell-phone abuse

My students all bring their smart phones into class. I try to make them turn the phones off, but very few actually follow my directive: they make a show of putting their phones on the table, face-down, but in truth they leave their phones on "vibrate" mode. One thing I've noticed about the students' phones is how smashed-up so many of them are. I saw this at my previous job, too: high schoolers and middle schoolers (and even some elementary schoolers) would arrive carrying smart phones that had touch screens with spiderweb cracks on them, or with cracks that made the screens look like cathedral mosaics. Miraculously, those screens would still be functional. Here at DCU,* it's much the same story: about half of my students own seriously abused phones.

All of that makes me wonder about the product-testing that these phones go through. It can't be very rigorous, given how common it is to see damaged phones. Whatever abuse tests are happening now need to be ratcheted up to about five or six times their current intensity. In the hustle and bustle of college life, smart phones aren't merely dropped, it seems: they get kicked, stomped, dwarf-tossed, and gut-punched like the wimpiest kid in the class. If cell phones had hair, my students would pull it out. My own cell phone remains pristine thanks to my fastidiousness; I can hardly imagine breaking its lovely, elegant face.

But seriously: if product testers want to test out their newest phones, they should simply hand the beta versions over to Korean college students (or to American high schoolers), who will be sure to brutalize the devices until their cracked little screens display "UNCLE!" in large, jagged fonts that convey a sense of spine-torquing agony. If a new phone can survive two months of that sort of abuse, it's ready for prime time.



*That's my new abbreviation for my university. I'm tired of the silly acronym "CUD." The Korean way to say my university's name is "Daegu Ga-to-lik Dae-hakgyo," i.e., Daegu Catholic University, which sounds much cooler than cud. So, henceforth: DCU. Yeah, baby.


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PPT

My PowerPoint preparation continues apace. As of tonight, I've almost completely outlined what I'm going to say next week. If I sprint hard, I might even be done with all my prep by this coming Sunday. That would be nice. The basic outline of my November 20 presentation—in which I'll be pontificating on the round-robin (RR) technique I've been employing this semester—goes something like this:

I. Intro: have the audience participate in an actual round-robin class, but radically scaled down for time. Quick discussion afterward.

II. Theory: talk about the theoretical and philosophical bases for the RR method: the superiority of experience/doing over lecture/hearing; the current focus on task-oriented, student-centered activities; the way in which conferring responsibility builds self-confidence, which in turn lowers the affective filter.

III. Practice: discuss the RR method in some detail; talk about its advantages and disadvantages; address potential objections to the method; discuss actual failures encountered this semester (e.g., my beginner-level students, who resisted the RR); explore ways to improve the method next time around.

I plan to offer evidence (well, "evidence") that the method works by displaying student quiz and test results, as well as by showing a one-minute video of the RR in action, and by playing audio samples of students taking the midterm to show that student performance, with my method, is comparable to that of students in other teachers' classes.

We'll see how it all goes. I'm not looking forward to making the PPT slide show itself.


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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

11-12-13

It's November 12, 2013, or 11/12/13, the day after the dreaded Pepero Day. Some students like to give Pepero to their teachers on this day. I received a box of goodies from one of my favorite students in my Monday 11AM class, and got jack shit from my 1PM class—this after having joked, early in the semester, that I wanted one of those huge-ass, baseball-bat-sized Pepero sticks that some bakeries like to make as a Pepero Day novelty item. Ah, well. There's always next year.

Speaking of next year: 2014 will be the last time, for the century, that we can ever have one of those nifty sequential dates: 12-13-14 will be it until the 2100s, and by then my corpse will have mostly turned to dust, leaving nothing but Kevosaur bones for latter-day archeologists to puzzle over. Here's to January 2, 2103, then: 01/02/03.


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Monday, November 11, 2013

coattail linking

Malcolm provided the following link, which I now pass along to you:

The Codeless Code: An illustrated collection of (sometimes violent) fables concerning the Art and Philosophy of software development, written in the spirit of Zen kōans.


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Sunday, November 10, 2013

walkabout 3: according to Walking Mate...

My phone has a pedometer app called Walking Mate. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it feels about right. I did my third big campus walkabout today; Walking Mate, being a cruel taskmaster, sets one's walking goal at the now-famous "10,000 steps" standard. The results of today's walk:

Steps: 6118
Distance: 2.5 miles (i.e., 10,000 steps = approx. 4.1 miles)
Calories Burned: 401

Because I left for this walk earlier than I had left for my previous walk, I took plenty of photos this time around, given the better lighting conditions. Many of the sculptures that I had mentioned last time will be featured this time, so stay tuned.


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from the cafeteria: November 6

The day after Guy Fawkes Day, I had the following Course B item:


Here I make a stylistic command decision and romanize the word as soondae instead of sundae, given that sundae looks exactly like the "sundae" in "ice cream sundae." I normally don't like using double-O's; it's not aesthetically pleasing to do so.

What is soondae? It's the Korean version of blood sausage. Imagine blood and cellophane noodles (along with, perhaps, some rice) stuffed into a sausage casing and cooked (boiled, steamed, etc.) to savory perfection. I love soondae. It's a close cousin of the French boudin noir, which is also a blood sausage. The French, however, take the blood-sausage concept pretty literally, and fill the sausage casing with pig blood, fat, and little else (see here). The result is a sausage with almost no resistance when you chew it: it's got a smooth, almost buttery texture, and the blood and fat hint at the meat that contained them.

Enough boudin talk (boudinage?). So that's soondae, pictured above, in slices, next to the huge glop of rice. The sides are oi-kimchi, tofu and taters in a sweet soy sauce, and kimchi. The soup is a fish-based broth with chunks of eo-muk (molded fish paste) in it. The soup made me smile; it was thin, almost prison fare. Luckily, the rest of the tray made up for the insubstantiality of the soup.


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OS 10.9 Mavericks: a mixture of awesome and suck

First, I find it weird that Apple decided to name its newest operating system "Mavericks"—plural. Also, since the term maverick applies to horses, I assume this represents a quantum leap in nomenclature from the feline to the equine. I look forward to later OSes. Maybe we'll see names like

OS 11 Draft Horse
OS 11.1 Nag
OS 11.1.1 Mustang
OS 11.1.2 Widowmaker
OS 11.1.3 Palomino
OS 11.1.4 Mister Ed
OS 11.1.5 Silver
OS 11.1.6 Appaloosa
OS 11.1.7 Clydesdale
OS 11.2 Piss Like a Racehorse
OS 11.2.1 Hung Like a Horse
OS 11.3 Horse Around
OS 11.4 Horse Meat
OS 11.5 Horse Sense
OS 11.6 Two-bit Horse
OS 11.7 Horse's Ass
OS 11.8 Stud

[UPDATE: Reader Ronald Lee writes to tell me that the name "Mavericks" is based on a popular surfing beach in California. The Apple folks have decided to name their products after places in California that have inspired them. See here. Thanks, RL.]

A couple weeks ago, after my brother David (the family techie) told me that OS Mavericks was available from Apple.com for a free download (thank you, Apple!), I decided to update my laptop first. I had bought the laptop this past spring, and it's been going strong, but it seemed best to keep the computer as up-to-date as possible. The upgrade went well.

When I initially tried to update my desktop, however, the download kept pausing, and I eventually gave up. My 2009 iMac is getting a bit long in the tooth; it's still a very good computer, but it's slower now, and rougher around the edges, despite the fact that I haven't used even a fraction of its enormous memory capacity. Downloading huge programs can be a pain these days. That update attempt occurred about two weeks ago, but tonight, when I tried again, the download worked. Success!

Alas, two problems surfaced immediately. First, I saw a warning screen that informed me that I would no longer be able to use my MS Office 2008 software: it was from the PowerPC era, and was no longer compatible with OS Mavericks. So for the moment, I'll have to rely on Open Office to create MS Word documents. That's not tragic.

Second, OS Mavericks wiped out my good old Airport utility. This means I no longer have Wi-Fi in my studio: David had shown me, over a month ago, how to make my iMac into a Wi-Fi access point (see here), and that had stood me in good stead: I could use my laptop while sitting on my bed, and my cell phone could suckle the Wi-Fi, thereby avoiding its regular LTE bandwidth consumption. I'm currently trying to figure out how to restore Airport to my iMac now that I've got Mavericks running.

The upgraded computer itself seems, in some respects, to be running faster that it had been. In other respects, it still seems like the old clunker it was before I installed OS 10.9. A mixture of awesome and suck, for sure.


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Saturday, November 09, 2013

Obama and Ptolemy

After Obama made his public apology to America for his healthcare-implementation snafu while speaking with Chuck Todd, I wrote the following on Twitter:

I'm glad Obama has apologized for the Obamacare mess, but will this now mean dismantling ACA, or merely adding Ptolemaic epicycles to it?

Dr. Vallicella recently linked to this article: "Ten Lessons of ObamaCare" by Robert Tracinski. Almost as if echoing my sentiment, Tracinski writes:

With a law that runs to 2,000 pages and regulations running to thousands of additional pages, and all of that interacting with the implementation efforts of hundreds of bureaucrats and computer programmers, the business decisions of dozens of insurance companies, and the personal financial decisions of some two hundred million adults, it is simply impossible to project all of the consequences. Yet the hubris of central planners and regulators is to assume that they can anticipate and control these results.

In practice, this means that they end up passing the law so we can find out what's in it, then tinkering with it endlessly afterward, with each ad hoc fix creating unintended consequences of its own. That's how we end up "reforming" health care, or education, or finance, etc., etc., decade after decade, and somehow never getting it right.
(emphasis added)

The italicized part is the point I was trying to make in my tweet. You introduce a mass of new regulations, then deal ad hoc with the mass of undesirable consequences. Epicycles, indeed.

Less regulation means more room to breathe, more room for a self-correcting, market-driven system to work its brutal-but-healing magic on a massive economy that should, by rights, be as decentralized as possible.

And does American healthcare truly suck as it now stands? You decide.

Korea's healthcare system is largely centralized, i.e., government-funded. A coworker of mine had an emergency recently, and he told me, post-crisis, "Don't think about having a heart attack anytime soon.* My girlfriend checked all around, and the nearest hospital that will take you is 25 minutes away. The hospital up the street is closed in the evenings, and other hospitals provide only specific services, like setting broken bones. If you have a heart attack, you will fucking die." This lines up with all the other nightmare stories I've heard coming from countries with centralized healthcare: long lines, patients with minor complaints hogging the ER and keeping people with more serious problems from being seen quickly, people dying en masse in France during heat waves because of a lack of staffers and simple air conditioning, people taking advantage of the "free" care in Britain to cadge prescription drugs, etc. Let's face it: the US system is crushingly expensive and far from perfect, but when you call 911 because you're having a heart attack, you can bet the ambulance will be at your door within five or ten minutes, unless you live way out in the boonies, and you can further bet that you will be treated—guaranteed. Centralized healthcare doesn't inspire trust or confidence. And for the last goddamn time, it isn't "free." Your taxes pay for it.



*No, this coworker didn't have a heart attack. He was simply using heart attacks as an extreme example to make a point about the slothful nature of Korean healthcare.


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from the kitchen: November 2


I showed the above "semi-homemade" jjajang-myeon pic to some students, who shot me quizzical, betrayed looks. You see, normally, the julienned cucumbers that you place atop these Chinese-style noodles in black-bean sauce aren't seasoned with red pepper. I, on the other hand, find most jjajang-myeon to be frightfully bland without the addition of some sort of spiciness. So I julienned a cucumber (with a knife; I have no mandolin), tossed it with the remains of my apple-cider vinegar, some sugar, some garlic, and some gochujang (red-chili paste). Et voilà.

Jjajang sauce packet: W950
One cuke: W750
Noodles: about W400
The look on my students' faces upon seeing my monstrosity: Priceless.

A two-dollar meal.


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Friday, November 08, 2013

from the cafeteria

Here's what I ate on October 29. Not too shabby:


The soup seems to be trying to move in three different culinary directions at once. I couldn't identify it. There's a chart at the cafeteria's entrance that proclaims the day's meal, but I didn't bother to read it before opting for this menu item. (The cafeteria normally offers a "Course A," which is more of a buffet-style, dump-all-you-can-on-the-tray menu; and a "Course B," which is more like a menu prix-fixe. Course B tends to be more carby, whereas Course A tends to be stocked with food I don't generally go for—bone-filled fish and the like. Occasionally, I'll choose Course A, but for the most part I go with Course B, which is what you see above.

My side dishes are kimchi, some sort of fried... something, and spicy spinach (I think). The fried squares are what caught my eye, but even after having eaten them, I have no damn clue what they were. Were they cheese? Tofu? Ddeok (rice cake)? Fish paste? Flavorless meat? No idea. And they were cold to boot, which sucked. Nothing more depressing than cold fried food.

But the soup was delicious.


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day of work!

I'm involved in some projects today, and possibly tomorrow, so blogging will be sparse for the next 24 to 36 hours. I've got some cafeteria-meal pictures I might slap up and schedule to be posted over the next two days; that'll have to do ya'.


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Thursday, November 07, 2013

day of nightmare, day of relief

As a friend of mine recently tweeted, today, November 7, is a big day for Korean high schoolers: it's CSAT day—the day to take the dreaded college-entrance exam, or suneung. Taxis are ferrying students to their test sites; air traffic has been quieted to give students a chance to concentrate; parents are at Buddhist temples or churches, calling upon the divine powers to aid the kids in their quest for success.

Unfortunately, this is also "suicide season" in Korea, as a number of kids will inevitably throw themselves off the tops of apartment buildings in despair over their perceived test performance. Teen suicides tend to spike at this time of year: so much pressure is put on students to perform well on the CSAT that a few of them, every year, crack under the strain.

Life for a Korean student culminates in this moment. Everything the student has done, up to now, has been devoted to this day: from kindergarten onward, life has been About This Test. College will be a breeze once the dreaded exam is over; in fact, many Korean kids treat college as a four-year vacation, a time to relax, let the hair down, and do all the enjoying and experimenting and slacking that, up to now, has been forbidden because of the relentless focus on this test. College is a four-year reprieve from the grinding reality of Korean society. Well, not exactly: men are obliged to interrupt their college education with military service. But even the men, once they return to college, get to enjoy some off-time.*

Good luck, then, to all the kids today. May they score well, get into the college of their dreams, and breathe the relatively free air of campus life.



*Notable exceptions to this college-as-reprieve notion are the students who go to the so-called "SKY" universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. At those places, students are smart and driven. Not to say that students are all dumb and lazy elsewhere, but there's a distinct difference between the ambiance at elite colleges versus the ambiance everywhere else. And even at the non-elite schools, students can still experience anxiety and pressure—in English class, for instance, for kids are often asked to take exams and do projects that involve presenting, in English, in front of the entire class. Still, I'd contend that these stressors are nothing compared to the tension leading up to the CSAT. There is very little about Korean college life that would drive a kid to suicide.


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Pohang Trip, Part IV: along the coast to King Munmu

The next phase of our October 26 journey took us out of Pohang (I'm still going to call this a "Pohang Trip," so bear with me) and along the coast to the offshore grave of King Munmu, who was the first king of Unified Silla, ascending to the throne after General Kim Yushin's defeat of Baekjae General Gyaebaek in 660. (To put this in perspective: Unified Silla arose about three decades after Muhammad had unified the Arabian peninsula.) Before we reached Munmu's burial site, we stopped near a river, goggled at drying squid, and messed around on a rock outcropping (Charles deftly, I clumsily).

As always, hover your cursor over the images to see the captions, and click on the images to magnify them and scroll back and forth through the slide show.

(As a courtesy to Charles, I've "mosaicked" out the license plate of his car.)




















And that's the end of this batch of pictures. Stay tuned for more soon!


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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

gimme a sec

More Pohang trip photos on the way. Busy day today.


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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

language quiz

I saw this quote:

We seem to have developed a taste for coffee here at UlsanOnline and have a plenitude of reviews of them. The Penis cafe, however, is quite a bit different than the others we’ve reviewed.

Did you find the error? No? Need a hint? See here.

Oh, and did you find the other error?

(Could there conceivably be a third error? Just asking.)


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Monday, November 04, 2013

en deuil

My e-friend Malcolm Pollack just lost his dad. Feel free to visit Malcolm's blog to voice your condolences.

All of us, eventually, have to face the world without our parents. I heard my goddaughter, one time, talk about how she refused to imagine such a world. I had mixed feelings upon hearing this: part of me resented her casual glibness, given the death I had experienced only three years before; part of me pitied her for not understanding that death is as grindingly inevitable as the unstoppable forward motion of time; part of me was sympathetic with her unvoiced desire to see her parents live forever. That was once my desire, too.

But parents don't live forever: nothing in this world is forever. Growing up means realizing and coming to terms with this brute ontological fact.

Malcolm has been through this once before; his touching tribute to his mother can be found here. I don't want to insult him by claiming to know how he feels, but I remember how I felt when Mom died: it was as if a piece of me had been ripped away. I went home from Walter Reed Medical Center that bleak January morning, trudged downstairs, and went to sleep for the better part of a day. When I awoke, there in the silence, alone with my thoughts and my breathing, the first question to form in my mind was Why am I alive? The world had ended.

But just as death is inevitable, life is, too. My heart refused to stop beating; my brain refused to stop working. My mother had died—not me. She had been carried away by the currents of reality, but I still stood at the shore. That had to mean something.

In one of my most beloved novels, a character says, "It is the duty of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead." My heart beats; my mind works; I strive, now, to live a worthy life for Mom's sake. I wish for Malcolm the same strength: the strength that comes from healing, the strength to face the future with his parents' loving memory as his guide. Not that he needs such a wish, of course: he's a strong man, and principled—a father in his own right, and a husband with everything to live for. But continuance is hard to remember when a loved one has left us and we feel we've reached the end of our own existence.

For that reason, I offer to Malcolm my simple wish, my humble hope.

Condolences, friend.


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the singular wit of Neil Gaiman

I'm currently reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods, a rollicking fantasy adventure about Old-World gods among us here in the New World, brought over by the power of immigrant belief, but now fading as those old traditions fade, only to be replaced by newer, modern divinities that represent Americans' current values. Gaiman's book reminds me a little too strongly of Tom Robbins's Jitterbug Perfume, with which Gods has many elements in common—not least of which is the notion that gods exist, but that they denature as belief in them wanes. That said, Gaiman's narrative carries its own bizarre sense of humor.

To wit: in the following passage, the protagonist, Shadow, is talking with Jacquel (Jackal, a.k.a. an incarnate Anubis) and Mr. Ibis (the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth?). Jacquel works at a funeral home as a sort of town coroner. He and Shadow have just brought in the body of a recently deceased old woman. After depositing the body in the mortuary, the two sit down to dinner with Mr. Ibis, who runs the funeral home. Ibis and Jacquel have vegetables; Shadow, a large, red-blooded American, has been given a bucket of fried chicken and a bottle of beer.

There was more chicken than Shadow could eat, and he shared the leftovers with the cat, removing the skin and crusty coating then shredding the meat for her with his fingers.

"There was a guy in prison named Jackson," said Shadow, as he ate, "worked in the prison library. He told me that they changed the name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC because they don't serve real chicken any more. It's become this genetically modified mutant thing, like a giant centipede with no head, just segment after segment of legs and breasts and wings. It's fed through nutrient tubes. This guy said the government wouldn't let them use the word chicken."

Mr. Ibis raised his eyebrows. "You think that's true?"

"Nope. Now, my old cellmate, Low Key, he said they changed the name because the word fried had become a bad word. Maybe they wanted people to think that the chicken cooked itself."

Although Gaiman makes some poor choices in his grammar, mechanics, and diction, he's an entertaining writer, and I'm enjoying American Gods. As I told Charles in an email, the novel is moving along at a brisk, Michael-Crichtonesque pace, almost as if Gaiman had meant for his story to be made into a movie. I suspect that Gaiman had envisioned Anthony Hopkins in the role of Mr. Wednesday who, in the novel, is an incarnation of the Norse god Odin. It's too bad that Hopkins already plays Odin in the Marvel movie universe.

(You'll have caught that Low Key = Loki, the Norse trickster god.)


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Sunday, November 03, 2013

walkabout 2

I finally did that campus walkabout. It started around 5PM, which meant the sky was well on its way toward evening, but the cool air and the low light together lent a strange charm to CUD's campus. I veered away from the Admin Building and St. Thomas Aquinas Hall to continue uphill toward the smallish St. Paul Hall. Just across from the hall, I discovered a square area, bordered by a low wall, that held ranks upon ranks of hangari, heavy clay jars into which Koreans often stuff kimchi for the kimjang season.* Beyond the hall's coffee shop (with its convenient Daegu Bank ATM) and the hangari, a platoon of dorms stood at attention. In the midst of the looming dorms, a small pond brooded—lily pads and all—surrounded by landscaping and park benches: a fine place to sit and think, even in the cool. It was a part of campus that made me feel more at home than the part of campus I knew.

Turning right, I went behind some dorms, and found myself by St. Catherine and St. Cecelia Halls. Along the way, I passed a few more benches as well as plenty of sculptures: stone worms wrestling each other in some eternal cosmic struggle, a three-dimensional Picasso-like image, a human heart, a woman's ass, two disembodied hands that cupped dripping water frozen in time, a severed foot with a wristwatch wrapped around it, a giant earlobe lying on the grass (Keep your ear to the ground!), a massive spider that would have scared the piss out of Ron Weasley, and a human head with no cranium, symbolically leaving the mind open to the wondrous whisperings of the universe.

As my path curved back downhill, I walked by an art hall; I decided that I should visit that place later when it was open. Eventually, I ended up at the rotary where the Admin Building stands, with St. Thomas Aquinas Hall just off to the side, vigilantly shadowing the Admin Building like a bodyguard. I walked past Admin and Thomas, past Paul Ri Library, and went as far as the street would take me. I passed an IT center on my left and ended up in a parking lot next to what looked like a hard-top tennis court, but which was in fact a fenced-in, brightly lit soccer field. Two teams banged a ball back and forth; the ball sailed dangerously high, almost clearing the fence on several occasions. I turned around and walked back toward Aquinas Hall; from there, I took my same, familiar route home, realizing that I had explored only about two-thirds of the campus.

Instead of going home, however, I lumbered over to the Palace of Infinite Meat and had myself two heaping platefuls of dead-animal flesh, plus a plate of fresh vegetables, all for the low-low price of W9,000. It was after 6PM and the buffet was crowded: Southeast Asians, South Asians, and Korean clientele were in abundance. Three Korean kids, perhaps no more than three or four years old, ran gleefully about the restaurant, cute as buttons, screaming their heads off and perfectly heedless of all the dangerous table corners, gas lines, and hot metal griddles. Patrons smiled patronizingly. Two South Asian guys sitting close to me occasionally gave me disbelieving looks, openly wondering whether one man could down that much food.

Yeah, bitches, I thought. One man can.





*How on earth do you translate kimjang in a quick one- or two-word phrase? The word refers to that time of year when Koreans make piles of kimchi, place them in jars (the aforementioned hangari), and bury them in the cold, hard earth to ferment. This custom is slowly fading away, in part thanks to technology: the kimchi naengjanggo (kimchi fridge) provides a decent enough simulation of the kimjang process to obviate the need to do the real thing. And as real estate becomes ever more precious on this crowded peninsula, it makes a sad sort of sense for kimjang to fade away: it requires a significant surface area. (Not that kimjang is anywhere near moribund, mind you: the custom is still going strong, but its ubiquity is slowly, inevitably being chipped away.)

But back to the question: how do you translate kimjang concisely? I can think of morbid expressions like "kimchi interment," a term that, while accurate because literally true, sounds rather lugubrious and insulting and doesn't do this bright, happy custom justice. Besides, we normally only inter human remains. "Kimchi planting" also fails to describe the custom, since the kimchi's already dead. You don't plant dead things; ce serait la folie. Google Translate is no damn help at all: for kimjang, it suggests "kimchi" or the untranslated "kimjang"; the latter may, actually, be the best way to render the word in English. Some words simply don't translate smoothly.


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easing down through the plateau: 128.3 kg

Strangely enough, the weight-loss continues. I'm down to 128.3 kilograms through no extra effort of my own aside from my near-daily walks to campus. Even with no extra effort, then, I'm breaking through the weight-loss plateau. Incredible. I take this to mean that the universe is screaming at me: Just add some exercise and eat better food, and the weight is GUARANTEED to fall off more rapidly! Idiot.


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taking the plunge

One thing I like about our department is that a good deal of emphasis is placed on professional development. I attended one "mini-conference" last month, in which three colleagues gave half-hour presentations. It was a very interesting way to spend two hours, but in the end, we all concluded that thirty minutes simply wasn't enough time in which to lay everything out. This month, we've got another mini-conference scheduled, and this time around, there will be only two presentations, each lasting 45 minutes. I've thrown my hat in the ring, God help me, and have responded to the call for abstracts by sending the conference coordinator the following blurb:



Kevin Kim

Effectiveness of the Round-robin Method in an EFL Context

Nearly four decades ago, Stephen Krashen put forth his influential Affective Filter Hypothesis, which posited the existence of an "affective filter," i.e., an emotional screen, in every student's psyche that could either facilitate or hamper in-class language learning. Simply put, a high degree of stress or anxiety (high affective filter) could negatively affect language learning, whereas a high degree of comfort and relaxation (low affective filter) could make learning easier—no matter the age group in question. The thesis of this presentation is that self-confidence is a major component in lowering the affective filter, and that self-confidence can be built by putting the students in positions of responsibility. Making the students responsible for their own learning, as would happen in most graduate-school seminars in North Atlantic culture, gives them the self-assurance to perform well in an EFL setting. To that end, discussion will focus on a "round-robin" teaching method that entails having students (1) prep lessons and (2) teach each other English in constantly shifting pairs of teams over several rounds, while the teacher's role is relegated to that of facilitator, guide (e.g., for modeling pronunciation), and perhaps referee. Other topics include a delineation of the round-robin method as well as a frank summary of the method's successes and failures. It will be argued that the round-robin method has generally been consistent with the emphasis, in current pedagogical praxis, on student-centered, task-oriented approaches to language teaching. Finally, potential objections to the method will be anticipated and addressed.




I present on November 20. The nice thing about these mini-conferences is that I get to share my ideas without having to write a full-length paper. The abstract, and my accompanying PowerPoint slide show, will be enough.

In the meantime, I'd been racking my brains in search of a better name than "round-robin method," but I couldn't come up with anything clever. If you think you have a good name to offer me, leave it in the comments, but first, please read up on the round-robin method so that you know what you're talking about.


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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Pohang Trip, Part III: along the shore

Here's a series of pictures of the next phase of our trip last Saturday. After eating at Marado, Charles, Hyunjin, and I walked back out to the shore, making our way past the strange, fascinating, and often humorous sculptures of the Pohang Steel Art Festival. One sculpture in particular, a goofy-looking haetae,* caught my eye because the artist had decided to give the haetae an actual anus. Hemorrhoidal haetae—who knew? An American who was hanging around the sculptures laughed when he heard my "Look—it's got an asshole!" outburst, and told us that he'd been startled by it, too. Charles and I both noted that the sculptor had taken liberties: this haetae had wings as well as a mace-like tail that reminded me of the bludgeon on the far end of an ankylosaurus.

Our shoreline walk took us onto a sort of pier made of stone; Hyunjin got there first while Charles and I dithered on the beach sand, fascinated by skipping-stones, gull tracks, and shells. She took some pics of us approaching from a distance. Several people, including some foreign tourists, were already on the second story of the pagoda-like structure at the end of the pier; I took a moment to enjoy the sea breeze and to stare at a few lengths of rope that floated in the water, snake-like, through my field of view. As always, hover your cursor over the images to see their captions, and click the images to enlarge them.



















More images to come.







*The Korean haetae is a cousin of the Chinese fu-dog. The haetae is a fiery beast that often serves as a guardian of holy places, like Buddhist temples, and is even said to have an acute moral sense that allows it to settle fights and disputes (often by ramming the disputants!). Like a dog, the haetae is all about duty and loyalty. It also embodies moral wisdom.


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