Monday, June 30, 2014

5 students, of which 2 complaints

Not a horrible track record: I've had five students contact me about their grades. Only two—both girls, and both in grade-grubber mode—had actual gripes. The other three were relaxed about their situation, and after I explained why they'd gotten what they'd gotten, they didn't pursue the matter any further. Of the two complainants, one eventually got her grade changed, but only after I'd refused to yield to her during our conversation (I'd had a change of heart the following morning); the other was unable to get a similar benefit because of the cruel nature of the school-sanctioned curve. I felt bad for the second girl, despite her grade-grubbing: she had indeed had a "B" until I saw that too many people in the class had gotten "B"s, so I had no choice but to bump her down to a "C," along with two other students. I hadn't had to do that with any students last semester; everyone had fallen naturally into the curve. This time around, though, there were simply too many good grades, so someone had to get the chop. Thanks to that damn grading curve, college is red in tooth and claw.


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Sunday's dinner

Here's a pic of yesterday's dinner, essentially a recap of Friday's pasta, but with macaroni. In fact, I'd consider this some of the best macaroni and cheese I've ever made. As forms of pasta go, macaroni doesn't get much praise or credit; it's considered something of a low-rent dish. But marry it with the right ingredients, and it becomes sublime. The only thing that might trump this dish would be a mac and cheese made with my favorite cheese: Gruyère.

Behold, quasi-Alfredo mac and cheese with bacon, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, and a side of fresh, crunchy oi-kimchi:


Eat it and weep.






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"The Lego Movie": two-paragraph review

My buddy Charles La Shure once wrote a short story titled "Black and White." That story, though written years ago, was prophetic, for it foretold, in spookily exact detail, both the narrative style and structure of 2014's "The Lego Movie." After I watched "Lego" this evening, Charles's story was the first thing I thought of, and since you've probably seen the film, I'm going to spoil the plot for you: in both "Black and White" and "The Lego Movie," the twist is that we are witness to a world within a world. In "Black and White," the contending armies and potentates are actually just chess pieces being manipulated by a father and son; in "The Lego Movie," the Lego adventurers are merely Legos also being manipulated by a father and son. In both stories, a father/son tension drives the narrative, but this isn't made obvious at first: the reveal happens later, and then the focus shifts back and forth between the two worlds. The major difference between "Black and White" and "The Lego Movie" is that "Lego" goes for comedy, whereas "Black and White" is more serious in tone. Another possible difference is that the underlying theme of "Lego" is about orderly, uncreative teamwork versus chaotic, creative individuality—and the need for these two tendencies to coexist. Charles's story focuses more on the relationship between the father and the son. Still, those differences paled beside the stories' fundamental similarities. I shook my head in wonder while watching "Lego"; it almost felt as if Hollywood might owe my friend some money for stealing his idea. The template for "Lego" really is, almost exactly, a copy of the template for "Black and White."

Having just watched "Wreck-It Ralph" (reviewed here), I felt "The Lego Movie" wasn't quite as good; the stiff, Lego-y animation was sometimes hard to follow, and some of the action didn't make sense to me. That said, the movie had no shortage of humor, both subtle and unsubtle, and the voice characterizations were well done. I don't think I found the movie as touching as some reviewers apparently did, but "Lego" was nevertheless entertaining, with its own parade of pop-culture and high-culture references, including nods to Aristophanes and Renaissance painters. The philosophical issues in "Lego" were as profound as those in "Ralph"; "Lego" ultimately concludes with the notion that chaos and order are best harmonized as a coincidentia oppositorum: there's a place for kosmos and a place for chaos, and sometimes the best mind is the emptiest mind—where "emptiness" doesn't imply stupidity so much as it suggests, in Taoist fashion, receptivity and potential. As usual, Hollywood also tacks on a message about the power of belief. In addition, the film includes a bit of "Toy Story"-style magical realism when the Lego protagonist, realizing he's a toy in the human world, tries to move on his own... and succeeds. In short: "Lego" is funny, watchable, and strangely deep, although in lesser measure when compared with "Wreck-It Ralph."


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the guest

Well! I haven't seen a jinae in a while. Last time I blogged about one of these was years ago (a decade ago, to be exact). Saw this specimen inside our faculty office Sunday evening.

Behold:


Jinae (centipedes) are mean little bastards. They can bite, so I dispatched this one with a well-aimed backfist. Sorry—no enlightened Buddhist compassion here. As James Clavell would have written: I sent this creature into the Void. Think that's mean? Just imagine this baby latching onto your balls, then tell me I'm mean.

Another blast from the 2004 past: Dial-an-Appendage.


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Sunday, June 29, 2014

a tale of two professors

My friend, Dr. Jeff Hodges of Ehwa University, recently blogged about an old photo of his that shows him as a much younger man. Here are the younger and older versions of Jeff:


Upon seeing the wild hair of Jeff's youth, I had an epiphany, for Jeff's aging process strongly reminded me of that of another (in)famous professor:


Jeff—all you need is a wheelchair and access to Cerebro to complete the resemblance.





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many thank-yous

I only just noticed, on my KakaoTalk screen, that I've got a slew of thank-yous on there. Here, take a look:


In my fantasies, all these thank-yous mean that I'm a hero for a day, because I've done so much for so many people. In reality, though, there was nothing particularly heroic to engender any of these expressions of gratitude. Their simultaneous appearance is mere coincidence.

But a man can dream, can't he? About being someone's hero?


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Saturday, June 28, 2014

on the downward slope

I've been following "24: Live Another Day" via Amazon Prime, and have seen up to Episode 7. Tonight I'm watching Episodes 8 and 9, and since there are only three more of these to go, I'm feeling a bit sad. After seven episodes, things are as tangled as they ever were during Seasons 1 through 8 of "24," and I wonder how suddenly everything is going to have to resolve itself. Perhaps a few predictions are in order:

1. Jack Bauer will, of course, live. He's too marketable a character to be killed.

2. Most, if not all, of the villains will get their comeuppance. That includes Tate Donovan's character, Mark Boudreau, the President's Chief of Staff, who has made a bad deal with the Russians and will likely fall into their clutches ("24" is nothing if not a parable about karma). The dragon-lady, Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley), will most certainly die, but whether she dies by Jack's hand is not so certain. The mole, Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt), will likely perish or be incarcerated as a consequence of his own mistakes. Cyber-crusader Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott) will likely buy it, now that we know he's pulling Navarro's strings. Betrayers occupy the lowest circle of Dante's vision of hell, so people like Cross, Navarro, and Boudreau need to watch their asses if they hope to survive the season.

3. Good people normally also die in "24." Whether this happens to Audrey Boudreau (Jack's former lover, played by Kim Raver) is unknowable, although I'd say there's at least a 30% chance she'll kick it. The big question, though, is whether faithful Chloe O'Brian will make it to the end of the season alive. This could very well be the bombshell that propels Season 9's ratings over the top: killing off Chloe would leave Jack Bauer truly friendless in this cold world, and arguably helpless, too.

4. President Heller (William Devane) will step down from office as his Alzheimer's becomes public. Jack Bauer has been there at the downfall of almost every president under whom he has served. In fact, "24" has done an excellent job of making the US presidency look like the worst possible job in the world. The Oval Office always ends up occupied by someone who is an actor in a major scandal (President Logan in Season 5, President Taylor in Season 8), a future assassination victim (President David Palmer, along with his brother Wade in Season 6; and President Keeler, shot down in Season 4), or a victim of disease who must step down (Heller).

5. The Brits, who've been made to look like incompetent, duplicitous ninnies on this show, will still be incompetent, duplicitous ninnies by the end. Season 9 hasn't exactly been an olive branch toward the UK. It almost makes me wonder about how the behind-the-scenes negotiations worked when Season 9 was first proposed:

US: Say, Winslow? How would you feel about shooting '24' in your country?

UK: Oh, jolly good, that! You shan't put us in a bad light, yes?

US: Wouldn't think of it!

If traitors occupy the ninth circle of Dante's hell, then perhaps there's a place there for "24."


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rien à faire, nichts zu tun, nothing to do

Today is my first day with absolutely nothing to do—no immediate obligations weighing down on me. Grades are done, admin bullshit is done, and aside from the two students who challenged their grades, I've had no other student calls. Very likely, I'll be spending today lounging in bed, quietly reading. The Daegu region is entering its nastily hot and humid phase, so I have little desire to be out and about in such foul weather. I might take a stroll later this evening, when things cool down, just as a way to keep my pedometer average up (for June, I'm hovering at around 6000 steps per day), but that's about it for me and strolling.

In the meantime, I've got some shopping to do, but it's not urgent. I've got an employment application for Dongguk University to fill out, but it's not due until late July, so I have nearly a month to work on it. The hard drive from my dead Macintosh needs a drive caddy and wiring so I can access the precious data, but that's not a pressing obligation.

I've had idle thoughts of writing another book—this time something technical, perhaps about some aspect of English grammar and syntax—so who knows? I might get off my ass and work on that. If it proves to be a small and temporary source of income, all the better.

For today, though, the only thing on the agenda is rest. I'm tired. It was a hard semester, thanks to all those beginners, and I'm glad it's over.


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Friday, June 27, 2014

summer 2014 jjong-party

Below are some photos from today's jjong-party with my favorite group of students—my intermediates. This semester, I had four beginner-level classes, one special pronunciation class, and only one intermediate class, which I thought was too bad: teaching beginners—who are often sleepy, lazy, and unmotivated—is hard work. Intermediates are (normally) better speakers; a teacher can do more with such students, and I wish my schedule had had more such classes. This particular group took to my round-robin method of teaching with gusto, and I think a lot of them profited from that student-centered style. So I have warm feelings for all these kids, and decided to have an end-of-term party (the Korean jjong is a slangy word meaning "end of the term"). Of sixteen intermediates, seven elected to come to the party, but one of those seven ended up in the hospital with burned fingers, apparently from cooking a ham, which is not a very Korean thing to do.

We elected to meet in St. Thomas Aquinas Hall, Room 412, the same room in which I had taught my basic-level Korean classes. We chose today (Friday, June 27), as our D-Day, and 1PM as our start time for lunch. The guy who ended up in the hospital was supposed to bring the appetizers, but since he couldn't make it, we started without any amuse-bouche, instead plunging right into the main course. I brought one half of that course: quasi-Alfredo pasta. My student Hwa-young brought the other half: an amazing lasagna that she had baked for the occasion. She had practiced making a lasagna a couple days earlier, enlisting the help of one of her American friends to get it right. The lasagna she brought today was one she had made herself, and had tested on her parents before offering it to the class. It proved quite delicious. Two of my other students brought a salad of baby leaves and alfalfa-like sprouts, along with light dressings (kiwi and something generically labeled "Oriental," which I found amusing). Two of my girls showed up late because of traffic problems; they brought a wholesome Korean-style cheesecake (I often enjoy light, subtle Korean cheesecakes more than I do heavy, brutal American ones) and a bunch of fresh plums (called jadu in Korean).

Most of the following pictures will need to be clicked on so you can see them full size. Before you click, though, hover your cursor over the images to see the captions I've written. You can't see the captions once you've enlarged the images. Two of the "portrait"-style images need no enlarging, but I'll signal that when the time comes. Enjoy!








The next two pics are "portrait" style and need no enlargement, so there's no need to click on them. They both show the beautiful cheesecake the young ladies had brought; the second photo shows the unconventional plating method we'd adopted. Hover your cursor over the images to read the captions.



The final sad picture of an empty classroom, below, will need clicking to enlarge. Hover your cursor over the image to read the caption.


It was a bit sad to see my students go; they were a very good group, and deserved this little party. We had fun while it lasted; one student decided to use his cell phone to play some music, and then a few students began DJ-ing with their own phones (Hwa-young very kindly played Sting for me—"Englishman in New York"— when I mentioned that I liked his music). I queued up a YouTube video of Bjork singing "Army of Me" to give the kids an idea about Western notions of electronica (Bjork is, after all, the undisputed queen of electronica, not to mention one of my little brother Sean's favorite performers). Talk was mostly in Korean, but that was OK; I wasn't about to force the kids to speak in English. Not today. All too soon, it was over. One student took home the remains of the lasagna and the Alfredo. I had an empty classroom all to myself, plus a pile of dishes and bowls that needed a bit of washing before I could take them all home.

My last party here in Hayang, I think. Now, it's all about looking forward to what I hope will be a soft landing in Seoul. The future beckons. Meanwhile, I'll miss this class. A lot.


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the supplement

Koreans can't eat Western pasta without some sort of sweet/sour, salty, pickled accompaniment. One of the most bizarre experiences, for a Westerner new to Korea, is to realize that every "Italian" restaurant in Korea will serve spaghetti bolognese or carbonara or Alfredo with a side of pickles. Western pickles are a kimchi analogue; they're crunchy, cool, and a soothing contrast (for the Korean palate) to the main dish. For Koreans, pickles complete the dish; Americans, meanwhile, grow up thinking that an Italian-American pasta dish is self-complete (although some might say the meal isn't complete without a slice or two of garlic bread).

Out of deference to my kids tomorrow, I've made a batch of oi-kimchi—cucumber kimchi. Below are three photos of the kimchi-making process, which is relatively simple compared to the complex, nearly ritualistic preparations that are de rigueur when making baechu-kimchi, i.e., cabbage kimchi:




I thought the batch came out a little salty, and I told my group this via KakaoTalk. "I like salty!" replied one student. I'll see what they think of my oi-kimchi come lunchtime. For now, though, it's time for bed.


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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ave, ROK Drop!

The blog ROK Drop has picked up the latest scoop on Asiana Flight 214, which crashed almost a year ago. The American NTSB's conclusion? As suspected: pilot error. But GI Korea, the author of the above-linked ROK Drop post, asks some interesting questions about the postmortem analysis. Worth a look.


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profs' rooftop party

Our rooftop shindig, primarily for the professors in our apartment building, proved quite fun and featured plenty of delectable edibles. I had the presence of mind to take a few pictures of the group, but failed to photograph any of the food.

The following two photos are of the group. Click on them to enlarge the images; hover your cursor over the pics to read the captions.



This next photo (already large; no clicking necessary) is of Maureen, who didn't get to the party until it was nice and dark out. Hover your cursor over the image to read the caption.


Arranging this party took some effort. I had learned from my mistake with the previous party I'd organized: always pick a weekday if you want to catch the greatest number of teachers. On weekends, many of our faculty are out like a shot, traveling around the peninsula and doing interesting things (not me: I don't have the money to travel; otherwise, I'd be on the road, too).

Settling on a proper date proved difficult. While most of our number said they were flexible, some of us had more specific wishes. At one point, things were thrown off when another event intruded: a hotel buffet that, as it turned out, was scheduled on the day we had tentatively agreed to. We got it all sorted out, though, and the party was fixed for June 25, a.k.a. Yuk-i-o in Korea, the start date of the Korean War in 1950, and not to be confused with the Japanese Yu Gi Oh. I managed to assign roles to just about everyone—several of us cooked; others provided drinks (Team Aquarius, as I called them); others dealt with chairs and tables (Team Reclining Buddha); still others provided flatware, cups, and utensils (Team Leonidas*). It was suggested that alcohol and chairs be handled in a "bring your own" way, so that's what we did.

The food proved magnificent. I had no regrets about missing the hotel buffet, as tempting as that buffet looked on the hotel's website. There was Filipino chicken adobo, a neat spin on beef Stroganoff, a cheese plate with wine, spaghetti and handmade meatballs, and finally, there was my budae-jjigae. I'm not sure that everyone enjoyed the budae, but some people came back to it several times. I also provided dessert: fresh pineapple from Costco, a Costco cheesecake, and Costco doughnuts; the latter were thicker, heavier versions of Krispy Kreme's famous glazed jewels.

Conversation was desultory. Because we were all professors, we talked shop: our good and bad kids, how our semesters went, what future research and career-development projects were in store for us, what sorts of teaching techniques worked and didn't work. We talked a bit about our personal lives; we broke into small clusters and chatted about a variety of different subjects; we quieted down as the sky darkened, and we told silly, morbid jokes from our childhoods. I did my Christopher Lloyd impression, much to the amusement of at least one person. Others of us held the floor with grand displays of comic wit.

We ended up having too much to eat, so when the time came to strike camp, we had to pack up a lot of the food. I got some extra Stroganoff and adobo, and I took back the remainder of my budae, as well as the cheesecake, pineapple and doughnuts. The ladies in our group had done all the heavy lifting: they had brought up the drinks, a cooler filled with ice, and two tables borrowed from a local 7-Eleven, so we guys elected to return the favor by taking the tables back and helping to pack out the remaining drinks and ice. Everything moved smoothly, in a spirit of cooperation and companionship. I think we all enjoyed each other's company and had a good, relaxing time. The weather threatened to rain at one point; a few drops fell from the sky like menacing harbingers, but the clouds were all bluster, as it turned out: no real rain fell.

Unbelievably, the party lasted a good four hours, from 6PM to about 10PM. Some of us drifted away before that time, but most of us remained right up until cleanup. And that was that: we came, we saw, we ate, we talked, we cleaned, we left. Most of us claimed to be stuffed (I know I was); at least one of us joked about how carb overload was leading to drowsiness. We left each other with smiles and thank-yous and other expressions of good will. We're on the cusp of summer vacation, and it would be nice if we could all get together some time before we do definitively go our separate ways, but that may not be possible. So underneath the happiness was an undercurrent of wistfulness, at least for me. If nothing else, this rooftop party will be one of my fondest memories of a year spent in tiny Hayang. My building has some good folks in it.



*Aquarius and Reclining Buddha should be fairly obvious, as team names go: Aquarius is the water-bearer, so it seemed logical to name the drink-providers after him. Statues of the Reclining Buddha show the Buddha lying comfortably on his side (this is actually supposed to represent the moment of his death from food poisoning), so I named the team providing chairs, pillows, and blankets after him. But Team Leonidas requires some explanation. Think of the movie "300," which features plenty of sword-fighting; the sword is a glorified knife, so the team providing the forks and knives (plus spoons, flatware, and hollow-ware) got the name Leonidas. Very associative, I know.


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all better now

Blogger's RSS feed is back to normal now. I can see a list of recent updates instead of just a single blog's update. The sense of relief and release is tantamount to taking a satisfying poop. Hrrrrrrrrghploop. Ahhhhhhhh...


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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

likely not

A coworker of mine, mentioned in the previous post, apparently got contacted by the university in question, so he'll be going to Seoul for an interview. Notification came yesterday. Since this didn't happen to me, and since the interviews are set for this weekend, I think it's safe to say I didn't make the cut.

As I discussed with my buddy Tom, my lack of credentials is likely killing me. Although I did go through a certificate program for foreign-language instruction while I was an undergrad at Georgetown, this isn't the same as having some sort of TEFL-related certificate or an MA TESOL. The job market, these days, offers stiffer competition; you can't expect to just waltz into a position.

So let's skip ahead and explore the worst-case scenario. In all likelihood, if nothing pans out here, I could go back to America, but even that might be problematic if I can't afford a plane ticket back, plus the money to ship all my possessions to the States. If I find myself stuck in Korea, I could whore myself out and return to hagwon work for a year, but I'd see that as a major step backward. Then again, maybe that's what needs to happen before things can improve.

Neither scenario—being stuck in Korea or going back to the States—is particularly tragic. My previous job would probably be happy to have me back, and I could go back to living cheaply in Front Royal again. It'd be a shame, of course, given all the effort I've put into getting back to Korea in the first place, but life doesn't always go the way we want it to go. And it wouldn't be tragic to be stuck in Korea and saddled with hagwon work; I could endure that for a year.

In the meantime, I'll keep combing through the job ads, looking for a plum position. I still have certain deal-breakers (no nights, no weekends, no split shifts, no teaching children at "camps" or anywhere else, etc.), but I haven't set my standards impossibly high. If I get closer to Seoul, or into Seoul itself, that'll be fine. That's a start.


UPDATE: Just saw an ad for Dongguk University in Seoul. Will definitely try there (despite a little clause about "unpaid work," which seems relatively minor). Given my interest in Buddhism, I think Dongguk would be an interesting place to work. As to how clement a work environment Dongguk actually is, though, I have no idea.


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job interview...?

No, I can't say that a university has called to ask me for a job interview, but at one of the unis I applied to, my inside man has told me that I've made it onto one of three necessary lists. At this uni, which I won't name lest I be Googled for having written this post (but which I've written about in the past), the process of elimination of candidates is this: a mass of applications will arrive, after which there's a "first cut." From this first cut, the remaining apps are placed on one of three lists of possibles—each list created by a different staffer. The possibles are each given a rating from 0 to 100 (obviously, to have made it this far, no possible will ever rate a 0). The three people, presumably creating similar lists of possibles, will then narrow the field further by averaging the ratings across the three lists. Top ten average ratings get the interviews.

Much of this is dependent on the paperwork that I sent in. Before there's even any interpersonal interaction, there's an assessment of my cover letter, résumé, transcripts, diplomas, etc. In all likelihood, given this university's terrible track record with me in the past, I won't hear a thing if I don't make the cut—not even a curt "Sorry, but we feel you aren't a match for us"-style rejection. Many, many Korean universities need to work on their professionalism in this regard; too many just leave the job-seeker hanging, which is annoying and inconvenient, especially with regard to the making of crucial travel plans. The university in question has said, in its advertisement, that job interviews are to take place this Saturday, June 28, so if they're planning on telling people to come in for an interview, they'd better do so by either today or tomorrow.

A colleague of mine, also applying to other universities, has said that some places have given him very little lead time: they've told him to come interview with only a day or two of advance notice. Again, this isn't very professional; a civilized place would give the prospective employee at least a week. But last-minute shenanigans are a Korean trademark, so perhaps this isn't so surprising.

I continue to check the job classifieds for new opportunities, but very few conform to my expectations, so I'm not sending out a blizzard of applications: I'm picking and choosing my targets carefully. I have no intention of going to Seoul just to work at a job that pays the same as what I've been getting; the goal is to leapfrog a whole tax bracket or two in order to start paying down my massive scholastic debt. Meanwhile, the Golden Goose has been coy about whether it wants me in its employ; what seemed a sure thing is now no longer so sure.

So I wait.


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Ave, Joe!

Joe McPherson, whom I finally met in the flesh last year, has been writing about his adventures at the Taste of London event in London, England (start with Day 1 and work your way forward). I envy Joe; it must be nice to traipse about Old Blighty, nibbling this, sucking on that, and licking the rest.

Joe's peregrinations make me think that I need to be more aggressive about seeking out and attending food-oriented events. One of my colleagues here at DCU is an avid moviegoer; every weekend, he's out like a shot, roving the peninsula and chasing down this or that film festival. That's the sort of the person I need to be, given my love of food.

In any case, Joe's travelogue isn't to be missed. There are plenty of drool-inducing photos, along with a lively recounting of the happy goings-on. Go visit ZenKimchi and get hungry.


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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Blogger breaking bad

Having Blogger as my blogging platform has its pluses and minuses. Among the pluses: free web hosting and ease of use. Among the minuses: Blogger is about five years behind other blogging platforms in terms of functionality (people on WordPress, for example, have access to all sorts of design-related doodads that aren't available on Blogger), and you're at the mercy of any changes or glitches that Blogger experiences.

Right now is a good example of something annoying. I'm pretty sure it's a bug, not a feature: Blogger's "reading list" window, a sort of RSS feed that gives a bird's-eye view of my own site plus those on my blogroll, is currently showing only one blog at a time, and changes what it shows only when another blog has updated. Imagine if your Twitter timeline showed only one tweet—ever. Sure, the tweet would change, always updating to show you the latest Twit's thoughts, but you'd only ever see one tweet at a time. While that would be a peaceful contrast to the normally vomitous torrent of updates, it would also be frustrating as hell, like experiencing life by watching it through a slightly cracked door.

I hope the glitch goes away soon; I imagine other users are complaining even as I type this. If, after a week, there's no change, I'll add my own voice to the crowd of complainants, but I doubt that that will speed things along. The bigger Blogger gets, the more sluggish it becomes, which means using Blogger is an opportunity to practice patience.


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...and here's a thought

For all you Whovians out there (sorry, but I've never seen a single full episode of "Dr. Who"), here's a strange thought that I saw via Twitter:

What if Snoopy is actually a Time Lord?


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party prep

I've got two parties to attend this week, both of which I've organized: first up, tomorrow, is a rooftop party at our apartment building. We've got at least ten residents coming; more may be showing up if they bring along friends. I'm bringing the budae-jjigae, burgers, and dogs (with all the trimmings, of course).

On Friday, I'm getting together with my only class of intermediate students to have a jjong-party (i.e., end-of-term party). For that event, I'm making my quasi-Alfredo (which you've already seen), and possibly some oi-kimchi (cucumber kimchi), because I know how Koreans feel they need to counteract creamy, fatty food with something that, as my friend Charles put it long ago, will "cut through the grease."

All of the shopping that I have to do for both parties is going to wipe me out, financially; I'll be lucky to end the pay period with a single won to my name. But such parties happen only once in a great while, and I'm not normally interested in social gatherings, so I'm willing to contribute to the cause.

Will likely have pics of both parties later, so stay tuned.


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Monday, June 23, 2014

a Cracked response to "Check your privilege"

Cracked.com baffles me. Normally, I'd consider it a humor site. It's an offshoot of the original Cracked magazine, after all, which was itself a 1950s response to Mad. To open Cracked is to expect parody, satire, and other general goofiness. But I've noticed that, every now and again, Cracked.com will feature essays that are serious and earnest in tone. This latest essay, which I found thanks to a link on Twitter from The Korean Foreigner, challenges the current meme of "Check your privilege," which is a fancy way of saying, "Shut up, white boy." "Check your privilege" is a politically correct meme that has, inevitably, gained traction in colleges—exactly the wrong place to be stifling dialogue, however provocative. The Cracked.com article argues that there are three ways in which "Check your privilege" is unhelpful: (1) it's freighted with (false) assumptions; (2) it promotes a bleak sort of cynicism; (3) it ends dialogue instead of starting or fostering it.

I would have thought that Cracked.com would be more liberal and not even question the value or veracity of the "Check your privilege" meme. That shows you what I know about the Cracked folks. For what it's worth, my own feeling is this: I'm glad I'm outside of the United States so that I don't have to deal with any PC "Check your privilege" bullshit. The main problem with using that catchphrase as a debating tactic is that it's yet another example of the genetic fallacy: "I dismiss you not because of what you say but because of your background." It's an indicator of sloppy, over-emotional thinking, and a sign that my interlocutor isn't interested in having a serious discussion about the social ill of the day. It's unfortunate that such memes seem to catch on quickest in colleges, which are, in theory, havens for our best and brightest youth. But young people are strange that way: in one sense, they can be boundary-pushing seekers and questioners, but in another sense, they can be some of the most closed-minded martinets out there.

So, yes: color me surprised to see such an article on Cracked.com. But, for what it's worth, it's a welcome surprise. I just hope the magazine doesn't lose its sense of humor.

ADDENDUM: I saw and liked this comment appended to the Cracked.com article (edited):

I was told to check my privilege by a hippy girl at my college after she went on a long tirade about why communism and Buddhism were the perfect systems of government and religion. I pointed out that she was likely much better off in a capitalistic society than a communist one; she told me I was biased by capitalistic western culture. I informed her that I was raised in a communist country by a Buddhist family. Basically, this person was exoticising this ideal for a Far East Buddhist/communist country when I'm actually from a country like that, and I was told that my viewpoint was biased because my family chose to immigrate from a "rational government" into a greedy one like America's.

The concept of "check your privilege," much like Communism, sounds great in theory but is utilized by pushy assholes to invalidate other people and their voices.


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Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Wreck-It Ralph": review


I have to wonder whether "Wreck-It Ralph" is a modern retelling of the Bhagavad Gita.

You may recall that, in the Gita, the warrior Arjuna, a member of the Pandava clan, has his doubts about fighting the Kaurava clan, which is composed of relatives (cousins, mostly) and respected teachers. Feeling the heat just before a major battle, Arjuna turns to his faithful charioteer for moral advice, and it just so happens that his charioteer is none other than Krsna, i.e., God himself. Krsna tells Arjuna that Arjuna must act according to his ksatriya-dharma, his warrior's dharma. A ksatriya is a member of the warrior caste, which means his dharma—his role, his duty, his very nature—is to fight and kill. "I don't want to be the bad guy," says Arjuna. "But that's your dharma," replies Krsna, "So get out there and hack away!" No one seriously interprets the Gita as advocating violence and bloodshed; the Pandava/Kaurava war is more a metaphor for internal conflict and moral strife, with Krsna providing a path of praxis that will lead one out of the spiritual quagmire and into a state of moksha, or liberation from the cyclical bondage of existence (samsara).

Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the eponymous protagonist of this Disney Animation Studios film, finds himself in a somewhat similar bind. Ralph is a burly video-game character, nine feet tall, nearly seven hundred pounds, with gargantuan arms and fists that act as meaty wrecking balls. Like the toys in "Toy Story," Ralph and other game characters have inner lives—dreams, desires, and hopes for fulfillment. At Litwak's Arcade, Wreck-It Ralph has been wrecking the same apartment building for thirty years. The game he's a part of is called Fix-It Felix. Felix himself (Jack McBrayer) is a cheerful, spry goody-goody with a magic hammer that, somewhat paradoxically, repairs everything it strikes (I'm trying to imagine Jesus instantaneously healing the sick by punching them hard in the forehead). Players play Felix, fixing up Ralph's wreckage; when they win, Felix receives a gold medal during a rooftop ceremony. In that same ceremony, Ralph is picked up by the apartment's residents and thrown off the roof; he tumbles to the ground and splashes in a mud puddle.

After three decades of this abuse, Ralph has had enough. As the game's resident bad guy, he lives a filthy, marginal existence in a dump that sits off to the side of the apartment that he wrecks. He's hated by everyone, and when the residents, plus Felix, celebrate the game's thirtieth anniversary, Ralph isn't invited. This leads to an altercation inside the apartment at which Ralph declares that he'll come back with a hero's medal as proof of his goodness and lovability. Ralph also confesses his desire not to be the bad guy during a meeting of Bad-Anon, a group devoted to helping evil video-game characters cope with the stress of being perennial villains. Angry and despondent after his rejection at the apartment party, Ralph discovers that a gold medal with the word "Hero" on it is awarded to players of a much more modern video game called Hero's Duty (think: Call of Duty, Metal Gear, etc.—first-person shooters).

Ralph leaves his own game, steals some battle armor and a laser rifle, and heads off through Game Central Station to enter the stark, war-torn realm of Hero's Duty. He finds himself with a platoon led by the gritty, no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch in amped-up Sue Sylvester mode). It doesn't take long for Ralph, a holdover from happy, cheerful, 1980s-era video games in the spirit of Donkey Kong, to experience the full horror of modern video-game warfare as swarms of CyBugs—enormous insectoid robots that do little more than eat, fight, and multiply—attack Ralph and his platoon en masse in unrelenting clouds. When the game resets, Ralph ditches his armor and pursues the gold medal in his own manner, climbing the tower where the medal is to be found. He gains the medal, but accidentally triggers another round of CyBugs. One bug latches on to Ralph's face; he stumbles into an escape pod and launches himself randomly out of the world of Hero's Duty, through Game Central Station, and into a pink-themed kart-racing game called Sugar Rush. The escape pod ejects Ralph and the CyBug; Ralph ends up in a candy tree while the bug sinks into a sugary morass.

Once again completely out of his element in this new, saccharine world, Ralph loses his medal to Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman, taking full advantage of her naturally cartoonish voice), a cute, clever, yet annoying little waif eking out a lonely, marginal existence of her own inside Sugar Rush. Vanellope wants to race in a kart alongside the other characters in her game, but she can't enter the race without a gold coin. Seeing Ralph's gold medal, she steals it and uses it to enter the race, which is presided over by King Candy (Alan Tudyk, the guy who played Wash the pilot in "Firefly"), a bubbly, daffy monarch who also has a yen to race and is shrewder than he looks. The other racers are kids straight out of a teen drama: because Vanellope is a despised "glitch," they tell her, in a moment of cyber-racism, that she will never be one of them, after which they gang up on Vanellope and destroy the car she had made herself. Ralph, who up to this point had little reason to like the insulting, caustic Vanellope, takes pity on the girl. They strike a deal: Ralph will help Vanellope make a new car, and Vanellope will return Ralph's medal once she wins the Sugar Rush race. Will Ralph indeed get his medal? Will Vanellope win the race and find fulfillment? Why is King Candy so keen on keeping Vanellope from racing? And is that CyBug truly dead?

The moment of Ralph and Vanellope's deal is when the film's plot truly kicks into gear, and it happens about halfway through the story. Still, getting to that point is worth the trip; the visuals of "Wreck-It Ralph" are exciting, hilarious, and engaging; the voice acting and characterizations are compelling as well. The metaphysics of the story seems a bit muddled; if I were to classify "Wreck-It Ralph" by genre, I wouldn't call it science fiction. The idea that video-game characters in an arcade can visit other video games by traveling through the power lines is more like magic than actual science, so I'd style "Wreck-It Ralph" a fantasy adventure. Science fiction makes at least some attempt at respecting real-life physical laws, but there's little in this movie that's realistic. To watch and enjoy "Wreck-It Ralph," disengage your disbelief, sit back, and just cruise blissfully over all that gorgeous, undulating scenery.

This was, for me, a laugh-out-loud movie. Sergeant Calhoun gets all the funniest moments; there's just something about Jane Lynch's comic delivery (and the fact that Lynch's movie avatar is a younger, sexier version of herself) that leaves me gasping. Watch, in particular, for the Laffy Taffy scene.

Ultimately, Ralph, like Arjuna, accepts his bad-guy dharma: he's a wrecker—that's his purpose. It's what he's built for. In some ways, "Wreck-It Ralph" recalls themes also explored in the Matrix films. Agent Smith, in "The Matrix Reloaded," sermonized Neo on the importance of purpose (i.e., dharma) to a program's survival and sense of well-being. "Ralph" evokes other movies as well, such as "Toy Story," as mentioned above, because the video-game characters come alive after the kids leave the arcade. Also, when Ralph glues one antagonist to a candy plant and says "Stick around," I'm reminded of Arnold Schwarzenegger's same line in "Predator," delivered after Arnold pins an enemy to the wall with a ghoulishly long knife. And the intertextuality doesn't stop with film references: "Wreck-It Ralph" is a trove of references to actual video games, past and present. While Mario and Luigi are conspicuously absent (Kong is also a no-show), Bowser appears as one of the Bad-Anon support-group members. Sonic the Hedgehog makes an appearance, as does Clyde the Ghost from Pac Man—in fact, Pac Man himself has a gluttonous, dialogue-free cameo. Q*bert, Pong, and Dig Dug show up (with Q*bert speaking Q*bertese). Pop-culture references abound, too, the most important such reference being to what happens when you combine Diet Coke and Mentos candies.

Some things are left unexplained. For example, the residents of Niceland, the apartment that Ralph is always wrecking, are animated in jerky 8-bit style even during the Pixaresque 3D segments, but neither Ralph nor Felix moves jerkily. How game characters travel freely between and among video games is a mystery, and so is the rule that, if a character dies outside of her own game, she's dead forever, unable to respawn.

But back to the Bhagavad Gita. Ralph ultimately accepts who he is, and although he manages to find a measure of heroism within himself, he does so not by fighting his dharma as a wrecker, but by acting in a manner consistent with his programmed nature. He embraces his inner Arjuna.

"Wreck-It Ralph" was recommended to me by my brother David, who had seen it with his wife (here they are). Overall, I liked the film a lot, mainly because it made me laugh out loud at several points. For me, the gold standard of modern animated films is "The Incredibles," which was a smooth conflation of the spy and superhero genres, as well as being a movie with impeccable story structure, astute comedy, and adult themes (like marital infidelity) woven into it. "Wreck-It Ralph," while not quite as good as "The Incredibles," possesses its own kind of maturity, too; although I doubt the scriptwriters had deliberately set out to retell an ancient Hindu story, the end result was, like it or not, Gita-ish in nature. "Ralph" is fairly predictable on the grand scale, but the story contains an unexpected twist or two that will keep the savvy viewer guessing, on the small scale, about what will happen next. The movie has a good heart, even if Vanellope von Schweetz comes off as an annoying little runt early on. And the unlikely romantic subplot between the bereaved, leggy Sergeant Calhoun and stubby Fix-It Felix provides an added layer of hilarity.

See "Wreck-It Ralph." A good time will be had by all.

ADDENDUM: I don't think I was crazy to approach this movie from a religious-studies perspective. Here's an intelligent review, from two years ago, that also evokes dharma.


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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ave, Bill!

My friend Bill Keezer tackles the entire universe in this ambitious post. If I understand Bill correctly—and I'm not sure I do because much of his post is technical and I'm just a religious-studies major—his argument isn't meant as a proof for the existence of human freedom but as a sort of groundwork, in the Grundlegung sense, on which such an argument might be built. Using the example of a public fountain and taking us through the myriad potential trajectories of the water molecules, Bill argues that the incalculable number of possible paths the water molecules take is nevertheless constrained, as can be seen by the general shape of the spray coming out of the fountain. The overall pattern of the fountain's spray, i.e., the attractor, roughly defines the shape of that spray at the anthropic level, but at the atomic level what we see is much more freewheeling. Bill moves from this notion to the notion that it is difficult, if not outright impossible, to apply a strictly deterministic paradigm to any theory of mind. The mind evinces its own innate unpredictability; while ultimately constrained by its own attractor (the shape of which, I imagine, is undetermined—more on this below), the mind is capable of generating untold permutations and combinations of human behavior. Again, this isn't an argument for human freedom, but it's a step in that direction.

If a materialist determinist like Sam Harris were to read Bill's post, he would likely say that the countless ways in which human behavior might play out are no evidence at all that humans are free. (Harris denies the existence of human freedom.) Water molecules in a fountain might follow a dizzying number of possible paths, but does water possess free will? Of course it doesn't. The factors that determine where a given water molecule is at each given moment causally propel the molecule forward in time and space. While not necessarily predictable, the water's path is nonetheless fully determined.

Bill actually addresses this issue toward the end of his post. He seems to imply (and he can correct me if I'm wrong) that there is a practical issue to be resolved when someone makes the cavalier claim that any phenomenon, simple or complex, is fully determined. Determinists, Bill notes, usually assume that unpredictability is the result of our inability to measure and track phenomena precisely and comprehensively (no one has yet created a device that can track every atom in the universe). But given the sheer number and scale of micro- and macro-phenomena, the sheer number of ways the universe can unfold, such measurement/tracking is, practically speaking, impossible. This makes the claims on which determinism rests practically unverifiable, which in turn makes determinism something of a faith-based attitude, i.e., not particularly scientific, if by "scientific" we mean "rooted in empirical evidence."

I think Bill is on the right track. Determinists need to be challenged—vigorously—on this assumption underlying their worldview: "Prove the determinism you espouse!" If I drop an egg onto a hard floor from a height of two meters, it's easy to predict that the egg will break and its contents will splatter. These splatter patterns will all look similar because they conform to the attractor (which I almost view as a sort of Platonic Form) for that kind of event. But each individual egg-breaking incident will play out, in its micro-details, very differently from every other such incident. If there is any determinism to be found in such an event, it's at the level of the attractor, not at the level of the individual atoms.

I also find that Bill's argument seems to dovetail with an insight I wrote about back in 2012. In that earlier essay, much less technical than Bill's and taking an approach that conforms more to my religious-studies background, I argued that one of the "symptoms" of human freedom is inherent unpredictability. Friend and commenter Malcolm Pollack challenged my post when he wrote:

If you accept Harris's materialistic view, then humans are nothing more than complex systems of atoms (which, by the way, behave, in our modern understanding, according to non-classical, rather than Newtonian, laws).

So why is a human being's behavior any less predictable than that of any other complex material system?

After some thought, I ended up writing the following answer:

...there's something about the nature of consciousness such that [sentient] beings defy prediction: they create worldlines that squiggle through space-time in ways that indicate both aliveness and consciousness, and these patterns are qualitatively different from the worldlines of abiotic, non-sentient phenomena.

I've thought, now and again, on what exactly is "qualitatively different" about human beings' radical unpredictability and non-sentient objects' much tamer unpredictability. Bill's latest essay might provide a clue: perhaps the difference between humans' (and by extension, animals') unpredictability and that of inanimate objects has to do with the shape of the attractors. Human beings, as I said above, squiggle through space-time; the molecules of a fountain can do nothing other than fountain through space-time; human attractors can thus take an infinite number of different shapes: the hallmarks of aliveness and consciousness. The attractor that governs the behavior of water in a fountain (or kitchen faucet, or waterfall), by contrast, can only ever evince a fountain.

In any event, I found Bill's post interesting and thought-provoking. I apologize to him if I've taken his words and ideas out of context, but his essay sparked enough thought in my tired brain that I had to write some sort of reaction.

Had to? Was this blog post determined...?


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Friday, June 20, 2014

deliver us from evil

I had bad luck ordering delivery on the phone today. Triumphant after having finished my paperwork on campus, I lumbered out our back gate, swung by the computer-repair place to pick up my hard drive (the only thing that could be salvaged from my dead Mac), and tromped home, hungry for a late lunch.

Upon checking my mail, I discovered the monthly gas bill and a little rectangular slip of printed, glossy card stock: an ad for a new donggaseu (fried pork cutlet—Jpn. donkatsu) restaurant. I carried my mail up to my studio, turned on the A/C, and called the donggaseu place. The conversation went something like this:

PORK LADY: This is Fuck You Donggaseu. How may I help you? (Names changed or hidden to protect the guilty.)

ME: Hello, this is Healing Town Room 302. I'd like a pizza donggaseu...

PORK: I'm sorry—where are you?

ME: Healing Town, Room—

PORK: I'm sorry, but I don't know where that is.

ME: It's on Munhwaro Fourth Street.

PORK: I don't know where that is, either.

ME: How can you not know? Don't your delivery people have GPS or maps or anything?

PORK: The person who knows those neighborhoods isn't here today. Look, you need to give me your building's name.

ME: I told you: Healing Town. It's a studio building.

PORK: Ah—Healing Town. ...I still don't know where that is.

ME: Should I give you the complete address? (At this point, I'm fumbling around for a loose gas or electric bill because, even after a year, I haven't memorized the confusing mass of digits and doodads on my own address, but the address is listed on my bills.)

PORK: I don't know if that's going to help.

ME: OK, I understand.

At that point, I hung up in disgust and ripped up the restaurant's ad, swearing never to order from them again. What sort of eatery drops advertisements about itself—inviting you to call and order—then admits it has no idea where you are? Unimaginable, and a piss-poor way to run a business. Also, there's this: Hayang is a small town. It's got its nooks and crannies, true, but for Christ's sake, it's not that complicated to find your way around! Munhwaro Fourth Street is just off a major T-intersection, that of Hayangno and Munhwaro. Easy.

So I called a Chinese restaurant that was also serving naengmyeon (cold-noodle soup) and ordered a Sino-Korean mix of tangsuyuk (sweet-and-sour pork) and naengmyeon. This went fairly smoothly... until the guy called me back a few minutes later to ask, "What'd you order, again?" After the house-of-idiots conversation I'd just had with the donggaseu troglodyte, there wasn't anything this guy could have said or done that would have been more shocking, surprising, or off-putting. So I smiled and re-placed my order.

Nothing in Korea moves in straight lines. If you expect a procedure to go smoothly from A to Z, you're very naive.

Confident, now, that some sort of food would be on its way to my place, I got on my laptop and waited for the chow to arrive. Then my phone rang.

"This is the donggaseu restaurant," said a male voice. "You placed an order with us, yes?"

"Yes, but I canceled it," I said.

"You ordered pizza donggaseu today, didn't you?"

"I said I'd canceled it. The lady told me she didn't know where my building was."

"But you ordered this today, right?"

"Yes, but I—canceled—it. The lady said she didn't know where my building was, so I said 'I understand' and that was that. I didn't order."

"We're going to have to—"

"No, please just cancel my order."

I hung up, feeling as if I'd run afoul of the donggaseu Mafia or something. Would they show up at my door with baseball bats, ready to powder my kneecaps because I'd refused their pork? Luckily, no further calls came from Fuck You Donggaseu, and the Chinese-food guy arrived the way he was supposed to, so at least that much order had been restored to the cosmos.

Something like this problem has plagued me since I moved here last year. Hayang seems to have more than its share of slow-witted bumpkins, and because my neighborhood was spanking new when I arrived, many delivery people have no idea where "Healing Town" or "Munhwaro Fourth Street" is. On several occasions, I've had to explain to the delivery folks how to get to my place. In the majority of these cases, the delivery person has access to a map and is thus able to visualize the proper path. But every once in a while, a situation like today's fruitless exchange will occur, and the delivery folks will prove to be bereft of both maps and brains. On the bright side, such exchanges help me improve my Korean, but this isn't a bright side that my stomach can appreciate.


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terminaste! (casi)

Unless there's a quirk in the computer system, or unless our department's head office issues yet another correction to our attendance records (students hand in absence-excuse documents late sometimes), I... am... DONE. Done like a fuckin' turkey, is how done I am. All grades have been entered, all the attendance sheets have been reconciled—tout est en ordre. There's little left to do. Next week, we'll have a grade meeting, at which our director will give her seal of approval once she studies how well our grades have fit the school-sanctioned curve. After that comes the solemn campus ritual of the bizarrely named "final button day," on which day we come into the office, open our grade records, click a little check icon, and release our grades to the student population. Students will then have 48 hours to contact their professors and challenge their grades. Last semester was a nightmare for me; one "F" student sobbed and begged and texted and cajoled and did everything she could to manipulate me into giving her a passing grade (it's probably not kosher to reveal much more, so I'll leave it at that). Aside from her, though, the other kids were fine. I hope this semester goes more smoothly; as I did last semester, I've told my kids that I'm not inclined to change a grade once I've given it, so I'd better not hear the sad moaning of suffering hell-beings.

With just a few more hoops to jump through, summer vacation—albeit a truncated one because CU is booting my ass out early—is staring me in the face.


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Thursday, June 19, 2014

two takes on Sue Mi Terry

Sue Mi Terry is a former CIA analyst and frequent columnist who recently wrote "Let North Korea Collapse," an article that has garnered a lot of attention in recent days. Many are praising Terry's argument that the cost of reunification, while burdensome, won't be insurmountable, but there are naysayers.

Two takes on Ms. Terry will illustrate the contrasting opinions surrounding her insights. The first comes from John Lee at the blog The Korean Foreigner, in a post that skeptically rehashes Terry's article's title by adding a sly question mark: "Let North Korea Collapse?" The second, more favorable, perspective comes from my go-to reference on all things North Korean, Joshua Stanton and his blog One Free Korea: "Sue Mi Terry in the New York Times: Let North Korea Collapse."

As you might guess, I'm more inclined to agree with Joshua, but Lee brings up legitimate points that deserve consideration. Some of those points are addressed, and indirectly rebutted, on Joshua's blog.


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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

RAUS!

Our employment contract has a clause in it about university-sponsored housing: the employee, if not renewing his contract, must leave the residence one week before the end of the contract period. In my case (and in the case of everyone hired at the same time that I was), that means one week before August 31, my birthday. I'm gambling that I'll actually have a place to move to by August, so this shouldn't be a huge issue, but it's sad, all the same, to have the rug pulled out from under my feet.

Today there came another surprise: one of the office assistants told me that I'd actually have to leave even earlier than stipulated—about ten days earlier. I guess if you don't renew, the policy is to kick your ass out the door as hastily as possible, so you can't even enjoy your contract-mandated two months' vacation.* I can hear John Belushi shouting in a faux-Italian accent, "We gotta have a turnover! Turnover!" Since there's little I can do about the situation without kicking and screaming (a strategy that actually works surprisingly well for Westerners in Korea, but at the cost of diplomatic capital and self-respect), I'll be striking camp on August 14. That means I will either celebrate my birthday in Seoul or celebrate my birthday back in the States. Much depends on the next few weeks.



*I know: you 9-to-5 proles in your 40-hour-a-week cubicle jobs are going, "Oh, boo-hoo! Poor Kevin: only a month and a half of vacation!" Yeah, well, up yours.


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nouvelles lentilles de contact

I finally got myself some new contact lenses—and just in time, too! There's a large eyewear shop called Glass Baba that's barely two hundred yards from where I live. Glass Baba has a nasty habit of aggressive audio advertising: the store blares commercials about itself on loudspeakers that carry the sound over the sidewalk and into the nearby traffic intersection. But maybe that's the power of marketing: despite there being four or five eyewear shops in close proximity to each other in my neighborhood, I chose the most obnoxious one to obtain my new contacts.

I got there around 9:30PM. The cheerful girl who greeted me was cute and walked with a limp. She said she'd seen me often, strolling past her vitrine. I was asked to remove my current lenses and wait five minutes before the eye test. The test itself consisted of only one step: that machine known to all eyeglass and contact wearers—the binocular one that shows an unfocused landscape which gradually becomes more focused as the technology homes in on the strength of your vision. With that reading done, I was led back to the counter and quizzed about what sort of contacts I'd been using, and what sort I wanted. I learned some new vocabulary during this exchange: astigmatism (of which I have a slight case) is nan-shi. Myopia, or nearsightedness, is geun-shi.

So—which contacts did I want? The ones for astigmatism or the ones for nearsightedness? I assumed there must be some overlap between the two types: the lenses that corrected astigmatism would have to correct for nearsightedness as well, no? In the end, I chose the contacts that treated myopia. I then had to choose between some sort of polymer lens versus some other material. One was slightly harder than the other, apparently, and somewhat less permeable. I didn't care; I simply wanted the lenses that cost around W70,000, the traditional price I've paid for contacts in Korea for years.*

I had told the girl that I'd been using bimonthly-wear lenses: use and throw away every two months. To my great delight, she gave me a pair of one-year extended-wear lenses—a single blessed pair, not a goddamn twelve-pack. I haven't worn such lenses in years, and I'm glad to see that they still exist. For a while, in the US, such lenses had fallen out of favor because of issues with gas-permeability: some people would keep the extended-wear lenses on their eyeballs for so long that there would be oxygen deprivation, severe irritation, or, in the more frightening cases, neovascularization, i.e., new blood vessels growing and weaving themselves into the lenses, making them nearly impossible to remove from the eye.** I imagine the tech has greatly improved since the 1990s, making extended-wear lenses much safer these days.

The girl gave me a tiny plastic lens-washer that brought back memories of high school, along with a lens case and cleaning/storage fluid—all for W70,000. I thanked her and the gentleman working with her, then was on my way. I have to say, I love buying contacts in Korea. It's easily one of the smoothest, most painless transactions I've ever engaged in, and the price can't be beaten. So now I'm good for another year. Bye-bye, Cute Girl Who Limps. Thank you.



*I've mentioned it several times before, but it bears repeating: in the US, where Costco is supposedly the "cheap" option when purchasing contacts, the eye exam alone will cost you $90, and a year's supply of lenses will cost you over $150. That's nearly $300 for something that will last only a year. Paying barely $70 in Korea is so, so worth my while.

**This phenomenon was directly related to the aforementioned oxygen deprivation: capillaries would rise to the surface of the eye in search of O2.


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

my pronunciation final exam: a marriage of complex and simple

I'm bizarrely proud of the pronunciation exam I've designed. I inflict it on my students tomorrow (Wednesday). The exam is in six parts—twice as many sections as the diagnostic exam and the midterm. The first four parts have to do with speaking; the last two have to do with listening (you can't teach proper pronunciation to students who can't hear the differences between and among sounds). Speaking is valued at 60% of the exam grade; listening is the remaining 40%.

Speaking Section 1 comes right from the earlier tests, and is, in fact, an exact copy of those previous sections. In this part of the test, students must read aloud from a paragraph of movie dialogue. I selected the dialogue because it represents spoken American English, but spoken English that isn't too slang-ridden or too laced with dialect. The sentences in this paragraph are long, which means students need to be mindful of rhythm. The paragraph is also long enough to cover a wide range of phonemes, and because it's a paragraph, these are phonemes-in-context, which is also crucial for exposing student pronunciation problems. Students will read the paragraph into KakaoTalk on their cell phones, then send me their sound files.

Section 2 is more focused and less context-dependent. In this part of the test, students must read a series of sentences containing an obstacle course of difficult phonemes. There's still some discursive context; the sounds of English aren't presented in total isolation, and I'm not sure that testing students on totally isolated sounds is all that useful. That said, the real point of this section is to test the students' intonation. They've been told to stress the important words in a sentence, and they've learned a bit about using intonation to express doubt, curiosity, excitement, and other states of mind. As above, students will send me KakaoTalk sound files.

Section 3 features tongue twisters. This is the most focused trial yet, and the least contextualized. In this section, I've borrowed and/or created tongue twisters that will challenge the students to produce difficult sounds repeatedly (think: "this, that, these, those" as a way to practice the voiced th). As with the two previous sections, students must send me KakaoTalk sound files.

Section 4 introduces the random naturalness and freewheeling creativity of actual conversation into the mix. In this part of the test, students will sit down for a one-minute conversation with the teacher about anything at all. I added this section because Korean students are infamously good at memorization and other rote activities. Spontaneity trips them up, and my kids often tend to forget what they've learned, in terms of proper pronunciation, whenever they find themselves in a free-talk environment. This section may very well catch them at their worst. I've advised them to be mindful and to speak slowly and clearly, which is much more important to me than speaking rapidly and fluently. No KakaoTalk this time: I'll be the one recording students on my own cell phone.

Listening Section 1 is a do-over of the minimal pairs work done in both the diagnostic and midterm exams. Despite my hatred of multiple-choice questions, I made this and the next section multiple choice, as the listening problems are purely about raw discernment. In Listening Section 1, students will hear an utterance like "sit," after which they'll have to choose between "sit" and "seat." This section will be done together as a class: the students will listen and mark their answers while I call out various words and phrases.

Listening Section 2, the final section, is all about syllable stress. Students will hear a sentence twice; they'll be given about 20 seconds to figure out the syllable-stress pattern for that sentence. Riffing off the notation from one of the several pronunciation resources I used during this course, I'll be using "o" to represent weak stress and "O" to represent strong stress. Here's an example of a typical utterance and its stress pattern:

"Where are you going?" (oooOo)—five syllables, fourth one stressed

The test questions for this section will be, as mentioned above, multiple choice, and will look something like this:

[teacher reads utterance: "Where are you going?"]
a. oOooo
b. oooOoo
c. oooOo

Note that I've included a head-fake in the above problem: answer (b) is incorrect because it has too many syllables, so students will have to be able to count syllables in order to get the stress pattern right.

That's basically it. I warned my students that grading would be extremely strict. For the speaking sections, students will be scored on a three-point scale, with a 3 representing absolute, natural perfection, and a 1 representing absolute incomprehensibility. I suspect most of my students will get 2's, which means most will average a 66.7% for the spoken section. How well the kids do on the listening section is anyone's guess.

The exam has been deliberately designed to be brutal. This was a necessary corrective to my students' earlier performance: most of them had gotten A's on the midterm, and most were averaging an A for the class. Since, alas, I have to make my kids conform to a school-sanctioned grade curve, I have little choice but to blast them.

There's one student in this class who worries me. He's the only one who can't speak English at all. He has done remarkably well with memorized English, but any sort of spontaneous conversation is totally beyond him because his listening comprehension is near zero. I feel bad for him: the rest of the class is easily intermediate level, on average; some students might even be considered advanced. The student in question has an A or a high B right now, so I'm not worried that he'll fail the course, but I do worry about how many pegs he's going to be knocked down after my final exam grabs him by the scruff of the neck and worries him violently.

I titled this post "a marriage of complex and simple." I think I've given you an idea of the exam's complexity (fine: it's not that complex); the simple aspect of the exam is in how easy it will be to grade. As I mentioned before, to get a 3, student output needs to be absolutely perfect. This means that, the moment I hear any mistake at all, a student automatically drops to a 2. I reserve 1's only for those kids whose words I simply can't understand, and I doubt that that applies to anyone in the class.

Here's hoping my kids do well tomorrow. I admit I'm morbidly curious as to how this test, my proud achievement, will rearrange the grade-curve landscape.


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the backslide into risky behavior: how quickly we forget

Robert Koehler of The Marmot's Hole links, on Twitter, to a Joongang Daily article titled "Safety vigilance is fading already."

It’s been two months since the Sewol ferry sunk in waters off Jindo, South Jeolla, claiming the lives of nearly 300 victims. But Koreans have already returned to their slipshod ways, forgetting the bitter lesson that negligence of safety can lead to tragedy.

[...]

When the Seokyung Island ferry departed from Busan for Jeju Island on Wednesday, monitors throughout the ferry showed a video demonstrating the use of life jackets. But the video’s volume was turned down and the 800 passengers ignored it.

“Please watch the video that shows how to wear life jackets on the TVs,” a crew member announced on the loudspeakers.

But the video had already finished.

“I didn’t even know they were showing us how to wear life jackets,” a 68-year-old passenger, Kim Bok-ja, told a JoongAng Ilbo reporter. “What do they want us to do when we can’t even hear such an important safety warning?”

When reporters from the JoongAng Ilbo boarded domestic ferries a month ago and again last Wednesday, the ferries seemed to be slipping back into their old, careless ways.

The ferries did improve on identifying passengers and tying down cargo, but other measures to keep passengers safe in case of emergency, such as safety education, didn’t appear to be sufficient. Passengers also expressed their concerns.

“I looked around the ferry just to make sure, but life rafts were rusted here and there,” said passenger Kim Jin-su, 68. “I am not sure whether they will work in emergency situations.”

The situation wasn’t any better Wednesday on the Sunflower ferry carrying hundreds of passengers from Pohang to Ulleung Island.

Life jacket cabinets had garbage in them and many of the jackets were covered with dust.

Some of the passengers shrugged off the rules, too. A man was smoking in the ferry’s restroom, where smoking is prohibited, and some others were sleeping right by emergency exits. Three of the Sunflower’s six emergency exits were blocked by sleeping passengers.

“Smoking and blocking those exits are directly related to passengers’ lives, but some passengers are not following our instructions,” said the ferry’s navigator, Kim Gi-dong. “Operator and crew of ferries must do their best for safety, but passengers also should heighten their awareness.”

The sloppy tendency to ignore or circumvent rules is unfortunately widespread in Korea, where concepts like rule of law are, at best, vague and distant. I see this behavior up close every time I'm on an airplane filled with Koreans: the captain tells us not to leave our seats until the plane has come to a complete stop, but passengers ignore this and stand up to retrieve their bags while the plane is still in motion (is this of a piece with what I had written in my previous post regarding students and their compulsion to check their cell phones despite being forbidden to do so?).

I'd love to know more about what it is, in Korean psychology, that makes Koreans feel they can permit themselves to ignore rules of public conduct. Some observers chalk this up to a kind of endemic selfishness, but I'm not so sure: I've seen too many acts of selflessness in Korea to condemn an entire culture in such a facile and dismissive manner. One friend of mine ventures that Koreans generally lack a sense of civic duty: instead of taking seriously the idea that "we're all fellows, in this together," Koreans think tribally, i.e., in terms of circles of loyalty—nuclear family first, then close relatives, then friends, and so on. By the time one reaches the circle of "people I don't know," any loyalty or sense of civic obligation has long since drained away, which makes Koreans care little for the welfare and well-being of strangers.*

Why this is the case is an exploration in itself. At a guess, tribal thinking is a perfectly natural and pancultural approach to social bonding: evolutionary psychology confirms the wisdom of "birds of a feather," and the current HBD (human biodiversity) movement has been insistent that there is greater social cohesion and harmony when there is less cultural and racial diversity. A kingdom, empire, or nation, in the modern sense, is a vast and complex geographic and cultural entity, but thousands of years ago, the tribe (or clan) would have been the clearest notional extension of the concept of family. Is it any surprise that even modern cultures possess tribalistic inclinations? Also, in Korea, as I've argued elsewhere, the mountainous territory would have encouraged local loyalties as well: with people clustered in valley communities, there would have been little or no curiosity about what went on in the next valley over—a phenomenon one also sees in modern Switzerland, itself an extremely mountainous country. Swiss cantons have clearly defined self-conceptions; the citizens of those cantons are fiercely loyal to their particular patch of ground and way of life. Korean provinces are much like those cantons in overall demeanor and alignment.

This second theory—concentric circles of progressively fading loyalty as opposed to the first theory about endemic selfishness—strikes me as worth pursuing because it's rooted in Korean history. Societies evolve in unique ways; the jostling interplay of values shakes out differently from culture to culture, with different cultures prioritizing different values, and it might make sense to think of Korean public behavior in a historical context. One could, for example, link Koreans' willful ignoring of rules to a long-standing distrust of authority that dates back centuries, back to the time when the peasants made fun of the yangban, i.e., the nobles. Such distrust certainly helps explain why modern Koreans feel free to argue at length with (or even to bribe) police officers who have pulled them over. It also makes sense of Korea's robust culture of protest, which pits everyday citizens against the brute-force power of the state.**

So it may be that, when Koreans sloppily ignore the rules, there's an element of protest in the action. This protest may not be conscious; perhaps such rule-ignoring started off as a kind of explicit rebellion, then softened until it attained the status of a "custom" or a "cultural tendency"—a free-floating meme. The young mother in the airplane who blithely stands up in defiance of the captain's advisory about remaining seated might not be consciously protesting or rebelling against anything at all, but perhaps the roots of her actions can be found in Korea's history of defiance.

All of the above speculation is meant to be just that: mere speculation—the unrefined thoughts of a non-expert. There are other angles of approach to this issue; Korean misbehavior in public (well, it's misbehavior from a Westerner's point of view) could have dozens or hundreds of alternative explanations. But the problem itself is interesting and warrants cogitation. Meanwhile, I agree with the Joongang article's basic point, which is to warn that Koreans are already backsliding when it comes to safety-consciousness.

A character in one of my favorite novels says, "It is the duty of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead." It may well be that the 300 deaths from the Sewol disaster shouldn't be considered sacrifices, per se, since those terrified students and adults didn't meet their fate willingly, or with any thought to dying for the greater good. Still, there is a sense in which those deaths do amount to a sacrifice of sorts, one that ought to teach society a lesson about the preciousness of life. The memory of the lost is profaned, dishonored, when the people who should learn a moral lesson prove heedless. The dead are truly gone only when they fade from memory. We ignore their voices at our peril.



*This notion of fading loyalty changes, of course, when nationalism is at issue. That's when Koreans circle the wagons and bring forth their one-race danil-minjok mythology.

**In the comments, my buddy Charles notes that peasants who mocked the nobility were not unique to Korea. True, but this doesn't make the phenomenon somehow un- or non-Korean. If someone says "Koreans a re a passionate people," and someone else counters, "But the Italians are passionate, too," that's not an actual rebuttal to the original claim about Koreans, for it's possible for both Italians and Koreans to be passionate.


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Beavis and Butt-head

I have two students—two guys—who look and act almost exactly like Beavis and Butt-head. They chortle and cackle; they're always either talking to each other or casting furtive glances at me; I'm constantly taking Beavis's cell phone away from him because he's so goddamn addicted to it. I tell my students, again and again, not to use their cell phones, but many of them refuse to listen. I consider this rude and offensive, but the students don't seem to care that they're disrespecting the teacher: they want their phones.

In the cartoon, Beavis is the one with anger-management issues, and my personal Beavis is no different, as I found out Monday afternoon. This was the final session for the 1PM class (all of my classes meet only once a week), which meant that today was the final exam. Students engaged in a group-interactive activity, and the other students had to watch quietly. Do you think they did? No, of course they didn't: people sneakily looked at cell phones and whispered to each other, so I had to play the burly Catholic nun and do a lot of shushing and confiscating. Beavis had his phone out and was making little attempt to hide what he was doing; I sauntered over and beckoned for his phone, which he clutched tighter and hesitated to give to me. "Phone number, phone number," he sputtered in the only broken English he could manage after a semester in my class (yes: I failed this boy, just as Obi-wan failed Anakin). I think he was trying to say that he was in the midst of taking down a classmate's phone number; I didn't care, so I beckoned again, more insistently. Beavis's face curdled into an angry expression and he slammed the phone into my palm. I immediately stepped forward, eyes wide and threatening, lips drawn tight, radiating bulky menace. "Sorry-sorry," Beavis said, deflating as quickly as he had puffed up. I won't tolerate dominance games in my class.

Beavis was a hair's breadth from failing. He hadn't done any homework all semester; he didn't do his presentation, and he had a zero score for his participation grade, given his habit of talking with his more-talented friend Butt-head. Yet somehow, miraculously, thanks to a decent performance on the final, he managed a pass. While it would have been tempting to fail him anyway, I had no inclination to play unethically with the numbers. A pass is a pass, even if it's a lowly "D." I'll let you imagine what "D" stands for in Beavis's case.


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Monday, June 16, 2014

the gnome has spoken

It seems my Mac has died. Or so the gnome says. We had a long discussion about the Mac, about what the problems (yes, plural) are, and about what can be done. Long story short: a combination of dust, age, and Mac-inherent design flaws conspired to kill my computer; at least two major problems arose at the same time. There's also the fact that this is an American Mac, so parts would need to be ordered from China. At one point I asked about taking my Mac to an actual Mac service center in Daegu, and the gnome told me that that route would be more expensive than sticking with him (not that I expected him to say any different). "If I were to make all the needed repairs," he said, "the least this would cost you would be W300,000." Worse than I'd imagined. What matters to me right now, more than the computer itself, is the data that's on it. So I asked the gnome about salvaging the data. He said it might be possible, but it would take some time.

And that's where we stand: the computer's going to be in the shop for a while longer, and I won't hear from the gnome until he can ascertain whether data recovery is even possible. If it is, it's going to cost me W40,000, he says; I imagine this has more to do with labor than with parts: burning my data onto CDs really shouldn't be that big of an issue. In the meantime, I'm now relying fully on my thin little laptop: I'll attach it to the hard line at my studio; I'll use wi-fi when I tote the laptop to campus; at home, I'll turn the laptop into its own wi-fi hotspot.

I guess we're going to find out just how tough the MacBook Air is.


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evil multivitamins

Am I going to die?

On my second Costco run, I bought the Kirkland Signature multivitamins—400 horse tablets in a big plastic bottle. But when I opened the bottle for the first time, I noticed that the air-tight seal was already open... and when I peeled that seal back, this is what I saw:


Are my vites tainted? They smell normal. They look normal. I have yet to eat one, but I might try some tonight or tomorrow morning. Tonight might be better: if there are any ill effects, I'll need to know before I go to class. I wouldn't want my students rejoicing that their final exam has been canceled because their teacher is dead.


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ululate!

The voice of my childhood, Casey Kasem, radio announcer extraordinaire, has died at the age of 82. I associate Kasem's distinctive voice—his smooth, memorable rhythm and intonation—with car interiors, because that's when I always heard him: he was forever doing some sort of Top-40 countdown or other while I was riding in or driving a car. I was sad to learn that, toward the end of his life, Kasem lost his voice because of a combination of Parkinson's disease and dementia. I can only hope that the latter condition, which must have stripped him of his cognitive faculties, eased his transition from this world to the next.

RIP, Mr. Kasem. Belated thanks for many, many years of entertainment.


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Sunday, June 15, 2014

happy birthday, Mike!


It's June 15, which means it's Mike's birthday. Mike has been my buddy since third grade; these days, I'd say he's a brother, not a buddy—part of the family. Mike is a couple months older than I am, which means that, when it comes to birthday milestones, he's always the first one over the cliff.

In this case, that cliff is Age 45. Yes, Poison Girls: today, we celebrate the fact that my old friend is now halfway to 90. He and I have reached the age where we can no longer hide the gray hair except chemically, and we have to see a doc for colon-polyp checkups and to get weird growths lasered off our skin. Mike wears his age well; he's a cheerful, generally optimistic guy—very happily married, with three great kids. I don't know how he divides his energy among his various familial and work obligations; if I were in his shoes, I'd be dead, or at least dead tired.

Despite being thousands of miles away from Mike and his palatial abode in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I stay in touch and involved with his family. Lately, that means Skype-tutoring his eldest daughter, who is also my goddaughter. I've been working with her on SAT English and math, and have tutored her in French. I just heard that there's a chance I'll be tutoring Mike's only son in French; the boy's got an ear for accents and the gift of gab, so I imagine he'll take to French pretty easily.

I therefore take this opportunity to announce to the world how proud I am to have a guy like Mike as my friend. He's been with me through thick and thin; he was there for us when Mom had cancer, and he's been my financial benefactor on more than one occasion. He's a stand-up guy, a bro, and someone I can look up to. One day, perhaps, he'll tell me the secret to how he maintains such low blood pressure compared to mine.

Happy Birthday, Mike! And many happy returns.

ADDENDUM: Coincidentally, it's Father's Day in America, so Happy Father's Day to Mike and to all good fathers out there.


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