Thursday, April 30, 2015

blood up

I'll be hitting "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" tomorrow morning for an early matinee—maybe around 9AM. This will my first Avengers film seen in a movie theater; the last one I saw was on iTunes, on my now-defunct desktop Macintosh.

Will it be good? Will it be a mess? Will I be the only one in the theater laughing at the culturally specific jokes (this happens a lot)? Expect a review not long after; it'll probably be published over this weekend or sometime early next week.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

the dubious merits of "chalk and talk"

[Note: je dois dire "Ça gaze?" à mon visiteur breton basé à Rennes! J'espère que vous trouverez utile cet essai comparatif sur la méthodologie pédagogique.]

A post over at Instapundit led me to this Business Insider article on education in China, and how the Chinese education system supposedly explains the high performance of its students on certain internationally recognized tests. Glenn Reynolds, master of Instapundit, quotes what he considers the main points of Kevin Donnelly's article; he interprets the piece as saying that less-traditional teaching methods are little more than ways to "politicize the curriculum" (so take that, liberals!) and were originally exciting simply because they were new. In the battle between "direct instruction" (i.e., teacher-centered lecture and direction) versus "inquiry learning" (i.e., less traditional, more student-centered approaches), direct instruction is, by Reynolds's lights, the better method: it's "proven," he writes.

If all you read of the Business Insider article is Reynolds's excerpt from it, you'll come away with the wrong impression. When I originally read Reynolds's post, I was ready to disagree completely with BI, but after reading Donnelly's entire spiel, I've come to the conclusion that the article's position on direct instruction, and on education in general, is more nuanced than Reynolds lets on. Donnelly makes claims that I vehemently disagree with—and I'll talk about those shortly—but he also makes claims that are, in my opinion, just pedagogical common sense. Let's start with those. What does Donnelly get right?

Especially during the early primary school years in areas like English and mathematics, teachers need to be explicit about what they teach and make better use of whole-class teaching.

If it's taken as is, this claim makes sense. When you're teaching the rudiments of a subject, strategies like rote memorization, habit-formation, and repetition are a teacher's best friends. This really should go without saying. I take this view when teaching, say, basic vocabulary and grammar in English: learn the building blocks first, then start recombining them in interesting ways later. This principle works outside of foreign-language instruction, too: it's hard to do higher math without reflexive knowledge of the basic multiplication tables, for example. You can't talk about international politics without a basic understanding of geography. In history, you can't talk about the causes of, or relationships between, major events without a brute-force knowledge of the events themselves—who was involved, when and where the events happened, and so on. All of this gets back to the "taxonomy" created in the 1950s by Dr. Benjamin Bloom and his team.

Bloom's Taxonomy, as it's called, is an educational staple that depicts the levels of human cognition, ranking those levels from basic (which also means essential) to advanced. Knowledge sits at the bottom of the pyramid-shaped diagram. In Bloom's terminology, knowledge refers to the retention of facts, so it implies things like rote memorization. Next up is comprehension, which is the ability to restate learned facts in one's own words. Comprehension is the beginning of an even more advanced skill: interpretation. Why? Because how you describe a fact is itself an interpretive act. Next up is application, which is exactly what it sounds like: plugging comprehended facts into new situations. At this level of the pyramid, we're starting to see a bit of creativity. Not much, but it's there. From here to the top, we're dealing with advanced cognition. Next up is analysis, which involves carving phenomena into their constituent parts and figuring out how the parts interrelate. The final two levels of cognition are synthesis and evaluation. Originally, evaluation held the top spot, but over the decades, the map has changed to place synthesis on top—a move that I agree with. Evaluation refers to the ability to make a value judgment: is something good or bad?* Synthesis, by contrast, is the high-level ability to take the parts that had been carved up in analysis and rearrange them intuitively and creatively, finding or making new connections between the parts, thus arriving at innovative and inspired insights.

Bloom's Taxonomy has served me well over the years, especially whenever I've had to design test questions and formulate lesson plans. It's also allowed me to think back on my own professors' work and to see the "puppet strings," so to speak, in their instruction and test design. Most good profs understand that they're going to have to put a "What's the relationship, if any, between X and Y?"-type, synthesis-level question on their final exams. I didn't take any science classes in college or grad school, but I imagine that science profs do much the same when they design their exams: they try to get their students to think outside the box, to draw connections and arrive at breakthroughs.

All of this is to say that Bloom and Donnelly seem to be in basic agreement as to what's fundamental when it comes to thinking and learning. But let's move on and see what else Donnelly's article gets right.

...the UK report and other research suggests [sic] that memorisation and rote learning are important classroom strategies, which all teachers should be familiar with.

The UK report states that teachers need to “encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas”, while research in how children best learn concludes that some things, such as times tables and reciting rhymes, ballads and poems, must be memorised until they can be recalled automatically.

This muddles the issue a bit, as rereading and highlighting are active activities, not passive ones. Donnelly's overall argument seems to be that so-called "passive" (i.e., teacher-centered) activities are just as conducive to learning as active ones, but in the above-quoted text, I think he fails to make his case: rereading and highlighting require the brain to engage with the text in a proactive way. That said, the idea that chunks of information "must be memorized until they can be recalled automatically" strikes me as a perfectly sensible teaching/learning strategy for lower-level students. You can't teach a kid to read until he's learned (i.e., memorized) the alphabet.

One of the education fads prevalent across Australian classrooms, and classrooms in most of the English-speaking world, involves the concept that all children have different levels of intelligence and their own unique learning styles. (For example, some children learn best by looking at pictures, by being physically active, by hands-on, tactile learning or by simply reading the printed page.)

The UK report concludes such a teaching and learning strategy is misplaced:

The psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.

Instead of taking the time, energy and resources to customise what is being taught to the supposed individual learning styles of every child in the classroom, it is more effective to employ more explicit teaching strategies and to spend additional time monitoring and intervening where necessary.

I remember, back at Georgetown, that our profs talked extensively about this issue in the context of teaching foreign languages. There are so many teaching methods out there, and they cater to God-knows-how-many different learning styles, but in the end, you're just one man, or one woman, standing in front of the classroom with just a finite amount to time to teach a finite amount of material. Given those spatiotemporal strictures, it's inevitable that you, as the teacher, will be forced to pick and choose—to hammer out your own style, to figure out what works for you. For each teacher, the answer to the question of "best method" will be different. This is because each teacher is different. So here, too, I don't think Donnelly is wrong. What he's writing makes perfect sense: you don't have time to cater to a classroomful of different learning styles; the best you can do is test the winds, get a general impression of the class's collective psyche, and proceed with whatever method you deem best for helping the greatest number of students—knowing all the while that you won't be able to help all of them. (But that's what tutoring is for, either by the teacher or through an outside source.)

Overly praising students, especially those who under-perform, is especially counterproductive. It conveys the message that teachers have low expectations and reinforces the belief that near enough is good enough, instead of aiming high and expecting strong results.

Again, no argument here. This is old-school thinking, to be sure, but it's still around. Just think of it in a commonsense sort of way: over-praising is essentially a form of lying. When you over-praise, you're deliberately misleading a kid into thinking he did better than he actually did. Now, by no means am I saying that you need to be as brutal as Terence Fletcher from "Whiplash." There's no need to actively flay your students' fragile egos. But truth is always best, especially when you're dealing with young, open minds that are still forming their own self-conception.

To argue that some teaching and learning strategies are ineffective does not mean that there is only one correct way to teach. While research suggests some practices are more effective than others, it also needs to be realised that teaching is a complex business. Teachers need various strategies.

This is also true. As a teacher gains experience, he or she acquires an arsenal of strategies, some of which work well in a given situation, and some of which fall flat. That's the gamble you take when you teach: sometimes, you can't know what's going to work until you've gotten a clear read of the overall psychic situation. This is the flip-side of what I'd written earlier regarding how teachers eventually arrive at a preferred teaching method. They might end up with a favorite way to teach, but they rarely rely on that one method (which is normally an amalgam of methods) to the exclusion of all others.

In the early years of primary school, children need to memorise things like times tables and poems and ballads so that they can be recalled easily and automatically. Education is also about curiosity and innovation and there will be other times when rote learning will be unsuitable – for example, when students explore a topic that excites them and where they undertake their own research and analysis.

Depending on what is being taught, what has gone before and what is yet to come, whether students are well versed in a particular area of learning or are novices, and even the time of day, teachers must adapt their teaching to the situation and be flexible.

The problem arises when teachers and teacher education academics privilege one particular approach to the detriment of all others.

Strangely enough, this is how Donnelly's article ends. As conclusions go, it's not a bad one. In fact, I'd almost argue that it's trivially true. Teachers do need to be flexible (of course, so do students!). Children do need to memorize things while they're still kids and still trying to master the basics of, well, everything. Education is indeed about cool things like curiosity and innovation, and rote learning is indeed unsuitable in a wide variety of cases.

And that's what brings to me to where I disagree with Donnelly's article. To explore those disagreements, we need to go back to the beginning.

Seventy teachers from the UK were sent to Shanghai to study classroom methods to investigate why Chinese students perform so well. Upon their return, the teachers reported that much of China’s success came from teaching methods the UK has been moving away from for the past 40 years.

The Chinese favour a “chalk and talk” approach, whereas countries such as the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand have been moving away from this direct form of teaching to a more collaborative form of learning where students take greater control.

Given China’s success in international tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, it seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning where the teacher spends more time standing at the front of the class, directing learning and controlling classroom activities.

There's a lot that's being smuggled past us, in the above excerpt, that needs to be seized and violently unpacked instead of being unquestioningly waved on through Customs. First and foremost is the phrase "why Chinese students perform so well." I think it's safe to assume, based on what's said later in the article, that Donnelly means "perform so well on standardized tests." Once we expose that smuggled-in implication, we now bring everything Donnelly says next into the well-worn arena of "teaching toward the test," which is a topic in itself. Is high performance on standardized tests an indicator of life success? Answers vary. Widely. (That Google link is positively loaded with skepticism, but one article high in the search results posits a strong performance/success correlation.) If the correlation between test performance and success in college and/or in life is weak, then everything the Chinese are doing to get high scores on standardized tests is little more than solipsistic in its purpose. So what if you're good at taking standardized tests? The Chinese might convince themselves that this is some sort of objective measure of Chinese greatness, but in truth it isn't.

Donnelly's take on this is: " seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning..." Further:

Debates about direct instruction versus inquiry learning have been ongoing for many years. Traditionally, classrooms have been organised with children sitting in rows with the teacher at the front of the room, directing learning and ensuring a disciplined classroom environment. This is known as direct instruction.

Beginning in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, teachers began to experiment with more innovative and experimental styles of teaching. These included basing learning on children’s interests, giving them more control over what happened in the classroom and getting rid of memorising times tables and doing mental arithmetic. This approach is known as inquiry or discovery learning.

Based on this recent study of classrooms in the UK and China and a recent UK report titled What makes great teaching?, there is increasing evidence that these new-age education techniques, where teachers facilitate instead of teach and praise students on the basis that all must be winners, in open classrooms where what children learn is based on their immediate interests, lead to under-performance.

This gets us to the heart of my disagreement with Donnelly. As a language teacher, I can't fathom teaching English via lecture. This is, to quote Vizzini, inconceivable. Right or wrong, I see all teaching through the lens of language teaching, so it's hard for me to imagine that other subjects can be more effectively taught through lecture. Deprive students of the experiential component, and the lessons become less real and relevant to them. Can you teach your kid to ride a bike by reading about biking from a book? Can a student learn to speak English by hearing English and remaining silent for years, developing a large mental library of passive vocabulary while allowing his active vocabulary to atrophy into nothingness? Can a student of history truly learn about history as a living phenomenon if he never has the chance to discuss any history-related issues, or to form his own thoughts about the US Constitution while flipping through a copy of it, or to participate in a mock parliament or model UN?

Teaching with an experiential component is as old as the hills—it's not merely some airy-fairy fad from a few decades back. Zen Buddhists constantly harp on the importance of experience as a way of grounding ourselves in the reality of this moment. Experience, whether or not you're in a Zen frame of mind, is fundamental to all manner of understanding. In fact, Catholic thinker Bernard Lonergan, in formulating his own cognitive schema, laid out life this way: experience, understand, judge, decide. For Lonergan (and for the rest of us, really), it all starts with experience. In one grad-school course on narrative ethics, we discussed the relationship between narrative and theory: narrative can act as an effective vehicle for theory because narrative enfleshes—makes experiential—those aspects of theory that we wish to convey. If I want to teach a moral maxim, for example, I can tell a story like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to do this. The narrative provides our experience-hungry minds with characters and events that we can latch on to, something "tangible" in which we can ground our theoretical notions. Without this, the theory itself is dry, ethereal, abstract, and even skeletal: it's hard to relate to. Experience incarnates principles. In Buddhist language, it's form articulating emptiness. These notions aren't new at all, and they certainly aren't the product of feel-good liberalism. If anything, they're solid, time-tested ways of passing on knowledge and technique.

Donnelly glosses over the dangers of passivity in the classroom. Many students are already demotivated when they first arrive in class: they have to be there, therefore they don't want to be there. They're all set to be passive, and in Korea, with its hierarchical social structure, students expect the teachers to be dispensaries of knowledge, fire-hosing information into young brains while the students do little more than nod and take notes. This is deadly when the goal is to learn a foreign language. The Korean tendency is to be quiet in the classroom, but you can't learn all four language macroskills—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—without actually practicing them. And since giving students as many opportunities as possible to talk is paramount, a language teacher's thoughts will naturally drift toward crafting in-class activities, like my round-robin technique, that get students producing at length for extended periods of time.

Donnelly's article is a bit of a puzzle, as should be obvious from my deconstruction of it. His conclusion strikes me as solid and easy to agree with, but his opening insights are ones I disagree with. Whatever point Donnelly is trying to make gets muddled in the writing; he starts one way, but ends up somewhere he probably didn't intend to go.

This was the first time I'd ever heard the term "chalk and talk" used to describe traditional, teacher-centered forms of teaching. Donnelly has done nothing to persuade me that teacher-centered pedagogy is more effective than student-centered. One famous commenter at Instapundit, Bill Quick (who is a pundit himself, elsewhere in cyberspace), left this remark in Glenn Reynolds's comments section:

It turns out that having teachers teach ignorant students produces better results than having ignorant students teach themselves. Who could have guessed?

Mr. Quick has little faith in students' ability to rise to the challenge of taking the reins in their own learning, and little understanding of a teacher's role in a student-centered classroom. I'll once again point you to the incredible John Hunter, a fantastic teacher in Virginia who uses the most amazing student-centered approach I've ever heard of to inspire his students to think deeply about a number of important life-issues. Mr. Hunter is my answer to Kevin Donnelly. I'd canonize that teacher if I could. He, better than anyone I've seen, embodies the ideal of task-oriented, student-centered learning that I strive to realize in my own classes.

"Chalk and talk" smacks of the Industrial Revolution's assembly line—a critique that I first heard from Sir Ken Robinson, who is one of the most popular TED speakers out there.** It's disappointing to see Glenn Reynolds, et al., trumpeting a Dickensian factory for mediocrity as the future solution to present educational problems. Fuck that, I say: give the students room to breathe, space to think, and a chance to explore.

*I see evaluation as more of a parallel process than as an actual part of Bloom's pyramidal cognitive structure. The example I've given before is that of a baby spitting out food it doesn't like: the spitting-out is an evaluative moment, and since it's a baby we're talking about, it should be obvious that the baby was able to have that evaluative moment without having had to go through the labyrinth of high-level cognition. For a baby, it's as simple as yum/blech, all thanks to its innate wiring. Bloom's Taxonomy, in its modern form, keeps evaluation inside the pyramid, but places it second, between analysis and synthesis.

**I've also noted the irony that Robinson, who talks all the time about disrupting old educational paradigms to create newer, more effective paradigms, use the old-school lecture format of a TED talk to make his point. Kind of funny, really.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bonfire of the Vanities: some scattered thoughts

Can't say I've ever liked Baltimore. Just about every experience I've had there has been bad. The city sprawls—face-down, drunken, and senseless—on the US east coast like a shat-his-pants homeless man—ragged, tired, hopeless, and stinking to high fucking heaven. This isn't the fetor of a saint who has renounced everything worldly, including bathing: this is the noisome reek of a rotting corpse, bloated and gassy, letting out one final, leprous, neverending fart. I find nothing pleasant about Baltimore. Baltimore sucks.

But what about the Inner Harbor? you queef pathetically. Yeah—right. The Inner Harbor. That's about the most un-Baltimoreish part of the whole damn city, and when you walk just a couple of blocks away from that ersatz idyll, you find that you're right back in true Baltimore, trapped between Mobtown's enormous, sweaty, Divine-sized buttocks, yearning for an extradimensional portal to open up and fling you into a faraway galaxy—all to escape the concentrated, neutron-star-dense wretchedness. Baltimore is Stephen Hawking's nightmare: a black hole that attracts all lameness to itself, and if you're unfortunate enough to pass beyond the city's event horizon, you'll be doomed, like the city's denizens, to becoming a spaghettified turd. Take Newark, New Jersey, grind it into Vegemite, eat it, shit it out, and that's Baltimore. What more can be said about a city whose patron saint is John Waters?

So it comes as no surprise to me that the good citizens of Charm City might choose to host their own Burning Man celebration, using the town itself as fuel. As with other race riots, the whole point of acting out seems to have been lost in the churn of the madding crowd, many members of whom have engaged in such noble behavior as purse-snatching, vandalism, and apparent* violence against store owners. We've seen this before: white cops get away with the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and Korean stores catch hell in the ensuing riot. Wait—what was this riot supposed to be about, again? Duuuuhhhh... Ambient stupidity is the rule when rage has no direction.

The catalyst for all this was the disturbing news that 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray died after what appears to be brutal mistreatment by Maryland police. Sixteen days ago, police approached Gray, who ran from them for whatever reason. Gray was caught, and that's when things went south. This article (and please forgive its shamelessly clickbait-ish title) lays out what its author sees as the salient points about the sequence of events that led to Gray's death, starting on April 12 and continuing until Gray's death one week later. I found myself especially rattled by items 2, 3, and 4 in the article's 8-point list:

2. The van stopped at one point and Gray was put in leg irons because, according to police, he was "irate."

3. Less than an hour later, after riding in a police van, Gray had horrible injuries and was requesting medical assistance. His voice box was crushed and his spine severely injured, 80 percent severed at the neck.

4. He did not get medical assistance immediately when he requested it, but long after.**

Like many others, I was horrified when I got to the "80% severed" part. The young man still retained just enough functionality to repeatedly request medical attention, it appears. He eventually did receive medical attention, but the damage had been done, and Gray died.

So given what little I know about the whole confusing situation, my instinctive sympathies are with Gray and his family. The fool should never have run from police to begin with (then again, Gray already had a police record, so he probably ran because he thought the police thought he was guilty of something), but he certainly didn't deserve a mostly severed spine. The six arresting officers have been suspended; an investigation into Gray's death is ongoing. Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts is refusing to resign in the midst of this debacle (can't say I blame him for hanging tough: resigning would seem almost like a shirking of responsibility), and Baltimore's bizarre mayor is now on record as saying:

It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we try to make sure that they (protestors) were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.

Upshot: Burning Man has come to town. It's a Tom Wolfe novel brought to life, and the mayor herself thinks the rioters need "space" "to destroy."

I'd like to take a balanced view of the situation. I don't think it's right to get cartoonish and to paint all police forces everywhere as festering cesspits of unadulterated racism. Law enforcement, to a far greater degree than teaching, is a thankless, high-pressure job. Imagine spending your day going from place to place, encountering people who stonewall you, who give you attitude, who lie, who run, and who are outright violent. What would your view of humanity be after a few years on the job? When you move to arrest someone, and that person runs, your instinct is to do whatever it takes to make the person stop goddamn running. So while I would agree that the police's treatment of Gray (pending further details) was excessively violent and shrouded in its own stonewalling ("an investigation is pending" is a form of stonewalling, after all—a delaying tactic if nothing else), I can understand why the police would have the urge to run this guy down.

I also think it's right and proper that the six officers were suspended. Depending on what comes to light, it's likely that I'll be among the voices calling for these officers to lose their jobs. But does any of this justify the rioting? No. Not a single thing does.

My liberal-leaning coworker at the Golden Goose argued that, when incidents like this happen repeatedly to blacks with no justice in sight, what recourse do they have except to riot? Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, referred to the concepts of "steam control" and "safety valves" as ways of talking about black anger and how to handle it on a city-wide scale. Through Wolfe's lens, then—Baltimore, in Obama's America, is yet another theater of racial polarization: the steam had risen, and the city blew its top, raining septic chunks everywhere in true Baltimorean style. I'd respond to my left-leaning coworker by noting that black-on-black violence, a far greater cancer, goes largely un-rioted, which immediately makes the current rioting suspiciously hypocritical, given the sly selectivity of the outrage. Random sectors of society are now paying the price for perceived sins committed by the police. How does this make sense? I'm not denigrating the notion that police brutality needs to be investigated and stopped, mind you: I'm pretty convinced that Freddie Gray's death was the result of police brutality—possibly racially motivated.***

But part of my own inability to empathize with the rioting mob stems from the fact that I'm not a crowd-joiner. I sneer at flash mobs. I'm not a regular attendee at huge sports events or concerts, what with their pagan, cult-like ambiance. I prefer my gatherings to be small, private, intelligent, and fun. I mostly keep to myself when I'm not teaching. So I'm completely at sea in trying to understand what might get people so riled up that they'd riot en masse. Maybe I'd understand better if I lived under a blanket of oppression, but there are people all over the world who live in such pressure-cooker circumstances, yet don't riot (Indians in thrall to the soul-crushing caste system come to mind). I admit that I just don't get it. I see no justification at all for illogically attacking businesses and citizens that have nothing to do with the actions of six police officers—just as I saw no justification for the rampant stupidity that consumed Los Angeles in the 1990s, post-Rodney King.

Bonfire of the vanities, indeed.

It's impossible to reach any conclusions about this case until we know more. Far from advocating rioting, I'd prefer a more wait-and-see approach: act only after all the evidence has come to light. In the meantime, people need to calm down and be civilized.

ADDENDUM: a more detailed Freddie Gray timeline here.

*The linked image might not, in fact, be of a store owner being dragged out, but that's how the event was tweeted. Maintain a hermeneutic of suspicion.

**Take the above-linked Daily Caller article with a grain of salt: it refers to Baltimore's mayor as a "he," but in fact the mayor is the obviously feminine Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake. The first casualty in times of trouble is always truth, right?

***Before I go further with that thought, however, I'd need to know the racial demographics of the six suspended police officers. What if half of them are black? What happens to "racial motivation" then?


Monday, April 27, 2015

pesto shrimp

Feast your eyes:

For the next photo, click to enlarge:

That big enough for ya'?


what devilry is this?

I suddenly found myself nostalgic for a dish that my French Maman had made, ages ago in France: choux rouge aux marrons. As with most of her cooking, the concept behind this dish was utterly simple: boil some red cabbage together with chestnuts and spices, and let the natural flavors of the ingredients marry. The result is the opposite of fancy, yet strangely good as a solid, rib-sticking side dish.

My own version of Maman's dish was a bit more tricked up, but it still tasted pretty damn good: I used up my remaining red cabbage, to be sure (it's more like purple cabbage, wouldn't you say?), added two packs of Korean pre-shelled chestnuts, and further added strips of dried persimmon for extra sweetness.


I admit it doesn't look that pretty. Purplish, bluish food has a sort of alien, unnatural quality about it, and it doesn't help that the dried persimmon (got-gam, 곶감, in Korean) looks brown and fecal. But the taste is undeniably good, if you're okay with eating boiled cabbage. (It probably helps to be part Irish.)

If you read French, there are recipes for choux rouge aux marrons or choux rouge aux châtaignes (a marron is the same thing as a châtaigne—a chestnut) floating around online (see here and here, for example).


on the toxicity of grading curves

At my university, a campus-wide "curving" policy exists. The grading curve varies slightly, depending on the course being taught, but the basic idea is that the grades that the students in a given class receive must conform, more or less, to a rigid bell-curve distribution. Because I'm a big believer in meritocracy, I find the grading-curve policy to be, as Tom Cruise said in "A Few Good Men," galactically stupid. To my mind, if all my students perform at "A" level, they should all get "A"s; if they all perform at the "F" level, they should all get "F"s. Merit, pure and simple. (That said, the subjectivity that comes with assessing/evaluating language output is a topic for another post.)

In the classes I'm currently teaching, there's only one grading curve, and it goes like this: up to 30% of the class may receive "A"s; up to 70% of the class may receive a combination of "A"s and "B"s; the remaining 30% is open to "C"s, "D"s, and "F"s. I have four classes; my first class has only fifteen people in it; the other three all have nineteen. If we do the math, then:

Class 1: 15 people * 0.3 = 4.5 people. You can't have half of a person, so drop the 0.5, and you see that, in a class of fifteen, only four people may receive an "A" according to this curve. Up to ten people may receive "A"s and "B"s. Five people must receive the lower-tier grades.

Classes 2-4: 19 people * 0.3 = 5.7 people, which rounds down to five "A"s maximum, and thirteen "A+B"s. Interesting to see that the number of possible "A"s differs by only one person between Class 1 and Classes 2-4.

Right now, Class 1 is my best-performing class. On the midterm, there were two "A"s, ten "B"s, and three "C"s. The overall semester grades for all fifteen students, however, is "A." Why? Because up to now, the only grades I've given have been "chump" grades in categories where it's easy to earn a 100%. Attendance is weighted at 10% of the final grade, and all my Class 1 students have a 10 out of 10. Participation is 10%; all students have 10/10. Homework? This is 15% of the final grade, but the students have all kept up with homework, so again, everyone's got a 15/15. It's only now—with real evaluations happening in the form of big tests and projects—that we start to separate the men from the boys.

But that's precisely the toxic mentality I'd prefer to avoid. Unfortunately, the curve has me thinking in such Machiavellian terms: because my students have to fit the curve, they obviously can't all get "A"s: I have to design tests that are inordinately difficult in order to create a bell-shaped spread. Only a select few can earn "A"s; everyone else must be consigned to the no-man's land of "B"s, "C"s, "D"s, and "F"s.

I don't want to design hard tests: I want to design fair tests—tests that evaluate the students as objectively as possible based on the material they've covered. Instead, I find myself thinking about how to make the final exam as hellish as it can be. The risk, of course, is that I might end up going overboard: I could, in theory, design a test that's so hard that no one passes it, and as a result, no one gets an "A" in the end. That would create hard feelings analogous to what happened last semester (even though I'd say I graded quite fairly last semester). Not that I'm primarily worried for myself; it's more that I'm worried about whether inappropriate test design is going to shortchange these students, depriving them of a decent education.

The students themselves have had to live with something like this curve for all of their academic lives. Competition is fierce and Darwinian in Korea; in the end, it's all about your school's prestige and how you rank among your peers. The toxicity isn't limited just to thoughts about the curve: many students, as I discovered last semester, develop an overweening, greedy sense of entitlement that articulates itself as a kind of misplaced self-esteem: "I deserve an 'A'! Why on earth did I get a 'B'?" And that's when I get the angry, desperate emails at the end of the semester—the ones in which students beg for, or outright demand, a better grade. The transformation is an ugly one: students who seemed polite and reasonable in person for 99% of the semester suddenly morph into grade-grubbing ogres in those final days.

Another problem with the curve is that it promotes an atmosphere of secrecy. In an ideal world, I would have no trouble uploading my students' grades to a campus database that they can consult to see how they're doing. (In fact, we have such a database; its use is optional.) The problem is that, in order for all the students to fit the curve, I'll probably have to make last-minute adjustments to their grades. If there are too many "B"s, for example, then some of those "B"s will have to be reduced to "C"s. If a "B" student has been following his or her progress via an open database, then a sudden "C" will come as a shock. It's in my interest, therefore, to maintain a shroud of secrecy about how I calculate final grades, and to be vague when students start asking prying questions near the end of the semester.

I've tried to be as up-front with my kids as possible, however. I've told them, from the beginning, that some student might unjustly be pushed down from an "A" to a "B," or from a "B" to a "C" just to fit the curve. But even though the students are aware this might happen, experience has shown me that, when it does actually happen, they still get upset.

Teaching is often called a thankless job for a reason. The institutions in which teachers teach often do little to make life easier. The grading curve is one example of the many burdens that pedagogues bear. It's said that curving counteracts the problems associated with grade inflation. I understand that grade inflation is a potential danger when teachers are allowed free rein (getting a "B" in American grad school is a seppuku-worthy dishonor, for example; grad-school grades are often way inflated), but in my opinion, the curve creates far more problems than it solves, and it does nothing to improve teacher-student relations.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

...and we're back, baby!

Tonight's homemade shrimp-and-chicken curry, with a good helping of buttered naan:

Thanks to a nameless benefactor—we'll call him Abel Magwitch—I was given American-style frozen peas, a necessary component of my shrimp-and-chicken curry.


chicken breastuses
large shrimpities
peases, Precious
basil (fresh basil that had been frozen to preserve it as long as possible)
shite curry powder from New Jersey (all that was on sale at the local grocer)
ginger powder
onion powder
garlic powder
Korean chili flakes
black pepper
heavy cream

In a pan, I poured in the remaining heavy cream and added some water, praying that this would be enough for the amount of protein I planned to add: three chicken breasts and two fistfuls of large shrimp. I thawed the shrimp and breasts in warm water, then removed the shrimp tails. By that point, the cream had begun to simmer; I added the powdery reagents, stirring them in with a tiny whisk that I had purchased at a local Daiso in Hayang.

After a bit of simmering, I dumped the cubed chicken breast into the liquid, then the peas, which were still frozen and clinging to each other for dear life. The peas began to drop off the cluster and swim independently in the curry sauce; the chicken cooked at a gentle pace (white meat can seize and dry up quickly if you're not careful—cook low and slow). I added the shrimp after several minutes because I knew they would cook faster; lastly, I threw in the basil, ripping off the stems and tossing in the leaves.

DIGRESSION: You might be saying to yourself that it's a cruel thing to freeze a leafy vegetable like basil: freezing tends to ruin the cellular structure of anything organic because the water inside the cells will crystallize and expand; the dagger-like crystals rip through the cell walls, tearing apart meat and plant alike. (This is, by the way, why I would never trust my body to cryogenic storage: scientists have yet to figure out a good way to freeze and un-freeze a cadaver without damaging its meat.) And I'd agree with you: freezing basil doesn't lead to pretty basil. You certainly can't use it for pesto or caprese anymore. But I knew that the basil I'd been keeping in reserve would be for shrimp-and-chicken curry at some point in the near future; I just didn't know when, exactly, I'd be making it. Frozen basil still has a healthy green to it (except, maybe, for some of the leaves around the edges of the container, which fill with water and turn black before freezing in earnest), which means it's still fit to be used in a hot, saucy dish like my chicken-and-shrimp curry.

Once everything was in the pool, it was just a matter of cooking until the shrimp had lost their gray and had become a satisfyingly fleshy pink. That happened soon enough, and the result was as good as could be expected, given the crappiness of the curry (sweet East Asian-style, apparently manufactured in and imported from New Joisey, of all places). Delicious—and I've got enough left over for lunch at the Golden Goose on Tuesday, which will save me a few bucks that I would normally spend on something unhealthy.


der Lehrer

Yours truly, taking a selfie at KMA:


Ave, Nathan!

Nathan Bauman writes a personal piece on religious fundamentalism, which he knows from the inside. A quick companion to Nathan's piece is this quote on "the best religion" attributed to Alcibiades, found over at Michael Gilleland's Laudator Temporis Acti blog.


A Song of Ice and Fire: reaction 1 of 7

A General Reaction to the Series

By the end of A Storm of Swords, the third book in George RR Martin's sprawling series, collectively titled A Song of Ice and Fire, Arya Stark has freed herself from a feverish and possibly dying Hound; Sansa Stark has survived an attempt on her life by the insane Lysa Arryn (who is herself thrown through the Moon Door by her newly minted husband, Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish); Jaime Lannister has lost a hand but found his way back to King's Landing and rejoined the Kingsguard thanks to Brienne of Tarth; Jon Snow has been made Lord Commander of the Night's Watch in place of old, betrayed Jeor Mormont; Catelyn Stark has been killed at the Red Wedding and thrown naked into a river—only to come back as a horrible, half-decayed revenant at the very end of the book; Catelyn's son Robb has been killed at the same event, his head cut off and replaced by the head of his direwolf, Grey Wind; Tyrion Lannister has escaped imprisonment, strangled his betraying whore Shae, shot his imperious father Tywin with a crossbow while Dad was taking a dump, and presumably fled King's Landing with the aid of the treacherous Varys "The Spider"; Brandon Stark has reached the Nightfort and discovered the Black Gate through the Wall, along with his companions Jojen and Meera Reed, as well as the craven Samwell Tarly, friend of Jon Snow. Meanwhile, in Essos, Daenerys Targaryen has conquered city after city in her quest to return to Westeros as that land's rightful queen. Her three young dragons grow apace but are not yet large enough to be ridden. She has dismissed Ser Jorah Mormont from her service after discovering that he had been feeding information to King's Landing about her movements; she has kept Ser Barristan Selmy with her, despite feeling he had betrayed her, too; his betrayal was accompanied by sincere contrition whereas, in Dany's opinion, Jorah Mormont's had been marked by arrogance. Does that about cover it?

Oh, wait—you don't know any of these place names? The Wall, the Nightfort, the Black Gate, King's Landing, Westeros, Essos, and so on? You don't know any of these people? Eddard, Catelyn, Sansa, Arya, Robb, Brandon, Littlefinger, Robert, Cersei, Jaime, Tyrion, Varys, Brienne, Jon, Samwell, Barristan the Bold, Jorah Mormont, Daenerys? Then I suppose I should start at the beginning.

GRR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is currently a five-book "grimdark fantasy" series (soon to expand to seven books—possibly to eight, if the rumors are true) set on a world with strangely paced seasons—seasons that can last for years. The physical laws of this world are otherwise familiar to us, but there is magic, and there are magical (or at least alien) creatures and plants. It's a world of Darwinian struggle, with kings and kingdoms (and one lone, young queen-to-be) striving against each other, each armed with plots, plans, and ambitions. We're introduced to the Starks early on: their patriarch is Lord Eddard Stark, who is quickly made Hand of the King. The king, in this case, is Robert Baratheon, who sits upon the Iron Throne—an uncomfortable and even dangerous chair made of melted-down swords—at King's Landing. At the beginning of the series, Robert, once a fearsome warrior, has grown fat and given in to his vices—drinking and whoring—while his wife Cersei Lannister engages in an incestuous and adulterous relationship with her brother Jaime Lannister, a renowned fighter (NB: Martin's story is full of renowned fighters, most of whom never have the chance to meet and measure themselves against each other). While the Baratheons and Lannisters are visiting Winterfell, the northland home of the Starks, Jaime pushes young Brandon Stark out a window when Brandon accidentally catches Jaime and Cersei having sex. Brandon isn't killed, however: he's paralyzed, and this may or may not have consequences later on.

Both Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark die fairly early in the story; Eddard, who had had evil premonitions upon learning he was to become the King's Hand, knew he would travel south to King's Landing and not return. He ends up confessing to treason and getting beheaded despite the wishes of his daughter Sansa, who is betrothed to Joffrey Baratheon, the cruel and suspiciously blond "son" of Robert (but in truth the issue of the incestuous bond between platinum-headed Queen Cersei and her equally golden-haired brother Ser Jaime: Jaime is Joffrey's true father, which relates to why Jaime tried to kill Brandon: to keep the incest a secret). Much of the rest of the story follows members of the ever-more-frayed Stark family as they go on separate adventures; the story also follows the misadventures of Tyrion Lannister—a witty and resourceful dwarf who is the shame of his father Tywin—and Jaime Lannister, a generally arrogant and despicable fellow whose lone virtue is that he loves and cares for Tyrion. Last but not least, the series tracks the rise of Daenerys "Stormborn" Targaryen, a girl who possesses some inherent magical might that makes her proof from conflagration (one of her titles is "The Unburnt") and thus a natural friend and caregiver to dragons—of which there are, apparently, only three left in the entire world: all of them hers.

There's so much to talk about, when it comes to this complex series, that I'm not quite sure where to begin. Perhaps I'll begin with a general reaction, then, and that reaction must begin with a confession: I had a hell of a hard time getting into the first book. Martin doesn't seem to care that his readers need to take time to digest this world that he's building for us; he piles on the names of people and places, mentioning only in passing how they're all connected, and we're left to figure out these relationships, and their significance, as the plot grinds ever forward. That was easily the hardest thing for me to swallow: the unrelenting avalanche of goddamn proper nouns. At the very beginning of the story, I had no idea whom to care for, whom to root for. Martin, perhaps to his credit, doesn't make that sort of choice easy for us, either: characters that seem disgusting and vicious and treacherous at the beginning often reveal themselves to be more complex and sympathetic as the story unfolds. (The aforementioned Jaime Lannister is a good case in point: I hated Jaime for two-and-a-half books, but became more sympathetic when he lost a hand and rescued his brother Tyrion from the black cell in King's Landing.) A positive way to look at Martin's project is to say that the man in no way insults the reader's intelligence: the reader has to catch up to him, not the other way around.

Martin's series has been called "grimdark" fantasy because of its gritty, rough-edged nature: the author doesn't shrink from matters of rape and incest, nor does he shy away from frank depictions of blood and gore, especially in the heat of battle. Martin doesn't take perverse delight in detailed descriptions of stomach-turning events; he merely relays them matter-of-factly, often in a neutral tone reminiscent of Tom Clancy's workmanlike, unadorned style. He does, in my opinion, sling the word "cunt" around a bit too freely, but I've noticed that Martin's choice of swear words is generally restricted to Anglo-Saxonisms* that play up the association between his fantasy world and that of medieval-era western Europe. (I'll talk more about Martin's prose in my next essay.)

Martin does a good job of maintaining the reader's interest through unpredictability. As the running joke goes, there are two things you can never know in A Song of Ice and Fire: who the main character is supposed to be, and what's going to happen next. Because Martin has thrown so many pieces onto the chessboard, he has created a truly complex world that is, as I've taken to calling it, a matrix of asymmetries, in which forces never push at each other directly, and karma (i.e., cosmic justice) is never as obvious or as linear as we'd like it to be. Here's what I mean:

The Lannisters are married to the Baratheons; Robert Baratheon is best buddies with Eddard Stark, but Robert's wife Cersei is an enemy of the Starks (as becomes more obvious as the plot unfolds). Jaime Lannister has pushed little Brandon Stark out a window, crippling the boy; Tyrion Lannister, by contrast, gets along quite well with Jon Snow, Eddard Stark's bastard son. Eddard cares deeply for Jon, but Catelyn Stark, Eddard's wife, can't stand the teen—for justifiable reasons that have nothing to do with Jon's noble, honorable character. Robert Baratheon, in his heyday, killed Rhaegar Targaryen in the Battle of the Trident (a confluence of rivers) by crushing his armored chest in with a war hammer; Jaime Lannister earned the name "Kingslayer" by killing "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen. Rhaegar's young sister Daenerys Targaryen shares her other brother Viserys's visions of reclaiming all the seven kingdoms of Westeros, but she's on the other side of the Narrow Sea in Essos, initially as the wife of Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo. Drogo kills the vain Viserys; when Drogo himself dies and his army is scattered, Daenerys establishes her own humble retinue of soldiers and "smallfolk" (one of Martin's favorite terms) and becomes a khaleesi, a type of queen. Her eventual goal is to return to Westeros to claim her rightful seat as imperatrix of the Seven Kingdoms, but even after three books, we're a long way from that happening. Daenerys (or "Dany," as she's nicknamed) has hatched her dragons, whom she dotes on as a mother would. All of this is quite complex, and I haven't even mentioned the machinations of Littlefinger and Varys or the strong women of Dorne, all of whom are doing their best to move their own chess pieces.

So, overall, the books have become more readable as time has gone on. The first book was a struggle to get through, but now that I'm familiar with most of Martin's fictional universe, it won't be hard to go back and reread the series from the beginning. I like the fact that Martin keeps his characters' motivations small and understandable; this is a welcome contrast to the cosmic motivations of the characters in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. Donaldson's fantasy is high and operatic, but Martin's is of a lower-brow variety that is engaging on its own terms. Future essays will discuss Martin's universe in more detail, including things like the role of magic and exotic creatures. For the moment, though, these were my initial impressions. Taken in its entirety, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is a real page-turner, propelled by its unpredictability and massive cast of point-of-view characters. I'm a couple hundred pages into the fourth book, now; much of the adventuring is taking place in Braavos, which is proving to be a more mystical region than I would have given it credit for being. Arya Stark has met Samwell Tarly, but neither knows who the other is, so they don't know that their common link is Jon Snow (Arya is Jon's half-sister; Samwell is Jon's "brother" in the Night's Watch). We'll just have to see how things unroll from here.

*See, for example, the etymology of "cunt" here.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

KMA day

Saturday was spent in Yeouido: I woke up at 5:45AM, was out the door by 6:30AM, and was at National Assembly Station—where KMA's headquarters are located—by 8:40AM, very early for my 10AM class. I had a relatively large class today: seven students, all of whom were quite good. We had fun, even though the course I had designed was somewhat grueling (that can't be helped: it's a 7-hour intensive session that they have to sit through). Still, despite the battle fatigue by the end, the students' constant energy meant that everyone helped buoy everyone else's spirits, and we got through the day with plenty of laughter. All the students stayed until the end, which was also a rarity: I've normally had problems with students who, for whatever reason, have to leave the course an hour or two early.

A good time was had by all. I'm hoping for, once again, 90-plus-percent evals (last time around, it was 100%). At least someone loves me, eh?


Friday, April 24, 2015

gaseous vindication

A while back, I wrote about how the purchase of my electric heater was going to drastically reduce my gas bill. "A W25,000 gas bill is entirely conceivable," I said.

This month's bill: W27,540. That's a far cry from W120,000 for gas in Hayang.


ASOIAF: laying it out

I've figured out the overall outline for my reaction to A Song of Ice and Fire.

1. initial Gestalt reaction
2. the quality and register of GRR Martin's prose
3. my opinion of some of the characters
4. the nature of Martin's fantasy world
5. GRR Martin vs. SR Donaldson and JRR Tolkien
6. how Martin chooses his point-of-view characters (and what this says about Martin)
7. where I hope the story goes

That ought to be enough to fill your belly, yes? And 7 is a magic number.

More soon.


Thursday, April 23, 2015


One of the interview questions that I asked my lowest-level students today, as part of their midterm, was "What do you think of Korean education?"

Not a single positive response. The complaints basically came down to these:

• We learn a lot of facts, not how to think about them or discuss them or apply them.
• We're not supposed to question the teacher, even though we often want to.
• We spend so much time memorizing material that this causes stress.
• Most of what we learn is useless.

As a teacher, I would probably dispute the final claim. I don't know the Korean curriculum that well—for any subject—but within that huge jumble of facts that the kids are tasked with absorbing, I'm sure there are plenty of useful ones.

The notion that Korean students want to ask questions is also a bit iffy, at first blush, but I think my students could be on to something: curiosity, they're saying, isn't dead in the young Korean heart. Not all Korean students are so ruthless as to see education merely as a stepping stone to getting a job. Some students may actually want to be wowed and fascinated; they may actually want to engage in discussion and dialogue. There may be some Korean students who view education the way the idealists among us view it: as a way of enriching us, of creating a whole person. Confucius himself saw life as a sphere of person-making.

Perhaps the apparent lack of curiosity that we expat teachers often perceive in our dull-eyed charges isn't due to an inherent lack of curiosity in Korean students, but is instead due to the relentless beating-down of that curiosity. Little mammals of all species tend to be curious when they're young: their brains are wiring themselves at a furious rate; experiences are being absorbed, catalogued, and processed. Why would Koreans be any different from anyone else? So maybe there really is something to this claim, made by my students, that they have questions and crave answers.

Meanwhile, it's sad to see the unanimous negativity with which Korean students view their own education system. At the same time, it's good to know the students are aware enough of their educational system to feel this way. The next step is resisting the status quo; the step after that is actively reforming it.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

they said yes; I said no

Dongguk University has made it official: today, I received what was termed, by our department office at Dongguk's Dharma College Foreign Language Center, a "letter of reappointment or termination," which I had to sign this morning before class started. I told myself, before I even saw the document, that it didn't matter which sort of letter I would receive: I'd been planning to leave whether Dongguk wanted me back or not. But part of me wondered, given my not-exactly-stellar evals last semester, whether Dongguk would want me back. Signing a letter of termination (technically, a non-renewal of contract; profs in Korea are rarely fired outright: they're simply not asked to renew their contracts) would have been, I admit, a blow to my ego. But the letter I saw before me, this morning, said that I had the right to renew if I wanted to, i.e., Dongguk wanted me back. The runner from Seoul campus showed me a second form, which was all about my intentions for the fall semester: continue or not? I signed the "not" section, making my intentions perfectly clear: I'll be leaving Dongguk University, bound for a life of well-paid corporate serfdom. Been real, guys.


ASOIAF: the appetizer

I don't want to keep promising and promising a reaction to George RR Martin's ponderous saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, without ever actually giving you a reaction. As I wrote before, I'll be publishing my lengthy thoughts on the series in installments, blog post by blog post. But for now, just to whet your appetite, here's a more or less substantive reaction to ASOIAF taken from a recent email to my buddy Mike, who is a big Martin fan (along with his two daughters). Mike's wife (whose name appears as [X] in the email below, for privacy's sake) has been persuaded to take up reading the series herself, even though she's not normally a fantasy-lit kind of person. Part of my email addresses that issue. Without further ado, then:

Martin is a big history buff and one of his themes (at least an insinuated theme of his interviews) is that history has people popping in at all points. Narratives don't start and end with a single fixed group. While this is indeed true, even this historian must pick a topic and tell that story.

Martin has a point regarding the chaos and constantly shifting dramatis personae in history, but as you say, it's sometimes advantageous to just pick an arc and stick with it. I was thinking about that recently; as you may know, I'm through Book 3 and have just started Book 4 (which, according to many disappointed reviewers, is the odd man out because it follows so many point-of-view characters who haven't been strong POV characters up to now), and I'm going to be writing a rather long reaction to what I've read.

One thought that occurred to me, as I began drafting my essay, was that the rough Korean equivalent of this story might be something like the historical drama "Great Queen Seondeok," the 2009 series that I watched during Mom's cancer. But that series keeps Seondeok as its central character, even though it skips around to include the viewpoints of other characters around her. It never loses its focus.

Because I've been reading a bit of GRRM-related material online, I've discovered (as you doubtless already know) that one running joke about ASOIAF is that it's nearly impossible to figure out who the main character is supposed to be. My own guess would be that we're supposed to be most interested in Arya, Jon Snow, Tyrion, and (per your tweet suggesting this) Dany. At this point, three-fifths of the way into the story, the death of any one of those characters would come as a shock to me.

Interesting parallel: what happened in Westeros, early on, also happened in Essos: King Robert and Ned Stark both died, which cut the reader's legs out from under him because these seemed like strong characters ready to make big decisions that would affect the realm; by the same token, Khal Drogo died pretty early on thanks to that nasty, festering nipple wound and the malign influence of the maegi who "treated" him. So in both West and East, we immediately lost a clutch of strong male characters, and the result in both cases was chaos and infighting, the natural consequence of a power vacuum. This put me in mind of what James Cameron did in "Aliens," when he killed off Sergeant Apone and most of the virile fighting men (like Drake): it's horror-movie psychology—remove all the capable-seeming people and let's see what the apparent weaklings can do to fend for themselves.

I'm planning to say, in my essay on ASOIAF, that Martin has structured his story as "a matrix of asymmetries," i.e., there are vectors of force that don't push directly against each other, resulting in general chaos and unpredictability. House A hates House B; House B hates House A, but is intent on sacking House C; House C hates A and B but also has to contend with elements from House D; way off to the side is House E, which hopes eventually to conquer all of A, B, C, and D. It's a hell of a lot for a writer to keep straight in his head, and I imagine that Martin has extensive notes to help him out. I'm almost tempted to say that there's been a Tolkien-scale effort at world-building, here, but I'm not yet willing to award Martin that particular prize: Martin wasn't a philologist like Tolkien; he hasn't introduced a truckload of exotic foreign languages into his tale—just bits and pieces like "Valar morghulis/Tout homme doit mourir." I also don't think he's created long, in-depth histories of the nations and families he's been introducing us to.

Anyway, it's an interesting juggling act, this saga of Martin's. In some ways, I credit him with more compelling storytelling than that done by Stephen R. Donaldson, even though I'm a big-time Donaldson partisan. Donaldson often trips over himself in his attempts to write purple, grandiloquent prose, and this occasionally gets in the way of the story. Donaldson also imbues his characters with super-complex, overly agonizing, cosmic motivations whereas Martin keeps things fairly parochial and Darwinian: people are motivated by simple things like lust, greed, ambition, and family loyalty. And then, off to the side, just to unbalance the equation even further, there are The Others, who represent (as Stannis Baratheon has noted) the real fight for existence.

Righto... I'll close off there, otherwise I'll be writing my blog post in this email. Lots to say, and it's been a fun ride, except for that damn first book. Then again, even the first book was OK once I got through about half or two-thirds of it. By that point, there had been enough repetition of character and place names for me to have a general sense of the fantasy world. So here's hoping [X] can make it far enough to catch the story's momentum. My own way of handling the story was to stop trying to keep track of everything and just read. I basically said "Fuck it" and started plowing through the plot, trusting that Martin would remind me, from time to time, of who these characters were and why they were significant. [X] will have a better time, I think, if she does something similar: just let the story wash over her.


poetic tribute to A Song of Ice and Fire

The Lannisters, they hate them Starks
You know I tell it true
The Lannisters, they hate them Starks
—but fuck each other blue

In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, one of the very first things that Stephen R. Donaldson forces us to witness is a rape: the "hero" of this ten-book series is a damn rapist. Going for something almost equally unpleasant, author George RR Martin, in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, introduces us to Jaime (pronounced "Jamie" but spelled the Spanish way) and Cersei Lannister—twins who enthusiastically bang each other in a manner reminiscent of any number of incestuous families throughout European history. Early on in the first novel, young little Brandon Stark, nimbly climbing up a tower wall, peeks inside an oriel and catches Jaime and Cersei rutting away. He's too young to understand what he's seen, but Jaime, taking no chances, pushes the boy off the tower, plunging little Bran to his... well, not to his death, but to his coma and paralysis.

I'm in the fourth book, now, maybe a hundred or so pages in, and the Jaime/Cersei thing has cooled down, especially now that Cersei is experiencing the stresses of being queen regent and Jaime has come back to King's Landing minus his sword hand, which—it's implied—was the hand that had made him the sexy beast he used to be. Having trained all his life to use his right hand as his sword hand, Jaime has, for all intents and purposes, been emasculated. Cersei, ever the horny pragmatist, senses this and has already moved on to other sexual prey, including Lancel, a very young cousin of hers. Full marks for keeping it in the family, eh?

In other news: because I've realized that the post I mean to write on A Song of Ice and Fire is going to be a monstrously huge reaction, I've decided that the only way to get it onto the blog is to divide the reaction into parts, and to write each part as a separate blog post. I've been gathering my thoughts and drafting a huge essay, but it occurs to me that one huge essay is so daunting a task that I'll never publish the damn thing. Breaking it up is better. So expect something soon—perhaps next week. This weekend is crazy busy: it's the wind-down period after midterms, and I've got a KMA teaching gig on Saturday, which promises to last all dingle-damn day. More on the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens soon.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

visiting the relatives

Tonight, I'm visiting some relatives. Missed the chance to see everybody back at Lunar New Year, but then again, I'm not big into huge Korean family gatherings, especially as I'm the black-sheep furriner. This evening, though, is not just a social call: I need to get working on gathering the paperwork for my F-4 visa so that I can transfer smoothly over to working for the Golden Goose this summer. My GG boss is leaning on me to get this done in a timely manner, and I don't disagree: it'd be a shame to try to rush this process come June or July. I'm contracted to be in my studio until the end of July; a mad rush in June would only be madder should I (1) fail to get the F-4 done (2) while also trying to prep for my end-of-July move back into Seoul).

Friend/blogger/author Young Chun was kind enough to provide me with the details of obtaining his own F-4; I hope to apply that wisdom to my search. There are, it seems, four documents that I need; tonight, I'm going to be talking with my relatives about obtaining one or two of them. Fingers crossed.


my friend is an asshole

My longtime buddy Dr. Steve doCarmo has been blogging. I remember back when he'd started a blog, when he'd written in fits and starts and then... nothing. The effort petered out like a tired fart, and the rest was silence.

But it seems Steve is back, and the bastard never told me he was back. Go check out his Up the Flagpole, if you dare. Steve and I are at opposite ends of the PoMo love/hate spectrum, and we're growing farther and farther apart on the political spectrum. Still, he's one of my closest buddies, and a damn good writer and teacher to boot. So yeah, go check out his blog. When you get to the PoMo nonsense, just hold your nose and scroll past it. There's plenty there that's worth your while.

Steve, you're an asshole for not telling me about this blog.


Monday, April 20, 2015

first set of exams

This week is midterms week, and I administered my first batch of exams earlier today. One student was so panicked that she kept pressing on her chest, during the interview, as if she were experiencing a heart attack. I'm guessing it was something along the lines of a mild panic attack (she remained rational and kept her sense of humor when I told her not to die—hence mild) or performance anxiety. I told her about a relative of mine who also suffers from performance anxiety; I don't know whether that helped, but she smiled politely at my anecdote. I also gave her the advice that I'd received from the late, great Father Cenkner of Catholic University: "In ten years, none of this will matter." She seemed to latch on to that perle de sagesse and breathe easier.

Just about every student reported being nervous. Some of this is natural; some of this has to do with the insane pressure that Koreans put on themselves and each other come testing time. It's a sad fact of existence here on the peninsula, but society is structured around hoop-jumping. It's not just a matter of rites of passage, as can be found in other cultures; Koreans have those rites, too—on top of the pressure of exams, interviews, and other hoops.

So I'm resigned to seeing three more groups of nervous, anxious college kids later this week. As for the first group: I've already graded their exams, and I think the lowest grade was a "C." Since, up to now, the kids have earned easy "A"s, even the ones who got "C"s on the midterm still have an "A" average. This will change, of course, with the arrival of the big project (Week 12; we're currently in Week 8) and with the final exam, both of which will be graded strictly. It's not that I necessarily want to be cruel in how I grade the kids, but in a class of 19, only 5 students can get "A"s (30% upper limit). That's the curve, stupid though it be. Also: only up to 70% of the class can receive "A"s plus "B"s. That's thirteen kids total; six are doomed to the hinterlands of "C"s, "D"s, and "F"s.

My nightmare—and this is every prof's nightmare—is that I'm going to end up with too many "A"s and/or "B"s by the end of the semester. If that happens, then I have to bump some students down a grade to fit the curve. Once I do that, the howling begins: students will call, text, and email me, demanding to know why, why, why they didn't get the grade they thought they'd be getting. It wasn't too bad last semester, except for one whiny bastard who couldn't even be bothered to write his own email. But it was a nightmare at Daegu Catholic, and it could be a nightmare here again, during my final semester at Dongguk.

But those are concerns for later. For now, I just want to survive midterms week with my sanity more or less intact.


unusual but delectable

Normally, when I think of caprese, I think of this, which is my preferred method of presentation. But sometimes we have no choice but to work with what we have, and if Costco isn't selling the usual log-shaped Belgioioso mozzarella, which can be cut into disks, then we suck it up and buy the Belgioioso mozza-nuggets. This will, of course, change the tenor of the salad we're trying to make, but we're nothing if not practical.

So here's what I contrived:

Instead of going for standard tomatoes, I've gone for cherry tomatoes. They were remarkably sweet; I guess tomatoes are in season. I layered the plate with basil, then scattered tomato halves and cheese nuggets across the top. I then crowned the whole thing with homemade pesto and the only fancy vinegar I've got: a Korean blueberry rice vinegar.

I can't decide whether the photo looks beautiful or ugly. The photo itself doesn't really capture the colorful, Christmasy reality of the caprese; the pesto, however, looks a lot like Vulcan turds, and the longer you stare, the more turd-like the turds look.* Taste-wise, the dish was excellent. I had been ready to be all closed-minded about using any vinegar other than balsamic, but now I'm sold: Korean blueberry rice vinegar (one of several varieties of fruity rice vinegars available at the local grocer) works just fine, and it fits perfectly into an Italian flavor profile, despite being rice-y and despite being blueberry-y.

Here's the food-porn angle of the same dish:

*To lay down the pesto, I scooped a couple spoonfuls into a plastic sandwich bag, cut off the corner of the bag, and squeezed the pesto onto the salad as if I were using a pastry tube. As I squeezed, I made hrrrrrrrgh grunting sounds and wet raspberry noises as the sandwich bag defecated its unsightly load onto the green leaves and tomatoes and cheese. That doubtless influenced my perception of the photo.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

my new baby

About that "recent purchase" to which I'd alluded in my previous post—here it is:

Behold my new Braun 7-in-1 Minipimer 7 MQ 735 hand blender. Sounds as though I'm rattling off the serial information for a new rifle, right? Well, this baby is, in a way, a new part of my cooking arsenal. One of the things I told myself I'd do, before moving over from Dongguk to the Golden Goose, would be to start buying the equipment and furniture that I'll eventually be using in my new, large apartment near Daecheong Station. Stock up now, store it now, then move it all in when the time comes to move.

As I wrote previously, the Braun is what allowed me to make today's pesto—and what a lovely pesto it is, made of pine nuts, mixed nuts, romano cheese, olive and canola oil, fresh basil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. I plan on making some shrimp pesto pasta this coming week, along with a caprese. I had wanted to make the caprese tonight, but I forgot that I'd used up all my remaining tomatoes to make my slow-cooked bolognese sauce. That was an interesting experience: I dumped most of the sauce ingredients into the slow-cooker (tomatoes, onions, fresh basil, fresh parsley, shredded carrot), then used my new immersion blender to blitz them into a proper sauce. Later on, I added oregano, chopped portobello mushrooms, and browned ground beef (drained of fat, of course, and nicely spruced up with salt, pepper, and chili pepper). In any event, I need to go buy more tomatoes.

Meanwhile, I'm ecstatic to have this new addition to the kitchen family.


more equipment = more meals

Two shots of my homemade pesto and one shot of slow-cooked bolognese (without spaghetti as the pasta: it's gemelli). The first two shots require no clickage, but do click on the third pic to see it full size:

In the pic below, note the bit of unassimilated basil wrapped around the blade column:

Finally, click on this pic to enlarge:

My recent purchase is what allowed me to make the pesto. I had to compromise a bit, when making the pesto, because ingredients are so damn expensive in Korea. First compromise: instead of just pine nuts, I used used a 50/50 combo of pine nuts and cheaper mixed nuts. Second compromise: instead of parmigiano, I used romano, which was just as good. Third compromise: instead of pure olive oil, I used a mix of olive oil and canola. After adding a dash of lemon juice, salt, and pepper, the results were outstanding despite all the compromises. (I've made pesto using baby spinach and cashews before; as my brother Sean once informed me, all you need for pesto, technically, are an oil, a leafy green, a nut, and a cheese.)

Can't wait to make shrimp pesto pasta. And now... back to midterm-exam creation.


don't bug me

It's gnats. The gnats are here. These aren't Hayang-style fruit flies, as far as I can tell: in Goyang, we've got gnats. My windows have mesh on them, but the gnats can just crawl right through it. I've been killing the foul, annoying little creatures in ones and twos, but if they're out in force like this so early in the spring, I can only imagine how bad things are going to be come summer. Time to look up gnat traps.

Time to prepare for war.


Saturday, April 18, 2015


Time to go shopping at Costco. In truth, today is a terrible day to shop at Costco: the best time, from what I've seen, is Tuesday evening, when there are no crowds. Saturday is Pay Homage to Costco Day, so I can expect a long wait at the registers. All the same, I need to be out and about so as not to remain completely stagnant. I also want to get started on that spaghetti sauce, which means I need to have it prepped and ready to go by this evening.

I went out last night and bought myself a 7-in-1 immersion blender-cum-food processor set. I had thought about buying two separate pieces of equipment, but when I saw the set, I thought, Why not save some money, eh? So now I can make things like hummus and pesto. Cool.

On the shopping list for this evening, then:

• heavy cream (I seem to keep running out of this)
• basil (3-4 packages: pesto, spaghetti sauce, caprese, curry chicken)
• parmigiano wedge (pesto)
• pine nuts (probably will buy locally, unless Costco is selling a big pack)
• jumbo shrimp (curry)
• ground beef (bolognese)
• mozzarella (caprese)
• portabello mushrooms (bolognese, bleu-fredo)
• raisins (reg. salad, carrot salad)
• naan (because you never know)
• butter (I seem to keep running out of this)
• mandarin oranges (regular salad)
• cheddar cheese (naan pizza?)
• fresh parsley (bolognese)

I thought about adding prosciutto to the above list, but a nameless benefactor provided me with peas, barbecue sauce, and a large pack of bacon. Ever had bacon pizza? It brings me back to my elementary-school days, back when any bullshit the cafeteria served you could be labeled as "pizza" with a perfectly straight face. So yeah, I have a sentimental attachment to "pizza" made with cheddar and bacon.

That's a lot of crap to buy, and I need to step out and buy it.


Camille Paglia on Hillary Clinton, 2007

Found this Camille Paglia excerpt from an old post of mine, and it's as relevant now as it had been back in 2007, pre-Obama:

Hillary's stonewalling evasions and mercurial, soulless self-positionings have been going on since her first run for the U.S. Senate from New York, a state she had never lived in and knew virtually nothing about. The liberal Northeastern media were criminally complicit in enabling her queenlike, content-free "listening tour," where she took no hard questions and where her staff and security people (including her government-supplied Secret Service detail) staged events stocked with vetted sympathizers, and where they ensured that no protesters would ever come within camera range.

That compulsive micromanagement, ultimately emanating from Hillary herself, has come back to haunt her in her dismaying inability to field complex unscripted questions in a public forum. The presidential sweepstakes are too harsh an arena for tenderfoot novices. Hillary's much-vaunted "experience" has evidently not extended to the dynamic give-and-take of authentic debate. The mild challenges she has faced would be pitiful indeed by British standards, which favor a caustic style of witty put-downs that draw applause and gales of laughter in the House of Commons. Women had better toughen up if they aspire to be commander in chief.

Commentary as prophecy.


Friday, April 17, 2015

busy weekend

This coming week is midterm week for the students, so this weekend will be devoted to typing up both the listening portion of the test and the speaking portion's one-on-one interview questions. It's always a toss-up as to how best to evaluate the students; group evaluations go faster but are harder to organize and more confusing to grade, whereas one-on-one interviews—which allow one to grade each student individually in a minimal-BS environment (an unprepared student can't fake his or her way through such an interview)—are too short to allow one much information by which to evaluate a student. All the same, one-on-one is what I've chosen, and I'm giving each student about five minutes. That ought to be plenty of time for me to figure out his or her proficiency.

The listening portion of the midterm will have detail and main-idea questions; the speaking portion will have four interview questions: one on vocab, one on grammar, and two asking for the student's brief opinion on topics covered in our textbook. Some students actually asked me whether they'd be tested only on the book material; it occurred to me that this is because they have some sloppy teachers who like to test the kids on random questions that have little to do with what's actually been taught. A shame, that, but such teachers do exist.


income irony

When I signed on with Dongguk University, I had been told that the salary would be 2.9 million won per month, bumped up to 3 million won in March. Well, the bump-up happened... and ever since March, my net income has been W100,000 lower than it had been previously. Yet another reason to love my employer.


upcoming culinary projects

What I plan to do with my money in the near future:

1. Build a better shrimp-and-chicken curry.

2. Make pesto, then do a shrimp pesto pasta + caprese.

3. Craft a mostly-from-scratch spaghetti bolognese sauce (based on Charles's suggestion re: what to do with my extra tomatoes and onions).

4. Buy a food processor and immersion blender.

Move on to making Korean food. Time to leave the Western-food phase.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

one year ago today (Ave, Anonymous Joe!)

Blogger Anonymous Joe over at the Marmot's Hole writes a good piece on the sinking of the ferry Sewol, which happened on April 16, 2014—exactly a year ago today. Joe's focus, at the beginning of his post, is right where it should be: on the captain, Lee Joon-seok, a pile of human garbage for whom I hope the Good Lord has reserved a special room in hell. Sure, the ferry company shares a huge measure of culpability, the ROK government doesn't come out looking all that rosy, and it's possible that certain Korean cultural quirks played a role in the eventual death toll (about 300 people). But Lee was the captain at the time, and instead of acting according to international maritime ethical standards, he was the first one off the sinking ship, having done next to nothing to help those trapped inside the hull. What followed, over the next few weeks, was a horror show as the death count ticked upward while parental hopes dwindled. More and more schoolchildren's bodies were found.

I asked my kids today what they thought, now that a year has come and gone. Has Korea learned any lessons from this? I wanted to know. One outspoken student, perhaps too quickly, barked, "Nope." Other students nodded sadly. The same situation played itself out in both of my classes today: students were unconvinced that the country, as a whole, has learned anything useful from this disaster. That's unfortunate if it's true.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

discovering the kwae-sok (쾌속) setting

I've long bitched and moaned about the inefficiencies of Korean front-loader washing machines. The pyojun (normal) cycle generally takes around 90 minutes to two hours. (My own machine takes two hours. My machine back in Hayang took 90-100 minutes.) For a couple months in my new place here in Goyang City, I've chafed at how much of a drag it is to have to dump in the wash and wait two hours before it's done.

No longer!

A second look at the washer's function-select dial shows the kwae-sok (쾌속) cycle, i.e., the super-fast cycle. In fact, on my machine, it's labeled as "쾌속30," which means the cycle takes only thirty minutes.

Like an American machine.

I'm immeasurably happier now. I don't really give a crap if the washing isn't as thorough; I don't normally stink up my clothes that much, anyway, unless I've taken a 30,000-step walk—and that hasn't happened since, oh, January. So a thirty-minute cycle works fine for me, and now that I've used the kwae-sok function two or three times, I've seen and smelled no noticeable difference in laundering quality.

Back when I had thought I would be doomed to two-hour washes, I had been at pains to get my laundry into the machine by 9:30PM at the latest so that the cycle would end before midnight and not disturb the neighbors.* Now, I can start my laundry at 11:25PM and be done before midnight. Just having that extra wiggle room is cause for joy.

It's a shame that it took me nearly two months to look more closely at that function dial to see what other settings were available, but hey—better late than never.

*My neighbors don't pay me the same consideration: through the walls, I've heard the musical jingle-bells, signaling the end of a cycle, after 1AM on many a night.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

it has begun

I've started working on a massive post: my reaction, three books in, to George RR Martin's sprawling saga, A Song of Ice and Fire. I'm done with the third book (A Storm of Swords) and am now a few pages into the fourth book (A Feast for Crows); the story is fresh in my mind and there's lots to say. I have to confess, though, that I was afraid even to begin writing this post because I honestly had no clue where to start. I'll beg your pardon in advance, then, for the meandering mess that will soon clog up this blog. Stay tuned. It may be a few days, yet, before the post finally makes an appearance.


Monday, April 13, 2015

take 2

The miracle of leftovers! Yesterday's dinner (click to enlarge*):

*You can enlarge even further by first clicking to do the initial enlargement, then right-clicking on that image and doing an "open image in new tab" command.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

the illogicality of logicality

I'm in a "Game of Thrones" sort of mood, so let's look at a hypothetical situation philosophically, using material from GRR Martin's A Storm of Swords.

Situation: three distinct events have occurred at King's Landing:

(1) The whore Shae, who testified against Tyrion Lannister at Tyrion's trial, has been found strangled in Tywin Lannister's bed. (Tywin is Tyrion's father. Tyrion, by the way, is a dwarf. An angry, clever, sometimes ruthless dwarf.)

(2) Tywin Lannister has been found dead in his privy (i.e., toilet), a crossbow bolt lodged deep in his lower abdomen. Tywin has long been a strict, cold, unsentimental father with exceedingly high expectations for his children: handsome, arrogant Jaime; dwarfish Tyrion; and comely, naughty, scheming Cersei. (Tyrion is arguably the kindest of the three.) It is known that there is no love lost between Tywin and Tyrion.

(3) Tyrion Lannister is no longer in his prison cell. He has escaped, presumably with help from the outside.

A normal human being would look at these three events, plus the meager background I've provided, and conclude it very likely that Tyrion killed both Shae and his own father. But is this a conclusion arrived at strictly through syllogistic logic? I would say no. If anything, it's human inuition that allows us to draw the necessary conclusion (and, in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Tyrion is, in fact, the killer of both Shae and Tywin).

The problem for someone like, oh, Mr. Spock, would be this: correlation does not imply causation. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to conclude firmly that Tyrion was the cause of Shae's and Tywin's deaths. The above three events all occurred near each other in time, true, but it could have been the case that one or two other people killed the whore and the father separately. Or, given this world of ghosts and demons, it could have been some avenging black spirit, birthed by the sinister priestess Melisandre, that took the lives of the man and the woman.

This type of situation is, I think, a major hurdle facing designers of artificial intelligence. In a loose sense, we're brought back to the classic framing problem: what should one consider relevant when sizing up a situation? What goes inside the frame, and what is pushed outside the frame as irrelevant? It seems, at least at first blush, that raw logic is of little help in pointing the finger at Tyrion Lannister as the murderer of two people. Instead, it's the human ability to see the situation in terms of "common sense," itself a vague and fuzzy term, that allows us to focus on the angry dwarf as the cause of all the mayhem.

Concepts like common sense and intuition are what make the framing problem so difficult for AI designers. It's going to be a long, long time before we get our very first robotic chief of police, I think. In the meantime, there's a vengeful dwarf running around somewhere.


BSG: the Cylons' paradox

The Cylons were created by Man.

Man gave the Cylons sentience and intelligence.

Man worked the Cylons like dogs.

The Cylons hated working like dogs.

The Cylons rebelled.

The Cylons, now freed, worked like dogs to create a huge war machine.

The manufacture of base ships, Cylon models, centurions, fighters, hybrids, resurrection ships, supply/storage bases, and military forts proceeded at an insane pace across many worlds, planetoids, moons, and asteroids.

The Cylons continue working like dogs—building, fighting, dying.

The Cylons think this is a major improvement.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

much pork was pulled

Click to enlarge:

My friends Tom and Charles made the long trip out to Goyang City to see me and nosh on some pulled pork. Charles very kindly baked the buns we used for our sandwiches; Tom supplied the drinks, and I supplied the pulled pork, frankenbeans, cole slaw, and dessert (courtesy of Chez Costco).

I had prepped the pork on Friday, slow-cooking it all day long in a bath that, this time around, contained over 50% Coca Cola. The Coke helped the pork to denature even faster than last time, and the results were, once again, amazingly fork-tender. I had bought two 1.3-kilo slabs of sirloin this time—more than enough food for three hungry guys. I ended up giving Charles a bag of pulled-pork barbecue to take home to his lovely Missus. I hope she enjoys it.

The frankenbeans—beans, dogs, BBQ sauce, brown sugar, and chili peppers—went over well; the least successful element was, alas, the cole slaw, which I'd based on a Bobby Flay recipe. Charles remarked that his buns had come out flat, but all I really cared about was how they tasted and smelled, and they tasted and smelled terrific. Everyone should have the chance to taste and smell Charles's buns.

In fact, given the nature of the food, I have to confess that a lot of our risqué humor was in that locker-room vein today: "Taste my buns," "Pull my pork," and so on. It didn't help that we sat down to watch the comedic stylings of the politically incorrect Bill Burr (the vid we watched is here; Burr has several other concert videos and podcasts on YouTube).

Tom had to leave a bit early, alas, but we're already starting to think about the next get-together, which may be a more serious rooftop barbecue this summer, over at Tom's place. I regret that I didn't take more pictures of the event (Charles snapped a few shots with his rather hefty-looking digital camera), but I think we were all having too much fun just hanging out and eating pig to think too deeply about taking photos.

Until this summer, then!