Sunday, May 31, 2015

aftermath's aftermath

Leftovers can be fun to play with. From last night's dinner, I had pieces of a not-so-great baguette (the Korean bakery/cafe chain Paris Baguette supposedly specializes in baguettes, but their baguettes are mediocre at best), some caprese, and one serving of shrimp-and-shroom pesto pasta. I plucked two fat shrimps and four flavorful slices of portobello from the pasta dish, then I split the shrimp in half. Next, I garlic-buttered the baguette pieces and pan-fried them—which is what I should have done yesterday instead of using the oven's broiler. The broiler is nice (I used it to cook the chicken satay, and it worked out perfectly), but for real browning, the direct heat of pan-frying can't be beat.

So I made what is essentially a shrimp-and-mushroom-caprese po' boy. I'm tentatively calling it il povero ragazzo, or just a povero ragazzo, the literal Italian translation for "poor boy." In terms of edibility, the sandwich, though it looks messy (see pics below), actually holds up well when you bite into it. Toward the end of the eating process, the sandwich's innards do try to slip out the back end, but the slippage isn't unmanageable. One disappointment is that the shrimps somehow get lost in the mix of all those flavors. This thought set me to thinking about how I might improve the sandwich. I'd probably cook the shrimps in much the same way, except that I'd add a bit more salt and a dash of chili flakes to accentuate the shrimpy flavor. Any heat from the chili will be offset by the coolness of the mozzarella. I'd also vary the proportions, increasing the shrimp-to-caprese ratio.

What you see below is something of a distant cousin to the crostini, but bigger and more ambitious. It's a good start, as sandwiches go; it could use a bit of improvement, perhaps, but everything in the sandwich makes sense in terms of flavor profile.






While I'm musing on the topic of food, I'll say a thing or two about things I learned in cooking yesterday's dinner. First: who knew that a yogurt marinade would be a legitimate marinade? According to Chef Anne Burrell, a marinade has three basic elements: an oil, an acid, and an aromatic (onions, garlic, herbs, etc.). When I whipped up Tyler Florence's satay recipe, which requires you to marinate your chicken, I had to wonder whether yogurt was an appropriate marinade. Turns out that it is, and I think I know why: yogurt is a dairy product, so there's your oil. Yogurt is also acidic, so there's your acid. And what an amazing marinade yogurt is! Florence's recipe includes nothing more than ginger, garlic, and curry in the chicken bath. I thought this might not be enough—what about some salt or something? I was wrong: as long as your next step, after marination, is to grill or broil the chicken (not to pan-fry it: if you do that, the marinade starts to smell like baby vomit—yeah, I made that mistake), you've got a perfect coating that sinks into and blends well with the meat. So, yes: marinate in yogurt, then grill or broil. The results will surprise you. Pleasantly.

The other thing I learned was that, when the recipe tells you to add sugar when making a chocolate ganache, this is no bullshit. The added sugar isn't there just for sweetness: it's there to give the ganache a shine and a luster that it wouldn't otherwise have. If you've seen what Nutella looks like straight from the jar, then you know it's got a "flat" look to it. I didn't follow any specific recipe in making my ganache: I simply followed intuition, common sense, and the half-remembered advice from recipes I'd read; the result, after adding sugar, was indeed a shiny, glossy ganache. In my case, I set up a double boiler, dumped in about two-thirds of a cup of Nutella, added about a third of a cup of heavy cream, and spooned in about two heaping tablespoons of white sugar. Time and heat and stirring all did their work, and in the end—voilà, a perfectly respectable ganache worthy of the cheesecake onto which I drizzled it. That, plus the three-berry sauce and the homemade whipped cream, made it all worth it.


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aftermath

Sorry. Dinner was so damn good that I didn't think to take pictures of the food until my lady friend's visit was over and done with. So what you're going to see below is, well, just leftovers. Click each image to enlarge it, but before clicking, hover your cursor to see the caption text.







Saturday, May 30, 2015

yeesh (as prep continues)

I live in a tiny studio, so you'd think it'd be easy to clean up and manage. In my case, cleanup took a bit more time than expected, but it's done, and I've been slow-motion Iron Chef-ing my way through this evening's meal. Pesto has been made, along with a pesto-themed dressing to pour over the caprese. A chocolate ganache made from Nutella, heavy cream, and sugar is now done. Oi-kimchi, a little of which will go along with the chicken-satay appetizer, is also done. I made a triple-berry sauce last night; the drizzled ganache, the berry sauce, and a dollop of homemade whipped cream (oh, yeah—made that, too) will top slices of Korean cheesecake, which I happen to like a lot more than, say, Costco's typical American-style cheesecake, which is way too heavy for me. I've also shaved some Romano for use in decorating the pasta.

With about an hour to go before I need to head off to meet my dinner guest, I've still got to prep the shrimp and mushrooms for the pesto pasta; I also need to form up the caprese itself. First, however, I'll probably tackle the garlic butter for use on the garlic bread. I'll prep the bread, and other things, once my guest arrives.

It's an open studio, and all I have is a kitchenette with no counter space, so there's no curtain for me to hide behind while I'm prepping food. I'm thinking of actually involving my lady friend in some of the cooking; she might enjoy a hands-on experience.

Get your mind out of the gutter.


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Saturday's dinner menu

APPETIZER
Chicken Satay* with Homemade Peanut Sauce

MAIN COURSE
Shrimp Portobello Spaghetti with Homemade Pesto

SALAD
Insalata Caprese with Homemade Dressing

SIDE
Garlic Bread

DESSERT
Korean Cheesecake with Homemade Chocolate Drizzle, Berry Sauce, and Whipped Cream

Photos pending.



*I went to one Thai restaurant in northern Virginia in which the appetizer had been listed as "Chicken Satan."


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Friday, May 29, 2015

mission failure

My 11:20AM appointment began as soon as I walked up to Window 302 on the third floor of the US Embassy in Gwanghwamun. It ended about five minutes after I got to the window—which didn't surprise me at all. As bad as Korean bureaucracy might be, Uncle Sam's is far bigger and far more fetid, and as I suspected, I was given the runaround. In my case, the runaround meant the classic "To receive Document X, you first need to bring us Document Y." Figures, right? Balls.

Specifically, what happened was that I asked the staffer, a lightly bearded, short-cropped thirtysomething, whether it would be possible to obtain my mother's naturalization documents. No, he said: because Mom had been naturalized back in the late Sixties or early Seventies, her documents haven't been digitized yet, so they're not remotely retrievable and printable, and he wouldn't have such records in the Seoul office. Most likely, a copy of her documents resides at the USCIS facility in Missouri.

There was another hurdle, though: to obtain Mom's documents, I have to prove not only that I'm related to Mom (via birth certificate, etc.), but also that Mom actually died. In other words, I need her death certificate before Uncle Sam will deign to get off his ass and help. I don't think either I or my brothers are in possession of that; it's mostly likely in my father's hands, and I'm not (we're not) on speaking terms with him. So I suppose the alternative is to call Walter Reed Medical Center, where Mom passed away, and see whether it's possible to track down the documentation that way.

In terms of procedure, the USCIS staffer told me I'd need to put in a "foya" request (FOIA, Freedom of Information Act). This can be done at least partially online; I apparently need to Google "USCIS FOIA" to find the application page. That's easy enough, but the staffer emphasized that there'd be no point in hitting the website if I didn't have Mom's death certificate. So: first things first, I guess. The mission gains another wrinkle.

One step forward, two steps back. The good news is that none of this surprises me. In the meantime, I'm going to visit Goyang City's immigration office to make absolutely sure about what documents are necessary to apply for an F-4 visa. By going that route, I may discover something new and interesting about which documents I actually need to track down.


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Thursday, May 28, 2015

fingers and tentacles crossed

Tomorrow, Friday, I'm off to the US Embassy in downtown Seoul to try and obtain my mother's naturalization records. Unlike my previous trip with my Ajumma and Ajeossi, I'm going it alone this time, and I'm not hopeful. Bureaucracies are big and powerful; it often takes a lot of time and repeated effort to chip away at them in order to get what you want. That's a shame, but it's also a fact of life. Wish me luck as I enter the maw.

A lovely young lady is coming over on Saturday, which means I'm also spending my Friday shopping for dinner materials. On the menu: an appetizer (as yet undetermined), shrimp pesto pasta, garlic bread, insalata caprese, and Korean cheesecake topped with homemade whipped cream and berry sauce. A busy weekend, indeed.

I sent off a ton of money to my US bank account today, but I still have nearly $1,500 in the bank to tide me over for the next little while. I'll have enough for a Costco run tomorrow.


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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

lunch

I bought a cute but oddly shaped lunch box from the local Daiso, and I want to start bringing in lunch to work so as to save money when I'm in Daechi-dong, working in the offices of the Golden Goose. When I don't bring lunch, I inevitably eat out, which isn't always the healthiest option; what's worse is it's consistently expensive. (There's a place called Body Chef, a sandwich-and-salad shop just up the street, but their food is a bit bland and meh for my taste. It's also expensive, as health food always is, and the portions are a bit skimpy.)

So here's how I took care of the rest of that lovely galbi I'd made some time ago:





Smelled wonderful, too, after heating.



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a time for planting

South Korea. Find a soccer-field-sized patch of land, and if no one's playing soccer on it, it's gonna become a rice paddy. I took the following picture of a local paddy that I pass by rather early on my walking route (click to enrage):






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a small parade

Goyang City is just a satellite of Seoul, but this doesn't mean the town won't engage in its own modest echo of Seoul's much larger festivities on the Buddha's birthday:



I went for a 22,000-step walk this past Monday. I had the day off, so I had time to devote a 3.5-hour chunk of my day to a long stroll. At about the halfway point, which takes me into downtown, I espied the above parade, which consisted of about a hundred people—some in traditional costume, some gray-robed Buddhist monks, and mostly regular folks—holding lanterns, banging on folkloric instruments, and generally having a good time just wending their way along a major thoroughfare of Goyang. They were all wearing big, happy smiles. And why not? A great teacher had been born over 2.5 millennia ago, and this was the day to celebrate his arrival in our midst.


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now is the time to kill me

I got paid my chunk of W3 million today, thanks to the Golden Goose. It's always nice to see my bank account swollen with cash like a stomach filled to bursting, but at the same time, I know the feeling is only temporary: tomorrow, I say goodbye to more than half that money, which is going to be sent to my US account to pay down a raft of debts—two personal debts and my lone Amazon.com credit card, which is nearly maxed out. I can now pay all those debts down completely, which will be a very, very good feeling.

So, yeah, if you're looking to make some quick money, then now is the time to catch me on the street and kill me. I'm flush with cash, but not for long.


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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

webtoon: existential authenticity

My Golden Goose coworker pointed me to this Korean-language webtoon, which I don't understand fully, but which appears to be a social commentary about Korean conformism, social pressure in terms of what to wear, what and where to study, and generally how to live one's life in a way that's socially acceptable to Koreans. The cartoon's protag (he's a protag at least in the first part of the strip) encounters a fellow Korean who's lived in England, and who is much happier for having been exposed to a certain level of je m'en foutisme (don't-give-a-fuck-ism) that allows this fellow to live more individualistically. A series of panels and existential crises later, we come down to the final scene, which shows a ghostly Steve Jobs (an icon in South Korea) saying that you shouldn't live another person's life. Next to him is a sad, stooped Korean who whines that it's difficult, so difficult, to live one's own life.

The title of the strip is "jeongdap-sahwae," which I suppose might translate as something like "the society with (all) the answers." (It's literally "the correct-answer society.") I suppose this refers to the Korean cultural mindset of knuckling under to social pressure and settling on a one-size-fits-all prescription for living. The comic's message thus seems to be that happiness comes from living more individualistically (according to the Jobs-ghost) and not worrying so much about others' expectations.

That's my poor, confused take on the comic, anyway. I understood less than half the slangy, idiomatic content, but the strip struck me as advocating a kind of existential authenticity: live according to your own choices, make your own truth, be your own person, and never muck your way through life as a slave. Easy advice to give on this neurotic peninsula, but hard advice to follow if you're Korean and not a foreigner.


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sublimely ridiculous pizza


My coworker at The Golden Goose sent me this link to what has to be the most ambitiously vulgar, disgusting, and stupendously awesome pizza ever. The chef calls this "the insane pizza." I have no reason to doubt him. And I will make this one day.


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Monday, May 25, 2015

the most awesome gift

Who knew that, on the Buddha's birthday (Happy Buddhamas, everyone!), I would end up receiving one of the most awesome gifts I've ever gotten?

My e-friend Rory Daly—whom I've never met in person but whom I've known since the early days of blogging,* back when Rory was one of the bad boys of the early Koreablogosphere (along with people like Kevin of the dearly departed Incestuous Amplification and Busan-based, Korean-fluent Jeff Harrison of the much-missed Ruminations in Korea)—sent me a link on Twitter today to a piece of music, dedicated to me, that I assume he wrote and performed. It's called "No Words: 2 Classical Guitars."

Rory was kind enough to upload his sound file to Google Drive and to link it publicly. You can give it a listen here. It's really quite awesome.

In my tweeted response to Rory, I joked that this gesture would have meant so much more to me had he been a smoking-hot babe. I also gibed that I had been expecting either a loud belch or some raunchy sex noises to appear at the end of the piece. In all seriousness, though, I was genuinely touched by his gift, which seems to have come out of the blue, for no reason at all. I've never given Rory any gifts before, and I certainly don't feel I've done anything to deserve this sort of gesture, so really, I'm at a loss for words (said he wordily).

The best gifts in life aren't the ones we purchase for each other: they're the ones we make for each other—because we can, and because they're an expression of our deepest selves, a reflection of our time and talent and heartfelt effort. Those sorts of gifts—a piece of music, a hand-drawn card, a well-written letter or email—are more precious to me than gold.

Not sure what I can do to return the gesture. I have no musical talent (in-the-shower singing doesn't count), and my little brothers are the musicians in the family: David is an occasional violinist; Sean is a professional cellist—a teacher, performer, composer, and music theorist. I suppose I could draw or paint something for Rory and his wife... we'll see. It's been a while since I did anything truly artistic.


Anyway, this only confirms my belief that Aussies are cool people in general. I've never met an Aussie I didn't like (okay, except maybe for that one idiot), and I sometimes theorize that this may have something to do with the large overlap between the Aussie and Yankee national characters. There are politically correct people out there who groan when a person starts to speak in generalities about entire nations, but I hope those people will shut the fuck up for a minute and bear with me as I lay out my theory.

The history of modern Australia is a history of rogues and rejects, much as was the case with United States history. The early Europeans who settled in Oz found themselves faced with a large and ancient native population—again, as was true in the US. A period of westward expansion began—much more so in the US than in Australia: the latter's three most famous and populous cities are all on the east coast, which contrasts with America's most populous region: California. But the US and Oz were and are magnificent, expansive places, filled with rugged, beautiful terrain, open sky, and room to build big, farm big, and dream big. Is it any wonder that the laconic, profound, action-oriented Aussie drover has so much in common with the US cowboy? Like the American cowboy, the drover, as a frontiersman, learned much of his wisdom from the aborigines, and he adapted many aboriginal mannerisms: stoicism, equanimity, and an astute reading of the ebb and flow of nature.** And just think about how American a movie like "Mad Max: Fury Road" is, despite its Aussie pedigree: guns, monster trucks, tough men, tough women, the endless road, and the big blue heavens above. We boreals, above the equator, are the cultural brothers and sisters of those wacky australs who dwell Down Under. The Australian character is positive, cheerful, optimistic, and forward-thinking, much as America used to be (not so sure how much mojo we have these days, especially under current management). There's much to unite us, which is why I've always immediately felt comfortable around Australians.

So I hope one day that Rory and I, and perhaps his lovely wife, will have the chance to meet face to face and sit down over a meal—preferably a meal that one of us has made, but if not, then almost any damn meal will do.

Thank you, Rory, for a truly humbling gift. Thanks, as well, for allowing others to share it. That's a privilege.



*In those primitive and unenlightened days, blogging was called flogging, and writing blog posts involved stripping an enemy of his garments and whipping his back bloody, turning and twisting the whip in such a way as to write words, in wounds, on the person's quivering, agonized flesh. In those early days, few people had good enough control of their whips to write in small fonts, so early flog entries were necessarily short, but as time went on and our skill improved, we were soon able to flog entire essays onto the backs, shoulders, and buttocks of our victims. The cleverer among us figured out that, if you flogged your letters backwards onto a person's back, then had that person lie down on a body-sized sheet of paper, the words would appear forward. At that point, we could snap a picture of our scribblings with a five-pound digicam, then upload the image to our website, and that was a flog post.

At some point, someone realized that it would be much simpler to use software to write and publish our essays directly online, thus obviating the need to whip anyone. While this disappointed some of us early floggers, this newfangled "blogging" thing became more popular because it was so much faster. Imagine whipping out your flog entry, letter by painful letter, your arm tiring after a few thousand strokes of the scourge, and compare that effort to merely sitting at a keyboard and typing. Posts that used to take whole days to write now took only minutes or, at most, hours. Most of us adjusted to this new paradigm fairly quickly, but some of us, it must be said, missed the screams and cries of our old printing surfaces, and there are those who, even now, yearn for a return to the good old days, when ink meant blood.

**I'm totally stealing this insight from Robert Pirsig's Lila, in which Pirsig observes that the American cowboy's mannerisms almost all derive from contact with American Indians. The cowboy, like the American Indian, is a man of few words, but this doesn't mean he's a man of few thoughts: he's often observant, perceptive, wise, and decisive in his actions, moving with a grace and efficiency that can sometimes be startling. The best frontiersmen learned to be silent hunters and trackers, just like the natives. The guerrilla way that they fought in battle reflected native tactics, too. Much of what we admire today about the cowboy actually comes to us from the American Indian, or so Pirsig contends. It's an easy leap, then, to apply the same anthropological thinking to the Australian situation.


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student myths

Some things I learned from my students' recent presentations:

1. Ostriches bury their heads in the sand—not out of fear, but to detect the vibration of predators' footfalls.

2. Chernobyl, scene of a nuclear disaster, is in France.

3. An elephant seal looks exactly like a walrus, and elephant seals are called "elephant" seals precisely because they have tusks, not because of their elephant-like noses.


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"Mad Max: Fury Road": review

What a day! What a lovely day!

War whoops, tribalism, ultraviolence, souped-up vehicles, and a surprisingly large dose of religion and spirituality are the hallmarks of George Miller's return to the Mad Max universe in "Mad Max: Fury Road." Quite a mix of themes and tropes, but let's get one sticky issue out of the way first: the feminism question that's been burbling around the conservative side of cyberspace. The charge is that the movie is a gyp: Max might be the eponymous hero, the guy featured in the ads, but in truth the movie belongs to Charlize Theron's character, Imperator Furiosa.* That could well be: Theron's performance and screen time earn her at least equal billing, if not top billing, for this film. I had no trouble with this aspect of "Fury Road." True, there may have been some feminist themes** running through the plot, but it didn't take any suspension of disbelief to accept Theron's Furiosa as a gritty heroine. Why? Three reasons. First: because the Mad Max movies, taken as a whole, are so ridiculous that you pretty much have to turn your brain off to accept what you're seeing. Second: because Theron's character fits perfectly into the logic of the story. Third: because Theron herself plays Furiosa with such grim conviction that she sucks you into the action. And for me, that's what it all comes down to: feminist heroine or not, all I want is a good story told entertainingly.

[NB: I loved "Aliens" as a teen, and it bothered me not a bit that Sigourney Weaver was the heroine. When she grated, "Get away from her, you BITCH!" at the alien queen, I cheered along with the rest of the audience. Loudly.]

It's enlightening to compare the experience of watching "Fury Road" with the experience of watching "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (reviewed here). Both movies are stuffed to the gills with action, but I couldn't help thinking that "Fury Road" was purer, less self-consciously constructed, and more the result of a single person's artistic vision instead of design-by-committee. The action, although less gory than I had hoped it would be, was kinetic and frenetic. When I watched "Age of Ultron," I settled into my plush, cushioned chair and stared placidly at the screen; "Fury Road," by contrast, had me gripping the arms of my seat.

So let's talk about that artistic vision. George Miller—back at the helm of a Mad Max film after a three-decade hiatus—had access to a much larger budget this time around, which gave him the breathing room to create a truly sweeping, grandiose vision. The old Millerish tropes are still in place: we've still got people in vaguely punk-style armor, looking for all the world like an S&M party on wheels. We've got nitro-boosted trailers, monster trucks, and 70s sports cars refitted with assault-vehicle treads. We've got scantily clad women (and one who's fully nude late in the movie, but who manages not to reveal her naughty bits thanks to well-placed camera angles, props, and scenery); we've got Max and his iconic leg brace; we've got motorbikes; we've got stunts; we've got the whole goddamn freak show. Visually, the experience is thrillingly overwhelming. I wouldn't be surprised if some Koreans left the theater holding their heads and moaning, "What the hell did I just watch?"

So Miller brings it, and he brings it hard. The interesting question for me is what it must be like, as a director, to revisit and reboot your old vision. Another comparison seems warranted, this time with George Lucas: Miller obviously matured over the decades, whereas Lucas seems almost to have regressed: the Star Wars prequels were a flaccid, post-ejaculatory drip from a spent mind. (Remember when Lucas was an actual auteur? Did you ever see his amazing "THX-1138"?) Miller, meanwhile, still retains his mojo. And the knives are sharper this time: the camera work is different, the stunts and fights are far edgier, the dialogue is more refined and coherent, and even the music is more grandiose, emphasizing that this is an epic.


One thing I did during the movie was marvel at the action choreography. Every major sequence had at least twenty or thirty separate things happening on screen at the same time, but the visuals never once slid into unintelligibility. Things were intense, and I have to wonder how dangerous it was to make this film.*** Scuttlebutt is that computer-generated effects occupy less than a tenth of the movie, i.e., over 90% of the spectacle you're drinking in comes from practical effects. If ever there was a time to praise the stuntmen (and the intrepid actors who may have done their own stunts), this is it. Hats off to that whole crazy crew—some of whom were, apparently, Cirque du Soleil performers. White-painted War Boys dangled from trucks; they jumped from vehicle to vehicle; they dodged rotating spikes; they swung perilously back and forth in wide arcs on crazily oscillating flexible poles, looking like old-time pirates trying to board a ship. This was, without a doubt, a feast for the eyes.

Filmmaking is a profoundly collaborative effort, but George Miller was true to his own vision, and I'd say he's a master of the chase movie. "Fury Road" is essentially a rolling "Apocalypto," and lucky for us, it's got a plot that actually makes sense.**** The story begins with Max's voiceover narration, which puts us in the right frame of mind to accept the war-torn scenario we find ourselves in. Max is chased, then captured by the War Boys who serve Immortan Joe, the leader of his own tribe/cult. Joe promises Valhalla to his warriors; he controls the supply of water that he pumps up from the bowels of the earth, keeping his people weak and dependent on him. Max is used as a "blood bag" (i.e., a blood donor) to restore one War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), back to health. When we first meet Furiosa, she's about to betray Immortan Joe by whisking away all of his wives (Joe calls them his "top breeders"; genetic robustness is important when you live in an irradiated wasteland). Ostensibly, she's trucking out fuel, but the wives are hidden in a compartment inside her armored vehicle. Max and Furiosa finally meet when Joe realizes that Furiosa has betrayed him: Max, still functioning as a human IV, gets strapped to the front of Nux's vehicle when Joe sends a war party out to reclaim Furiosa. The chase heads into a titanic sandstorm; Max comes to cautious terms with Furiosa, and the chase continues. I won't spoil the rest of the plot for you, but it won't surprise you to learn that there are plenty of shots of fleets of vehicles screaming across open desert, with people firing guns and weird projectiles at each other.

The movie benefits from a solid cast. Tom Hardy, he of the beestung, Cupid's-bow lips, now takes on the role of Max. Unlike the original "Mad Max," this new film features quite a few recognizable stars: Charlize Theron is a known quantity; despite the fact that Furiosa is missing one forearm (she has a robotic prosthesis that's part "The Empire Strikes Back" and part "District 9"), Theron still manages to radiate amputee hotness. (And, good Lord, that voice! So soothing. I could fall asleep to the sound of Theron whisper-reading a Charles Dickens novel to me.) Hugh Keays-Burne, who played Toecutter in the original 1979 movie, is back as diseased cult figure Immortan Joe—a man who, like Tom Hardy's Bane in the third Christopher Nolan Batman film (reviewed here), relies on a mean-looking breathing mask. Nicholas Hoult, whom you might recognize as the young Beast from "X-Men: First Class" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), is light-years away from his diffident Hank McCoy persona in the X-Men franchise. In "Fury Road," he's wild-eyed, cackling, and insanely kinetic, and he's also the guy who delivers the unhinged "What a lovely day!" line. Finally, a tip of the hat should go, as well, to Nathan Jones as the humorously named Rictus Erectus, burly son of Immortan Joe. I recognized Jones from his brief work as the ill-fated Boagrius in Brad Pitt's "Troy." Here, Jones has a lot more to do.

Along with action, the movie chews over some Big Ideas. The most fundamental theme, as you can imagine, is the human will to soldier on. Roaring cars and trucks may actually be a heavy-handed metaphor for the human drive to survive. Other themes include duty, loyalty, and responsibility, all built on a foundation of hard-earned trust. The word "hope" is mentioned out loud a couple times during the film—once cynically by Max, and again by one of the women. As I noted at the beginning of this review, it was surprising to see the extent to which religion and spirituality figured in "Fury Road": Furiosa is driven by thoughts of The Green Place, an Edenic paradise that she wants to take Joe's wives to; Joe himself uses religion as a tool to control his War Boys, filling their heads with notions of Valhalla, of dining in the land of the dead with their fellow fallen warriors. Max isn't exempt from the spookiness: he's haunted by the specters of his own dead (his wife and daughter, I think, along with a few others, including an aboriginal elder who makes a brief, phantasmic appearance). One nightmarish vision ends up saving his life: he raises his hand to ward off a specter, and his hand inadvertently blocks a crossbow bolt that would have transfixed his brain. Instead, in a moment of Tarantino-style morbid humor, Max's hand gets stapled to his head when the bolt sinks into his skull but fails to penetrate. Above all of this anthropic-level religion, however, sits the land itself: the biggest religious trope of all. This is the post-apocalypse: it's the ravening chaos that remains after the eschaton has come and gone. These are the adventures of those who have been left behind.

Alas, in this film, the land in question is mostly Namibia, not the Australian Outback. That was disappointing to discover when I began reading the trivia related to this film. Another disappointment was that Joe's wives weren't written distinctly enough to be truly memorable characters. I didn't even know the wives' names until I read the Wikipedia entry about the movie after I got back home. Zöe Kravitz, daughter of musician/actor Lenny Kravitz (who played Cinna in the Hunger Games series), was the bullet-counter, then later a kidnappee. One blonde was the moony mystic. The redhead was distinguished by the fact that she began to fancy Nicholas Hoult's Nux. The pregnant one... well, we won't talk about her, except to say that we're told she's Joe's favorite breeder.

Despite these disappointments, feminists can cheer: the movie's main female character, as well as the tough older women she meets up with later in the movie, have enough backbone for any hundred women. Even better, the movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors: two female characters do indeed talk to each other about a topic unrelated to a man.

Then there's the movie's general quirkiness, which certainly deserves a paragraph of its own. Miller still loves his frenetic, slightly sped-up camera work; that hasn't changed from the late 1970s. His addition of the truck-riding drummers and heavy-metal guitar player (with a guitar that shoots flames for no reason at all) adds an edge to the movie that is both bellicose and ludicrous. The actors' accents are all over the place, making it hard to know whether we're in Australia (what accent was Tom Hardy doing?). Most of the action scenes contain moments of often-corny humor; I'm not sure how well the Korean audience understood some of the more culturally specific gags (e.g., one woman hears Max's plan to storm Joe's fortress and whines, "I thought you weren't insane anymore!" I had a good laugh, but no one else did). Then there are the little touches, like the weird binoculars and spyglasses that the characters use. Miller obviously invested a lot of time and thought in making this seared, sere world as alien as possible, while still telling a recognizably terrestrial story.

Overall, I found "Fury Road" thoroughly enjoyable, in contrast to "Avengers," which was merely entertaining. Miller's editing has improved vastly since 1979's "Mad Max": the action was coherent, and nothing was confusing. It's good to see a director who has matured and not merely aged. There's no denying that the entire Mad Max franchise is fundamentally stupid, but if you're looking for good, stupid fun, this movie enthusiastically brings the fun—and the stupid—to you in spades.



*Why the bad Latin? Imperator is masculine while Furiosa is feminine. All I can say is: just go with it. The world of Mad Max is an apocalyptic hell filled with freaks, boils, elephantiasis, dwarfism, constant thirst, and neck tumors. Do you think anyone in such a universe really cares about baby-naming conventions?

**We could argue about this all day. On the one hand, how feminist is it when the heroine simply incarnates traditionally male virtues like bravery and aretê (the ancient-Greek virtue of excellence)? On the other hand, you could argue, as a feminist might, that virtues like bravery and aretê aren't uniquely male.

***It might not have been as dangerous as all that. This B-roll footage (catch it before the link goes stale) shows that many of the top-of-the-truck scenes were filmed in front of an outdoor green screen on unmoving set pieces.

****Except for one thing: there's a scene in which a canyon is blocked by explosives. Later in the film, Max suggests going back through that same canyon to attack Immortan Joe's fortress, and he and his friends do pass more or less smoothly through it. Was the blockage cleared away that quickly? Did I miss a crucial plot point? I swear, I didn't leave the theater to take a dump this time—I really didn't. UPDATE, August 14, 2015: I purchased the movie on Amazon Prime just yesterday and watched it today. There is indeed dialogue about the canyon's being open—dialogue I must have missed or forgotten the first time around. And when our heroes plunge into the canyon for the second time, we do, in fact, see bits of the cleared-out rubble lining the sides of the route through the canyon.


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Sunday, May 24, 2015

really, MTV?
on Emma Sulkowicz, Paul Nungesser, and @fakerape

Coming from MTV, quite possibly the dumbest thing I've read in the past 24 hours, regarding alleged rape victim Emma Sulkowicz and her "Carry That Weight" mattress-dragging art project, in which she declared she would carry around a 50-pound mattress until either (1) her alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser, left the university, or (2) she graduated:

It is undeniable that Sulkowicz created a piece of art that was so visually compelling it couldn’t be forgotten. But, it says a lot about the culture we live in that people still want to know exactly what happened that night in her dorm room, as if her art and the movement it created isn’t validation enough of the experience she endured, and a fair critique of the unjust way colleges handle victims and perpetrators of sexual assault.

How can Sulkowicz's art validate her experience when we can't even establish the experience's veridicality? This seems like such a simple, obvious, Occam-ful question that I question the sanity of the person who wrote the MTV article.

Twitter has been the scene of quite the bloody flame war between Sulkowicz's defenders and her detractors, both of whom are legion. Into the fray has stepped a mysterious tweeter going by the handle Fake Rape (@fakerape), who has made every effort to call Sulkowicz a liar, and to lump her in with other high-profile false accusers like HBO star Lena Dunham of the series "Girls." @fakerape created a series of "Liar" posters that were splashed all over Columbia University's campus, where Sulkowicz was a student until she recently graduated. Her defenders are demanding that the @fakerape account be taken down. Defenders of @fakerape argue that the evidence is all against Sulkowicz, who comes out of this sordid affair looking like the liar she's accused of being.

Personally, since I don't know exactly what happened, I think it's prudent to remember that, in America, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Nungesser, a German national, was found innocent of wrongdoing four separate times regarding both the purported incident with Sulkowicz and some other potentially sexual altercations. This judgment was arrived at not only by the campus authorities but also by the police, whom Sulkowicz eventually involved.

At this point, to be brutally honest, I have no real sympathy for Sulkowicz. Nungesser was found innocent four times, and Sulkowicz has been shown to have sent Nungesser friendly (even vaguely amorous) messages after the date of the alleged rape, so I'm partial to the claim that Sulkowicz's drag-a-mattress campaign amounted to a form of harassment. Unsurprisingly, Nungesser, the accused, is suing various parties for having allowed this mattress campaign to happen. Meanwhile, people have also accused @fakerape of harassing Sulkowicz; @fakerape has responded by claiming freedom of speech. Sulkowicz's defenders tore down many of the posters, claiming that tearing down posters was also a form of free speech. From my perch, it seems obvious that a fog of enstupidation has settled over both parties, but fundamentally I'm leaning more toward Nungesser than toward Sulkowicz.

That said, I don't know what Nungesser hopes to accomplish through his multiple suits. Does he want money? Does he want his good name back? He might get money, in the end, but once a person is accused of a sexual crime in Western society, there's an indelible stigma. When it comes to accusations of rape, you're guilty until proven innocent.

What I find stupid about the above-quoted MTV article is that it's essentially saying, as Hillary Clinton barked when she ranted about Benghazi, "What difference does it make?" From MTV's perspective, the actual reality doesn't matter: all that matters is the "validation" expressed by Sulkowicz's "art." This is a very loose usage of the word "validation," to be sure, and MTV's argument reminds me strongly of some of the arguments I heard in bib-lit classes regarding whether Jesus actually did rise from the dead in a real, tangible, videotapable manner. Many non-literalists (like yours truly) would argue that the resurrection is best understood as a metaphor—that the historical facts don't actually matter when it comes to the gospels' existential import. Can the same hermeneutic be applied to Sulkowicz and Nungesser? I'd venture a "no." Nungesser's future is at stake; there's nothing metaphorical about his situation. For him, and arguably for Sulkowicz, this is all too real.

Defenders of Sulkowicz have tried to use the emotionally powerful argument that, "If your own daughter came to you in tears and said she had been raped, would you believe her?" I admit that this is a very compelling thought experiment, but it's also disingenuous. Of course I wouldn't expect the father to be objective. If I were that father, I'd want to hunt down the rapist myself and separate his head from his neck with my bare hands. That's a given. But the thought experiment misses the point, which is this: just because the father is incapable of thinking objectively doesn't mean that objectivity can be thrown out the window. As I've already mentioned twice, Paul Nungesser was investigated and found innocent four separate times. There is a paucity of evidence to link him to any rapes. Sulkowicz's own "post-rape" emails to Nungesser are a damning testimony against her and her campaign.

MTV's article is so utterly wrongheaded in its brazen unconcern for the truth as to be laughable. The piece might have made more sense as satire had it issued from The Onion or from Cracked.com. Meanwhile, Sulkowicz completed her art project but failed to obtain justice from either the police or from Columbia University. Maybe she can find common ground with Paul Nungesser by also suing Columbia.

Zooming back a bit, I'll note that Instapundit has hammered on a particular issue for a while: the idea that, when a rape occurs on campus, it shouldn't be the university that handles the case—it should be the cops, and right away, too. I agree. Rape is a serious crime. What on earth is a college disciplinary board doing adjudicating such a thing? That's ludicrous. A college board isn't staffed with professional detectives, nor can it suddenly use its campus library's basement as a makeshift jail to detain accused rapists. Campuses are woefully ill-equipped for handling such crimes. There should be no question about police involvement: the police should be on the scene immediately.

People defending Sulkowicz are upset about the general concept of "fake rape." They feel that "fakerapistas," to coin a term, are obsessing over false accusations that, in the end, comprise only about 8% of all rape cases (i.e., close to 1 in 10). The defenders, many of whom probably also stand against the death penalty, ought to use their own death-penalty logic to understand the fakerapistas' point of view: it's intolerable that even one innocent man should be punished. I don't know the truth about Paul Nungesser, but he's been through the authorities' X-ray machine and was pronounced innocent on multiple occasions. If something comes out later that conclusively proves he did indeed rape Emma Sulkowicz, then go ahead and crucify him. In the meantime, he's innocent until proven guilty.



ADDENDUM: About those friendly "post-rape" emails from Sulkowicz... they were, technically, Facebook messages. This article comments and quotes some of the messages:

Yet Nungesser says that for weeks after that night, he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss.

Nungesser provided The Daily Beast with Facebook messages with Sulkowicz from August, September, and October 2012. (In an email to The Daily Beast, Sulkowicz confirmed that these records were authentic and not redacted in any way; while she initially offered to provide “annotations” explaining the context on the messages, she then emailed again to say that she would not be sending them.) On Aug. 29, two days after the alleged rape, Nungesser messaged Sulkowicz on Facebook to say, “Small shindig in our room tonight—bring cool freshmen.” Her response:

lol yusss

Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz

because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr


On Sept. 9, on a morning before an ADP meeting, it was Sulkowicz who initiated the Facebook contact, asking Nungesser if he wanted to “hang out a little bit” before or after the meeting and concluding with:

whatever I want to see yoyououoyou

respond—I’ll get the message on ma phone

Snide Twitter commenters were quick to note that four years at Columbia University had done nothing to improve Sulkowicz's writing ability.


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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Oyreland leads the way, laddies

It's heartening to see that Ireland may well become the first country in the world to legitimize gay marriage via popular vote. Americans could learn from this.

Irish voters turned out in droves to cast ballots in a gay marriage referendum Friday, with the high turnout likely to favor the “yes” side seeking equality just two decades after the country decriminalized homosexuality.

With the once mighty Catholic Church’s influence ravaged by child abuse scandals, opinion polls indicated the proposal would pass by as much as 2-to-1, making Ireland the first country to adopt same-sex marriage via a popular vote.

[...]

Gay marriage is backed by all political parties, championed by big employers and endorsed by celebrities, all hoping it will mark a transformation in a country that was long regarded as one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.

Good for you, Ireland.

There's so much resistance, in America, to the idea of gays and lesbians marrying, and it's bizarre that this is so: per an old stat from Andrew Sullivan, homosexuals account for perhaps 3 to 5 percent of any given population, i.e., at most one out of twenty. What huge, disruptive, disastrous social change is going to occur if one person out of twenty is finally allowed to do what the other nineteen can already do?*

I realize, of course, that this is a messy issue. There's a religious dimension that overlaps only partially with the political and moral dimensions. Many contend that government should be out of the marriage business completely, which is a nice thought, but when there are practical issues like inheritance and hospital-visitation rights to consider, the law is inevitably going to have something to say. One could try to limit the term "marriage" to apply only to that ceremony which is performed in a religious context, but people who have gotten married outside the religious context (at a courthouse, say, in a civil ceremony) might have dissenting opinions about that. The lesson I take from Ireland, though, is that, little by little, gay marriage is gaining acceptance, whether you view it as a legal matter, a moral matter, or a religious matter. As Reverend Donald Sensing noted long ago, the battle against gay marriage has, essentially, already been lost: there's little left but for the tidal momentum to carry gay marriage forward to full fruition. And I think we'll all discover that, once fruition is achieved, not much about our culture and society will have changed.



*I know social conservatives who argue that gays have a disproportionate influence on the culture because they're overrepresented in the media. I'd agree that gays are indeed overrepresented, but I don't think that's at all relevant to the deeper question of how legitimizing gay marriage will deeply affect the culture. The private fear of many such conservatives is an irrational one: that people can somehow be persuaded to "go gay," as if homosexuality were simultaneously a choice and a communicable disease. We've been over that particular argument too many times for me to rehash it here.


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Friday, May 22, 2015

a new culinary low

The grossest thing I've seen in months lurks at the local convenience store. Behold the horror that is chocolate-covered shrimp crunches:


This is a Three Mile Island disaster of a snack. I saw it in the campus CU convenience store; several of my students noticed my facial expression and laughed. "I have to take a picture of this," I declared to more laughter.

Yet I admit I'm curious as to how it tastes. The artificial shrimp flavor and the artificial chocolate flavor might just work together in a way that real shrimp dipped in real chocolate would never work.


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the simple things

The local grocery was having a sale on strawberries: W5,000 for a large plastic package. So I grabbed a package, then also grabbed a bunch of bananas, a package of frozen blueberries, and several large cups of "Bio" brand plain yogurt. The yogurt is a bit too liquidy for my taste, but once you dump in your fruit, the consistency isn't a problem:


Ah, the simple things. Alas, eating simply and healthily in Korea isn't always cheap, especially when it comes to fruit. Vegetables are a different matter: I think prices for veggies in most Korean stores are more than fair. But fruit remains a problem. Those strawberries would normally sell for twice the discounted price that I paid; the package of blueberries set me back W10,000 (fresh blueberries would have been even more expensive), and the bananas were selling for about W5,500 per small bunch. As in America, eating healthily can be expensive.


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Thursday, May 21, 2015

pecha-kucha: the final day

Somehow, I managed to sit through thirty-seven pecha-kuchas today. It would have been thirty-eight, but one student was absent because he had to go for a government-scheduled checkup in preparation for his required military service.

As with yesterday's class, there really were no stand-out presentations, which was a bit depressing. I marked down a lot of students for reading straight from their notes, facing away from the audience, speaking softly, not presenting with any energy, etc. Today's two classes also had students who didn't know how to do the auto-advance function for their PowerPoint slides, thus leaving it up to the savvier students to help them. Time was wasted. Somehow, miraculously, I managed to finish the classes without running too far overtime.

My other problem today was that the kids* needed to be told repeatedly to stop whispering, passing notes, sleeping, and/or trying clumsily to use their cell phones without my knowing. It really doesn't take much mental candlepower to figure out who's surreptitiously using a cell phone, but the students often seem to think they can pull that stunt off. I'm not sure whether to chalk that up to adolescent stupidity or to a simple lack of respect for the teacher's mental faculties. And about that "lack of respect" thing—these are Korean students, who ostensibly respect their teachers (ha!—and if you believe that, I have a live velociraptor to sell you), or so the propaganda goes, but they have little trouble passive-aggressively dissing the foreign profs. If you confront them about their disrespect, they get all wide-eyed and claim they never intended any harm. It's all bullshit, of course; Korean students operate on a double standard when it comes to what they think they can get away with: native-Korean professors get far more outward respect, while we fuzzy little furriners are slightly less than human. This fact never gets mentioned aloud in class, but it's definitely an underlying dynamic.

Three students in my 3PM class stood out for not-so-good reasons today. The first student was clueless: at the beginning of class, before the presentations began, I had told everyone to use the smaller podium (there's a large podium with a computer, monitor, keyboard, and sound-management system inside it, and there's a smaller, bare-bones, non-teched-up podium next to it at the front of the class), but one girl tried to hide herself behind the large podium. I told her to move over to the smaller one, even saying that I had mentioned this before class started; she looked at me, moved tentatively over to the small podium, then snapped right back to the large podium. When I asked her afterward why she had ignored my directive, she claimed that she hadn't understood what I'd said. I told her that, next time, she should ask me to repeat myself or to make myself clearer if she didn't understand me. (Another example of social immaturity: she tried to get by while pretending to have understood me. Instead, she ended up looking rude, even though rudeness wasn't her goal.)

The second student did a presentation on healthy eating, punctuating his spiel by looking at me and saying, "So, Kevin, please don't eat too much!" or "So, Kevin, this is why you should eat healthy food!" Those were degrading, Tyrion Lannister-style** moments, and I had no choice but to smile a tight-lipped smile and laugh along with the rest of the class. I had to wonder whether the student would have dared say such a thing if I had been a fully Korean teacher. I doubt it.

The third student was, in a sense, even more insulting. He wasn't directly insulting to me, but it was obvious he had prepared almost not at all for his pecha-kucha: he had no respect for the assignment. As I've mentioned before, pecha-kuchas involve using PowerPoint slides set to auto-advance: twenty slides in twenty seconds. In a well-done pecha-kucha, the presenter ought to have almost exactly twenty seconds' worth of verbiage to say per slide, segueing neatly from slide to slide with smooth verbal transitions and—this is crucial—no pauses. This student, by contrast, said about five or ten seconds' worth of content per slide, trapping us inside twenty painful pauses lasting ten to fifteen seconds each. It was brutal, and yes, it was insulting: the student obviously hadn't cared enough to spend his allotted two months prepping a decent presentation. There's no way in hell he's getting a passing grade for that stinking pile of shit that he tried to shovel my way.

But thank Cthulhu it's all over. I have to tally up the scores, dock some participation points from the more obnoxious students, and enter the numbers in my spreadsheet.



*And they are indeed kids—I use this word literally, not as a cutesy diminutive, because Korean college freshmen are at about the same social and sexual maturity level as American high-school sophomores. They're way too gawky and awkward, and they know so little about how to interact properly with others, especially with foreigners.

**For those who don't get the reference because they live in caves and have avoided George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic-fantasy saga even longer than I have: Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf, one of the principal characters in the series, a scion of the powerful House Lannister. Because of his short stature and malformed physique, Tyrion ends up being the butt of many a joke at his expense. He's learned to develop a thick skin, but every once in a while a remark will prove too cutting for him.


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Procrustes and the grading curve

Do you know the story of Procrustes? He's an ugly figure from Greek mythology, famous (or infamous) for "the bed of Procrustes," an iron bedframe on which victims were placed and "fitted." If the victims were too tall for the bed, their legs would be amputated to the proper length; if they were too short, they would be cruelly stretched to conformity.*

By now, you can see why the adjective "Procrustean" might come to mind whenever I think of our university's grading curve. Every class must conform to the curve: there can't be too many "A"s; there can't be too few "C"s, "D"s, and "F"s. That curve is the bed of Procrustes.

In the myth, it's the hero Theseus who comes along, outfights or outwits Procrustes, and fits the villain to his own bed, thereby killing him. Would that some real-life Theseus should come along and curve all these college administrators to death—peg their salaries to a bell-curve distribution of their performance ratings. You might be the president of the university, but if your ratings are low, you get peanuts. Oh, and let the students be the ones to rate the university staffers, just as they rate us faculty.



*Wikipedia notes that Procrustes secretly had two beds, just to make sure that no one was ever a perfect fit.


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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

pecha-kucha: day 2

My nineteen Wednesday students did their pecha-kuchas today. Many got penalized for manually advancing their slides: one of the fundamental aspects of a pecha-kucha is that you have to set your slides to auto-advance, then time the content of your presentation to match the content of the slides. Manually advancing the slides allows you to slack off on the discipline needed for a well-timed spiel—not to mention the fact that you'll likely go too long or too short, instead of the prescribed 400 seconds (a standard pecha-kucha uses 20 PowerPoint slides, auto-advancing at 20 seconds per slide).

Today's students were fairly lackluster compared to yesterday's group. Yesterday's class had its boring presenters as well, but there were also some really good presentations, including the incredible one I'd mentioned in a previous post. Today, almost nobody stood out, except for one guy who really doesn't belong in a Level 1 class: he talked blazingly fast (his classmates missed two-thirds of his witticisms), and his presentation was energetic, but he also had a strong accent that occasionally made him difficult even for me to understand. One or two other students did a surprisingly good job, but they were still fairly subdued.

We also had some tech glitches, today, that caused the entire class to run about eight minutes overtime. One student, for some reason, chose to do her presentation as some sort of PowerPoint-compatible file. When she tried to open it on the classroom's podium computer, she found herself unable to: that class computer didn't have the app she had used. Time was wasted as she and several other students desperately tried to figure out how to convert or export her file such that PowerPoint could open it. I shook my head; some kids obviously haven't learned that they need to work out all technical glitches well in advance of giving a presentation. Another student lost her head during her presentation: her spiel began to diverge from her slides as her timing got worse and worse, to the point where she had to stop, go back a few frames, and start over instead of ad-libbing her way out of the situation.

Monday wasn't so bad: sitting through fifteen presentations was all right, especially since I gave a ten-minute break about halfway through. Today, with nineteen students, the day began to feel like a slog. Tomorrow, I've got two classes of nineteen kids each, so this is going to be especially painful. Thirty-eight pecha-fuckin'-kuchas... God help me.

The one bright side to today's class was that the pecha-kucha grades did erode the ridiculous number of "A"s—that, and I finally docked participation points from some of my chronic whisperers and sneaky cell-phone users. I think the Wednesday class might actually finish the semester inside the curve, which would be nice, at least inasmuch as fitting inside the curve is less of an administrative pain in the ass for me.


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the most wonderful time of the year

Spring in Korea is great when it comes to gas and electric bills. I do use my A/C now, but only sparingly because temperatures just aren't that high at the moment. I stopped using the ondol (traditional Korean floor-heating system) back in the winter, when I broke out my space heater, so my gas bill plummeted. I haven't used the space heater in over a month (it's been boxed up for several weeks), which means I'm not guzzling electricity, either. So today, the electric bill came, and it's only W15,000. I expect my gas bill this month to remain low, too—around W25,000.

Things will be different come summer, of course: the A/C will be blasting all day long, so I expect my electric bill to reflect this. Then again, I've noticed that the building I'm in now is much better constructed than the flimsy cardboard dwelling I'd been stuck in in Hayang, so there's a chance that this building's superior insulation properties might save me a bit of money during the hottest months. (And, hey—I'll be moving out of here at the end of July, so I'll face Korea's hottest month, August, in my new residence near Daecheong Station.)


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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

this calls for harsher measures

My Monday students did their much-dreaded pecha-kucha presentations, some of which were quite impressive, and some of which sucked, as is only natural. There were a few "A"s, many "B"s, many "C"s, and even a few "D"s, but... the students' overall grades remained unsinkable. I still have way too many "A"s in that class. (That said, kudos to the one girl who did an amazing presentation: she got a well-deserved 15 out of 15 points. She spoke naturally, didn't rely on notes, used humor, timed her talk perfectly to match the auto-advance rhythm of the PowerPoint slides, had excellent projection and comprehensible grammar and diction... you really couldn't have asked for better.)

Because I have the kids' grades on a Google Drive spreadsheet, I can run the hypotheticals, and I have. If, on the final exam, everyone gets a 15 out of 20 (roughly a midrange "C" at 75%), the class will end up with 5 "A"s, which is one too many. If everyone were to score a 10 out of 20 (an obvious "F"), there would be no "A"s, but there would still be 13 "B"s, which also breaks the curve, as no more than 70% of the class may receive "A"s and/or "B"s, and my Monday class has 15 students. Ideally, I need to craft a final exam that will allow a tiny number of students to scrape by with "A"s while the rest of the class fails spectacularly. (If everyone were to get a 5 out of 20, I'd at long last have 10 "C"s and no "A"s, which would definitely fit the curve while simultaneously pissing everyone off.)

I've already warned the kids that the upcoming final exam will be harder than the midterm was, even though it'll be in exactly the same format. I'm also going to quietly not mention the fact that they have one more required consultation with me. We'll see who forgets to do the consult, and when he forgets, he'll be docked three points from the final grade (this is all written on the syllabus I'd handed out during Week 1). It's dirty pool, but what I don't want to be left with is a class full of high grades, which will force me to push some "A"s down to "B"s and maybe even "C"s.

I know what I should have done this semester: I should have required the teams to turn in comprehensive lesson plans each week for their round robins. Inevitably, somebody would have forgotten to turn a plan in, and that person would have been docked homework points for his negligence.

For my Monday class, though, what I'm very likely going to do is this: I'll tally up the grades at the end of the semester. If I have more than 4 "A"s, fine. If my "A+B" number is over 10, that's fine, too. I'm just going to tally the grades up, give "A"s to the top 4 kids (if only 3 students have "A"s, then I won't give more than 3 "A"s), give out 6 "B"s, then make the rest "C+"es if the kids actually deserve a "C+" or higher. And that's about the best I can do, and that's likely what I'm going to do for my Wednesday and Thursday classes as well.

Man, I hate the curve. It makes grades completely worthless.


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Monday, May 18, 2015

the reason for the season

On our solar calendar, May 25 (next Monday) is a national holiday this year: it's the Buddha's Birthday, known in Korean as bucheonim oshin-nal or in Sino-Korean as seokga-tanshin-il. (The seokga comes from the Indian Shakya, which is the tribe that Gautama hailed from: Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni.) The Great Teacher's birthday, which is always on April 8 of the lunar calendar, of course means lotus lanterns—or the cheap commercial equivalent, at least. Dongguk is an explicitly Buddhist university, so it's only natural that the campus might become especially festive around this time of year.

This first picture is of a building across from where I teach. I know it mainly as the building that has both a Shinhan Bank ATM (where I pay my gas and electric bills... yes, bill-paying can be done via ATM) and a Holly's Coffee, a Starbucks clone that I never visit, just as I never visit Starbucks if I can help it.


Click on the photo below to enlarge:


The above photo is of the jonghap gangeui-dong (something of an all-purpose lecture facility; the term jonghap means "integrated," i.e., everything you need is gathered all together there), which is the building in which I teach. It's mostly offices and classrooms. All four of my classes are in Room 209, the room in which your worst fears are realized.

Below is a pic of the Bio Building, slightly uphill from the Holly's Coffee building and across from the rear entrance of my building. This building houses my department's Ilsan-branch office, and it also has the lone, overworked photocopier with which I may make free photocopies. There's a copy center in the building where I teach, but I have to pay 50 won (about 5 cents) per page for copies.


So Siddhartha is the reason for the season. I'm off next Monday, which means I have a four-day weekend coming up. My buddy JW and his wife want me to come visit them; JW's wife, who is normally somewhat shy and quiet and prone to speaking in Korean, was a bit drunk this past weekend, and she wouldn't stop telling me—in English—how much she wanted me to come over, play with her kids, and teach her how to cook Western-style chicken the way I did back in late March. So I now know JW's wife is hilarious when drunk. One of the five Buddhist precepts is to abstain from taking intoxicants of any sort, so I'll be curious to see how she is this weekend. At a guess, she won't give a damn about the precepts: she's Catholic, and what's a Catholic if not an avid drinker?


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Sunday, May 17, 2015

L.A. galbi festival

I should have gone to Costco to get my galbi for cheaper (if for nothing else, Costco is a great place to buy meat and cheese in bulk), but I was impatient, and I'd just received my salary from Dongguk, so I grabbed a large and expensive package of L.A. galbi (thick-cut Korean short ribs) from the local store and brought it home, along with a mess of pre-made banchan (side dishes). I tossed the meat into a marinade (described in a previous post) and left it in the fridge to soak up all the goodness overnight and well into the following day. Around 6PM today, I took the meat out, heated the oven up, cooked a batch of glutinous rice (chap-ssal), laid out my banchan, and broiled my galbi to desired doneness. My one great worry was that I'd lose track of time and let the meat burn to a crisp, but that didn't happen.* Things got a bit steamy, but that was all.

What follows are some pics of the prep and the final meal. I apologize if the pics are smaller than usual; the lighting was poor and my phone's camera had trouble focusing. Suffice it to say that I gorged myself on meat, and have plenty left over for a couple more meals.


Click on the pic below to enlarge it:






I had bought the galbi to celebrate my—our—success at obtaining a crucial document in my quest to acquire an F-4 visa. Normally, I wouldn't spend so much on myself, but this weekend, with a recent triumph and with the Dongguk semester so close to an end, I thought, Why the hell not? Now it's back to the grind.

My only complaint about the end result is that the galbi was a trifle salty, probably because I had let the meat sit for so long in a marinade made powerful by the use of Coca Cola, a potion that is strong in the dark side of the Force, and infamous for its penetrative, muscle-fiber-destroying potency. Soy sauce is naturally salty, so with the Coke's help, it got deep into the meat. To counteract the saltiness, I made a sweet glaze from the drippings of several batches of broiled meat; that improved things greatly. Next time around, I plan to use a lot less soy sauce—or I'll marinate the meat for a much shorter amount of time.



*My studio has no fire alarm (this is, after all safety-conscious Korea, where we overload ferries and let innocent schoolchildren suffer the consequences), so it was up to me to make sure nothing got out of hand. Nothing did, which is good: I'm pretty sure that there are fire alarms in my building's hallways. And if one alarm sounds, I'm betting they all sound.


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imminent arrival

Bathing in a luscious marinade of soy sauce, Coca Cola (the ajumma's weapon of choice—an effective tenderizer), sesame oil, chili flakes, ginger powder, brown sugar, fresh-ground garlic, and green onion, my LA-style galbi (Korean short ribs) has been meditating quietly inside two large plastic containers in my fridge since midnight. In a few more hours, I'll pull the meat out, turn on my lovely oven's broiler, and broil up a meal fit for royalty.


Expect photos later this evening.





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Saturday, May 16, 2015

a very good Friday

I spent a good chunk of my Friday out with my #3 Ajeossi and Ajumma, who represent the seriously Christian branch of my Korean relatives (my #4 Ajeossi and his family are Buddhist; my #1 Ajeossi has no particular church, temple, or tradition; my #2 Ajeossi is a Christian convert, but his conversion was mainly for reasons of business networking; I don't think he's that serious or committed). Several weeks ago, we agreed to meet on the 15th. Since Friday is normally Ajumma's day to set up the floral decorations at her church (a devoted church member, she does this weekly), we agreed to meet at Geumho Presbyterian Church—a church, and a neighborhood, that I hadn't visited in nearly twenty years.

The walking route to the church from Geumho Station was a bit fuzzy in my head. I knew I needed to go out of Exit 1, from the station, then walk downhill, eventually jogging left into an alley. The church, though fairly large, was one of those tucked-away houses of worship that was hard to see from the main street. At one point, I stopped and asked some old grandmothers for directions; they pointed me onward, telling me to cross the street at the large T intersection and jog over to the alley. I trudged on, eventually finding the church right where I had left it nearly two decades previous.

My first order of business was to take a dump, so I ducked into the church's restroom—much improved since the '90s—and texted Ajumma while I was sitting on the throne and muttering "Thank you, Jesus" in reference to the shiny, clean, up-to-date plumbing. (I had feared a single squat toilet, which is all the church had back in the Clinton era.)

Ajumma texted back that I should meet her in the church's upper sanctuary (it's a split-level church, which allows for simultaneous worship services). Ajeossi saw me before I entered the main church; he was holding a pair of pruning shears and trimming some flowers. After paying my respects, I went inside the upper sanctuary and waved to Ajumma, who responded with a cheerful greeting in English. She doesn't speak much English, but she sometimes feels the urge to speak the foreigner's tongue whenever her outlander relative makes an appearance. Ajumma was obviously still busy with her flower-arranging, so I let her and her companion, an unfamiliar lady who kept staring at me, continue working.

It had been years since I'd actually been inside a church. (Back when I was in Hayang, I meditated once or twice at the local Buddhist temple, but in terms of ambiance, a temple isn't a church.) I'd almost forgotten what the atmosphere could be like. I sat in a pew and stared around me, aiming for a bit of serenity. Unfortunately, a loud shop vacuum was blasting away in the back of the sanctuary, so silence wasn't an option. Eventually, Ajumma delegated the rest of the flower-arranging to her companion and said "Let's go!" to me. We walked out, met Ajeossi, walked down to the street, and found the family car. Ajumma tsked at the poor parking job that Ajeossi had done. He pulled the car out onto the street, away from the wall it had been next to, so we could pile in.

And then we were off.

We drove all the way down to Yongin to visit the local district office.* Our purpose: to see whether it would be possible to obtain a document called, informally, a hojeok (i.e., a family register), and known more formally as a jaejeok-deungbon.** We had to stop at one point to ask for directions—this despite the fact that Ajeossi has a very nice dashboard GPS that he obviously doesn't know how to use. I used my own cell-phone GPS to confirm the directions that Ajumma got from a stranger in a store's parking lot, and we found the district office of Mohyeon-myeon, my maternal grandfather's birthplace, with no problem.

As we were walking toward the administrative building's entrance, Ajumma said she'd prayed to God that we'd be able to obtain the hojeok here, on the first try, without having to be sent to another office. I nodded; I didn't pray, but my own fingers were crossed. Ajeossi parked the car while Ajumma and I made our way inside.

The staffer we met was probably the blandest, most nondescript-looking Korean woman I've ever seen. She had "BUREAUCRAT" written all over her, and I suspected from the start that she'd be trouble. Sure enough, our exchange stopped almost immediately when the lady told us we'd need to fill out a form to request the hojeok. We filled out as much as we could, putting both my mother's name and my maternal grandfather's name on the form. We had very, very little to go on, however, and this proved to be a problem for our functionary, who spent nearly an hour telling us, in various ways, that what we wanted wasn't obtainable, and/or that we'd need to consult with a different office and come back.

The battle of wills went on and on, but in the end, Ajumma and Ajeossi wore the woman down. She called an outside source and had several back-and-forths with all three of us (once she realized I spoke Korean, she looped me into the conversation as well). Per my Golden Goose boss's advice, I wrote my mother's birthdate in serial-number form to show the bureaucrat that I had half of Mom's jumin-deungnok-beonho, i.e., her citizen's registration number, a rough analogue to an American Social Security number. I gave the lady my birth certificate, which showed Mom's name in English (as "Suk Ja Kim," with race/color listed as "Oriental"), as a way of proving that, yes, I was related to the woman in question. At several points, Ajumma repeated that my mother had passed away, and that "we're the only ones he [Kevin] has," as a gentle way of pressuring the woman into doing her duty. At another point, the woman said she needed some sort of proof that Mom had been born on the date we claimed she'd been born on; I rifled through my smart phone's email archives and dug up a PNG file of Mom's Sookmyung University ID card, on which was written, mirabile dictu, her birth date.

The woman finally relented after we had given her enough information to go on, and she printed out the much-coveted jaejeok-deungbon. Before giving it to us, however, she quizzed us as to my mother's relatives' names. I again dug into my cell-phone archives and supplied the name of my maternal grandmother: Lee Soon-nam. My Uncle John in Texas—Mom's little brother—had supplied my grandparents' names earlier.

When I look back on Friday's efforts, I see that, a bit like how it is with The Avengers, it took the efforts of all three of us to pierce the nearly unyielding wall of bureaucracy. I admit that, about twenty minutes into this frustrating process, I was ready to throw in the towel and walk away. The staffer wasn't nasty, but she also didn't seem inclined to help—at least not initially. Luckily, Ajumma in particular was dogged in her pursuit of our mission objective (Ajeossi is more soft-spoken, but he kept after the woman, too, in his own way), and I can say with assurance that, had I tried to obtain the hojeok on my own, I would have failed miserably. I also congratulate myself for piping up at crucial moments—providing Mom's birth date, calling up her old college ID, and confirming her mother's name.

The document, when printed out, ran several pages and cost us, in the end, only W1,000—not even a dollar. Ajumma, who had shown persistence without resorting to any of the stereotypical ajumma-style tactics (shouting, bullying, grandstanding, etc.), made a special effort to thank the lady. She hung around the office to have a different set of documents printed out for her own purposes; she later told me and Ajeossi that her documents had cost W2,000, but she gave the lady a W5,000 bill and told her to keep the change.

We drove back into Seoul. Right before Ajeossi dropped me off at a Line 3 station, I thanked both him and Ajumma profusely, telling them how stressed I'd been about obtaining this document, and how relieved I was that we had, in the end, gotten it on the first try. I made sure to say that none of this would have been possible without their help; Ajumma said, "Of course—we're family," and that was that. Both Ajumma and I got out of the car: I had to walk down into the bowels of the subway station, but Ajumma said she wanted to go get some exercise at the park across the street. As Fridays go, this rates as one of the best Fridays I've had so far this year.

At the same time, however, I'll note with some annoyance that it really shouldn't take so much concentrated effort to obtain a damn document. Although we left that district office feeling a sense of victory, it's fair to ask why we should have to feel any accomplishment at all about what should, in the end, be a very simple, straightforward task. How many "Kim Suk-ja"s were born on May 4, 1943? At a guess, only one. Mom's file should have been easy to find—assuming the database was structured logically.

Doubtless there are reasons why the lady at the counter initially balked at helping us. Human psychology is such that we tend to become territorial, the kings and queens of our own little dunghills (witness my own snippy behavior toward uppity commenters on my blog). But people who work in bureaucracies need to be trained to remember—as my Golden Goose boss says—they they're there to serve, not to dictate. I've had similar problems with some of the office assistants at the universities I've worked at: they forget who's higher on the totem pole and act as if they hold authority that they don't actually possess.

But I'm not worried about the intricacies of human psychology right now. I'm just happy to have completed the second of three crucial steps that need to be taken to obtain my F-4 visa. I already have my birth certificate; I now have my hojeok; lastly, I need Mom's naturalization papers, and to obtain those, I need to speak with Uncle Sam, the Great and Powerful.




*My friend Young Chun told me this wasn't necessary: the relevant document could have been picked up anywhere. Still, the trip was worthwhile.

**Again, Young was the one who told me the proper Korean name for the document.


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Friday, May 15, 2015

Ave, John!

John McCrarey writes an excellent post that makes the case for people who just want to sit down and have a reasonable discussion instead of being called racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted/oppressive. The post's punchline:

The point is when people actually talk to each other as opposed to at each other, it often turns out that we are not as far apart as it may otherwise seem.

I used to have a strong interest in the dynamics of dialogue, especially interreligious dialogue. Whatever happened to that version of me?


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Thursday, May 14, 2015

a day with the rellies

I'm out with relatives tomorrow. We're going on a quest to obtain—I hope—a document informally known as a hojeok,* i.e., a family register. Slowly, painfully, I'm piecing together the paperwork I need in order to switch from my current E-1 "professor" visa to an F-4 "dongpo" visa, i.e., a visa for people with Korean heritage. An F-4 would free me up in many ways: I wouldn't have to be paranoid about working multiple jobs, for one thing, and I'd never have to be tied down to a sponsor/employer again. F-4s also require renewal only once every two years, which would halve the amount of bureaucratic agony I normally go through. Employment prospects would also open wide.

Assuming we're successful in our quest for the legendary hojeok, the next step for me will be to track down my mother's naturalization papers—proof that she became an American citizen. While it's possible that my father knows where those papers are, he and I aren't on speaking terms, which pretty much closes off that avenue. I'm planning to contact the US government directly. The old Immigration and Naturalization Bureau has now become the USCIS: US Citizenship and Immigration Services. I'm sure it's the same clunky, labyrinthine bureaucracy, though, and there's a good chance that obtaining the desired documents will mean coming to the office in person—something I can't do until I can afford a plane ticket. I sense that I'm going to have to ask my brothers to help out with this part of the process.

If all goes according to plan, I ought to have all the documents I need before July, and I ought to have transitioned to the Golden Goose, full-time, by the beginning of August. But it all begins with tomorrow's day trip to a district office to obtain the hojeok. Fingers crossed.



*The "eo" in hojeok should be pronounced somewhere between an "aw" and an "uh" sound: somewhere between "ho-juck" and "ho-jawk."


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the tension mounts

I gave my students a brief demo of a truncated pecha-kucha presentation, showing them tricks for how to keep time when their PowerPoint slides are set to auto-advance every twenty seconds (have a sense of your slides' content and for how much you can say in twenty seconds; use the second hand on the wall clock to keep time; make it easier on yourself by starting your spiel the moment the second hand is pointing straight up at the 12). I also showed them how they could "cheat" by sticking a little "next" sign in the bottom-right corner of each slide as a reminder of what the next slide's content would be (e.g., "Next: European Food").

My 3PM students "ooh"ed and "aah"ed appropriately as they watched me transition smoothly from slide to slide without a hitch, but they nodded thoughtfully after I explained the tricks I'd been using. I also showed them, once again, Canadian Shawn Kanungo's excellent pecha-kucha (see it here on YouTube), which is a great resource for learning about things like timing, humor, and how to compose a proper PowerPoint slide (i.e., not only a few words per image).

I also explained the brutal scoring system in detail: 10 points to be awarded by the teacher, 5 points to be awarded by the students. The kids took it all in stride. I can only hope they've prepped well (I know that many, if not most, of them have waited until the last moment to prep their presentations... the young never learn from the mistakes of the old).

We'll see what happens, I suppose. Next week is going to wreak havoc on most of my students' averages—not because I want this to happen, but because the students' grades must fit a school-sanctioned curve. The students are fully aware of this, of course, so naturally they're uneasy. I'm thinking to myself, though, that it might be better to pull everyone too low: it's easier to raise grades, at the end, than to cut grades down.


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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jeff Sessions on the Korean FTA: raw deal

Thanks to a post from Malcolm, I was led to Republican senator Jeff Sessions's website, on which he is displaying a letter (an open letter now, I suppose) to President Obama that asks for more transparency. Malcolm was making a particular point in linking to Sessions's website, but I couldn't fail to notice some Korea-relevant text inside Session's letter to Obama. To wit:

The U.S. ran a record $51.4 billion trade deficit in March, the [highest level] recorded in six years. This is especially concerning since assurances were made from the Administration that the recent South Korea free trade deal would “increase exports of American goods by $10 billion to $11 billion.” But, in fact, American domestic exports to Korea increased by only $0.8 billion, an increase of 1.8 percent, while imports from Korea increased $12.6 billion, an increase of 22.5 percent. Our trade deficit with Korea increased $11.8 billion between 2011 and 2014, an increase of 80.4 percent, nearly doubling in the three years since the deal was ratified.

Not good, although the disparity between Korea's FTA gains and America's is also due, in large part, to how Koreans do business—worthy of a post in itself.


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The Wind That Wins

"Just blow it out your ass," she said
And so I did: right on her head
I grunted, pushed with all my heart
And gave birth to a massive fart
That fried my lover's fulsome hair
Her self-respect blew everywhere
But that was not the end of it—
My ass moved on to greater shit:
It belched tornadoes and typhoons
It broadcast gerbils and baboons
A cornucopia sublime
An unrelenting storm of slime
It vomited a cable car
It hiccuped out a neutron star
It cannoned out a galaxy
It sired seven deities
And finally, my ass did pause
From violating Nature's laws
When all was calm and all was right
I looked into the starry night
I saw the cosmos I had made
And just for once, was not afraid
But then, like terror from within
A distant rumble, then a din
My heart did beat with mounting dread
I felt a pounding in my head
For know this: after every fart
There comes a Worm, whose frightful art
Is overwhelming man and beast
And spreading shite from west to east
It thundered now, began to boom
The shart that meant the planet's doom
I'd birthed a cosmos from my ass
But now I knew: this, too, shall pass
So this is where I say goodbye
The Worm, the dreaded Worm, is nigh!


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