Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 blog highlights

It sucks that I'm working on New Year's Day, but why let that stop me from writing a quickie 2018 retrospective? Here are some posts, from the past twelve months, of which I'm at least a little bit proud. Enjoy this quick survol of the literary mischief I made over the past year.

JANUARY
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi": review and meditation (warning: long!)
Donald Trump, one year on

FEBRUARY
the cognitive mesh
Korea hates a free market
the road to hell

MARCH
1270
(Update: David Hogg has been accepted into Harvard. You know strings were pulled.)
what red-pilling looks like
(mainly for the comments, not the post itself)

APRIL
stupid, useless, time-wasting tests... but Oh So Korean
exactly one year ago today

MAY
people have no clue what an angel looks like
very distracting

JUNE
flip-flopping attitudes
"the wages of sin is death": Christ, that grammar

JULY
the reaming of James Gunn

AUGUST
the problem with John Cook Deli Meats
why knowing (some) Korean can be helpful
linguistic meditation: "...all the things!"
birfday linner/dunch at Chima

SEPTEMBER
dumb fucks
Incheon Walk 3: equipment review
punched in the gut
"fondue" with Almazan Kitchen

OCTOBER
seeing racism where there is none
a brief Saturday walk
#3 Ajumma's paintings

NOVEMBER
media manipulation
this almost fucking killed me
Est-ce que vous avez un pochon?

DECEMBER
"What Is Reality?"—ambivalent but intrigued
eentellesteeng nyu-ju ahlticaws
civilizational collapse and the prophecy of Michael Crichton
the politics of "yes" and "no"
a many-worlds question for my philosophical readers (read the comments)



karma's a bitch

I'm on record saying I don't much like TV chef Andrew Zimmern. When I wrote about him years ago, I noted his rudeness toward foreign cultures as a major reason for my dislike. Well, call me a prophet for having put my finger on his central problem: Zimmern is now in trouble for being rude to the Chinese owners of Chinese restaurants in the States.

“Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern has been axed from prime time on the Travel Channel amid the controversy over his assertion that Chinese food in the Midwest is being served in “horses--t restaurants.”

The celebrity chef’s “Bizarre Foods” juggernaut franchise and sister show, “The Zimmern List,” have been bumped by network owner Discovery, Inc. into a graveyard rotation slot on Saturday mornings to run their course, Page Six has confirmed.

Filming has stopped on both shows midseason, sources tell us, and is not expected to continue further.

The move comes after the James Beard Award-winning chef offended the Asian-American community in comments to promote his Midwestern Chinese restaurant chain by saying: “I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horses--t restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.”

His comments sparked outrage, with Ruth Tam writing in the Washington Post, “[He] has the noble cause of ‘saving’ white people from eating bad Chinese food. When Chinese people make Americanized Chinese food for white people, Zimmern calls it ‘horses--t.’ But when he does it, it’s ‘unique.’ ”

Eater also fumed, “Zimmern simultaneously denigrates Philip Chiang...and elevates himself to the position of being the person capable of opening middle America’s eyes to the myriad regional cuisines of a vast, diverse culture.”

Eating humble pie, Zimmern responded, “I am completely responsible for what I said and I want to apologize to anyone who was offended.”

It was only a matter of time before Zimmern's mouth was going to get him in trouble.



"What Is Reality?"—ambivalent but intrigued

A regressed part of me, some remnant of my pre-teen years, still hungers for quality science programming along the lines of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" TV series, which was a staple when I was growing up. I haven't watched any of the Neil deGrasse Tyson version of the series, but occasionally, on YouTube, I'll see this or that science-ish, science-y program. The one that I've embedded below, by the nonprofit Quantum Gravity Research organization, tackles the heady question, "What is reality?" It's heavy on E8 theory, but it's also the best pop-sci explanation of that theory that I've seen thus far.

There are parts of the episode that I liked, as well as parts I didn't like. I wasn't a fan of the obnoxious ethnic-stereotype cartoons interspersed throughout the 30-minute presentation; those vignettes proved useless in summarizing complex debates among scientists in opposing camps, e.g., those who see reality as quantized (read: pixellated) and those who see reality as a smooth continuum. I also think the program tried too hard to resolve some currently intractable philosophical problems, such as the existence or nonexistence of free will: the simplistic claim is made that the double-slit experiment led to the insight that non-determinism rules the day, thereby leading to the conclusion that free will must exist because the universe is, at bottom, non-deterministic. (This isn't what the double-slit experiment proves at all, and any Philo 101 student will realize that the issue of human freedom is far more complex than that: probabilistic non-determinism is no more a foundation for libertarian free will than determinism is.) I also didn't like how our host, Marion Kerr, seems to manifest in three primary modes: Crazy Woman (covered in string, bashing a clock with a hammer, etc.), Ethereal Woman (bathed in sunlight and lens flares, standing in the blowing wind, communing with nature, etc.), and Professor (standing in classrooms, often in front of chalkboards). I guess it's meant to be entertaining, but I'd have been fine with seeing Ms. Kerr in a Normal Human Being mode.

The episode is about a half-hour long. Here it is:


Science is at its best answering questions of What? How? When? and Where? It's at its worst when it tries to get at Why?—which is the province of philosophy and religion, and I came away thinking that, if the E8 lattice is, in fact, the fundamental structure of reality, that still doesn't answer the question of why the universe manifests that way. The episode gets dangerously close to advocating a form of panpsychism, but doesn't seem quite ready to commit to that. There's also some flirtation with the simulation hypothesis, but with no mention of its biggest modern advocate, Nick Bostrom. The weirdly atemporal "causality" that the episode espouses, sort of a mishmash of a B-theory of time and Buddhist intercausality (especially Hua-yen Buddhism, with the E8 lattice as an analogue for the Jewel Net of Indra), makes me suspect that Quantum Gravity Research might not be totally legitimate science. Then again, the host didn't come out and actually tie any of her information in to anything New Age-y, so perhaps the episode remains more or less within the bounds of seriousness. I need to chew on this some more.


ADDENDUM: this video, also by Quantum Gravity Research, is a bit more serious in tone and delves into E8 theory somewhat more deeply, while also repeating some of the basic concepts (like quasicrystals) mentioned in the video embedded above.



Sunday, December 30, 2018

on appreciating bread

Down the road from my flat in London was a health food store which sold real wholemeal loaves, brought round from some central point of manufacture and sold at vast expence to those who needed their bread to taste of bread. That is where, in my unsettled urban days, I bought my bread, since a loaf, for me, must pass the meat test: does the bread of your sandwich out-taste the meat? The MacDonald bap is designed to fail this test. It is a gustatory softness, against which the burger stands out like a pile of dog-shit on a satin cushion. Real bread is never background but always foreground in the battle for attention. It is both a staple and a luxury, a means of survival, and a cause of celebration. It is a universal food and also a universal symbol of food and of the earth's kindness in providing it. Bread, like wine, is a sign of settlement, the first and most important result of the agricultural way of life. Hence its significance in the Old Testament, and its final apotheosis in the Christian Eucharist, in which bread becomes the sacramental presence of God Himself.
—Roger Scruton, News from Somewhere: On Settling
(found here, with thanks to Michael Gilleland)

—Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential



gate gate paragate

I've just closed my LinkedIn account. With one more potential time sink gone, my divorce from social media continues. Only Gab is left, and as things stand, I don't go there very often. If I start hearing about security problems with Gab, I'll quit that service, too. This feels rather liberating, even though LinkedIn has never really consumed my attention.



Saturday, December 29, 2018

Kitchen Confidential

I've been doing something I'd never done before: listening to an audiobook. In this case, that book was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain—the book that put Bourdain on the map. Fortunately for us Bourdain fans, the book was read aloud by the man himself. It's a nearly seven-hour, twenty-three-minute ride, and I listened to it in chapter-long chunks over the course of a week, but I must say: I can now understand why people listen to podcasts. I'm not really a fan of podcasts and audiobooks, but that could simply be because I haven't heard the right voice or voices. In life, Bourdain was a natural raconteur, but not the annoying kind who hijacks conversations and traps everyone with a cheerful-yet-interminable narrative about something of no consequence. As someone whose career overlapped in many ways with that of journalists, Bourdain was also an excellent listener; he would only hold forth at length if you, the interlocutor, had ceded the floor to him. And that's what you do when listening to an audiobook: you yield to the raconteur. Although it's obvious that Bourdain, in this audiobook, is reading prose and not speaking naturally (the man wasn't known as an actor), the narrative takes on a soothing flow, and the words are structured in such a way as to evoke, quite clearly, the rough life of a typical professional cook who eventually becomes a chef.

I have no idea how long the following audio/video will remain on YouTube; uploading the entire book is doubtless a copyright violation, but I'm thankful that I came across this audiobook and listened to it. I can't say that it changed my life or anything so deep, but it did give me a bit more insight into Bourdain himself. I'm embedding the audiobook here; if YouTube does yank this entry, you'll be able to see that right away, here on my blog:


More than two-thirds of the way through the book is a passage about a restaurant worker who got fired, then hanged himself. This part was a bit eerie, given that Bourdain eventually hanged himself as well. But that bit of creepiness aside, Kitchen Confidential is a show-don't-tell tome full of life-wisdom for everyone, no matter that person's actual profession or vocation. Give it a listen if you have the time to do so.





17°F (-10°C) ass-rippingly cold

I took a nice, long, 26K-step walk Friday night, breaking away from my usual path to go east along the Han River—something I've done a few times over the past week as I continue to contemplate walking to Paldang Dam and beyond. Things were fine until I was at the river itself: a constant wind was blowing, bringing a wind chill with it. My phone was telling me the temperature was 17 degrees Fahrenheit, or -10 Celsius—about 23 degrees Fahrenheit colder than it is in a standard refrigerator. I was fairly well bundled up, except for my legs, because I was wearing my standard, paper-thin hiking pants—the pants I wear almost every day (I do wash them twice a week). But the main problem was how the relentless wind was chilling my forehead, right through my knit winter hat. I was in actual pain because of the cold; I don't know how to calculate wind chill, but the bones of my skull were telling me that the time had come to turn around and go back to my place. Eventually, my return path took me inland, away from the river and the wind, which was a relief. I'm now left to wonder whether I need to buy a hoodie or a second hat in order better to protect my forehead from the harsh elements.

Here's a pic of me with my face mask pulled partway down:


I survived the walk, and I gained a great deal of practical knowledge from pushing myself that way. I now know that walks in this sort of cold weather are still feasible, but they'd be made a bit more comfortable with better headgear and, possibly, an extra layer of clothing to cover my legs. I can solve the latter problem by going home and pulling on my sweatpants, but the headgear problem will probably require me to purchase something.



Friday, December 28, 2018

in which I bombard you with random, funky words

chyron
trichiliocosm
gravamen
palimpsest
aleatory
pennate
noumenal
stochastic
trochaic
perichoresis

A couple of the above words reflect my religious-studies background. Can't be helped.



more Jon Miller

Here's Jon Miller on things CNN simply made up:


And here's Miller on why Donald Trump, whatever his flaws, is decidedly not Hitler:




getting closer to saying goodbye to LinkedIn

In an earlier post, I had talked about my slow-but-steady divorce from social media, noting that I was still partial to LinkedIn. Commenter Justin Yoshida obliquely reminded me that LinkedIn has been used by bad actors before, making it a compromised medium as well. The service is now tainted in my eyes, and I'm seriously considering leaving. Today's news pushes me even closer to the cliff's edge:

IF YOU ONLY GET YOUR NEWS FROM CNN, YOU HAVE NO IDEA THIS STORY HAPPENED: “A left-wing billionaire gave $100,000 towards an online misinformation campaign that mimicked Russian interference operations — but if you only get your news from CNN, then you have no idea that happened. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, an early investor in Facebook, was behind a six-figure misinformation campaign that involved falsely linking Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore to Russian influence operations during Alabama’s December 2017 special election.”

Related: Trump Should Channel Teddy Roosevelt And Bust Some Trusts.
So! LinkedIn's co-founder has been involved in misinformation. Dick. I may leave LinkedIn in a week or so. Will be sad to do so, but the cosmos seems to be speaking pretty clearly.



the left is never racist, right?

Jon Miller is a black conservative, and like so many black conservatives, he has to put up with a ton of racist shit that spews from the left. Not only does he get the standard "nigger" and "Uncle Tom" slurs, but he also has to endure the subtextual racism that comes from the assumption that black people can't be conservative. I've subscribed to Miller's YouTube channel; he's yet another branch in the ever-ramifying tree that is the alt-media, and I wish him well. Here he is reading some of the hate mail he's recently gotten:






Thursday, December 27, 2018

good luck, buddy

A 71-year-old Frenchman is planning to cross the Atlantic in a large barrel:

A 71-year-old Frenchman set sail across the Atlantic on Wednesday in a barrel-shaped orange capsule, hoping to reach the Caribbean within three months thanks to ocean currents alone.

"The weather is great -- I've got a swell of one metre and I'm moving at two or three kilometres an hour," Jean-Jacques Savin told AFP by telephone after setting off from El Hierro in Spain's Canary Islands.

"For the time being my capsule is behaving very, very well and I've got favourable winds forecast until Sunday."

Savin had worked on his vessel for months in the small shipyard of Ares on France's southwest coast.

Measuring three metres (10 feet) long and 2.10 metres across, it is made from resin-coated plywood, heavily reinforced to resist waves and potential attacks by orca whales.

Inside the capsule, which weighs 450 kilograms (990 pounds) when empty, is a six-square-metre living space which includes a kitchen, sleeping bunk and storage.

A porthole in the floor allows Savin to look at passing fish.

A former military parachutist who served in Africa, Savin has also worked as a pilot and a national park ranger.

He has stowed away a block of foie gras and a bottle of Sauternes white wine for New Year's Eve, along with a bottle of red Saint-Emilion for his 72nd birthday on January 14.

Savin hopes currents will carry him naturally to the Caribbean without the need for a sail or oars -- "maybe Barbados, although I'd really like it to be a French island like Martinique or Guadaloupe," he quipped.

"That would be easier for the paperwork and for bringing the barrel back."

Lisez le reste.

Meanwhile, American Colin O'Brady has successfully completed a solo, unassisted crossing of Antarctica on foot. In about two days, British adventurer Captain Louis Rudd, 49, will become the second person to perform this feat. Rudd and O'Brady started in the same spot at the same time, but trekked separately, with O'Brady, 33, eventually pulling ahead.



Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"Bumblebee": two-paragraph review

I saw the very first Transformers movie when it had originally come out in 2007. I've seen none of the Michael Bay films since that first one, mainly because the preview trailers and ensuing movie reviews convinced me that each successive movie was bigger, louder, and stupider, often with incoherent storylines. With 2018's "Bumblebee," the scope and scale of this robotic action-adventure series have been pared down to a simple story along the lines of "E.T." or "The Iron Giant," the two movies with which "Bumblebee" is being most frequently compared. Directed by Travis Knight (of the fantastic and deeply moving "Kubo and the Two Strings"), "Bumblebee" is the story of Autobot B-127, a fighter in the civil war against the evil Decepticons. The war on planet Cybertron has tilted in favor of the Decepticons, and Autobot leader Optimus Prime, aware of the need to abandon Cybertron, sends B-127 to Earth to prep the planet as a staging area for the next step in the robots' civil war. The one problem is that the Decepticons must not learn that any Autobots are coming to Earth: such information would mean the end of the Autobots and, very likely, the end of all human life. But some Decepticons are already in the area; one of them—Blitzwing—ambushes B-127 on Earth, ripping out his voice modulator and crashing his memory core before B-127 manages to destroy Blitzwing. Damaged and in need of self-repair, B-127 transforms into a VW Beetle and ends up in a junk shop run by the uncle of teenager Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie's father died of a heart attack some time ago, and she's still suffering the aftereffects of that death. Meanwhile, Charlie's mother and little brother Otis seem to have moved on, and Charlie's neighbor Memo (Jorge David Lendborg, Jr.) is quietly pining for Charlie. Uncle Hank eventually gives the VW Bug to Charlie as a birthday gift, and it's not long after that that Charlie discovers her new car is actually a Transformer. Meanwhile, a military team called Sector 7, led by Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena), has picked up signs of extraterrestrial activity and is now pursuing Bumblebee—Charlie's nickname for B-127—with the help of two Decepticons who have come to Earth in response to Bumblebee's inadvertent broadcast of a homing beacon. The object of the game thus becomes threefold: (1) get Bumblebee to a safe rendezvous with fellow Autobots, (2) convince the US military that the Decepticons are the true enemy, and (3) prevent the local Decepticons from broadcasting the message to Cybertron that the Autobots are planning to mass on Earth.

"Bumblebee" takes place in 1987, which is the year I graduated from high school. For lovers of 80s nostalgia, especially when it comes to music, this movie is a treasure trove. Without his voice modulator, Bumblebee must find other ways to communicate with Charlie, and he uses a built-in car radio to broadcast songs whose lyrics express his sentiments. Even though I'd generally rather forget the 80s, which I consider a largely embarrassing decade in terms of music and fashion, that's the decade of my most formative years, so I couldn't help but be transported back in time while listening to this movie's soundtrack. The movie skips along at a steady pace and keeps its focus narrowed to just a few human characters, B-127, and the two surviving Decepticons who serve as the story's antagonists. Viewed through a political lens, the movie is brave enough to take the stance that, yeah, every once in a while, the military guy is right about there being an outside threat, and the leftie science geek who serves as the film's "useful idiot" gets what he deserves because he fails to recognize a threat when it's right in front of him. I give "Bumblebee" full props for its overall storytelling, but there were some moments of sloppy screenwriting that could have been resolved with an extra line or two of dialogue. Two examples: (1) Charlie's mom, not knowing that Charlie's VW Beetle is actually a Transformer, takes the family dog and drives the car toward the vet until Charlie catches up on her moped and demands that her mother pull the VW over. The mom does this and scoots over; Charlie then climbs into Bumblebee and drives everyone to the vet... but what becomes of Charlie's moped, which was left stranded on the roadside? (2) There's a moment when the military guys from Sector 7 have Charlie, Memo, and Bumblebee surrounded. Perceiving the threat to Charlie, Bumblebee protectively scoops her up like a robot King Kong and springs away from the cordon, running through the woods in an effort to keep Charlie from harm. But what about poor Memo? It doesn't help matters, in terms of racial politics, that Memo is black. Save the white girl and abandon the black guy, eh, B-127? Charlie could have shouted something to Bumblebee like, "Wait! We can't leave without Memo! We have to go back!" But, no—not a peep from Charlie, who basks in her white privilege as Bumblebee whisks her to safety. Heh. Seriously, I don't often try to read things through a racial lens, but this scriptwriting gaffe was a bit of irresistibly low-hanging fruit. Those problems, aside, I found "Bumblebee" to be a movie with feeling. It brought the nostalgia, even for an 80s-hating hardcase like me, and it told its story with the sort of streamlined efficiency that's largely absent from most of Michael Bay's oeuvre. Bay is listed as an executive producer on this film; that's about as close as he should be allowed to get to the Transformers franchise, which now has a new lease on life thanks to what I assume is an attempt at a reboot.

ADDENDUM: I never explained what a Transformer actually is. It's basically a living, sentient robot that's able to change itself into another sort of machine—usually a car, plane, helicopter, or truck. Here's a classic example:






"Aquaman": review

Most of the reactions I've seen and read for 2018's "Aquaman"—directed by James Wan (of "Saw" fame) and starring Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Willem Dafoe, Temuera Morrison, and Nicole Kidman—converge on the idea that James Wan's film is much of a muchness: there's a lot of movie stuffed into a 143-minute running time. I'd have to agree: "Aquaman" is a sprawling adventure/origin story that contains elements from all sorts of sources: legends like the story of King Arthur and Homer's Odyssey, as well as a whole slew of movies and shows like "Avatar," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Return of the King," "The Abyss," "Game of Thrones," and somewhat conspicuously, "Black Panther." I won't go so far as to say that these multiple sources make for a jumbled and incoherent viewing experience, but I can say with assurance that "Aquaman" doesn't make any effort to hide its variegated pedigree.

Let's get the essentials out of the way: I enjoyed the film. It's far from perfect, and it's often way too loud, but its saving grace is that it doesn't take itself seriously at all. I like movies that have an unself-conscious sense of fun; "The Matrix," i.e., the first movie in that trilogy, comes immediately to mind, and while I can't rank "Aquaman" up there with "The Matrix," I'd say that this Wan/Momoa effort helps, along with "Wonder Woman," to salvage the DCEU brand.

Arthur Curry (Momoa) is the mixed-blood son of human lighthouse-keeper Thomas Curry (Morrison) and Atlantean queen Atlanna (Kidman). Atlanna was betrothed to an Atlantean prince, but she escaped her arranged marriage and came to "the surface world," i.e., our world, the world of dry land and air-breathers. Member of a legendary race and gifted with special powers, Atlanna—whom Thomas found beached by his lighthouse after her escape from the undersea realm—falls in love with Thomas, leading to the birth of young Arthur. Realizing she will be hunted by Atlanteans and not wanting to endanger her son and her lover, Atlanna elects to return to the sea kingdom. Once there, she begets another son: Arthur's pureblood half-brother Orm, who later grows to have grandiose ambitions: the uniting of the seven great undersea kingdoms, and the overthrow of the surface world, which has done nothing but pillage and taint the seas through overfishing and the constant dumping of garbage.

Arthur's childhood is markedly different from Orm's. Growing up with only his father, and without a single thought to a royal destiny despite being the child of royalty, Arthur is taught about life by both his father and the Atlantean teacher/vizier Nuidis Volko (Dafoe); the latter teaches Arthur some of Atlantis' ways and many of Atlantis' martial arts over the years, including a nifty move that turns water itself into a weapon. Arthur is picked on as a kid; in one scene at a large aquarium, a group of boys bullys Arthur until he summons an angry shark to attack the glass right where Arthur and the boys are standing. Arthur's ability to commune with sea life is, it turns out, a long-lost ability last seen ages ago, in King Atlan himself. Think of it as Parseltongue writ large: it's the sort of ability one normally associates with people like Saint Francis of Assisi.

The movie fleshes out the legends and history surrounding the sunken realm of Atlantis; the civilization still thrives underwater, hidden from human view. The various peoples of Atlantis evolved in different directions after the kingdom sank under the sea; some, elf-like, transformed into highly intellectual, literate beings; others evolved into warriors; still others, orc-like, changed into the foul, deep-dwelling beings known as the Trench. Arthur's call to adventure comes in the form of Mera (Heard), daughter of King Nereus (Dolph Fucking Lundgren! riding a warhorse-sized seahorse!), who tells Arthur that, if Orm were to ascend to the throne and become the Ocean Master, the entire world would suffer. Orm has, of course, heard much of Arthur/Aquaman and his various superheroic exploits. Orm hates Arthur because he blames his older half-brother for the death of their mother, Atlanna, who was sentenced to be consumed by the beasts of the Trench for her treasonous behavior. According to Orm, the reason for their mother's execution was that she had dared to have congress with a human, thus producing Arthur, a half-breed abomination. Arthur himself, because he has heard the stories about what befell his mother, feels guilt over her death.

A major subplot involves the pirate David Kane, whose father Jesse dies when Aquaman refuses to save him. Kane, now obsessed with vengeance, conspires with the Atlanteans and becomes Black Manta, armed with fearsome plasma weaponry and enhanced armor. We don't get to see a lot of Black Manta in this film; I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to speculate that the sequel will likely focus on him as the main villain.

When the story finally swings into focus, it's mostly about the question of Khal Drogo's—uh, Arthur's accession to the throne of Atlantis. Orm will need to be defeated, and this will require obtaining King Atlan's original trident, forged from the god-metal of Poseidon himself, and guarded by an ancient, fearsome leviathan/kaiju called the Karathen (voiced by—you won't believe this—Julie Andrews! will wonders never cease?). "Aquaman" suggests that untold vast civilizations are living right under our nose, and technologically, they are far superior to landlubber civilization in every respect. If you've seen the previews, then you know this story is going to culminate in a massive, Lord of the Rings-style battle under the sea, and there'll be plenty of flash and thunder and spectacle along the way.

Let's talk a bit about the flash and spectacle. This is a hugely special-effects-driven movie, so the CGI is front and center. While we're always conscious of the computer graphics, this is made excusable by the fact that this is a comic-book yarn rendered for the big screen, so of course realism goes out the window. At the same time, I'm not sure how well the effects work. Director James Wan is on record saying he filmed the underwater sequences in regular green-screen rooms, then added the water effects later—the bubbles, the floaty hair, the optical distortion and unearthly lighting. The problem with doing this is that it sucks too much realism out of the underwater hand-to-hand combat sequences, such as when Arthur and Orm clash at the Ring of Fire, swinging their unwieldy "quindents" (five-pronged tridents, basically) as if the water doesn't impede the weapons' motion. James Cameron, no stranger to filming underwater, normally solves this problem via the practical-effects route: he builds actual water tanks and pours millions of tiny, floating plastic beads onto the surface of the water so that the actors in the tank will appear to be far deeper under the surface than they are. Wan eschewed this route, and I think the movie suffers a bit because of his choice. The undersea scenes are all undeniably ambitious in scope and as gorgeous as the color palette for "Finding Nemo," but we're constantly aware that the human actors on screen move as smoothly as they do because there isn't actually any water there.

There were other problems as well. For me, as someone unfamiliar with the comics version of Aquaman, I found the various fantastical sea creatures to stretch my imagination far, far beyond mere suspension of disbelief. Dr. Evil's "sharks with frickin' laser beams" are actually part of this aquatic menagerie. Atlanteans ride sharks—and giant seahorses, and mosasaur-like beasts, and other creatures as well. An octopus expertly beats the drums during the Ring of Fire scene. These creatures are far too intelligent for their own good, and it seems to me that, even though only Aquaman has the gift of mental communion with all sea life, the "domesticated" creatures we see are all sentient enough to establish horse/rider relationships with their mounted humanoids. There's way too much super-intelligent biomass in Earth's oceans. And while we're on that topic: our planet's landlubber biologists must be some combination of blind and stupid to have missed the existence of all these creatures and civilizations. I know the National Geographic videos tell us that our world's oceans remain mostly unexplored, but come on: you don't know that there are entire kingdoms out there beneath the waves? And here's another question: if Atlantean technology has evolved to the point that those civilizations are capable of manipulating water, like the angelic aliens in "The Abyss," then shouldn't such civilizations be advanced enough to solve the problem of garbage and chemical filth constantly raining down from the surface? Item 1 on the Atlantean/landlubber détente agenda should be the sharing of such tech.

The script itself has problems, too. The storytelling in this movie is lumbering, muscular, and ponderous, a bit like Jason Momoa himself. The dialogue isn't nearly as witty as it could have been, although I think the principal actors all find ways of delivering their lines so as to strip out much of the corniness while also showing that they're having fun with their roles. Arthur and Mera are, from the get-go, obviously on a romantic collision course, but the script doesn't allow for very much on-screen chemistry. It doesn't help matters that, whenever there are serious or intimate moments, those moments get interrupted by a surprise explosion and flying debris as Atlantean commandos barge in. I have a feeling that those explosions aren't going to age very well upon repeated viewings of the movie; I can see them becoming a satirical trope in an SNL parody sketch.

But the actors really do seem to be enjoying themselves. Amber Heard imbues her Mera with grit and toughness; she saves Aquaman's neck on several occasions, and when the two of them are together, it's evident that he's the heart, but she's the brains: it's the Harry-Hermione pairing we all felt should have happened in the JK Rowling books. Then again, Arthur shows off a facility for foreign languages: we hear him speak Russian, Italian, and something bellicose in a Polynesian language. Temuera Morrison, as Arthur's dad, approaches his role with gruffness and caring; the lighthouse keeper has a fierce love for his son, and he's been desolate ever since his lover Atlanna returned to the sea. Nicole Kidman's Atlanna is grave, graceful, and dignified, but she can become a martial whirlwind of fury when forced to defend her family from Atlantean commandos. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as Black Manta, gets somewhat short shrift from a script that's trying to take on a bit too much, but he makes an impression whenever he's on screen. I also like how the movie explains the goofy look of Black Manta's helmet: there's a reason why it's overlarge and equipped with those huge, buggy eyes. Willem Dafoe, as Volko the mentor/counselor, strikes the right note as the resident Yoda.

Of course, the movie belongs to larger-than-life Jason Momoa. Other reviewers have snarked that the role of Aquaman is written in such a way that Momoa barely has to act at all: the part merely requires the man to be his usual large, ebullient self. There's a cell-phone selfie scene in which this is especially true, with Aquaman initially only grudgingly taking the selfies, then gradually getting into it while making progressively crazier facial expressions. Momoa brings his by-now-familiar physicality to Aquaman, but he doesn't play Aquaman as if he were Superman: Aquaman can be stunned by a grenade and burned by plasma weaponry; he's not utterly invincible, so he's aware of his own mortality. I liked the groundedness of Momoa's performance, which is offset by the silly, slow-motion, hair-tossing poses that Aquaman does for the camera—another sign of how un-serious the movie strives to be. Momoa won't be winning any Oscars for this movie, but I think he's done the best possible job in a perfectly cast role. At this point, I can't imagine anyone else playing Aquaman.

The movie gets points for attempting to tackle some serious themes. Environmental pollution is a huge issue throughout the film; the undersea kingdoms harbor great resentment toward us landlubbers because of our nasty habit of heedlessly tossing all manner of garbage into the oceans. The other theme, which the movie treats with all the subtlety of Michael Bay, is racism: I can't count the number of times the words "half-breed" and "half-blood" come up in conversation. The movie establishes its racial politics in several ways: not only is Aquaman the product of both the sea humanoids and land-based humans, but the roles of Arthur's parents are played by a Maori man (Morrison) and a Caucasian woman (Kidman). Orm, the pureblood Atlantean, is played by lily-white Patrick Wilson, who is no stranger to superhero films, having played Nite Owl II in "Watchmen." The casting of a white villain by Malayasian-Australian director James Wan is doubtless deliberate. (You could counter that the film's other villain is black, indicating a sense of balance in the movie's casting, but the script encourages us to be more sympathetic toward David Kane because he lost his father so tragically. Our sympathy for Orm, meanwhile, is limited.)

All in all, I very much liked "Aquaman," but probably not for the reasons that the cast and crew might want me to like it. I didn't like it for its ponderous, never-ending battle scenes, nor did I like it for the unrealistic special effects (I forgot to mention that the de-aging of Temuera Morrison during the early flashback sequences is pretty awful). I didn't like it for its preachiness about racism and environmentalism. What I did like was the movie's underlying sense of fun: it may have tried to tout some serious themes, but in the end, it was mostly about showing us viewers a good time by taking us on a globe-trotting tour both above and below the surface of the earth. The movie utterly thumbs its nose at science: scenes involving the earth's core and showing us sea creatures whose physiologies are biologically impossible merely add to the movie's unbelievability. But the point, here, isn't to be a lip-puckered scold who nitpicks the lack of realism: it's obvious that Wan & Co. decided, from the outset, to dispense with realism and simply bring us an outsized story about a young man's journey to becoming the next King Arthur. And, in this case at least, that's good enough for me.



Christmas meal and selfie

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

coming soon

I did a two-fer today and saw both "Aquaman" and "Bumblebee," two flawed but entertaining movies with their hearts in the right place. I'm going to be spending the next little while prepping myself a nice dinner, after which I'll settle down, write two reviews, and maybe go for a long, peaceful walk. Sit tight: reviews coming soon.



Merry Christmas!

A Merry Christmas to my five blog readers. Each of my blog posts gets, according to my Blogger analytics, anywhere from 20 to 40 unique visits, on average; some posts get over 100, but that's rare these days. Anyway, those numbers are all thanks to you. Enjoy Christmas and all that the season brings, whether you're Christian or not: gifts, family, and spiked egg nog, although not necessarily in that order. Here's a little tree for your trouble:


And here's one of my favorite Christmas songs from one of my favorite Christmas movies:


Peace, joy, and mindfulness be with you on this day of days.



Monday, December 24, 2018

home alone

Just like the cinematic Kevin from the old movie "Home Alone," I'm home alone this Christmas. Normally, according to tradition, I'd be over at my buddy JW's apartment with his family, distributing Christmas gifts, eating a late dinner made by the Missus, and maybe being forced to sing a Christmas carol or two. This year, though, the invitation never came, so I find myself in my quiet apartment, tapping out this blog post and planning out my tomorrow.

Ah, yes, tomorrow. Tomorrow, I'll be getting up very early to go see a 7:30 a.m. showing of "Aquaman," followed by a 10:40 a.m. showing of "Bumblebee." (That'll knock two movies off my end-of-2018 list.) Most of the rest of the afternoon, and part of the early evening, will be devoted to taking a long, long walk somewhere. I've recently become interested in walking eastward out toward Paldang Dam, so I'll likely do that tomorrow, and again on the 26th, since I also have that day off. The weekend of the 29th and 30th, assuming the weather is fairly dry, I'll try to do the walk I'd wanted to do the other week—all the way out to the dam and back. This coming February, I see that Seollal, the Korean lunar new year, is on February 5, a Tuesday, which means we'll have Monday through Wednesday off—a five-day weekend, perfect for a long, cold walk out past Paldang Dam and over to Yangpyeong, the next significant city along the bike trail after Hanam. Over four of those five days, I can do a Seoul-Yangpyeong-Seoul round-trip walk, which ought to be entertaining. I might not be able to walk long distances during the hottest part of the summer, but I can certainly do so during the winter, as long as I'm not contending with slippery surfaces.

And now, for a bit of random entertainment: an Irishman with a good sense of humor about his own culture explains how you're supposed to compose and sing a true Irish folk song:






Rand-y rampage

Seen on Instapundit: a mini-rant from Rand Paul, one of Trump's closer allies:


No matter what Trump does, the left will position itself against him.* As Styx has repeatedly pointed out: Trump tries to make peace with North Korea, and the left hates him for it. Trump tries to be conciliatory with Russia, and this fuels the bullshit collusion narrative. Trump tries to secure the US/Mexico border—something Bill Clinton stressed the importance of doing in the 1990s—and the Dems say he's being a racist (even though the adjective "Mexican" doesn't designate a race). Keep in mind that many of Trump's stances betray his roots as a New York liberal Democrat. He's against unrestricted free trade, an orientation that had been a Democrat position for decades (Dems are normally pro-union and constantly worried about jobs being farmed out of the country for the sake of "cheap labor," which ties in to Dem accusations that the GOP prefers slave labor). He's for bringing jobs back to America. He's for focusing on workers' rights, and he wants to increase the number of available domestic jobs. Democrat, Democrat, Democrat. And now, contra the neocons and per the old Dem rhetoric, Trump is trying to make the US less interventionist** and, perhaps, more respectful of other countries' sovereignty instead of thinking that we have the right to blow into another nation, topple its government, and install an administration that's supposedly friendlier to American interests. Why can't the current Democrats get on board with this agenda? Because their chosen champion lost, leaving them butthurt and grieving, and they can't scrape together the maturity to be happy that someone at the top is finally implementing their old agenda. To be fair, the GOP was butthurt back in the 90s when Bill Clinton was busily appropriating GOP notions of a balanced budget, etc. Thus swings the pendulum, I guess. The US government is a metaphor for how human beings are resolutely determined to remain as unhappy as possible. Agent Smith was right: humans rail against misery, but in truth, they crave it.

NB: for those eager to point out that the above-noted Dem flip-flopping wouldn't be possible without concomitant GOP flip-flopping, let me say that I agree, but only to a point. The GOP didn't turn in unison; it's internally torn because Trump waddled over and flipped the chessboard. The Never Trumper contingent wants very much to stick to the old ways and not evolve; they see perfectly well where Trump wants to go, and the thought of going down that road terrifies them, probably because that road veers Democrat-ward in terms of major agenda items. Trump may actually need a second term to get more of the iron filings into proper alignment with his neo-Republican vision, but I think it's safe to say that a fundamental fissure exists in the GOP, and it's here to stay.

ADDENDUM: Rand Paul at greater length here.



*This effectively makes leftists into slaves of Trump: since they've chosen to be reactive instead of proactive, they must wait for Trump to act before they can know what to do. This is no different from the stupidity of a rebellious teen who sits whenever his mother stands.

**Then again, many major Democrats were on board with the neocon agenda back in the day. Sure, sure—regime change is just fine... until it's suddenly not.



Sunday, December 23, 2018

am not liking the new "Hellboy" trailer

The Hellboy movies, directed by Guillermo del Toro and based on the quirkily drawn comics by Hellboy mastermind Mike Mignola (writing for Dark Horse Comics—not Marvel, and not DC), are the beloved first and second chapters of what was supposed to be a movie trilogy ending with something like the Apocalypse. All signs were pointing that way, when suddenly, the impetus for a third movie disappeared. The Hellboy movie franchise fell into desuetude, but fans kept the flame of hope alive, wanting to see del Toro and actor Ron Perlman team up one last time. Many Hellboy acolytes would now say that Perlman owns the role as the eponymous demon-hero, Anung An Rama, son of Satan, and del Toro's interpretation of the comics is seen, by those same people, as the definitive cinematic rendering of Hellboy.

I'm very familiar with the two movies, but I've never read a single comic, so for me, the del Toro/Perlman Hellboy is the only Hellboy I know. When word came that the Hellboy movies were going to be rebooted, I felt a mixture of excitement and dread. Later on, when I heard that neither del Toro nor Perlman would be involved in this new (and apparently much bloodier) take on the comics, the dread began to outweigh the excitement.

So here, at long last, is the official preview for "Hellboy," which simply cribs the title from both the comic series and del Toro's first movie, thereby cementing the notion that this will be a retread and not a continuation of the del Toro story.


I feel kind of bad for Ian McShane: the man is being typecast to play gods and mythic authority figures, a bit like the way Liam Neeson went through a phase in which he played Aslan, Zeus, and the wise yew tree in "A Monster Calls." Casting McShane in this new film strikes me as an unimaginative move. Then there's the matter of actor David Harbour, taking over for Ron Perlman as Hellboy. Harbour, currently best known for his role in the TV series "Stranger Things," is likable and talented enough, but his interpretation of Hellboy is one I disagree with. Note that moment, in the trailer, when Hellboy steps out of the police van and gets shot at. Harbour reacts to the rifle shot with a mad flailing of the arms—something Perlman would never have done. Perlman's Hellboy was massive, deliberate, and stoic, not zany and agitated. So right from the get-go, I don't like this new Hellboy. Comments beneath the video indicate that a lot of people are also unhappy with Hellboy's look: "He can barely move his face under all that makeup," is a common complaint.

There's a chance I'll see the movie, anyway, when it comes out. But if I do, it'll be out of morbid curiosity, not eager anticipation. I'd really love to see del Toro and Perlman back at the helm, and if there's enough of a fan backlash against this film, perhaps Lionsgate and Dark Horse Studios will pull their collective head out of their collective ass and give us that long-promised third installment.

TRIVIA: a Hellboy Animated series was also made. I never saw it. It, too, got two movies in, then sputtered to a halt. Is this series cursed?

You can read the sad story of the canceled del Toro sequel here.



Saturday, December 22, 2018

to click or not to click:
you get to make the moral decision

Feel free to blame me, if you want, for linking to the following video. I bounced the ethics of this around in my head for a few minutes, and I eventually decided not to embed the video on the blog, which would have meant ambushing you with the video's title and its potentially morbid thumbnail. Let me at least explain the video to you, though, and then I'll leave it completely up to you as to whether you click the link or not.

The video is of three cats, all(?) of which are male, and all of which are litter-mates. One cat is dead, and in the description underneath the video, the owner writes that the veterinarian said it would be a good idea to bring the dead cat home and present the carcass to the cat's brothers so they could come to understand, in their own feline way, that the cat was dead.

What the video shows is the carcass of the dead cat, gently wrapped in a blanket, with the cat's open-eyed face exposed. The first surviving brother approaches cautiously and begins sniffing the dead cat's body, and soon enough, the brother reacts to the cat's death* by heaving and retching a tiny bit onto the tile floor. The brother then stays near the body while the second surviving brother approaches.

The second surviving brother seems, initially, much more interested in probing and prodding his living brother than in examining his dead litter-mate. This obviously annoys the first surviving brother, who hisses several times at his clueless sibling. The second brother eventually goes in to examine the carcass for himself, but his own reaction to the dead cat strikes me as fairly noncommittal.

For me, the video plays out almost like a parable. You learn that animals can react strongly to the death of a sibling, and also that animals—like people—react differently to death. The scene plays out in a way that I find to be almost human, and that, Dear Reader, is why I had an ethical dilemma as I thought about embedding this video on my blog. You might say that these are "only cats," and that cats can't experience the intensity or the complexity of bereavement of which human beings are capable. Nevertheless, as I watched, the moment struck me as very intimate, and while I don't question the veterinarian's recommendation of presenting the carcass to its siblings, I do wonder whether the person taking the video should have filmed this moment in the first place. This feels a bit like a violation, like when news crews push a camera into the faces of the recently bereaved after an apartment fire or plane crash, or when cameras film anguished souls during moments of intense prayer. And by viewing the video, I've become complicit in that violation, and further, by passing the video on to you, I risk making you complicit as well.

So now, perhaps, you understand why I've given you the choice, by merely providing a link, to watch or to pass over the video as you wish. Click on the link or not—it's your call. I'll completely understand if you don't. You might ask why I'm linking to this video at all if I have that much of a problem with it. All I can say is that, when I saw the video's title, I assumed it was meant in jest, and that the "dead" cat in question would turn out to be napping or heavily drugged after a visit to the vet. In other words, I thought this was going to be another example of humorous cat-vlogging. What I got, instead, was something as serious as the question of life and death itself. Once I started watching the video, I realized what was really going on, and even while uttering, "Oh, no" under my breath, well, I just kept watching. It's like rubbernecking as you drive by an accident scene—this sort of thing compels the attention, and by the time I thought about not watching any further, I felt I was in too deep and might as well watch to the end. Maybe that's a moral weakness on my part. Or hey, maybe I'm way overthinking this, and it's just a dead fucking cat. But the video did affect me. Undeniably so. It's wordless and bare-bones. All you have are the cats, and the implied presence of the person doing the filming, and the brute fact of death.

I can deduce that I'm not the only one to react strongly and emotionally to this video. It's very telling that comments have been disabled. I remember thinking it was morbid when Rick Santorum made the news for bringing home his dead infant child for the family to see. In his case, too, I think some doctors had recommended that this might actually aid in the grieving process. I recoiled from and rebelled against that notion when I blogged about it, but over the intervening years, my position may have softened just a bit.

Click or don't. You decide. But if you do, you might find yourself thinking about the video long after you've finished watching it.



*Admittedly, I could be anthropomorphizing, here—imputing a "reaction" where there was none. For all I know, that could have been just a bit of random retching.



a cosmic solstice to you!

One of my all-time favorite VSauce videos on YouTube is this one, which takes the viewer on a tour from how we measure days, to the calculations used to design calendars through the centuries, to the very motion of the earth through space:


According to Michael Stephens in the above video, the solstice is on December 22—today. I was given a reminder of this just yesterday. Happy Solstice, fellow Druids and pagans.

In other cosmic news: a neighbor's cows huddle into the shape of a cross. Of course Fox News is reporting this. Sorry, but... Jesus H. Christ.

NB: one article says the feed troughs were shaped in a cross pattern (note how the animals are facing inward and toward each other). The cows don't actually give a shit.



Mexican dinner

Friday night, my buddy Charles met Michael, my former boss. I had told Michael about Charles because Michael had mentioned he was engaging in a project that required foreigners fluent in Korean. I know how busy Charles already is, so I knew he wouldn't be saying yes to any proposal Michael made, and I said this to Michael, who insisted he wanted to meet Charles, anyway. Like my friend Tom, Michael is an inveterate networker.

So the three of us met in Itaewon last night, and after running through a few restaurant alternatives, we settled on Mexican, going to one of Michael's favorite haunts, a place with the painfully corny name of Taco Amigo. I had been to this establishment years ago with Michael; back then, the place was tiny and cramped, and the staffers all looked more Somalian than Mexican. The place has apparently expanded since then, and the staffers and cooks are all different, too. I have to say: the food was much better this time around.

I got the chimichanga with chorizo:


Michael got salsa verde enchiladas:


Charles got enchiladas with mole:


Portion sizes were adequate for big guys; Charles, the lone not-so-big guy, ended up destroying his enchiladas but not finishing his sides. We went for coffee and hot chocolate after dinner; conversation the entire time was pleasant, with plenty of Koreana being discussed, and with my ex-boss inevitably talking about his collection of "Occupied Japan"-era hand-painted teacups and saucers. In the end, promises were made to keep in touch, and a good evening was had by all.



Friday, December 21, 2018

seen at the local pizzeria








Tom gets a birfday dinner

Tom, a 1969er like yours truly, turned 49 on the 12th, and I had promised to treat him to dinner at a restaurant of his choosing. Tom said he knew of an awesome chicken place in the Jongno area, so we went there Thursday evening. The place is run by the mother of one of his university students, and it's so popular that you have to sign a wait-list sheet in order to be seated. The restaurant we went to was small and cramped, but Tom and I ended up seated at a four-top, which gave us room to stretch out a bit.

The place specializes in cheol-pan (iron pan/skillet/griddle) chicken dishes, but the chicken isn't actually cooked in an iron pan: it's rotisserie chicken that gets piled on top of a wacky, fusion-style bed of rice, cheese, corn, and some sort of slightly spicy brown sauce. The chicken itself isn't merely roasted: it's given a nice, smoky glaze that helps to unify the bird's various flavors and textures. Dipping sauces are served on the side. If you were to consider the dish's components separately, then think about how they'd all taste if put together, you'd conclude that the result would be an incoherent, disgusting mess. Yet somehow, the cheol-pan chicken works. It's definitely Korean-style fusion, which can be very bad or very good, but this tilts toward the good side, and I enjoyed every bite.


The birfday boy himself, looking eerily like my sophomore-year roommate Travis:


Tom, now done with his semester, is off to the Philippines on Friday, where he'll meet his Filipina wife and half-Filipino son (both of whom flew there ahead of him). He'll stay with in-laws for a few days, then go do his own thing for the rest of his month-or-so in the PI. Tom always buggers off to the Philippines in the winter; he can't stand the cold here. "That's because that's what old people do," joked a younger, thirty-something mutual friend of ours. Yerp—I guess a lot of retirees prefer warm-weather locales like Florida or the Philippines or Thailand. Me, I love the cold. I should retire in Montana, but I'll settle for Wyoming.




Thursday, December 20, 2018

90% satisfaction

Package pirates are a growing problem in the United States. Just go to YouTube and type "package pirate" or "package thief/thieves" into the search window, and you'll see the extent of the problem.* YouTube also has plenty of videos showing people's clever methods of revenge against these lowlifes, and one of those videos comes from science guy Mark Rober, who apparently lives in a neighborhood that's full of package thieves. Rober, an engineer with a penchant for inventing things, decided to strike back at the thieves by designing a sort of harmless "bomb" that would shoot glitter, emit fart spray, and record the thieves via several cell phones. Here is his story:


I titled this post "90% satisfaction" because, for me, true justice—100% satisfaction—would mean turning those packages into fucking fragmentation grenades so that these butt-suckers would have something to remember me by for life.



*A close cousin of the package pirate/thief is the asshole who trespasses in order to uproot your "Trump 2020" yard sign, which is like a magnet to these stupid twats. I love the vids in which clever homeowners have managed to electrify their signs. Zot! Surprise, fuckhead!



IT HAS BEGUN!

Navient just confirmed receipt of my first significant payment of my scholastic debt. I sent in $9,000, so my debt has gone down from roughly $42,000 to a bit over $33,000. A few more big chunks like that, and I'll be out of all major debt. As you can imagine, I'm going to be celebrating my financial freedom sometime late next year. Maybe I'll do a hiking trip in New Zealand or something. We'll see.



cabbie strike

Seoul cabbies are supposed to be striking today in response to the advent of a ride-share app from Kakao that promises to take away the cabbies' business. Cabbies already have a hard time earning enough money per month; they have to deal with high-stress traffic and frequently rude and bitchy passengers. The new app would siphon business from a market that, from the cabbies' view, is already tight and highly regulated.

The flip side is that riders often complain about being ignored by cabbies they try to flag down (a major problem for expats, especially in foreigner-heavy areas like Itaewon). Cabbies can also be rude and surly; I've heard many stories of cabbies who cheat naive customers by deliberately driving the long route. There are also stories of cabbies engaging in illegal carpooling, i.e., taking on extra riders who happen to be going the same route as the riders already in the cab. Finally, some cabbies are piss-poor drivers, either being accident-prone or causing traffic jams and other problems through their inept, jerky, weaving, pedal-pumping, brake-jamming style of driving.

To be clear, my overall experience with cabs in Seoul has been positive. I, too, occasionally get ignored by cabbies, but I know that this is sometimes because of shift changes and other reasons that aren't immediately obvious to potential customers. I've ridden with my share of rude drivers, but their rudeness has generally taken the form of remarks about my weight or questions that pry a little too much. I'm trying to remember whether I've ever been in a fender-bender while inside a cab, and the fact that I'm having difficulty recalling such an incident indicates that that hasn't been an issue.

That said, I can't discount other foreigners' testimony about their negative experiences with Seoul cabbies. I think 90% of those problems can be eliminated simply by being able to speak some Korean, and problems often arise from misunderstandings plus the human willingness to assume the worst when it comes to strangers. But that doesn't make the foreigners' bad experiences any less bad or less legitimate.

So when I consider my own cab-riding experience and try to square it with others' experiences, my sympathy for cabbies is there, but it's limited. While I'm generally okay with using cabs (frankly, I use them more often than I should), others have reported problems that can't be dismissed. I think there's a reason why the public feels a need for a ride-sharing app, and that reason probably has something to do with dissatisfaction with the status quo. Until cabbies buckle down and improve the quality of their services, apps like this ride-share program will be only the tip of the iceberg.

Final note: a cabbie told me last night that today would be devoted to a cabbies' strike, but I saw quite a few cabs plying the streets while I was en route to work this morning. Go figure.



today, I saw something strange

Restocking high-altitude lakes by dumping fish out of airplanes!






Wednesday, December 19, 2018

my latest numbaz

Went to the doctor this morning. Let's just cut right to it:

Blood pressure: 125/85 (better than last time, and not horrible overall)
Blood sugar: 130 (lowest yet, I think—yay, me)
HbA1c: 8.1 (bad, but improved from 8.7 last time)

End result: same suite of meds as last time. No changes.

Since I've started walking and watching what I eat again (roughly one meal a day, per my meal schedule in France), I've been losing a bit of weight. Over the past three or so weeks, I lost 3 kg, although I still need to lose about ten more if I want to get down to my "floor" weight of 115 kg. Eventually, I need to get down to 90 kg, which is my Switzerland weight from the 1989-90 era (my junior year in college, when I was studying abroad), but that's not happening without some truly radical changes in my current lifestyle, and to be honest, I'm not sure how willing I am to make such changes. Ideally, I should find the will. "The training is nothing; the will is everything!" grated Henri Ducard (a.k.a. R'as al-Ghul, played by Liam Neeson) to Bruce Wayne in "Batman Begins." It's just a movie quote, but there's much truth in it.



commentary on the passing scene

Links to these come courtesy of Bill Keezer:



Plus: the latest Russian-bot/GOP story should be viewed skeptically. And with the left pointing and shouting accusatorily, file this gem under "He Who Smelt It Dealt It."

Oh, and this gem, too.



NK defectors utterly boggled by SK leftist attitudes toward NK

It's probably too much to hope that this Korea Times article is front and center in the Korean-language newspapers and online outlets...

[hat tip to ROK Drop]

One excerpt, from a defector:

After I escaped to South Korea, I was shocked to learn that it was North Korea that had attacked South Korea in 1950. When I was in North Korea, I had learned the opposite, and so many other things that clearly were not true. There are some things that only North Korea believes. Sometimes it seems that South Koreans have been learning the North Korean version of history. I won’t be surprised if some South Koreans start insisting that it was South Korea that attacked North Korea.

And the people who are welcoming Kim Jung-un? They are crazy people. Some of my South Korean friends and colleagues have asked me about this, some of them even believe that I should welcome Kim Jung-un. I tell them, “Kim Jung-un’s supporters need to go to a mental hospital to have their brains checked. They need to live in North Korea, then they can learn what a real dictator is like.”

South Koreans hated Park Geun-hye[;] she was removed through the constitutional process and even jailed, so she was not a real dictator. But now the people who held candle-light vigils against President Park are now welcoming a real dictator? When I was in North Korea, I had an excuse for being ignorant about the outside world because I was taught only the truth according to the Kim family. If you live in South Korea, with so much information available everywhere, then you have no excuse.

You can read articles, books and even see videos showing both sides of an issue, instead of the situation of North Korea where only one side is presented. If Kim Jung-un truly changes and North Koreans can become free, then even I would welcome him. Before we can welcome Kim Jung-un, there needs to be truth about North Korea, there needs to be freedom for North Koreans. A murderer and dictator should not be welcomed as a hero.



a bunch o' Scots, bangin' on

Great bit of street music:






Tuesday, December 18, 2018

a many-worlds question for my philosophical readers

One version of the quantum many-worlds hypothesis suggests that, every time I reach a crossroads at which I have X number of choices, the cosmos splits into the number of universes that corresponds to the number of choices in front of me: if I have nine alternatives, then eight more universes are born such that I, in my universe, select Choice 1 while the other eight Kevins, in their universes, respectively select Choices 2 through 9. (It could actually be infinitely more complex than this, as I discussed in my frothing-metaphysics post over at Kevin's Walk, but let's keep things simple).

Given the above, I have a question, born straight out of the mind of Sam Harris, who has gleefully taken an axe to the tree of human freedom: if there is no free will, such that we're never actually making choices, could this be seen as an argument against the existence of many worlds? In other words, if it takes choice for universes to split into alternate universes, then can such splitting happen if there is, in fact, no choice?



yes

I'd be all for this. It would open up a world of possibilities, for someone living in a small country like South Korea, in terms of weekend trips that one normally wouldn't be able to do with only a two-day weekend.



nifty websites

How accurately do you perceive the passage of time? Here's a website that challenges you to mentally time out a minute in your head. Click on the button to start the timer, then click again when you think it's been exactly 60 seconds. I got 56 seconds on my first try, then exactly a minute on my second try.


Michio Kaku actually talked about time perception on a TV show once. He noted that, as we get older, we tend to perceive time as moving faster, so when we do the one-minute exercise as older people, we tend to "score" on the higher end, i.e., counting out 70 seconds and perceiving that as 60 seconds. For young people, who perceive time as moving more slowly, it's the other way around: young people tend to "score" lower, i.e., counting 50 seconds and perceiving that as a full minute. This change in perception, which can be documented in this sort of time-perception game, explains the age-old question, "Where did the time go?"


This next website is a loneliness quiz. If you get bored with that topic (I got a 12, by the way), click the upper-left logo for Psych Central and enter a world of articles, quizzes, and so on. It all looks quite interesting. I see they've got personality tests. Woo-hoo!



a grudging shout-out

I normally can't stand the Victory Girls blog, which I find to be written in stilted, self-conscious prose. But an Instapundit link took me to this blog post about a woman who had placed balloon dragons in her front yard for the Christmas season. Some asshole neighbor left her a message telling her she should consider removing the dragons because it made her family look like part of a demonic cult. The message ended with, "May God bless you and help you to know the true meaning of Christmas." Sanctimonious cunt.

This is also a good case for liberals to ponder: the Victory Girls blog is decidedly conservative, but as this blog post shows, conservative people also get fed up with religiously conservative self-righteousness. A true conservative would agree with libertarians in this case: if you're not actively harming anyone else, then everyone should just leave you the hell alone.

EPILOGUE: the "dragon-lady" who received the note, Diana Rowland, responded to the anonymous coward by buying more balloon dragons. Heh.



PJW on the rise of TikTok

Well, this was educational. I've seen the occasional ad for TikTok, but I had no damn clue what it was until I saw the following video. It seems to be a bit like Vine, but with 15-second videos instead of 6-second videos. However, the culture surrounding TikTok is somewhat different from anything Vine-related.






Monday, December 17, 2018

Starbucks restrooms as a microcosm of the immigration debate

What happens when, out of a desire to signal to the world how virtuous you are, you start to let people into your establishment willy-nilly? This is what happens.



Starbucks’ new bathroom policy not working out as hoped
However, it is working out as expected.


It has been 7 months since the famous purveyor of caffeinated confection, Starbucks, declared their bathrooms “open to the public” without the need to purchase their products.

Data suggests that the virtue signaling isn’t working out as well as hoped by the corporate leaders. A New York Post team investigated several Manhattan bathrooms and found that there wasn’t an open stall.

…A half-dozen toilets were locked or barricaded for no clear reason. Others were closed for prolonged “cleaning,” which an insider said was needed after extreme soiling caused by drug-using, incontinent vagrants.

“Letting everybody in has resulted in nobody getting in,” an employee at one branch fumed.

“Rest Room closed,” declared signs at 399 Seventh Ave. (entrance on West 32nd Street) and at a branch at Pearl Street and Maiden Lane. At 252 W. 31st St., the road to relief was blocked by garbage cans. Furniture and boxes formed a barrier at 61 W. 56th St.

A rope and traffic cones barred the way at 38 Park Row. When a desperate visitor asked if the loo would reopen any time soon, a barista directed him to a Dunkin’ Donuts nearby.

Why would the bathrooms need “prolonged cleaning”? Perhaps the experience of the Seattle shops provides an explanation:

Several Starbucks workers in Seattle say that they’re encountering hypodermic needles on the job nearly every day and that they’ve had to take antiviral medications to protect themselves from HIV and hepatitis.

Three employees at the coffee giant in northern Seattle told the local news station KIRO 7 that visitors would dispose of the needles in store restrooms, often in tampon-disposal boxes, and that workers would then come in contact with them while cleaning and were sometimes accidentally poked.

KIRO 7 said the three employees provided hospital, pharmacy, and insurance receipts showing that they took antiviral medications to protect against HIV and hepatitis after being poked by needles at work.

Providing extra safety training and prophylactic care for employees can be expensive. The extra costs could have been a contributing factor in a spate of recent layoffs.

Starbucks will lay off 350 corporate employees amid a broader effort to revamp its global operations even as the coffeehouse chain’s former top executive gears up for a 2020 presidential bid.

Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson announced the 5 percent reduction of Starbucks’ global workforce in a staff email on Tuesday, writing that the layoffs are “a result of work that has been eliminated, de-prioritized or shifting ways of working within the company.”

The best lesson to be had here may be not to let anything other than profit and customer satisfaction drive your business decisions.



A border is like your skin: it protects you while being just porous enough to allow external factors to affect you at a reasonable rate that preserves your body's integrity. Lose your skin, and you're suddenly prey to all sorts of pathogens, not to mention likely to bleed to death. A US/Mexico wall would stem the tide of illegal immigration, but our country would still receive plenty of legal immigrants. How is this not clear to the anti-Wallers? Adopt an open-borders policy, and that's no different from flaying off your own skin.



hopping over the uncanny valley

Look at the following people:


Now get this: not a single person above is real. The company Nvidia has created an AI algorithm that has "learned" what human faces generally look like and can generate plausibly human faces that don't send you, the viewer, into the uncanny valley—that creepy, creeped-out range of emotions you feel when you're looking at something that seems awfully human, but that is just a tiny bit off (cf. Tarkin's facial movements in "Rogue One").

These images obviously aren't being generated out of whole cloth: the AI must start with actual human faces as a guide and template. But this sort of image-generation isn't a simple case of cut-and-paste, mix-and-match: the AI is indeed producing original faces.

Machine-learning enthusiasts have been freaking out about the results of Nvidia’s latest work—published to the arXiv preprint server this week—and for good reason. Not only do the images produced by the AI program look crystal clear and hyper-realistic, but the process for creating them was rather novel and opens up some mind-blowing possibilities.

The researchers combined the typical design of Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs)—computing architecture that very loosely mimics the human brain and “learns” from source images to generate new ones—with tips from the world of AI style transfer. In doing this, the Nvidia researchers could effectively blend human features to generate faces that morph in surprising and impressive ways.

While this no doubt raises the specter of rampant AI-generated images fooling us into thinking they’re real, it’s worth noting that pulling this off took a week of AI training on eight Nvidia Tesla graphics processors that cost thousands of dollars each—not something you find in your average gaming rig.

The spooky feeling that comes of realizing that AI is now capable of producing perfectly normal-looking human faces might be considered a kind of reverse uncanny valley.



Styx on the myriad investigations of Donald Trump






"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse": review


The 2018 animated superhero action-adventure movie "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse" is directed by a team of three: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. It stars the voice talents of Shameik Moore (Miles Morales/Spider-Man), Jake Johnson (Peter B. Parker), Hailee Steinfeld (Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen), Mahershala Ali (Uncle Aaron/Prowler), Brian Tyree Henry (Jefferson Davis), Lily Tomlin (Aunt May), Luna Lauren Velez (Rio Morales), John Mulaney (Peter Porker/Spider-Ham), Nicolas Cage (Spider-Noir), Liev Schreiber (Kingpin), Kimiko Glenn (Peni Parker), and Kathryn Hahn (Olivia Octavius/Doctor Octopus).

A fast-paced, many-worlds adventure involving Spider-Beings from alternate universes, "Spider-verse" is fundamentally the origin story of Miles Morales, a half-Puerto Rican, half-African-American teen who, in his own universe, gets bitten by a radioactive spider and transforms into another version of the web-slinging superhero. Miles lives with his parents, Jefferson Davis and Rio Morales, and they've decided to enroll Miles in a private school for the gifted—a place Miles initially hates because he considers the school "elitist." Across town, Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, has a particle collider that opens a portal to multiple universes. The reason for the device: the Kingpin lost his wife and son when they ran from him after witnessing him brutally pounding on that universe's Spider-Man (presumably, the Spider-Man we know from the Toby Maguire/Andrew Garfield/Tom Holland live-action movies, voiced by Chris Pine—except that this Spider-Man is blond). The mother and son, while fleeing, died in a car crash. The Kingpin's interdimensional portal sucks in several Spider-Beings: Peter B. Parker, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham, Spider-Noir, and Peni Parker. Ham, Noir, and Peni are cartoon versions of Spider-Man who nevertheless are perfectly real in their own alternate universes. The problem with being sucked into Miles Morales's universe is that the heroes' atoms are subject to a kind of quantum instability that makes them "glitch" on occasion in a manner reminiscent of Vanellope von Schweetz from "Wreck-It Ralph"). This instability grows over time, and if the stranded heroes remain for too long in Miles's dimension, they'll eventually die by disintegration.

The Kingpin's device, developed by his world's female version of Doctor Octopus, is also supposed to draw in his wife and son from a different universe so that he can have a family again. Unmindful of the risk to the entire multiverse (not to mention the fact that an alt-universe family would ultimately die from quantum glitching), the Kingpin dials his machine up to 11. The various Spider-Beings are thus faced with two challenges: they must stop the Kingpin from destroying all of reality, and—except for Miles—they need to use that same machine to get back to their home universes.

The movie doesn't expend much energy explaining (1) how it's possible to draw in people from other universes, (2) how it's possible to leap into the maelstrom created by the machine and return unerringly to one's own universe, and (3) what the interstitial realm "between" or "among" all these universes is (this is the actual "Spider-verse" of the movie's title: a megacosm that appears to us as interstellar space, but with unfathomably vast webs holding reality together). I'm not a comics nerd, but my understanding is that this weird, interstitial realm, this Spider-verse, is actually presided over by some sort of arachnid goddess. This aspect of the movie's metaphysics goes unexplained. The filmmakers are planning sequels and spinoffs, though, so perhaps this cosmology will be fleshed out in later films. The collider's maelstrom itself makes for an interesting sound-and-light show; the particle collisions are animated in such a way as to look like the computer images of real-world particle collisions, i.e., with some subatomic fragments blasting away from the impact while other fragments loop bizarrely inward, back to the impact zone.

With a nearly two-hour running time, "Spider-verse" shoehorns in a great deal of plot and a couple major themes. We watch as Miles has to adapt to his new school and try to rise to his parents' expectations; we see how Miles's father Jefferson has grown apart from his brother Aaron, whom Miles admires and likes to accompany on graffiti sprees. Although the Spider-Man of Miles's world dies early in the film—so early that I don't consider that a spoiler—the death is an important catalyst for making Miles interested in becoming his own Spider-Man, complete with a different power set that includes both the ability to turn invisible and the ability to generate overwhelming electric shocks through his arms and hands. We watch as Jefferson's attitude toward Spider-Man evolves: initially, Jefferson sees Spider-Man only as a vigilante, but over time, his stance softens. Themes of friendship and family are woven through the plot; the Spider-Gwen that we meet had lost her world's Peter Parker, who had been her best friend, resulting in Gwen's rejection of the possibility of further friendships. Peter B. Parker, meanwhile, is in his forties and has gone to seed like Mr. Incredible. He proves to be a rather poor and awkward mentor for Miles, but the two do manage to get along. The Aunt May of Miles's world, who is bereaved now that her nephew has been killed by the Kingpin, functions as a sort of Alfred Pennyworth, curating her nephew's hi-tech sanctum sanctorum, which is filled with various suits and gadgets. When the alternate Spider-People are sucked into this universe, they all gravitate to Aunt May.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It's a razzle-dazzle thrill ride that's faithful to the comic-book versions. Comics nerds say the movie is filled with a whole closetful of sly references to the movies, TV cartoons, and comic books from across the decades; I'm not savvy enough to pick up on those references, so I'm left with enjoying what I see on the screen, taking the story on its own terms. The movie's complex plot doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence, and the humor comes at the viewer with fast and furious energy. Nicolas Cage, as the congenitally black-and-white Spider-Noir, shows off his comic chops with some fine voice work.

"Spider-verse" does suffer from two major narrative difficulties, though; the first is the same difficulty found in all many-worlds tales: if this world's Kingpin could destroy the multiverse with a quantum-portal device, what's to stop an infinity of other Kingpins, in other universes, from making the same attempt with their machines? Many-worlds narratives are inherently messy; there's simply no way to tell such stories comprehensively. We just have to put our brains aside and believe that, if our heroes can solve this one problem with this one Kingpin, then that'll have to be enough for now. The second difficulty is something of a plot hole: Dr. Octopus is perfectly aware that beings brought in from alt-universes will undergo quantum glitching, but despite knowing that such glitching always ends in death for the stranded beings, she builds the collider for the Kingpin, anyway. Was she planning to explain to him, at some point, that any family reunion would be, at best, temporary? And if the Kingpin did succeed at "stealing" his wife and son from an alternate universe, wouldn't that universe's Kingpin be motivated to build his own quantum device to retrieve his stolen family? All of this strikes me as nettlesome—not necessarily enough to ruin the entire movie for me, but enough to make me think that the script has holes in grievous need of patching.

But let's table those concerns and concentrate on my overall impression of the film. Funny, witty, warm-hearted, fast-paced, and action-filled, "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse" is worth a look-see if you're into comics and, specifically, if you're into Spider-Man.