Thursday, November 30, 2006

just call me Mr. 96.7%

Student evals are back, and 96.7% is what I've got for the term-- ratings from six classes, most of them good, one of them outright bizarre (I think it was from a Japanese student who didn't quite understand the Korean on the form).

It turns out that my supervisor and I have two different ways of calculating the average. I simply total up the points on each sheet (35 points possible; the system's been changed so that a "7" is now your maximum score for a given item, and we're rated in five categories), add up all the points from all the sheets, then divide by the number of sheets times thirty-five. My supervisor averages each class, then averages those averages (i.e., she adds the averages together and divides by the number of classes to arrive at her final rating).

The disadvantage of my supervisor's method is that it collapses all the ratings in a large class such that each person's rating counts for less than the rating of someone in a smaller class.


Let's say that I taught Classes A, B, and C. Class A has one person; Class B has five people; Class C has ten people.

Let's say I received the following scores:

From Class A: 10 out of 35 (10/35)
From Class B: 34, 35, 35, 35, 32
From Class C: 35, 35, 32, 33, 35, 35, 35, 35, 34, 33

My supervisor would do the following:

Average of Class A = 10/35 = 29%
Average of Class B = [(34+35+35+35+32)/5] = 34.2/35 = 97.7%
Average of Class C = (sum of points/10) = 34.2/35 = 97.7%

Average of averages = (29 + 97.7 + 97.7)/3 = 74.8%

Luckily, the above situation has never occurred. But it could! If I taught class drunk and naked, my nakedness alone would guarantee me a 10 out of 35, and I could end up Mr. 74.8%.

If the above student ratings were calculated my way, the results would be substantially different because the lone student from Class A would be counted merely as one person out of a total of sixteen. When the calculation's done my supervisor's way, that lone person's score is given the same weight as the collective output of Classes B and C, respectively.

Check it out. If we calculate my way, we get:

Total points for Class A = 10
Total for B = 171
Total for C = 342

A+B+C = 523

523 divided by 16 (total number of students, regardless of which class they belong to) = 32.6875

32.6875/35 = 93.3%

See the difference?

But my supervisor's method can also work in my favor, as it did today: by my calculation, I have a 96.6%; by my boss's, it's a 96.7%. Since her word is the final one, I'm not going to complain.

The student comments on the eval forms were, overall, nothing new. Most of them were good; I typically get a lot of "interesting/fun class" and "explains things clearly" and "works hard for students" and "shows an interest in/understands Korean culture." As I suspected, though, I got some bitchiness from my bad Level 3 reading class, though it wasn't as severe as I thought it would be: the grumbling was primarily focused on the difficulty of the reading material. Bah-- childish nonsense; I plan to ignore the complaint and will continue offering material I consider appropriate for Level 3.

My general rule is this: eval forms are like a canary in a mine shaft: if ten out of twenty students have the same complaint about you, you're obviously doing something wrong. If, however, a particular complaint appears only once out of twenty eval forms, you've got nothing to worry about: the student's subjective reading doesn't represent the majority opinion. So far, I've been lucky that way-- no one particular complaint has hounded me across my year-and-a-half history with Smoo. (You can interpret this phenomenon negatively: I've made a large variety of mistakes.)

I did hear one disturbing thing from a student today, and it wasn't about me-- it was about a teacher from across campus. She claimed that this teacher only conducts class for five or ten minutes, then dismisses the students. Otherwise, this person spends time sending text messages in class while the students do their writing assignments.

I mention this problem knowing full well that at least two teachers from that side of campus are aware of my blog and are, perhaps, in a position to do or say something. However, I want to make it clear that I have very strong feelings about teacher solidarity, because teachers often take a lot of shit from the students beneath them and the bosses above them. We need to stick up for each other. At this point, having heard only one testimonial, I can't make any judgements, and to be honest, I'm inclined to give that teacher the benefit of the doubt. I'm certainly not planning on investigating this; I generally have nothing to do with the department(s) across the way, and can't see this as an urgent issue, especially at the tail end of the semester. I note my student's complaint mainly because, if it's true, it is pretty disturbing, and it doesn't represent professional conduct.

Assuming there is a problem, I think it best that the matter be settled among the teachers first, without it having to float upward to management. I told my student that she should gather her courage and ask the teacher directly what's up instead of judging right away. This is what I demand of my own students. I can't stand finding out about a complaint through third parties.

And that's about it for my gripes and grumbles. I'm off to shop for more materials for my last two jjong-parties. My 9:00am Level Ones will be getting a rib-sticking Amurrican breffus tomorrow morning.


hits from unlikely places

Over the past few weeks, I've seen my normally low site traffic spike on occasion, all thanks to the denizens of that most famous of message board communities, Dave's ESL Cafe.

People on those boards have linked to my blog on three distinct occasions. The most recent link (see here) isn't even for something I wrote: the poster found one of my old postal scrotums* in which I'd posted the letter of a reader advising me to steer clear of a certain very large hagwon chain. I'm glad I took the advice. Whatever woes I might have experienced at Smoo, they are nothing compared to the crap I've been through while trapped in the hagwon system.

[NB: Some readers tell me their hagwon experience hasn't been hellish at all. I'm happy for them. That, or I want whatever illegal palliatives they're taking.]

Life at Smoo is far from woe-free, of course, and I'll be writing about some of today's woes this evening. Stay tuned. In the meantime, many thanks to the collective intelligence of Dave's ESL Cafe, which has seen fit to shine its baleful, Gollum-like stare upon this humble blog on several occasions. By choosing to boost traffic to my blog, Dave's ESL Cafe proves that "the wisdom of the masses" is yet another canard.

*You newbies might not realize that "postal scrotum" is simply Ho-speak for "mail bag." It has nothing to do with a ball sac going nuts and shooting people.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

the marathon

It's all jjong-p'a-t'i from here on in-- I've got two more days of classes, then I'm off from December 2 to January 1. Well, not really off: I've got a ton of lesson planning to do for my CBI (content-based instruction) course, which will be about Greek mythology. I refused to teach history and economics, suggesting either basic religious studies or debate as alternatives.* For whatever reason, our big boss wants us to avoid discussing any "issues," which strikes me as ridiculous: without issues, there goes most of your content! This harks back to the old days when people assumed it was possible to approach any subject objectively. Sorry, folks, but bias is everywhere, even in the most neutral-sounding of lectures. I told my boss I'd do my best to keep things neutral and controversy-free, but fuck that-- I'm including meaty topics for discussion. (I also have to brush up on Greco-Roman mythology!)

Anyway, first things first. I'm cooking spaghetti sauce tonight and prepping a fondue appetizer. Both of these will be served to my best class, the 11am Level 3 conversation students. Their dedication has earned them the brass ring. Students will be providing drinks, a salad, and dessert. I'm looking forward to a hearty lunch. It's happening at just the right time, too: the weather's gotten cold enough for fondue.

My first class tomorrow morning, the Level 3 reading class that went bad on me, will enjoy a very simple breakfast of fruit, bread, and Nutella. I'm not even going to bother getting proper drinks for those jokers. They can buy their own damn drinks from the vending machine. God, that class disappoints me. The disappointment, as I probably mentioned earlier, stems from the fact that the class was going fairly well for much of the semester, then faltered as student endurance began to flag. They'll also be filling out teacher evaluation forms tomorrow. I don't expect good marks from them (the one or two who will show up; my colleague Z, who teaches conversation to the same group, had five of them today), and will be very surprised if I get anything that's not negative.

My other good class, a very good one, is my MWF 9am Level 1 group. The class reduced itself to four hardcore members, who seem quite devoted to the course. They're getting a full-on American breakfast on Friday morning: eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes-- the works. It's gonna smell fockin' good in my classroom. Those students will also be bringing accessories: milk and juice, plus some fruit.

I had a jjong-party today with my Movie English class-- tons of bakery items, most of which got consumed during our viewing of the conclusion of "Hitch" and about 90% of "Good Will Hunting" as we ran overtime. That class was also quite fun, despite there being only two students. We played a game today: Predict the Ending! We had about 30 minutes of "Hitch" to get through; I had made up a sheet with twenty possible events, and my students had to check "yes" or "no" as to whether a given event would happen by the end of the film (e.g., Hitch gets slapped by Allegra). The score was close: one student got 13 points; the other had 11. Goes to show that Hollywood flicks are pretty predictable, especially when we're talking romantic comedies. We'd done an exercise about that very thing during a previous lesson: outline the Romantic Comedy Formula! I put my own up on the board while the students were busy writing out their formulae:

1. Boy meets Girl
2. Boy almost gets Girl (the good times; corny montage sequence)
3. Boy almost loses Girl (the bad times; corny and somber montage)
4. Boy gets Girl (with twists along the way)

Just once, I'd love to see someone break that formula: take a movie, start it off as a romantic comedy, then turn it into a gruesome, horrifying tragedy in which a tyrannosaurus appears and everybody dies. YEAH!

So now it's off to the kitchenette to create toothsome goodness.

*I was on the debate team for a short time in high school. Doesn't make me an expert, but I do remember that the "affirmative" team has to construct an argument that succeeds with five prima facie categories affectionately known as SHITS: Solvency, Harm, Inherency, Topicality, and Significance. The "negative" team's job is to rebut at least one of the five aspects of the affirmative team's argument. If they succeed, they win the debate.


postal scrotum: Taoist insights

Andy writes:

Hi Kevin,

Re: "Lao Tzu-- on drugs?"

I think the 2nd-line hinges on "will" vs. "can"...

A modest interpretation (post-"Firefly" viewing, if you would)...

"Ruling the country is like cooking fish...
Evil can have power over men,
but evil is not all encompassing power,
that power won't be used to harm men.
The power will not be used to harm any one state (democrat v. republican?),
but the wielder (president) will also not be harmed,
they will not harm each other,
and the virtue in each will energize the other..."

Random thoughts from further south...


hard times

Things have been harsh for Scott recently (see here and here). Think about leaving the guy a comment.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Danish comic in NK

This sort of thing might be of interest to both Annika and Borat. If Sacha Baron Cohen is ballsy enough, he should try his hand inside NK. Sucker-punching American hicks is one thing. Going behind the DMZ is another thing altogether.


100 Below: Volume 27

"A Mr. Nyss to see you, ma'am," said the intercom voice.

Ellen's eyes narrowed.

"What's that guy's full name, Sharon?" she asked, grinning.

A pause. Then--

"His full name is, uh, Harry P. Nyss, ma'am. He says you know his cousin, Testiq al-Falus."

"That bastard!" Ellen giggled. "Let him in!"

The door opened; in walked her lover, Roger Eaton-Enos.

"Mr. Nyss," she hissed teasingly.

"Miss O'Dumi," he grinned.

The door clicked shut.

Clothes flew off.

Grunts could be heard. Slamming. A queef. A delighted squeal.

Out at reception, Sharon sighed.

I hate this office.



Who knew?

...women talk almost three times as much as men, with the average woman chalking up 20,000 words in a day - 13,000 more than the average man.

Women also speak more quickly, devote more brainpower to chit-chat - and actually get a buzz out of hearing their own voices...

Hey, can you blame women for talking so much? If I had several pairs of lips, I'd flap 'em all the time, too.

(article courtesy Drugged)

UPDATE: Beautiful examination and rebuttal of the above stats at Language Log (with thanks to EFL Geek for pointing this out). However, the LL post still tentatively concludes that women talk more. This follows common wisdom.


Monday, November 27, 2006


Want to find out what kind of Buddhist you are? Then examine your own reaction to this highly informative video. It'll save your soul!

If you have one.


Lao Tzu-- on drugs?

From the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 60:

Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.
Approach the universe with Tao,
And evil will have no power.
Not that evil is not powerful,
But its power will not be used to harm others.
Not only will it do no harm to others,
But the sage himself will also be protected.
They do not hurt each other,
And the Virtue in each one refreshes both.

Got all that? Now what does it MEAN? I'm still stuck on the "fish" part.

The above is a rather poetic rendition of the Chinese by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English. Here's a more helpful translation by Robert Hendricks:

Ruling a large state is like cooking small fish.

When you use the Way to govern the world, evil spirits won't have godlike power.
Actually, it's not that evil spirits won't have godlike power,
It's that their power will not harm men.
But it's not just that their power won't harm men,
The Sage, also, will not harm them.
Since these two do not harm others,
Therefore their virtues intermingle and return to them.

The above is more understandable, but lacks flair. In fact, it seems to be an uneven mix of registers-- philosophically tinged turns of phrase thrown together with relaxed contractions.

Note that the two translations, when compared to each other, overlap but also clash. I'll have more to say on this later.


postal scrotum: M on student attrition

M writes (email edited for privacy):

Kevin said:

[NB: You folks teaching for-credit course at uni probably don't have nearly the student attrition we hagwon-style teachers do. I'd love to hear from teachers of non-credit courses about what positive and negative measures they take to minimize attrition. No airy-fairy, vague stuff about "find out what interests them," please. I'm looking for specifics.]


I teach required courses, but I'm not sure that is a factor in retention (percentage of students who are not dropped/do not drop) and success (percentage of students who pass with a grade of "C" or better) figures. Making a course required may have the opposite of the effect you would think.

At the statewide level here in CA (probably elsewhere too, but I can't speak with as much authority to elsewhere), we typically break community college classes into two groups: pre-baccalaureate (a.k.a. developmental or remedial) and college-level (a.k.a. "transferable," as in "transferable to four-year institutions"). Pre-baccalaureate classes usually exhibit lower retention & success rates than the transfer-level courses. When you look at the retention and success statistics across the curriculum, two main areas tend to be low: English and Math. Generally, it is the required courses that display the lowest retention and success numbers; I like to think that grade inflation is the main reason that we don't see the trend carrying over to the non-required subjects, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, in math, at the statewide level, we typically see the retention and success numbers playing out as follows:

Pre-baccalaureate math courses: retention around 75%, success around 50%.
Transfer-level math courses: retention around 75%, success around 50-55%.

At my campus, we see:

Pre-baccalaureate math courses: retention around 65%, success around 45%.
Transfer-level math courses: retention around 65%, success around 50%.

So for example, in a class of 40 students, in a typical semester, we'll see 10-15 take a hike before the final exam, and of the 25-30 students who remain, maybe half will pass the class.

Different colleges and different instructors approach this problem in different ways.

Personally, having seen what passes for math instruction in local public high schools, I believe that the best way I can salvage the maximum number from the bottom 60% of the high school graduating class (a big chunk of my clientele), is to help them understand the difference between the college level and the secondary level, and also to confront immaturity and unrealistic expectations.

The first day, I may not lecture on mathematics at all. I'll talk about the retention and success statistics and what they mean on a practical, individual level.

I have a little powerpoint presentation that I custom-tailor to my various classes (attached, if you care to see it; I have one version for transfer-level, one version for pre-baccalaureate, with certain content for certain classes). I think it is a sobering little chat for many of the students. To me, there is nothing surprising or ground-breaking contained in it, but my perspective is apparently quite different than what my students commonly bring to the table, as I typically have a rapt audience on day 1.

I also use various online ancillaries to help me crack the whip; I collect all homework electronically, and the assignments that the students do feature similar problems with different numbers for everyone, so it is practically impossible for them to cheat on the homework. Most of the homework problems are open-ended (not multiple choice).

In my pre-baccalaureate classes, I devote a huge chunk of the grade-- 25% in one course-- to homework. Students who refuse to do it can just squeak by if they really know their stuff, but the vast majority have to do it. The reaction of many students is negative; they don't like having a light shined in that area, and they apparently prefer to fool themselves into thinking they can fake it. But, as one of the old-time administrators (at the high school where I once worked) liked to say, "You can't make chicken salad from chicken shit." Uncharitable, yes, but true. Students who don't want to work are very hard to motivate. I guess you could summarize my approach as follows: I try to get them to understand the realities of the situation, and I fail everyone who refuses to get with the program.

It is true that I have a certain amount of protection in the form of tenure, but even when I have not had that, I've done business the same way.

You might notice a few other items that I use on my Web site. For example, I post mock exams. Back before I had kids, I would actually release my old exams with a full answer key. Nowadays, I use publisher-provided test generation software to generate longer mock exams, and I hold my actual exams a little more securely.

I may use other approaches depending on the class. For example, my calculus class totally bombed my first exam this semester. It was their bad, not mine. But I allowed them to correct the test and recoup some of the points they lost. One has to be careful not to extinguish hope completely. The reality is, some will learn from their mistakes, and some won't. I'm confident I can ferret out the ones who won't learn and get rid of them or flunk them at the end. I'm not doing anyone a service by passing them.




postal scrotum: Andy on "Serenity"

Andy R. writes:

Hi Kevin,

Re: "Serenity", you said, "For me, "Serenity" feels like a large TV episode, not a movie."

Yep. It's worth noting that the movie is actually a remake (at times approaching frame-for-frame) of the pilot.

I watched the movie before I saw any of the tv episodes. What struck is that the movie is what some reviewers actually promised: acceptable for the long-time fans, and a do-able introduction for new fans. By itself this is no miracle, but it's a nice touch.

You also wrote, "'ll probably find yourself wondering, at times, what makes 'Serenity' so watchable."

Part of it may be that the characters aren't the typical drama's "best of the best." The folks are the usual assortment of hard-working folks we've all dealt with in our own lives. They deal with their troubles with humor, everyone has their turn being both "the Hero" and "the Goat" in a way that most folks can relate to.

For me, the movie's/show's allure is largely in the notion of "being on your own." In the Old West sense of the phrase. No income taxes. No permits. You live by the sweat of your brow, survive by using your wits. And all of that happens without the lop-sided red tape in the modern-day West.

(And that, by the way, is not dissimilar to my moving to Korea...)

The world it showcases really strikes a nerve with me. The backdrop of an uptight gov't following it's War Of Northern Aggression hits closer to home the older I get. That may just be me so take it with a big grain of salt.

As an aside, if you have a chance to watch just one of the episodes, I highly recommend the flashback episode (#8) "Out of Gas."




I really have a way with women.


Sunday, November 26, 2006


[11/27 10:15am UPDATE: I wrote "okonomiyaki" when I meant "takoyaki." Apologies to anyone I might have offended.]

My Level 3 conversation students (yes, the good class) did their oral presentations last week. Since we're all about incorporating realia in the classroom, what better way to talk about fine Japanese cuisine than to make some in class?

OK, in truth, takoyaki is more of a street food than haute cuisine; you can find the stands scattered about Seoul, especially in Chongno, close to the Insa-dong area.

These are some shots taken by one of my students, JK. SM, the student making the takoyaki, was worried about how long the process was taking. We, the rest of the class, weren't helping matters by simply staring and drooling.


sinister feline

Every week, Jelly proudly shows off her pussy. Every once in a while, I feel I have to remind people that her pussy is evil incarnate. This week, Jelly catblogged the following photo:

I'm no fool. As soon as I saw that picture, I realized something: I had seen it before. But where?

Then it hit me (scroll waaaay down):


postal scrotum: plagiarism traffic school?

This was sent in by ML, and may be of interest to Dr. Hodges:

Pima Community College creates "traffic school" for plagiarists

TUCSON, Ariz. Students caught turning in plagiarized term papers at Pima Community College are getting a chance to mend their ways.

Instead of expelling students caught cheating, the college now lets them go through a "Traffic School for Plagiarism" program.

Instructor Meg Files says the growing use of the internet has led to an explosion of cut and paste term papers. She says students are lured by the ease of the cheating and haven't learned the right way to do college level work.

Files says she created the traffic school because kicking a student out of school doesn't help anyone, especially the student.

Those caught cheating must read up on plagiarism, write a paper -- original, of course -- and meet with a faculty committee before their record is cleared.


the final week

This has probably been the worst semester I've had at Smoo in terms of student cooperativeness and motivation-- quite a contrast to the amazing way 2006 began. I've been wondering, lately, how much of this is my fault.

I can't say that I've changed my teaching style all that much over the course of the year; if anything, I'd like to think that I've learned a lot from my colleagues, as well as from brute experience. And yet... this past semester sucked. There's no getting around it.

The first half of the semester featured my bugbear, Freshman English. My previous FroshEng class went quite well, actually, as did the sessions before that, but the Level 4 group I was stuck with this time around seemed brain dead. It didn't help that the students were placed improperly-- that's partially our fault, I think, for not having done things as systematically as we'd done them before. Still, the girls didn't help by constantly speaking in Korean, acting princessy, and being openly defiant on occasion.

My normal conversation and reading classes started strongly, and one Level 3 conversation class has been excellent all semester, but my other classes have gone rapidly down the tubes. Student attrition causes problems. It's a pain, for example, to assign teams to work on projects at the beginning of the semester, only to have two-thirds of your class missing by the end. This results in an ad hoc reassignment and somewhat disjointed presentations. Students in these classes have also neglected (to my mind, refused) to do the blogging homework I'd assigned them-- six short entries per week, so most of them will be receiving zeroes for their laziness. On top of that, my Level 3 reading class has proved to be unbelievably lazy, complaining about the difficulty of the reading assignments, and whining to my partner teacher (of course they lack the courage to say this to me) that there's "too much" reading. I wrote the class an email encouraging them to be there en masse this week; it's probably not going to happen. For a while, I was seeing six students in class; that number has dropped in the past two weeks to only one or two.

The Level 3 reading class bothers me because, in truth, they have not had much to read. The assignments they are given each week are no more than four pages long-- usually less. The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so they have five days from Thursday to read up on the next assignment. Most of them prepare nothing. Some of them skip class, then feel ashamed about having skipped, and thus skip more to avoid my baleful glare. Their immaturity creates a vicious cycle.

This Level 3 reading class is the one that motivated me to think about going Gandhi. I'm extremely disappointed in them. We had a rocky start during the first few weeks of term, but the class then performed strongly for a while, which gave me hope-- false hope, as it turned out. I'm thinking that another motivator might be to host a Parents' Night, in the tradition of American high school-- a "getting to know you" session in which students, parents, and teachers can all intermingle... and teachers can acquire parental phone numbers and email addresses, to use later on when students try to weasel out of coming to class. Most of my students' hometowns are in or near Seoul; a small proportion come from far-flung places like Busan, so those students would have to provide me with parents' phone numbers directly.

[NB: You folks teaching for-credit courses at uni probably don't have nearly the student attrition we hagwon-style teachers do. I'd love to hear from teachers of non-credit courses about what positive and negative measures they take to minimize attrition. No airy-fairy, vague stuff about "find out what interests them," please. I'm looking for specifics.]

I've got a ton of planning to do for next semester; we're trying a twisted version of Content-based Instruction (CBI) for the intensive courses during January and February, and we're also teaching those damn freshmen again (as you know, they're actually high school seniors who've received early acceptance into Smoo; I've never liked teaching high schoolers). FroshEng will be for seven weeks-- the longest we've ever taught the course. I'm definitely not looking forward to that.

But first things first: this is the final week of term for us, then we teachers will be on vacation during December. For my MWF classes, this week will be about final review sessions on Monday, followed by final exams on Wednesday, and the de rigueur jjong-p'ati (end-of-term party) on Friday. My Tues/Thurs classes will have their final exam on Tuesday, with the jjong-p'ati on Thursday. My Level 3 conversation class (not the awful Level 3 reading class) will have a large party on Thursday; they've had by far the best attendance and participation, so I'll be cooking for them (fondue appetizer and spaghetti bolognese as main course; students are bringing salad, drinks, and dessert).

Ae-gu,* as some Koreans say. One more week to go.

*That's a form of "a-i-go," the sigh or wail of despair, exasperation, or even surprise.


Saturday, November 25, 2006


I never saw the original "Firefly" series, but I did watch "Serenity" on DVD the other day (thank you, Smoo, for your many large and comfortable DVD-equipped classrooms). My overall feeling is that the movie looks a bit thrown-together and low-budget; also, the dialogue was trite, TV-ish hokum. There must be some joke I'm not getting-- it could be that the dialogue is written that way on purpose, and fans of the series will understand this. For me, "Serenity" feels like a large TV episode, not a movie.

"Serenity" is the story of a tramp freighter captain and his motley crew. The movie offers us three antagonists: the central government, known as the Alliance; a government assassin known only as The Operative; and a race of vicious, cannibalistic mutants called Reavers.

Let me take that back: I couldn't figure out whether the Alliance truly was a malevolent entity, or whether it was simply a large, unwieldy government that occasionally made mistakes on a planetary scale (not hard to do when you're governing trillions). At any rate, the Alliance is more of a shadowy backdrop than a true antagonist, but it's what our hero, Captain Mal (Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion), and his crew are constantly dealing with as they travel the space around the colony worlds performing various heists.

The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (how the hell do you pronounce that?), is the movie's most dangerous villain-- urbane, sophisticated, philosophical, and a true believer. The Operative will stop at nothing to further the cause of his government, and what's more, he has no illusions about the nobility of his work. "I am a monster," he tells Mal outright. At one point he proves this by murdering the defenseless, including children.

The Reavers represent the weakest element in the film. They aren't particularly scary, and what's worse is that they suffer from a flaw in narrative logic: Reavers are crazed berzerkers-- primitive, hyper-aggressive, and always on the lookout for fresh human flesh. Unlike Klingons, Reavers have no particular culture (unless stringing skeletons across your ship's bow counts as "culture") and no visible sense of social organization. They utter not a single line of dialogue, preferring to roar, bite, and shoot a lot. How, then, are they rational and disciplined enough to pilot large space vessels? Don't you need a command hierarchy for that sort of thing? And doesn't such a hierarchy assume non-chaotic personality traits like obedience and rationality? How can Reavers pilot even a single ship, much less an entire fleet of them?

The plot struck me as desultory for much of the film. It was essentially about a passenger aboard the Serenity named River Tam, a teenage girl with psi ability and extensive martial arts training. River is the product of a government project to develop a human weapon. Mal isn't aware of this at first, not until a subliminal cue sets River off and she reveals herself to be a one-woman army. The plot eventually begins to make more sense as we're let in on the big picture: the government is also responsible for having inadvertently created the Reavers. Everything comes together in the end, but I felt as though we were meandering toward the conclusion.

Characters aboard Serenity are colorful, with Adam Baldwin's character, the very unrefined Jayne, standing out. But the greatest character of all is not seen but heard: "Serenity" features one of the best, most un-SF soundtracks I've ever experienced. The music constantly went against type and created a playful, adventurous mood. I'd see the movie again just to listen to the music.

I'll give "Serenity" a very, very cautious thumbs-up, because despite its flaws, the movie has its good points, and it obviously means well. It's definitely a flick for fans of the "Firefly" TV series. If you're new to that universe (by the way, "Firefly" refers to a class of space vessel, of which the Serenity is a member), you'll probably find yourself wondering, at times, what makes "Serenity" so watchable. The movie isn't deep; it doesn't raise many big questions, except for the usual ones about benevolent government and utopianism. If you decide to watch "Serenity," do so mainly for the quirky characters and the delightfully different music.


postal scrotum: John on glossolalia

The F-16-hating John of Long Time Gone writes:

Just wanted to comment on the speaking in tongues thing.

My granny was Pentecostal. Really loved the lord and lived the Christian life. One of the few Christians that didn't ever strike me as a hypocrite. Anyway, I remember the first time I heard her speak in tongues. She had been cleaning a high shelf and fell off a chair. Broke her wrist. She was praying intensely and started speaking in tongues. Scared the hell out of me. She told me she was possessed by the Holy Spirit. I know she sincerely believed that. Yeah, it was all gibberish to me but I do know that it was not some fakery. Whether it was Biblical or just her own faith and spirituality expressing itself I don't know. Just wanted to make the point that at least for some people it is not fraudulent. I've attended a church where people spoke in tongues as if on cue and that definitely seemed fake. Not my sweet grandmother though.


I haven't forgotten your betrayal over at Lost Nomad, John.


I think many, if not most, people are sincere when they describe a religious experience. The problem for a scientific skeptic is to parse the subjectivity of the experience from its objectivity. What verifiably happened? In a case like the one you described, I'd say the observable (and, presumably, recordable) fact was that your grandmother spoke in tongues. But I'd have trouble verifying the claim that she was possessed by the Holy Spirit-- a claim that is, perhaps by its very nature, unverifiable.

As a skeptic, I also want to avoid being charged with scientism, the attitude that science is the only road to truth. So concerning your grandmother's case, I'd adopt an attitude similar to yours: I'd be convinced of her sincerity, and I'd be convinced that I had witnessed an instance of glossolalia. I doubt, however, that I would take the event as strong evidence for a theistic ultimate reality. We'd have to rule out a whole host of other possibilities first.

There are problems with glossolalia. Foremost among them is that the inspired utterances of an anglophone still "sound" a bit English, whereas a francophone or coreanophone's glossolalia will sound French or Korean. This would seem to undercut the idea that all speakers in tongues are engaging in something not mediated by culture; when viewed together, speakers in tongues from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds do not appear to be accessing the same deep source. On the contrary, glossolalia is apt to take culturally specific forms.

One of the remarks I failed to make in my review of "Jesus Camp" was that the Christianity shown in that movie was quite foreign to the mainline American Presbyterianism with which I'm familiar (and comfortable). Presbyterians are often called "God's Frozen Chosen" because of the staid, stiff, plodding style of their worship, which includes generally bland hymns and sermons. No one speaks in tongues, as far as I know. Public weeping is rare for us, if not outright bizarre. The minister doesn't shout "JESUS!" In my mostly-white church, people rarely shout "Amen!" Worship is gentle, thoughtful... friendly. It's not dynamic, not fire and brimstone; you won't feel an adrenaline rush when you're with the Frozen Chosen. Rowan Atkinson's parodies of Anglican worship apply equally well to American Presbyterianism, at least as I've experienced it. And I imagine that people in my church, were they to view "Jesus Camp," would find the Pentecostal way of doing things as foreign as I do.

This reminds me-- I must once again plug Robert Duvall's incredible film "The Apostle," which depicts a charismatic Christianity much like what you see in "Jesus Camp." Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in the film (see here). He plays a pastor nicknamed "E.F." who gets kicked out of his own church; in the best Protestant tradition, he leaves to establish a new church elsewhere. It's a very well-made movie with no simple answers.


Friday, November 24, 2006


My brother Sean, who's back (permanently?) from Canada, brought along his black chihuahua Max, only the name is apparently spelled all hipster-like: Maqz.

That's awesome. Having a pet with a tricked-up name is like having your epitaph done up in l33tsp33k.

It's my understanding that Maqz has a very gentle, sweet disposition, and has even convinced Mom that he's lovable. I'm not sure whether Max has met our shirt-humping cat, Mozart. I'd heard that he and Mozart were kept separate, but I don't know whether that's still true.


postal scrotum: Charles and more Charles!

Charles writes in about that bread (email edited for privacy):

As for the bread, pumpernickel is basically a dark rye bread (it's the rye that makes it pumpernickel and not just "dark bread"). Every pumpernickel recipe I've seen achieves this primarily by using molasses as the sugar, although some recipes will add ground coffee or cocoa to make it even darker. My own pumpernickel is pretty straightforward--just rye and molasses. I like to make a light rye/pumpernickel marble roll, which always impresses guests.

But back to your bread: judging by your description, it doesn't sound like a pumpernickel. For one, I've never heard of nuts in pumpernickel. It was probably a straight wheat flour bread (maybe with some whole wheat mixed in) darkened with molasses or some such. I think I've had the same (or similar) bread at the Outback Steakhouse--I'm only guessing, of course, but that bread looked purple in the restaurant's lighting as well. It was also quite sweet. Does that sound familiar?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized it couldn't have been pumpernickel. The bread's flavor was subtle and had no trace of rye. I can say this, though: it decidedly wasn't the same as Outback Steakhouse's bread. Yesterday's bread had a crackling crust that was almost reminiscent of a baguette's shatter-prone exterior. The interior, however, wasn't baguettesque at all.

Charles also has plenty to say about glossolalia:

I think you should reinstate comments just for me, as I seem to be doing a lot of commenting lately.

As usual, Paul has you covered on the speaking in tongues, in particular 1 Corinthians chapter 14. This is the chapter I like to refer to when it comes to tongues.

As I may have mentioned to you, I grew up in a Pentecostal church (our first church was Presbyterian, but we moved to the Pentecostal church when I was 11). I enjoyed the church and made a lot of friends there, but one thing really bothered me: the speaking in tongues. Not that I have a problem with speaking in tongues. I'm not one to judge how God is working in someone else's life. But that was the problem, really--in a Pentecostal church, if you don't speak in tongues, you might as well walk around with a sign on your chest saying, "Hi, I'm demon possessed." It's almost like not speaking in tongues is some sort of disease to be cured.

But I found comfort in the words of Paul. Chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians talks about gifts given to believers, and one of those gifts is speaking in tongues. Where I take comfort is that Paul specifically states that not all people speak in tongues, just like not all people heal or prophesy. In Chapter 14 he goes into more detail, and this is probably a chapter that most Pentecostals would like to ignore. The whole chapter deals with tongues, but here are a few choice samples that got me through those tough Pentecostal years:

6: Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?

10: Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. (Preach it, brother!)

19: In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

23: So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?

Granted, toward the end of the chapter Paul goes into some rather outdated stuff about women not speaking in the church, but his stuff on tongues still holds, I think. The loophole that Pentecostals use to get around this is in verse 13: "For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says." Basically what they take this to mean is that whenever someone in the church speaks in tongues during a service (this happens fairly often in Pentecostal churches), someone else has to interpret. The way I see it, though, it's more like how Moses allowed the people to divorce because of the "hardness of their hearts," not because divorce was necessarily the right thing to do. I think Paul makes it pretty clear that tongues is a very specific gift that is to be used for the private edification of the speaker.

This next anecdote will probably not hold much water with you, but I'll share it anyway. In my church people would often break into tongues in the middle of the service (this generally happened during a pause or a lull, and not usually while the pastor was speaking--although sometimes that did happen). Now, because Paul says that if someone speaks in tongues he should also interpret, the pastor waited for someone to interpret that before continuing. I always felt awkward during these pauses, and sometimes I wanted to stand up myself and say something, just to get it over with. Yes, I know that's bad, but it's true. I hated those moments. There was a woman in the congregation, though, who would more often than not "interpret" the message--invariably beginning with the words "Oh my people" and sounding like she was on the verge of tears. I always got an odd vibe from her, and one day during Sunday brunch my father said that he thought she was making up her "interpretations."

One day a prophetess came to our church (bear with me here). During the service, someone spoke in tongues, and the woman gave her "interpretation." When she was finished, the prophetess stood up, pointed her finger at her, and said, "Woman, that started in the flesh, but ended in the spirit." I really wish she would have just lambasted her rather than saying that it had ended in the spirit, because it gave the woman an "out," so to speak--she could still claim that God was speaking through her. But it also proved my father right. She embodied for me everything that was wrong about tongues in the church.

As you probably know, tongues are seen by Pentecostals as evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and even though official church doctrine admits that they are not the only possible evidence, in practice they are treated as the sole evidence. This means that if you don't speak in tongues you haven't been baptised by the Holy Spirit, and if you haven't been baptised by the Holy Spirit then you aren't really a Christian. So you can imagine how seriously they take this. I had revival preachers tell me to just let go and God's spirit would flow through me, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. One time I did--I just opened my mouth and made noises. I didn't feel edified. I didn't feel anything, really.

I was never able to say what I wanted to say to these people: if you want to speak in tongues in private, that's fine. If God speaks to you through tongues, if he edifies you through tongues, then I'm happy for you. But don't try to make me feel less of a Christian because I don't do the same. The people who speak in tongues during the service, would they still do it if there was no one to interpret? I remember times when no one offered an interpretation, and this was silently taken as a sign that the person who had spoken in tongues was out of line. No, this was never said aloud, but that's what people thought. With all that pressure to interpret, is it any wonder this lady tried to find some meaning in her faith by making up messages from God?

This was just going to be a short comment--I hadn't intended to carry on like this. But I guess I still carry around this burden, and it weighs heavier on me than I thought it did. I was hurt a lot when I was younger (my formative years, from 11 to 18) because of speaking in tongues, and it is probably the sole reason I will never go back to a Pentecostal church. Not that I don't love the people at my old church--I'm sure they felt that they were serving God the best they knew how--but I just can't help wondering how many people were driven away.

Yeah... look at Sam Kinison, himself a former Pentecostal minister who did a 180. When religions traffic only in black and white, clearly defining themselves according to in-group and out-group, the potential for alienation and other corrosive tendencies increases.

The people who speak in tongues during the service, would they still do it if there was no one to interpret?

With regard to public piety, this bit from the Sermon on the Mount says it all:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.


paging Reverend Haggard...

My recent viewing of "Jesus Camp" reminded me of the comic genius of Betty Butterfield. Watch her shill for the United Church of Christ, and speak in tongues to boot! Sounds exactly like what you hear in "Jesus Camp."

For those concerned about the scriptural basis for speaking in tongues, it should be noted that the Pentecost event described in Acts involves a cluster of the faithful on whose heads appear tongues of flame, and from whose mouths issue utterances understandable to all the passersby, each in his own native language. This is in marked contrast to the gibberish that passes for "speaking in tongues" in many charismatic and evangelical churches.

I'm not a big fan of scriptural arguments because I'm not a scriptural literalist, but since the Christians in question do often quote scripture to their purpose, I think it's only fair to hold them to their own literalist standard, and to ask them why, when they speak in tongues, they do so in such an unscriptural way.

Acts, Chapter 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"

Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine."


Thursday, November 23, 2006

dinde à la française

The place: Millennium Hilton, at the foot of Namsan. A French restaurant with the English name Seasons.

The time: Thanksgiving Day 2006, 6pm.

The action: A French-style (!) Thanksgiving meal, with a price tag that gleefully ripped the guts out of my wallet and cast them all over the floor.

Was it worth it? Yes and no. No, because I do have to fault the service in one important respect: the courses (of which there were seven) arrived too quickly, each on the heels of the other. A more leisurely pace would have been nice; it's a bit low-class for an expensive restaurant to give the impression that turnover is a priority. (Then again, I was looking pretty rough in my half-buttoned plaid shirt, exposed tee shirt, and jeans, so I can't exactly take the moral high ground here.)

But the meal itself was nicely done, very well put together. Were it not for the price tag (which I shan't reveal in public, but which I did anticipate, given that I had ordered the "full course" option), I'd recommend Seasons for the attentive service, the thoughtfully planned meals... and especially for the bread.

It's too bad I didn't have the Koreablogosphere's resident bread expert on hand; I'm pretty sure that, of the three pieces of bread I selected from the bread basket, one was a type of pumpernickel. I couldn't be absolutely sure, though, because I normally think of pumpernickel as dark, earthy brown, sometimes bordering on black. What I nabbed from the basket was dark, all right, but the color (at least in the resto's lighting) struck me as moving simultaneously toward black and purple-- not a shade I normally associate with pumpernickel. In any case, whatever bread that was, it was fresh-baked, still warm, had nuts in it, and was some of the best damn dark bread I've ever had. The bread was more memorable than one or two of the courses.

I should also note that this was probably the daintiest Thanksgiving meal I've experienced. As you might imagine for a French-style meal, servings were small; they were carefully placed on large plates to evoke an air of delicate majesty. I wasn't overwhelmingly stuffed (no pun intended), but I was pleasantly replete by the end.

A quick rundown of the food I remember:

Bread: baguette, some sort of dinner roll, and the presumptive pumpernickel.

Shrimp: boiled shrimp on a bed of chopped onions, topped with delicate greens and some sort of chutney.

Soup: a cream of mushroom soup with an awesome Gruyère topping.

Snails: cooked in a mandu-style pastry and topped with brown sauce and a smattering of thinly sliced vegetables.

Lemon sorbet: a teeny, tiny dollop of it was nested in a spun-sugar cup and placed on top of a hilarious, domed container of dry ice. The purpose of this was to get the palate ready for the main event.

Turkey and trimmins: white meat and dark meat with skin, placed atop a bed of boiled and delicately seasoned beets, with a tiny spear of broccoli, two very small sweet potatoes, and two large medallions of stuffing wrapped in what initially appeared to be bacon; it turned out to be carrots. Ingenious. A modest side of cranberry sauce was ladled onto the plate, and brown sauce was ladled onto the turkey.

Pumpkin pie and tea: a dessert tray was rolled over to me and I had my pick of several different pies, including apple, pecan, and lemon meringue. I got pumpkin. The pie was a disappointingly small slice, and the chef obviously went more for creaminess than for pumpkininity, but it tasted great, especially the crust.

The final chocolate truffle: as with the pies, I was presented with a large selection of sweets. My nervous system is wired to perceive only two kinds: chocolate and not. I unhesitatingly plucked the truffle the way Gloria Steinem might pluck off your testicle. It was good, as chocolate goes, though I couldn't help comparing it to a Lindt blue-label truffle (which is better).

And so I'm back home. Things are blissful now. Very mellow. A nice, quiet, mellow Turkey Day. Let's just... digest for a bit, shall we?


Turkey Day links

Seems to be all about the YouTube videos.

Jelly sends me a link to the farting preacher.

My buddy Tom links to Adam Sandler's Turkey Song.

Annika offers a hilarious pair of videos-- the first is a badly-filmed phone cam vid of a recent incident at UCLA's Powell Library, in which a student apparently came into the library, was asked for ID, and then caused a scene. I'm not clear on what exactly occurred; it seems the student had no ID and refused to budge. The campus police rather quickly resorted to tasering the student, who obligingly screamed bloody murder with every jolt.

The comments appended to Annika's post show a distinct lack of sympathy for the unruly student, and some commenters note that a true tasering would have resulted in the target's complete inability to speak, much less scream at the top of his lungs. Full disclosure: most of Annika's commenters lean right; one commenter, Strawman, is the token leftie.

I pretty much side with the righties on this one. The whiny bitch in the library had no ID, refused to cooperate with the campus police, and proceeded to make a scene, which I agree was probably his purpose from the beginning.

While tasering was, in my opinion, unnecessary, it was also a lot gentler than how I would have handled the situation: I would have cinched my belt around the guy's neck to cut off his airway, dragged him outside and kept him there until he was unconscious, then released the belt and left him lying senseless on the grass. Yeah, I'm a Nazi. It's a good thing I'm not a campus policeman; I'd be fired after one day and sued for the next twenty years.

The second video in Annika's post is a hilarious "public service announcement" to black people, filmed by Chris Rock and company. The PSA purports to show black people "how not to get your ass kicked" by the police. It's the kind of video that confirms, for some folks, that Rock is a closet conservative Republican. I see it as Rock stating the obvious: there's a lot less trouble when you just obey the fucking law.

And on that note, I'm off to find me some dirty bird.


Happy Turkey Day!

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today. I'll be roaming about town, looking for a decent place to sit down and eat a quiet Thanksgiving Day dinner. At a guess, the larger hotels will be serving turkey, stuffing, and all the rest. Jason recommended Gecko's in Itaewon, but (1) I try to avoid Itaewon if at all possible, and (2) from what I remember, Gecko's is pretty noisy. I'd rather eat in peace, especially since I'll be eating alone.

To those who are celebrating: Happy Thankgiving!


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Jesus Camp": review

I'd heard the buzz about "Jesus Camp" a while back. The trailer debuted on a few months ago, and I remember being both fascinated and repelled by the glimpse we were given of life in America's evangelical heartland. Now, thanks to a coworker, I've had the privilege of seeing "Jesus Camp" for myself.

It's hard to imagine that the movie has been producing cheers throughout the Bible Belt, but part of the still-coalescing spin is that the movie is "free of bias." I disagree. The documentary strikes me as frank about its agenda: it wants to show Joe Citizen the strangeness and looming horror of cultish Christian behavior. While no overt attempts are made to smear anyone who appears on screen, the film's motives are clear.

"Jesus Camp" is a documentary that focuses on four figures: a female pastor and three children. The pastor, Becky Fischer, runs an evangelical camp called "Kids on Fire" in the ironically (appropriately?) named Devil's Lake, North Dakota. The camp is primarily for kids, but other family members are encouraged to attend. Camp events include plenty of singing, dancing, and theater, but unlike your typical summer camp, "Kids on Fire" also features a great deal of prayer, intense weeping, and speaking in tongues.

The three children highlighted in the documentary are Levi (13), Rachel (10), and Tori (11). The chipper Levi, whose garish mullet reinforces certain stereotypes, has the chance to do some preaching, and he does it scarily well. I don't recall being as good a public speaker at that age. All the children at camp shine, buoyed by the energy of their fellows. They shout "Jesus!" as the spirit moves them, weep with guilt over their own sins, and even collapse with grief over the state of today's world.

One issue in particular, abortion, is a special target of the camp, and connected to this is the appointment of Justice Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court. "Jesus Camp" shows events at which Christians-- children included-- fervently pray for Alito's appointment; they see Alito as the man to bring down legal abortion.

Scattered throughout the documentary are asides with Air America radio commentator Mike Papantonio, a self-professed Christian who declares himself disturbed by what he sees as an attempt to ensconce more and more right-wing Christians in positions of power. Near the end of the film, Papantonio has the chance to field a call from Pastor Fischer herself; the exchange is chilling. While the dialogue is fairly civil in tone, Fischer reveals that she has no qualms about "indoctrination." As far as she is concerned, good Christians are at war in a world filled with sin, and our first duty is to prepare the children for this conflict.

Let me step back from this review for a moment to note that the Christian tradition has, in my opinion, long had trouble reconciling two opposing viewpoints: that the world, created by God, is good, and that the world is the dominion of Satan. The first chapter of Genesis (in which the lyrical refrain "and it was good" echoes so warmly) and the writings of St. Paul (who denigrates the things of this world) are a record of the jarring change that occurred in one strain of monotheism-- that which began as Jewish and eventually became Christian.

For many Christians, there is no problem. Their view of cosmic history is that Adam's fall plunged the world into sin, and that it was people-- through Satan's machinations-- who polluted a once-pristine creation. But when we look at Christianity as a whole, both now and throughout history, it is undeniable that a great number of Christians have always believed that this world is a good place, that nature contains evidence of God's great and generous handiwork, and that the cosmos is itself a sort of scripture, pointing the seeker toward God. This form of thinking finds its incarnation in natural theology, but is also found in scripture, post-Genesis: "This is a day the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Ps. 118:24)

The evangelicals in "Jesus Camp" make it abundantly clear that they view creation as a realm of sin. There is no ambiguity for them. We live in an age where some parents refuse to allow their children out on Halloween because they worry about satanic influence on that night. Pastor Fischer tells the children that Harry Potter, heroic though he be, must be shunned. Why? Because he is a warlock, as the pastor calls him.

Warlocks are enemies of God. And I don't care what kind of hero they are, they're an enemy of God. And had it [the Harry Potter story] been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!

Get the idea?

"Jesus Camp" is an anthropologist's dream come true. Whoever said that Protestants are anti-ritual must have been nuts. The movie is a cavalcade of ritual after ritual, a glimpse into a beleaguered, bunker mindset, with "war" a recurrent trope at the children's camp. In fact, the movie's opening minutes depict a musical in which children are dressed in military garb, performing vaguely martial dance moves to an uplifting but bellicose beat.

I don't think that "Jesus Camp" amounts to much as a political statement, however. The commentary from Mr. Papantonio reminds us of the ominous political significance of this religious movement, but out in the real world, conservatives are ready with their "What budding theocracy?" arguments. If the film is an attempt to persuade the majority of US citizens that there is a danger in their midst, I would argue that "Jesus Camp" will do little to sway most people: for the most part, Americans already believe that there is a problem, or that there isn't one.

The documentary has moments of unintentional humor. During the ending credits, we see one of the little girls attempt to spread the good word to a group of old men who are sitting around, just enjoying the day. She comes up to one of the men, and without preamble says...

GIRL: Hi! If you were to die right now, where do you think you would go?
OLD GENT: Heaven.
GIRL: Really? Are you sure?
GIRL: M'kay.

The kicker comes as the girl walks away from the old men with her two partners.

"I think they were Muslim," she remarks.

The other bit of unintentional humor comes to us courtesy the now-debased Reverend Ted Haggard, whom we see late in the film, preaching against various sins, including the sin of homosexuality. Haggard, as we now know, has having his organ pipes cleaned by one of those sinners while also doing drugs. I had a good, long chuckle watching Haggard's shtick, especially the moment when he leans into the camera, fixes us viewers with a look of humorous gravity, and intones, "I think I know what you did last night!"

Well, Ted... we all know what you did.

If you have the chance to see "Jesus Camp," I highly recommend it.


Ave, Annika!

I find myself staring raptly at Annika's firm, luscious, creamy mounds.


Ave, Malcolm!

Fucked-up shit like this never happens to me, and I'm sick of it.


Richards versus Gibson

We need to get Mel Gibson and Michael Richards (Kramer of "Seinfeld" fame) together in a room full of Jews and black folks, and just let the cameras roll.

Richards, lately famous for his shockingly racist outburst at the Laugh Factory, doesn't get off the hook as far as I'm concerned. By all accounts, he wasn't drunk, high, or insane. He knew what he was saying, and he carried on for longer than a few seconds. Some people in the black community doubt the sincerity of Richards's apology. I do, too. This is hugely disappointing.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

the Gandhi solution

Student attendance-- or lack thereof-- is a perennial issue when you're teaching university courses that aren't for credit. Getting students to take those courses seriously, to find intrinsic motivators, as the jargon goes, isn't as easy as it sounds.

We've been doing a round of teacher interviews to replace one of our number, who is leaving after this semester; I'm part of the interview team, along with my supervisor and our department head. Two interviewees, when asked how to motivate students, talked about "finding out what interests the student" in an effort to keep them in their seats and attending routinely. Both then recommended an open-ended, individualized approach to instruction that took those interests into consideration. Neither interviewee had a clear notion of how to integrate such thinking into a more standard curriculum; I don't blame them. The needs-based approach strikes me as almost fundamentally antithetical to the concept of standards.

The ugly truth is that students need extrinsic motivators, like grades, to keep them coming to class. Anything less consequential, such as a "certificate of completion" that has almost no significance off campus, is useless. Financial rewards and penalties are equally useless: most students are funded by Mommy and Daddy, and have no sense of what it costs to receive an education. Threats, cajolery, the Evil Eye-- very little is effective against apathy. The bizarre thing is that students choose-- repeatedly-- to sign up for these non-credit courses.

I've decided to weld two needs together. Starting next semester, I will tell my students that, if I do not have at least 90% attendance on a given day, I will not eat that day. If we're under 90% on a Friday, I starve the entire weekend. If the drop occurs the day before a long break, I don't eat the entire break. This way, I'm making the students feel guilty while also losing some weight. Clever, no?

Probably not as clever as all that. I have a feeling I'm going to be dead by the end of the semester, because most of these girls are far too self-absorbed to care. But you, dear reader, will at least be entertained by the before/after shots:


I'm going to add that the 90% rule applies to punctuality as well. Any student over 5 minutes late is most assuredly late, and is marked thus in my attendance log.

The up-side of starving is, of course, that you don't spend so much money on your own food. The down side, for a fleshy gent like yours truly, is the loose flaps of skin that are sure to appear should I truly drop the pounds.

If I were to try this in the States, well... I wouldn't be able to try this in the States. Questions of legality would arise immediately. Tying my fate to the students' sense of responsibility would itself be seen as irresponsible (which it might very well be).

I've been mulling this strategy for some time, now; students have reacted with varying degrees of amusement to my plan. One student joked I was pulling a Gandhi. While I doubt that Smoo student lassitude holds a candle to the problems Gandhi faced, I now face my own Calvary.

Anyone want to place bets?


Ave, Zzz!

If you're a man, and this horrifying video doesn't leave you clutching your crotch in sympathetic agony... you're not a man.


uh... Ave, Nomad?

Does a convicted murderer read your blog?


Monday, November 20, 2006

girl, interrupting

Kathreb strikes back against the evil triumvirate of Liminality, Eclexys, and Hairy Chasms by declaring her love of Korean dramas.

I admit I've been in lust with Kathreb's body ever since she posted that one pic of herself bungee jumping, but it is my sad duty to castigate her for her woefully misguided point of view on this matter. She has obviously been seduced by the dark side of the Force.

Keep in mind that the Smoo Times writer I quoted-- the one who made the negative comparison between American and Korean dramas-- is a Korean woman. Kathreb writes:

Unless I am very much mistaken[, our] discussants are all male (and I also think that they all grew up in the US). Not that there is anything wrong with that. I point that out only to suggest that Korean TV dramas are not aimed at US/Western males and therefore, it is hardly surprising that they do not like them.

The Smoo writer's point was that an increasing number of people, primarily Korean women, are being seduced by American dramas. These women know a better thing when they see it. I agree with Kathreb that an action-oriented series like "24" probably isn't compelling viewing for some women, but unless I'm mistaken, "Lost" (which Kathreb also mentions) actually has a very large Stateside female viewership. Kathreb herself might not see the appeal of a show that is essentially Stephen King's version of "Gilligan's Island," and that's fine, but if she's trying to argue that a show like "Lost" is inherently unappealing to women because it's not aimed at them, I'd submit that the demographic data don't back this claim up. "Lost" has broad appeal.

But as I said before, American TV remains 99% shit. Certain American dramas have risen to prominence precisely because the US TV industry as a whole-- from children's shows to home shopping to TV movies-- produces so little watch-worthy programming. If there's any unfairness in the SK/US comparison, it's not in the realm of budgets,* but in the actual shows we are comparing. American TV carries many dramas; most of them aren't particularly good. Comparing the best of American TV to what one usually sees on Korean TV is, I admit, somewhat unfair.

So the question becomes: what if we compare the best of Korean TV to the best of American TV? I'd say that, even here, American TV comes out on top. Something like the overwrought "Morae Shigyae," the gangster/political drama with the Russian musical leitmotif that riveted Korean audiences in the mid-90s, doesn't hold a candle to 90s-era "ER." No contest.

Kathreb also faces off against Charles:

And why not change the plot to viewer demand? The shows are made for the fans, listening to them makes good sense.

I suppose I should let Charles address this, but I think the problem is the degree to which a show's writing is controlled by the audience. Writers often chafe at what gets done to a show, and constant obedience to the audience is the royal road to mediocrity. Wouldn't it be nice to hear, for a change, that a Korean drama was praised for its "sharp writing"? The usual formula of "cry + fight + love triangle + memory loss + oppressive in-laws" wouldn't be so bothersome if it weren't used almost every single episode. If American TV is all id, Korean TV is all superego.

So while Kathreb is free to like (love!?) Korean dramas, I can only shake my head in sadness and bemoan the loss of a beautiful woman who was swallowed whole by the forces of darkness. She will, of course, scorn my adoration, spit upon this essay, and return to her stable of chiseled beaux-hunks. But let it never be said that I stood idly by while one woman's delusional ravings echoed through the alleyways of the blogosphere.

*Kathreb thinks it's unfair to compare US and SK dramas according to budget, since US budgets so obviously outstrip the cash available to SK filmmakers. While it's true that a small budget has a direct effect on production value, production value doesn't necessarily correlate to a show's overall quality. Many well-written, well-acted shows-- Korean, American, or otherwise-- don't require large budgets to shine. They shine because they're intelligently written, admirably performed, and compellingly structured. It works in reverse, too: a large budget is no guarantee of quality. Look at some of the crap that used to air on the SciFi Channel.

There's also little excuse for small budgets in a large, entertainment-oriented economy like Korea's. In a sense, if Charles is right to claim that Korean viewers hold sway over a drama's trajectory (and Kathreb seems to have no problem with Charles's claim and its implications), it may arguably be the viewers' fault that dramas remain low-budget. No demand for higher production values = continued mediocrity in this area.

The larger phenomenon, I think, is that Koreans are, thanks to internet technology, being exposed to what the world has to offer, and they're beginning to realize where they're lacking. This is no slight against Koreans; as I wrote before, I hope to see Koreans take the best of what SK and the US are producing, and turn it into something uniquely Korean. The peninsula's people are smart as hell, and still very hard-working. I see no reason why an innovative Korean writer/director couldn't produce something truly remarkable, something never before seen on TV, anywhere.


Ave, Dr. Hodges!

Jeff offers his version of our recent family dinner.

One thing he asked me during the meal was whom I'd actually met from the blogging world. Let me see. I've met--

1. Charlie of Budae Chigae.

2. Charles of Liminality.

3. Sperwer of Sperwer's Log.

4. Joel of About Joel.

5. Nathan of Seoul Hero.

6. Joe of Joe Seoul Man (only briefly; Joe actually works across campus).

7. Jeff of Ruminations in Korea.

8. Todd Thacker of Sound of a Dog Eating Grass.

9. Peter S. of Oranckay.

10. Justin of Cosmic Buddha.

11. Soen Joon of Overboard, Ditch the Raft, and One Robe, One Bowl.

12. Jeff of Gypsy Scholar.

13. Brian of Cathartidae.

14. GM Jeonuchi of GM Jeonuchi.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

sidebar-- done!

I finally added the finishing touch to my sidebar: a replacement for the original (now lost in the FTP space ether) image called "The Big Hominid Watches Over You." Where would you be without my protective, benevolent presence, eh?

So-- all the images have been shunted over to Photobucket. I still don't know why the FTP space died on me, but such is life. If I thought I could do it in a short time, I'd go back through old posts and replace every single "Coxed" image with a new, "Photobucketed" one. But that would take ages, so I might just leave the old blog posts alone. If, however, you dig around my archives and find a post that, in your opinion, deserves to have its images restored, please send me an email with the post's URL, and I'll see what I can do.


Ave, Skippy!

Skippy, back in fine form after a period in the wilderness, writes a heartbreaking post about Iris Chang and Japanese atrocities. Japan apologists in the Koreablogosphere will doubtless take issue with the more tendentious claims in the post, but the power of the gruesome photographs that accompany Skippy's text is undeniable.

I hope that you, dear reader, will spread the word on this post far and wide. What Skippy has to show and tell will definitely ruin your weekend, but I mean that in a good way: consciousness-raising is never something to sneeze at. The post is an impressive piece of writing.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

chicken man (and links)

I've been at the office for the past few hours, working on lesson plans, doing some proofreading, and finishing up Charles's NaNoWriMo story. Since I knew I would be here for a while, I decided to order some fried chicken from the local deadbirdery. When the delivery guy appeared, he did a double-take and asked, "Haven't I seen you on TV?"

I've gotten this before, and I have in fact been on TV, but you'd have to have a very good memory: my lone appearance lasted about twenty seconds, and featured me answering questions about the vegetarian food I was eating and my impressions of the Buddhism conference I was attending.

So I told the delivery guy that I probably wasn't the person he was thinking of. A lot of Westerners get the "I've seen you before, haven't I?" treatment here. This Yangpa article is a good parody of the Korean ability to see the resemblance between any Western expat and any Western celebrity.

Some blogs and articles caught my eye today:

1. The Metropolitician has a whole slew of good posts. Check out his post on Camille Paglia and his post on James Bond. His Basil Poledouris tribute is pretty good, too.

2. Israel gets the right idea with the "bionic hornet" and "super gloves" that offer extra, er, punching power. Just don't use them to whack off, guys.

3. Israel again: the nanobattery.

4. Rory isn't dead. He's just pissed off.

5. Jelly continues to fight for proper pay. Not gonna be easy, dude. Good luck.

6. Hard to believe Nathan's baby is already six months old!

7. I really shouldn't laugh at this.


"Borat": I don't get it

I haven't seen the Candid Camera/improv movie "Borat" yet, but I'm pretty sure I'd have fun watching it, as I'm all about politically incorrect humor. At the same time, I feel sympathy for some of the innocent folks who were hoodwinked into making themselves look foolish on camera. I'm thinking mainly of the small-town Romanians whose village, Glod, doubled as a fictional village in "Borat's" alternate-reality version of Kazakhstan.

Sacha Baron Cohen, a devout Jew who plays the sexist, homophobic, antisemitic Kazakh journalist Borat, has been quiet during the recent eruption of controversy regarding his film, but he finally had this to say about the outrage directed at him and his movie:

I was surprised, because I always had faith in the audience that they would realise that this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices. And the reason we chose Kazakhstan was because it was a country that no one had heard anything about, so we could essentially play on stereotypes they might have about this ex-Soviet backwater. The joke is not on Kazakhstan. I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist - who believe that there's a country where homosexuals wear blue hats and the women live in cages and they drink fermented horse urine and the age of consent has been raised to nine years old...

A question then arises: how does Cohen expect you to react to the film? It seems that, if you laugh along with Borat at his victims, you may be guilty of revealing your inner prejudices. If you react with outrage, you're guilty of either having no sense of humor, or of taking the film's obviously exaggerated approach too seriously.

I suppose Cohen can be understood to want us all to examine ourselves. A theater full of laughing people will be a mixture of those who laugh because they actually share Borat's various prejudices, and those who laugh because they understand what Cohen is really trying to do. Which person are you? Cohen is asking.

But on some level, I think Cohen is being disingenuous. The fact remains that the people in "Borat" are not in on the joke. This doesn't bother me when it comes to exposing the prejudices of uneducated hicks and frat boys, but some of the folks in the movie probably entered into the Boratic experience in good faith, and they have a right to be dismayed at how they've been used. If Cohen's basic message is that we should honestly examine ourselves, why does he use deception to make this point?

Ah, hell, I just need to see the movie. Perhaps the real fundamental message-- true of any "Candid Camera"-style endeavor-- is Be humble enough to laugh at yourself.


eh wot?

The movie preview for the horror movie "Hostel: Part Two" is in German (you need QuickTime to view). I don't think I caught much of what the preview was saying. Here's what I think I understood:

Every year in America, ten thousand people will be killed by a gun(???). ...[of that number???] over two thousand people... heh-- Americans! ... fantasy! Hostel Part Two.

I'm missing the most important parts of the narration. In the part where he goes, "Heh-- Americans!", I'm wondering whether the next line is something like, "They have no idea!" Any germanophones care to fill me in?


Friday, November 17, 2006


It always seems to work out this way when I'm invited to dinner in Korea: I end up stuffed.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Hodges, his lovely wife, and their two wonderful children this evening. Conversation was comfortable and, as is appropriate in a family of scholars and children, it ranged all over. One minute we're talking Islam and Buddhism; the next we're talking about different kinds of pasta and "The Polar Express." Switching registers on the fly isn't easy when you're interacting with professors at one end of the table and kids at the other end, but I think I managed to keep the different lines of discourse straight in my head. I wasn't entirely successful, though: Dr. Hodges's daughter gave me a look at one point and said, "You talk strange."

The kids are totally bilingual; it was a hoot watching them interact with each other. Dr. Hodges's son is a bundle of energy; his daughter strikes me as very thoughtful (a future academic?).

Dinner was excellent: we started off with a very nice, creamy vegetable soup (I'm guessing broccoli as the main ingredient, but don't quote me on that), accompanied by some delicious homemade bread. "A meal in itself," as Dr. Hodges noted. I had to agree. The main course was bacon-wrapped chicken breast baked with rosemary; along with this were various vegetables: Korean sweet potatoes, squash, and regular potatoes.

At one point during dinner, I suddenly felt claws gently tugging at the fingers of my right hand, which was resting on my thigh. This turned out to be one of the family's two cats, both of which are very friendly. I'm happy to report that, unlike many Korean cats, these cats both have their tails, and the tails are unbroken! I gave both cats the chance to sniff my fingers. They must have decided I wasn't worth killing, because I finished dinner with no further clawing.

Dessert was two kinds of grapes plus chocolate from around the world. Most tasty. Through it all, conversation was pleasant, both erudite and earthy. Very down-home. I came away from dinner with both a full stomach and the impression that I had just been welcomed into a very happy home. Sincere thanks to the good professor and his family for hosting me this evening. I hope one day to repay the favor, though I doubt I can do it by inviting everyone into my studio-sized dorm room.


siesta, followed by errands and dinner

I'm tired as hell after a bad night's sleep. Am gonna take a nap, do some errands, and then head over to Dr. Hodges's Cyclone-fenced domicile for some chow.

It's not every day that one can actually see Dr. Hodges in person. As something of a global celebrity, Dr. Hodges has found it necessary to fortify his home and office to protect himself and his family from the prying eyes of the press and various panty-throwing admirers, female and male.

A Google Earth shot of the good professor's compound reveals a home set inside three concentric circles of electrified security fence, what appear to be guard dogs the size of trailer trucks, and, perhaps most bizarrely, a ring of large-breasted strippers. I assume the latter's role is mainly to serve as a distraction of some sort, to hold an intruder's attention so that the house's roof-mounted Vulcan cannon has time to acquire a lock and blast the target to smithereens.

When I was invited to dinner weeks ago, Dr. Hodges told me that he needed a few items from me for ID confirmation purposes. I was then forced at gunpoint into a dank concrete cell, where I had to provide a lock of hair along with stool, urine, and blood samples. The man is known throughout the Koreablogosphere for his thoroughness; this procedure simply confirmed Dr. Hodges's reputation.

I was then prodded into a metallic teleportation booth. When I stepped out, I found myself in some sort of clinic, where I was asked by a stunningly gorgeous receptionist to fill out a separate form and provide a sperm sample. When I asked why, I was told this was "for Korea University bioweapons research purposes." I shrugged, signed the form, and left a generous sample all over the lovely woman's desk.

Wish me luck this evening. Siesta time now.

UPDATE: My siesta pinishi!


Thursday, November 16, 2006

the uncomfortable implications of belief

A good friend of mine sent me a link to an article by Sam Harris on MSNBC titled "A Dissent: The Case Against Faith." My friend quoted a passage from the article:

We are living in a world in which millions of Christians hope to soon be raptured into the stratosphere by Jesus so that they can safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history.

Not being a theist myself, I see little reason to defend Christianity from the slings and arrows of caricature, but the remark-- especially that pungent phrase "sacred genocide"-- is nevertheless a good starting point for a discussion of the discomfiting implications of faith and doctrine (especially doctrine). Is a thought-system ethical if it leads to sacred genocide?

The problem for "the open-minded" in interreligious dialogue, or in science-religion dialogue, is that fundamental truth claims in any given thought-system are almost inevitably hegemonic. I've blogged about this on several occasions, but this point came to mind again as I was listening to Dr. V.V. Raman on a National Public Radio podcast devoted to Hinduism and science (see here-- with thanks to Mike). In the podcast, Dr. Raman claims, as a scientist who is also a devout Hindu, that truth is one, but its names are many. He gives an example from music: there is music in general, the numerically singular phenomenon, but you cannot listen to "music in general": to learn about music, you have to listen to specific genres, specific artists, specific songs, specific notes. Each specific encounter is a pathway to the One of music. There are many pathways to this One, many manifestations of the One Music. Dr. Raman notes that we should accept that there are different paths and, he adds, we should not attempt to impose our own views on other people.

That latter point is precisely where the danger appears when we talk dialogue and practice: tolerance is a virtue, but it's a specific virtue. If Raman seriously means what he's saying, then he's making a hegemonic truth claim, namely: people with exclusivistic outlooks are doing the wrong thing.

If supposedly open-minded people like Dr. Raman are in fact "committing hegemony," if I may coin a goofy phrase, how much worse, then, are those thought-systems that come to the table with thick sheafs of highly specific doctrines, each representing equally universal claims? Can we all truly be inhabiting a universe in which there both is and isn't a fundamental self? A universe in which there both is and isn't an Abrahamic creator God?

It's not comforting to think about where our doctrines lead us. A pedestrian example, rightly cited by Sam Harris, is this problem of "sacred genocide." If you're a biblical literalist, you probably have to accept that what the scriptures reveal is what will literally happen-- namely, that humanity will experience cataclysmic losses during a period of divinely orchestrated apocalyptic conflict culminating in an eschaton that sanctifies the righteous. Sacred genocide, though, doesn't have to mean the actual killing of the infidel: it may be enough simply to convert him.

This is, on a grand scale, what we see happening among many of the world's major religious traditions today. The planet has become a small place, and all the traditions are competing in essentially the same market. The battle of the religious memeplexes is, at bottom, about survival and propagation. We see this in the Christian scriptures when we look at the Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew (Mt. 28:19): "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." See also Philippians 2:9-11: "Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

It's scary, when you think about it. If certain religious doctrines are taken seriously, if we truly follow their implications, we can conclude with some assurance that the hegemonic character of central religious truth claims will lead to hegemonic behavior. We see a constant stream of evidence of this on the news these days.

Hinduism's pluralism seems to rely on the respect of paradox to get the adherent through the day without clubbing a rival religious adherent over the head. I waver on this issue; I think the appreciation of paradox may have a place in religious thinking, but I'm also chastened by the words of Robert Aitken roshi, who noted that there are no paradoxes in nature. His point is that paradox is something that arises in the mind; it's often just a function of how we draw our maps of reality. Paradox is an irrelevancy, an appendix that adds little to daily practice. Aitken has a point: we do tend to over-complicate matters.

Sam Harris's article seems to be arguing that religion in general is freighted with so many harmful (and ridiculous) beliefs and doctrines that it would be better to jettison the entire enterprise. I seriously doubt that that's going to happen. As long as human beings have brains equipped with pattern-finding ability, we will always inhabit worlds alive with meaning, discovered or invented. But Harris is right to challenge believers to tease out the implications of what they believe, and perhaps to see in what way their beliefs are connected to their actions.