Monday, April 30, 2007

it happened again

"Have I seen you on TV?"

The question-- one I've heard quite a few times during my nearly seven years in Korea, came again today as I was paying a phone bill. The guy behind the desk was eyeing me curiously.

Not long after, I went back to my Smoo office, sat down at my computer, and watched "Lost in Translation," which has been pronounced a chick flick by those near and dear to me. I'd have to agree with that sad diagnosis (and I endured the concomitant ball shrinkage while watching the film), but it was fun to see Bill Murray in the role of a celebrity unused to the tempo of modern Japanese existence. It didn't hurt matters that his co-star, Scarlett Johansson, is such a cutie. May she never undergo breast enhancement surgery. Some breastuses are meant to be left alone.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a washed-up action star who is in a troubled marriage (we hear his wife and kids on the phone; we never see them). He is in Japan for a high-paying gig shooting banner ads and commercials. Mildly freaked out by his surroundings, Bob quickly makes a beeline to the hotel bar. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte (what's with keeping the character names similar to the actors' names? Scarlett/Charlotte? Bill Murray/Bob Harris?), a woman now two years into her marriage to a professional photog who seems barely to pay attention to her. Charlotte sees a post-shoot Bob looking forlorn at the bar; she buys him a drink, and the rest is history.

Only it isn't. As reviewers noted in 2003, the film stays pretty much on the platonic side (with two moments being key exceptions, both somewhat crucial to the plot); Bob and Charlotte spend most of their time talking, looking into each other's eyes, and lying side by side in a bed, barely touching-- two lonely people in an alien world making a brief connection. "Lost in Translation" isn't some cheap fling; it's not about hopping in the sack.

The film was written, directed, and co-produced by Sofia Coppola, who did a fantastic job of capturing the little human moments that many directors miss. While some of the film's humor relies on Murray's typical shtick (e.g., a close encounter with a Nordic Trak and a karaoke scene that will evoke memories of Murray's Not Ready for Prime Time days-- not to mention the masterfully subtle mugging which is Murray's stock in trade), other moments simply arise naturally, a function of the interaction of Coppola's characters.

But as someone living in Korea, I found myself conscious of the fact that Japan was, in this movie, merely a background for a story about two Americans who could have met anywhere. Japan lends the movie its atmosphere, but despite its omnipresence, it never feels fully integral to the plot. I think a Korean audience would see the story much the same way: this was a movie about Americans, by Americans, for Americans. To that extent, the movie's title is somewhat misleading: you think you're going to be in for two hours of cultural malentendus, but what you get is two Yanks staring forlornly at each other over whisky and vodka. Not that this is a bad thing: the story is well-written, deep, and thoughtfully realized. But it's not a movie about culture or translation in any literal sense.

"Translation," here, might make more sense when thought of magically-- as when a character in a fantasy novel is translated from one plane of existence to another. Bob and Charlotte are both experiencing crises, each perhaps about to step through some invisible membrane into another phase of their lives. We don't get to see what that next phase might be, but the journey up to that membrane, the story of two basically decent, well-intended people, is memorable.

Bob Harris, washed-up action star: that's a guy who'd understand my "Have I seen you on TV?" moment.


how not to do journalism

This article, which consists almost entirely of breathless speculation, is inexcusable.

What happened to just reporting the facts?


Sunday, April 29, 2007

some changes to my ad

You might have to hit "refresh/reload" on your browser to see this, but I've made some small tweaks and improvements to the banner ad for Water from a Skull. They are:

1. Slightly more realistic shading of the book images that appear (a) between Grace Park's buttocks in the "Don't make fun of how I read" frame, and (b) in Yoda's hand in the "cough up money, you must" frame.

2. Yoda's quote has been changed to a grammar that more consistently reflects how he speaks in the Star Wars films: "If want this book you do, then cough up money, you must" is the new quote. (Before, it said, ", you must cough up.")

3. All frames now switch at an interval of 7.5 seconds instead of 6 seconds. This gives slow readers like me a chance to enjoy some of the longer quotes.

4. The tube tops of two of the racing girls have been changed to read "Water from a Skull."

5. At the behest of Charles, the Ultimate Fighting Championship ring card girl now has a shirt that says "WFS" instead of "UFC."

6. The quote I enjoyed from Charles's review (one of many) is now part of the ad. I slapped the quote on two consecutive frames, which means it's up there for 15 seconds (7.5 seconds per frame). It's an important quote, so I thought it deserved significant air time.

7. I also added three more frames: (a) a frame of the book cover (slightly distorted to fit the ad's dimensions); (b) a frame that gives the book's subtitle: "Religious Diversity, Christianity, Buddhism, Mind, and Other Things that Matter"; and (c) a "by Kevin Kim" frame with a pic of a somewhat thinner Kevin from about 2002 or slightly before. It's the same pic as appears on the book. Consider this a kind of "predictive programming": when you buy the book, you'll feel as if you're already familiar with it.

8. The baby harp seal in frame 1 of the ad no longer says "fucking," not because I had an attack of conscience, but because Rudy Giuliani says "fucking" in frame 2.

Enjoy the new ad!


functionalism strikes another blow

Scientists using a supercomputer have simulated the activity of part of a mouse brain.

The scientists ran a "cortical simulator" that was as big and as complex as half of a mouse brain on the BlueGene L supercomputer.

In other smaller simulations the researchers say they have seen characteristics of thought patterns observed in real mouse brains.

Now the team is tuning the simulation to make it run faster and to make it more like a real mouse brain.

Brain tissue presents a huge problem for simulation because of its complexity and the sheer number of potential interactions between the elements involved.

The three researchers, James Frye, Rajagopal Ananthanarayanan, and Dharmendra S Modha, laid out how they went about it in a very short research note entitled "Towards Real-Time, Mouse-Scale Cortical Simulations".

Half a real mouse brain is thought to have about eight million neurons each one of which can have up to 8,000 synapses, or connections, with other nerve fibres.

Modelling such a system, the trio wrote, puts "tremendous constraints on computation, communication and memory capacity of any computing platform".

The team, from the IBM Almaden Research Lab and the University of Nevada, ran the simulation on a BlueGene L supercomputer that had 4,096 processors, each one of which used 256MB of memory.

Using this machine the researchers created half a virtual mouse brain that had 8,000 neurons that had up to 6,300 synapses.

The vast complexity of the simulation meant that it was only run for ten seconds at a speed ten times slower than real life - the equivalent of one second in a real mouse brain.

On other smaller simulations the researchers said they had seen "biologically consistent dynamical properties" emerge as nerve impulses flowed through the virtual cortex.

In these other tests the team saw the groups of neurons form spontaneously into groups. They also saw nerves in the simulated synapses firing in a ways similar to the staggered, co-ordinated patterns seen in nature.

The researchers say that although the simulation shared some similarities with a mouse's mental make-up in terms of nerves and connections it lacked the structures seen in real mice brains.

Imposing such structures and getting the simulation to do useful work might be a much more difficult task than simply setting up the plumbing.

For future tests the team aims to speed up the simulation, make it more neurobiologically faithful, add structures seen in real mouse brains and make the responses of neurons and synapses more detailed.

As computational speeds continue to increase, more and more faithful simulations of a mouse's brain will be possible. The improvements in speed, coupled with improvements in miniaturization, will eventually make it possible to produce robotic mice. Whether these mice will be controllable makes for an interesting question, but the important point here is that such simulations of consciousness will continue, and the case for Kurzweilian functionalism will be strengthened. At some point in the next few decades, such simulations will be far more powerful and sophisticated. While I still doubt that a human-level machine consciousness is possible in my lifetime, I think it is possible within the next hundred years. The prospect is exciting.


with thanks to Joel

Joel alerts me to the existence of a French-language Koreablog called Carnets de Corée. Very well-written posts. I've randomly encountered French blogs in my cyber-travels (surfers are "internautes" in French); most of them are written by itchy teens with no notion of spelling or grammar, as is the case in the anglophone blogosphere. Carnets is head and shoulders above the crowd.

For those of you interested in a French perspective of the Korean experience (and, as Joel says, assuming you read French), I highly recommend Carnets de Corée, which is written by a dude with the very French name of Fred. It's also obvious that Fred is far more competent in Korean than I am; his post on ddong-ch'im (piqûre caca??-- the poop sting?) features some of this ability. I'm tempted to translate Fred's piece into English, but I don't want him to feel he's being stalked.


are we back?

The Net is again working from my dorm, but I'm not sure why: the concierge said yesterday that the IT dude wouldn't be by until Monday. Either the hiccup has gone away, or the IT dude was somehow persuaded to come to the dorm a day early. I should check out the building's LAN and see whether it's been splattered with chicken blood and decorated with pentagrams.

Keeping sae ong ji ma in mind, I'm going to assume that online service might fritz out at any time today.


hey, Dad!

A trip like this-- probably with a crowd of other people, unlike Hawking's solo ride-- costs $3500 per person (the plane makes 15 parabolas, offering about 7-8 minutes of zero gee), but might be something to look into, eh?

Stephen Hawking recently took a trip on Zero-G Corp's 727 version of the military C-9 "Vomit Comet." The civilian version of the zero-gee flight is a full-day event lasting several hours, including an introduction and training session at the beginning. Read the FAQ writeup here for more information. It's unfortunate that weightlessness is only for a maximum of thirty seconds at a time, but still-- that's more weightlessness than most of us will ever experience.

Technically, it's not really weightlessness so much as either "free fall" or "microgravity": when the plane is descending rapidly, one's bodily inertia prevents one from descending quite as quickly as the plane for a few moments, thus granting the illusion that one is floating inside the jet. In actuality, one is falling relative to the ground. The term "microgravity" is more appropriate for what astronauts orbiting the earth experience: they are not completely free of the earth's gravity well, which still exerts some force on them.

For blog readers who don't know this: my father has long wanted to be either a pilot or an astronaut. Space travel fascinates him. It fascinates me, too, but I'm waiting for the advent of luxury spaceliners that shuttle people to the moon and back, and for Heinlein-style "ballistic" travel-- imagine going from one continent to another in less than an hour.


from my brother

Nude dude in high heels causes trouble.

When, oh when, will people let go of their medievalism and realize that such men have needs, too?


Saturday, April 28, 2007

down all day

The dorm's LAN has been down all day. It is only now, at almost midnight on Saturday, that I have decided to schlep across the street to campus to use my office's computer to type this blog entry. The dorm's concierge tells me that repairs won't occur until Monday. Fook, shite, piss, diddle.


anyone can be an astronaut... eventually

If Stephen Hawking's pioneering efforts, both on this flight and on the one he plans to take with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic when its rocket is ready, lead to private clinics in orbit, or at least to spaceflight opportunities for people with disabilities, we will have to rethink what it means to be an astronaut.

I bet the above is music to my dad's ears.


Friday, April 27, 2007

la femme et le micro

When a man pictures a woman holding something long and hard in her hands, it's generally a pleasant thought. But the thought isn't quite so pleasant if the imagined object is, say, a hammer, and the woman in our mind's eye is charging us with a crazed look.

Another unpleasant object, I've discovered, is a microphone, and here's why.

On the third floor of the building where I teach, it's the women who tend to use microphones. They walk into a classroom, lean into the mike, and start talking. Innocent enough, you say. But what boggles my mind is that the classroom is invariably too small to justify the use of a mike. I've also seen female lecturers who use the mike to lecture to a large classroom with only one student in attendance.

I shit you not-- this happened in Room 308, right across the hall from my office in 302. It's happened more than once, in fact, and I'm beginning to wonder whether that particular woman is a bit nuts. Hmmm.



Another student bought my book today. I'm not sure how the heck she's going to read it; she's only a Level 1 conversation student. I suppose her reading skills far outstrip her speaking ability.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

I wonder

I wonder what the cashier at the shop down the street thinks when I lumber up with a basketful of disparate items like chlorine bleach and pine nuts.

I wonder how the hell this blog has any female readers.

I wonder what it's like to be a student in my intro-level English class.

I wonder how religious folks will compensate if it turns out that there is indeed human-level intelligence on other planets. Will Christians have to rehash that ancient debate about whether entire peoples count as "unsaved"? Will they start funding evangelical missions to those worlds?

I wonder whether Richard Gere will humbly submit to India's arrest order after that recent osculation incident.

I wonder how many people realize that, when a sentence begins with "I wonder," the proper punctuation at the end is a period and not a question mark (JK Rowling, take note).

I wonder what it would feel like to fall into a lava pit, or to be attacked by a great white shark. OK, scratch that-- I don't wonder.

I wonder when we'll snap out of it and realize that all this conspiracy theory bullshit is leading nowhere.

I wonder why Kevin Koehler scratched out my blog's name on his FAQ page but kept the link to my blog active. Pick one or the other, bud.

[UPDATE: I now know why the link is scratched out: on Koehler's site, all "traveled" links are scratched out. My mistake.]

I wonder how large of a suitcase could be made with my skin.


some reviews of my own

Because I finish around 10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, I decided to catch up on some movies I'd been curious about. I ended up watching three: "I, Robot," "The Fountain," and "X-Men: The Last Stand."

Of the three, "The Fountain" was easily the best, though it's not a film for everyone. "Robot" and "X-Men" were forgettable action fare; "The Fountain," on the other hand, was unabashedly religious in tone and content. The movie's pacing is slow, deliberate, and a bit surreal; the viewer isn't quite sure, by the end of the film, how much of the story was simply a product of the protagonist Tom Creo's* mind. "The Fountain" is, at its heart, a movie about one man's attempt to save his terminally ill wife. I found the film touching, and think it deserves a second viewing.

*Get it? Tom = doubter, like a doubting Thomas; Creo = "I believe."


my first book review!

Charles of Liminality writes in an email:

It is finished. (bows head)

Uh, the review, that is. I gave it a once over and then a twice over, but I was already tired by the time I started the twice over, so who knows how well that went. I didn't want to push it back another day, though, especially since it was all done, so I pushed through. Sorry for making you wait so long for it. With any luck it will not severely damage sales of the book.

Charles's review of Water from a Skull is here. I'm linking to it, but haven't actually read more than a couple sentences. I might update this post with reactions after I'm done.

UPDATE: Humble thanks, Charles. And now I've got a beauty of a quote for the back cover thanks to you:

This isn’t just a book about religious diversity and interreligious dialogue, it is an act of interreligious dialogue in and of itself, and by reading it you engage in that dialogue with the author.

Again, my thanks. Much ass was kicked.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

with thanks to the Maven

My Bible quiz results:

You know the Bible 100%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

I admit I had to guess on a couple questions.

All credit to the Maven, on whose blog I saw this quiz.


a milestone

Dr. Hodges (peace be upon him) recently celebrated the arrival of his 100,000th tracked visitor on SiteMeter. As he notes, he had not installed SiteMeter immediately after establishing his blog, so the visitor count is not entirely accurate. Nevertheless, it will do, and is cause for (belated) celebration.

For me, this was the 4000th post on this blog. It's not my 4000th post, mind you, because I've had a few guest posts on here, and I don't remember how many guest posts there were. It was probably fewer than ten, so this 4000th post marks my 3990-somethingth post.



the new planet

By now you've heard that a European team of scientists, based primarily in Chile, has discovered a planet remarkably like our own, and is excited about (1) the possibility that this world has or can support life, and (2) the possibility that many, many other such Earth-like worlds are scattered throughout the universe. The planet is only 20 or so light years away; it's a next-door neighbor, cosmically speaking.

I somehow doubt the newly discovered planet, which is the most Earth-like world we know of,* is populated with humanoids. It would be interesting to discover whether this planet did, in fact, harbor life of some sort... and if that life turned out to be sentient, I wonder what damage that would do to the vaunted anthropic principle, which claims that only a very narrow set of conditions is conducive to the existence of human or human-like beings. If beings of comparable intelligence and ability have evolved elsewhere, under substantially different conditions, I think it would be wise to toss that principle out as the arrogant tautology it is.

(For more on the tautological nature of the anthropic principle, see here, the "Criticisms" section. Scroll down a ways. In fairness, I should note that whether the principle is a tautology, in either its "strong" or its "weak" forms, is a matter of debate.)

*The planet, Gliese 581c, sports a small, "cold" star, has about twice the earth's gravity, probably has some sort of atmosphere, and has a "year" that lasts only 13 Earth days as it whips around its primary.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Polish and 35": the penis story that must be told

Drudge links to a hilarious article about a maniac in downtown London who charged into an Italian restaurant, ran into the resto's kitchen, grabbed a knife, came back out into the main restaurant, brought forth his hairy tackle, then to the amazement and horror of all, cut it off. This needs to be made into a TV movie. Or it should be the template for "Die Hard 5: Die Softer."*

HORRIFIED diners watched in shock as a maniac sliced off his manhood in a crowded pizza restaurant.

The 35-year-old Pole burst into the Zizzi eaterie in central London and grabbed a knife from the kitchen.

He then leapt on a table and dropped his trousers as customers fled screaming.

A witness said: “There was blood everywhere. Everyone ran out of the place.”

Surgeons battling to save the severed willy tried to sew it back on in the first UK op of its kind.

Quick-thinking cops recovered the organ from the restaurant floor after subduing its crazed owner with CS gas.

The manhood was packed in ice and taken with the man to London’s St Thomas’s Hospital.

A spokesman there confirmed doctors had attempted to re-attach it, but the hospital refused to say whether the procedure had been successful.

The 200-seater restaurant on The Strand in central London was packed with runners and spectators from Sunday’s Marathon.

Sales rep Stuart McMahon, who was eating supper with his girlfriend, said: “This guy came running in then charged into the kitchen, got a massive knife and started waving it about.

“Everyone was screaming and running out as he jumped on a table, dropped his trousers and popped his penis out. Then he cut it off. I couldn’t believe it.

“The staff were really upset and there was blood everywhere.”

Police sped to the scene and restrained and handcuffed the man. Several diners were treated for shock by ambulance crews.

A spokesman for the Zizzi restaurant chain said: “It all happened in a matter of seconds and was obviously extremely frightening and distressing. The manager and staff bravely helped evacuate the restaurant.”

Last night cops were trying to establish the Pole’s background. He had left no identification in the clothing he discarded. A source said: “We believe he’s Polish and 35. We don’t know if he has a history of mental illness, but he’s clearly not a well boy.”

A Met Police spokeswoman said: “Officers arrived to find a 35-year-old man with severe self-inflicted injuries.

“No other people were injured and the man was not arrested. He is now stable in hospital.”

The man will be assessed by psychiatrists following treatment for his wounds and is expected to be held under the Mental Health Act for his own safety.

The diner remained shut yesterday for a clean-up operation. It was due to re-open last night.

The Royal College of Surgeons confirmed this was the first time that anyone in the UK had had their penis sewed back on.

After controlling the blood loss, doctors had to repair the blood supply and reanimate the tissue by rejoining the arteries and veins under a microscope.

Top Italian plastic surgeon Dr Nicolo Scuderi said of the operating technique: “We don’t know how much sensitivity and function will be regained.”

Two warning signs:

1. A restaurant named Zizzi. "Zizi" is kiddie-French for "wee-wee," "thingy," "hot dog," or "junk(s)." (Girls can also say "zizi," though they don't do so quite as often as boys.)

2. The maniac was a... Pole.

Not many men can handle the transition from 34 to 35 with grace. I'm 37, and there have been many occasions when I, too, have wanted to stand on a table in a crowded restaurant and hack off my penis. Believe me, after 35, the urge comes with greater and greater frequency.

Heh. I said "comes."

I hope the paper follows this story up, because I'm sure you're as concerned as I am as to whether our Pole will regain the use of that most important of limbs. Me, I would treat such surgery as an opportunity: like most men, I'd rather have an elephant's trunk down there. Before they put me under for surgery, I would demand a trunk-grafting. The ladies would go nuts, my enhancement would give new meaning to the phrase "cock snot," and I'd finally be able to sniff my lover's uterus while staring deeply into her dark brown eyes.

I'm worried about what a failure might mean for the reputation of UK medicine, and hope those doctors won't be so proud as to shun help from us Yanks. As a filthy American wanker, I'm proud to say that we have far more experience with violently liberated sausages than the average nation does.

*"Live Free or Die Hard," a.k.a. "Die Hard 4," is due out this summer. It stars Bruce Willis and that shrimpy, whiny dude who plays "the Mac" in those Apple commercials.


Dr. Hwang, take note

This is how legitimate science is done in South Korea. Congratulations, ROK!


are you ready for the Worldbeam?

Check out Malcolm Pollack's post on what may become the paradigm that replaces the Worldwide Web. Malcolm links to an article by computer scientist David Gelernter, who is not only a technogeek and Yale prof, but is also famous for having been one of the people unfortunate enough to have received a bomb from Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, in 1993.

I put my ignorance on full display in Malcolm's comment section, where I basically piss and moan about the newness of it all.


Ave, Annika!

Sheryl Crow recently advocated helping the environment by limiting use of toilet paper to one or two squares of paper per session... thereby incurring the wrath of her fellow females, who generally need half a roll of paper to wipe their asses and buff their perineums to a high gloss.

Annika posts the only possible reply to such madness.

UPDATE: There is, however, a way to implement Crow's advice.


more VA Tech fallout

This blog post needs wider play, especially when you scroll down to some disturbing post-massacre YouTube videos, which are a compilation of anti-American sentiment in Korea in the wake of the mass murder.

NB: The above-linked blog post is actually a smorgasbord of links to (and lengthy quotes from) posts you may or may not already have seen elsewhere.


postal scrotum: from the Washington Times

Assistant national editor Robert Stacy McCain of The Washington Times sent me an email in reference to my previous post, in which I wrote:

One article in the Times Online quotes extensively from Camille Paglia (among others) regarding the VA Tech massacre. I hate to say it, but I found Paglia's take disappointing: she, too, has fallen into the trap of interpreting Cho's behavior through the faulty lens of systems and structures. Her rhetoric about frustrated maleness would be more impressive if it had any predictive value, but it doesn't. We're all capable of Monday morning quarterbacking.

McCain links to an online WaTimes article, "Everybody's Got a Theory" (here) in which he writes:


Gun control, mental illness, popular culture -- these are just a few of the factors that have been used by various pundits seeking to explain last week's Virginia Tech massacre.

The shortcomings of theoretical explanations for this nightmare extend even to those theorists whom I admire. Sarah Baxter in the Sunday Times of London quotes Camille Paglia on the Blacksburg killer:

Trapped in the perpetual adolescence of the student, he has become a new monstrous poster child for boys who would rather kill themselves and others than grow up.

Camille Paglia, professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and author of Sexual Personae, believes Cho is emblematic of the crisis of masculinity in America. "Women have difficulty understanding the mix of male sexual aggression with egotism and the ecstasy of self-immolation," she says.

Interesting, if not persuasive. It is possible to share Miss Paglia's view of modern public schools as "boring prisons" and her disdain for the "hook-up culture," without thinking these factors constitute a sufficient explanation for an act of insanity like the killing spree at Virginia Tech.

Social criticism cannot explain Cho's violence for the simple reason that such violence is so extremely rare. There are millions of American college students, and only one of them has ever committed such a horrific massacre. The factors cited by Miss Paglia affect all students; only one reacted as Cho did.

Long before the April 16 shootings, Cho's behavior was recognized as unusual by teachers, fellow students and family members. His grandfather told a Seoul newspaper that, even when Cho was a boy in Korea, he was so quiet there were concerns he might be mute.

Extremely rare events are difficult to explain by theoretical reference to general factors. What happened at Virginia Tech was a rare event, although sadly not rare enough.

-- Robert Stacy McCain, assistant national editor, The Washington Times
Posted on April 23, 2007 12:18 PM

I would like to thank Mr. McCain for writing in. We seem to be on about the same page.


Monday, April 23, 2007

of note

One article in the Times Online quotes extensively from Camille Paglia (among others) regarding the VA Tech massacre. I hate to say it, but I found Paglia's take disappointing: she, too, has fallen into the trap of interpreting Cho's behavior through the faulty lens of systems and structures. Her rhetoric about frustrated maleness would be more impressive if it had any predictive value, but it doesn't. We're all capable of Monday morning quarterbacking.

The Times Online article also angers me because it contains some inexcusable speculation about Cho's state of mind, with the journalist essentially writing fiction in the omniscient third person. Whatever happened to simply reporting the facts?

A second article about the massacre, this time over at MSNBC, is much more to my liking in that it explores the various biological, social, and psychological factors that may or may not lead a person to snap and go on a killing spree. Unfortunately, one major issue-- the individual will-- doesn't make an appearance until the very end of the article, where it seems almost like an afterthought or a punchline.

I wondered at this for a bit, then realized that embarking on a serious discussion about the nature of human will might have been a bit too airy-fairy for a "serious" news outlet like MSNBC. Instead of engaging in some intensive philosophical reflection (which obviously has no place in the realm of public discourse, and would doubtless tax the average reader), the article's writers chose to save their thoughts until the last possible moment. Too bad, that.

A third link is to Dr. Vallicella's blog, to a timely post that cautions us to treat journalistic claims with skepticism. In this post, Vallicella is particularly concerned with the claim that Cho's mass murder was "the worst mass killing in US history." Given what Dr. V has dug up, I will retract-- with apologies-- every instance in which I parroted the claim in question.


French election and RIP

Surprising no one, Sarkozy and Royal advance to the final round of French elections.

Über-lush Boris Yeltsin has entered parinirvana, or some Chinese bootleg version of it. His last words: "You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right."


my other little bro

I miss my brother Sean, and it was with great surprise that, after tracing a SiteMeter hit back to a link for, of all things, an online chihuahua lovers' group, I found a more or less recent picture of my little bro. I had a mawkish moment there, during which I simply stared at the picture of Sean and his dog Maqz and got a bit misty-eyed. Yeah, I miss my brother. I miss both of my brothers.

I haven't met Maqz (pronounced "Max") yet, but I hope to meet him this summer. I also hope Sean will forgive me if I end up skinning and eating his dog. I can't help myself; that chihuahua looks pretty damn yummy.

"Chi" power!


postal scrotum: HK on Cho

HK writes in:

hey kevin,

is facebook also widely popular in korea?

from what ive seen in the last year ive been working at ucla, there are still kids who spend a significant amount of time throwing up comments and updating their facebook pages. completely obsessed.

im just a couple years younger than you, so even if i were to go and sign up, i wouldnt find many of my peers there...

also what do you think (if you did notice it at all) about the cho seung hui vs seung hui cho thing?

do you think this has anything to do with making seunghui ssi seem more foreign somehow?

off the top of my head i know that in general they address korean nationals LASTNAME firstname. ban ki moon. kim jong il. etc.

it's not a big deal but it was kind of weird.

from daily princetonian (who referrred to the nuna as sunkyung cho but little brother as cho seung hui):

While family members of the Virginia Tech gunman have secluded themselves during the last three days to avoid media attention, his older sister, Sun-Kyung Cho '04, reached out to a close friend and spiritual adviser from her Princeton days yesterday, offering the first glimpse of how the shooter's closest relatives are reacting to Monday's killings.

At a discussion forum organized yesterday by the Korean American Students Association (KASA) to help students cope with the shootings, Manna Christian Fellowship director Rev. David Kim told the group that Cho — a member of Manna while at the University — called and talked to him over the phone yesterday morning.

Some of Cho's conversation with Kim focused on the guilt he said she's feeling in the aftermath of her brother's actions. Kim said that Cho apologized for any negative repercussions Koreans on campus may have experienced after Monday's shooting.

The 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui — who shot himself after taking the lives of 32 people Monday on the Virginia Tech campus — immigrated to the United States in 1992 from South Korea, along with Sun-Kyung and their parents.

anyway, it seems that this has largely been corrected since the family has requested several days ago that he be called seung hui cho (and more simply seung cho). he was in america for a long time and basically american after all.

lastly. this is kind of random. after working at smoo... what do you think of same sex schooling, high school and university level?

HK, thanks for writing in.

Regarding Facebook:

I have no clear notion of how popular Facebook is in Korea, but my impression-- which may be completely wrong-- is that Facebook doesn't hold a candle to CyWorld here. Facebook operates on much the same "degrees of separation" principle as CyWorld and Friendster and other such sites. In other words, networks are developed through the whole "I know someone who knows someone..." game. Koreans already on CyWorld probably have little motivation to try out a site that does much the same thing.

To be honest, I'm not all that curious about whom my contacts know. It's cool to look through their photo galleries to get some sense of what they're all about, but I can't see myself getting lost in exploring friends of friends of friends. Call me selfish, but the radius of my interest extends no further than a single degree of separation. I guess I'm not made for Facebook.

Facebook at least has the virtue of not having a sickeningly cute interface, which is what CyWorld seems to feature (and which unfortunately seems to fit current tastes here). I remember Douglas Coupland writing years ago about "the Hello Kittification" of culture in his excellent novel Microserfs, and I'd have to agree with Coupland that it's happening-- especially in East Asia, where the rule is: The more saccharine, the better.

Regarding "Cho Seung Hui" versus "Seung Hui Cho":

I had no idea this was even an issue. I simply thought that different publications were working from different style sheets regarding how to handle Asian names. I haven't tracked which publications are consistently using which appellation.

Regarding same-sex schooling:

I'll be frank and say that, as a man working at a women's university, I'm perfectly happy not to see too many guys on campus.

But to answer your question more seriously: I think the women tend to breathe easier when they're with other women. Study after study in various cultures has shown that, when women find themselves in coed groups, they often tend to feel neglected by the teacher and/or they become withdrawn, perhaps even intimidated. I've noticed that many of my students speak out resentfully about men (by which I mean Korean men, since I'm in Seoul) who act in a overly traditional manner-- e.g., saying things like "I'm older than you, so you need to listen to me," and so on. Such behavior drives women up the wall; it's so "ku-saedae" style.

The ladies are ready to embrace the twenty-first century, I think... but then again, I have a feeling that some of these women wouldn't be so outspoken in a mixed classroom. That's a shame; some of my favorite students are the most willful and outspoken (though some willful students simply come off as ungrateful beeyotches with bugs up their asses-- willful simply for the sake of being willful). Being able to stand up to a guy in public (by using reason and not by being an irrational harpy) is a very attractive trait.

The downside for women at Smoo is precisely what I enjoy about the place: the general lack of men. Any number of students in my classes have sighed wistfully when describing the dryness of the dating scene in this part of town. But I'm not quite sure what the problem is; we're a very short taxi ride from some of the biggest (and funnest) universities on the peninsula-- Yonsei and Hongdae come immediately to mind, with Hongdae being the most bumpin' location.

What's more, quite a few women in my classes do have (or claim to have) boyfriends. What routinely astonishes me, though, is how many women admit to never having had a boyfriend. I can't imagine an American chick proclaiming before a class of strangers, "Guys, I'm a virgin." And an American guy who did the same thing would feel obliged to commit hara-kiri soon after.

Aside: the "boyfriend" thing is itself a complicated issue. Many ladies here say "I have a boyfriend" when what they mean is "I see a guy on occasion and we do a restaurant, see a movie, or otherwise engage in a level of dating that implies no deep commitment." Here, the word "boyfriend" isn't quasi-synonymous with "fuck buddy" as it would be on most American campuses. Of course, this isn't true for all Korean women claiming to have boyfriends, not by a long shot. Today's women aren't particularly prudish, if shrinking miniskirts are a reliable metric. Many "boyfriended" women are pretty serious about their man.... though it's extremely rare for me ever to see those boyfriends on campus.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

un bref parcours

Some links to finish off my Sunday:

First: A nicely written 2005 essay that analyzes Star Wars, with special attention to the Gnostic angle. This reminds me of the long-ago essay over at Corporate Motherfucker in which "The Matrix Reloaded" is also analyzed Gnostically. (I couldn't help noticing that the two writers have markedly different notions of Gnosticism.)

Second: Markandeya has a post featuring a YouTube clip of a cable show in which a woman goes on hilariously about "the power of the penis." Better than Dr. Ruth, and probably more useful, especially to ladies who have steady, Joe Normal boyfriends, yet find themselves hungry for some uterus-slamming stud steak.

Third: Gord also posts a YouTube vid, but in this case it's about the creative hijacking of a lecture by students who have sold their souls to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Fourth: ML sends me a link to an article about a prof who was fired after (1) staging a reenactment of the VA Tech massacre and (2) claiming that, had students been armed, this massacre would have been cut short.


zee French, zey are voting

Le soleil brille...
le ciel est bleu...
les mouches pètent...
et les Français, eux, ils votent...

It appears that not much has changed over the past couple months: rightist Nicolas Sarkozy and leftist Ségolène Royal remain the top two contenders for the French presidency, with fully forty percent of the voting population undecided as to how their country should proceed. As the article says, Sarkozy represents a more pro-American path, but his policies will not be labor-friendly and he will expect workers actually to work instead of relying on government support, especially if France wishes to remain globally competitive. To choose Royal would be to choose an even more overtly socialist route, one which would include government subsidies for youth jobs.

It will be interesting to see what future France chooses for itself. The election won't be decided until the final round of voting on May 6; the current vote is a preliminary that will narrow down the candidate field.


the Facebook experiment

It started as a lark, but I have found myself sucked into the vortex known as Facebook, an online service in the spirit of other services that allow people to connect with each other according to the famous "degrees of separation." Much like the Force, Facebook is an energy field created by all living beings; it surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.

Well, OK; Facebook is far less cosmic than that. It's a service on which you can slap up photos (of yourself, your pets, your friends, your relatives, etc.), create a profile, plug yourself into various "groups" and "networks," and suddenly find yourself part of an instant community that exchanges notes. It's like discovering you're a cell that belongs to several bodies. I admit I'm not much into such things, not being an avid joiner. I don't recall having joined a single club while in college, though I did join some clubs in high school... largely to pad the resume for college entrance purposes. Ahem.

So I initially pooh-poohed the idea of setting up a meaningful Facebook entry, but have decided that it could be a good way to insinuate myself into groups that might be interested in my book. My interest in Facebook, then, is largely pragmatic (I was amused to see that both of my brothers are on Facebook, and they never told me). For some odd reason, though, I am unable to join groups from my Mac at home; I may need to lumber/waddle to the office and try joining them from there.

Facebook has cultural implications, as it seems to rely as much on the notion of "the uninvited guest" as on invitations. What can this bode for face-to-face interactions in future?

Then again, bars and nightclubs have a similar dynamic, right? You saunter up to somebody and go, "Hey, baby, joo lookin' fine," and start grindin' to the music. So maybe I should think of Facebook as a sort of cyberspace bar or nightclub.

Which means I'm probably going to have many drinks thrown in my face. But, hey-- if the drink-thrower buys my book, then that's all right by me.


where it's really happening

Many Americans are worried about the stripping away of their civil liberties by the Bush administration. There is some reason to worry, I think, but people who believe that a permanent power structure is being put in place are wrong: the next administration might very well undo the damage, real or perceived, of this one.

If you want an eerie glimpse of what happens when a government consolidates its power, go take a look at what's happening in Russia. There is genuine cause for worry as Russia continues to squelch free speech within its own borders. People who watch Russia have been talking about the ominous trends of the past few years as Putin and his flunkies appear increasingly to be moving into authoritarian mode, resurrecting the phantoms of the old Soviet Union. This new move to control radio is yet another step in that direction.

One thing I have long wished of the Bush administration was better use of Condi Rice. The woman speaks fluent Russian; she knows the country-- its history, its culture, its politics. She is now engaged in talks with Russian officials as the US and Russia mull the linkage of their missile defense systems. When I first read the news that this was happening, I had to resist slamming my head against my desk because one thought dominated all the others in my mind: Why the fuck did we wait so long? I'm not talking about the missile defense system talks; I'm talking about the prominent use of Condi in Russian affairs.

Diplomacy with Russia is important on a number of levels (I'd like to invite my buddy Mike D to comment more extensively on this); it can affect, for example, the flow of the six-way talks involving North Korea. It can also affect Russia's attitude toward Western Europe, which has been held hostage in recent years as Russia has jiggered with the price and availability of the fuel it sends to Europe. Good relations with Russia can also affect relations with China, and perhaps allow us a bit more political influence in places like the Middle East, where our enemies often turn to Russia for help against us.

I'm not saying it all comes down to Condi, but I do think that the Bush administration has long waffled a golden opportunity to improve relations with a large and important country, and it's been uncomfortable for me to watch Russia slide deeper into its old, totalitarian ways. I admit I had high hopes for Putin at first. When the submarine disaster happened early in his tenure, I was willing to attribute his ineptitude to lack of leadership experience. As former KGB (I reasoned), Putin was probably still shedding the secretive habits of that organization and learning how to be a public leader. But as mistake after mistake continued to occur, and as Putin proved less effective than I had hoped in dealing with the Mafia elements entrenched in Russian government, my disappointment grew. So I don't think our wasting of diplomatic capital is in any way a cause of Russia's backsliding; Putin and his government bear full responsibility for that. But our own slowness hasn't helped the situation, either.

Ah, well. One of these days I need to grab one of these lanky, cute Russian ladies taking Korean classes in my building, and ask them what's up with their government.


horrifying chronology

The New York Times offers a succinct chronology of the second part of Cho's rampage here.


an oldie but a goodie

Here's a repost of one of my favorite moments from an old strip I worked on for a bit, "Cosmic Import." May it put a smile on your face.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

levity to compensate for gravity

Another viral meme: Will Ferrell's video sketch "The Landlord," which I found after surfing over to this entry at Grumpy Old Bookman.


insult to injury

One of the darkest forms of Christianity in the States, the Westboro Baptist Church and its "God Hates Fags" movement, will be picketing the funeral of Ryan Clark, one of the first victims of Cho Seung-hui's killing spree.

Don't let me near these people.


Cho, the responsible

I've noted this before, but it's worth noting again:

In his little book Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, philosopher Herbert Fingarette distinguishes two senses of the word "responsible." In the first sense, being responsible means being the locus of a given action. In the second sense, it refers to being an accountable moral agent. The first sense applies when we think of, say, a bear attacking someone: no one seriously attributes malice to the bear. The second sense is more in line with how we approach premeditated murder: the killer is not only the enactor of the murder; he is also someone who can be held accountable for having done wrong.

How responsible was mass murderer Cho Seung-hui for his actions? My purpose in this essay is to affirm that Cho was ultimately responsible for his actions, that he is indeed the proper object of blame, but that freedom and responsibility are complex concepts that necessarily lead us outward from Cho to the question of how his actions are interconnected with both internal and external factors. The purpose here is not to present facile, pat answers, but to gain an appreciation of the problem and promote some reflection thereupon.

As the news agencies allow us to delve further into the troubled psyche of Cho Seung-hui, theories are being put forth as to the nature of Cho's insanity. I don't think anyone questions that Cho was insane, but there has been speculation as to whether Cho's pathology was exacerbated by a condition like autism or its close cousin, Asperger syndrome. If I had to choose between the latter two, I would choose Asperger's (see here and here for a description of each condition).

I've written before that compulsions and human freedom are not mutually exclusive:

Human freedom works in and through one's compulsions, impulsions, and other assorted predispositions. The circumstances in which we are presented with only one explicit path to follow are exceedingly rare. I take people, including those deemed "depressed" or "drunk" or "insane," to be responsible for what they do. Even the victims of cognitive disorders documented in books like Oliver Sacks's classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat are able to articulate a worldview emanating from their peculiar brand of rationality.

Consider this: if you hold the victimological position that someone is, say, irretrievably insane, then it would be consistent to advocate euthanasia for that person. What, after all, elevates that person above the status of a rabid dog? We shoot or euthanize such dogs. What "humanity" are we responding to, that we feel the need to keep an insane human being alive? In the case of a rabid dog, an entity that is a danger to itself and to others, we choose a practical solution that grants us, the potential victims of the dog, permanent peace of mind.

Yet most members of the victimological school of thought would recoil in horror at the idea of euthanising (or shooting!) the dangerously mentally ill. I find this hypocritical. If someone is a complete victim, that person's no longer a person. A more consistent stance would affirm that, even in the insane, there exists some measure of freedom and choice. If we are unable to grant the existence of that freedom, we are unable to grant that person's humanity. If we are unable to grant that humanity-- to the memory hole!

Whether the horizon of our choices be wide or narrow, choice exists, and therefore freedom exists (NB: I've argued the same thing re: Muslim sensitivity to those Muhammad cartoons-- the Muslims who get violent at the sight of such cartoons are to blame for their violence; they have the choice to react violently or not). To that extent, people are accountable for what they do. When you know a person is depressed and suicidal, you don't treat him or her like an automaton. You don't bring out the cattle prod, the chains, and the straitjacket right away: you reason with that person. You beg, cajole, coax, implore, argue, wheedle, rage-- whatever it takes to help that person see the light, or at least see that someone cares about them. You don't throw up your hands in defeat and say, "OK... it's your decision. Go jump if that's what you want."

It is not as though the insane are completely closed off from what happens in the world. They generally react to stimuli-- their physical surroundings, the speech and actions of others, and so on. In Cho's case, we see he was fully capable of speaking fluent (if incoherent) English at length; he was probably influenced by movies; he was also capable of calmly planning and executing his massacre. Cho interacted quite capably with the outside world. To say that Cho was at a point where he had no other alternatives (as he himself seems to argue in his video) is to absolve him of his crime, to grant him animal status and remove the possibility of blame. I reject that point of view.

Cho was, to some extent, a prisoner of his compulsions, but at bottom, he was free to do what he did. His plan took time; he made choices at every step, and at every step, he could have chosen another path.

But the boundaries of human freedom are hard to determine. I've written on this before:

[H]ow expansive is human freedom? This has always been a problem with arguments about free will: they rarely seem to consider the nature of the interaction between the purportedly free agent and the agent's surroundings. Do I reside inside some invisible "sphere" of freedom? Does my skin define the boundary of my freedom?

Obviously, the above is ridiculous: first, my skin is porous and is constantly replacing itself; it's not a definite boundary. At the microscopic level, it becomes very difficult to see where "I" end and "my external circumstances" begin. Second, my surroundings are often no less an extension of will than my material body. I get into a car; the car itself articulates my will as I move toward my destination or follow my whim. My tea mug comes to contain tea because I set in motion a series of "circumstances" that culminate in the tea-poured-into-mug event. I throw a rock. Fire a gun. Launch a nuke. Shout an obscenity. Type a blog post.

What, then, are the boundaries of human freedom? A single person can profoundly alter the course of history: Jesus, Hitler, Rosa Parks. A mass of people can get together and make almost no ripple in history. The boundaries of human freedom seem impossible to define; the effects of human action seem impossible to calculate.

I believe that Cho is, in the end, a perpetrator and not a victim. I feel no pity for him. And while I reject analyses of the massacre that focus primarily on systemic reasons for Cho's actions, it would be wrong to deny that Cho and his environment existed-- like everything else-- within a larger web of interconnectedness and intercausality. This web ensnares us all; it is this web that now resonates with pain as people with direct and indirect connections to Virginia Tech try to puzzle out the horror of what happened.

Did Cho's family life play some role in the killings? Perhaps, but this doesn't take into account how Cho's sister turned out so differently. Did Cho's lack of a social life throughout elementary, middle, and high school play a role in his rampage? Undoubtedly, but most marginalized children-- including those with mental problems-- do not eventually become homicidal.

It is legitimate to ask questions about Cho's background; the danger is to focus first on the individual and then extrapolate from that to larger, systemic causes, thereby reaching the false conclusion that "we created Cho." No, we didn't. Cho might be said to fit several profiles-- the profile of the loner who goes berserk, or the profile of the Asperger's child, or the profile of a certain class of psychopath. But as we have seen in the past, the analysis of these profiles has little predictive power. As debate over what to do next intensifies, I hope that people will keep this in mind. Clamping down on guns, arming college students and professors, psych-profiling students and employees, beefing up building security, having a "national discussion" of whatever people think are the salient issues-- none of these measures is likely to result in the prevention of more such mass murders. When someone sets their mind to destroying something, they usually succeed if they are careful and methodical. Cho was both.

The above doesn't mean we simply give up and await the Grim Reaper, of course. People are free to experiment with security measures and have their discussions; it may be possible to affect the frequency with which such horrors occur, and this, too, is a sign of our human freedom: we can indeed manipulate circumstances.

Freedom and responsibility are often hard to define, whether in the abstract or in specific cases like that of Cho Seung-hui. We cannot expect all of what happened to make sense; at the same time, we cannot arrest all speculation, because there is a chance that some potentially useful information will be uncovered. We cannot see Cho as a person out of context; he lived among us, affecting and being affected by his environment. But we most assuredly cannot absolve Cho of the wrong he did. Some of us might see our way clear to forgiving him, but even forgiveness is an acknowledgement that a wrong has been done.


Ave, Brian!

Check out this Markandeya post about one piece of cartoon fallout from the VA Tech massacre.


Friday, April 20, 2007

a little death

A little death just occurred, and I'm not talking about orgasm. No: at 8:42pm-- not even a minute before I began typing this entry-- I killed my first mosquito of the year. Cheeky little fucker.

Welcome to 2007, asshole.


Cho's inner life

The Lost Nomad links to an article claiming that mass murderer Cho Seung-hui was diagnosed with autism not long after his arrival in the States as an elementary schooler.

Does autism absolve Cho of his crime? Not at all, as I'll be arguing in another post. For the moment, though, it should be noted that the Daily Mirror article quoted by the Nomad offers only the claim that Cho was declared autistic by a doctor; no reliable evidence for that claim is cited. The Nomad is correct to end the title of his blog post with a question mark. At this point, we simply don't know.

Linguistic aside: the Sino-Korean term for autism is very evocative: ja-pyae-jeung. Literally, "self closed symptom."


on the lighter side

I got my first "You look as though you're losing weight" remark from a female colleague today. Here's hoping the trend continues. To be honest, I don't think this week is going to be quite as good as last week was (and last week's loss was mediocre, given my weight goal and time frame). We'll see what's up (or, we hope, down) on Monday morning.


on comments

My comments policy, perhaps not clearly stated, is to disallow anonymous comments. Twice now, I've had to reject comments that were insightful and even witty-- not because I was offended by them (it should be obvious that I allow disagreement in the threads), but because they lacked a name.

The most recent rejected comment was actually pretty funny. I was sad to nix it. If the commenter would care to re-post that comment, with a name this time, I would be happy to slap it up on the blog. (The comment in question was about "KOREAN SHAME CULTURE.")

There are only two exceptions to this policy: (1) whenever my brother David leaves one of his raving comments (easily recognizable thanks to all the capital letters and screaming locutions-- "NOOOOOO!" and such), I automatically post it; and (2) in the case where a known commenter informs me by email that an anonymous comment is actually his or hers, I will gladly let the comment through moderation.

Just FYI, folks. Thanks.


VA Tech massacre cartoons:
ruthlessly stolen

I got a rare hit from a MySpace page on which a very large entry quoting from several of us Koreabloggers was posted. I noticed that the blogger had put up two Korean-language cartoons, which he had labeled respectively as "good" and "bad," and which he had also translated (I can't vouch for the accuracy of these translations). I'm ripping those cartoons off for you to see, but credit goes to MySpace Mike for having brought them to my attention.

The "good" cartoon and its translation:

The shooting suspect, Korean!?
(On the man's shirt is written "Overseas Korean")

And below is the "bad" cartoon and its translation:

Bang, bang, bang...
In one bang, 33 people....This reconfirms the superiority of our gun technology.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

VA Tech shootings: information overload

By now, you've doubtless seen the NBC news clips about VA Tech shooter Cho Seung Hui's video, which he had sent to NBC studios in New York City. If not, click the video links on this page and just keep watching. Cho sent NBC a video and a manifesto of sorts, in which were text and photos of Cho in various poses with guns and ammunition.

You're probably also aware that Cho was checked into a hospital at one point, and was released after being found a danger to himself; that he freaked out teachers and classmates with his creepy, belligerent behavior; that there is research going on as to the significance of the red-lettered inscription on one of Cho's arms: Ismail Ax; that one of Cho's menacing photographs shows him in a pose remarkably similar to that of Choi Min-shik in the Korean revenge drama "Old Boy."

Of great interest to me was a link (via Drudge) to an article about a high school girl named MacKenzie Swigart, who started up a website devoted to the forgiveness of Cho for his crimes. While I'm in no mood to forgive, I appreciate Swigart's efforts and take a dim view of the people attacking her and her site. Registering disagreement with her is one thing; insulting her for being compassionate is another.

The massacre is not merely a matter of private grief; its horrifically public nature guarantees that it will be picked apart by all manner of interested parties: religious figures, politicians, lawyers, journalists, college students and professors across the country, conspiracy theorists, diplomats, and so on, each with an agenda. The feast has already begun and will continue, especially as we obtain more clues about what Cho was doing and thinking.

The human desire to make sense of this tragedy will inspire a wide variety interpretations. I share Charles's opinion that it is hopeless to make sense of nonsense, though I remain curious as to what other hints Cho left behind for us, the living, to ponder.

Like Charles, I'm curious about Cho's parents, about his family life, about how he dealt with life in America, and what might have caused him to shut himself off from basic human interaction. I'm curious about what made Cho different from other Koreans who have come over to the States and, despite whatever hardships they have endured, have managed to achieve something in our society. I doubt there will be any clear answers to these questions, but I'd be lying if I said such questions weren't thronging in my mind.


Ave, Iceberg!

In a post related to the VA Tech massacre, Scott at The Iceberg has some choice words for the "usual suspects" in some blog comment threads.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

postal scrotum: Jason sounds off

Jason sends me the following email:

Thank you for your essay on Korea's fear of a backlash, Kevin. My wife and I actually had a pretty frank discussion about this same issue last night with me making many of the same points as you do (although not as articulately, I'm afraid). What got us started on this was the Hankyoreh's statement yesterday, which featured the standard expression of sadness before it veered into some unexpected territory when it called on Americans to avoid stirring up racial violence against Koreans or something similar to that.

WHOA! Where'd that come from? Project much lately?

I've read a lot of expressions of sadness in the past two days but this was the first time I've seen such an awkward expression of defensiveness tacked on like that. My wife took issue with my observation, saying Koreans actually now more than ever need to circle the wagons because there would be reprisals against Americans if this had happened in Korea with an American shooter.

Like you, I think Koreans have indeed gone into CYA mode over this, largely because they for all their superficial modernity most still find the outside world a puzzling, scary place and have a hard time imagining how others may deal with crises and emotions differently. I know that comes off sounding a bit condescending but after considering my wife's argument and looking back on Korea's shared narrative of perpetual victim of outside powers and the occasional outpouring of rage against things foreign, I think it is still very much a closed society bound by traditional notions of revenge-- as illustrated by the anti-American demonstrations in 2003-- and shame (see the Korean ambassador's ridiculous call today for members of the KorAm community to fast for 32 days in penance for Cho's acts, something that made even my old-skool wife say ,"the FUCK?" when she read it). It should be noted, though, that every human being fears what he or she does not understand, and that holds true no matter which country you come from. It's how we deal with and overcome that fear that makes us different. Have I rambled on enough? I think so.

Anyway, I hear KorAms are pretty scared right now down there... my secretary's son went to Va Tech (actually remembers seeing the shooter lifting in the gym last year in a weird, silent Robert Patrick-in-T2 sort of way) and he told his mom that Asian students there are wary of going to class now for fear of "redneck reprisals." So many victims from NoVA; one just graduated last year from Annandale High, less than a mile from my old apartment. I've also heard reports that Cho's father has committed suicide after slitting his wrists and his mother is in the hospital after drinking some sort of poison. WaPo mentions Cho's sister is a Princeton grad now working as a human resources contractor for the State Dept. I cannot begin to imagine the pain she's going through now.

Sucks all around, man. I'll keep you posted if I hear anything more.


My students told me about Cho's parents on Wednesday morning. I had been combing the news fairly religiously and had seen nothing, so I dragged my ladies over to the teachers' office and we searched online in the English-language articles for any evidence of this. I found an article that said that the Korean news agency Yonhap had reported that Cho's father had committed suicide and that his mother had drunk poison, but that this was a rumor and that the parents were simply in shock over what had happened. My students looked sheepish and then APOLOGIZED to me for having quoted a rumor. I was agog at their behavior, and told them they had no need to apologize: in the immediate wake of a tragedy like this, things are bound to be confused.

I'm waiting for news from my father about whether some students who are part of my church's congregaton are all right. A couple of them attend Tech, I think. (At least, they did a couple years ago; I haven't kept up with current events.)

Thanks for writing.


Ave, Charles!

Be sure to check out Charles's essay on the VA Tech massacre.

(Forgot to mention: today, the 18th, is Charles's birthday. Use that funky email form at the bottom of his post to send him BDSM erotica. He likes that. The more obscene, the better. Especially if it's got animals in it. That's what he told me.)


why Korea has little to fear

As the Virginia Tech tragedy continues to play out in the media, it has become obvious to many pundits in the Koreablogosphere and the mainstream media that Korea will default to Cover Your Ass mode. This will include loudly questioning how a Korean could possibly have done such a terrible thing, as well as focusing not on the thirty-two people who were killed, but on the question of American Backlash Against Us.

I think the fear of backlash is largely unjustified. America is stereotyped as a land of shotgun-toting bumpkins, ruled by a fear born of ignorance, but this is far from the case: our country is still one of the most welcoming (if not the most welcoming) nation on earth when it comes to immigrants and the tolerance of difference. If you judge us by our bumpkins, we'll feel free to judge you by yours. That's only fair, I think.

What you won't see in America is mass demonstrations by non-Koreans shouting, "Go home, Korean bastards!" What you might see is random acts of vandalism and perhaps the occasional act of violence as the ignorant among us show off their stupidity. These incidents will be few and far between. American "Netizens" will not be secretly cheering these punks on, and signs saying "Koreans Not Welcome" will not be appearing on restaurant and shop windows. Groups of wild-eyed white folks will not be burning Korean flags, and no Koreans will be lynched. As one commenter at the Marmot's Hole suggested, the Korean fear of the American reaction to this mass murder is sourced in projection, because as we expats know, Korea often slips easily into heedless massmind behavior. Perhaps from the Korean point of view, such a reaction is natural. But most Americans don't roll that way.

Koreans will probably latch upon every isolated instance of violence and take it as confirmation of their suspicion of a larger anti-Korean trend. When no such trend appears, many Koreans will simply drop the issue without publicly admitting they were mistaken. Such behavior isn't unique to Koreans, of course; I see it in all-Westerner comment threads all the time.

What's truly unfortunate is that some Koreans will also remember that certain Americans did, in fact, attack people who either were or looked Arab in the wake of 9/11. But as the years after 9/11 have shown, attacks on Muslims and mosques were nothing on the scale of what still happens in places like France, where Jewish schoolchildren are sometimes assaulted by Muslim children, and Jewish synagogues and cemeteries are routinely burned or defaced. I highly doubt that gangs of anti-Korean Americans will prowl the streets in search of Korean churches to spraypaint or Korean businesses to vandalize. If such gangs do appear, they will be the glaring exception, not the rule, and I will abominate them along with scandalized Koreans. What happened to certain Muslims in the months after 9/11 was unjustifiable, of course, but it needs to be put in perspective.

One reason why I think America will not react badly toward Koreans is that, in the wake of the VA Tech killings, Korea's reaction was not the same as Palestine's after 9/11. There, in Gaza, thousands of esctatic Muslims poured out into the street in celebration. As I recall, Korea's reaction immediately following 9/11 was the same as the rest of the civilized world's: there was an outpouring of sympathy from the peninsula to the States. Many of us Americans remember that and are grateful. Korea's reaction now, while perhaps selfish in the Cover Your Ass sense, is a far cry from jubilation in the streets. It is, in my opinion, a civilized reaction: people here are shocked, reflective, critical, and self-critical. Americans have doubtless taken note of this. Given that many Komerican communities routinely practice some form of neighborhood outreach, I doubt that those communities are in danger of being attacked and plundered.

In fact, if America's stupid people do rouse themselves to violent action, I suspect that many of them will hit the wrong targets: Chinese and Vietnamese and Japanese folks just minding their own business. So my message to Korea this evening is: remain calm. And if something does happen in the States, don't take that as evidence of an ominous trend. Such fear is self-justifying and self-perpetuating. Wait until there actually is a plottable trend before letting us have it in your papers and TV news. Remain at your civilized best.

Some bitter foreigners may find this hard to admit, but Korea is an eminently civilized country. Look around you, expats, and notice the distinct lack of AK-47s firing into the air. Koreans have little to fear from us, and we have little to fear from them.


VA Tech shooter's name:
spelling update

The killer's name is now being spelled as the more normal 조승희, which was one of my original guesses. Sorry about the confusion, but I'll say in my defense that I was quoting off the headlining Naver article at the time. That article has unfortunately disappeared (and the link in my previous post has gone dead), leaving no trace of the original spelling (is it cached somewhere?). So: Cho Seung Hui is indeed a decent romanization of the Korean name.

The first spelling, 조승휘, might have been a simple typo: the "ㅜ" and "ㅡ" vowel keys are next to each other on the keyboard.

Ah-- I wasn't hallucinating the earlier spelling. Check this out. (Link in Korean.)


depression, suicide, and homicide

I'm off to teach classes (it's 7:05am as I type this), but watch this space for an essay later today about depression, suicide, and homicide. Those who read my blog regularly already know my opinion on whether a person "off his meds" can and should be held responsible for extreme acts.


VA Tech shooter's note: a tantalizing glimpse

A Yahoo! News UK/Ireland article says that Cho Seung Hui's note included a complaint about "rich kids."

The man who shot dead 32 people in the worst ever massacre on an American university campus left a note complaining about "rich kids", say reports.

Funny... I've long heard Koreans complain about rich, overprivileged kyopos who come to Korea and act as though they own the place, spending Mommy and Daddy's money in trendy locales like Apkujeong, wasting time in clubs, picking up all the wrong habits from the surrounding culture. I sympathize with many of those complaints, but I don't recall any of the complainers saying, "You know... I'd like to kill all those people." Why is that? Because most of us are sane.

Cho apparently lived in the States for at least 14 years (sources differ on his length of stay); he was a green card holder, a Korean national. The diplomatic dimensions of this incident are obvious. The South Korean government is worried about an American backlash against Koreans (I referred to this in my previous post), but I trust that most Americans are sensible enough to realize that one crazy individual's actions are no reason to look askance at an entire race or community.

Attributing this lone gunman's actions to a pervasive systemic problem or set of problems is a non-starter. Culture offers no hints; millions of Koreans suffer under the pressure to achieve, and the nation is not filled with mass murderers. Race offers no hints; the stereotype is that Koreans are passionate and often irrational, which fails to explain how a crowded nation of almost 50 million people can live, jammed together, without going nuts and devouring each other.

The desire for systemic answers, as opposed to viewing this incident as what it was-- the act of an individual-- is dangerous. It can lead to all the wrong conclusions, leaving us scratching our heads when a similar horror happens later. We shouldn't look at this crime through the lens of race or nation or society or culture. We should instead look at it through the lens of individuality. We should study that man's life and understand that man's actions. That's the approach that will eventually uncover the most clues, and will offer those who grieve the most sense.

UPDATE: Cho went to Westfield High School in Fairfax County. That's my home county. I don't know that high school at all (there are, I think, 23 high schools in Fairfax), but I have to wonder what the senior-year yearbook entry for Cho was. I wonder what his parents are going through right now. And strangely, I wonder whether my mother might know Cho's parents, or know of them. Northern Virginia has a large Korean community. It's not exactly tight-knit, but the folks do network. My own selfish thought arises: how many degrees of separation are there between me and this killer?

I also see that Cho's note wasn't a mere note: it went on for pages, and included sinister locutions like "You caused me to do this." I hope the entire text is published at some point. We'll have a few answers then.

UPDATE 2: My buddy Dave, who did his undergrad and PhD work at Tech, has written a short piece over at Naked Villainy. One of his professors was killed in the rampage. You can read about Dr. Librescu here.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

the VA Tech shooter is KOREAN

[UPDATE 3 (top o' the page; other two updates are at the bottom): The killer's name is now being spelled as the more normal-sounding "조승희" on Naver news. The first Naver link I gave you has gone dead.]

The name of the VA Tech shooter is Cho Seung Hui (조성희 or 조승희; I don't know which at this moment,* but I'll check Korean sources when I'm back from my hike). He was a senior in the English department and was a permanent resident of the US. Cho apparently left some sort of note before his rampage.

I'm morbidly curious as to how the Korean media will be handling this. This is one of those times I wish I read Korean fluently. As things are, I'll have to wait until the Korean news is distilled by Korean-proficient bloggers.

Among bloggers, the political dimensions of this incident are already starting to play themselves out. Check out Markandeya for one liberal perspective here, and Annika for a conservative perspective. So now the question is whether the note Cho left behind gives some explanation for why he went on the killing spree. If there's a hint that his feelings were anti-American, that he was striking a blow against society... well, times will get interesting on both sides of the Pacific.

(With thanks to Mike for the email alerting me to this.)

UPDATE: The shooter's name is the strange-sounding 조승휘 (Jo Seung Hwee). I caught this off news, here. NB: This is a "hot issue" link and will likely go dead in a day or so.

UPDATE 2: One friend already wrote to express anger at the Korean media's attempt (one source's attempt, anyway) to regard this incident through the lens of nationalism/race: Hopefully, This Will Not Lead to Racism. I agree with this friend that such a concern is selfish, given that the horrifying reality, the primary fact, is that thirty-two people were just murdered. If this becomes a racial and/or diplomatic issue, instead of an issue about a horrible crime committed by a single individual (who certainly does not represent most Koreans), that will be quite sad. It will mean that the event is already spinning out of control as far too many large issues get sucked into the media vortex. First things first: what are the facts? What was on the killer's note? Where was the killer during those crucial two hours before he slaughtered thirty more people after killing his first two?

At this point, it would seem the killer's motives were wider in scope than a mere "lover's tiff" can explain. I hope the authorities can piece something together and begin to make some sense out of this. Then, and only then, should people start making their sweeping pronouncements. Meanwhile, as I just wrote another friend: if there's a hell, I hope Cho is burning in it.

*Many Koreans tend to romanize the "aw" sound as "eu" these days, which drives me nuts. NB: As you see in the above update, the proper Korean spelling is 조승휘, which would be pronounced "Jo Seung Hwee."


forging ahead

It's hard to know what to write in the face of a tragedy like the VA Tech massacre. We have to mourn the dead, but we also have to look forward.

To that end, and in the knowledge that our hearts and minds are still flying flags at half-staff for the 32 murder victims and their families, I offer some moments of profundity and levity.

First is Charles's thoughtful review of the movie "300," in which he explores the nature of heroism. He notes that, after the movie, his wife remarked that she spends her days making "trivial" choices-- this in contrast to the choices made by people who find themselves in extremis. It seems somehow apropos to highlight Charles's essay in the wake of what happened, especially as some of us imagine what we would have done in such a situation.

Second is a cute YouTube video of a dog gone over to the dark side of the Force.

Third is my very first YouTube video, made in a moment of levity before I knew about the VA Tech shootings: Kev Squeals Like a Pig. More and better vids to come later. Much later.


shocked and numb


Hell of a way to wake up and start the day: a shooting spree at Virginia Tech, five hours away from my hometown, has claimed the lives of at least 33 people. The event currently tops the Drudge headlines. The shooter, who is described as "Asian," shot and killed himself after shooting dozens of others. It is assumed there was only one shooter, though the killings took place at two locations on campus.

I have to thank my old friend Dave, who sent me the email that alerted me to this. The event now takes its place as the worst shooting incident in US history.

UPDATE: The shooter was apparently of Chinese descent, possibly a Chinese national; his visa was issued in Shanghai. He appears to have gone off the deep end because he suspected that his girlfriend was seeing another man. When a counselor attempted to intervene in the argument between the shooter and his girlfriend, both were killed. Those were the two dormitory murders, the first two deaths of the day.

Two hours later, while those killings were being investigated, the shooter appeared in a classroom building, Norris Hall, loaded down with "an ungodly amount of ammo," and began methodically killing people-- thirty in all, as of this writing, many of them execution-style after lining them up.

The death toll currently stands at 33: two deaths in the West Ambler Johnston Hall dorm; thirty more killings at Norris hall; one suicide when the shooter turned his gun on himself.

Questions arise, of course, as to how this person, who I assume was a student, could (1) get his hands on this much firepower, and (2) manage to evade investigation for two entire hours, only to pop up again and perform the greater part of his killing.

I don't plan on live-blogging this; I'm already pretty shaken by events and will follow them as they unfold on the news, as you will. I visited VA Tech only once, but have good memories of the place. It has a pleasant, green campus. It also has the standard reputation for being a party school (I recall hearing about a famous incident in which an entire soda machine was pitched out of a high window in another dorm, Pritchard Hall), and it has a fantastic reputation as one of the nation's foremost polytechnic institutes. The campus is very spread-out. At first, I was sure that the spread-out nature of the campus was what caused the delay in spreading the new about the killings; now, however, it appears that the campus admin thought they would warn students of the first two killings via email.

I have to wonder what those fools were thinking. College students being who they are, most of them were probably asleep at 7am, which is approximately when the first two killings occurred. What the hell made the admin think that email was an effective warning system? Wouldn't it have been wiser to actually phone the Resident Assistants in each dorm and have them spread the warning through their respective dorm floors? The news would have traveled a hell of a lot faster that way. The same should have applied to other buildings on campus-- libraries, student centers, gyms, etc.: contact the people who manage those buildings, and have them spread the news as quickly as possible.

I understand the purpose behind a lockdown, but if people really thought that email was the way to spread the news, well... maybe that's why the killer had all the time in the world to stroll a short distance across campus and start up again.

UPDATE 2: As we all know now, the shooter was a Korean national, not Chinese.


Monday, April 16, 2007

shit lit

I had never read Rosie O'Donnell's blog poetry before, but a Drudge link led me to a recent poem of hers. Holy shit, that's some piss-poor free verse. My recent crappy poem was better. Not by much, true, but you can rap to mine, at least.


weight loss: the results are in,
and are not that hot

Yes, weight loss did occur... but not enough to be visible (284 pounds, remember? I won't look even slightly different until I hit 260, and even then, I have no illusions about how I'll look at that weight). The loss came out to about seven pounds which, all things considered, is less than par. Most people lose 8-10 pounds during the first week of their diet-- most of that is, as it's known colloquially, "water weight." It's only when you get beyond the first ten pounds that you can begin-- maybe-- to start ticking off the meaningful loss. In my case, the shame lies in the fact that, along with dieting, I'm exercising.

I can say nothing in my defense. Last week, I broke diet to go on base with my buddy Tom and a mutual friend of ours, and we dug in at the buffet. I don't blame the buffet; I allowed my appetite almost free rein.

What follows are pics of two things in particular: an Italian salad made with homemade pesto sauce and balsamic vinegar, plus a belated Passover indulgence: charoset made by yours truly and eaten only by the tiny cupful. Yes, yes-- many Jews slather charoset on matzoh, but a Jewish coworker of mine-- the guy who introduced me to several varieties of charoset-- made no bones about eating it by the bowlful. Charoset is mighty addictive, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. I made mine without traditional Passover wine, opting instead for honey and some water. I also added a wee bit of paprika to simulate one of my favorite spicy charosets.

Above: pesto ingredients. Below: two salads I made this past week.

Below: weight loss. More to come.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

apologies to my right-leaning readers, but...

I think I'm beginning to like Nancy Pelosi in spite of myself. I'm not talking about her political views; I've already said I disagree with her (possibly illegal!) approach to foreign policy. No; I'm talking about Pelosi as a person and a politician: she's feisty, she's clear, she's tenacious, she's confident, and she's willing to lead-- in short, she puts Hillary Clinton to shame and makes me wonder whether the wrong woman isn't running for president.

It's too early to say much more about Pelosi or about the 2008 election, but my impression of Pelosi thus far, despite her gaffes, is positive. She's a mover and shaker, and she's kicking Washington out of its torpor. Good. The contrast with Hillary is almost embarrassing. Where Hillary comes off as unspontaneous and calculating, Pelosi is poised and lively. Where Hillary's speech is still littered with dodgy Arkansas lawyerisms, Pelosi is blunt and direct. What's not to like?


Ave, Jelly!

Fuck Charles's baguettes. Jelly has the ULTIMATE FOODBLOG.

Mmmmmm, tasty.


contra cell phones

I make no secret of the fact that I hate cell phones and dislike talking on them. Part of this hatred is a function of my native control-freakishness: I'll interact with other people on my own terms, thank you. Don't call me; I'll call you. Part of this is also my native introversion: it disturbs my wa (as my buddy Mike would say; the Sino-Korean pronunciation is "hwa") to know that people can track me down no matter where I am.

The old counsel to "just turn your cell phone off!"-- advice given me by cell phone enthusiasts as a way of saying Yes, you DO have options!-- is rather hypocritical: those same enthusiasts get upset when they suddenly can't reach me. In their heart of hearts, they don't actually believe I should ever turn my cell phone off.

Another reason I dislike cell phones is related to why I dislike phones in general: a person talking on the phone is physically there, but not mentally there. I don't like looking at people while they're on the phone; they seem distracted-- and in fact, they are. Mindfulness goes out the window. What's not in front of your nose becomes more important than what is.

There's also some debate about how safe cell phones are. Overall, the impression I get is that the science is inconclusive: studies point to possible dangers, but no universally agreed-upon link has been established between, say, cell phone use and brain tumors. Now, however, we read that cell phone signals may be interfering with honeybees' ability to navigate, driving them away from their home colonies, scattering them in the wild where they die lonely, insectile deaths, and potentially dooming us all to starvation as crops worldwide go unpollinated.

While I doubt we should be sounding the alarm about this right away, I'm glad to see another strike against cell phones. I watch my students and mentally sigh as they click-clack away on their cell phones' tiny keyboards before and after class, texting furiously, minds miles away from the Here and Now. I wouldn't call myself the most mindful person on the planet-- in fact, I consider myself positively goofy-- but it saddens me to watch this cell phone addiction metastasize and take over humanity.

Maybe cell phones don't cause cancer. Maybe they are cancer.