Thursday, May 31, 2012

at the TEF blog

I've reposted (from this blog) my old article, Don't Overcorrect.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

bad news

Because I hadn't heard anything since submitting my initial paperwork weeks ago, I emailed my buddy Tom last night about the hiring situation at SKKU. He replied that they had recently sent interview invites to six people, so if I hadn't received one by now, then I wouldn't be receiving one at all. At a guess, my chances were killed by two things: the passport issue, and the fact that I'm not available in Seoul for a face-to-face interview. My résumé certainly wasn't insufficient, and my recommendations were all excellent (thanks again).

On the bright side, I'll be getting a renewed passport out of all this, so if I decide to try this again later in the year, my papers will be in proper order.

Meanwhile, it's time to switch to Plan B.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

at the TEF blog

The latest MGRE Math Beast Challenge. I've already stuck my answer in the comments, so no peeking if you're intent on solving the thing yourself.


"House" ends


Tonight, I watched the series finale of Fox's "House" on Hulu. Because I watch all TV on Hulu (I no longer have a TV, you'll recall), I'm often a week to a month behind the rest of the world. I had to avoid reading any press or blog commentary about the series, which was a task in itself: it's surprisingly difficult to avoid coming across certain information on the Internet.

I first caught a glimpse of "House" while I was tooling around Korea with my parents, who were visiting me at the time. It was the fall of 2005; "House" had begun its run in November of 2004. My parents and I were shacked up in a yeogwan somewhere south-- maybe Gyeongju-- and the show was playing on TV. I watched a few moments, shrugged, and turned away. At the time, I'm not sure I even knew what the name of the show was, and it didn't really grab me. That's often the case when I happen upon a show in medias res.

I'm trying to remember when I did begin watching "House." I had to have been in Korea, because I've seen several seasons of it, mostly from Season 3 onward. I continued watching the series when I was back in the States in 2008, and have been a faithful viewer until the bitter-- or should I say bittersweet?-- end.

Ultimately, the show wasn't about hard science so much as it was about the loopy nature of human psychology. It was also, quite frequently, an extremely clever comedy. Dr. Gregory House is an unbearably arrogant asshole as well as a coward, a manipulator, a druggie, a mooch, and an inveterate prankster-- but his saving grace is his towering intellect, which allows him to get away with murder. Through it all, House has only one faithful friend: his oncologist buddy Wilson who, by the end of the series, is dying of cancer. (Yes, the show takes time to note the irony.) This fact leaves House facing a future in which no one will have his back. The suspense leading up to the series finale, then, comes from our not knowing how House, who is in many ways still a child, will handle being forced into emotional adulthood.

As I usually do when a series is about to end, I mentally flipped through a variety of possible scenarios for the final episode. Would House die? I dismissed this off the bat as too trite. Would Wilson die? This was a harder question, since previous episodes in Season 8 had established that Wilson was resigned to his fate. If Wilson died, would House finally be a blubbering wreck, or would he somehow maintain his impish aplomb? My guess was that Wilson would die, and that there was a chance we might at last see House bare his soul.

The actual ending, while not spectacular, did manage to defy most of my theorizing. As I suspected, House didn't die; I had flirted with the idea that House might commit suicide, but he predictably managed to think his way out of the cowardly route. And surprise, surprise: Wilson didn't die by the end of the episode, either: he and House played out their final scene of the series on motorcycles, riding off into the forested distance to enjoy Wilson's final five months on earth, secure in the knowledge that they'd deal with Wilson's cancer once it became impossible to ignore. Any tears, weeping, and wailing-- such as would be front and center in any Korean TV drama-- would occur only in our imaginations.

I had seen an interview in which one of the people involved with the series said that the ending would remain true to the spirit of the show, and the finale did manage that feat. One of the underlying themes of "House" is the conflict between mythos and logos, with House very much on the logos side and the rest of the world, from House's diagnostic team to his Patients of the Week, on the side of mythos. That tension was sustained until the final scene, giving us a series capper that was simultaneously sentimental and unsentimental. Because everyone else thinks House has died in a building fire (only Wilson, and arguably Foreman, knows better), I also couldn't help thinking of the ending of Frank Miller's breathtaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. In the fourth and final chapter of Dark Knight, Batman fakes his own death, then rises to an uncertain future, with only Superman aware of the chicane. On "House," we finish with House and Wilson riding off into the distance, facing an unknown future: it's hard to think of a more mythological, yet mundane, ending.

"House" was a good series while it lasted-- not my favorite, but eminently watchable. It ruthlessly followed a structural formula that occasionally made viewing wearisome (opening exposition; pranks, conflicts, and misdiagnoses; epiphany ten minutes before the end), but it also dealt with Big Issues (a must for me as a viewer, especially as I get older), had many laugh-out-loud moments, and offered some interesting character arcs. My favorite episode? "Frozen," with the lovely Mira Sorvino, who is one of my crushes.

I wish the cast of "House" well as they move on to new projects, but I worry that, after such a good run (even if Season 8 was flaccid in comparison to most of the previous seasons), the cast might suffer the same curse under which the cast of "Battlestar Galactica" now labors: the "What now?" curse. It'll be hard to find a gig that tops being a regular on "House."

And it'll be hard to top "House."


at the TEF blog

The answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge. It was strange to see that MGRE didn't take Charles's approach, what with all their preaching about how much faster it is to use plug-and-chug in certain situations.


Monday, May 28, 2012

a mindful Memorial Day to you

Go on and grill that meat, but do it in a spirit of thanks to the men and women who have given their lives in service to our country.


is one of the funniest old-school Koreablogs finally back in business?

You tell me.

If there isn't a League of Boobage, there should be. Both the Party Pooper and Skippy would be on the league's board of directors.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

well said

A very nice tribute to veterans for Memorial Day.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

on profiling

At the TEF blog, I link to the lengthy Sam Harris/Bruce Schneier debate. Schneier is a security expert who rejects Harris's pro-profiling stance.


Happy Star Wars Day

"Star Wars" was released on May 25, 1977, a gob-smacking thirty-five years ago. I was in the second grade when I saw it. My "Nana"-- a family friend who became a sort of grandmother for me-- scooted me out the door of her trailer with one of her own grandkids, and dropped us off at the local cinema. An old, inveterate redneck, Nana herself had absolutely no interest in science fiction. I, on the other hand, was blown away by the story that played out on the giant screen, and by the awesome screen presence of Darth Vader, who somehow made wheezing both cool and sinister.

Over the next year or so, I saw the movie a total of three or four times, the final time coming after the movie's 1978 re-release (Lucas was savvy about the marketing even back then; the re-release established a cash-milking pattern that has continued to this day, and his studio effects shop has become indispensable for other filmmakers making effects-heavy films). My father began to worry that my Darth Vader obsession was the result of the movies' evil influence, but this didn't stop me from eagerly watching the sequels several times as well, usually in the company of friends, but sometimes with family, too.

That trilogy appeared smack in the middle of my childhood-- from the second grade to early high school: 1977 to 1983. I'd be lying if I said that it didn't affect my worldview; when a Georgetown professor later asked me how I became interested in religious issues, I told him (to his disappointment, I think) that "Star Wars" had much to do with it. He wrote me a recommendation for grad school all the same.

Hard to believe that it's been thirty-five years. The original "Star Wars" hasn't held up in terms of the acting or the special effects, but the sound design remains amazing, and the story is still a swords-and-sorcery classic. It will always occupy a special room in my head, and perhaps another such room in my heart.

ADDENDUM: I had no idea, until just now, that "Star Wars" had been re-released so many times. See here.


Friday, May 25, 2012

where things are

As of over a week ago, I've sent in as much of my job application paperwork to Sungkyunkwan University as I could. Two hitches, though: (1) my passport needs renewing, and (2) I have to get the FBI background check. I've mailed that paperwork to the appropriate offices, but both of those processes take several weeks to complete, and the job interview day for SKKU candidates is June 2. My interview, if I'm a candidate, will occur via Skype, but it's an open question as to whether I can even be a candidate if my passport and my apostilled FBI check haven't come through. My buddy Tom, who teaches at SKKU, has been running interference for me, but the silence from SKKU's human resources department has been deafening.

I've done all I can for this hiring cycle. It's a waiting game until I hear something from somebody, and in the meantime, I need a Plan B. For me, that might mean biding my time until the fall/winter hiring starts, or it might mean throwing myself back into the effort to walk across the country before I leave for Korea, or it might mean simply finding other work while here. We'll see. I'm still mulling my options.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

training awaits

YB has us training again. It's that time of year, as we ready ourselves for the upcoming summer program. Please pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.


at the TEF blog

Quirks with the French imperfect tense.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

on the maddening nature of political debates


"If I'm not willing to change based on what you're telling me," says Morris, "I'm not really listening. I've already made up my mind. I've decided how I feel. I've decided what I think, and I'm just going to let you talk at me and then I'm going to respond."


the illusory self

Sam Harris interviews Bruce Hood.

In what sense is the self an illusion?

For me, an illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity.

If the self is not what it seems, then what is it?

For most of us, the sense of our self is as an integrated individual inhabiting a body. I think it is helpful to distinguish between the two ways of thinking about the self that William James talked about. There is conscious awareness of the present moment that he called the “I,” but there is also a self that reflects upon who we are in terms of our history, our current activities and our future plans. James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity—who we think we are. However, I think that both the “I” and the “me” are actually ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors.

Read the rest.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

at the TEF blog

The latest MGRE Math Beast Challenge.


this is kind of nifty

Here's a GRE Sentence Completion problem from Manhattan Prep's blog.

The exhibit is not so much a retrospective as a __________ ; the artist’s weaker early work is glossed over and any evidence of his ultimate dissolution is absent entirely.

Select two correct answers.

(A) paean
(B) philippic
(C) tirade
(D) panacea
(E) eulogy
(F) crescendo

In the revised GRE's Sentence Completion section, the object of the game is to select TWO words that are each capable of (1) completing the sentence correctly and (2) giving the sentence a similar meaning. In other words, the words you select need to be either synonyms or almost-synonyms. Two antonyms might conceivably complete the sentence, but this would violate criterion (2). To get around this problem, the GRE Sentence Completion questions are designed so that a pair of antonyms can't be selected without one or the other word in the selected pair sounding ridiculous in context.

Have at it, then click the above link for the answer and explanation. I was able to answer correctly despite not knowing the meaning of "philippic," which is not a word I'd normally expect to see on the GRE.


at the TEF blog

The answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge.


consciousness: unified?

At least since the 1990s if not before, I've believed that consciousness is not unitary. At Conscious Entities, Peter explores the issue of the unity of consciousness in his latest post. While it's true that we can't shake the feeling that there is a unified, non-partite "I" that somehow receives and administrates the great mass of incoming sense data, all it takes is mindful self-examination to realize that, in parsing this "I," we find nothing at its bottom. Merely linking the "I" to the specific arrangement of parts is no answer; this proves nothing about whether the "I" exists as a substance or other ontological substratum. If anything, arguing that the "I" is a whole of parts only serves to affirm the fundamental non-unity of consciousness. There is no fundamental self.


Monday, May 21, 2012

fill in the blanks

1. When hell is full...

a. the dead will walk the earth.
b. Linda will give me a rimjob.
c. stocks will rise.
d. my Thermos will be empty.

2. I'll come out when I'm good and ____ !

a. shaven
b. plenty
c. ready
d. evil

3. "Give me liberty, or give me _____ !"

a. baguettes
b. Monica Bellucci
c. my scrotum back
d. death

4. The above was uttered by...

a. St. Patrick
b. Patrick Stewart
c. Patrick Duffy
d. Patrick Henry

5. Hell hath no fury like...

a. a man de-porned.
b. a hamster with a chopstick up its ass.
c. Chuck Norris.
d. a woman scorned.

6. A dog is man's best...

a. friend.
b. drinking buddy.
c. confessor.
d. sex partner.

7. When Oppenheimer witnessed an atomic explosion at Alamogordo, he was reminded of this famous quote:

a. "You better get it up, or I'm gonna have to kill ya'!" ("Blade Runner")
b. "Stella!" (A Streetcar Named Desire)
c. "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." (Bhagavad Gita)
d. "I have a bad feeling about this." (every Star Wars movie)

8. Einstein famously observed that "God does not _____ the universe."

a. shit on
b. fuck with
c. play dice with
d. drunk-dial

9. Ronald Reagan, while standing at the Berlin Wall, demanded: "Mr. Gorbachev, ___ this wall!"

a. lick
b. worship
c. make love to
d. tear down

10. "Silver white winters that melt into spring..."

a. "These are a few of my favorite things."
b. "This is a taste of the darkness I bring."
c. "I found a toe in my bucket of wings."
d. "Marilyn knows how to handle my thing."



As part of my application for the Sungkyunkwan University job, I had to get new passport photos taken. CVS will do a pair of photos for ten dollars, so I got my pics done at the CVS across the street from where I work. I didn't look at the pictures until I had gotten back into my car.

Damn. I guess I must look like a drunkard these days.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

your thoughts

One of my new students, a precocious fifth-grader who's trying to get into a G/T (gifted/talented) program, said his good-byes after our lesson on Saturday morning, then wandered back over to my work station, a few minutes later, to ask me a strange question:

"Do you work here full-time?"

This kid's a fifth-grader. Why would he ask me such a thing? Does he even understand what "full-time" entails? My first instinct-- and I suspect I'm right-- is that his dad or mom put him up to it. I think they're trying to determine whether I'd be free to teach private lessons. While I'm very tempted by the prospect, I also know that, given the "non-compete" language in my employment contract, I could lose my job if I started privately teaching YB students. So if my student slyly presents me with an offer in the future, I'm going to have to turn it down.

Am I flattering myself to think this way? I mean, I really can't think of another reason for such a young kid to ask me that sort of question. Adults are sometimes naughty in how they manipulate their children into undertaking little "missions" on the adults' behalf, and that's what I smell here: puppetry.


the zit inside my nostril

I wish I could recall when and where I was when it happened.
At this point in my senescence, all I can say is that it happened years ago.
I was younger then, and braver.

A zit once formed inside my right nostril, and while I'm fuzzy on certain details, I do remember that it was hiding in the right nostril, not the left, and that it first announced its presence when I randomly swiped my nose in one of those random, quasi-noseblowing gestures that we all sometimes make, often without thinking. The zit had grown large enough to hurt, which is why I paid attention to the gesture this particular time. I felt my nose on the outside, already thinking that I had an ingrown zit but not completely sure of the fact. I tentatively slid a finger into my nostril and... palpated. My suspicions were confirmed.

Now morbidly curious, I went to a mirror, angled my face as far as I could toward the light, and peered into my nostril. A massive mountain of a zit stared balefully back at me like a coiled demon in a cave, its contours warping the topology of my naris, causing the hairs to radiate in strange directions in a hirsute travesty of a droplet-splash photo. I found myself secretly glad that I hadn't accidentally popped the monster: the destruction of this zit was going to be fun. What's more, the conclusion of my upcoming battle was already foreordained: the zit was undeniably huge and ready to go. All it would need was a single judicious squeeze.

Because the gruesome mound was situated on the lateral inner surface of my nostril-- the whitehead pointed roughly toward my filtrum and the mound's base pointed upward toward my right cheekbone or eye-- I knew that no special equipment would be needed. It was simply a matter of pinching my nostril from the outside and squeezing, in much the same way that you can pinch a contact lens in half to form a "closing clamshell" shape.

I locked onto my right nostril with my right hand, using my thumb and index finger as two halves of a pincer, and...


I no longer remember whether there was a satisfying pop, but I can tell you that the aftermath, in which I unclenched my fingers and peered into my nostril, was pretty messy. Like a comparable zit on the surface of one's skin, the nostril-zit had vomited three phases of cargo: first was the liquidy white pus; next came that awful glob of equally white but denser material; finally, there was the obligatory blood. The whole thing was a messy jumble inside my nose; the three phases didn't look as if they had come out in succession, but they were separate enough to be somewhat distinct, like an oatmeal-and-jam mixture that's been stirred only twice and then set upon the table. Or like a tiny fetus that's been blown up by an equally tiny grenade-- an abortion in my nostril.

Relief washed over me, and grim satisfaction. I dug into my nose with a twisted rat-tail of toilet paper and swabbed out the afterbirth: once; twice. The demon was gone, banished to the outer darkness. The inside of my nostril hadn't settled back into its normal shape, but some instinct told me that I had emptied the zit out in one go.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

"Invictus," William Ernest Henley, 1888


"Well, I'm back."

Back from work. Did a few errands, got a haircut, and now am ready to have a weekend.

Today was busier than usual at work: one teacher was out sick, so the two remaining teachers had to take up the extra load. It all worked out in the end, but I got behind in my daily grading and had to stay after almost an hour. I've become lax, I admit: most of the time, I'm not the tutor with the heaviest teaching load: that honor generally belongs to the math/science guys, who are always in demand.

The highest point of my day was that I finally-- finally-- had my very first French student. She's American, but her parents are Ivorian, so she speaks French at home. Like many gyopos who learn to speak fluent Korean, however, my student is having trouble with the written aspects of her native language. We're going to be going over all manner of conjugations, inflections, and grammatical points, and I plan on slapping a lot of that on the TEF blog this weekend: present-tense conjugations of more irregular verbs, the future tense, the conditional tense, "si" clauses, the subjunctive mood, etc.

Oh, yeah-- now that I've written the promised review of the Hunger Games trilogy, I need to focus on my also-promised review of those two spy films: Mission: Impossible-- Ghost Protocol and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Perhaps the magic will happen this weekend.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

at the TEF blog

A repost, with some changes, of this post on gambling monks.


Friday, May 18, 2012

unconventional zit-popping

Earlier this week, I licked my upper lip at a random moment and discovered a small but noticeable lump on it. Curious, I licked again to make sure I hadn't hallucinated the lump. Its existence now confirmed, I lumbered over to the bathroom mirror and took a good look:

Yup. A zit.

On my fucking lip.

I didn't want to lance the zit with a needle; if I stabbed too deeply and the damn thing bled, I'd leave a mark that would be visible to my students the following day. So instead of doing that, I tried popping the zit with my fingers.

In the taxonomy of zittage, this one would have been classified as Prominent, but with almost no whitehead. Sometimes that sort of zit is the most rewarding to pop: you squeeze it from different directions, feeling the pain build, watching the whitehead get bigger and bigger as more pus nears the surface, and then finally there's this gratifying pop-- more felt than heard. If you've done it right, the zit's guts splat on the mirror like ejaculate, and you find yourself basking in a feeling of post-coital pride and accomplishment.

What made this zit worse, though, was its location. Lip-sitting zits are rare for me-- about as rare as a zit inside the nostril (a story for another time, my love). I could feel that this particular evil mound was ready to launch, despite the nearly invisible whitehead, but for some reason it resisted my efforts at massaging its white lava to the surface. I knew, after a few minutes, that the time had come for drastic measures.

I was still unwilling to grab a needle. What I needed, or so I thought, was something firmer than my fingers to serve as the zit-pincher. That's when it hit me:

Teeth. I could use my teeth.

I give myself credit for not hesitating: once the decision had been made, it was goddamn go time. I sucked my upper lip between my teeth, deliberately taking in too much lip. By slowly releasing the suction, I was able to feed my lip between my teeth until the zit was directly between my incisors. With surgical precision, I slowly, gingerly bit down.


Ahhhhhh, bliss.

The zit popped right away, shooting out all of its pus and none of its blood, and I was once again a star in my own mind.

There are snipers out there who can target a human head from over a mile away. The number of snipers who can consistently bring their target down in a single shot from that range is small enough to fill a van. They constitute an elite fraternity. I, too, belong to a small fraternity of dudes who can pop zits with their teeth on the very first try.

So where's my damn medal?


at the TEF blog

Contrastive verb tenses: l'imparfait et le passé composé.


Thursday, May 17, 2012


My review of the Hunger Games trilogy is finally finished.



With thanks to my Twitter feed: Mom's authentic secret bulgogi recipe revealed.

The humorously exaggerated tone of the article reminds me of my own post on consommé.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

at the TEF blog: two poems by Donaldson



Hollande, God, and France's future

François Hollande is the new president of France. Alas. Just the other day, his plane was struck by lightning. Upon learning of this, I shot the following brief email to my French "brother" Dominique:

Il paraît que le bon Dieu n'aime pas les socialistes: j'ai lu que l'avion d'Hollande a été récemment frappé par la foudre, et que l'avion a dû faire demi-tour. "Putain! Raté!" crie la déité d'une voix de tonnerre. Quelle façon de commencer son mandat! (Ou peut-être que le coup de foudre a été généré par le gouvernement français pour signaler le début d'une nouvelle époque...?)


It appears the Good Lord doesn't like socialists: I read that Hollande's plane was recently struck by lighting, and the plane had to turn around. "Fuck! Missed!" shouts the deity in a thunderous voice. What a way to begin one's term! (Or maybe the lightning bolt was generated by the French government to signal the beginning of a new epoch...?)

The reply I got was hilarious:

ben c'est un type normal, alors quand il pleut, il prend tout sur la tête, quand, y a de l'orage, son avion prend la foudre, comme tout le monde, normal, quoi, d'ici qu'il attrape une maladie contagieuse, la grippe aviaire!!! aller, tu as le droit de rire parce que ça devient ridicule tout ça, un type normal qui invite à manger aujourd'hui les anciens premiers ministres socialistes à bouffer à l'Elysée... il a demandé à son ex femme de ne pas venir à l'Elysée pour sa prise de fonction (normal), et le premier ministre est le maire de Nantes, un type banal, (y font la paire) présenté par les médias comme un type fidèle mais on ne sait pas si c'est à sa femme ou à sa maitresse!

mais pour qui on nous prend!


Well, he's a normal guy, so when it rains, he takes it all on his head; when it's stormy, his plane takes in the lightning-- just like everyone else-- normal, see... when he gets a contagious disease, it's bird flu!!! Hey, you've got the right to laugh because it's all becoming ridiculous, a "normal guy" who invites former socialist prime ministers to dine at the Elysée Palace... He asked his ex-wife not to come to the Elysée for his inauguration (normal), and the prime minister is the mayor of Nantes, a banal guy (they're a matched set) presented by the media as faithful, but we don't know if it's to his wife or to his mistress!

Who do they take us for?!

François Hollande: by his stripes, we are healed.


girl gone wild

I finished the Hunger Games trilogy last Friday, having bought the three-book boxed set for a mere three dollars and change, thanks to a Barnes and Noble card I'd received this past Christmas.

First things first: was Suzanne Collins's series a worthwhile read? The short answer is Yes. The prose was easy to navigate and the story moved at a healthy clip. A slightly longer answer would be Yes, but it didn't inspire me to reread it in quite the way that JK Rowling's books inspired me. This may be because the Hunger Games trilogy didn't feature any characters in whom I felt emotionally invested: it was hard to like anyone.

For those who aren't familiar with the trilogy, here's a brief summary (with some minor spoilers).

The first book, The Hunger Games, introduces us to our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in the repressive country of Panem, which arose in the wake of war and catastrophe. Panem covers much of North America; Katniss's home district, District 12, is the poorest of the twelve districts and is devoted to mining (each district is devoted to one major product or function). 12 is located in what used to be Appalachia; this is relevant to me, since I too live in Appalachia. District 1, the Capitol, had to put down major rebellions about seventy-four years prior to the beginning of Katniss's story.

In order to keep the other districts down, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games: every district is obliged to select two "tributes," a young man and young woman between the ages of twelve and eighteen, to compete in a televised gladiatorial contest in which only one winner is allowed: every contestant has a 23/24 chance of being killed. We meet Katniss on the day of the Reaping for the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games: the day when the tributes are selected. Katniss's sister, twelve-year-old Primrose, is picked by lottery, along with Peeta Mellark, a sixteen-year-old boy whom Katniss knows only vaguely. In desperation, Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place. Much of the novel is then devoted to the pre-Games preparation: Katniss and Peeta are groomed by Cinna, the wise and worldly fashion designer; they do television interviews and undergo combat and survival training. Katniss, who was taught to hunt by her now-dead father (killed in a mining accident), proves a natural with the bow and arrow. Peeta, a baker's son, proves to be very good at playing the media, and is physically strong enough to do well during the hand-to-hand combat phase of the training. During one interview, Peeta confesses to the nation that he has always been in love with Katniss. This confession has repercussions throughout the rest of the story.

The second and third books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, deal with the consequences of how the 74th Hunger Games ended. The districts, seeing in Katniss a symbol of defiance and resistance, are beginning to rebel in earnest; this will have dire implications for the Capitol, which relies on the products and services that each region provides. All of this comes to a head in the final book, which also resolves a crucial question about whom Katniss will choose as her life partner: angry, idealistic fellow hunter and "best friend" Gale, or the sweet-tempered yet clever and calculating Peeta.

The books were nearly impossible to put down, which I suppose is a point in their favor. The story was told purely from Katniss's point of view, affording the reader both narrative cohesiveness and, thanks to the protagonist's personality, a certain gritty, propulsive drive. At the same time, the series overall felt fluffier and more superficial than the Harry Potter heptalogy, which dealt, in much greater detail, with such themes as family, courage, loyalty, betrayal, ambiguity, cleverness, evil, the will to live, and even the notion of a repressive state (see especially Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which Hogwarts goes full-on police state). This isn't to say that the Hunger Games trilogy lacks depth; on the contrary, it proves adept at not providing simple answers to complex emotional and moral questions.

We see what we want to see when we read, of course, and our interpretive filters are informed by our own experiences. For me, Collins's trilogy evoked several references to books I've read and to movies or shows I've watched. First and foremost was the resemblance of the plot to that of Stephen King's novel The Running Man (and the Schwarzenegger film of the same title), which is about a deadly "reality" show and people who are fighting the system. Collins's bleak world is also reminiscent of the one we encounter in George Orwell's 1984, and by extension is a reflection of real-life horrors like North Korea. (Panem can be thought of as a kind of North Korea Lite.*) The "bread and circuses" aspect of the book (panem et circenses-- from which the country's name is derived) called to mind the dying Roman Empire, as did all those character names evoking classical antiquity: Coriolanus, Seneca, Plutarch, et al. Because Katniss spends much of the story pushed to the brink of sanity (she's sedated several times), I was also strongly reminded of Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Cycle, in which one of the main characters, Morn Hyland, finds herself trapped in a circle of male brutality and barely holds on to her own mind. This latter aspect of Katniss's experience provides us with an interesting wrinkle, for it's clear that Katniss is, in some respects, an unreliable narrator.** Finally, the books called to mind the movie "Dragonslayer," which is about a kingdom that periodically sacrifices a virgin to appease an evil dragon, Vermithrax, who lives in the nearby mountains. The Capitol is a glitzy, corporate version of Vermithrax.

The trilogy had a more girly feel to it than did the Harry Potter series. Katniss spends a lot of time in pretty dresses (despite her claims that she isn't impressed by clothing), and one of her greatest sources of life-wisdom is her fashion designer Cinna, a fact that had me rolling my eyes. Sure, sure: there may indeed be wise and worldly fashion designers out there, but I normally associate such folks with superficiality (contradict me at your peril!). Cinna is, of course, a subversion of that stereotype: he lives in the fashion-obsessed Capitol, but is using his design skills and profound wisdom to undermine the Capitol's oppressiveness. The feminine tenor of the story can also be perceived in the Grrrl-power nature of Katniss's character, and in the emasculated names of the male characters: Cinna, Gale, Peeta, Snow.***

One ingredient that was almost completely absent from the books was humor. Oh, it was there-- scraps and hints of it-- but I imagine that Collins was trying hard to evoke the grim, desperate pragmatism that comes of scratching out a living within a brutal totalitarian system, scrounging for food and watching child sacrifice for entertainment. By the end of the series, Katniss has little reason to laugh, given how much she has lost, and despite what she has gained. This solemnity may have been one of the most realistic elements of the story. I can almost see The Hunger Games and its sequels as a sort of "gateway" to books like 1984, Brave New World, and Darkness at Noon.

It would be impossible to discuss my opinion of certain events at the end of the series without giving away crucial plot elements, so I'll conclude by saying that, all things considered, the Hunger Games trilogy was a quick, worthwhile read-- not as deep or as well-crafted as the Harry Potter books, but certainly compelling in its own desolate, lugubrious way. It describes a world of horror in sanitized terms a young adult can appreciate, and gives us a tough, honest heroine who is doing her best to keep from becoming a pawn in the various power games being played all around her. If you have some free time, give the series a read.

*In the Collins books, the districts have trouble communicating with each other, but they do communicate, and rebellions are easier to organize than they are in the real North Korea. That said, Collins's novels make for awfully dark reading. The very notion of the Hunger Games is, when you think about it, sickening.

**Katniss's unreliability comes out at several points, often when she's being frank about having misjudged a person or a situation. Her biggest self-delusion, though, comes at the end of the series, where she defies her earlier repeated insistence that she would never end up with any man.

***Haymitch is the only prominent male character to get a respectably masculine (and Scottish-sounding) name, but note that he's a drunk and an awful role model. Whatever power and prowess he possesses is undercut by his alcoholism, cynicism, and fecklessness.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

at the TEF blog

The newest MGRE Math Beast Challenge.

My answer is already in the comments. No peeking until after you've had a go!


at the TEF blog

The answer to last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

what say you, Buddhists? still wanna eat those plants?

Ethical vegetarianism in religions like Buddhism and Hinduism is rooted(!) in the concept of ahimsa, nonviolence or no-killing.* Animals are sentient beings; the eating of plants is permissible because plants, according to the wisdom of the elders, are non-sentient. Objections to this worldview, often facetious in tone, have focused on the possibility that plants, too, have inner lives and something approaching sentience. Now, it seems, those objections might have the beginnings of scientific backing. No longer should we visualize whirled peas. To whirl the peas is to make them scream.

From the article:

Evidently, empathy might not be the most appropriate ground for an ethics of vegetal life. But the novel indications concerning the responsiveness of plants, their interactions with the environment and with one another, are sufficient to undermine all simple, axiomatic solutions to eating in good conscience. When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who — an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good. Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics.

*Obviously, I'm oversimplifying the situation. There are plenty of meat-eating Buddhists and Hindus. The Dalai Lama eats meat, and as my friend Sperwer has pointed out, meat-avoidance was never part of the original Buddhist Vinaya (monastic precepts). Ethical vegetarianism in the Buddhist tradition is a function of how the tradition evolved.


Happy Mother's Day

A fond Happy Mother's Day to all moms out there. Hugs.


good religion and bad

Bad religion is what happens when you cast your critical faculties aside. Science now seems to have evidence to support this notion:

Being 'Born-Again' Linked to More Brain Atrophy:

WEDNESDAY, May 25 (HealthDay News) -- Older adults who say they've had a life-changing religious experience are more likely to have a greater decrease in size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical to learning and memory, new research finds.

According to the study, people who said they were a "born-again" Protestant or Catholic, or conversely, those who had no religious affiliation, had more hippocampal shrinkage (or "atrophy") compared to people who identified themselves as Protestants, but not born-again.

The study is published online in PLoS ONE.

Ayup. Bad religion is bad for you.


rise, raise, whatever

In the UK, it's called a pay rise. Here in the States, it's a pay raise.* Whatever... I just got one from YB. It's only a 7% raise, but that's better than nothing, especially given my dwindling weekly schedule. YB is acknowledging that I've worked there for a little over a year, and since I never brought up the prospect of a raise (mainly because I never saw myself remaining at YB long-term, and I still don't), I suppose the Powers That Be decided to act on their own initiative. That, or maybe raises are simply scheduled to occur on a yearly basis.

At 7%, this is more like a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) than a real raise, but as I said, that's better than nothing. Luckily, YB is also offering other work-- specifically, proofing/editing their new material-- and I might end up doing more of that.

*Other US-versus-UK quirks:

drunk driving (US) vs. drink driving (UK)
frying pan (US) vs. fry pan (UK)

The first time I heard "fry pan," it was when a Korean student uttered the phrase. I was convinced it was Konglish until I did a bit of digging around and discovered that several tens of millions of native English-speakers actually use that expression. Live and learn.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

gambling Buddhist monks in Korea

This link, about gambling Buddhist monks in Korea, comes from my brother David. I'd heard the stories for years: monks who sneak out to eat meat, monks involved in sexual indiscretions... it comes as little surprise to learn that, yes, there are monks who gamble:

SEOUL -- Six leaders from South Korea's biggest Buddhist order have quit after secret video footage showed some supposedly serene monks raising hell, playing high-stakes poker, drinking and smoking.

The scandal erupted just days before Koreans observe a national holiday to celebrate the birth of Buddha, the holiest day of the religion's calendar.

The head of the Jogye order (external link to Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism's site), which has some 10 million followers, or about a fifth of the country's population, made a public apology on Friday, vowing "self-repentance."

South Korean TV networks aired shots of eight monks playing poker, some smoking and drinking, after gathering at a luxury lakeside hotel in late April for a fellow monk's memorial service.

"The stakes for 13 hours of gambling were more than 1 billion won ($875,300)," Seongho, a senior monk who uses one name, told Reuters on Friday.

I've written about Seung Sahn's sex scandal before, and it's always amazed me that some people within Seung Sahn's order-- Kwaneum, which he founded-- have tried to defend his behavior. I wonder what defense would be given on behalf of the Jogye Order monks just caught gambling. "If Kwaneum-bosal (bosal = bodhisattva) can do it,* then so can we"?

I'm sorry, but call me old-school: if you take precepts, whether in Buddhist monasticism or Catholic monasticism or any other sort of clerical endeavor, you're supposed to adhere to them. Such people have chosen to take on the yoke of higher standards. If they can't abide by those standards because of their own human failings, there's no need for us to defend them. In the above case, the Jogye Order did the right thing by apologizing. We can only hope that this will translate into more stringency within the order.

*The Lotus Sutra says the Bodhisattva of Compassion can assume any form to save beings from suffering. If I remember correctly, my old Buddhism prof said there are stories of the bodhisattva assuming the form of a gambler to rescue gamblers from their destructive habits. This would be in consonance with the Lotus Sutra's emphasis on the concept of upaya, i.e., skillful means. One does what one can to bring people to enlightenment. If it helps to appear to mortals as a gambler, then so be it.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Ave, Aaron!

A cogent argument about the state's true nature.

And yeah, I love the picture that accompanies the post.


sauve qui peut!

28-year-old Emer O'Toole only wants her pits to be as free as the rest of her.

I am truly repulsed. But pervert that I am, I can't help thinking that Emer's armpit hair can provide a man with something more to grip during sex. A bit like straphanging on the subway.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

the packet

While there's a chance that I won't get into Sungkyunkwan University-- there are some paperwork-related problems I need to deal with-- the wheels are in motion. I sent off my application packet to the university a couple days ago. It included the following attachments:

1. cover letter
2. English Professor Application Form
3. photo
4. résumé
5. reference list
6. undergraduate diploma (copy)
7. graduate diploma (copy)
8. undergraduate transcript (unofficial copy)
9. graduate transcript (unofficial copy)
10. passport (copy)
11. recommendation letter #1
12. recommendation letter #2
13. recommendation letter #3

The three rec letters, from my buddy Charles, my buddy Tom, and my current supervisor at YB, were all very nicely written, and scarily similar-- almost conspiratorially similar-- in content. A fourth rec letter just arrived last night from my former boss at Smoo; that letter, too, said many of the same things about me. I was amazed that four separate sources would see me in the same way. My normal assumption is that I'm different to different people-- quieter and more withdrawn in the presence of some folks, louder and more extroverted among others, etc. I'll be sending the fourth rec letter tonight when I'm back from work, along with some extra items to tempt the Powers That Be into hiring me. Among those extra items will be some sample exercises, some sample curricula, and some samples of my writing. (When I send writing samples to potential employers, I normally send the intro chapter of Water from a Skull.)

In any case, thanks to the four lovely recommendations I've received, I'm hoping that I'll be a strong contender for one of the two available spots at SKKU. We'll just have to see how it goes. I'll keep you updated.


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

math stuff at the TEF blog

Check it out.


coming soon

I had promised, a while back, to write a review of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." I hope to do that soon, but it'll be a comparative review: the other movie I'll be examining is TTSS's diametrical opposite: "Mission: Impossible-- Ghost Protocol." A hint of what's to come: I bought TTSS; I merely rented M:IGP. And I was right to do so.

I'm also most of the way through the second book of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy. The Hunger Games was a quick read and Catching Fire is equally quick. I'll go into this in some depth later, but overall I'm liking the novels. That said, Collins should have done a better job of proofing her work: I've seen too many misspellings (there is no verb "to smoothe," for example*), and way, way, way too many dangling modifiers. That latter error seems to be her particular bugbear. We can't excuse this problem by saying that the narrator is a teen; Katniss already "talks" to us in a higher-than-teenage register.

More later.

*Collins was probably thinking of "to soothe," which does take an "e." The verbal form of the adjective "smooth," however, is "to smooth."


Tuesday, May 08, 2012

don't know much about history

My goddaughter suddenly canceled her geometry tutoring session with me because of a "music thing" (a performance, apparently) she hadn't known about until the last minute. This left me with some free time, so I spent some of it taking part of an AP World History exam. The College Board has a PDF that contains, among other things, thirty multiple-choice questions. Knowing full well that I'm terrible at history, I decided to see how I'd fare.

Final score: 23/30. Not horrible, but also not enough to rate more than a mediocre 3 on the exam. For the most part, I used a combination of guesswork and common sense-- strategies available to anyone who's facing a multiple-choice test.* Some of the questions were easy to figure out because they weren't exclusively history-oriented: they could just as easily have appeared in the SAT's Reading Comprehension section.

Here are the seven questions I got wrong:

8. Inca and Aztec societies were similar in that both

(A) developed from Mayan civilization
(B) acquired empires by means of military conquest
(C) independently developed iron technology
(D) depended entirely on oral record keeping

(The map below applies to question #10.)

10. The map above shows what significant economic developments?

(A) Trade connections that linked the Hellenistic and Maurya
empires to African cities from 300 through 150 B.C.E.
(B) Trading networks that promoted the growth of new cities
from 600 C.E. through 1450 C.E.
(C) Chinese dominance of Indian Ocean trading networks
because of the voyages of Zheng He in the 1400s C.E.
(D) Changes in Indian Ocean trading networks that resulted
from technological innovations from 1450 C.E. through 1750

12. The Columbian Exchange involved which of the following new
connections in the era 1450–1750?

(A) European food to the Western Hemisphere; Western
Hemisphere diseases to Europe; African population to Europe
(B) Western Hemisphere technology to Africa; African food to
Europe; European population to the Western Hemisphere
(C) European technology to Africa; Western Hemisphere
population to Africa; African food to the Western Hemisphere
(D) African population to the Western Hemisphere; Western
Hemisphere food to Europe and Africa; African and European
diseases to the Western Hemisphere

14. Which of the following is most likely to have influenced
eighteenth-century population trends in both Europe and

(A) A sharp decline in average global temperatures
(B) Introduction of Western Hemisphere crops
(C) Innovation in birth control measures
(D) Improvement in surgical procedures

16. In recent decades, many world historians have challenged the
commonly held view that Europeans controlled the largest
share of world trade in the seventeenth through the eighteenth
centuries. Which of the following evidence from the period
would best support this historical reinterpretation?

(A) Prices for Chinese goods were much higher in Europe than
in China.
(B) European trading companies often backed their long-distance
trading ventures with the threat of military force.
(C) Asian trading companies dominated trade in the Indian
Ocean region.
(D) European merchants transported only a fraction of the
goods shipped globally.

19. Which of the following statements is true about both the
Mughal and Ottoman empires in the sixteenth century?

(A) In both empires the majority of the people were Muslims.
(B) Both empires had powerful navies that engaged European
(C) Both empires expanded through the use of gunpowder
weapons and extensive bureaucracies.
(D) Both empires gave little monetary support to artistic and
cultural endeavors.

22. In contrast to initial industrialization, the second Industrial
Revolution in the last half of the nineteenth century was
particularly associated with the mass production of which of
the following?

(A) Textiles, iron, and coal
(B) Textiles, automobiles, and plastics
(C) Airplanes, ships, and radios
(D) Electricity, steel, and chemicals

Feel free to try your hand at these questions by leaving a comment. If you want, I can supply answers, but only to the curious, and only after they've tried to respond. History buffs will probably find the above questions easy.

*Long-time readers know I consider multiple choice to be the worst possible testing format.



Still gloomy about France.


Monday, May 07, 2012

I offer France my... congratulations

François Hollande has been elected president. He received about 52% of the vote; Nicolas Sarkozy received about 48%. Sarkozy said: "Je porte toute la responsabilité de ma défaite"-- "I bear total responsibility for my defeat." And now France has a socialist president for the first time since François Mitterrand. Hollande, doing his Obama impression, said: "Les Français viennent de choisir le changement"-- "The French have just chosen change."

I really don't see this going well for France or for Europe. Sarkozy, for all his pugnacity, was trying to lay the groundwork for an economic reform that, in the long term, would probably have begun to pull France out of its fiscal nosedive. Things tend to get worse before they get better; the French public, as short-sighted as the US public, failed to see that when they elected Hollande. Sarkozy has his flaws, but this new leftward move will prove to be a big mistake on the world stage. Germany will be first to feel the impact of an Hollande administration, I predict, but there might be one positive outcome: the further weakening of the Eurozone that results from a Franco-German rift. I'm all for whatever returns European countries to the their état sauvage, before transnational progressivism took them over.

Specifically, I think Hollande will prove more sympathetic to the flagging economies of countries like Greece and Portugal. Arguments with Angela Merkel will ensue as France and Germany debate how much of a bailout those countries need or deserve. Merkel's government will view France's shift as a betrayal, and Germany's fiscal conservatives will (a bit like the UK's conservatives in other matters) begin to clamor even more loudly for Germany to exit the Eurozone. Switzerland will view the proceedings with its usual lofty disdain. Western Europe's lazier, warm-weather countries will continue to fall into the toilet. While a reversion to native currencies won't happen anytime soon, the possibility of such a reversion will emerge as a serious alternative to current fiscal policy. I doubt any of this will lead to the disbanding of the EU or even of the Eurozone, but Hollande's election is, at the very least, a recipe for deep fissures. Once again, France finds itself contre le monde.


dharma talk! (pass it on)

Just passing this along from my Twitter feed. If you're in Seoul for this, I'd encourage you to go see Seon Joon sunim's dharma talk:

@seon_joon says:

May 12, 2 pm, I'm giving a Dharma talk at Dongguk University's International Seon Center. If y'all have time, drop by! We'd love to see you.

I wonder if she'll do the talk in two languages, the way Hyeon Gak sunim used to. Her Korean must be magnificent by now, and there will certainly be Korean attendees.


the body

One thing I know I have to do, especially if I do end up going back to Korea, is exercise-- hic et nunc. I've neglected my body for far too long, and I've been hovering at the same unhealthy weight-- 300 pounds-- for well over two years. During that time, I've begun to suspect that I've developed diabetes; I seem to be exhibiting some of the symptoms. At 42, I can no longer rely on a youthful metabolism and immune system to rescue me from my own indiscretions; if I don't get proactive, my joking prediction of not living beyond 60 will begin to look like a self-fulfilling prophecy.*

I also know that coming back to Korea means coming back to the land of jejune fat jokes, flimsy chairs, and all the other inconveniences that await the sweaty-and-portly in a fat-unfriendly culture. For my ego, then, as much as for my health, I need to get in shape in these coming months. I laid out a program a couple years ago; it's sitting in my files. Now, as has always been the case, it's just a matter of doing what needs to be done.

*Given what I know about the life expectancy of people on my mother's side of the family, though, I may not be able to escape genetics. I wish I had some Ashkenazi blood in me, so I could live to 100.


Sunday, May 06, 2012

Cinco de Mayo links and updates

Charles writes about a play that sounds fascinating to me. I'm all about minimalist theater. The book on which the play is based sounds equally fascinating.

A friend starts a new blog.

In personal news: I've got two letters of recommendation that I'll be emailing as part of an employment application packet soon. Alas, I have to renew my passport and initiate the long procedure for the FBI background check. I'm worried that none of this will get done within a reasonable window, and I'm going to end up missing this golden employment opportunity to work at my buddy Tom's university. $45,000/year gross, up to four months of vacation per year (with potential to earn money during one's paid vacation time-- a second income on top of the first), decent weekly work hours, the opportunity to get creative with the curriculum... what's not to like?


Saturday, May 05, 2012

a new wrinkle

It didn't occur to me to check the status of my passport until just last night, which is when I discovered that the damn thing is out of date. Since I live close enough to DC, I'm making an appointment to visit the US Passport Agency on Monday. Just another wrinkle in the plot to get my ass to Mars-- I mean, Korea.


Friday, May 04, 2012

May 4, 1943

She would have been 69 today.


exploring Suzanne

My boxed set of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games Trilogy arrived yesterday. Last night, as is my wont before I go to sleep, I cracked open the first book and set to reading. On the second page of text, I encountered this:

I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag.

Anyone else find it strange to put your boots on before you put your pants on? Perhaps the universe of The Hunger Games operates according to different physical laws. That, or Katniss likes her trousers super-baggy.


Thursday, May 03, 2012

another work opportunity

At my buddy's university, in the "regular" English department. Here.


at the TEF blog

The latest MGRE Math Beast Challenge problem.


that for which I live

Inspired by Ellison's latest, I offer this oldie from my pre-2001 collection:

Befoul the Earth! my ass is wont to cry
We need more brown to heap and fertilize!
This dung so soft, I sink up to my thighs
What pungent peat! Let's make it into pies

You stare in shock, but 'tis no shock to me
To shit in public, where all may behold
With pants around my ankles, gleefully
My topping off a pile brave and bold

Four fingers jut, and lo, a crooked thumb
That help unclog an anus, spent and numb

A final heave, a final grunt of rue--
An angel made of feces passes through!

[revised from the original, from Scary Spasms in Hairy Chasms, p. 155]


Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

go back and take a look

Just revised this post re: John Derbyshire's morally obtuse conservative defenders.


the downward side of the curve

While my chest and head still feel stuffed, I seem to have managed to drag myself away from whatever beast had seized and throttled me at the start of last week. No more crackling in my lungs when I wake up, and no more bloody phlegm. Energy seems to have returned to my limbs and focus to my brain. Good signs, all.

Since I failed to get the laundry done yesterday, it's on my list of to-dos for today, along with getting an emissions inspection for my car. Laundry, car inspection, proofing, tutoring of the goddaughter, and one last bout of medicine-shopping. All in a day's work.

I'm also trying to cancel my land-line phone service, but Century Link has me on hold. It's been fifteen minutes already; I suspect they're either ignoring me deliberately or they're all at a staff-wide orgy in the next room with no one manning the phones.


UPDATE: Whoa. The lady picked up thirty seconds after I published this post, and now the dirty deed is done. By the close of business today, I'll no longer have a land line, which means I can save $60 a month. Sehr gut.