Monday, December 31, 2012

Charles tackles "The Hobbit"

Click here for the most detailed analysis/apologia of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" that you're ever likely to read. I haven't read it through yet, but I've been told that the entire article weighs in-- pre-editing-- at over 13,000 words, which earns Charles's piece the label Not for the Timid. Enjoy. I know I will.


new life resolutions

Instead of New Year's resolutions, how about some new life resolutions-- resolutions for the long term? Mine are, in no particular order:

1. Get out of debt and stay out of debt.

2. Walk across the country, from sea to shining sea.

3. Lose weight to the point of actual slimness.

4. Own a large, free-standing home that will have room for a capacious gym, a masonry, metal- and wood-shop atelier, a large entertainment center, a recording studio, a place to display art, several guest rooms, several rooms devoted to the private practice of different religions, and a large, magnificent kitchen.

5. Learn Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Russian; master Korean and classical Chinese.

6. Become truly proficient at East Asian brush art.

7. Travel regularly among the US, South Korea, and western Europe.

8. Write at least two popular, worthwhile books.

9. Get and keep a woman who is kind, smart, and beautiful. Kids very optional.

10. Master at least two martial arts.


the agenda

Today's agenda looks somewhat busy: I'm off at 1PM to tutor privately in Fairfax, Virginia, from 2PM to 4PM; then I'm off to YB Near to meet my buddy Steve for dinner, a movie (very likely "Django Unchained"), and an overnight New Year's Eve stay (Steve will be abandoning me to fête New Year's with another circle of northern Virginia friends). On Monday night, I'm not quite sure what I'll be doing, but my brother David, who tends bar in DC, has invited me to visit him at his establishment that night to ring in the new year. I'm thinking it over; there's a chance I might just stay in Appalachia and welcome the arrival of 2013 while parked at some overlook on Skyline Drive, there to toast the sunrise over the mountaintops.

Of course, there's still the matter of the year-in-review blog post, and perhaps another embarrassingly public airing of my soon-to-be-broken New Year's Resolutions.


Ave, Metro!

Mike Hurt, a.k.a. the Metropolitician, writes a post in which he embeds a YouTube video by documentarian and portraitist Juanita Hong, a Komerican living and teaching English in South Korea. Hong's short film, less than ten minutes long, explores the relationship between a standardized English test like TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) and actual oral proficiency.

What she discovers is Korea's huge, shameful, open secret: students might spend years studying for the TOEIC, and might take and re-take the test literally dozens of times, but after all that study, they neither speak English very well nor are required to use English in the office-- this despite the ad nauseam refrain that English is the gold standard for international business.

Perhaps most telling was the part of the documentary in which Hong interviewed foreign teachers about the TOEIC, only to discover that most of them had little to no idea what the test was. When Hong then asked the Korean faculty members why no foreign teachers were teaching to the test, one teacher replied that this was because the foreigners had no idea how to teach TOEIC strategy.

Upshot: none of this is about linguistic competence; it's only about how to beat a certain test, and despite all the training and strategizing and overstuffed cattle-car classrooms, success at the TOEIC still isn't guaranteed-- mainly because of those damn productive (speaking and writing) components.

Having worked at hagwons and universities, I can say that I've lived this situation. English-teaching faculty members are divided into two major camps: the Korean-speakers who will be, ironically, teaching English in Korean (probably teaching toward standardized tests), and the native English speakers who, through teaching conversation and basic writing skills, will strive to undo the damage-- done by the Korean faculty-- by teaching English through more natural, organic approaches. It's an unhealthy dynamic, and runs counter, again ironically, to any Korean business-model notions of intradepartmental shineoji (i.e., synergy).

Go visit Mike's post here and watch Juanita Hong's documentary. If you're an old Korea hand, you won't learn anything new (as I said, this sad state of affairs is an open secret), but you'll still appreciate how Hong constructs her argument, and it may be that some of the things the teachers and students say will surprise you.


Sunday, December 30, 2012


Seems I managed to go an entire Saturday without posting. Sorry 'bout that, you three readers. I think my Hamlet post wiped me out or something. I also think I may be developing a sore throat. I'd better not be: I've got to tutor privately tomorrow (well, later today, really).

So what should I write about over the coming days? I think a year-in-review post might be good. Or maybe a goofy "Predictions for 2013" post? We'll see.


Saturday, December 29, 2012

the Royal Shakespeare Company's BBC broadcast version of the stage play Hamlet: review

David Tennant is a mad Scot and Patrick Stewart doesn't age. Those are two profound insights that I extracted from my viewing of the BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company's lavish-yet-somehow-streamlined production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, Hamlet. I watched the DVD extras first, and marveled at how savvy the production crew had to be in finding an appropriate space for the drama-- space that both honored and expanded upon the stage production on which this made-for-television effort was based. The crew spoke about how, in this modern version of the Bard's tale, the concept of CCTV was all-pervasive: Castle Elsinore is a place of paranoia, where everyone is watching everyone else. That feeling of being watched is accentuated by the preponderance of shiny surfaces: mirrored columns and floors abound. As castle interiors go, Elsinore is paradoxically gloomy and glossy.

I'm sure you know the story of Hamlet, so I won't bore you with a full-length summary. Suffice it to say that the action takes place mostly at Elsinore, a castle in Denmark. Prince Hamlet is troubled by the fact that his father (also named Hamlet) has died, and Hamlet's uncle Claudius has swiftly, perhaps too swiftly, married young Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. The plot lurches forward when a ghost appears-- that of Hamlet Senior-- and informs Hamlet that Claudius has usurped the throne by poisoning Hamlet the elder ("Murder most foul!"). Hamlet, at the ghost's urging but also of his own volition, swears vengeance.

That's the basic setup. The play weaves together too many themes to count: murder, vengeance, courage, cowardice, familial loyalty, mortality, insanity, religious piety, religious hypocrisy, arrogance, betrayal, suicide, and forgiveness, to name just a few. Hamlet is also well known for its raft of soliloquies: "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt"; "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I"; "O, my offence is rank: it smells to heaven!"; "To be or not to be"... through these intimate moments, the play breaks the fourth wall with shameless frequency to engage the audience directly with its characters' inner misery and turmoil.

With the BBC production, it's hard to place the time period. The presence of CCTV would seem to indicate that the action takes place now, in the twenty-first century; at the same time, the antiquated uniforms and weapons of the guards bespeak an earlier age, as does Hamlet's wind-up film camera, which he employs while watching for Claudius's guilty reaction to Hamlet's accusatory playlet. Shakespeare was marvelous in his minimalism, and wouldn't have minded a little time-bending: back in the Elizabethan era, traveling players had no idea what sorts of theatrical facilities they might encounter, and thus had to be flexible in their scripting and production design. Shakespeare, for his part, was very open-ended about setting and action. We moderns have taken advantage of his aesthetic largesse to create a whole spectrum of interpretations of Hamlet, from Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli's more literally ancient take to Kenneth Branagh's glitteringly operatic 1800s-era piece to this BBC production. So why not have the play take place in a timestream not our own?

Confused though we might be by the time period (and for all we know, the period is the Era of Anachronism), there's no confusion about the quality of the acting. David Tennant's performance as Hamlet has been hailed as the defining performance for his generation. Tennant, whom I first encountered in the role of Barty Crouch, Jr. in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," certainly provides Hamlet with enough manic energy to rival Mel Gibson's own wild-eyed turn as the anguished Dane. He's all flashing eyes and gritted teeth, but at the same time he can dial his energy down to whisper "To be or not to be" into the darkness. Tennant does little to mask the tonal and rhythmic quirks of his Scottish accent, but I think this is for the better: the actor is free to concentrate on other aspects of Hamlet's character.

Patrick Stewart, as the monstrously duplicitous Claudius and as the ghost of Hamlet père, plays the entire emotional gamut from frustrated phantasmic pathos to kingly knavery. Stewart, a trained veteran Shakespearean who is in his element here, moves easily from passionately thunderous to cunningly sibilant as each scene demands; his Claudius-- who shrugs mysteriously before drinking of the poisoned cup-- is a roiling enigma, a born liar and murderer whose motives may be concealed even from himself.

Plaudits go as well to Penny Downie for her nuanced performance as Gertrude, a mother whose fundamental mistake was in not taking her son's feelings seriously enough when she blindly and blithely married Hamlet's uncle. Mariah Gale's Ophelia also deserves mention here; although Gale doesn't have the charm or beauty of Helena Bonham Carter (in the Mel Gibson version) or Kate Winslet (in the Kenneth Branagh version), she gives us a frightening performance when Ophelia goes insane after learning of the death of Polonius, her father and the king's counselor. Oliver Ford Davies, whom I recognize from his role in the Star Wars prequels (he played Governor Sio Bibble), is alternately hilarious and poignant as Polonius, whom Davies plays as something of a daffy dotard. Finally, I have to mention Peter de Jersey, who plays Horatio. This may be the first time I truly understood how good and important a friend Horatio is to Hamlet, and it's thanks to de Jersey's fabulous turn as Hamlet's schoolmate and best buddy that I was able to see that. When Horatio cradles Hamlet in his arms and weeps at the end, I feel the pain of losing a best friend.

At a little more than three hours in length, the RSC/BBC version of Hamlet isn't as long as Kenneth Branagh's fulsome, unexpurgated, four-hour version, but it's about 45 to 50 minutes longer than the painfully truncated Gibson/Zeffirelli version. I'm tempted to compare these three productions a bit further, though-- to match Hamlet for Hamlet, Claudius for Claudius, Gertrude for Gertrude. Branagh's version certainly comes out on top in terms of scope and detail: his Elsinore is a gargantuan Russian palace full of gold trim and mirrors, lavish in space and décor, while the RSC/BBC's Elsinore is cozier, darker, and more obviously sinister. Mel Gibson gets my vote as the best Hamlet, despite accusations that he was too old to play the role (David Tennant was 38 when the BBC's 2009 production aired). Patrick Stewart's Claudius beats out Derek Jacobi's, to my mind, and Glenn Close's Gertrude trumps both Penny Downie's and Julie Christie's. True, comparing these three versions of Hamlet is like comparing apples to oranges; each has its own special virtues and flaws. But comparisons between and among large productions are almost inevitable.

Overall, I felt that David Tennant's Hamlet represented three hours well spent. The TV production remains faithful to its stage-play roots, but also folds in some cinematic conventions through clever camera work, lighting, and set design. The play was well and memorably acted; strong performances were given all around. I'm happy to have received such a wonderful gift for Christmas from my buddy Mike, and will likely watch Hamlet again soon.

Ah, yes, one final remark: I'm not sure, but there may have been a mistake in one of the line readings. In Shakespeare's text, Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But in the RSC/BBC version, Tennant clearly pronounces: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy." I'm aware that several versions of Hamlet exist; could Tennant have been reading from a lesser-known version of the text? Or was this omission of a "y" a simple mistake?

ADDENDUM: Ask, and ye shall receive: an answer to the "your/our philosophy" conundrum can be found here. According to this source, Tennant's reading is perfectly proper: it's based on the Folio edition of Hamlet.


Sean Penn: skaaahlur

With hearty thanks to Malcolm for linking to an impassioned-- and entirely incoherent-- HuffPo article written by one Sean Penn, acteur extraordinaire and scholar manqué. Malcolm remarks:

Move over, Tom Friedman! Here, from Sean Penn, is a late entry for Worst Writing of 2012.

It really is just unspeakably awful. Enjoy!

Unspeakably awful it is. I had never read anything written by Mr. Penn before, so I went into the experience with only Malcolm's caveat in mind. Here's how I described, in Malcolm's comments, what it was like to read Mr. Penn:

If anything, Penn’s spiel felt almost exactly like something written by one of my Korean students—the weird fragments, run-ons, malapropisms, and non sequiturs all seemed so familiar.

And now, for your delectation, a sample of Mr. Penn's award-winning prose:

President Barack Obama, who this week so eloquently spoke for America's heart and its solidarity with those who suffered incomprehensible human losses at Sandy Hook Elementary School, has reminded us of that spirit of American leadership which so rightly gives us ownership in saying "I'm proud to be an American." Still, while level heads begin to envision the uphill battle for legislations of necessary gun controls, we Americans and our leadership, must be diligent to the nature of the human brain.

Indeed that thing upon our neck was not created decoratively, and in using our heads with our hearts, must also use our eyes, and set them clearly, not upon one healing mechanism, not upon one prevention, but upon all those connective dots that can allow future generations the possibility of a freedom including peace and safety.

This can, and is, being very easily exampled with newly invigorated discussions with attention on the recognition and treatment of mental health, and certainly that is a priority. And to be responsible to that priority, we too have to recognize its applicability to the mental health of our American community at large.

We are an unhappy country. There is a plague of loneliness and isolation. But for the way video games and in-home electronic communication and entertainment may compliment isolation, those activities might otherwise be similarly represented by the backyard cowboy and soldier games of yesterday. Face to face community engagement is on the wane. We have to recognize the economic hardships that lead to depressions, the fear that leads to the breakdown of intimacies, and the global warming to the destruction of homes and lives in the Northeast. And when we wrap all of these things and their cousins in a bundle, only hard truths will heal our country, and protect our children.

Yes, Sean. Yes. We understand only too well. Your brain sits directly upon your neck.


my unfaithful readers

My readership drops to anemic levels around Christmas and New Year's. I assume it's because my readers have actual lives, damn them. To those seasonally fickle folk, all I can say is...



Friday, December 28, 2012


Ol' Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, 78, has entered Valhalla.


to distract you

My promised review of the RSC's Hamlet is coming, but in the meantime, to distract you, I've got two articles to toss your way:

1. The incredible kid who, at 14, built a fusion reactor, and became the youngest person in the world to do so.

2. The amazing story of Archimedes-screw artificial hearts that whir constantly in the patients' chests. Side effect: you're alive, but you've got no pulse.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

"drink your blood from a boot":
a review of "Jack Reacher"

"Jack Reacher" is a ball-busting action thriller that stars Tom Cruise, as an ex-Army investigator and former military policeman, alongside a stable of Brits and Aussies doing American accents: Englishwoman Rosamund Pike plays Helen Rodin, the very American daughter of local district attorney Alex Rodin (Richard Jenkins); fellow Englishman David Oyelowo is Emerson, a police investigator; and Aussie Jai Courtney plays the sniper who downs five people, seemingly at random, at the beginning of the story. For the Yanks: Robert Duvall makes a welcome appearance as an old Marine gunnery sergeant who now runs a shooting range and still has some mad skilz with the long gun, and native Chicagoan Joseph Sikora plays James Barr, the ex-Army sniper immediately suspected of the killings and brought in by the police.

The action takes place in the Midwest (the film was actually shot on location in Pittsburgh). It begins with the killing of the five aforementioned "random" strangers, then moves quickly to the bringing-in of James Barr who, instead of signing his confession, writes "Get Jack Reacher" on the document. Speak of the devil and he will appear: Reacher, having seen Barr's apparent shootings on the news, materializes in the law offices of Alex Rodin to ask after his fellow Iraq veteran. At first, the case seems open and shut, but with the persuasion of Helen Rodin, a super-competent defense lawyer with daddy issues, Reacher agrees not to return to his current life as an off-the-grid drifter. He's taken on by Rodin fille as her lead investigator, and not long after, Reacher (who has an eidetic memory and never takes notes) begins to think that James Barr has been set up: the crime scene was laid out a little too perfectly, and much hangs on a single quarter deposited in a parking meter ("Why would [the sniper bother to] pay for parking?" Reacher wonders aloud). As Reacher closes in on the truth, which involves the Russian mafia and some dirty business dealings, he's pursued by hired thugs of varying levels of ineptitude, and the whole thing concludes with a gunfight in the rain at a construction site.

The movie felt like a throwback to 1980s action flicks: the tough-man dialogue (painfully corny at times), the requisite car chase (in which the actors all did their own stunt driving), the woman breathlessly asking the hero at the end, "Where will you be? What will you do?"—the movie was full of clichés. But these were welcome clichés because I think we viewers all knew we were involved in something retro: as my buddy Steve noted, there was, thankfully, no CGI; and the audience reacted appreciatively to the action and dialogue, whether it was Reacher's tossing off humorous intimations that a young girl was a slut, or his knocking one man out by using another man's skull. We all reveled in this display of the Old School.

"Jack Reacher" is part "24," part "The Presidio" (I kept mentally replacing Tom Cruise with Mark Harmon, who looks like Cruise's older, blue-eyed brother), part "NCIS," and part "Dirty Harry." It leaves some enormous plot holes in its wake (Reacher will surely be wanted for several murders by the end of the film), but in the spirit of the 1980s action genre, the movie, like Reacher himself, just doesn't give a fuck. Despite its obvious artistic shortcomings, "Reacher" turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable. It did what any movie should do: provide the audience with an emotionally compelling story and memorable—albeit somewhat flat—characters. It also kept me guessing as to who the real bad guys were, and it managed to avoid several potentially predictable moments: Helen, in her car, didn't get garotted by a deadly stowaway; a sniper's bullet didn't come slamming through a large office window, despite the characters' having spent minutes in front of that window; a defeated enemy didn't startlingly reappear in the final scene to exact revenge.

Tom Cruise is a tiny guy (5'7"); this means that it's up to his acting ability to make us take him seriously. The movie is based on One Shot, the ninth book of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, and Child describes Reacher as huge—of Kevin-scale height and weight, i.e., 6-foot-something and almost three Benjamins in poundage. Cruise takes to the role convincingly; the impressive fight choreography (you know I'm a fight-choreography junkie, right?) plays to Cruise's nimbleness, energy, and small stature. He also convinces us that Jack Reacher, despite his rootlessness, despite his ambivalent relationship with his own military past, is earnest. At one point in the middle of the movie, Reacher is standing before that plate-glass window, and he gives Helen Rodin a speech—almost a Shakespearean soliloquy—about the ironic reality of the "freedom" that our soldiers are tasked to defend, a freedom that amounts to little more than cubicle slavery and janitorial duties. The speech felt, to me, almost as if it didn't belong in the film, but it was strangely gripping all the same, and it did much to cement the idea that Reacher is a man with a simple heart who means what he says and says what he means. This might make him a flat character, but it's obvious his character was conceived as the film's moral anchor. That, if nothing else, connects Jack Reacher to Dirty Harry Callahan.

The cast does a fine job, overall. Rosamund Pike, whom I first saw in "An Education," still registers with a weird-yet-charming vibe in this film; Richard Jenkins as her maybe-guilty dad gives a workmanlike performance; David Oyelowo has the poise of a Poitier; and the arrival of Robert Duvall brought a communal sigh from our audience: Jesus, we're saved! If Jack Reacher is the film's moral anchor, Duvall's Gunny Cash is Reacher's. As I mentioned, some of the dialogue is corny as hell, but it'll put you in a nostalgic, '80s frame of mind.

So in the end, I'd recommend "Jack Reacher." You might be surprised at how much fun you have watching it, especially if you have an appreciative audience to watch it with.


ADDENDUM: Special mention for documentarian Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man"), who appears as "the Zec" (i.e., "the Prisoner"), a fingerless Russian mafioso and ex-inmate of a Siberian labor camp who is the mastermind behind the story's shenanigans. Herzog doesn't drop his native German accent in favor of a Russian one, so it's a bit of a stretch to imagine him as Russian, but his screen presence is nevertheless compelling.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

stay thou tunèd

Reviews of "Jack Reacher" (which I saw yesterday) and the David Tennant/Patrick Stewart version of Hamlet are coming.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012



Sad news with which to begin Christmas in Virginia: veteran stage and screen actor Jack Klugman, a huge fixture from my childhood ("The Odd Couple," "Quincy, M.E."), is dead at the age of 90. I still remember the Yoplait commercial he did in heavily accented French. (I was a little tike at the time, and had no idea how heavy his accent was.)

RIP, Mr. Klugman.

CHRISTMAS UPDATE: Character-actor Charles Durning has died at 89. I remember him best for his role as the suicidal-then-angelic Waring Hudsucker in "The Hudsucker Proxy."


a Christmas meditation (repost)

[NB: the following entry is a repost from December 24, 2003.]

The exercise in Buddhist metaphysics is one I've performed with students ranging in age from high school to 90 years old. I say to the class, "OK, I'm standing at the white board with this marker. Help me draw a flower by calling out instructions." And so it begins. I usually hear commands like:

"Draw roots!"

"Draw a stem!"

"Draw thorns!"

"Draw petals!"

But I also hear things like:

"Draw dewdrops!"

"Don't forget the soil!"

"Draw rays of sunlight!"

"Draw rain!"

And so I step back after I get a few more comments like that, and ask the class what just happened. Usually, the response is expectant silence, but occasionally someone will say the obvious: "We drew a setting."

The flower makes no sense without its context. It has no meaning, as a flower, without relationality. No flower stands alone, floating in a priori space, pace Plato. As the Vietnamese Thien (Zen) monk Thich Nhat Hanh pointed out in his great little book Living Buddha, Living Christ, the flower is composed entirely of non-flower elements. To which I add: as we can see from the exercise, the flower implies the universe.

You can pick any phenomenon and achieve similar results. Start with a toy truck instead of a flower, if you want. You'll see that the truck, too, implies the universe. All phenomena do, and do so simultaneously. You begin to realize what it means to say that things are intimately interconnected.

It's Christmas. For most Christians, this means it's a time to be mindful about something new breaking into our lives, something with the potential to change us deeply, to make us aware of the profound ways in which we're interconnected. A lot of this gets lost in the shopping shuffle, of course, which is a close cousin to the irony of driving fast and pissed-off because it was a rough morning and now you're late for church.

It's Christmas. Silent night.

Buddhists aren't the only ones who appreciate silence-- I'd like to think that we Christians do, too, even if our faith is, on the whole, a noisier one. While Easter is often hailed as the culmination of the central Christian mystery, where Jesus is present to us in all his Christ-ness, Christmas is a finger to the lips, a call to quietude: we need to look and listen.


The world moves, and we don't see it. Change appears to us suddenly: "My, how you've grown!" But this astonishment is often a reflection of our own unmindfulness, our inability to be present, here and now, for every "here and now." For Buddhists, the deliberate exercise of meditation facilitates the cultivation of the fruits of silence because the body's movement is restricted. This restriction has the strange effect of being liberating: if it's done right, it truly does help to clear the mind.

And this liberation isn't foreign to Christians, especially at Christmas. We don't know when, exactly, Jesus was born; only two of the four gospels have birth narratives, and our folklore has done a good job of squashing the two narratives together in the Christmas pageant (in case you didn't know: the shepherds are from Luke; the wise men are from Matthew; it's Mark and John that have no birth narratives). But it's precisely because we don't know when Jesus was born that we should feel free to take Christmas as something that should be in our hearts not only on December 25th, but every day, every moment of our lives. Something new is always breaking in, and it's only when we're open that we can receive it in its fullness. We achieve this openness through the silence, the awareness, to which Christmas calls us.

This is the walk of joyful mindfulness. Christians might call it a journey of love. Open the eyes, the ears, the hands, the mouth, and the nose. Breathe the air, whether it's warm and polluted right now, or crisp and pure. Close your eyes and feast on the sounds around you, the smells. Tour your bedroom with eyes closed and get to know it in a new way. Hell, tour your Significant Other this way-- I doubt he or she will mind.

You're alive. You feel. You breathe and think and laugh. But Christmas means you keep your smile and your silence. Take more time than usual to be attentive, mindful. And in taking the time to do these basic things, other things will naturally happen: the argument you thought you were going to have might not occur. The rush you were going to be in might be averted. The new year, which you thought would dawn so bleak, might prove itself instead to be a bright horizon, brimming with potential and hope.

Those of us lucky enough to celebrate Christmas where it's cold and wintry are blessed because nature herself aids us, like a teacher, in the exercise of mindfulness: the leaves have fallen; the snow covers everything; the world is quiet and still-- there's little to distract us. It's easier to focus. But those of us in warmer weather, those of us in noisier locales, can still take some time for the silence of Christmas. Listen to the beating of your own heart, feel the tide of your own breathing, taste the magnificence (or horror!) of something you just cooked. Experience life.

I'm not a believer in miracles-- I think they're distracting. So my message to you is this: the kingdom of God is found in the ordinary. The Absolute you seek "out there" is in fact found right here, right in front of your nose. It's found in the wisdom that "Allah is closer to you than your own neck vein," or "nirvana is samsara," or "ordinary mind is Tao," or "Zen is nothing special," or

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
(Lk 2:12, KJV)

There's good symbolic reason to portray Jesus' birth as such a humble thing: because it's in the meager, everyday, mundane reaches of reality that human experience primarily lies. A baby in rags, disgraced parents, a stable, a manger, a silent-- but still holy-- night. These are the places where Christ resides. Perfection is written in the imperfection of this strange, terrible, beautiful world. The Absolute is no different from the ordinary. The kingdom of God, which religious thinkers have long characterized as "here and not yet," lies within you, bursts from you, finds its voice through you and all of creation. Christmas preaches stillness, but only so we may better know the dance.

Look, but don't just look-- see. Listen, but also hear. Be silent, be mindful, but be filled with joy!

For when we do this, we all participate in the blooming of something new-- the radiant flowers in the garden of our heart.

Merry Christmas.



earlier today: the view from the Chinese buffet

Here's a view of the snow at the local Appalachian strip mall where I gorged myself on Chinese buffet. I took this pic while standing at the buffet's entrance.


pop quiz redux

Saw this annoying tweet from Simon Pegg (Scotty from "Star Trek" and Shaun from "Shaun of the Dead"), in which Pegg quotes a work of science fiction:

Nobody understood the doughy, plasticity of space/time like the Baker, felt its fluxing complexity. Reality to him, was so much puff pastry.

I have no idea whether the pair of comma errors in the above quote are Pegg's (who wrote the tweet) or the SF author's (whom Pegg was quoting). Can you locate and correct the gaffes? (I'd also argue that "space/time" should be written as "space-time." The space-time continuum is a continuum of space and time, not of space or time. In fact, a slash runs counter to the very notion of a continuum.)


Monday, December 24, 2012

from my Amazon Wish List

Mad props to my buddy Mike for having gotten me the DVD of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet, starring mad Scotsman David Tennant in an acclaimed performance; and Melanie Kirkpatrick's Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad. Both of these items were plucked from my Amazon Wish List.

Thanks again, Mike.


language pop quiz

I pulled the following sentence, which contains an error, from an article at The Atlantic titled "Is the Ivy League Fair to Asian Americans?" Here's the sentence:

Again, the implication here seems to be that while Asian-American applicants as a group excel at tests, an important factor in admissions, their talents, skills, and other interests tend to be significantly inferior to students of other races, and having them around isn't as enriching for other students.

The nature of the error is:

(A) poor tense control
(B) faulty/illogical comparison
(C) ambiguous pronoun reference
(D) dangling or misplaced modifier

From the same article, another sentence with an error:

As I see it, we know that even well-intentioned people regularly rationalize discriminatory behavior, that society as a whole is often horrified at its own bygone race-based policies, and that race is so fluid in our multi-ethnic society that no one can adequately conceive of all the ways it is changing; knowing these things, prudence dictates acceptance of the fact that humans aren't equipped to fairly take race into consideration. [italics in original]

The nature of the error is:

(A) poor tense control
(B) faulty/illogical comparison
(C) ambiguous pronoun reference
(D) dangling or misplaced modifier


Sunday, December 23, 2012

"guys... the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol!"

[NB: This is a repost of a post that originally appeared here in 2009.]

Very often you'll hear some wiseacre deconstruct Christmas. He'll talk about its components-- the date of Jesus' birth, the elements involved in Christmas celebration, etc.-- then claim that Christmas is a sham in both form and content: no element of Christmas is originally Christian, after all. What usually follows, after this scholarly lecture, is the non sequitur that "the Christmas tree therefore isn't a Christian symbol."

Well, no: the tree is a Christian symbol, because Christians have made it so. Christians who use Christmas trees aren't focusing on the tree's pre-Christian origins when they set such trees up. Such people belong to a tradition that has appropriated the tree, i.e., made the tree its own.

Some people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of appropriation, which isn't the same as the concept of theft (another idea associated, often rightly, with Christianity's frequently unhappy history). Here's a general example of how appropriation works: as Buddhism moved out of India and into other Asian countries, it took on the trappings of those countries. In Korean Buddhist temples, you might see imagery that's not originally Buddhist: mountain spirits, deities of magico-religious Taoism, etc., might all make their appearances somewhere on Buddhist ground. Buddhism appropriated the local colors and flavors, and was changed thereby. This is a natural sociological process, and it's not limited to religion: it happens in other human spheres as well-- culture, politics, art, and all the other human endeavors you can think of. Ideas are memes; they cross-pollinate.

A more specific example: the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara represents the sort of change that occurs as religions move from place to place. As the Indian name implies with the ending "-ishvara," this entity was a "lord," i.e., male. As the concept of Avalokiteshvara moved northward into China, however, it became associated with the Chinese deity Kwan Shih Yin (or just Kwan Yin)-- a deity that was arguably native to China, and usually portrayed as female. Whatever Avalokiteshvara was, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is now thought of as female in all of East Asia. More philosophically minded Buddhists, aware of the bodhisattva's Indian origins, will say the bodhisattva transcends gender, but folkloric Buddhists in East Asia will be comfortable with Kwan Yin's femininity. East Asians appropriated Avalokiteshvara.

People who claim "X is not really X because it was originally Y" are demonstrating a lack of understanding about how symbols work. Culturally speaking, symbols derive their power and significance from a widespread agreement as to their general meaning. This agreement is often induced and enforced diachronically, when the older generation teaches the symbol's meaning to the younger generation.

It may sound strange to give so much legitimacy to the "because we said so" crowd, but the saying-so is integral to what symbols are. The implication, then, is that the critic of Christianity can't afford to be too smug about the "original" significance of the Christmas tree. Those pagans came to an agreement about what their tree meant, after all, and they may have done it in consonance with-- or in defiance of-- some even earlier, pre-pagan tradition.

If religious symbols are too abstract for you, let's think about this problem in terms of language. The sound "ah" occurs in American English, but it's also an ancient sound-- one of three sounds common to all languages (the other two being "ee" and "ooh"). Does the ancient pedigree of "ah" make it somehow un-English? To put matters another way: "ah" might have come from our distant past, and might currently be found in other languages, but does that make it any less a part of English phonetics? Conclusion: "ah" is English-- not originally English, nor exclusively English, but legitimately English all the same. And why? Because users of English have, through a massive and self-perpetuating agreement, chosen to include the sound as part of their language.*

By the same token, then, the tree known by Christians as "the Christmas tree" is certainly not exclusively Christian, nor is it originally Christian, but it is nonethless legitimately Christian. Why? Because Christians have made it so.

There's another side to this issue, though: we should take a moment to consider the Christians who get upset upon hearing that their precious symbol doesn't originate with their tradition. My question to them would be: why are you upset? Did you really think Christianity wasn't composed of non-Christian elements? As Thich Nhat Hanh notes in his Living Buddha, Living Christ, all religious traditions are composed of elements not of that tradition. Viewed in terms of Buddhist metaphysics, religious traditions are dependently co-arisen: they form out of a matrix of intercausality. The late Father Cenkner, one of my mentors at Catholic University, used to say: "It's all syncretism!"**

I personally have no trouble with the claim that the Christmas tree isn't originally Christian, or that prayer pre-dates Christianity, or that Madonna-and-Child imagery is very likely derived from Isis-and-Horus iconography, or that sacred birth narratives and the concept of resurrection are pre-Christian. None of this changes the fact that almost all Christians pray, that many Christians set up Christmas trees for Christian purposes at Christmas, or that the Madonna and Child are wholly integral to the Christian tradition. A healthy Christian attitude would be to realize that one is part of a constantly evolving and interwoven global network of tradition-streams. In the meantime, the non-Christian who attempts to claim that "aspect X of Christianity isn't originally Christian" needs to realize that this in no way implies that "aspect X isn't Christian"-- a claim that is demonstrably false.

*Some scholars have proposed a "language model" of religious pluralism that makes religious traditions analogous to languages. The model is helpful in elucidating certain aspects of how religions may have evolved over time, but I question the model's effectiveness in resolving what many pluralists see as the basic problem of religious diversity-- namely, the fact that the various traditions, in their doctrines and metaphysics, often make conflicting or even contradictory truth claims. If the language model is meant to be used normatively, it implies that no one religion is any more legitimate than another-- an implication rejected not only by divergent pluralists but also by inclusivists and exclusivists. Even convergent pluralists exclude certain traditions from the sphere of legitimacy; Satanism immediately comes to mind.

**You're allowed to make sweeping generalizations about the universe when you're over 70, even if you're an academic. In his defense, I'll note that Father Cenkner said this outside of the class context. While the sentiment lacks the usual pile of scholarly hedges and qualifications, I still think it's basically correct when applied to religion. Can you name a causa sui religious tradition?


Ave, Malcolm!

My thanks to Malcolm Pollack for linking to this article about the connection between current folkloric images of Santa Claus and... shamanism.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

the pleasures of not ironing

I'm rather late to the single man's game of avoiding the ironing of my clothes-- this despite the fact that my mother used to practice that ritual herself when doing laundry. Her strategy: leave the clothes in the dryer for only twenty minutes, enough to warm them thoroughly, then pull them out, flap/snap them a few times like a mountain man breaking a snake's spine, then hang them up while they're still hot. Result: wrinkle-free garments.

At my old residence in Alexandria, our laundry room's ceiling was a riot of pipes and plastic hangers-- almost one hanger for each article of hangable clothing. Laundry day was usually impressive as a result: dozens and dozens of shirts and pants and sundry unmentionables would find themselves strung up. With all those dangling legs and torsos, the scene looked an awful lot like that moment in "Braveheart" when young William Wallace blunders into the village meeting house, only to discover that all the Scottish clan elders have been betrayed and hanged by the cruel, cruel English.

But I've learned-- albeit slowly, I admit-- that I, too, can avoid ironing: it's just a matter of plucking my pants and shirts out of the dryer as soon as I know they're dry, then hanging them up straightaway. Even though half of what I wear to work isn't permanent press, as long as I salvage the articles quickly, they remain more or less wrinkle-free.

I feel like a lazy bastard for abandoning my ironing ritual (I abandoned it about a month ago), but I treasure the extra free time. So it's a bit of a moral trade-off: a twinge in the conscience as my iron and ironing board sit sadly but dutifully in the corner, but a smile on my face as I flop into bed, content that there's one less item on my list of onerous tasks.


the forgotten parable

While trolling through my archives, I stumbled upon an old post, "Alien meditation," which gave me a chuckle. I now share it with you again.


conqueror worms of the apocalypse

Three worms to fear on this world-ending day:

1. The Worm of the World's End, perhaps one of my favorite creatures from modern fiction. As Wikipedia notes:

The Worm of the World's End, whose body underlies the lands and ocean and whose thrashings will destroy the world when it awakes, [appears] in The One Tree, the second book of the second trilogy of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever fantasy series written by Stephen R. Donaldson. According to the most recent book in the series (Against All Things Ending) the worm is not physically very large, but its hunger will nonetheless lead to global ruination.

In Donaldson's novels, the myth is told that the Worm is as old as the universe, and when the universe was born, the ravenous Worm began plowing through the heavens and eating the Creator's children, the stars. Once it had eaten its fill, it curled up on itself and settled into slumber. As it slept, the Earth formed around the Worm: mountains, oceans, rivers, its sea-dragon offspring the Nicor, and the forests-- including the powerful One Tree. Alas, one day, the Worm will reawaken, and on that day the world will be no more.

The following photo, found here, is of a threatening cloud that reminded the photographer of Stephen R. Donaldson's works. In a flash of insight, she named the cloud the Worm of the World's End. It does indeed look like a massive worm, come to destroy the city:

2. The Worm at World's End, a legless dragon (making it a Korean imugi?) that apparently hangs out with a really hot chick. I saw this Boris Vallejo-inspired piece of artwork while searching for the above Worm of the World's end, and was impressed enough with the mean-looking dragonling to include the image here:

3. Of course, the above threats to our world are fictional, so I had to include at least one real-life giant worm that could undo us all: The World's Largest Gummi Worm. Weighing three pounds, measuring a little over two feet long (about 1.36kg and 65cm for you metric-heads), and packing over 4000 calories, this worm, if eaten in a single session, will destroy you. All that sugar in your veins will thicken your blood to the consistency of syrup, and your life will simply stop. Since the worm looks suspiciously like a double-headed dildo, it might serve an alternative, non-lethal purpose for the sapphically inclined.

Behold the madness:

So on this day, the dawn of a new Mayan era, we contemplate the many ways in which we may be obliterated. Could the Worm of the World's End wake up, unravel, shed the shell of our planet, and head off once again to devour the stars? Could the Worm at World's End bring along a hot goddess-chick and pass evil judgment on us all? Could we each find ourselves with a giant gummi worm in hand, contemplating a sugary demise? Only the gods know.


Friday, December 21, 2012

eschaton update

It's 2:49AM in Appalachia as I write this. That means it's nearly 5PM on December 21 in South Korea-- 17 hours with no apocalypse. The peninsula's still here, last I checked-- no world-ending horror has occurred, not unless newly elected president Park Geun-hye is vomiting dragons out of her crotch.

So I think it's safe to go to bed, now, and expect to wake up to pretty much the same world I'll be abandoning while I dream.

Good night, all.


my little moron

I have a student who is that perfect admixture of astoundingly smart and abysmally stupid. He's a fourth-grader; let's call him Bart. (I've referred to this kid as Arrogant Pig elsewhere.) Bart is creative: he loves designing and drawing cars, loves making little comic strips, and loves writing essays and stories, even though he's an awful speller. When Bart talks, he sounds about five years older than he actually is. In other kids, this trait is charming, but with Bart, I'm often convinced that the boy is a crotchety old fart in disguise. I'm tempted to think of him as an old soul-- an impression that's reinforced by his prissy, fussy, often closed-minded nature. Today, I told him that he'd love Switzerland, where everyone is so damn orderly. The sarcasm was lost on him, which brings me to the subject of Bart's stupidity.

You see, despite his smarts, and despite the fact that he draws a purportedly humorous comic strip, Bart has no ear for humor at all, unless it's Jerry Lewis-style slapstick. Like Mr. Spock, Bart has no idea when someone is pulling his leg. As a result, he's woefully gullible: tone-deaf to the world around him, Bart will believe any shit he hears. Today, he came in and, with perfect seriousness, declared that he was very worried about tomorrow, December 21st, which is supposedly the day the world ends.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because everyone's saying it," he said.

"You believe them?" I asked.

"Well, yeah, or why would they say it?" Bart shot back. Along with being smart, Bart's a smartass who could probably stand a smack or three. Daily.

Another of the students sitting with me that session, Darrell (not his real name), took advantage of Bart's obvious cluelessness by making humorously ominous pronouncements, and then rescinding them.

"The world's gonna end tomorrow," intoned Darrell, with all the mock seriousness of someone telling a particularly horrifying campfire ghost story.

"Stop saying that!" shrilled Bart, visibly agitated.

"Nah, the world's not gonna end tomorrow," smiled Darrell.

"But just a second ago, you said it was!" moaned Bart.

"OK, stop, enough, you guys," I rumbled.

Bart's obviously got a vivid imagination, and apparently lacks the normal internal controls that allow a kid his age to tell the difference between chicanery and sincerity. In terms of emotional intelligence, Bart is way retarded. Watching him try to handle social interactions with his seatmates is simultaneously sad and funny. He's gonna get ripped off by a gold-digger wife some day. Assuming the world doesn't end.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

zee world, eet eez ending?

Any fucking idiot who, over the next 48 hours, commits suicide because he thinks the world is ending has my blessing. Fewer morons polluting the global gene pool.

Dali, of course, would have been too savvy to be numbered among the idiots.


don't just do something-- stand there!

Three conservative replies to the "We gotta do something!" meme being thrown around by gun-control activists:



Dr. Vallicella.


a kind note

My YB Near supervisor gave me a gift and a Christmas card today. Too impatient to wait for Christmas, I opened everything up when I got home. The gift was a tartan scarf; the card contained a handwritten message:


Merry Christmas! It has been a privilege working with you at [YB Near]. The students and I are so proud and honored to have you! I truly appreciate your commitment, dependability, and integrity in the way that you approach each of your students. We all appreciate you so much!

This season, I wish you much merriment, laughter, good health, and many blessings!



That was nice. I feel I should return the favor. She's a good boss.


holy shit-- I was wrong: Park Geun-hye wins it

Conservative Park Geun-hye wins the Korean presidential election thanks to 76% voter turnout and a 3.6% lead over leftist rival Moon Jae-in. As Robert Koehler of the Marmot's Hole notes, South Korea gets its first woman president. Robert also observes that Park is the first candidate to garner over 50% of the vote: a majority, not merely a plurality.

It's interesting to see South Korea electing two conservative administrations in a row. After three left-leaning presidents (Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Noh Mu-hyeon), I'd have thought the country would be more like France and would stick to the leftist game plan as much as possible (Sarkozy was definitely an aberration in the French public consciousness). If this election can be considered a referendum on the current president, Lee Myeong-bak, it may be that South Koreans don't hate the man as much as I'd thought.

I'm actually happy with the results. A conservative in office will mean (1) a greater tendency toward fiscal conservatism and an openness to international trade; (2) an uncomfortable environment for Korea's out-of-control unions; (3) the proper dynamic tension with North Korea, with fewer concessionary gestures from the South than there would have been under a leftist administration.

But when, Lord, when will South Korea elect its first black president?

ADDENDUM: Better political analysis at Aaron McKenzie's.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"I am Adam Lanza's mother"

This came out a few days ago, and it's worth your while to read it.


ma famille française: mise à jour

My buddy Dominique just wrote me with some family updates. He also sent along some pics of three of his four kids, all of whom are quite athletically inclined. Here they are (click on the images to see them full-size):

First is Dominique's eldest son, Augustin, who has really taken to rollerblading:

Next up is plucky Timothé, who's getting into soccer:

And finally we have Héloïse, the apple of my eye and the girl who could have been my goddaughter, if only I had lived closer (she's second from the left):

Dom's family recently moved from Alsace (on the German border, for those of you who've forgotten your history) back to Dom's old stomping grounds in la région nantaise, i.e., the west coast of France. The ultimate plan is for Dom and his lovely wife Véronique to purchase and run a bed-and-breakfast just off the coast, and not too far from where Dom's parents live. I've been honored with the task of translating their future B&B website into English. Not sure when that gig's happening, but I imagine it'll be within the next couple of years.

It's incredible to me, just how quickly Dom's kids are growing up. Not pictured above is Joséphine, who's on the precipice of college. On se fait vieux, hein? Le temps passe vite.


South Korean election updates

Follow the South Korean election updates here at the Marmot's Hole.


shoving off soon

While my brother Sean has been rehearsing in Boston for a Christmas gig there, I've been house- and dog-sitting for him in Alexandria. Sean's coming back today, though, so my services end in just a couple of hours, when I'll pack up and trundle off to work at YB Near.

I had the chance, last night, to visit a Thai restaurant called "T.H.A.I.," in nearby Shirlington. It turned out to be very nice, though a bit pricey. I had a seafood lemongrass soup, a chicken satay appetizer, and a garlic shrimp dish (Garlic Lover's Shrimp, according to the menu) for the main course. When I compare T.H.A.I. to Thunwa in my town, I'd have to say that Thunwa comes out on top: despite the Shirlington resto's better-designed, more sophisticated ambience, the food wasn't as good or as plentiful. T.H.A.I. was also more expensive than Thunwa; I spent about $25 in Appalachia and $41 in Shirlington. More bang for the buck out in the mountains, but I will say that the seafood soup at T.H.A.I. was amazing, even if the satay was not. It all looked and smelled good, though.

So I'm just sitting here in Sean's dimly lit dining room, working on my YB textbook-editing project and listening to a load of laundry percolate upstairs. Very soon, I'll strike camp and leave the dog to meditate alone until his rightful master returns.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

from Steven Pinker

From Steven Pinker on my Twitter feed: What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers (by Adam Lankford, NYT). Excerpt:

Over the last three years, I have examined interviews, case studies, suicide notes, martyrdom videos and witness statements and found that suicide terrorists are indeed suicidal in the clinical sense — which contradicts what many psychologists and political scientists have long asserted. Although suicide terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations whose propaganda they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed — just like most rampage shooters.

In fact, we should think of many rampage shooters as nonideological suicide terrorists. In some cases, they claim to be fighting for a cause — neo-Nazism, eugenics, masculine supremacy or an antigovernment revolution — but, as with suicide terrorists, their actions usually stem from something much deeper and more personal.

There appears to be a triad of factors that sets these killers apart. The first is that they are generally struggling with mental health problems that have produced their desire to die. The specific psychiatric diagnoses vary widely, and include everything from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to schizophrenia and others forms of psychosis. The suicide rate was 12.4 per 100,000 people in the United States in 2010 (the highest in 15 years). Suicide is relatively rare, but it is rarer still in most Muslim countries. This is a very limited pool from which most suicide terrorists and rampage shooters come.

The second factor is a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him. Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization. It makes little difference whether the perceived victimizer is an enemy government (in the case of suicide terrorists) or their boss, co-workers, fellow students or family members (in the case of rampage shooters).

The key is that the aggrieved individual feels that he has been terribly mistreated and that violent vengeance is justified. In many cases, the target for revenge becomes broader and more symbolic than a single person, so that an entire type or category of people is deemed responsible for the attacker’s pain and suffering. Then, the urge to commit suicide becomes a desire for murder-suicide, which is even rarer; a recent meta-analysis of 16 studies suggests that only two to three of every one million Americans commit murder-suicide each year.

The third factor is the desire to acquire fame and glory through killing. More than 70 percent of murder-suicides are between spouses or romantic or sexual partners, and these crimes usually take place at home. Attackers who commit murder-suicide in public are far more brazen and unusual. Most suicide terrorists believe they will be honored and celebrated as “martyrs” after their deaths and, sure enough, terrorist organizations produce martyrdom videos and memorabilia so that other desperate souls will volunteer to blow themselves up.

Similarly, rampage shooters have often been captivated by the idea that they will become posthumously famous. “Isn’t it fun to get the respect that we’re going to deserve?” the Columbine shooter Eric Harris remarked. He had fantasized with his fellow attacker, Dylan Klebold, that the filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino would fight over the rights to their life story.


la présidentielle coréenne

On December 19, South Korea decides its fate. I predict a liberal win in the upcoming presidential election. Although conservative Park Geun-hye, daughter of the (in)famous dictator Park Chung-hee, leads ever so slightly in the polls, I just don't see the Korean public continuing in a conservative vein. Too much anti-rightist animus has built up against current president-- and conservative-- Lee Myung-bak over the past five years, and this is reflective of the pendular nature of public opinion in Korea: anti-liberal sentiments are what had originally put Lee in office (cf. France's swing from leftist Chirac to rightist Sarkozy to leftist Hollande). Ms. Park has also not proven very competent a speaker during her three debates, a fact that drains any authoritativeness from her public image. The only reason the Korean public might vote for Park is that it's partial to a Thatcherite regime: it wants an Iron Lady. But how desirous is the Korean public, really, to have such a lady at its helm now? No: I suspect that liberal candidate Moon Jae-in is going to slalom to victory in less than 48 hours.



Senator Daniel Inouye has died. He was 88.

Be sure to click that link and read the story of what a badass this man was.



Skippy writes on the core syndrome animating America's gun violence: Americans themselves. In this post, he writes on why there will be no true change-- legally, culturally-- in America despite the recent Newtown, Connecticut tragedy. As Skippy writes:

Let's assume that you could get an effective gun control ban through Congress, which I don't believe that you can. That would almost certainly only affect the manufacture and sale of new weapons. There would still be 270 million existing guns out there in America.

People still own perfectly functional firearms from the Civil War, which was a century and a half ago. How long do you suppose that a modern AR-15 is designed to last?

Nathan, meanwhile, writes a perceptive review of Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi. I see Nathan is "pulling a Koehler" and experimenting with his blog's format.

ADDENDUM: I once wrote a bit on Life of Pi here and here.


two views of "The Hobbit"

Charles offers a positive initial (i.e., spoiler-free) review.

The Atlantic fixates on the non-canonical violence and gives "The Hobbit" a thumbs-down. (With thanks to Lee on Twitter for alerting me to this article.)


Monday, December 17, 2012

"Argo": review

While in Fredericksburg to visit my buddy Mike and his family, I had the chance to see Ben Affleck's earnest film "Argo" last night. One of the first things that leaped out at me was the fact that, for Affleck, this was a labor of love. You can see it in every frame.* And as other reviewers have noted, Affleck has shown himself to be a more than adequate director. His style, which combines the unpretentious camera work of Clint Eastwood with the vérité feel of "All the President's Men," simply allows the story to unfold before us.

The movie's plot was also laced with humorous cynicism, mostly about the movie industry; as Mike noted, it's always cool to see Hollywood poke fun at itself. The story of "Argo" is told in a straightforward manner: in November of 1979, six Americans quietly escape the US embassy compound at the beginning of the infamous hostage crisis and take refuge at the residence of the Canadian ambassador, not knowing what to do next. The CIA, aware of the Americans' plight, mulls over several "exfil" (exfiltration) scenarios, but it's Tony Mendez (Affleck himself) who proposes entering Iran in the guise of a moviemaker scouting a location for a nonexistent sci-fi movie called "Argo." The idea is to give fake Canadian IDs and filmmaker credentials to the Americans in hiding, and then to get everyone out on a Swissair flight, right under the noses of over a hundred Iranian security staffers. The action jumps from Iran to Hollywood to Langley, Virginia; Mendez has recruited makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, at the top of his game) to help make this exfil a reality, while Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) quarterbacks from CIA headquarters.

"Argo" is very good at maintaining suspense, despite the fact that most audience members cognizant of recent history will know how the story ends. While watching "Argo," I was often reminded of Clint Eastwood's underrated "Firefox" (based on Craig Thomas's novel of the same name), in which the phrase "Your papers are not in order" has never been more chilling. Much of "Argo" is, in fact, devoted to long, tense shots of people waiting to see whether they've passed through a security threshold. Will the fake passports pass muster? Will the nervous Yank-- who speaks Farsi and doesn't believe in Mendez's plan-- give the game away? Will the missing disembarkation chits prevent the group from leaving?

Conservative viewers of the film grumble about the way in which Americans are made to seem the guilty parties, as if the hostage situation were America's fault. They also complain about the Jimmy Carter voiceover at the end of the film, in which Carter tells us that the other fifty American hostages were eventually brought home safe and sound (after 444 days in captivity), and with America's "integrity" uncompromised-- a debatable contention at best. My feeling is that Hollywood isn't about to give anything other than the leftist point of view a fair shake, so there's little reason to grouse: the Carter voiceover is an unsurprising coda. And speaking of codas: the ending credits include still photos of the movie's cast juxtaposed with the actual six Americans involved in the "Canadian Caper," along with images of Tony Mendez and Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador at the time. The actors are striking in their resemblance to their real-life counterparts.

Affleck's labor of love has already won him near-universal plaudits among reviewers both big and small. It's a good film, and it wouldn't shock me to learn that Affleck and the rest of the cast** and crew of "Argo" might be up for some major awards. Personally, I'd single out Alan Arkin for his "Ocean's Eleven"-style brio, verve, élan, and gleeful chutzpah.

*Other labors of love by star-directors would be Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" and Robert Duvall's incredible "The Apostle."

**I couldn't help noticing that "Argo" included half the cast of "24"!


if all goes according to plan

Today, my schedule looks like this:

1. Tutor in Fairfax from 2PM to 4PM. (I talked about my awesome tutees before.)

2. Drive to Fredericksburg to hang with my buddy Mike and his family, and possibly see a movie (either "Argo" or "The Hobbit").

3. Drive, late at night, to Alexandria to begin dog-sitting my brother's chihuahua Maqz for two nights. Sean lives across the freeway from Shirlington, which has a mess of nice restaurants. There's a Thai resto I've had my eye on; I might go give that a try during my stay.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

with thanks to a student

We now present you with the chicken-head tracking video! Have a chuckle in these sad times. This vid was shown to me by one of my students at YB Near.


Ave, Malcolm!

Give Malcolm Pollack's "Hell on Earth" a read.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

does mental illness erase blameworthiness?

Many people seem to assume that, if someone is mentally ill, they are no longer morally responsible for what they do. I disagree. I think that, even for those of us unafflicted by mental illness, the ship of our basic human freedom is blown in multiple directions by conflicting squalls of foibles, both chosen and unasked-for. But none of these forces can erase the fundamental power of choice. In arguing against the existence of human freedom, Sam Harris offers the case of the mass-murderer afflicted with a brain tumor. I'd say that even that mass-murderer has the power to choose: even a person with a brain tumor can be held morally responsible for his or her actions, just as even a suicidally depressed person can be talked back, through the simple use of voice and reason, from the roof's edge.

Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, the shooter who this morning killed his mother, twenty children, and several adults, has been described by his brother Ryan as somewhat "autistic." Leaving aside the question of whether autism even qualifies as a form of mental illness, we can nevertheless ask whether Adam's mental state absolves him of his responsibility for murdering all those people. I'd say no, it doesn't: at the very least, Adam's finger was on the trigger when those deaths occurred; at that most basic level, he was responsible for what he did, just as Cho Seung-hui was responsible for killing almost three dozen people at Virginia Tech. And Adam must have understood the gravity of what he had done: it now turns out that he shot himself as the police converged on him.

In the world of consciousness, all of us travel through storm-tossed seas: temptations, waves of emotion, idées fixes, basic primate curiosity, ego, and stubbornness. But the ship of human freedom is captained by an ineffable something more basic than those forces-- something that makes us, like it or not, masters of our own fates.

Is Adam Lanza guilty of what he's done? Oh, yes. Most decidedly.


massacre still unfolding

Over 26 or 27 people are dead in Newtown, Connecticut-- killed at an elementary school by one or possibly two shooters. Eighteen of the dead are little children. The principal shooter, a 20-year-old father of one of the students, appears to be dead either by his own hand or by police gunfire. A second man was arrested, wearing military garb (camo pants, black top) and hiding out in the nearby woods. What's more, a body has been found at the home of the primary shooter. This event is still unfolding, so it's going to take time for the public to wrap its mind around this tragedy. Obviously, foremost in everyone's thoughts will be: Why? But when someone does something this crazy, this horrifying, there may be no satisfactory why.

UPDATE: Body count now at 28, with 20 of the dead being children. Follow your preferred news sources for updates.


Friday, December 14, 2012

where does Doc Brown shop?

Why, Doctor Emmett Brown shops at Wal-mart, of course!


December 3 leftovers

Here's a pic from ten days ago, back when I still had plenty of leftovers from Thanksgiving:

Incredibly, the sauerkraut kept getting better with time and baking, especially when it mixed with some of the sugary sweetness of the meat juices. Wunderbar!


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Happy Birthday, Tom!

My longtime buddy Tom, whom I met in 1994 at Seoul's Koryo Foreign Language Institute, a nasty-ass hagwon in the heart of the Chongno district, is turning 43 today, so he finally catches up with the rest of us grimy '69ers.

My first memory of Tom is of him stomping down the stairs of Koryo hagwon, dropping angrily onto a couch in our school's lobby, and barking to no one in particular, "Who the fuck is the dingleberry dickhead who wrote up that schedule?" I had a good chuckle at that expression. Dingleberry dickhead. Tom has almost always given his unvarnished opinion on all matters Korean, but he doesn't fit the stereotype of the angry, bitter expat: for Tom, Korea is his home, and he loves the country, warts and all.

Another memory I have of Tom involves a trip out to the campus of Yonsei University. Tom and I were walking along one of the hiking trails when he had a sudden urge to take a shit. "Got any paper?" he asked me quickly. I widened my eyes and shrugged. "Doesn't matter," Tom said. "I can go behind those rocks and pinch it off clean." Now, folks, that's something that I've never been able to do, so I was in awe. When shitting, my own anus gets as messy as a baby's mouth eating veggie mush. For God's sakes, my ass even makes chewing noises. If I'd been the one needing to shit, I'd definitely have carried along some toilet paper.

Yet another 1990s memory I have of Tom comes from when I was in the process of suing my boss at Koryo hagwon. I prank-called Tom, shouting into the phone something like, "Shit, man, they're here! They're coming to get m--" and then hanging up. Within two minutes, Tom and a friend of his were over at my tiny yeogwan (think: filthy love hotel, where I was paying monthly rent), baseball bats in hand, ready to go gangsta on whoever was kidnapping me. I felt guilty for having tested Tom's loyalty that way. Really guilty. But not so guilty that I didn't also have a good laugh.

Tom's a lifer, I think; at this point, he's probably been in Korea for about twenty years. He's married the Filipina love of his life, and is about to become a dad. He lives in a nice, roomy "officetel," a spacious downtown apartment that is surprisingly cheap, once you pay the enormous, $10,000 key-money deposit to secure the place. It's a far cry from those dirty old yeogwan days in the 90s. Tom's been an instructor at Sungkyunkwan University for the past four or five years-- the university I'd like to work at, if only those dingleberry dickheads in Human Resources would open their goddamn eyes and look at what I have to offer-- and he's bucking for the head-teacher position, from which vantage he's hoping to reel me in during the next round of hiring. We'll see how that goes.

In an interesting cosmic coincidence, Tom's birthday happens to be on December 12, which makes this 12/12/12 particularly special. I hope he celebrates Roman-orgy style, and I wish my buddy the best as he leaps into his 44th year of existence.

Happy Birthday, Tom-- talented photographer, lover of Korean baseball, experienced TV and radio personality, natural teacher, and my good, good friend.


a faulty axiological argument for the existence of God

I was alerted, on my Twitter feed, to the existence of a five-minute Prager University video by Dr. Peter Kreeft (rhymes with "strafed"), professor of philosophy at Boston College, in which Dr. Kreeft attempts to prove the existence of God by arguing that good and evil enjoy objective existence. I will lay out Dr. Kreeft's argument, phase by phase, and then demonstrate why it resoundingly fails to prove God's existence.

1. The Argument

Dr. Kreeft's argument has two principal phases:

a. Establish that all non-objective (i.e., atheistic/naturalistic) explanations for the existence of morality are unsatisfactory.

b. Conclude from the failure of all naturalistic explanations that morality has an objective basis, which must be supernatural, i.e., God.

Establishing (a) is challenge enough, but much more depends on whether Dr. Kreeft can succeed at establishing (b) satisfactorily. In the video, Dr. Kreeft breaks (a) down into five parts. This five-part argument, a systematic rejection of several naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality, begins this way:

I'm going to argue for the existence of God from the premise that moral good and evil really exist. They are not simply a matter of personal taste-- not merely substitutes for I like and I don't like.

We can therefore call this an axiological argument for the existence of God. The term axiology refers to the study of value, i.e., ethics, morals, the Good, etc. Note, too, that Dr. Kreeft is aiming to establish that good and evil are objective realities, i.e., they reside in the world, independent of any particular person's perspective.

Dr. Kreeft continues:

Before I begin, let's get one misunderstanding out of the way. My argument does not mean that atheists can't be moral. Of course: atheists can behave morally, just as theists can behave immorally.

This is an important concession, but I'm not sure how relevant it is, given what Dr. Kreeft argues later: at the end of his spiel, Dr. Kreeft seems to imply that an atheist who believes morals to have an objective basis is actually a closet theist. This comes perilously close to the claim that there are no atheists, a claim that drives most atheists crazy. (It's a bit like defining religion so inclusively that even atheists turn out to be religious. I've been guilty of making that move myself.)

Here is the transcript (all typos are my responsibility) of the rest of Dr. Kreeft's axiological argument for God's existence:

Let's start, then, with a question about good and evil. Where do good and evil come from? Atheists typically propose a few possibilities. Among these are

-human nature, and

I will show you that none of these can be the ultimate source of morality.

Why not from evolution? Because any supposed morality that is evolving can change. If it can change for the good or the bad, there must be a standard above these changes to judge them as good or bad. For most of human history, more powerful societies enslaved weaker societies, and prospered. That's just the way it was, and no one questioned it. Now, we condemn slavery. But, based on a merely evolutionary model—that is, an ever-changing view of morality—who is to say that it won't be acceptable again one day? Slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable: if you can't make that distinction between accepted and acceptable, you can't criticize slavery. And if you can make that distinction, you are admitting to objective morality.

What about reasoning? While reasoning is a powerful tool to help us discover and understand morality, it cannot be the source of morality. For example, criminals use reasoning to plan a murder, without their reason telling them that murder is wrong. And was it reasoning, or something higher than reasoning, that led those Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust? The answer is obvious: it was something higher than reasoning, because risking one's life to save a stranger was a very unreasonable thing to do.

Nor can conscience alone be the source of morality. Every person has his own conscience, and some people apparently have none. Heinrich Himmler, chief of the brutal Nazi SS, successfully appealed to his henchmen's consciences to help them do the "right" thing in murdering and torturing millions of Jews and others. How can you say your conscience is right and Himmler's is wrong, if conscience alone is the source of morality? The answer is: you can't.

Some people say human nature is the ultimate source of morality. But human nature can lead us to do all sorts of reprehensible things. In fact, human nature is the reason we need morality. Our human nature leads some of us to do real evil, and leads all of us to be selfish, unkind, petty, and egocentric. I doubt you would want to live in a world where human nature was given free rein.

Utilitarianism is the claim that what is morally right is determined by whatever creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But, to return to our slavery example, if 90% of the people would get great benefit from enslaving the other 10%, would that make slavery right? According to utilitarianism, it would!

We've seen where morality can't come from. Now, let's see where it does come from.

What are moral laws? Unlike the laws of physics or the laws of mathematics, which tell us what is, the laws of morality tell us what ought to be. But like physical laws, they direct and order something, and that something is right human behavior. But since morality doesn't exist physically—there are no moral or immoral atoms or cells or genes—its cause has to be something that exists apart from the physical world. That thing must therefore be above nature, or supernatural. The very existence of morality proves the existence of something beyond nature and beyond man. Just as a design suggests a designer, moral commands suggest a moral commander. Moral laws must come from a moral lawgiver. Well, that sounds pretty much like what we know as God.

So the consequence of this argument is that, whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God, whether you know it or not. You're talking about something religious, even if you think you're an atheist.

I'm Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, for Prager University.

2. My Critique

My first reaction to this video was that an axiological argument for the existence of God has to be one of the more bizarre attempts at proving God's existence that I've seen. St. Anselm's ontological proof for the existence of God, while flawed, strikes me as more rigorously logical than Dr. Kreeft's strange undertaking. St. Thomas Aquinas's cosmological proofs—the so-called Five Ways—also strike me as more tightly reasoned than this morality-centered approach, although they, too, are flawed.

My objections to Dr. Kreeft's arguments can be summed up thus:

1. In attempting to refute a mere subset of the total number of naturalistic arguments for the existence/ultimate source of good and evil, Dr. Kreeft has failed to address all the possible arguments and thus cannot proceed directly to the supernatural.

2. Many, if not most, of Dr. Kreeft's objections merely reject possibilities because they are distasteful, not for any rigidly logical reason. These are aesthetic objections, not logical objections.

3. Even if we consider Dr. Kreeft successful in having refuted all the naturalistic arguments for the existence/ultimate source of morality, Dr. Kreeft has failed to demonstrate that a theistic source for morality is the only remaining option. Buddhism builds its system of morality not upon theism, but upon the basic empirical fact of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) and the relational, processual, intercausal nature of reality. No god is needed in this moral framework.

Science has also been exploring the question of morality. You might want to take a look at Robert Wright's talk with Dr. Steven Pinker over at (see here). Fast-forward to about minute 34, then listen as Pinker and Wright talk about the notion of objective "moral laws" (i.e., moral realism, the idea that moral laws have objective existence), which enjoy an almost Platonic status, toward which evolving organisms are converging over time—laws that govern, say, cooperative survival strategies, tendencies toward reciprocal behavior, various pancultural forms of the Golden Rule, etc. Nowhere in that discussion is God explicitly invoked.

4. At several points in his argument, Dr. Kreeft assumes what he wishes to prove. A good example of that fallacious move occurs here, early in his argument:

For most of human history, more powerful societies enslaved weaker societies, and prospered. That's just the way it was, and no one questioned it. Now, we condemn slavery. But, based on a merely evolutionary model—that is, an ever-changing view of morality—who is to say that it won't be acceptable again one day? Slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable: if you can't make that distinction between accepted and acceptable, you can't criticize slavery. And if you can make that distinction, you are admitting to objective morality.

The notion that "slavery was once accepted, but it was not therefore acceptable" is the crucial phrase here: Dr. Kreeft is merely asserting, not arguing. He offers no support, that I can see, for his contention that slavery wasn't acceptable back in the old days: obviously it was acceptable, or it would never have been practiced! To say that slavery was never acceptable is to say it was never acceptable from a God's-eye point of view—and that's precisely where Dr. Kreeft is assuming what he wishes to prove.

5. Dr. Kreeft's argument suffers from the same problem that plagues most arguments for an objective morality: whose morality, from which culture, is the morality? There are so many moralities out there, and not all of them share certain basic tenets like "killing/murder is bad." This is Cultural Anthropology 101, folks: moralities may overlap, but as with Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblances, distant-cousin moral systems may have little to nothing in common.

6. If we assume that Dr. Kreeft has successfully made the case for theism, Dr. Kreeft still faces all the logical and moral objections to theism itself. To wit: how moral is a jealous and vindictive God? Is the petty, bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament (a God who, in Christian reckoning, sacrifices his son in the New Testament) truly worthy of worship? What about the logical problems that burden most traditional concepts of God? Divine foreknowledge is incompatible with human freedom, for example, and we associate freedom with responsible, moral action. Etc., etc.

I think that about covers my objections to Dr. Kreeft's argument. Basically, I feel that the professor has failed to make the move from "No naturalistic explanation for morality is satisfactory" to "Only theism can explain the existence of morality." His objections to naturalistic explanations are more aesthetic than logical; he fails to answer all the naturalistic arguments for the existence of morality; he fails to provide a compelling case that theism is the only inevitable alternative in the face of naturalism's failures (cf. Buddhism and science on morality); he assumes what he wishes to prove; he fails to deal adequately with the diversity of moral systems; and finally, even if he has succeeded in making the case for God, he faces a mountain of logical and moral objections to theism itself.

That any argument for the existence of God can hold water is doubtful at best. Over the course of human history, no argument has yet proven universally acceptable, and this axiological approach strikes me as one of the stranger—not to mention weaker—attempts at supporting theism.

My thanks to my brother Sean for nudging me to write this post.


Ave, Charles!

Charles writes some anticipatory thoughts on the upcoming "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Early on, he offers his caveat lector: "...if you have no experience with the wrath of a Tolkien nerd and/or are of squeamish disposition, you may want to come back next time. You have been warned." In the spirit of Tolkien nerd-wrath and squeamish dispositions, I offer this video response, a now-classic clip of the Star Wars-versus-LOTR throwdown from Kevin Smith's "Clerks 2."

Go and read Charles's entry, which highlights some legitimate concerns about Peter Jackson's alterations in tone and content to Tolkien's original story, but which also ends on an optimistic note, and the promise of a review following Charles's Saturday screening of the film.

Personally, I'm in no hurry to see the new movie, perhaps because some of the extra-canonical material that appeared in the preview trailer (Galadriel stroking Gandalf's hair, for example-- she wasn't in The Hobbit!) turned me off. But like Charles, I'm curious to see what Jackson hath wrought, so I may make a pilgrimage to the local cineplex sometime this month.

UPDATE: If you haven't seen it before, here's The LOTR Orgy. It basically confirms Randall's insights into LOTR.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

one last hurrah from Brazil

My brother David and his lovely wife Patricia have been back in the States for several days, now, but David emailed me one final food pic from a "Wednesday's almoço," just before he left Fortaleza. It's an appropriate meal for a seaside city:

David labels the above "Delicious huge alien steamed crab in a delicious crab cilantro broth."

So there you have it. Aloha from Fortaleza, Brazil.