Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Here's what a real man sounds like:

Before flying to Surabaya to pay his respects to the families, AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes tweeted, "My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501. On behalf of AirAsia my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am."
Fernandes, the founder and the face of AirAsia, and a constant presence in Indonesia since the tragedy started unfolding, said he planned to travel to the recovery site on Wednesday.
"I have apologized profusely for what they are going through," he said of his contact with relatives. "I am the leader of this company, and I have to take responsibility. That is why I'm here. I'm not running away from my obligations."


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

the 100% man and Swype messiah

Today, I completed a two-day stint teaching at KMA in Yeouido. Once again, I peeked at my evals. This time around, I got 100% from all four students, who seem to have appreciated my teaching. But however much they appreciated the teaching, there was one thing they appreciated more: I introduced them to the wonderful world of Swype texting. Swype is a texting system that allows the user to write words on a touch-screen keyboard simply by swiping his or her finger across the screen. Instead of tapping out individual letters, a person can write whole words in a single stroke. In Korean, Swype is even better: entire sentences (like "Annyeonghasaeyo?") can be Swyped without lifting a finger. I showed the students a YouTube video of the hangeul version of Swype; inspired, two of them found and downloaded the app, while another student helped me convert my Roman keyboard—which already has Swype—to a Swype-friendly hangeul configuration. I had never Swyped in Korean before; this was as revolutionary for me as it was for my students who, once armed with new technology, came to view me as a sort of plump messiah—a keyboard demigod. Sadly, even though the two-day seminar was about basic presentation techniques, I suspect the only thing my students will remember will be their introduction to Swype.


Monday, December 29, 2014

in Yeouido

Just a quick note to say I'm on lunch break while teaching at KMA in Yeouido. Good group of students today. We're learning the basics of presentation.


Sunday, December 28, 2014


No, this post's title isn't a typo: it's free-lace-er. I was out walking around town with my buddy Tom the other night (it was Christmas, in fact); we veered toward Namdaemun Market because Tom needed to buy a new pair of shoes. He said he wanted to buy me a new pair of walking/running shoes as well, given the ratty state of my New Balances (which have probably seen around two thousand miles of foot travel since 2008), but I groused that I wasn't a charity case and I could just get my shoes repaired at any local gudu-suseon-jip—one of those tiny shoe-repair places that you can find at random intervals on Seoul's city sidewalks.

So I accompanied Tom to his favorite shoe seller as a gesture of moral support. Inside the shop, the men running it complimented my Korean, and when I asked how much it might cost to get some laces for my beaten-up shoes, one of the men said he'd simply give me a set.

Hence free laces for yours truly, the freelacer.


"Joe": review

Nicolas Cage gives us an illuminating performance in "Joe," a movie about a good but troubled man who needs as much help as he gives. Joe is a man with a checkered past. He leads a team of black workers whose job is to poison unwanted trees that need to be cleared off someone's property. Into Joe's life comes Gary (Tye Sheridan), the drifter son of a drunk, abusive father named "G-Daawg" Wade (the incredible Gary Poulter—more on him in a bit). Gary asks Joe for work in order to take care of his mother and his mute sister, both of whom are also presumably abused by the vicious Wade. Later on, at Gary's request, Joe also hires on Wade, but unlike the extremely hard-working Gary, Wade proves to be shiftless and lazy, eliciting the ire of Joe's right-hand man Junior (the hilarious Brian Mays). Joe fires the father and son, but later rehires the son. When he isn't killing trees, Joe helps the poor folks of his town, dressing deer carcasses, running errands, and visiting the local house of ill repute for emotionally unsatisfying quickies. Joe is a longtime friend of the local sheriff, but this doesn't stop Joe from having run-ins with the law.

The story of "Joe" moves slowly and languidly; this isn't an action movie. As directed by David Gordon Green, "Joe" is more about atmosphere and character. We watch how Joe relates to the country folk around him; we witness his developing relationship with Gary, whom Joe desperately wants to rescue and protect; we watch helplessly as young Gary contends with his thieving, lying, and even murderous father.

I had a hard time figuring out whether Green was going for parody in this film. I've lived out in the boonies and have seen my share of hill folk, but "Joe" gives us an endless parade of poverty and nearly incomprehensible accents that borders on the cartoonish and stereotypical. In the end, I decided that Green was serious in his mission to portray life in the dismal, dreary American hinterlands, and that "Joe" is essentially about how purity of soul and nobility of heart can exist even in such a godforsaken place as the movie's unnamed town.

"Joe" comes to a head when the evil Wade makes a deal with another local miscreant named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) to pimp out Wade's mute daughter, of whom Gary is very protective. Gary turns to Joe for help in finding his sister, who has been driven out to an abandoned spot to be raped. I won't spoil the conclusion for you, except to say that Joe finally gives in to his darkest impulses, and people die. The aftermath of this incident is rich in symbolism, as Gary takes on a new job—this time as a planter of trees instead of as their killer.

Green's cinematography evokes everything that non-country folk hate and fear about the country: shabby houses; equally shabby general stores; dilapidated cars and trucks; oppressive weather; people with sleepy eyes, filthy teeth, and base motivations; shady law enforcement. His visuals evoke a host of "R" words: rusticated, ramshackle, rural, rickety, run-down. Green's vision of country life isn't one of diligent farmers, acres of gorgeous green crops, oneness with the earth, and hope for the future: rather, it's a picture of defeat, hopelessness, and lack of direction. Life doesn't move forward in Green's universe: it merely grinds to a halt and collects moss. Green's expert evocation of mood will sink into your soul.

Nicolas Cage turns in some of his better work as Joe; his performance is surprisingly subdued for an actor whose reputation, at least in recent years, has been based on wild-eyed overacting. Tye Sheridan, whom I've never seen before, struck me as perfectly natural in his role as young Gary, a kind soul who has suffered too much abuse at the hands of his violent dad. And I recall thinking, while watching "Joe" for the first time, that Gary Poulter, the actor who plays Gary's mean-drunk father, was utterly, absolutely convincing as Wade. It turns out there's a reason why: director David Gordon Green has a penchant for hiring locals and non-actors to appear in his films, and Poulter was an actual homeless drunk who got hired for the part of Wade. Up to that point, Poulter's acting résumé had listed only one other gig: a brief stint as a background extra in the TV series "thirtysomething." Poulter's sobriety was an issue on the set, and in a tragic twist, he was found dead, floating face-down at the shallow edge of an Austin lake, only a couple months after principal photography had concluded.

Watching the movie a second time was a completely different experience from watching it the first time once I came to understand how Green had made many of his casting choices. Brian Mays, in the role of Junior, Joe's second-in-command, is also a non-actor, and there's an awesome scene—apparently done ad lib—in which an angry Junior confronts Wade about his laziness. The shouting match that ensues is classic, and the knowledge that the performance is unscripted, with two non-actors going after each other, adds a distinct vérité feel to the proceedings. Poulter's acting turn has been described by one critic as "one of the great one-shot performances in the history of cinema." I'd have to agree. You won't soon forget Wade once you've experienced him. And you won't soon forget Gary Poulter.

"Joe" isn't an uplifting film. It's somber, brooding, meandering, and punctuated by violence. But it's a great film to see—for the intense, authentic portrayals that Green evoked from his actors if for no other reason. For Nicolas Cage, "Joe" amounts to penance for many of the duds he's churned out in recent years; the movie showcases a good actor's return to proper form. Watch "Joe," which I highly recommend, but be careful: by the end of the movie, you might be tempted to reach over and grab a scotch.


1. A review of "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage.
2. A review of both "Tim's Vermeer" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
3. A review of "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.
4. Photos of my students giving you the finger (gonna mosaic out the fingers).
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
8. A review of "127 Hours," starring James Franco.
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

the proper pronunciation of "Kim Jeong-eun"

There are thousands of reasons to make fun of North Korea's leader, but poking fun in a way that reveals one's own ignorance doesn't make the jokes funny to those of us who actually know anything about Korean culture. Case in point: any sort of pun on Kim Jeong-eun's name that assumes the "eun" is pronounced "unn," like the "un" in "uncouth."

Let's go through the name slowly, for the ignorant hillbillies among us.

Kim: in Korean, the "K" in "Kim" isn't a hard English "K": it's somewhere between an English "K" and a hard English "G." The "i" in "Kim" is also not like the English short "i," so you'd be more accurate to pronounce "Kim" as "Geem" than as a harsh, Teutonic "Kim." (Just remember not to draw out the "ee" sound; it should be very brief.)

Jeong: this ought to be much easier for an English-speaker to pronounce, as it's almost exactly like saying the English words "hung" or "sung" or "lung." To be slightly more accurate in your pronunciation, steer the "uh" sound a little bit toward "aw." The romanized "eo" represents a sound that's somewhere between the English "uh" and "aw."

Eun: the "eu" here—and this is important for you cultural illiterates, so pay attention—isn't pronounced "ooh," as in "blue," nor is it pronounced "uh," as in "fun." It's pronounced more like the "oo" in "book." And this is why all those "Kim Jong Number Un" puns fall flat: his name simply isn't pronounced that way. Plus, those "Un" puns are simply Un-funny.

See what I did there?

It is the nature of idiots not to care after they've been corrected. In fact, I'd go further and say that it's the nature of idiots not even to be aware that they've just been schooled. I realize that this post won't be read by the people who need it most, and if any such people do read it, they'll just shrug and stick with their hillbilly ways. After all: other hillbillies are guffawing at these puns, so what's the harm in that, right?

Well, I don't think there's necessarily any harm, per se, in showing off your own ignorance, but just realize there are people out there, more educated than you (and probably contributing more meaningfully to the world), who do care, and who do think you're dumber than a box of fucking rocks.

Slight digression: I'm not a fan of the romanization "Kim Jong-un." It's misleading. If the purpose of romanization is to get a non-native speaker of a language to pronounce a word or name in a manner that's recognizable to native speakers, then "Kim Jong-un" fails this standard. You might counterargue that "Kim Jeong-eun" isn't much better, since a person unacquainted with the Korean government's official romanization scheme would see "Jeong-eun" and pronounce the name even more inaccurately than they would have with "Jong-un." My response is simple: acquaint yourself. It makes you less of an idiot.

ADDENDUM: here's a prime example of the uneducated puns I'm talking about.


the year in (quick) review

In January of 2014, I was on vacation in tiny Hayang, between semesters during my time at the Catholic University of Daegu. I had just come off an awful, stressful ending to the previous semester thanks to some Chinese students whom I had failed, and whom I had been told I couldn't fail because of school policy. Winter vacation was quiet and relatively boring; I didn't have the money to go anywhere, so I pretty much stayed put. Spring semester began in March and ended in June; I had a few good students but, as with the previous semester, most of the kids were zombies, and this was one of the most depressing aspects of working down south. The Sewol ferry disaster occurred in April; there was a brief period of national soul-searching. My own students didn't talk much about the loss of hundreds of kids only slightly younger than they.

Summer vacation brought the nasty Daegu heat; I got hired by Dongguk, but only barely. Then it turned out that both Catholic University and my landlord wanted my ass out of the school-funded apartment building several weeks before my contract stipulated that was to happen. Grumbling, I moved up north to Seoul, initially staying with relatives before finding my current yeogwan/hovel. My brother Sean visited me in early August. Once I began teaching at Dongguk, I chafed at the suffocating bureaucracy but thrilled to the fact that my new students were so much better than my previous ones. This lightened my spiritual burden substantially. I had already been working intermittently for KMA; when that picked up again, I got a bit of extra income. My third job, at the Golden Goose, also kicked in and began providing me with a more or less steady income—an extra million won a month (about $909 at the current exchange rate). So I'm finally on my way toward saving up for a real apartment next year.

Overall, then, my employment and financial picture improved considerably over the summer; the hot months represented a sort of inflection point in my life, and things are now, at long last, trending upward. I've created a budget that will take me all the way through 2019, which is the year I turn 50. By that time, if things continue as they are now, I'll be nearly debt-free—just a few thousand dollars to go. If I can figure out a way to make more money in the interim, I can end up debt-free before I turn 50, and that would be amazing. By the end of the first week in January, I ought to be W3,000,000 richer: my Golden Goose boss wants to pay out W2 million either this week or next, and KMA has me doing a million-won gig this coming Monday and Tuesday. Most of that money will be socked away in my apartment fund.*

So although 2014 was a horrible year on the international scene, it wasn't too terrible for me. I kept up with my walking, lost a few kilos, and brought my resting heart rate down from the dangerous 90s to the more reasonable 70s. As long as things remain on an even keel, I ought to be able to follow the roadmap I've laid out in my budget, and will eventually reach a point where I can start saving up piles of money for things like travel. I look forward to whatever 2015 might bring, so long as things like heart attacks, serious bodily injury, or deadly disease aren't on the menu.

*Korean apartments often require a large "key money" (jeonsae) deposit. Depending on how much key money you plunk down, your monthly rent will be smaller or larger. I visited an apartment building whose landlord said I could move into an apartment for W10 million in key money, plus a rent of W600,000, not including utilities. That's not bad for the geographic center of Seoul, and what's more, the key-money deposit gets returned when I leave the apartment. A bonus: the apartment is right next to campus, which makes it a prime spot. It's not the ideal place that I had envisioned for myself (I'd rather be in an officetel), but it's also not bad... and it's a hell of a lot bigger than the cramped shoebox I live in now.


"They're gonna write books about us, Frank."

In which I have nothing nice to say about an Itaewon eatery.


Friday, December 26, 2014

no, I can't

The spirit is willing, but the flesh... well, the flesh is too damn weak. I think, friends, that December is just going to have to be chalked up as a loss on the walking front.

I backslid this month, and have only myself to blame. Theoretically, I still have a chance, even as I write this, to get out there and do a six-hour walk, but the fact is that I just don't want to. Brother Ass, as Saint Francis referred to his mortal body, is sometimes stubborn, and I think my body is currently telling me ¡No mas! after several days in a row of averaging 30K steps (roughly 16-17 miles per day). So my planned 35K-step walk goes out the window, and I'm no longer all that worried about how few steps I walk for the remainder of December. Come January, I can try again.

Instead of walking six or seven hours in the cold, then, I'm just going to kick back and enjoy myself today. Yesterday was good insofar as I went out for a rib-sticking galmaegi-sal dinner with my good buddy Tom, but yesterday was also depressing as I'm dealing with a family crisis about which I can't write publicly. Today, I'm going to try to have fun, spend a bit of my hard-earned cash, and forget my troubles for a while.

To distract you, then, from my lack of walking exploits, I now slap up a picture of the expensive Samcheong-dong chocolatier where I had that magnificent cup of hot chocolate and those divine, supernal truffles. It's a place called Cacao Boom:

Super expensive, but worth trying at least once.

Enjoy the holidays.


can I endure?

Christmas has come and gone, and I managed to do 26K steps of walking on a day when I had projected doing only 25K. Despite that minor victory, I have to admit that piling on the steps, over the past few days, has been extremely tiring. From December 1 to December 21, I averaged only 8,122 steps per day. On any given day, I did no more than 15,500 steps, and on my worst day, I did a measly 4,373 steps.

On December 22nd, however, that changed: once finished with my school-related paperwork, I began long-distance walking with a vengeance and managed 36,030 steps. On the 23rd, I did 36,925 steps. On the 24th, I managed 29,034 steps. That's a three-day average of 32,007 steps per day... and that's hard to maintain. I have another three days in a row of 35K-step walks ahead of me, but I'm becoming exhausted, and doing these walks in cold weather has been no picnic. A cringing part of my brain is ready to concede that salvaging December may be a lost cause. Still, I'm going to attempt the full 35K on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Won't be easy, won't be pleasant, but it has to be done if I'm to beat my November record.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

horrifying Yuletide epiphany

I only just realized that

It rubs the lotion on its skin
Or else it gets the hose again*


He thrusts his fists against the posts
And still insists he sees the ghosts**

are both in iambic tetrameter.

This bears examination. What if iambic tetrameter is the natural rhythm of horror stories? What if iambic tetrameter is the rhythm of Cthulhu's leprous, rotting, cosmic heart?

*From "The Silence of the Lambs," starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

**From Stephen King's bloated meganovel It.


Merry Christmas!

Just following the example of our esteemed President, who loves those selfies:

To any and all readers of this blog, be you years-long veteran readers or merely curious passersby: a Merry Christmas to you, full of joy and light and the warmth of family and friends. God knows we could all use a break from this otherwise awful year.


26 years ago

On Christmas Eve, 1988, I was in a nasty car accident that was my fault. I was home from college at the time, in Alexandria, Virginia, driving my parents' very nice Toyota Cressida. It was rainy, and I was trying to make a right turn onto Route 1 from a residential street next to a strip mall. I looked left, through rain-smeared glass, and made my turn.

Next thing I heard was the sound of a horn, then something heavy struck the car's left-front quarter panel, followed immediately by an impact on the left-rear quarter panel. The sound was nothing like the devastating noise of a car crash in a movie: it was more like the sound of someone smashing a big, empty cardboard box with a baseball bat—pop-pop! My head slammed against the upper frame of the driver's-side door.

Shaken and shaking, I pulled over immediately, and so did the other car. I ran out to see whether the other driver was all right; she rolled down her window, looking stony. "Let me see your license," she demanded through the rain. Hands trembling uncontrollably, I fumbled obediently for my license and showed it to her. I can no longer remember what we said to each other next, but when I got home and told my parents what had happened, and my father talked with the lady over the phone, I found out two bits of awful news: the woman was seven months pregnant, and she was a prosecuting attorney.

There could have been a shitstorm, I suppose. My father also learned that the woman had had the misfortune of being hit by a police officer who ended up arguing in court that the accident wasn't his fault. The lady didn't want this to happen again, so she was determined to see justice done. Luckily, in this case, "justice" meant nothing more than having the parents' insurance pay for the damage—no court appearance, and no jail time. The woman never came back to us with any claims about whiplash or injury to her gestating child. It was a traumatic experience, but I felt I'd got off lucky.

The 1988-89 school year at Georgetown was a shitty year for me. The one bright spot was the French Theater class I was taking; our troupe performed La Ville, by Paul Claudel, at the French Embassy, which sits right next to Georgetown's campus. Aside from that, though, the year sucked: I had a randy, womanizing roommate, did poorly in my Asian Civilization class, and basically bided my time, waiting for junior year so I could study abroad.

The following year, 1989-90, proved to be my favorite year of college and one of the best years of my life—the diametrical opposite of sophomore hell. As a junior, I studied in Fribourg, Switzerland, spending almost an entire calendar year in Europe. Fribourg was where I finished out my minor in theology (a misnomer: what I was studying was actually religious studies), where I went out with a hot blonde for a short while (like the car accident just described, my parting from the hot blonde was also my fault), and where I lost a ton of weight and came back to my parents looking unrecognizably thin.

Ah, memories. Twenty-six years ago, I was a stupid college student, not so different from the goofballs I teach here in Korea. I had, perhaps, a greater sense of personal responsibility than my Korean charges do, and also a greater sense of independence. But I was still stupid, as is true of college students everywhere: they think they know things, but the know-things are no-things. I'd like to believe I'm a bit older and wiser now, but I'm still working on the wiser part: the older part comes, alas, with no effort at all.



So! My new cleats work like magic. They're easy to strap onto my shoes, and just as easy to remove. They grip the ground with a vengeance, allowing me to traipse along iced-over paths with no danger of slippage. I had to use the cleats only twice in order to navigate the treacherous trail connecting Dongguk University's campus to Namsan's perimeter route (it's miscalled a sunhwan-gil in Korean, a loop or circular route, but it doesn't actually loop all the way around the mountain), which means I spent most of my time carrying my cleats with me. I attached them to my coat's zipper by using a twist-tie.

In the end, I stopped my walk early when I reached 29K steps. Despite the warming temperatures during the day, things actually turned quite chilly at night, and I began to regret not having worn an extra jacket under my coat. I had also heard some very depressing news from home (can't write about it here, sorry), which drained my determination further. So I cut things short and headed back to my yeogwan, trusting that my having done more than the projected 35K over the past two days would buoy my three-day average somewhat.

I'm going to try for 25K steps on Christmas Day; I'd planned to visit relatives in Garak-dong, but as it turns out, they're going to be spending all day at church (a fact I should have anticipated, as this is the churchiest branch of my Korean family, and Korean Protestants often do the all-day thing). Suddenly finding myself with free time, I've decided to do dinner with my buddy Tom, and possibly with his wife and son, in Jongno. So whatever walking I do will be done before and/or after dinner. Mostly before, I reckon.

Nice to know the cleats work. Good little spikes.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

mapping my walk

In the comments to a previous post, my buddy Mike suggested that I map out my walks for the benefit of people unfamiliar with the geography of Seoul. There are tons of GPS-driven walk-mapping apps out there these days, so I've downloaded one of the higher-rated freeware apps: Map My Walk. I'll be using that app today as I do yet another 35K walk in my effort to make up for lost time. Assuming I can figure out how to upload the result, my readers ought to be able to see, tonight or tomorrow, just where I went on my peregrinations.

Switching gears: there are other things I've promised my readers, and have yet to deliver, but now that it's vacation time, I ought to be able to bang these out:

1. A review of "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage.
2. A review of both "Tim's Vermeer" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
3. A review of "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.
4. Photos of my students giving you the finger (gonna mosaic out the fingers).
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
8. A review of "127 Hours," starring James Franco.
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.

I won't know my evaluation results from the fall 2014 semester at Dongguk until the beginning of February, so you'll have to wait before I can comment—or not—on those.

UPDATE: I couldn't get the damn app to work for this walk, so I'm sorry, but no stats or maps this time around. I also noticed that, because the app requires me to use GPS, battery drainage is rather fierce. Not sure my battery will actually last long enough to record a full 35K walk. This could be a problem.


almost 37K tonight

I bought those cleats on Monday, but for my Tuesday walk I decided not to attempt any dangerous routes, sticking instead to the flatter areas of Jongno, Samcheong-dong, Gwanghwamun, City Hall, and all the streets connecting these districts. The weather has warmed up a bit, which is both good and bad news: it's good news to the extent that larger dry patches of sidewalk are now visible, but it's bad news in that the ice-covered parts of the sidewalk end up with slippery surfaces, making them more precarious than when they're frozen solid.

Tonight's walk (well, technically, Tuesday night's walk) was 36,925 steps—almost 37K. I have to do three 35K walks in a row to help me make up for lost time, so I've got one more such walk before Christmas, then another set of three 35K walks right after Christmas. Wednesday's high temperature is supposed to be over 40º Fahrenheit—positively warm by current winter standards. I expect there'll be plenty of melt by the time I hit the road Wednesday afternoon, but I'm going to take along my new cleats, anyway.

I spent a good chunk of my Tuesday walk inside the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or DDP. This is the UFO-shaped building close to what used to be known simply as Dongdaemun Station, but which is now called the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Station. I'm not sure how I feel about the building's interior, which strikes me as looking a bit like something from the American 1970s—plenty of streamlined white corridors and bland staircases. To see anything interesting, you have to purchase tickets, and that can set you back W6,000 or more. A few exhibit spaces are open to the general public for free, and there are both shops and restaurants—all overpriced, of course. You know right away that you're in an artistic space because of all the goddamn track lighting. Overall, I came away from my trip inside the UFO with rather mixed feelings. The interior struck me as already outdated-looking, and I'm not much into designs that don't marry form with function: if a design isn't somehow useful, it's just not that interesting to me. If I want to see designs with no obvious utilitarian purpose, I can go visit an art museum. That said, I did see some rather cool form/function marriages among the various overpriced products on display, so my visit wasn't a total loss.

Tuesday's walk was tiring. I can't believe I'm doing to this again later today, but it has to be done: I was averaging barely 8,000 steps a day for most of December, so the only way to make up my average, at this point, is to pile on the steppage. Happily, getting my heart and lungs back into condition hasn't been that hard: although I did feel myself de-conditioning over the first two weeks of December, my body has remembered all the gasping, heart-pounding misery of the previous months, and has woken up quickly from its cardio slumber. I hope my third such long walk won't be as tiring as the first two.

On Christmas Day, I'll try not to do more than 20K steps. On the 29th and 30th, I've got KMA work, so I won't be able to do more than 15K steps on those nights; on the 31st, I have to work at the Golden Goose all day, so that's another 15K steps. By the end of the month, my average ought to be higher than November's—not by a lot, but by enough to keep the trend moving upward. And by the beginning of the year, I ought to be 3 million won richer, which puts me all the closer to getting a real apartment.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

and we're back! 36K, baby!

I just got back from a 36K-step walk. My pedometer says that's a little over 17 miles; I'll put the actual distance at closer to 20 miles—19-point-something, at the very least.

My walk was treacherous at some points because, taken as a whole, Seoul isn't really into the whole de-icing thing with its sidewalks and stairs. Safety Last (anjeon majimak, 안전 마지막) seems to be the local motto. Maybe Koreans don't care about the lack of de-icing because they generally have little problem walking, or even running, on ice. Koreans tend to be light, fleet, and as surefooted as dwarvish armored mountain goats.

While gingerly making my way up the now-dangerous stairway leading from my campus to the Namsan walking path, I halted when I came to an angled and iced-over patch of ground. Seeing my hesitation, an old man who was walking my way called out, "With the shoes you're wearing, you won't slip! Just walk like this!"—and he showed me something that looked like a truncated goosestep, raising his foot and jamming his heel into the ground for traction. "I'm heavy, so I slip easily," I told him as he passed me. He simply shrugged and nodded, and that was the end of our little exchange. I somehow made it over the stairs and the icy trail without incident, but I was jonesing for some snow cleats.

My walk took me up Namsan for a double-summiting. The bus roads were perfectly clear and walkable, but the walking paths themselves varied, frustratingly, in walkability: sometimes they were covered in rough-but-slick ice, and sometimes they were as clear as the roads were. I went more slowly than usual, being slightly out of condition after three weeks of avoiding the mountain. But I made it to the top just fine, then I went down the other side, did my usual U-turn at Namsan Public Library, and made it to the top again. I was a bit worried about how much I was sweating, so I actually stopped a couple times to allow the sweat to evaporate before I put my headgear back on.

I decided, at the bottom of the mountain, to follow the perimeter trail past where I normally turn to go back to Dongguk's campus. I had forgotten how long the perimeter trail was: in the end, it took me almost all the way back to the public library again. When the trail ended at Soweol Street, I turned left and kept walking around the mountain toward the library, and this is where I encountered yet more icy sidewalks. I broke right when I got close to Huam-dong and kept the Hilton Hotel to my left. Following the slope of the mountain, I eventually found myself at the periphery of Namdaemun Market, and right when I reached the periphery, I stumbled upon my little Mecca: a store selling snow cleats. I hadn't actively sought such a store out; in fact, I had planned to go cleat-shopping later in the week, sometime after Christmas. But when the universe preempts you and says, "Voilà! There ya' go, hoss—the very thing you were looking for," you don't say no to a random cosmic gift.

So I bought a simple set of cleats—Korean-made, as the store owner proudly told me—for a mere W8,000. I have no idea how well they're going to hold up under the strain of being on my feet: I'm a 260-pound guy, so these poor things might snap at any moment. But I'll give them a try and see how helpful they are when I'm on slippery surfaces.

From Namdaemun, I wasn't quite sure where to go until I saw a street sign pointing toward City Hall. I walk routinely by City Hall whenever I take the Eulji Street route, so I had my bearings as soon as I saw the sign. I walked past City Hall, past Gwanghamun, and back into Samcheong-dong. I walked to the end of that fairy-tale district, turned around, then ducked into a very, very expensive chocolate shop called Cocoa Bang (I think), where I bought four pieces of chocolate for an unmentionable price, along with a hot cup of some of the most delicious cocoa I've ever tasted. It was obvious that the shop was going for a high-end image, and based on the quality of everything I ate and drank while there, I'd say that the place was serious about its chocolate. That hot cocoa was damn good—artisanal good. The Belgian-style truffles were magnificent; my hat is off to the chocolatier, who obviously doesn't fuck around. Everything was way, way overpriced in that shop, but I was happy to sit in it for a short while, just letting my nose and fingertips warm back up.

My chocolate interlude over, I walked back to the Cheonggyae Stream and followed it to Bang-san Market. By that point, I had gone 34,000 steps, so I knew I was going to break 35 by the time I got back to my place. In the end, I passed through Joongbu Market and returned to my yeogwan, having racked up 36K steps. I'm planning to do the same thing tomorrow. If I hope to break November's record, I've got several almost-40K days ahead of me.


Monday, December 22, 2014


In terms of world affairs, 2014 has proved to be a remarkably shitticular year, so when I want to cheer myself up, my thoughts turn to the little things in life, like finishing up my duties at Dongguk!

Fuck yeah. We's done, yo. Done like a Christmas turkey.

So now I'm going to step out of the Hyehwa Building and head up Namsan for the first time since November 30. I've got lots to make-up walking to do, and today's going to have to be at least a 35K-step day.

Woo-hoo! DONE! (Unless the office calls me back because of a problem.)

Oh, yeah... as it turned out, there was no need for drama: the office agreed that the computer's current settings are a suggested grading curve, so my grades were allowed to stand. The new, stricter curve takes effect this coming semester. Ah, the ongoing struggle to look legitimate...


one thing more

All I have left to do, admin-wise, is publish my students' grades. As I mentioned previously, this is going to be an annoying process because the grading curve I had told my students about is not the curve that our computer is using. If I end up being told that I have to change my students' grades to satisfy the computer's curve, I'm going to refuse to do so. This will likely make me persona non grata in the department and will adversely affect my performance evaluation (one criterion of which is "how well the teacher gets along with the office staff"—I shit you not), but so be it.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

the snag

Like my previous university, and like most universities in Korea, Dongguk University uses a variety of curves to which we teachers must adhere when grading our students. Curves are evil, nasty things, but they're in place because universities are overly concerned about grade inflation when teachers seemingly dole out too many "A"s. According to my enormous faculty handbook (which I've come to view as Dongguk's own Book of Mormon or tome of shari'a), all four of my courses are supposed to follow this curve:

Number of "A"s possible: up to 50%
Number of "A"s through "F"s possible: up to 100%

Translation: if I have a class of 20 kids, then up to 10 may receive "A"s. The class as a whole may receive any and all of the other grades, as long as the 50% rule isn't violated.

So I began the tedious process of entering grades while at the office yesterday, and immediately hit a snag. The faculty manual says one thing, but the computer is following a completely different curve:

Number of "A"s possible: up to 30%
Number of "A"s plus "B"s possible: up to 70%

I have classes with under 30% "A"s, but the vast number of "B"s pushes the A+B total beyond 70%. I've also got an advanced class in which 50% of the kids have "A"s, and this also violates the computer's rule. Finally, I've got one class in which the 30% rule is exceeded by a single student, i.e., I'd have to give one "A" student a "B+" in order to bring the stats in conformity with the computer's prescribed curve.

The whole thing is a fantastic pain in the ass. I've shot an email to my office and hope to have a reply on Monday. I can say this: if kids' grades need to be changed, I'm going to be very, very unhappy, and I'm going to refuse to change them. If the grades are changed, it won't be by my hand. If that earns me the enmity of our office, so be it.

It's also irritating to realize that I won't be able to finalize my affairs today. I had suspected that I'd need to come in on Monday, anyway, but not for this reason. Jiggering the curve to conform to the book's standards will likely take some time, as well as Korean-language computer savvy that I don't possess.

Just an all-around grrrrrr today.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

a re-re-repost of "guys, the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol!"

[NB: This is a re-re-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 pagan, pre-Christian origins when they set such trees up. Celebrants of Christmas 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, for example, 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 scholarly hedges and qualifications, I still think it's basically correct when applied to religion. Can you name a causa sui religious tradition?


"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies": review

[NB: I'm taking a break from working at the office to write this review, banging it out while the film is still fresh in my mind.]

I wanted to see "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" last night, but once I got back to my place, exhaustion fell upon me and I went to sleep. Such is the plight of old men. I resolved to catch a matinee showing, which I did at 10:30AM today. Was the 144-minute film worth a W5,000 ticket? In a word: yes. A bit more detail: the movie was good but not great, and overall the second film gets my vote as the greatest of this trilogy. Would it have been worth a W10,000 ticket? Probably not.

"Armies" is, I suppose, Peter Jackson's last attempt at putting his stamp on the Lord of the Rings saga, to which he was at great pains to tie JRR Tolkien's humble little novel for children, The Hobbit. I had thought the final film in this very stretched-out series was going to be titled "There and Back Again," but much like "Revenge of the Jedi," this title proved to be a red herring (for titling issues, see here).

Here's an impressionistic summary: there were moments that wowed me thanks to the always-capable cinematography and the fantastical melding of actual New Zealand scenery with CGI landscapes and structures. There were moments that touched me, too, especially in the way the film dealt with Thorin's and Kili's demise (surely this isn't a spoiler for you, is it? you did read the book, yes?) and with the final moments of Bilbo's return to the Shire. There were moments that made me laugh, especially with the welcome introduction of Billy Connolly in a role he was born to play: that of Dáin the dwarf, cousin of Thorin, and proud wearer of the most aggressive facial hair I've ever seen.

Then, alas, there were the long moments that bored me. I think Peter Jackson, who took Akira Kurosawa's battle scenes and amplified them, through CGI, into massively bloated martial tableaux, has pretty much shown us everything he's capable of when it comes to land warfare. As much as I love fight choreography, I'm not sure I'm any longer a fan of war choreography. It's all CGI these days, and CGI sucks the life and meaning out of every battle: it's just pixels striving against pixels. Even on a more personal scale, CGI tends to remove much of the charm from a fight. You can watch Orlando Bloom's spry Legolas leap impossibly from rock to rock only so many times before you have to stifle a yawn.

I also found it strange that quite a few of this movie's most powerful moments come through characters who either aren't in Tolkien's novel at all, or who are in it only peripherally. Tauriel weeps over Kili, and Thranduil (whose character arc in this movie is nearly impossible to understand) is there to comfort her. Bard shows mercy toward Alfrid (a character, like Tauriel, created for the movie), the simpering sidekick of Lake-town's Master. And while we're on the topic of things not in the book, I can't remember whether the book ever mentioned a condition called "dragon sickness," which serves as the movie's explanation for the temporary twisting of Thorin's otherwise sterling character, but fails to explain why Thorin's grandfather succumbed to a similar ill. "Dragon sickness" felt awfully contrived to me; it screamed plot device, much like the umpteenth deus ex machina appearance of those Eagles.* At this point, I'd almost rather see a dwarf point to the sky, shout, "The Eagles!"—and have the Philadelphia Eagles come charging into battle.

But there were positives. My favorite fight scene was the utterly non-canonical one involving Saruman, Elrond, and a bevy of ghosts. Galadriel, after spending most of her time protecting Gandalf, went into Valkyrie mode late in that fight, dismissing every malign spirit that had chosen to congregate in the fortress of Dol Guldur—even the specter of Sauron himself. This was enough to make me wonder just what sort of being Galadriel was. Other positives included a cameo by Radagast the Brown and a very brief glimpse of Beorn, airdropped into battle by an Eagle. Also enjoyable were the actors' respective performances, although with an ensemble cast as overstuffed as this one is, it's only natural for some performances to upstage others. Billy Connolly's Dáin wins the prize for most memorable character. Finally, it was amusing to see the various animals used as destriers in battle: Thranduil rode his enormous moose-caribou-thing; Dáin had his war boar; the dwarves of Erebor somehow got hold of armored mountain goats, which proved useful in climbing up to Azog's lofty perch.

One major plot hole, though, involved enormous rock-eating worms capable of boring gaping tunnels into mountains, facilitating the movement of Azog's and Bolg's goblin/orc armies. Those worms struck me as the chthonian answer to the Eagles: a deus ex machina from below, they could have won the battle for Erebor—the dwarves' mountain kingdom and rightful home—with ease, swallowing up treasure by the megaton and leaving the dwarf kingdom in tunneled ruins. Instead, the worms appear only briefly, making a few large holes and then retreating, never to be heard from again. That was disappointing, but maybe Peter Jackson understood that we've had our fill of sandworm-like menaces, which have appeared as recently as "The Avengers" (a picture of a Leviathan is in my "Avengers" review here). Still, if I were Azog, I'd use those worms to reduce the Lonely Mountain to rubble, and maybe even to punch holes into the Earth's crust, cause some major quakes and eruptions, and turn Middle Earth into a far more goblin-friendly zone.

Overall, I found "Armies" extremely flawed but watchable for the price of a five-dollar ticket. It was consistent with the previous film in its overt departure from Tolkien's vision, but in terms of its major battles, it held absolutely no surprises. A few judicious cameos (Dáin, Beorn) leavened the plot with a little extra mirth and excitement. The non-canonical characters received too much screen time and were given too much emotional heft, in my opinion, but the movie hit all the major plot points of the book: the death of Smaug by Bard's hand, Bilbo's ferrying of the Arkenstone to the Elves, Thorin's rage at and reconciliation with Bilbo, the deaths of Kili and Fili, and Bilbo's eventual return home. In short, the film was both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

My final view of Peter Jackson's latest trilogy is that, really, he should never have expanded a lone book into this bloated monstrosity of a series. I also think it would have been better to see Guillermo del Toro's vision of The Hobbit rather than Jackson's. Jackson didn't really show me anything I hadn't seen before in his magnificent LOTR trilogy, and the feeling I'm ultimately left with, when all is said and done, is a pining for what might have been.

ADDENDUM: My buddy Charles and I seem to be on roughly the same page. Click here to read his massive review, which he considers more a form of writing therapy than an actual review—a way of exorcising his disappointment. He might not style the movie "satisfactory and unsatisfactory" as I did, but he obviously had many of the same complaints that I had, and he goes into impressive detail in discussing them.

*This site describes dragon sickness and says it's a concept from Tolkien's novel, not a contrivance cooked up for the movie version. I honestly don't remember the malaise's being mentioned, but the site contends the sickness was a rather important concept, so I suppose it's to my shame that I don't recall it. The sickness still fails to explain why Thorin's grandfather Thror, who ruled before the dragon ever came to the Lonely Mountain, fell prey to the lure of Erebor's treasure. ("I am not my grandfather," Thorin repeatedly grates to himself at one point in the movie, alluding to his grandsire's temptation.)

A further wrinkle: Wikipedia suggests that Thorin's father Thráin, not Thror the grandfather, is more likely the one whose heart was corrupted by his possession of a Ring of Power. Did Peter Jackson get this wrong? Did he pin the moral failing on the wrong generation?


Friday, December 19, 2014

all that remains is paperwork

I've got some jjong-party pictures to upload (with the students' permission, of course), but we're all jjong'ed out, now: I'm done teaching for this semester. All in all, it was a good first semester here. The students were, without a doubt, the saving grace. I still have no idea how badly they're going to zing me on the evals, but I had a good time teaching these kids, who were a far better crop, collectively, than the kids I'd taught at Daegu Catholic.

My class of advanced-level reading/writing students gave me fond farewells. There were plenty of "We'll miss you!"s, but no hugs. I got a few of my students, in several classes, to allow themselves to be photographed while giving me the finger. That was fun. Although I got permission to upload their pics, I might either fuzz out their faces or fuzz out the rude gesture so they don't get in trouble (assuming, of course, that one of this blog's five readers is evil and/or stupid enough to report my students' behavior to someone).

With classes done, I have three major things left to do: (1) I have to upload and publish my students' final grades; (2) I need to print out and upload something called a "portfolio," and (3) I have to scan, photocopy, and upload my attendance records. All of these obligations are annoying and tedious, but they're part of life at Dongguk University. The "portfolio" in question is a stitched-together PDF composed of copies of my syllabi, tests, and assignments given throughout the semester, along with a writeup of how I handled the semester—what my course objectives were, what my teaching method was, etc. Uploading these, and handing in hard-copy versions to our office, is one of the duties we're required to fulfill. Failure to do so in a timely manner will result in a downgraded performance evaluation.

But you know what? I'm going to say "fuck it" tonight, go have myself a decent dinner somewhere, then go watch "The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies." I'll be back in the office tomorrow and Sunday, and will be done—we hope—by Monday.


the skunk works

My gray hair is starting to proliferate right at the front, at the top center of my forehead. I think I can see where this is heading: I'm going to become one of those people who suffer from skunk-stripe grayness, just like Mrs. Spettel, my aged eighth-grade English teacher (she's probably long since shuffled off this mortal coil, so I don't mind naming her). Mrs. Spettel had a habit of dyeing her hair over the weekend: she'd arrive on Monday with perfectly black hair, and by Friday the skunk stripe would be back in full flower. I have no intention of ever coloring my hair: I'm vain in some ways, but not vain about that. So I surmise, at this point, that I'm doomed to a couple decades of skunkitude until my hair either goes entirely gray or falls out completely.

Oh, yeah, that's another thing: no fucking combovers! Although I doubt I'll ever suffer from horseshoe pattern baldness, if such a fate does befall me, I refuse to do combovers. Combovers are silly and sad—the mark of a pathetic, delusional man living a risible fantasy, somehow convincing himself that no one notices his shiny pate. If I ever reach that stage, boys and girls, I'm going to go full-on Buddhist monk and just shave all the hair off. Life will be much simpler that way.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

have I fucked myself?

Some coworkers overheard me speak of my plan to give out the students' final grades during the final day of class, and they collectively said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." Like my supervisor at my previous job—a man who was cautious, private, and circumspect by nature—they worried that, in giving the students their grades now, I'd be shooting myself in the foot when it came time for evaluations. I shrugged and said I'd be continuing with my plan because "more communication is better than less." One of my current supervisors replied, "That would be true if you were dealing with rational adults, but these kids all want an 'A.'"

I agree that the kids all want an "A," but I suspect that, even if they haven't checked their grades, many of them are instinctively aware of whether they'll be receiving "A"s or "B"s or something lower. True, young people are experts in the art of self-delusion, and kids the world over walk around with an over-exaggerated sense of entitlement, feeling they "deserve" a higher grade than whatever they get. (As Clint Eastwood's William Munny said in "Unforgiven": "Deserve's got nothing to do with it.") Still, I discovered today that most of my kids weren't all that surprised at their final grades. They still enjoyed themselves during today's jjong-parties, and my advanced students even took the time to shake my hand before leaving the class for the last time. One of my intermediate students texted me, saying, "You have a great passion for teaching."

So have I fucked myself? Maybe. I suppose I'd been hoping for that brass ring, the one that comes from getting a 99% average on the evals. But I'm pretty sure that wouldn't have been in the cards even if I had chosen not to reveal the students' grades early. I may have guaranteed myself a lower eval score, but it won't be lower by much, I'm pretty sure.

The breakdown for my intermediates today: 4 "A"s, 11 "B"s, and 4 "C"s.
For my advanced students: 6 "A"s, 5 "B"s, and 1 "C."

Two more parties to go, then I'll be spending the weekend, and possibly Monday, finalizing everything that needs to be finalized. After that I'm home free, and for the next two months I can fantasize about what I'd do and where I'd go if I had a million bucks.

ADDENDUM: The Golden Goose is giving me the day off on Christmas Eve, but I've got to come in to the office on New Year's Eve. Such is the price I pay to earn extra moolah. We're all whores about something.


hell in a handbasket

I'm not normally one to side completely with my friends on the right who gloomily intone that "the country is going to hell in a handbasket." But certain recent events have me in a rather ugly mood regarding the way things are going in the United States: rape fantasies and the attendant false inflation of campus rape statistics (and more important, how all this affects the credibility of the many, many women who actually are raped), racial tensions egged on by the media, Obama's sudden turn towards a very ill-advised Sunshine-style policy vis-à-vis Cuba... and now, to top it all off and break the camel's back, the knuckling-under of Sony—and quite possibly the United States as a whole—in the face of North Korean cyber-terrorism, apparently perpetrated in response to the upcoming "The Interview," a movie lampooning North Korea and starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.

Lawyer, blogger, advocate, and all-around mensch Joshua Stanton is just as flabbergasted as the rest of us are by Sony's rank cowardice. He writes:

I’m not sure what leaves me more speechless—the brazenness of a direct attack on our freedom of expression in our own country; the cowardice of Hollywood, Sony, Japan, and the theater chains; or the idea that the U.S. State Department agreed to review scenes from The Interview, thus putting a stamp of government censorship (or endorsement) on the film.

The US is doing an excellent job of projecting an image of weakness. I'm not so naive as to contend that we've been a moral paragon on the world stage, but it feels as if our collective moral confusion has reached new heights. One article snidely referred to a "post-truth America" in which lying and evasion are more the norm than ever. The end result of this erosion has been the steady loss of our diplomatic capital on the global scene. While some idiots cheer the diminishment of American prominence, I have to wonder whether those dim bulbs have thought about what might replace America after she's gone.

So with reluctance, I find myself climbing slowly and hesitantly aboard the "hell in a handbasket" bandwagon. Obama has gone on and on about the mess he supposedly inherited from Bush the younger; all I know is that the next president is going to face an even steeper uphill battle once the current empty chair finally vacates the stage.

Give Joshua's post a read. Like all of his posts, this one is worth your while. He writes:

This time, will our President stand up for our freedom of expression unambiguously? That would require him to act swiftly and firmly against those found to be responsible. Unfortunately, the Times‘s reporters end an otherwise excellent report with the tired, cliche falsehood that the President has no options because “[t]he North is already under some of the heaviest economic sanctions ever applied.” Pish-posh. I don’t know how many times I have to say it–people who write about sanctions should read them first. People who’ve read the sanctions know they’re weak.

Nothing good can come of any of this, and things are looking bleak these days. A return of the arrogant, unilateral America would be a welcome change at this point. We've seen where humility on the world stage gets us: it certainly hasn't gained us any more respectability. The language of diplomacy is the language of the street: if I may channel the ghost of Heinlein, the only thing people truly, fundamentally respect is force and the threat of violence. If that makes us look like arrogant, tyrannical despots, well... good. People can call us or miscall us whatever names they like, but in the era of a tougher America, you can bet your ass that no jihadi will be cutting our citizens' heads off, and no North Korean hacker will be messing with our computer infrastructure.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

suddenly safe

So a few days ago, the temps were above freezing and the snow was coming down in heavy, wet flakes that created a nasty, slippery slush. Since then, the chill has dropped to sub-zero (Celsius) levels, and somehow my campus has largely cleared up: almost all the dangerous surfaces are now dry and devoid of danger. I can't say I understand the physics; it seems strange that slush can turn to ice, which melts in sub-freezing temperatures just because the sun is shining. How does that work, exactly?

I have to admit that I saw a few scattered granules of what was probably calcium chloride or some other melting agent on a few of the steps and hilly spots on campus. There wasn't much of it: the chemical looked to have been grudgingly and stingily sprinkled, as if an unreconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge had been placed in charge of de-icing. It makes me wonder how a university as rich as Dongguk could be so cavalier about its students' and faculty members' safety. Ah, well. The Sewol disaster taught us nothing, it seems. Or it could simply be that not enough Koreans are falling, breaking their hips, and suing universities for negligence. I said it before and I'll say it again: although I don't like how litigious American culture has become, it's for damn sure that the threat of a suit motivates people to be a bit more careful, conscientious, and considerate.

So I have no fear about tonight's walk home from campus. There's one dicey sidewalk near my neighborhood, but it's not a big deal: I can walk on the street to avoid the remaining treacherous ice patches.

Tomorrow, I've got two jjong-parties to host. I had wanted to go to Costco today to shop for the food I intended to prep tomorrow, but my Golden Goose boss reminded me that the local Costco was closed on Wednesdays thanks to an anti-capitalistic Korean law that shuts down big stores, once a week or so, to allow little stores a chance to sell their wares. It's a stupid law (if it is, in fact a law and not merely some regulation), and very inconvenient. So I did my shopping at the Seoul Station Lotte Mart, which had the basil I needed for a caprese (but not the mozzarella or the pesto). I still need to grab some other items tomorrow morning; I'll have plenty of time to do so as my first class isn't until 3:30PM.

It's nice to be at a point where it's all over but the partying. Actually, that's not entirely true: I'll be spending this coming weekend in the office, finalizing all sorts of admin-related crap in an effort to be totally done by the beginning of Christmas week. I'm revealing my students' final grades to them tomorrow and Friday, and I'm telling them that, no matter how much they beg, I'm not going to be changing their grades. The problem with this strategy is that the students might strike back by writing nasty teacher evaluations: that's why many teachers don't reveal the students' grades to them.* But my feeling is that more communication is better than less communication; this is true for all human relationships. So even if it costs me a few brownie points with my evals, it's better to lower the boom on the students' heads now than to surprise them later. (The question of why the students should be surprised at all about their grades is a separate issue, worthy of its own blog post.)

*A further explanation of this point: students can't see their grades online unless they first fill out the teacher evaluations. This is obviously done for psychological reasons: if students could see their grades first and then were allowed to fill out evals, the ones receiving bad grades would definitely strike back by dinging the teacher on the eval forms. That's why I say it's a risk to let the students know their final grades now.

The flip side of this is that students usually get incensed about their grades (and then call or text their teachers, begging for or demanding a grade change) because they're surprised by them. As I hinted above, the issue of being surprised by one's grade is a topic in itself, but the short version of the problem is that a student has to be fairly uncaring about his or her own future not to check, periodically, on his or her grade. Unfortunately, most Korean students are like this: they claim to be eternally worried about their grades, but they almost never bother to check routinely, or to keep their own records. In other words, they don't act as if they're worried about grades. Hence their surprise when they see their results.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ave, Jason!

Jason is a Korean middle-schooler who lived in the US for about three years. He says he's new to YouTube, and he's just put out his very first YouTube video, "Dear Korea," which I thought was excellently done, especially for a kid his age. The expat comments below the video are almost universally positive and encouraging; I hope Jason makes more such vids.

I learned about Jason via Twitter, which is how I keep current with most things these days. A French e-acquaintance (we've never met in person), whose Twitter updates I follow, retweeted another Frenchman who linked to Jason's video and wrote:

Quand un ado sud-coréen démonte le système éducatif de son pays....

When a South Korean teen takes apart the educational system of his country...

Jason's video is bluntly critical of Korean education. I suppose he acquired his skeptical perspective after having spent three years in the American system, which doesn't place such an insane emphasis on investing time in one's studies. In Korea, seeming is often more important than being,* so seeming busy is often more important than actually being productive. If, in order to seem busy, a child has to sleep only three or four hours a night, then so be it: sleep goes out the window. Jason also notes that the Korean system works best for those who are "average," while those who are creative or individualistic are viewed dimly by the system: they don't "fit in." (This is reminiscent of the proverb, known throughout East Asia, that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.)

Jason also speaks ominously about the apparent correlation between a child's academic achievement and a parent's love for that child. Even more powerfully, he likens the Korean education system to the doomed Sewol ferry: it's a vehicle filled with good people, going to a wonderful destination, but it's heading for disaster, so what is anyone going to do about this? Jason wonders aloud whether we hapless bystanders will do nothing but mourn our losses and impotently mull over what we could have done.

These are pretty deep insights for a tween. I'd be hard pressed to hear such depth from American high schoolers, most of whom are too self-absorbed to care or to be critical about the system into which they're plugged.**

I have no idea what Jason's destiny is. He's already proven himself, in a single YouTube video, to be something of a cultural critic. I hope he doesn't curdle into a bitter cynic later in life. At the same time, I hope he doesn't become a wild-eyed, idealistic activist preaching fiery sermons from the mountaintop with febrile urgency. I hope he keeps his head and continues on the course he seems to be on right now. He's a smart kid, and likable. And I'm very impressed by his video.

*My high school's Latin motto is awesome: Esse non videri—or roughly, Being, not seeming.

**To be fair, I'd have trouble hearing this sort of depth from some of my own college students here at Dongguk, many of whom breeze through life quite uncritically.


home alive

My worst nightmare came true as I made my way home well after midnight tonight: the steep, hilly, slippery route back to my yeogwan was completely and utterly un-fucking-salted. At one point, I locked my legs and started sliding heavily toward the street, where cars were whizzing by even during the witching hour. As I slid, it felt almost as though some movers in San Francisco had lost control of a piano, which was now starting down a steep hill. I came to a halt, luckily, and all was well once I began to walk on the ice- and slush-free street itself, but the first half of that walk was a living hell.

Someone needs to design an ass-mounted airbag that, when it deploys, explodes into a balloon version of a La-Z-Boy recliner. Consequence-free slipping! No more falling on your ass and breaking your tailbone! For much of my walk, I crept along by sliding my feet in near-millimeter increments, shuffling forward tentatively and fearfully, negotiating dangerous staircases with painstaking slowness, inwardly cringing every time a group of skinny Koreans would gallop around and past me, perfectly balanced and oblivious to the gelid danger beneath their feet. I took comfort, though, in sharing my struggle with one especially tall, gangly Korean guy who obviously had the same fear of falling. For a few minutes, he and I created a comic tableau as we each tried to negotiate a particularly smooth and steep part of the brick-covered sidewalk at the bottom of our college's jung-mun (central gate) exit. There were long moments during which each of us simply stood stock still, doing nothing but contemplating our next move, like rock climbers figuring out the riddle of the hidden footholds and handholds above them. An outsider would have found this hilarious.

I'll be bringing my walking stick along with me for tomorrow's trip to the campus, and on Wednesday, after I leave the Golden Goose in Daechi-dong, I'm going to hunt down a goddamn hiking store and buy myself some snow cleats. If I recall correctly, the Dongdaemun neighborhood, which is walking distance from where I live, has plenty of sporting-goods stores. I ought to be able to find something somewhere.


Monday, December 15, 2014

goddamn winter

I love winter... when it behaves itself. But on days like today, when the temperatures are above freezing and the snow has been coming down in big, wet flakes, leaving slick slush on the ground, I'm hatin' life. My path to Dongguk is hilly, and many of those hills are paved over in smooth red brick, which makes them ripe for slippage. For most Koreans, who are light as a feather and likely to be carried away by a strong breeze, this isn't a problem: they somehow manage to walk along icy surfaces without missing a beat. For a big, bumbling, lumbering guy like me, though, slick surfaces are a nightmare, and I'm always worried about falling on my ass, twisting a knee, or doing something horrible to an ankle.

The obvious solution would be snow cleats, but I haven't bought any yet, and am not quite sure where I'd get them. So tonight, when I walk home late, after the slush has frozen and turned Seoul into a fucking ice rink, I'm betting that I'll be falling on my ass at least once. I'm seriously considering calling a cab to pick me up, but I'd feel somewhat guilty about asking a driver to slip and slide his way uphill to our campus. (Which is why I'm also going to forgo ordering a delivery dinner tonight: I watched those poor guys on mopeds struggling up and down our campus's hills earlier today, and it wasn't a pretty sight.)

This also means that my intended Namsan hike is going to have to be canceled. Grrr.

ADDENDUM: As far as I know, Koreans don't normally salt or sand their sidewalks and roadways. Part of that culture of ignoring safety, I guess. This is in tune with how Korean college campuses power down late at night, leaving stragglers to pick their way across campus in near-total darkness. Better watch that footing.


this is a job for Bill Keezer

The Weather Channel is currently hosting an article titled "BOOM" that is, I think, right up my friend Bill Keezer's alley. The article is about the aging state of American railroads and how the dangers of this failing infrastructure relate to the current shale-oil boom: trains carrying millions of gallons of oil are occasionally exploding (thus "boom" takes on two meanings).

I believe the state of our rail system is indeed a legitimate concern, but the problem of infrastructure and explosions isn't insoluble. My impression is that the article was written with an anti-shale-oil agenda in mind, but I think it can be interpreted more positively as a wake-up call for us to shore up our rail system in order to prevent disasters, like the one that occurred in Canada and killed 47 people, from occurring on US soil.

The article begins this way:

Regulators in the United States knew they had to act fast. A train hauling 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota had exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Now they had to assure Americans a similar disaster wouldn’t happen south of the border, where the U.S. oil boom is sending highly volatile crude oil every day over aging, often defective rails in vulnerable railcars.

On the surface, the response from Washington following the July, 6, 2013 explosion seemed promising. Over the next several months, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued two emergency orders, two safety alerts and a safety advisory. It began drafting sweeping new oil train regulations to safeguard the sudden surge of oil being shipped on U.S. rails. The railroad industry heeded the call, too, agreeing to slow down trains, increase safety inspections and reroute oil trains away from populous areas.

But almost a year and a half later—and after three railcar explosions in the United States—those headline-grabbing measures have turned out to be less than they appeared. Idling oil trains are still left unattended in highly populated areas. The effort to draft new safety regulations has been bogged down in disputes between the railroads and the oil industry over who will bear the brunt of the costs. The oil industry is balking at some of the tanker upgrades, and the railroads are lobbying against further speed restrictions.

And rerouting trains away from big cities and small towns? That, too, has been of limited value, because refineries, ports and other offloading facilities tend to be in big cities.

A fascinating read, especially for the train-savvy. Bill, if you're interested, I'd love to hear your insights as to where we should go from here, and how this situation can best be handled. I'm all for the shale-oil boom; my brother tells me that gas prices are, in fact, coming down these days, and that $1.99/gallon gas is just around the corner in northern Virginia. So I think it's in our best interest to make sure the oil gets where it needs to go with zero mishaps.


ask me anything

I now have a presence over at, a weird sort of social-networking site in which you, O Random Visitor, can pop over to my account (here) and ask me as many questions as your heart desires. I might not answer them all, and I might not answer immediately, but feel free to ask me whatever's on your mind.

I'm wondering whether this site might serve as an English-class tie-in—something to get my students dialoguing with each other. Anything's possible, right?


Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Why'd you kill that bird, asshole?"

In which I recount a recent, and bizarre, KMA experience.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

"standing over the grave of another dead president"

In which I discuss slackerism among certain colleagues.


Friday, December 12, 2014

all sexualed up

I just emerged from a required lecture on sexual harassment. According to our office, all faculty members are required by law to attend such workshops (although I have no idea how often we must attend). I had missed the one I'd signed up for—overslept, basically, after somehow convincing myself that the lecture I'd registered for was on Friday and not Thursday. I emailed my department's office to find out which alternative lectures I could attend to make up for my absence, and the only one to fit my schedule was a Korean-language lecture set to begin while I would still be in the middle of teaching a class: the lecture was slated for 4PM today, but I would be in class until 4:45PM. The office told me this would be no problem; I wrote the Korean coordinator of the lecture and apologized in advance for my future lateness; she was very nice and said I could pop in at 5PM.

The lecture hall was in a building all the way across campus. As seemed apropos for a presentation on sexual harassment, the air inside the lecture room was humid and sweaty. The lecturer, Ms. S, was the same lady with whom I had corresponded by email. She lectured with humor, citing personal anecdotes about harassment, along with anecdotes she had heard, all while moving us through a PowerPoint slide show. The slides were mostly text: each frame would describe an incident in some detail, and our job, as the audience, was to count up how many clear instances of sexual harassment we could detect in each narrative. This was done theatrically; Ms. S would say, "Who counted three instances? Raise your hand! Four? Five?" After that, she'd reveal the actual number of instances, and her revelation would be met with the predictable "ooh"s and "aah"s of a Korean audience. In all, it was lively. I got to the hall around 4:50PM and the lecture was over by 5:20PM. I received a suryo-jeung, a certificate of completion, at the end of the course; I promptly ferried the document over to my office, and the office assistant told me he'd give the certificate back to me soon. Maybe I should frame and mount it somewhere: "This certifies that Professor Kevin Kim has received his legally required education and is how ready to sexually harass all manner of colleagues and students in venues both public and private."

I'm going to sound like a damn sexual-harassing perv for saying this, but the lady giving the lecture was wearing extremely high heels, pants that may have been a bit too tight and revealing for a middle-aged woman, and a figure-hugging sweater. Was she serious when she dressed herself for a presentation on this particular topic? Not that I have any sympathy for the Taliban's burqa-happy sartorial aesthetic, but Koreans who speak publicly normally dress in such a way as to look the part of a dignified, learned personage. This lady, by contrast, dressed in a way that matched her relaxed, humorous speaking style, but it might have been better had she worn something a little less revealing. For what it's worth, though, I didn't harass her. I simply noticed.


Happy Birfday, Tom!

My buddy Tom turns 45 today. By way of wishing him a happy birthday, I asked Tom a rude, possibly unethical, blowjob-related question via text. The man is too busy, today, to do much of anything, so we might try to do something tomorrow to celebrate, or mourn, this milestone on the way to an old and ragged 90.

Hard to believe I've known this old fart since 1994. Good God, it's been twenty years!


Thursday, December 11, 2014

file under "bullshit"?

I do unpaid work for my current university in the form of something called "English Clinic." This is essentially a tutoring service in which I sit with students up to two hours a week, helping them in half-hour blocks with whatever English-related problems they bring to me. I actually enjoy the work, despite the lack of pay; the students have been great and the work we do tends not to be boring or dull. Besides, there's little point in complaining since I agreed to do such work when I signed the employment contract.

Today, a student showed me a speech she's going to give for her advanced-level English class. She decided to write on the topic of basketball—why she likes it and what benefits the activity provides. While reading her speech, I came upon this claim: playing basketball makes you grow taller by stimulating the cartilage in your body to gain more mass.

That bowled me over. I had never heard such a claim before, and I immediately filed it under "bullshit that proves Koreans will believe fucking anything," right along with fan death, the notion that blood type correlates with personality, and that eating a tiger's penis will turn you into a sexual dynamo. I actually had to pause, at that point in my reading, so I could try to hash the issue out with the student. I gave her my gut reaction: human growth is largely genetically determined, and it's doubtful that playing basketball can influence your height by more than, oh, a millimeter or two—and if basketball did influence your height, it would be for reasons similar to human "growth" in zero gravity: it's not so much growth, per se, as it is decompression. Perhaps all that jumping does something to stretch the spine. Then again, do basketball players really spend that much time actually jumping while on the court?*

As it turns out, there are websites that earnestly contemplate this question (here's one that looks at the issue and comes to a relatively sane conclusion), although I personally have trouble taking it seriously. I think the student has reversed cause and effect: naturally tall people gravitate toward playing basketball, a sport in which height is an advantage. It's not as though millions of short and average kids grow tall from playing basketball.

But some websites insist that the jumping aspect of basketball somehow stimulates the pituitary to release growth hormone. Others rattle on about stimulated "growth plates" (a new term for me, which I initially thought was voodoo bullshit, but which turned out to be a legitimate anatomical term). I'm trying to see whether the anti-ignorance sites like The Straight Dope have anything on this question, but I've had no luck thus far. (Granted, I've been searching online for only about ten minutes.)

Anyway, I think my intuition is correct and basketball has little to no significant influence on a person's height. It's just screamingly obvious to me that height is genetically determined. You might also say it's hormonally determined, but the glands releasing the relevant hormones are controlled by genes, which brings us back to genetics.

In the end, I told the student she was free to make whatever claims she wanted, and I simply tweaked her speech for grammar and usage. Inwardly, I realized her audience of fellow Koreans would be credulous enough to swallow her outlandish claim unquestioningly. Koreans sometimes are masters of the hermeneutic of suspicion: witness the way a flinty ajumma will squint cautiously at a display of produce as if each fruit or vegetable were potentially poisonous. Witness, too, the ways in which impending FTAs with foreign countries are parsed and re-parsed in public discourse by those who are leery of a more open market. But in other areas of life, Koreans really do believe some ridiculous things, a number of which I listed above. To be fair, there are Americans who believe in the vibratory power of crystals, the efficacy of homeopathic medicine, the existence of ancient astronauts, the sinister nature of the number thirteen, the healing power of prayer, and so on. These beliefs are no less wacky. But basketball? Making you taller? That caught me off guard.

*There's a form of exercise called plyometrics that is all about jumping. It might be useful to ask whether plyometrics has any effect on height. At a guess, it has none: if it did have a significant effect, plyometrics classes would be graduating platoon after platoon of suddenly tall people.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014


My step counts for December haven't been auspicious:

12/1: 7,791
12/2: 5,770
12/3: 7,869
12/4: 7,979
12/5: 6,721
12/6: 8,083
12/7: 7,483
12/8: 8,060
12/9: 15,324 (the day I went hunting for my lamp)
12/10: 6,829 thus far

I'm going to try to break 20,000 steps tonight, but I'm not hopeful. There's been some precipitation today, and things are a bit slippery—probably more so on the mountain. (In fact, I might not even do the mountain.) I've also got a very achy right knee; the ache has been with me for over a week. It's more annoying than debilitating, but the pain is enough to dampen any motivation to walk long distances. Still, when I see the above numbers, I feel ashamed enough to want to push through the pain and get my steps in, by hook or by crook.

Back when my yeogwan was cloaked in darkness, I didn't bother to weigh myself, but I'm pretty sure I've gained a couple kilos from both eating and not exercising enough. I'm actually afraid to step on the scale right now. Vacation is going to have to be devoted to losing weight faster; one of my advanced students told me she'd somehow managed to lose 30 kg in two months—a claim I find dubious, but she's sticking to her story. If such rapid weight loss is possible without outright starving oneself, I might give her regime a try. Once I find out what it is, of course. Maybe she did the Christian Bale "Machinist" diet: "water, an apple, and one cup of coffee per day, with the occasional whiskey" (approximately 55-260 calories), according to Wikipedia. Yeah, I suppose that would do the trick, right?

Another reason for the lack of motivation is undoubtedly that it's crunch time: this is Week 15 at Dongguk University, and all I have left to do this week is to conduct final-exam reviews. Next week, on Monday and Tuesday, we've got the final exams, then on Thursday and Friday I've got back-to-back jjong-parties. I've been prepping review materials and exams, and next week I'll be grading, grading, and grading some more. I then have to gather my teaching materials, scan them, turn them into a massive PDF "portfolio," and upload that portfolio to an online FTP space for God-only-knows-what reason. All of this has to be done by a certain due date, otherwise I'll be cursed and flung into a Buddhist hell. Or something like that.

So it's almost as though December is a lost cause—a major step backward in terms of average step counts. Perhaps this is just my month to slack off. I'll do what I can to stay afloat with my walking stats, but to be honest, I'm really not expecting high numbers. Not until January.


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

pup 2: the sequel

My first trip back to the pet store, this afternoon, resulted in bad photos because the sunlight caused too many reflections on the glass: I wasn't able to get a clear shot of the puppy. So I resolved to walk back to the store in the evening, and this time around I actually went inside. The pet store, which specializes in both dogs and cats, is kept cozily warm for the animals' sake. As I lumbered into the shop, many of the older dogs went nuts, yapping and pawing the glass, trying desperately to get my attention. But I had eyes only for this little guy:

I felt a pang, knowing that this tiny, fragile dachshund would never be mine, especially not when he costs W400,000 ("How much is that doggie in the window," indeed!). I took plenty of photos of him, though, including one in which he put his paw back up against the glass, just like the other day. Quite an extrovert, this one.


"Interstellar" redux

The website iO9 finally catches up with me and publishes an article titled "Stop Putting New Age Pseudoscience in Our Science Fiction," which makes the same complaint I'd made about the spooky way in which the power of love is referenced in Christopher Nolan's new movie. An excerpt:

But there's a difference between wormhole travel, which is depicted superbly in Interstellar, and the idea that love is a "fifth dimension" that can allow a man to jump inside a black hole and travel backwards in time to communicate with his 10-year-old daughter. This is what we are asked to believe in Interstellar, whose climactic scene involves Cooper flying into the black hole Gargantua. Once he's gone inside, he's rescued by mysterious, fifth-dimensional beings who put him inside a tesseract box where time behaves like space — we can see millions of versions of his daughter's room around him, each representing a slice of time.

So far, we're on weird but still relatively solid ground when it comes to speculative science. Physicist Kip Thorne, who consulted on the movie, writes in a book called The Science of Interstellar that he could imagine such an event being plausible. Other physicists disagree with him, but that's not the problem. The real issue is that Cooper figures out how to contact his daughter by recalling what his colleague Brand told him — that love is a "force" that transcends dimensions just like time does. Using the force of "love" to guide him through the bewildering array of time-rooms, he finally finds the exact right version of his daughter to communicate with. And then he sends a message to her through time.

This is an example of confusing physics with metaphysics, or assuming that observable phenomena like gravity are the same as psychological states like love. Put another way, it blurs the line between science and spirituality without ever admitting that's what's going on.

Anyone who has seen the movie The Fifth Element is no stranger to this idea. The "fifth element" of the title is, in fact, love. Which turns out to be a physical force that can save the world. This idea is hinted at in widely-condemned pseudoscience documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, which suggests that quantum mechanics have revealed that anything we believe can come true — because our minds affect quantum reality. That is most definitely not what quantum physics suggests.

Again, the issue here isn't with saying that spiritual beliefs can intermingle with scientific reality. The problem is with category confusion. Just because two things are equally important does not mean they are the same. There is absolutely no evidence that love transcends time, but there is significant physical evidence that other dimensions do.

I'm not sure I agree with the writer's accusation that Nolan is never "admitting that's what's going on." I think the love thing was a conscious part of Nolan's agenda. It was hokey and definitely pseudo-sciencey, but Nolan knew what he was doing, and he knew that audiences would pick that up as one of the movie's central messages: the transcendent power of love. As I mentioned in my own review, though, I felt Nolan may have done a disservice to love by abstracting it from the spiritual and reducing it to a mere physical force:

The biggest problem for me, though, is tied to the movie's central theme. For my money, "Interstellar" descends into sentimental mush when it takes a concept like love and turns it from something metaphysical into a mere force of nature that—thematically, at least—resembles gravity. What exactly is the movie trying to say about love, and the ability it supposedly gives us to transcend time and space? Does love make us psychic, telepathic, prescient, or telekinetic? Is love truly one of the fundamental forces that bind the universe together? Is love a quantum-entanglement homing system that allows a father to find the right moment at which to contact his daughter from across the stars? This is, I felt, the point at which Nolan took his otherwise profound sci-fi film and handed the story over to religion. He was obviously trying to use gravity as a metaphor for the all-pervading, all-transcending power of love, but I'm not sure it worked. In fact, by reducing love to something merely physical, he may actually have cheapened the concept. Nolan succeeded at evoking a proper sentimentality early in the movie when he showed us Murph's sadness about her father's departure, but I feel that, the closer the director got to the ineffable, the more he stumbled.