Friday, January 31, 2014

dumb... yet smart

News outlets all across the US have been having a good chortle at those poor, dumb Southerners, freaked out by a couple inches of snow and totally unable to drive. Oh, how we northern veterans of snow laugh at their plight, at their ill-preparedness. If ever it turns out that we're in for global cooling instead of global warming, those rubes are doomed when the new ice age comes around.

But look again.

Watch how those same "rubes"—people that the rest of the country perceives as benighted, backward, and befuddled—have come together to help each other in this time of crisis. Leave aside, for a moment, the debate about whether it's fair to expect people who almost never encounter serious snow to be able to deal with the sudden arrival of a couple inches of it. Observe these good folks tramping gamely in the powdery whiteness, doling out drinks, cereal, and sandwiches to people trapped in 18-hour traffic jams. See them open their homes to each other and use large vehicles to drive stuck families wherever they need to go. Note how restaurants like Chick-Fil-A offer free hot food to the stranded, and free shelter as well. Be humbled by the neurosurgeon who left his car behind to tromp six miles in the cold to perform emergency brain surgery. Then ask yourself:

How dumb are these people, really?


Thursday, January 30, 2014

alternate universe

Here's a bit of Wikipedia trivia about "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country." After the dismal failure of "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (directed by William Shatner), paramount was scrounging for ideas that would be worthy of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Trek franchise, and Walter Koenig, who played Chekov in the original cast, offered the following story idea for the sixth movie:

Actor Walter Koenig approached [Paramount chief Frank] Mancuso with a new script outline codenamed "In Flanders Fields"; in it, the Romulans join the Federation and go to war with the Klingons. The Enterprise crew, except Spock, are forced to retire for not meeting fitness tests. When Spock and his new crew are captured by a monstrous worm-like race of aliens (which Koenig described as "things that the monsters in Aliens evolved from"), the old crew must rescue them. In the end, all of the characters except McCoy and Spock die.

Crazy stuff. How different would the Trek universe have been if things had ended Koenig's way? Ultimately, Koenig's bleak scenario was put aside, and an idea from Leonard Nimoy (Spock) won the day. Nimoy asked, "What if the Wall comes down in outer space?"—mirroring the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall. The rest is history. "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" premiered in 1991, the year I graduated from college, and two years after Berlin.

The resulting film had its heart in the right place, and since Nicholas Meyer directed the movie and had a hand in writing the script (see my remarks on Meyer's role in the Trek franchise here), I generally liked it. Still, ST6 had gaping holes in its plot, not to mention some tropes that didn't pass sci-fi muster (a tricorder shaped like a metal detector and used like a vacuum cleaner? Vulcan mind-rape? come on, guys). It wasn't a perfect swan song (I'm especially unhappy with how Uhura was portrayed as incompetent in Klingon, and how McCoy claimed to know nothing of Klingon anatomy), but it served its sentimental purpose.

Still, it's hard not to think about Koenig's dark alternative story.


20 years on

In 1994, director Robert Zemeckis let us into the magical world of "Forrest Gump." Now, twenty years later, he's at it again, but this time with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous Forrest in "Forrest Gump 2: Scion's Redemption." The Ahnold plays a man with a 70 IQ who knows only one thing: how to kill. When Forrest Gump's son, also named Forrest Gump, is kidnapped, the CIA's most highly trained assassin springs into action!

OK, so this isn't really a Gump movie: it's a scene from "Sabotage," in theaters later this year. But damn, that's an uncanny Tom Hanks impression.


Ted Cruz

Every time I look at Ted Cruz, I think he belongs in a different century. Maybe the 18th century—with a poofy wig, a powdered face, and rouge on his cheeks and lips, yes?

From this...

To this—


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

your must-read for the day

What gives the reactionaries the room to operate and to flex their muscles is, however, the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their fear of causing offence, their reluctance to call so-called community leaders to account.

From "On the Importance of the Right to Offend."

(a tip of the hat to Pat Condell on Twitter)


the South knows winter

From Georgia: Elisson's report.

The local schools have released their inmates students early, clogging the roads with panicked mommies and daddies who now need to schlep Junior home where he can enjoy his video games and hot cocoa in lieu of his education.

The aforementioned clogged roads are packed with idiots. Okay, that’s true on any randomly selected day, but the idiocy level hereabouts ramps up to an astonishing degree when there’s the most minimal suggestion of ice on the roads. Normal driving practices - don’t block intersections, for example - are kicked to the curb, exacerbating an already nasty situation.

From Mississippi: Jason's report.

Bread is flying off the shelves, and you would probably have to drive all the way to Memphis to find a bottle of water! Look at the devastation! That being said, I am enjoying a free day to catch up on my grading and lesson plans.

Neither blogger seems to be showing much more than a dusting. I'm from the mid-Altantic, and while we don't often get hit with bona fide snowstorms, about once or twice every decade we get dumped on, and then it's pretty spectacular. If you still see grass or ground peeking out of your snow, well... them's flurries.

In fairness, though, I must admit that northern Virginians—as well as most Marylanders—are also idiots when it comes to snow. And we have no excuse: it snows yearly, so we ought to have plenty of experience with sanding, salting, and navigating the precip. Alas, every year that it snows, it seems almost as if we've forgotten what happened the previous year. People from places like New England or the Great Lakes or the Dakotas often laugh about how we freak out. It could be something in the air—a forgetfulness-inducing poison emanating from Washington, DC, that citadel of wishful, deluded thinking. Yeah... I blame Washington.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

soup's on

My kitchen is basically down to scraps, especially now that my adopted meal plan requires no cooking. Still, I cook: I confess that, on my fasting days, I don't always fast: I cook a little something from my dwindling supply. Thus far, I've used up a huge batch of eggs (you can buy a 30-pack of medium eggs for less than $5 here) and several cans of chicken spam (I finally discovered that not frying the spam in oil makes it taste better); all that remains, now, are some potatoes, which are a couple weeks old but still mostly edible.

I pondered whether to make hash browns, mashed potatoes, or some kind of soup, and because I had a half-gallon of good, creamy Vollmilch in my fridge, I settled on making cream-of-potato soup. So I took out eight potatoes, washed them, de-rooted them, peeled them, chopped them, and tossed them into boiling water. Meanwhile, I mandolined an onion, minced it finely, then caramelized it in a pan, adding garlic in the latter stage to avoid making the garlic bitter. I let the taters boil until soft; luckily, much of the water had evaporated, and since I was making soup, there was no need to drain anything. All I lacked was a proper potato-masher. Having none on hand, I used a Mason jar to mash the tubers into submission. This didn't take long, but the result was less than perfectly smooth. I found myself wishing for a hand-held immersion blender, like the one I used to have in Front Royal (it now belongs to my brother, who inherited all of my kitchen stuff).

Into the soup I added the onion/garlic mixture, whole milk, salt, pepper, and some dashida (beef bouillon in this case). After a bit of stirring, I was left with a savory tub of goodness. The rough texture of the soup wasn't a problem at all.


Monday, January 27, 2014

don't say "waeguk"

Just a reminder of an old rant.


Sunday, January 26, 2014


I am now at the lowest weight I've been in years, 125.5 kilograms (276.4 pounds), and my new diet has only barely begun.

This is good, though; I'm firmly in the mid-270s, which means the 260s are, at long last, imaginable. It's enough to make me wonder whether I should continue this regime even after I can afford to eat more. I really don't mind fasting every other day at all; I have enough adipose tissue to keep my blood-sugar levels from going too sinusoidal, and because I'm eating every other day, I'm avoiding having my body go into starvation mode. Emotionally speaking, fasting like this hasn't been the least bit stressful, either—a fact I find surprising, given my self-indulgent nature.

Paleo enthusiasts often speak of the value of the occasional random fast as a way of keeping the body in balance: the theory is that our ancient ancestors didn't consistently bring home kills, so the human body evolved to handle food-less periods. An intermittent fast, so the modern wisdom goes, is perfectly natural and probably beneficial. My fasts aren't occasional, per se, but if current effects are any indication, fasting every other day is quite salubrious.


"Avatar": review

Some naughty person uploaded the entire movie "Avatar" onto a site that is one click away from YouTube, so for the first time since the movie came out in 2009, I sat down to watch it. As a work of hard science fiction, "Avatar" fails miserably, but the movie works much better if you think of it in metaphorical and allegorical terms. It recalls Rousseau's condescending (but still-cherished) notion of the noble savage, and it offers the viewer a heavy-handed message about the evils of modernity—destructive technology, acquisitive capitalism, the rape of the land. The blue-skinned native people of "Avatar," the Na'vi, evoke every pre-industrial society from Native Americans to sub-Saharan Africans. The story trajectory for protag and narrator Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, unable to hide his Aussie accent) is predictable; Sully goes native and the movie, which plays like a Kevin Costner revisionist Western, truly does earn its unofficial parodic title, "Dances with Smurfs." It's also worth noting the irony that the anti-technological, environmentalist thrust of "Avatar" is delivered through the miracle of special-effects technology. Taken either as hard science fiction or as a message movie, "Avatar" is a jumbled mess.

But, oh, what a gorgeous film. The creatures populating Pandora, the moon on which the action takes place, aren't particularly imaginative in conception, but they're beautifully rendered analogues of dragons, dinosaurs, buffalo, dogs, and horses (no cats, though, unless the thanator qualifies as a sort of black tiger). Director James Cameron treads dangerously close to the fantasy genre; Pandora is a magical, mystical world in which the biological bleeds seamlessly into the metaphysical. Different forms of life have evolved on that lush moon—yielding plenty of hexapods, fangs, and bioluminescence—and most have developed a way to "plug into" each other, reinforcing a resonant web of interspecies empathy. Pandora stands as a metaphor for our own world; through his visual tricks, Cameron makes planetary interconnectedness more visible to us.

And it's not just the life forms that are gorgeous and inspiring: the terrain is awesome as well. You have to put aside any understanding of physics to buy into what you're seeing, but those floating mountains, chock full of the precious "unobtainium" ore and resplendent with diaphanous waterfalls, are a sumptuous feast for the eyes, easily worthy of Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth (NB: Jackson's Weta Workshop did the special effects for "Avatar"; there's a reason why everything looks so familiar).

"Avatar" tells the story of Jake Sully, a disabled Marine whose scientist twin brother has been killed. Jake, despite being a grunt who lacks his brother's science background, takes his brother's place in the "avatar program," a sort of diplomacy-through-bioengineering project in which human minds are projected into genetically engineered Na'vi bodies—the "avatars" of the movie's title. Humans in possession of Na'vi bodies can breathe Pandora's air (poisonous to humans) and, it is hoped, learn the Na'vi culture and language in order to persuade the Na'vi to help the humans mine the superconducting unobtainium that Earth needs to reconstitute its wasted self. Jake is a perfect genetic match for his brother, and thus a perfect match for his brother's avatar. He has teachers and helpers: Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) heads the avatar program; Dr. Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) is an anthropologist; Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) is a fellow researcher.

The scientists have a tense relationship with the military contingent; the soldiers look upon the Na'vi as primitives, savages, unenlightened monkeys. Hardass Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is head of security, and he promises the paralyzed Sully that, if Sully can act as a spy who reports on the Na'vi, he can have his legs back. Sully, who is also working for the scientists to gain the natives' trust, slips into a coffin-like chamber that allows him to connect with his Na'vi self. While acting as a Na'vi, learning the people's language, culture, and survival skills, Jake becomes seduced by life on Pandora, and he inevitably goes native.

From here on, you can pretty much predict the plot: with the help of his Na'vi teacher and love interest Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Jake proves himself as a warrior and eventually leads the Na'vi in an attack against the human settlement. I'll let you imagine how it turns out, if you're one of the five people on the planet who haven't seen "Avatar" by now.

For me, suspension of disbelief entailed bracketing everything I know about actual science. I could have spent all day poking holes in this aspect of the story: how could Pandora evolve humanoids who live in recognizably human societies? How could parallel evolution also produce the equivalents of dogs, horses, rhinos, and pterosaurs? How does the human/avatar uplink actually function? How can unobtainium produce enough energy to hold up mountains while not exerting equal pressure against the ground? I also had to ignore the movie's message, a standard Hollywood trope that's been with us since at least the 1970s, when Hollywood was questioning America's role in Vietnam. Further, I had to try hard to ignore the many instances in which Cameron cribbed elements from his own cinematic oeuvre, especially "Aliens": the super-competent female pilot (Michelle Rodriguez), the creature-versus-mecha combat, the overuse of the color blue, the evil corporate machinations, and so on.* After stripping all those factors away, what was left was this question: was it a good story?

The answer: yes. Yes, it was.

"Avatar" works—not as a message movie, not as hard sci-fi, but as a heroic adventure that gives a bit of a twist to Joseph Campbell's monomyth paradigm: for Campbell, the hero is the one who brings a boon back to his people; Jake Sully, however, starts the story as an alien, and only gradually comes to think of the Na'vi as "his people."

So you might be wondering: if Sully falls in love with Neytiri, and all these adventures befall his Na'vi body while his human body is in the tanning booth, what happens at the end? Jake is still human, after all; for him to live with Neytiri forever, Jake will have to sever his ties with humanity and somehow transfer his consciousness fully into his Na'vi avatar. Well... to this end, the movie offers up its own version of the fal-tor-pan (spirit-transference) ritual at the end of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." To reinhabit his body, Spock had to pass through the medium of T'Lar; "Avatar" has no T'Lar, but it does have the Tree of Souls.

The movie had some of the same themes as can be found in other works of science fiction, especially the notion of a web-like, planet-spanning consciousness. Isaac Asimov's Gaia comes to mind: in the Foundation universe, Gaia is a world on which every particle of matter, biotic or abiotic, participates in a massive collective sentience. Gaian humans enjoy a certain level of individuality, but they are nevertheless "plugged in" to the rest of their world. Robert Silverberg's strange novel The Face of the Waters also comes to mind: human beings who live on the planet Hydros are in constant danger of extinction as the entire planet uses its global hive mind to reject or eject the humans, attacking much as an immune system might do. By the end of the novel, the protagonist, Lawler, has learned that the only way to survive the planet's attempts to kill him is to merge with that superconsciousness, much the way Jake Sully does at the end of "Avatar."

So "Avatar" works as a simple adventure story, the tale of an unlikely hero. Despite its liberal agenda, it follows the politically incorrect template of the white man who comes to help the poor natives and, in the process, becomes the natives' greatest champion. "Avatar" is predictable for long stretches; it's impossible to take seriously as an anti-technological, pro-environmentalist statement, and is just as hard to swallow as a serious work of science fiction, but the beauty of its visuals, the headlong rush of its narrative, and the appeal of some of its corny, lovey-dovey concepts are all impossible to deny. I wouldn't mind visiting Pandora, if it were real, and communing with its ancient plant life.

Or better yet, its lanky, coltish women.

*James Cameron, for all his left-liberalism, has an affinity for the work of Robert Heinlein. Both "Aliens" and "Avatar" contain sly Heinlein references. In "Aliens," the term "bug hunt" in the context of human-soldiers-versus-insectoid-aliens evokes Starship Troopers; in "Avatar," the use of the slang term "bounce" does the same.

home fries

Click image to enlarge:


Saturday, January 25, 2014

when I'm wrong, I'm wrong

There are times when I'm not wrong. At those times, it pisses me off when someone swoops in with an unnecessary "correction." Accuse me of being wrong, when I'm not wrong, and risk my wrath. If you think I'm wrong about something, then next time try asking, not telling. I'm much more agreeable then.

But there are times when I'm so obviously wrong that I'd be an idiot not to admit how wrong I am. This is one of those times.

Over at Joshua Stanton's blog, One Free Korea, I had cynically commented that there would be almost no way the US government would go after Dennis Rodman for having brought luxury gift items to North Korea. Joshua's post is here; my comment is here. I wrote:

I’d say imprisonment is off the table for Rodman. He’ll get away scot-free. Fining him is slightly more plausible, but I’m doubtful that even that will happen.

Oh, how wrong I was. As I wrote on Twitter yesterday:

Well, Joshua (@freekorea_us), I didn't think it would happen, but it looks to be happening: [LINK]

I almost feel sorry for Rodman, who never really had much going on in the brains department. His drunken tirade, while he was in North Korea, was disgraceful bordering on dangerous, both to himself and to his retinue of naive basketball players. But I was wrong to think that Rodman was somehow magically protected from scrutiny by Uncle Sam. I had falsely assumed that other stars in Rodman's privileged position would have gotten away with doing what Rodman had done, and that this would be true for Rodman himself.

This is my mea culpa.

Dennis Rodman is currently at an undisclosed rehab facility, where he's being treated for alcoholism. I can't say I blame him: a trip to North Korea would drive me to drink, too. I'd need massive amounts of booze to keep the heartbreaking reality of a normal citizen's life separate from the antiseptic, impervious reality of life inside the Kim dynasty's palace.


saying goodbye to a golden goose

Remember that nearly $60,000 job offer? Yeah... that's not going to happen. I just went through my second experience of working with that company in a freelance capacity, and to put it politely, things weren't that great.* My contact with the company, who was also my project supervisor—we'll call her Ms. Park—turned out to be a micromanager of the highest order. I should have known that things weren't going to go well when Ms. Park began our business relationship by saying she didn't trust me. Here's how she put it in an email:

From experience I now learned to look before you leap. That's the best way to avoid wasting time and energy. So I would like to expand our partnership gradually. First, I would like to have some assurance that I met the right writer. Then, I would like to try your other writing skills. Let me know your thought, Mr. Kim.

That's not the best or most diplomatic foot on which to start a "partnership." Ms. Park is basically saying, "Thanks to long and bitter experience, I'm now skeptical of everyone I meet, so it's up to you to prove that you're worth my while." Actually, Ms. Park, it's up to you to prove that you're worth my while. More on that in a bit.

I had been asked to write an article on Topic X, which was to be part of the textbook that Ms. Park was working on. The textbook supposedly targets motivated students who will eventually take the TOEFL exam, and I was asked to write my articles as if they were in the tone of The Economist. Ms. Park gave me a file with ten sample essays in it; the purpose was to convey a clearer idea of what she considered acceptable writing.

What I saw, when I looked at those ten essays, was a confusing jumble of tones and styles that had almost nothing to do with the serious prose found in The Economist. Some of the sample essays, with interjections like "Yikes!" scattered within them, were positively infantile, and Ms. Park was praising these pieces as good examples of what she was looking for. The collection was a mess—scattered and inconsistent. That, too, should have been a hint as to what sort of person was now supervising me. Nevertheless, I shrugged and began.

I spent several hours researching on my own, arriving at my own insights and conclusions in order to come at the subject matter from a fresh angle. I found some TED Talks on the topic in question, found some news articles, and pounded out an essay that I thought was clear and well-organized. At the same time, I had already figured out that Ms. Park was extremely hard to please, so I knew my first draft would likely be rejected.

When the rejection happened, it wasn't a surprise, but some of the comments and critiques seemed so out of left field that I had to wonder whether Ms. Park had actually read my article. She felt my tone was too serious and academic (which is bullshit: I had perfectly captured the tone of an Economist article), and she attached some online-news articles to show me both what the desired tone was and what she wanted in the essay. Essentially, she was saying, "I already have an idea in my head of what sort of essay I want. Your job is to write what's in my head, not what's in yours." That, folks, isn't writing: it's having a hand up your ass and being used as a puppet.

Another of Ms. Park's complaints about my draft was that "the level of vocabulary was too low." I was flabbergasted when I read that: anyone who reads this blog knows of my fondness for the sesquipedalian, and that fondness naturally bleeds into my freelance writing. But then I read Ms. Park's clarification: "not enough idioms, such as 'X is in the driver's seat.'" So when Ms. Park was referring to the difficulty level of the vocabulary, what she really meant was "toss in some entertaining idioms." Anyone familiar with the TOEFL knows that TOEFL isn't about mastery of idioms; like the SAT, TOEFL is more about overall reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Idioms come and go, which is why many language teachers are reluctant to focus too much on them. TOEFL's designers understand this.**

"Make it like The Economist, but with entertaining idioms" and "write this on your own, but use all the material I give you" weren't the only contradictory directives I received from Ms. Park. She had complained, at the beginning, about how other writers before me had gone over the mandated word count (850-950 words). But when my second draft was rejected, Ms. Park again sent me several articles whose content she wanted included in my essay. There was no way I could include everything she wanted and still get the whole thing under 950 words. The situation was becoming ludicrous.

So I pounded out a third draft, then sat there seething over the fact that I had done 12 to 15 hours' unpaid work for this lady. The pay was W200,000 per accepted article; no mention was ever made about drafts. Lesson learned: from now on, if I do freelance work, it'll be on my terms and I'll be charging for every goddamn bit of labor. None of this "work 15 hours for peanuts" nonsense. In dollar terms, W200,000 comes out to $182. Divide that by 15, and you get an hourly wage of $12. With the distinct possibility that I'd need to write a fourth draft, that pay rate would descend to $9 an hour.

At some point, every man has to ask himself whether the pay is worth the ass-fucking. To what extent do you let a company use you? How long do you allow the company to dangle the carrot of eventual pay in front of you while you slave away, unpaid?

So I had to call my future into question. Is this what working for the company would be like? I mused. If I were hired, would I spend my time working with Ms. Park, or with someone like her? The answer was a probable yes, and given what this one project was doing to my sanity, I knew that I'd have to say no to signing up full-time.

You may recall my earlier essay, in which I turned this job offer over in my mind, weighing potential pros and cons. The company was offering plenty of money—5 million won a month, which would have meant close to $60,000 a year. I had been vague, in that blog post, about what dangers I saw ahead, framing the problem in terms of "corporate culture" and such. I can be more specific now: could I spend my days working for a scatterbrained, micromanaging harridan, drafting and redrafting the same article four or five times, article after article after article? And the answer was a clear no: sanity, as I've written before on many occasions, comes first. Sanity always comes first. If you're not sane, you can't enjoy the money you're making. It's better, then, to keep your sanity, even if it means occupying a lower income bracket.

So I've written valedictory emails to Ms. Park and her boss, explaining my position in polite terms and doing my best not to make Ms. Park lose face by blaming her too strongly (I wrote only that she was "particular"). I mentioned the utilitarian calculus I had gone through, i.e., that it wasn't worth it to work 12-15 unpaid hours for the prospect of modest pay that would arrive only eventually. I made an effort not to sound bitter. Or used. It was tempting to write about how raw my asshole felt after that reaming, but I kept it civil.

While this means the hewing-off of one branch of the tree of possibility, all is not lost. I still have my KMA work to look forward to, and that job, at least, seems to be one at which my efforts are actually appreciated. I'm also going to apply for work at a different, better-paying university; if that gamble pays off, I'll be earning W45 million per year, which isn't too far under the original W60 million. The dream of enjoying more income isn't dead.

*My first experience was just fine. No complaints. I actually had the chance to sit down with the gentleman who supervised me, and we hit it off... which is what makes the current state of affairs so regrettable.

**TOEFL's designers also make no effort to write entertaining prose. A true TOEFL-prep textbook would be composed of serious-sounding essays featuring complex sentence structure, high-level vocabulary, and ideas academically presented in clear, logical form, ruthlessly following an outline. The collection of ten essays that Ms. Park had shown me was garbage, if the standard of judgment is TOEFL.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Thursday, January 23, 2014

a bleg for ideas

So I'm writing up the second of two massive, 30-page lesson plans for the work I'm going to be doing for KMA. (We're expected to teach from the lesson plans we create, but it's also possible to teach a "canned" curriculum, i.e., one that's pre-made.) The first course I drew up was on persuasive writing in business English. The course I'm working on now is about online research. At first, this seemed like a fun topic to work on, but a particular thought germinated in my head and has now pretty much taken over my consciousness and sucked out the fun.

Let me retreat a bit and give you some background. The reason my lesson plans have to be as long as they are is that they're for day-long workshop/seminars that KMA runs—about seven hours for a one-day workshop, fourteen for a two-day session, and twenty-one hours for a three-day course. I've been tasked with writing up two one-day courses. The students (called "participants" at KMA) are generally adult businesspeople whose English skills range from intermediate to advanced. The focus, then, is always on some aspect of business English.

As I said above, the course I'm currently working on has to do with online-research techniques. My approach to the course is to use Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognition as the framework. The taxonomy, which I rely on heavily as a teacher, is basically a hierarchy that looks like this (I made this graphic for my lesson packet; this 72dpi version is a bit fuzzy, but the one going in the packet is much crisper, being 300dpi in resolution):

Each hour of the course will be devoted to one level of the cognitive pyramid. A knowledge-level research question might involve simple fact-checking: "In what year did Abraham Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address?" A comprehension-level question might involve interpreting data or extrapolating a trend. By the time we get up to synthesis-level questions, research will involve establishing connections between and among X, Y, and Z (e.g., "What influence do factors like terrain and religion have on the South Korean economy?").

Designing such research tasks for the participants isn't the hard part. My problem—hence the bleg—is this: I have to convince my charges that they need to do their online research exclusively in English.

Imagine you're Korean. You live in one of the most-wired countries on Earth. You, like the rest of your countrymen, tend to rely on only two portal sites for all your online-research needs: and Those two portals cover pretty much everything. Who needs Google? Anything you might want to know about any other country on the planet comes to you rendered in Korean, ready for consumption. So why would you ever have to peek outside your Koreanized world? If you need to research anything, just do it in Korean via Daum and Naver! Screw English! What, you can't look up Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address in Korean? Well, actually, you can!

Basically, I'm hard up for ideas. I need to design research topics that (1) follow the ladder of Bloom's Taxonomy, (2) pertain to business English, and (3) by their nature, force the students to use the anglophone Internet. I already have a general idea of how to do this. I could ask students questions about what or the Washington Post business section has to say about Topic A or B. But there have to be other ways to accomplish this goal. If the point is to show the students the necessity of branching out from the Korean universe, I need to convince my students that the Korean Internet is woefully incomplete (which I believe it to be).

Any ideas? Feel free to leave comments.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

teaching another perspective

Click to enlarge:

Perhaps Koreans do lack empathy and need to be shown this stuff directly if they're to understand it...?


Korean imperialism redux: Occupy Clown

With thanks once again to Joe of ZenKimchi for pointing out the link, we have this article by Paul G. Lee of Net.Sidebar titled "The Right to Occupy McDonald's." Lee is a Korean-American, but he feels embarrassed by the old guys, and makes almost exactly the same points that I made in my post re: the likely American perspective on this situation. Lee writes:

As a Korean-American, this incident makes me uncomfortable. Why? Because I think the Koreans are wrong. Sorry, Grandfather, Grandmother, Elder, Deaconess, but aren’t you the ones guilty of being rude? Aren’t you the ones that are overstaying your welcome in a fast food restaurant, and then once met with authority, galvanizing the Korean community about some non-issue?


At first, McDonald’s calling the police seems a bit excessive, but if I understood correctly, the actions of the seniors [were] tolerated for months before the authorities [were] called to resolve the non-compliance.


To me, it seems like this group of elderly Korean men and women have the cultural expectations that come with being an elderly Korean man or women. Utmost respect. Immunity to error. Compliance from those younger than them. Except that this time, they expect this from an establishment as synonymous with America as Ford, Apple, Google, or Microsoft. This is the difficult part because for as much as America is a nation of many peoples, not one of those peoples should disruptively insert their personal cultural expectations into our businesses. These Koreans were breaking an unspoken social rule, and should quickly dissolve the attention that they are receiving from the media by moving their gathering to another location. It is starting to reflect poorly on the Korean community.

In that final paragraph, Lee alludes to the cellular cultural understanding that I referred to in my post: when you're inside a business, you respect what the business wants. As e-friend and ex-blogger Brian Ridge put it to me in a comment regarding the McDonald's manager: "His business, his rules."

Earlier on, Lee writes, "Aren't you the ones guilty of being rude?" This corresponds to:

If disrespect is the issue, as the Korean side contends, then it's the old guys who shed first blood by wearing out their welcome—not once, but for five long years. If anything, Americans might say, the McDonald's branch showed remarkable restraint in not calling the police before now.

When Lee writes on the elders' cultural expectations, this reflects what I had written:

Korean culture doesn't teach old people to be humble; it teaches them that they've earned a high place in society simply by surviving so long, and that has the unfortunate effect of spoiling the old, who often act like children in this society.

I, too, have trouble seeing how any of this is supposedly racist. People appeal to racism far too quickly. Racism, as a buzzword, is often a crutch for those who can't think. I can see how this is a cultural issue; Lee and I also agree on that point. Did the old guys have a right to overstay their welcome for five years? From the American perspective (and since this case is happening in America, it's the American perspective that overrides all), no. They didn't.

The major difference between Lee's article and my first post on this issue is that Lee is more direct in laying out his feelings. I've tried to be a bit more even-handed in my approach, and I stand by that. At the same time, I admit I do feel my sympathy for the old guys draining away. As Lee writes, there are plenty of places for Korean seniors to gather in that particular community; there's no need for them to be hogging the McDonald's. And as I mentioned in a different post, I'm pretty sure that the new "sit for one hour" rule is going to be just as thoroughly ignored as was the "20 minutes" rule: give the fogeys an inch, and they'll take a mile. Only this time, the new Komerican manager will be constrained by culture from saying anything. Old guys win. At least until they start dying off.


meal plan

It turns out that January will not be the final month in which I have to starve. I had hoped to be working all during my two-month vacation, but one of my side jobs won't pay until the book to which I'm contributing has been published (probably early spring), and the other side job won't be giving me any work until mid to late February. Financial bliss remains a dream deferred. What to do, then, with the petty cash I've got? How to last out the month? Well, I think I have a plan, and it won't involve any food-shopping on my part.

The local E-Mart, which is a ten-minute bus ride away from where I live (and a longish wait for the 518 bus going in that direction), has a food court. There's an overpriced Burger King there, along with an array of Korean-style international food stalls. Most of the entrées' prices are actually quite reasonable. For W12,000, I can eat a humongous amount.

So from here until February 15, my next payday, I can use my dwindling cash this way: go to the food court every other day, eat a large W12,000 meal that I can digest over two days, and enjoy purifying "days of nothing" (except for water and/or tea) in between binges. I can hear some of you screaming, "Aaagh! Your blood sugar!"—but I've found that I don't tend to spike or bottom out that much; whether hungry or full, I feel about the same.* From now until February 15, it's twenty-four days. If I eat W12,000 meals on twelve of those days, I spend only W144,000 (plus a bit extra to recharge my traffic card). By Valentine's Day, I'll still have a few thousand won left over.

I think this will do me fine, and I'm starting my new meal plan today.

*My criteria for how I feel are (1) pulse rate (and whether it's pounding, usually indicating higher blood pressure brought on by sodium intake), (2) presence or absence of headaches, and (3) blurriness of vision (another BP warning sign). In most cases, I don't experience any of these symptoms, whether starved or replete—no pounding pulse, no headaches, and no blurry vision. But when I overdo something, then yeah, I feel it. Luckily, the viands at the food court are well-balanced, so long as I don't overdo the carb-heavy dishes.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

an update on Korean imperialism

The Korean attempts at annexing the McDonald's in Flushing, Queens, NYC may or may not have proven successful, depending on your point of view. On Twitter today, I saw that Joe of ZenKimchi had linked to a Chosun Ilbo article updating the situation. The article says:

A McDonald's outlet in Flushing, New York on Sunday apologized to a group of elderly Korean Americans who had been thrown out because they were hogging tables.

Store owner Jack Bert met the pensioners at the office of Representative Ron Kim.

He admitted that calling the police on the group was excessive and promised it will not happen again.

The franchise branch will replace the manager responsible for the case and hire a Korean American to better serve the ethnic community there, he promised. It will allow customers to stay for up to an hour, up from the current 20 minutes, and put up a signboard in Korean to that effect.

On Jan. 2, the store complained to police that six elderly people of Korean origin had been occupying the seats since the early morning, allegedly driving away customers. When the Korean community there found out, a number of members staged protests against the store's mistreatment of the elderly and racial discrimination, and threatened to boycott the franchise for the month of February.

The ailing franchise relies on customers wolfing down their meal as quickly as possible and getting out to make room for others -- one reason outlets have traditionally been brightly lit and equipped with uncomfortable furniture.

I'm not sure whether the phrase "ailing franchise" refers to the local McDonald's branch or to McDonald's as a whole. (If a reference to the latter, wouldn't le mot juste be "corporation"?) It felt as if the article were trying to get in one last kick in the head at McDonald's, accusing it of cynical profiteering by encouraging high turnover. This is, of course, hypocritical: as I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, the notion of high turnover isn't confined to American restaurants: if I and some non-Korean buddies decided to squat in a Korean restaurant in Korea from dawn until dusk, you can bet the owners would be driven up the wall, and would probably take measures. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Korean restaurant owners wouldn't wait five years for the situation to become so bad that the police became necessary.

So it seems the Solomon's solution to the Korean Queens problem is to replace the Caucasian manager of the local McDonald's with a Komerican. I'm sure that will improve relations, but will the oldsters respect the new sign saying that customers may stay only an hour? I somehow doubt it. The old guys got their apology, but what will they do with it? Will they accept the new situation and gracefully abide by the terms of the new compromise, or will they take a mile now that they've been given an inch? Time will tell, but I'm not hopeful. I think our bright, young Komerican manager will have much the same problem on his hands as did his predecessor, but he'll be under ethnic pressure never to call the police.

My solution would be to quietly spike the coffee with a powerful laxative, à la "Dumb and Dumber." A few porcelain-throne sessions later, no more problem. The place is called Flushing, right? So flush 'em all out.

NB: The threat of a boycott is hilarious. Given how little business the old guys have been giving the McDonald's to begin with, a boycott might actually improve business.


your quiz for today


clown colony

Old Korean guys at a McDonald's in Flushing, Queens, New York City have been causing quite a ruction: they saunter in, buy some coffee and a single package of small fries... then sit and talk all day long. Some of these guys come in at 5AM and stay until well after sunset (I assume the fries are purchased only when it's lunchtime). This state of affairs has obtained for five years, but it made the news last week because the workers and management at the McDonald's had finally had enough and decided to call the police.

What happened next is the stuff of comedy gold. The police would come in and order the gaggle of oldsters out. Because most of these guys are in their seventies, they'd comply without complaint, take a slow stroll around the block, and come right back into the McDonald's, where the cycle would continue. According to this article, the police would come by to roust the granddads up to three times a day.

The Korean community and certain activist groups are up in arms about the treatment these old men have received—after all, what could possibly be the harm in a bunch of crusty Korean guys just sitting around and talking? But the management of that McDonald's branch says that the senior citizens have been driving away business with their loud, obnoxious, stingy ways, nursing their single cups of coffee and sharing that one lone package of fries, taking up valuable space in a place that was never meant to serve as a lounge or a senior center.

Let's begin with the obvious: this is a textbook culture clash. Here in Korea, old folks do everything together, and it's no big deal to see a bunch of seniors just sitting around, jabbering happily away. Coffee shops in Korea are training grounds for senior life: young people in coffee shops also tend to sit around in pairs or groups, occasionally for hours, just shooting the breeze. It's part of the culture: unlike the French, who love to linger à table during dinner, enjoying two-hour-long prandial conversations, Koreans generally prefer to rush through dinner and relax at a coffee shop afterwards.

Lingering is part of Korean culture: go to some comfortable public spot, pay a small amount, and hang. I've heard stories of guys who use PC-bahng (Net cafés) for this purpose: when it costs only a dollar an hour, you can take a decent five-hour nap in your own cubby/carrel for cheap. Why pay for a $60 hotel? The same goes for saunas: guys pay the usage fee, then go in and just... lounge. Given how much Korean life is spent in a mad rush from nowhere to nowhere, it makes sense that relaxation would become a strong cultural counter-current.*

So the old Korean guys in New York, who probably came to America well past the time when they could have comfortably assimilated into their new home, simply kept on with their old-country ways. The McDonald's just happened to be located at a geographical sweet spot for these gentlemen, who care nothing about business concepts like "rapid turnover."

Koreans aren't always the greatest when it comes to creativity or initiative, but they do have a long tradition of resistance. The culture has a surly, chaotic, passive-aggressive streak that stands in contrast with Japanese notions of orderliness and authority. Korean stories about the disrespect of the country folk for the yangban (nobility) are legendary. In modern Korea, it's a point of honor for the average citizen to stand up to a policeman.** This cultural quirk, too, has doubtless come into play in New York: because the McDonald's management involved the police, it's now become a point of pride for these old men to prove their mettle. Returning to McDonald's after being shooed out is a form of resistance.

Pro-Korean activists have complained loudly, from the standpoint of Korean values, about how rude it is to call the police on a bunch of old men. Such disrespect is nearly unimaginable in Korea, the activists say—and they have a point, at least from the Korean perspective. But there's more than one side to this story, so let's look at things from the American point of view.

First and foremost, Americans would understand that McDonald's is a business and that its primary purpose is to make a profit.*** This is a tacit, almost cellular understanding in American culture. Not to get this is to demonstrate unbelievable ignorance about one of the fundamental truths of American life: when you're inside a business, you respect what the business wants. Transactions are two-way streets that require mutual trust and respect. If disrespect is the issue, as the Korean side contends, then it's the old guys who shed first blood by wearing out their welcome—not once, but for five long years. If anything, Americans might say, the McDonald's branch showed remarkable restraint in not calling the police before now.

And what about that "calling the police" thing? The Korean reading of the situation is that it's insulting and humiliating to treat harmless old men as common criminals. I think the American take on this would be twofold: first, it's important to note that no one has been arrested; the police have simply asked the seniors to quit the premises. Second, Americans call the police as a way of avoiding or resolving conflict, not of provoking it. By bringing in people of authority, the logic goes, the likelihood of a fight (or other type of altercation) is lessened. People tend to be orderly when the police are present: tempers fade, fists are lowered, everyone's on his or her best behavior.

A friend of mine came to America, specifically to Delaware, for some sort of business conference or seminar. He and the rest of his Korean cohort were housed on the same floor in a hotel, and they promptly did the Korean thing: they got drunk and rowdy. An angry hotel patron apparently called the police on my friend's group; things quieted down, but there were hard feelings after that. "What kind of 'free country' is America when you can't even enjoy yourself?" groused my friend. But the American notion of freedom comes packaged with a libertarian notion of respect and responsibility: your freedom ends at the tip of my nose. The moment you begin to irk others around you, you've crossed a line and are now engaged in selfish conduct. We call it "disturbing the peace," and an unspoken American value is that civilized people don't disturb the peace. When they do, their asses get arrested.

Personally, I'm confused as to why the Korean side is making such a big deal about police involvement. The police are fairly low-status individuals in Korean society. Sure, they can arrest you, but they rarely do, and they put up with a lot of petty back-talk (and bribery!) from Joe Korean in the meantime. Koreans in Korea have little respect for the police, so when a conflict occurs, feelings are raw for a short while, then everyone shrugs and moves on. Why, then, should Korean-American activists be treating police intervention as a big deal? Perhaps because American police aren't like Korean police: give an American policeman too much sass and he'll cuff you and book you. That's why the police have more respect in America than in Korea: they actually enforce laws, i.e., they say what they mean and do what they say. Korean culture normally involves a lot of valueless bluster—talk, not action: taunt all you want, but don't throw that first punch. It's shocking to a Korean when someone acts.

So I can see the McDonald's kerfuffle from both angles. Personally, I agree with the Koreans that calling the police on the old folks was a bit much. It was also a mistake to call the police in the sense that, now, this has become a tug-of-war motivated by pride. Furthermore, it was absolutely silly for the McDonald's management to post a sign saying "20 minutes only." Such a rule is both unreasonable and unenforceable in reality unless you, as the manager, are seriously going to tell one of your burlier twentysomething employees to physically throw the stubborn Korean patrons out. Do you have such cojones?

At the same time, I think the seniors have been selfish and stupid in stubbornly clinging to the notion that squatting on the clown's property, effectively creating a tiny Korean colony, is OK. One value I personally hold is that age and authority do not confer wisdom. I've studied way too much religion to believe otherwise: Jesus, the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and others stood before men who were much older and more powerful than they, and spoke truth to them. Sure—young people are often impatient, cavalier, selfish, and obtuse, but the same can be said about the aged. Some people are so dumb that they go through life learning nothing from their many experiences. Others, more fortunate, absorb wisdom from every moment.

It may be too much to expect this group of old Korean guys to change their ways, especially so late in life. Korean culture doesn't teach old people to be humble; it teaches them that they've earned a high place in society simply by surviving so long, and that has the unfortunate effect of spoiling the old, who often act like children in this society.**** It's always refreshing to encounter an older person who doesn't see the world in facile black-and-white terms, who acts with grace and humility, and who isn't given to over-excitability and other forms of immaturity. I'm not saying that such people are rare in Korea, but if the Korean street is any indication—with its angrily screeching ajumonis and drunkenly bellowing ajeossis—they're not exactly numerous, either.

There's little point in chewing over the problem at length if I'm not willing to offer any solutions, so let's talk about some ways out of this pickle.

I took a look at Google Maps to see what the area around the McDonald's in question looks like. I was wondering whether some innovative soul might be willing to build some sort of hangout space for the seniors—somewhere close, maybe right next door, so that the old guys could saunter into McDonald's, buy their drinks, and then saunter over to the lounge area for their day-long powwows. No such luck: all the property around the McDonald's is spoken for. So much for magic solutions based on architecture. I suppose the next best thing is dialogue: people like me, who straddle both communities, should involve themselves in efforts to get both sides talking to each other about what irks them, and to arrive at some sort of civil compromise (although, to be honest, I feel McDonald's has already compromised plenty by allowing the situation to fester for five years; this was noble, on the one hand, but stupid on the other, because the situation became more and more entrenched).

Beyond dialogue, though, there has to be action. The Koreans have to recognize that they can't simply have their way in a business establishment that already has its own rules of etiquette.***** The local McDonald's, meanwhile, needs to take down that silly, unenforceable 20-minute rule and let good citizens eat and talk in peace, keeping in mind that a bunch of old guys jabbering loudly and taking up space is nothing compared to some of the barbaric crap that can and does happen on the premises.

*This may be somewhat analogous to the acceptability of public drunkenness in Korean and Japanese society. Korean guys, in particular, can get away with doing things while drunk that would never be kosher if done while sober. They can weep, bemoan their fate, sulk, mutter darkly, shout insanely, curse their bosses and/or the government, get into fights, destroy property, and mark their territory with gouts of vomit—and few people will think twice about it (except, of course, for the owners of the destroyed property). My point, here, is that mainstream society flows one way, causing plenty of stress, but the undercurrent flows in the opposite direction, counteracting the stressors of mainstream existence. Straitlaced social conduct during the day is depressurized through drunken conduct at night. The rush-rush, rat-race mentality during one's "on" time is depressurized by the "let's just hang" mentality during one's "off" time.

**There's a striking hidden-camera video of a North Korean woman mouthing off at a policeman. It's almost—almost—enough to give one hope for North Korea: if only the rest of the populace could remember its old resistance to authority, perhaps the country could break free of its shackles. PBS recently broadcast "The Secret State of North Korea"; I believe that the video clip in question is part of that larger broadcast. (Or check here if the PBS link doesn't work for you.)

***Ascribing to McDonald's an altruistic motive like "feeding the hungry masses" would be reaching. If that were McDonald's primary purpose, they'd serve better food, and more of it.

****In no way am I implying that American seniors are any less susceptible to their own raft of prideful self-delusions. American culture, with its eternally youthful outlook, makes many of its older folks feel they have more vigor, power, and influence than they actually do. Millions of dollars are spent in an attempt to look and act younger. "Aging gracefully" has been replaced by an embarrassingly vain, "go down fighting" ethos. There are good, smart ways to remain vigorous during one's twilight years, and there are bad, stupid ways, too.

*****Charles and I, early in our friendship, once went to a very nice, very popular eatery in Gangnam. We ate and talked... and eventually the server came over and reminded us that the restaurant had more customers waiting. It's not as though only Americans are concerned about turnover, and it certainly isn't as if only Americans are motivated by profit. As I've said before, South Korea is arguably more cutthroat-capitalist than America is. The best example is a place like Namdaemun Market, which is about as raw and as pure a form of capitalism as you'll ever find.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Nathan writes in

My friend Nathan writes:

Hi Kevin,

I’ve noticed a few issues with Chrome in the last twenty-four hours or so. It won’t let me use the scroll bar and mouse to scroll in many situations, though it’s ok with scrolling using the arrow keys. I had the same invitation to kill your page as Charles did. So I killed it, but don’t feel bad, because you are in fact the Buddha.

As for the comments issue, I’m too lazy to try with Firefox, Pale Moon, Opera, or Internet Explorer, which are the other browsers installed on my laptop. Mostly this is because Blogger’s captcha phrases are just too difficult. I comment much less than I used to on Blogger blogs for this reason.

I’m just shocked at how unprofessional Google can be at times. There’s this scrolling issue with Google-designed Chrome, an invitation for the user to kill Google-owned Blogger pages, and the realization that my wife’s new Google-created Moto G phone needed a work-around--a third-party keyboard installation--for her to type in Korean! (Android added the language Khmer in a recent update, and there are many truly obscure languages with support, but there’s no native support for Korean, which is one of the world’s up-and-coming important languages. I wrote Motorola about this, and after receiving an auto-response indicating a follow-up within 24 hours, have yet to hear anything nearly a week later. They’re essentially not even trying to challenge the dominance of Samsung and LG in the Korean market.

Anyway, keep up the fantastic blogging, and hopefully Google will get with the program.

All the best,

I have trust issues with Chrome. It started off as a good browser, then after about a year, it began stalling and glitching. Firefox has proven to be the most reliable platform for me; it's been rock-solid for years.


Apparently it is a problem with the latest version of Chrome (32.whatever). It happens only in pop-up windows, and does have something to do with the scrollbar. I don't know exactly what, and I don't really care, either--just as long as the bastards fix it as soon as possible.

Seriously, Google, if you're going to push automatic updates on us and not gives us the option to turn them off, you'd better be damn sure stuff works before it goes "stable."

I have to agree with Nathan on Google's lack of professionalism at times. It's quite frustrating.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

any other readers with this problem?

Charles writes:

I've been experiencing some weirdness with your comment form. When I hit "publish" everything just stops and it sits there for a while until Chrome finally gives me a "This page has become unresponsive" error. Then it asks me if I want to kill the pages or wait. So violent! Anyway, after clicking about a half dozen times, it eventually decides to go through. So I'm just curious if you're getting a half dozen comments from me, or just one--and if anyone else has mentioned any weirdness.

Several of you have written in, for various reasons, to express deep dissatisfaction with the way Blogger handles your attempts at commenting on this blog. On behalf of Blogger, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience. Among the complainants, several have found a workaround, e.g., emailing comments in to me directly or using the "anonymous" option but leaving a signature inside the comment text field. (I don't publish anonymous comments, so please sign your statements.) All I can do is encourage my readers to continue to find their own solutions to the comment-thread problem. Until Blogger makes key improvements, this is the world we live in. My only other choice would be to move this blog to something like a WordPress site, but WP is best when you pick the paid option, and in my current financial state, I'm not prepared to add another straw to this camel's back.


what to do when visiting Korea

At some point last week, I wrote the following email to my brother Sean, who is planning to visit Korea and China this coming August with his friend Jeff. Content has been slightly edited for style and privacy.


I was thinking about some of the stuff you can do while in Korea. Here's a list of the conventional things that Koreans think foreigners should do when they're in country:

• try the Korean BBQ (kalbi, samgyeopsal, etc.), and eat some bibimbap ("Because foreigners love bibimbap!" say the Koreans)

• visit castles (Gyeongbok-gung, Changdeok-gung... those are the two biggies)

• visit Namsan (short hike that can be done either the steep-slope way or the shallow-slope way)

• visit and shop in Myeong-dong (actually, if you're looking for an upscale place to stay in Seoul, Myeong-dong might be your best shot)

• visit Jogyae-sa (the head temple for the largest Buddhist denomination in Korea)

• shop at Namdaemun Market (I do recommend this... getting lost in the human swirl of Namdaemun is simply awesome)

• get tickets for "Nanta" (Korean version of "Stomp")

• fly down to Jeju-do and muck around there (I'm curious to see how Jeju has changed... last time I was there was 1986)

• do a DMZ tour

• visit Insa-dong (the art district) in Seoul

• try "royal" or "castle" cuisine (popularized ever since a TV drama called "Dae Jang Geum" focused on this) NB: I actually did this once in 1995 or so, before such food became popular. I went out to this traditional place with a bunch of adult students, and this had to be The Most Serious Restaurant in the World. The food was magnificent—beautifully laid out, absolutely delicious, but the atmosphere was like trying to eat inside a library. I remember feeling a bit tense because the whole thing was so monastic, but now that I think about it, not even Buddhist temples are that strict (except for one iron-clad rule: at the temple, you must eat every single scrap of food, right down to that last grain of rice).

• shop in Gangnam and Apgujeong, the richy-rich districts. Everything is upscale there. Hang in the coffee shops. Watch the beautiful people.

Koreans never mention visiting Itaewon (the foreigner district) as part of the whole "visit Korea!" experience, but Itaewon has been improving of late—or so my Yank friends have been trying to convince me. Back when I was teaching at Sookmyung, I tended to avoid Itaewon except when I was jonesing hard for some Western food, and then I'd just dip into the place, buy my food, and leave right away. I never liked Itaewon back then; it had a scuzzy, disreputable vibe which probably had a lot to do with the often-shady foreigner presence. But as my friends Charles and Tom point out, the past few years have seen some remarkable changes, especially in Itaewon's back alleys, which are now becoming something of a foodie destination. I went to a halfway decent Brazilian restaurant last April or May; David would be delighted to know that Brazilian rodizio has gotten very popular in Korea's big cities.

OK, so the above list gives you a rough idea of what Koreans think you'll enjoy while you're here. The list isn't awful; I actually agree with a lot of it. My feeling, though, after having lived in Seoul for eight years, is that Seoul's big-city virtues aren't those of other metropolises like Tokyo, London, New York, Paris, or Chicago. Seoul's got night life (Gangnam and Myeong-dong for sure), sure, but it lacks spectacular architecture and other bombastic stuff that you'd usually find in a big city. There's no equivalent to MoMA or the Centre Pompidou or the Louvre or the Smithsonian. There's nothing like Tower Bridge or the snazzy Chrysler Building or the Vatican or the Sydney Opera House. Instead, Seoul's virtue is that it's a compacted microcosm of Korea as a whole: Korea is a mountainous country, with hidden delights tucked into all sorts of obscure places, and Seoul is also a huge palace of hidden delights, with something new and unexpected around every corner. Surprisingly, Seoul measures up pretty well to the US Pacific Northwest as a walker-friendly city; you can do some amazing walking tours through many districts of Seoul. (In fact, while you're in Seoul, get ready to walk, anyway!)

My own preference, then, would be to encounter Seoul not as Koreans imagine Western tourists would want to see it, but on the city's own terms. This means avoiding many of the big tourist traps in favor of sitting down at the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, visiting smaller shops selling unconventional curios, and going upscale only every once in a while, just to see how the rich and powerful live (quickest route to expensive decadence: eat a meal at one of the huge hotels; the Lotte Hotel, downtown, has a buffet that's something like $150 per person; they serve horse there!).

So I'd recommend "theming out" your time in Seoul. Each day, pick a theme and stick with it:

• Have a restaurant-tour day. Make it a point to visit several types of restaurants in several distinct districts in Seoul.

• Have a campus-walk day. I'd especially recommend walking the perimeter road around Seoul National University; it's about a 90-minute hike, and it's hilly. Then walk around inside SNU's campus and enjoy the several restaurants there. Take the subway and visit a few more campuses, both inside Seoul and just outside of it. Hanyang University's campus, in Ansan, just south of Seoul, is really nice; it's well-groomed and fairly flat.

• Have a temple-tour day. All Korean Buddhist temples share certain features, but each temple is unique. Terrain determines layout, in many cases. If the monks permit, do a few minutes of zazen in one of the dharma halls or zendos (seon-weon in Korean).

• Have a movie day. Experience what it's like to buy a movie ticket and sit in assigned seating (yes, that's how we roll in Korea) at the cinema. See at least two movies, one of them Korean. Stroll around that cinema's neighborhood afterwards and find something good to eat.

• Have a street-food day! Oh, God, I highly recommend this. Korea has some of the most awesome street food anywhere, in my opinion. Find a region with many food stalls (Namdaemun Market is actually a great place for this), then work your way down the stalls—an item here, an item there.

• Have a hiking day. Or two. Pick a mountain; hike the trail to the top, or as far as you can go. Hike back down. Start early (wake at 5AM, be at trailhead by 6AM); finish in the late afternoon or early evening, before you lose the daylight. Bukhan-san and Gwanak-san are popular, so hike them on weekdays to minimize the crowds. You'll see plenty of old folks on those hikes; lots of retirees have nothing better to do. Hiking is the Korean cultural equivalent of the German Volksmarch. Or if you don't want to tackle the bigger mountains, just hike the different paths on humble little Namsan.

• Have some get-out-of-Seoul time. Visit Yeosu (south coast, gorgeous). Fly to Jeju, which has a ton of new hiking/biking paths, and massive amounts of seafood (alas, not necessarily cheap). Actually, regarding Jeju, I have a friend who lives there; he might be able to show you around or recommend things to do while you're there. Anyway, get out of Seoul and see what uncrowded Korea looks like. Visit Yeongju, where they grow apples and grapes, and smell those magnificent orchards out the window of your taxi.

• Have a museum day. Re-visit that modern-art museum in Gwanak, then go visit some of the large and small museums in Seoul. I thought I'd heard, somewhere, that a huge museum of some sort had opened a year or so ago. I can check on that.

• Have a shopping day (or two, or three). Hit Namdaemun Market and Dongdaemun Market. Avoid department stores, where all the prices are jacked up.

• Have a Yeouido/COEX day. Yeouido is interesting; technically, it's an island that sits close to one bank of the Han River, and it's mainly a business district, but it's also got the famous 63 Building (Yuk-sam, 6-3, tallest building in Seoul), not to mention a huge mall reminiscent of Tysons Corner, as well as plenty of restaurants, not all of which are impossibly upscale in price and style. Once you're done with Yeouido, take the subway to Samsung Station and visit the huge COEX center, which is Seoul's other tall building. Shopping, movies, food court, and an impressive aquarium that, last time I was there, housed an enormous octopus. Samsung-dong abuts another richy-rich area called Cheongdam-dong. That might also be worth looking into.

• Have a foreigner-district day. There's a Yank enclave, an African enclave, a South Asian quarter (mostly Itaewon, but also the city of Ansan, if I heard correctly), a Russian enclave (near Dongdaemun), a Mongolian enclave, a French district (in Banpo, south of the river), and many others. Partake of Koreanized ethnic food. Shop at the ethnic shops. Eat a shawarma made by a Turk.

• Have a Jongno day. This may be my favorite district in Seoul, so if you do this, you'll be doing it for me. Jongno isn't particularly impressive; it's also one of the oldest districts in Seoul, and it shows. Some of the buildings are very run-down, and this is in contrast with many of the newer structures also springing up in the quarter. Jongno, for me, stands in contrast to Gangnam: Gangnam is very fashion-forward, very trendy, very rich, and very full of itself. Jongno, by contrast, just feels friendlier and less pretentious to me. Insa-dong (the art district) is in Jongno. The quarter also has plenty of restaurants and food stalls, not to mention shops (warning: not as cheap as Namdaemun Market). Opposite Insa-dong, way on the other side of Jongno, is the Gwanghwamun area, and it's a short walk (well, 15-20 min) to the Euljiro district, where the big Lotte Hotel (and its expensive buffet) is. Walking toward Euljiro leads you to the Cheonggyaecheon, the reopened stream that was ex-President Lee Myung-bak's pet project when he was mayor of Seoul. It's become a nice place for strolling, as long as you don't mind everyone else in Seoul joining you on your stroll. Also not far from the stream is Dos Tacos, which I wrote about on my blog.

• Have an academic day. Attend a lecture or conference on foreign policy, culture, religion, or international relations. Visit the International Press Club when the journalists are all getting together to get drunk and talk shit about North Korea.

• Visit the Korean War Memorial. The memorial is right next to the 8th Army base, known locally as Yongsan. The memorial is cheap to get into, and once you're in, you can just follow the marked-out path and do a self-guided tour. One of the freakiest aspects of that tour is when you enter a room that's been laid out like a jungle. It may take you a moment (as it did me) to realize you're surrounded by Korean soldiers ready to ambush you. The effect is quite impressive; the soldiers are, at least at first, pretty well-hidden. Trivia: the Korean War Memorial is right by Samgakji Station. Also next to Samgakji Station there is (or there used to be) a very popular restaurant that served the world's best tangsuyuk (crunchy sweet-sour pork). I went there once with my buddy Jang-woong. Portions were huge, and the tangsuyuk really was different and delicious. Unfortunately, the resto keeps short hours, so you'd have to hit it fairly early in the day.

• Have a Day of Randomness. No plan, no map, nothing to guide your decision-making except, maybe, a coin that you'll flip to determine your fate. Just get out at a random subway stop and start walking, or take a train to a random city and do the same.

Obviously, my stomach dictated most of the above. I see that I've written a lot about eating. Heh. But that's one thing Korea is great for—the food.

I don't suppose you'd consent to try boshintang, though, right...?

Anyway, just some thoughts. Hmmm... I might blog these later.




the government versus the market

Liberals roll their eyes when they hear that market-driven solutions can solve certain problems more quickly and efficiently than government-driven solutions can. "Do you really want individual corporations policing themselves when it comes to, say, food standards?" they ask. The implication is that it's insane to risk food poisoning and death in the wider population: strict government regulations head those problems off at the pass: with regulations in place, there need be no unnecessary sickness and death.

I don't think the liberal position—at least regarding food safety—is unreasonable. The market-driven approach would indeed work in a Darwinian way: people get violently sick after eating at Restaurant X; the meat supplier is discovered; no one buys meat from that disreputable supplier; that supplier withers away, and safer suppliers of meat take over. The restaurant, meanwhile, goes through a period of PR damage control and rebranding, and comes out stronger, having vowed to hold its new suppliers to high standards for the public's sake. Problem solved. In the meantime, a few people get sick or even die, yes, but you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Liberals find this position cold and unfeeling, and again, when it comes to food safety, I'd normally say that they have a point.

But if government takes upon itself the role of watchman, then quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who's policing the government? To be trustworthy in terms of how it regulates the food industry, the government must implement at least two fundamentals: (1) stringent regulations and (2) consistent enforcement. Alas, a recent news item appeared in which we discovered that fully half of American chicken meat is tainted with superbugs. How on earth did this happen? Federal poultry inspectors are, in theory, on the job every day, looking out for the public's welfare. It seems, though, that they've been sleeping on the job, which isn't very reassuring. So there goes fundamental (2), consistent enforcement.

Today, my virgin eyes nearly melted in their sockets when I clicked on a link that a friend and ex-coworker of mine, Rob Schulz, had displayed on Twitter.* The image I saw was probably the most disgusting thing I had seen in weeks. Here—I'm nothing if not a man who likes to share. Have a look for yourself:

Rob was rather naughty not to have added a warning or some sort of commentary. That is a truly, truly disgusting image. I have no knowledge of bovine biology or anatomy, so I have no clue as to what that green sludge oozing out of the cow's cavity is. Is it an analogue of feces? Is it the result of an immune response? The accompanying article seems to imply that we're looking at evidence of disease. All I can think is that the sludge is a sickening travesty of soft-serve ice cream or of "Exorcist"-style demon puke. I don't think I'd be too far amiss to guess that, whatever that fluid is, it's pestilential. I can't begin to imagine the smell.

The article has this to say:

Meat From Diseased Animals Approved For Consumers

WASHINGTON - The federal agency overseeing food inspection is imposing new rules reclassifying as safe for human consumption animal carcasses with cancers, tumors and open sores.

Federal meat inspectors and consumer groups are protesting the move to classify tumors and open sores as aesthetic problems, which permits the meat to get the government's purple seal of approval as a wholesome food product.

"I don't want to eat pus from a chicken that has pneumonia. I think it's gross," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project. "Most Americans don't want to eat this sort of contamination in their meals."

Delmer Jones, a federal food inspector for 41 years who lives in Renlap, Ala., said he's so revolted by the lowering of food wholesomeness standards that he doesn't buy meat at the supermarket anymore because he doesn't trust that it is safe to eat.

"I eat very little to no meat, but sardines and fish," said Jones, president of the National Joint Council of Meat Inspection Locals, a union of 7,000 meat inspectors nationwide affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees. He said he's trying to get his wife to stop eating meat. "I've told her what she's eating."

The union is battling related Agriculture Department plans to rely on scientific testing of samples of butchered meats to determine the wholesomeness of meat, rather than traditional item-by-item scrutiny by federal inspectors. A 1959 federal law requires inspectors from the Agriculture Department's Food Inspection and Safety System to inspect all slaughtered animals before they can be sold for human consumption.

The Agriculture Department began implementing the new policy as part of a pilot project in 24 slaughter houses last October, and plans to expand the system nationwide covering poultry, beef and pork. The agency this month extended until Aug. 29 the time for the public to comment on the regulations, and won't issue final rules until after the comments are received.

Who watches the watchmen, indeed. So: so much for fundamental (1), stringent regulations. The article does address fundamental (2), though; it claims that federal food inspectors aren't asleep at the switch: they're overworked and dealing with impossible quotas. Here:

But Jones and consumer groups say production lines are moving so fast that they can't catch all the diseased carcasses, and some are ending up on supermarket shelves.

"When I started inspecting, inspectors were looking at 13 birds a minute, then 40, and now it's 91 birds a minute with three inspectors. You cannot do your job with 91 birds a minute," Jones said.

I sympathize with the beleaguered inspectors. They're in a tough position. But systemically speaking, this is exactly the sort of potentially dangerous mediocrity toward which government-driven solutions tend, and these two news items together—news about tainted chicken and news about slackening inspection standards—do not paint a rosy picture for liberal advocates of top-down measures. The sludge seeping out of that carcass is a perfect metaphor for governmental incompetence.

This isn't to say that I believe a market-driven solution would be light-years safer or better. Maybe it would; maybe it wouldn't. Leaving it up to individual meat processors to police themselves could also lead to green-sludge events like the above. A profit motive, in the context of competition, has the potential to work economic wonders, but it can also morph into corners-cutting, which would put the public right back where it currently is: vulnerable to sickness, and maybe even death, from substandard meat.

That said, it might be time for a bit of extreme reparadigming. But can We the People persuade the government to release its death grip on meat inspection?

*I'm not on Facebook, but I was able to see the link's content after clicking, so I assume the link will work for you, too.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jesus of the Nine Fingers

Saw this item today:

Lightning has broken a finger off the right hand of [the] Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

Father Omar, rector of the shrine that holds the statue, told the Globo radio station that lightning frequently strikes the nearly [100-foot-tall] statue, a symbol of Rio that overlooks the Brazilian city from the peak of the Corcovado mountain.

Its right hand had been damaged sometime ago, but the finger finally broke off in a storm late Thursday.

“They say lightning does not strike the same spot twice. But with the Christ it does,” the priest said on Friday.

A lightning rod and other equipment are in place “to protect the image,” but they do not always do the trick, he said.

Father Omar noted that people who work at the site are usually warned in advance by city officials about electrical storms so they can ensure the safety of the thousands of visitors at the site on top of Corcovado mountain.

“I have already endured the situation of being at the Christ at a time of rain and a lot of lightning, and it is scary. But we have a plan to quickly take all visitors away from there,” the priest said.

The statue is set to be refurbished next month, so this and other damage are set to be fixed.

I assume this was being featured on the right-leaning Drudge Report because everyone keeps saying Jesus was a liberal and a socialist. Schadenfreude, ja? And what happened to the finger that fell off? I'd better check eBay.


via dolorosa

Quite against his will, my friend Holden Beck is finding out what it's like to be crucified by the infernal beast that is South Korean health care. You may recall that he suffered a nasty motorcycle crash late last year; he's been hospitalized ever since, and can't even begin to convalesce properly because he still needs to undergo a series of operations—one of which he underwent just a couple days ago. That first post, linked above, contains an X-ray image of Holden's broken bones that's pretty painful (not to mention horrifying) to look at.

Holden has graciously allowed me to read and comment on the manuscript of the novel he's trying to get published. The story details his time in the South Korean Army. Holden, an American citizen—born in America, no less—discovered in the early 2000s that he was, somehow, also technically a Korean citizen, and eligible for obligatory ROK military service. The novel details his attempts to get out of that duty and, when those attempts failed, his resignation to his fate. It's a brutal read, and I think the story has the potential to sell widely.

I feel for the guy; I really do. Holden's been through a lot, and now here he is again, undergoing another form of excruciation. Give his posts a read, and if you're so inclined, feel free to comment on his blog. Holden, despite his agony, is unfailingly prompt in his replies to readers. I wish him a swift recovery and what I hope will be a pain-free latter half of 2014. I think the pain-devils, gnawing on the poor guy's still-living bones, have already spoken for the first half of the year.

Post 1: Self-fulfilling Prophet

Post 2: Painkillers, Dreams, and Updates

Post 3: Update from the Hospital—Second Surgery


Friday, January 17, 2014

"for unto you is born this day a savior..."

January 17!

On this date in 1942, Muhammad Ali was born. Ali turns 72 today.

Also born on January 17 (but in 1706) was Benjamin Franklin.

Happy Birthday, gentlemen.


dung exchange

I've learned a new trick: how to take screen shots on my cell phone. This is handy. I've long envied the people who have managed to capture witty exchanges on their smart phones. At long last, I join their number.

A bit of background: this is an excerpt from a conversation that just happened a short while ago between me and my brother David. David owns a lovable mixed-breed dog named Penny. Penny, alas, has been cursed with intestinal problems. This exchange is about something that happened very recently. My words are in yellow; David's are in white (and the name "David" appears next to his speech balloons, so there shouldn't be any confusion). Enjoy.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

my new favorite GIF

(found here)


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I see I'm not the only hater

(image found here)

The illustrious Joe McPherson may be friends with them, but I can't fucking stand the awful, Korean-impaired Canadian couple who runs the famous (or is it infamous?) "Eat Your Kimchi" show. I'd say more, but the writer BlackinAsia, in a recent post on "2013's Most Racist Moments in K-Pop," says it better than I can (slightly edited for style):

If you somehow have no idea what EYK is, count yourself lucky. They are a white married couple who has been living in Seoul for the past 5 years and have a YouTube channel that has tens of millions of views where they review K-pop music and talk about aspects of Korean culture… you know, since they’re experts on Korea, even though they can’t speak a lick of Korean. They frame themselves as “not being experts” at the beginning of their videos, but then go on to give authoritative-sounding descriptions of issues from “Teenage Pregnancy” to “Plastic Surgery” and standards of beauty in Korea. Why don’t they at least have a Korean person in their videos with them as part of the conversation when they talk about aspects of Korean culture? Isn’t that a reasonable thing to ask, especially when you’re foreigners who don’t speak the language? Theirs is a subtle racism born from unchecked white & English-speaking privilege and internalized orientalist attitudes about their country of residence. Why are they even popular in the first place? Would a black couple in Korea doing the exact same work be even half as popular as they are or have nearly as many sponsors?

In 2013, despite repeated criticism, EYK continued to rate the English of K-pop singers in the videos they reviewed. All of this even as they can’t even pronounce the stars’ names properly in Korean and can barely speak any Korean after over 5 years there. Their excuses for not improving their Korean are pretty laughable and are a byproduct of their white and English-speaking privilege, which doesn’t necessitate that they learn it in any meaningful way, allowing them to rest on their laurels. They also released a video this year in which they knowingly put on blackface and laugh about it and, thanks to a ton of other bullshit, find themselves at #5 on this year’s list.

Why are they even popular in the first place? I'll tell you why. Because they pander to the most cloyingly disgusting aspects of modern Korean pop culture, that's why. And what are those aspects? A love of aegyo is one. Aegyo involves making cutesy, lovey-dovey facial expressions that look like a treacle orgasm. Aping the style of Korean variety shows is another: surround the foreground subject with cartoonish thought bubbles and Comic Sans captions while adding dinging and poinging sound effects to punctuate dialogue that has been drained of all subtlety and nuance. A deliberate avoidance of profundity is a third pernicious aspect of Korean pop culture: it's all about emotions and images, not about actual brains.

Canadian author Doug Coupland warned Americans about this assault of cuteness in his semi-classic novel Generation X: he dubbed it the "Hello-Kittification" of culture, i.e., the burial of everything deep and serious and noble under a mountain of candy-coated elephant shit. It's revolting, insulting, and infantilizing, and Oh So East Asian. Such Hello-Kittification strikes me almost as a sort of rebellion against the dour, super-industrious worldview of previous, war-torn generations, an attempt at exorcising all memories of strife and bitterness through wave after wave of anesthetizing banality. And once the pussification of South Korea is complete, the skeletal troops of the ravenous North, already resigned to a life of cannibalism, will pour across the DMZ. Startled southerners will utter a collective, high-pitched, girlish scream, run straight to Haeundae Beach, and dive into the tempest-tossed waters, seeking safety among the squid.

That's what "Eat Your Kimchi" represents to me: the erosion of all that is good and wise and powerful in Korean culture. Although BlackinAsia is on the other side of the ideological aisle from yours truly, I'm reassured that s/he shares my intense dislike for these smarmy poseurs.