Sunday, November 30, 2014

the final November walk

I'll be starting up the mountain around 5PM today. My knees are pretty achy, but I need to do at least 40K steps if I'm to beat my October average and finish out November with my honor intact. Starting at 5PM gives me seven hours. I walk about 6,000 steps per hour, so that ought to be sufficient to bring me about 42,000 steps by midnight. Of course, the above count assumes no stopping or slowing down, and the last time I did a quadruple summit, I definitely slowed down, especially on the uphill portions. At 3.2 miles per hour, I'll have walked around 22 miles (36.1 km) by midnight.

So today won't be about the summiting: I'll do maybe a single or a double summit, then I'll get the rest of my steps in by walking the Chungmuro-Jongno-Gwanghwamun triangle, which is a long, flat stretch of ground that ought to allow me to walk (or, in my case, limp) faster. I thought about making today the day I wandered down to the river, per my buddy Tom's suggestion, but I'm worried about losing my bearings and getting lost in the maze of streets. Better just to stick to the paths I know.

I've got laundry percolating right now. In theory, it'll be done by a little before 5PM; I'll hang it up to dry, then bolt right out and be on my way.

Wish me luck.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

complaints about the new "Star Wars" trailers

Two new trailers for the upcoming "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" are out. The US trailer can be found here; the international trailer (which features the somewhat faded voice of Harrison Ford shouting a painfully corny line: "Is there room in this battle for an old warhorse?") is here.

The trailers give us our first taste of JJ Abrams's labor of love. We've all been assuming, of course, that Abrams truly is the Star Wars fanboy he's long claimed to be (by implication, his heart hasn't been in the making of the Star Trek movies), which means we all hope the franchise has been placed in the right hands.

Reaction to and dissection of the trailers has been swift on Twitter. William Shatner has already, apparently, laid out the things he doesn't like about the new movie: (1) it seems to steal an idea or two from "The Matrix"; (2) the landspeeders featured in the previews look like large, boxy fuses; (3) the red lightsaber with the laser guards is a bad concept (one hilarious parody shows the dark Jedi facing off against Jesus, who is brandishing a cross-shaped green lightsaber); (4) the new "ball" droid may replace Jar-Jar Binks as the worst character ever; (5) the new-edition stormtroopers' helmet designs look strangely "happier."

The movie is set for release at the tail-end of 2015, which gives Abrams time to make changes, based on fan reaction, while he's still in post-production. For myself, I noticed that Abrams still hasn't conquered his addiction to obnoxious lens flares, which are visible in the international trailer, creating an unwanted aesthetic connection between this new film and Abrams's earlier work on the Star Trek franchise. I also thought there were scenes that looked more like something from a "Star Wars" fan film than from a big-time Hollywood production. And I admit it was weird, very weird, to see the Bad Robot logo appear just a few seconds apart from the venerable Lucasfilm logo.

But there's much that Abrams seems to have gotten right. He's got X-wings and TIE fighters and the Millennium Falcon zooming through the sky, and the way his camera tracks these vehicles is consistent with George Lucas's lifelong love affair with speed. I hope the new movie gives us plenty of exciting dogfights. The chilling "What is thy bidding, my master?" makes it into the international trailer, and in both previews, the voiceover narration hints at an aged character who could be along the lines of a Yoda.

I admit I'm troubled by the notion that the movie seems to be following the Expanded Universe notion that the New Republic is still fighting the dregs of the Empire. The Empire itself apparently didn't last long: Luke Skywalker was a mere baby when it formed, and he was in his twenties when it fell. Before that, the Old Republic held sway, and was served "for a thousand generations" (i.e., twenty to thirty thousand years) by the Jedi Order. The Empire is just a blip—a mere hiccup in history. Can it really provide us with a serious antagonist? We'll find out in 2015, I suppose.

UPDATE: Duped! The above-linked "international" trailer is apparently a well-edited fake. This explains why I thought there were scenes that looked as if they'd come from fan films: they probably did come from fan films. The trickery likely also explains the poor sound quality when characters are speaking.


stuffed like a turkey

Yesterday evening, I enjoyed a magnificent dinner at the fortress residence of my buddy Charles and his lovely wife Hyunjin, who live at Seoul National University, where Charles works. Although I was once again probably the quietest person at the table (I'm almost never the life of the party, and am never that animated in social situations), a good time was had by all, especially as my friend Tom and my former boss Patrick spent a lot of time busting each other's balls over the course of our long meal.

As has been true in the past whenever I find myself sitting with Tom and Charles, dinner conversation was again mostly foreign to me: baseball, personal anecdotes, and Belgian beer all featured prominently, so I had little to add. Patrick was kind enough to bring a raft of different Belgian beers, most of which I sampled, none of which I can recall by name, except perhaps for La Duchesse de Bourgogne, which Charles rightly called "the champagne of beers." The Duchesse was indeed bubbly, and had almost none of that "liquid bread" taste that I associate with most of the beers I've sampled. I don't think my palate is trained enough to distinguish one beer from another, but the Duchesse was easy to separate from the crowd, and she had been saved for last. I also tried some Islay scotch (pronounced "eye-luh," says Charles) and a funky, molasses-infused Hawaiian rum called Koloa (not to be confused with Kahlúa, a coffee-tinged Mexican rum), which packed a punch and instantly warmed my face. It reminded me of my first-ever shot of Johnnie Walker whisky.

Dinner was Hyunjin's wonderful, fresh salad, made with a citrus dressing. Charles served the greatest part of the food, having made chicken pot pies that had been customized to suit our various tastes (no onions for me, no veggies at all for Tom) and a Koloa-infused apple crumble for dessert. Tom brought his wife's Thai pork tenderloin, which was very nicely spiced, and I brought a pot of choucroute alsacienne. Everybody's food received many compliments, and I'm pretty sure we all came away pleasingly stuffed.

All in all, it wasn't a bad way to spend an evening, and I was glad to find myself among friends. Charles walked us out to the shuttle-bus stop; we took the bus to Nakseongdae Station, then grabbed a cab from there. Our conversation in the cab included some talk about Stephen Krashen, who is pretty much the god of language instruction. (Tom declared Krashen to be soporific.) Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, determinism, and compatibilism also got mentions. At one point during dinner, conversation shifted to Jesus and scripture after Tom mentioned a recent article claiming that some researchers had dug up testimony to the effect that Jesus had been married—not a surprising claim for us religious-studies students, who have heard numerous assertions surrounding Jesus' life and ministry years before Dan Brown put his fictional spin on the speculation in his The Da Vinci Code.

I got let off at my neighborhood in Chungmuro, and Tom and Patrick sped off to their respective destinations. A very good evening, indeed, and it made up for the lack of celebration the previous day.


Friday, November 28, 2014

mother, father, and child

A Thanksgiving pic from my brother David, his lovely wife Patricia, and their dog Penny:


"to punctuate the dreariness"

One of my students makes an unfortunate sartorial decision.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans! I'm working today and shopping tonight, but tomorrow evening, after work, I'll be heading out to my buddy Charles's place to sit down for a non-traditional post-Thanksgiving dinner with my friend Tom and my KMA boss Patrick. It's potluck-style, so I'll be bringing a load of choucroute alsacienne; Charles will be making chicken pot pies, cranberry sauce, and green salad; and Tom's wife will be cooking up a load of Asian-style pork tenderloin—all of which sounds magnificent to me. Dessert will be Charles's apple crumble, and I'm bringing along a Costco-purchased tin of Belgian-chocolate "crêpe" cookies. Photos of bloated bellies to appear soon, I'm sure.


Ferg without the Craigy

Man, I love the smell of racial unrest in the morning!

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri has been commented to death, but I thought I'd add my two cents before the dust of the riots actually settled.

My own position on this situation is a bit nuanced and is, admittedly, based on only a couple bits of evidence that I think are both important and relevant. Obviously, my thoughts are those of a complete non-expert in legal matters, so feel free to commit the genetic fallacy and dismiss what I say because of who I am. That dismissal might not be so fallacious in this case.

As I told my Golden Goose coworker yesterday, I don't think Officer Darren Wilson is completely innocent. This isn't like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, which I found to be a clear-cut case of self-defense. True: Brown was much larger, and very likely was enraged, perhaps even to the point of murderous rage. I haven't examined the testimonies closely enough to form an opinion. What I do know, though, is that Darren Wilson undeniably shot Mike Brown six times, and that Wilson, in the hospital photos that finally showed up online, didn't really appear injured, except for a slight discoloration on his face that might have come from a fist or an open hand.

Mike Brown is as large and bulky as I am—maybe larger. If I were of small stature, and if someone like that came down on me like a ton of bricks, I'd probably fear for my life, too. But would I shoot him six times? I doubt it—especially if I had received police training and knew the necessity of keeping my head in a crisis situation. By my reckoning, firing six shots is excessive force, and there's just not enough photographic evidence of Officer Wilson's injuries for me to feel he was justified in emptying most or all of his gun into Brown (I don't know what sort of firearm Wilson had).

I'm not saying flat-out that Officer Wilson murdered Mike Brown in cold blood. That would be committing the fallacy of the excluded middle: going from one extreme notion to another without considering the middle ground. And the middle ground in this case—or maybe we should call it the muddled ground—is that the truth is very likely that neither party was a saint in all this. Officer Wilson could have exercised restraint, and Mike Brown is responsible for making the poor choices that led to his death. The injustice, as I see it, is that Officer Wilson has escaped indictment, thanks to a grand jury's decision that there is nothing to charge Wilson with. (Grand juries aren't the same as regular juries.) recently published an article, linked to by Instapundit, that I largely agree with. On Instapundit itself, plenty of conservative commenters have been expressing vehement disagreement with the article, but I think they're all letting their emotions cloud their ability to think. Most of the comments are along the lines of "putting Wilson on trial would simply be to appease the mob." That's not how I see it at all. I think there are legitimate questions about how Officer Wilson handled himself, and by rights he should take the stand in a court of law to answer them. His hands aren't clean, despite his claims that his conscience is clean.

There are, of course, larger questions of ambient and institutional racism in America that deserve civil, intelligent discussion. I'm not sure how likely it is that we'll ever see such discussion, alas: race in America always leads to the circus. This is Tom Wolfe's world, this bonfire of the vanities, and we're unlucky enough to be living in it.

One final comment: the riots and the rioters are idiots. My coworker pointed out that many of the rioters aren't even from Ferguson, which is sad when you think about it: people actually made the effort to come to another town to trash that town's property. Businesses will be crippled; damage will create huge financial setbacks; nothing remotely like "social justice" will materialize from all this sound and fury. Ferguson has become a cosmic joke, and all truly is moving according to Tom Wolfe's cynical plan.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

night hiking

I'm a nocturnal hiker. Here's a selfie from last night (i.e., Tuesday night), when I was on the short path that connects Dongguk University's campus to the main Namsan hiking path. I stood facing a lamp for this shot, hence the harsh lighting conditions. One thing that leaped out at me was how unbelievably old I now look:

I walked 22K steps yesterday. My current average is now over 14K, and I think I'm no longer in any danger of slipping below my October performance. I won't be anywhere near a 15K average by the end of the month, but at least I'll be able to say there was improvement—not to mention room for even more improvement. December awaits.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

golbaengi row

I love golbaengi (sea snails), and I've blogged about them before (here and here, for example). With golbaengi, it's as if God had made a special effort to develop a living creature that could fit perfectly inside a human mouth, all while tasting fantastic.

Years ago, my buddy JW introduced me to a golbaengi pasta restaurant in the Chungmuro district of Seoul. The pasta was a chewy, spicy, jjol-myeon style, and it was fantastic. This dish struck me as the fiery Korean answer to spaghetti with meatballs—with the golbaengi, those fat little dollops of goodness, as an analogue for the beef and pork.

I live right up the street from Chungmuro now, and whenever I walk along Euljiro and reach Euljiro 3-ga Station's Exits 11 and 12, at the intersection of Euljiro and Supyoro, I find myself right by Golbaengi Row, where a cluster of golbaengi restaurants is located. One of these days, I need to hike on over to those restos and give them all a try.


Monday, November 24, 2014

"Interstellar": review

To the great frustration of atheistic fans of so-called "hard" science fiction, we religious-studies majors are kept in business by Hollywood's vexatious—or is it amusing?—tendency to use science fiction as a cover for religious messages, imagery, themes, and concepts. Christopher Nolan's latest film, "Interstellar," seems to follow this well-worn path, so strap in, Dear Reader, because this review is going to be a long and bumpy ride, much like Matthew McConaughey's trip into that awesome wormhole. And a warning: there will be spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, you should probably stop reading now.

Still with me? Well, good. Eh bien, continuons.

I'll start with a general impression: "Interstellar" was much, much easier to decipher than "Inception" was. (In fact, I probably need to re-watch "Inception" a second, third, and fourth time before I begin to understand its wrinkles.) Despite the weirdly recursive nature of the plot of "Interstellar," the story isn't that hard to follow. That being said, I'm not sure I stand with the majority of critics and viewers who unreservedly liked this film. There was one powerful moment that moved me to tears, and there was imagery that, while not exactly mind-blowing, was nevertheless fascinating, but the whole seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. Some of this review will be devoted to exploring why, exactly, that might be the case.

"Interstellar" stars Matthew McConaughey as "Coop" Cooper, a frustrated pilot/astronaut/farmer and widower who finally receives the mission he's been waiting for: the salvation of humanity. The Earth is dying, you see: it's the near future, and our planet is suffering from massive waves of a mutating blight that has been progressively destroying crops the world over, leaving little but dust in the blight's wake. American growers have been reduced to cultivating corn, which seems to be one of the last crops able to withstand the blight. For some odd reason, never explained in the movie, militaries no longer exist, and people are apparently left to police themselves: the random dust storms maintain civic order by making people focus on them instead of on each other. University entrance has become highly selective; most students are tracked to become farmers, as happens to Coop's son Tom (Timothée Chalamet, then Casey Affleck as the older Tom). Along with his son, Coop has a plucky little daughter named Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then later the not-so-little Jessica Chastain). Stubborn and inquisitive like her scientist father, Murph claims she's being visited by ghosts—poltergeists, to be more precise—that she feels are trying to communicate with her. Coop is skeptical, but he suggests that Murph approach the problem scientifically, gathering empirical evidence and filtering that evidence through inductive and deductive reasoning. Surprisingly, it turns out that someone or something is trying to communicate by leaving signs in Murph's room: a sort of bar-code message, neatly laid out as piles of dust, appears on Murph's floor, and Coop immediately understands that the dust landed in this pattern because some intelligence can manipulate gravity. The bar code turns out to be map coordinates: the map coordinates lead Murph and Coop to a hardened NORAD facility, where Coop stumbles upon his old mentor, Professor Brand (Nolan regular Michael Caine), who now works with what remains of NASA. In mythological terms, this is the moment when Coop, our hero, receives his Call to Adventure from the Wisdom Figure.

Brand brings Coop up to speed: a gravity-manipulating superintelligence has opened up a wormhole near Saturn, and information coming through the wormhole has allowed our scientists to surmise that, first, it leads to a completely different galaxy and, second, it will deposit any travelers near several potentially habitable planets. A multi-pronged project, called "Lazarus missions," has sprung up around this discovery: "Plan A" involves eventually depositing all of humanity on the most viable of the candidate worlds, and "Plan B" involves a "population bomb" in which human embryos by the hundreds or thousands will be "seeded" onto one world (presumably with caretakers). By the time Brand paints this picture for Coop, three intrepid astronauts—Miller, Edmunds, and Mann—have already gone through the wormhole, each having been assigned a world to explore. These alien planets orbit close to Gargantua, a supermassive black hole whose temporal horizon causes major Einsteinian time dilation, and whose gravity, even at distance, affects planetary surface and tectonic conditions. The earthbound scientists have had little news from the Lazarus astronauts aside from a tantalizing "thumbs-up" signal or two; Coop's mission will be to track the Lazarus astronauts down in a ship called the Endurance, accompanied by a mixed team of scientists and blocky-looking AI robots. He will then recover any data related to the planets, send the data back to Earth and, assuming the success of Plan A, act as the vanguard for the eventual exodus of humanity from its homeworld. Coop says yes to the mission.

This brings me to what was, by my reckoning, the most heart-wrenching moment in the film. Coop knows he'll be gone for years; he's aware that time dilation near the black hole might even mean he'll be gone for decades, in Terran terms. All the same, he has to say goodbye to his son and daughter. Tom is stoic about the whole thing and promises to maintain the farm as best he can; Murph, by contrast, refuses to speak with her father, angrily rejecting his attempts to have them part on good terms. In tears, Coop leaves the homestead and heads for Saturn and the wormhole. As he drives away, Murph runs out of the house, screaming for her father, but it's too little, too late: he doesn't see her, and he keeps on driving.

The movie's focus now shifts to the Endurance, and to Coop and his team of fellow astronauts. Among them is young Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), the prickly daughter of Coop's mentor. Also aboard are Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley of "American Beauty" fame). We fast-forward past the two-year sublight journey to Saturn, and it's not long before we approach the wormhole and dive in. The special effects for this ride, and for other cosmic events in the movie, were guided by physics god Kip Thorne, so this is, supposedly, a more or less faithful representation of what it might be like to plunge into a wormhole: there's plenty of rumbling and shaking (Nolan was, however, smart enough not to use any sound effects during the external shots in space, as space has no air or other medium through which to propagate sound), and Hans Zimmer's grandiose, pipe-organ-heavy score swells like an apotheosis happening inside a planet-sized cathedral. The visual feel of the wormhole strongly reminded me of both "Contact" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." I'll have a lot to say about the Clarke/Kubrick connection later. For now, it's enough to remark that the encounter with the wormhole is played as an encounter with the ineffable: young Dr. Brand is actually able to "shake hands" with some mysterious being during the transition to the other side, almost as if she were greeting a god.

I suppose we could divide "Interstellar" into four movements. First is the terrestrial prelude, during which we learn about the blight, about humanity's need to relocate off-planet, and about Coop's call to adventure. This movement ends with the trip into the wormhole. The second movement is the team's exploration of the worlds orbiting Gargantua; this phase ends when Dr. Mann (Matt Damon, looking a bit timeworn himself) proves to have survived planetfall, but betrays the Endurance crew and damages the Endurance itself, thus transitioning us to the movie's third movement: Coop's plunge into Gargantua and his encounter with an extradimensional view of time. The fourth movement, a sort of coda or epilogue, finds Coop back among fellow humans, young-looking but over 120 years old by Terran reckoning, where he encounters his aged daughter (now played by Ellen Burstyn) and is given another life-mission—perhaps his most important one, which is to find love again.

The most major spoiler of this film has to do with the central mystery about the alien intelligence: we learn bits and pieces about this intelligence throughout the first two-thirds of the plot, but the full reveal comes in the final third of the movie, when Coop realizes that the aliens are us: future humans who have successfully moved offworld and have mastered the navigation and manipulation of more than the three physical dimensions with which we're all familiar. It is we who created the wormhole; it is our future selves, reaching into the past, who are the catalyst for our race's salvation. God only knows what sort of time paradoxes this maneuver evokes; at the very least, the idea of humanity rescuing itself from disaster implies a "Star Trek"-style causality loop: for future humanity to evolve into its time-transcending form, the rescue has to happen, and people have to get offworld. The future humans' ability to manipulate gravity has given them the power to reshape black holes into gravitational tools: when Coop falls inside Gargantua, he ends up in a weird, Escher-esque, interstitial space (called a "tesseract" by TARS, one of the robot companions who also dropped into the black hole*) that allows him to navigate moments as if they were physical instantiations.

One prominent theme of "Interstellar," albeit not the most important one, is betrayal. Ten-year-old Murph feels betrayed and abandoned by her father when he leaves Earth on the wormhole mission. Decades later, and now a NASA scientist herself, she's still bitter, although she seems to have reconciled herself to the notion that her father will never come back. Matt Damon's Dr. Mann, a coward who is desperate for rescue, places himself in hibernation after faking data that advertise his assigned planet's viability. Dr. Mann attempts to kill Coop during a walk on the planet's surface, cracking Coop's faceplate but turning off the audio of Coop's gasping because he doesn't have the stomach to listen to someone die. Mann seems a bit of a paradox: he wants off his planet, but he also seems to want to continue with Plan B of the mission, which means heading toward Edmunds's world. The third major betrayal is from Michael Caine's Professor Brand: Brand had been trying to find a way to effect a gravity-powered mass exodus from the Earth, but because he claimed to be unable to reconcile quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity—to establish a Grand Unified Theory, in other words—no solution was in sight. In reality, Brand had worked through the math to understand that, given the current state of human knowledge, mastery of gravity was impossible, which in turn meant the Lazarus missions to the alien worlds beyond the wormhole were little more than a vain gesture. Secretly, Brand understood that Plan B was truly humanity's only hope: through Plan B, Earthlings would seed another galaxy with life and begin again.

What's left of the Endurance's crew (Doyle is killed by a rogue wave on Miller's time-dilated planet,** and Romilly is killed in an explosion set by Dr. Mann on Mann's planet) figures out that data from the singularity at the heart of Gargantua might lead to a breakthrough on Earth, allowing the earthbound scientists to create the grav-tech needed to evacuate the planet and fulfill Plan A. After Dr. Mann betrays the Endurance's crew and damages the Endurance, Coop points the vessel toward Edmunds's world and jettisons himself and TARS toward Gargantua, leaving Dr. Brand fille to head toward the final planet alone. Based on a surmise by Romilly, Coop is banking on surviving entry into the black hole, and is further hoping somehow to transmit data back to Earth to help Murph, now all grown up and working beside old Professor Brand, solve the riddle of gravity and salvage Plan A (humanity's mass exodus).

Coop's trip into the black hole ties several major story strands together, and it also reveals what I believe to be the movie's fundamental theme: the transcendent power of love. Young Dr. Brand gives a speech, at one point, after the crew discovers she's been in love with Edmunds (whom we never see). She puts forward the idea that love offers a type of connection that bypasses the strictures of time and space: like gravity, love is a phenomenon that pervades reality and exceeds the physical dimensions we know. Also like gravity, which unaccountably operates over great distances,*** love is an attractive force, but it's a force that brings sentient beings, and not mere physical objects, together. Coop uses his love for his daughter to guide him through the tesseract's maze of moments in order to find just the right time in which to transfer the black hole's telemetry. The ghost that Murph thought she was dealing with turns out to be Coop himself. Coop is also the author of young Dr. Brand's spooky "handshake" moment inside the wormhole.

I'll give Nolan credit for not taking the easy route and pinning all this mystery on godlike extraterrestrials. It is, when you think about it, a very Nolanish maneuver to find human answers to human questions; there's a sort of comforting solipsism that underlies the plot of "Interstellar." In the end, it won't be some deus ex machina that saves us: it'll be us. Just us. It's a bit trite to say that Nolan has written a story in which the journey into outer space becomes a journey into inner space, but that's about the way this movie plays out.

There was a lot to like about "Interstellar." Nolan, as is routine with him, doesn't insult his audience's intelligence by making things too simple: a viewer of Nolan's movies is often required to think his way through the plot, and that can even mean pondering the images and concepts long after leaving the theater. The visuals in this movie were generally magnificent—on a par with "Gravity," evoking the majesty and grandeur of space, of wormholes, of black holes, and of alien worlds with no aliens on them. The corny problems normally associated with benevolent aliens are neatly dismissed by making the aliens human: why else would an alien species take so much interest in humanity's survival, anyway? And why would Murph's bedroom be the focus of gravitational disturbances? In terms of its story, "Interstellar" was fairly solidly constructed. The acting was also top-notch; Matthew McConaughey was the perfect leading man for the job, and little Mackenzie Foy, as Coop's daughter Murph at age ten, now has the distinction of making me cry during a movie. Her performance was deeply affecting. Anne Hathaway did a decent job of evoking her inner Catwoman-bitch as Dr. Brand; she walked the fine line between unlikable and sympathetic. Michael Caine, as the scientist who fooled everybody, was as solid as he's ever been. The quirky AI robots, imbued with a sense of humor and the ability to dial down their frankness to preserve delicate human egos, were amusing to watch. They moved about with a certain blocky charm, producing extra appendages at need like giant, living multitools.

But the movie had problems, not least of which is that it was amazingly weepy. Korean audiences love mawkish over-sentimentality, but I prefer my characters to show a little spine and not to break down every fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, in "Interstellar," tears and snot flow freely for much of the story. At the beginning of this essay, I noted that the whole seemed less than the sum of its parts. One problem was that I felt Nolan recycled certain visual tropes from "Inception." Most obviously recycled was all the zero-gee maneuvering in both real, physical space and the uncanny interstitial space of the tesseract inside Gargantua (an effect that could have come courtesy of Spike Jonze, a man who likes weirding people out visually). Also recycled were the "terrain folded on itself" motifs: there's a scene in "Interstellar" in which a craft is flying through a planet's atmosphere, mountains simultaneously above and below it, as if we were revisiting the folded-over city of Paris from "Inception." Later on, when Coop wakes up inside a huge, cylindrical ship (orbiting Saturn?), we see the ship's interior curving upward and overhead, all objects held in place, we can assume, by the ship's axial spin.**** Hans Zimmer's pipe-organ music was intrusive and overbearing; the swell-to-crescendo of the organ was effective the first time I heard it (at the moment when the Endurance first arcs delicately into the wormhole); by the second or third time, I felt the crescendo was overkill. Also, I was highly annoyed by Matt Damon's character, Dr. Mann. Mann doesn't speak naturally: he sermonizes and soliloquizes like a character from an early Michael Crichton novel. Mann seems to be little more than an exposition-spewing plot device; when he finally dies—as I knew was going to happen—his death comes as a great relief. And speaking of things I knew would occur: I knew, the moment I saw the old people on the video screens at the beginning of the story, that those decrepit folks were voices from the future, and that their testimonies had not been filmed on Earth. Nailed that prediction.

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.

This brings me to the topic of the movie's deep creative debt to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name. A quick side note: Kubrick and Clarke worked simultaneously, and in dialogue, on their respective projects. Clarke provided the germ, but after that, he and Kubrick essentially worked in tandem to create the story of one astronaut's journey through a stargate in inadvertent pursuit of mankind's ultimate destiny. "Interstellar" often felt like a rehash of Kubrick's "2001." Nolan's wormhole, and its trippy interior, was an analogue for Kubrick's monolith-stargate. Mankind's ultimate destiny was a major concept in both films as well. The fact that we never get to see the future humans, those inscrutable masters of gravity and time, echoes the way in which the alien minds that crafted the Monolith in "2001" remain forever behind the scene. Nolan himself didn't deny the Clarke/Kubrick influence: "You can't pretend '2001' doesn't exist when you're making 'Interstellar,'" he averred. "Interstellar" may as well be 2014's "2001."

I'll grant that the movie was fascinating enough for me to want to write at length about it. Christopher Nolan isn't shy about being an idea guy; his movies—even "The Dark Knight"—are charged with grand, compelling themes. In "Interstellar," Nolan tackles the familiar territory of the mystery of human nature, but he also attempts to say something about the respective natures of time, gravity, and love. I'm not so sure that this works, and the fact that Nolan recycled tropes from previous films gave me the impression that he may have been a bit too creatively exhausted to handle the concepts he wanted to handle in "Interstellar." But Nolan gets credit for trying, and that's more than I can say for most directors out there, who seem content to spoon-feed information to the audience.

In the end, "Interstellar" aims to be a message of hope for humanity: we can evolve; we can self-transcend; things can work out in the end for us. This is a big, ponderous, loud, deep, recursive, convoluted, well-acted movie. There are elements of the story that work well enough to move an impassive guy like me to tears, and other elements that fall flat. As several critics have noted, the movie's sound design does tend to drown out dialogue, but these auditory difficulties happen at points where a lack of audibility makes the most sense, such as when engines are firing or when we're rumbling through the innards of a wormhole. "Interstellar," which could easily have been titled "Intergalactic," is earnest and un-cynical. It doesn't quite succeed in its attempt to be profound, but it's an impressive ride. That said, I'm not sure I'm in any hurry to rush out and see it again.


ADDENDUM: After writing this massive review, I realized I had left out a couple important remarks. The first regards theme: another major theme of "Interstellar" is the will to survive. "Do not go gentle into that good night," intones old Professor Brand, quoting Dylan Thomas, when the Endurance team launches. "Do not go gentle" is also Brand's dying utterance to Murph. Dr. Mann, after cracking Coop's faceplate, tells Coop that the desperation Coop is feeling is thanks to that ancient survival instinct kicking in. The Lazarus missions, Plan A, and Plan B can be seen as humanity's last gasp as it attempts to escape its own fate.

My second remark regards the point of view we're privy to while Coop is inside Gargantua's tesseract. This is a theological moment, because even though Coop can move and breathe and think like a typical, spatiotemporally constrained, three-dimensional being, he's floating around in a space with substantially more than three physical dimensions—a space that puts him in the godlike position of being beyond time. This allows him to navigate moments and, also in a godlike way, to interact with them physically. (In a bit of humorous NPR commentary, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wonders aloud as to why Coop felt obliged to send his message to Murph in binary or Morse when he could simply have spelled his message out in plain English. This should have been possible if Coop, from within the tesseract, was able to manipulate matter in whatever moment he targeted. Instead of bar codes, why not letters?)

Although survival is a pervasive theme in "Interstellar," I'd still contend that Nolan's basic thrust is about the all-encompassing nature of love. The love/gravity connection or association is a sly way of implying that the supernatural is woven in and through the natural, and that humanity, per Teilhard de Chardin's vision, is on its way to an evolutionary Omega Point sometime far in the future. We want to survive, but we survive through love, and love fills the cosmos. This is an interesting, and potentially comforting, idea—comforting in the way many religious notions can be comforting. Perhaps by making the concept of love into a physical force, Nolan is simply trying to say that love is the most natural thing there is.

*This is a somewhat more proper use of the term "tesseract" than the silly appellation we get in "The Avengers," where "The Tesseract" refers to a cube that is an extradimensional portal through which massive amounts of energy can flow.

**An hour on the surface of Miller's world is seven years outside the influence of Gargantua; because of the planet's immense rogue waves, the away crew takes more than three hours to return to the Endurance; Romilly spends twenty-three years in orbit, whiling away the time and trying not to go insane or start engines and move on to another world.

***Most physical forces follow an inverse-square law, i.e., the amount of force varies inversely with the square of the distance in question. Example: let's say two objects at a distance of 1 unit from each other experience 1 unit of attractive pull. If those objects moved to a distance of 2, the force of the pull (assuming the inverse-square law is in operation) would be 1/4 of the original force (1/22). If they moved to a distance of 3, the force would be only 1/9 the original pull (1/32). And so on: F = k/d2. The inverse-square law means that most forces fade rapidly to insignificance over large stretches of space. Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation is also an inverse-square law... and yet gravity obtains over unimaginably huge distances, holding stars together in galaxies, and perhaps even holding galaxies together in galactic clusters. Gravity's ability to operate over galactic distances is still something of a mystery; see here. Christopher Nolan, in writing this story, may have been aggressively exploiting this gap in human knowledge to craft his tale of love and time.

****I'm at pains to avoid saying "centrifugal force," since there's a great deal of debate as to whether such a force even exists.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

family tragedy

I'll keep this short: I just learned that the mother of one of my best buddies in the States very suddenly died of a heart attack not even an hour ago. For his family's privacy's sake, I won't elaborate. It's enough to say that I feel the bottom has dropped out of my world, and if that's how I feel, I can only begin to imagine how my friend feels, and how this must be impacting my friend's father, who now finds himself bereft of his life-long companion.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

...for tomorrow we walk

I'll be meeting my two girls from Sookmyung again tomorrow for a nice Sunday promenade up Namsan. Da-jeong and Yeon-ji don't sound ready to try double-summiting, but they've consented to single-summit the mountain, then walk into Jongno with me to sit down and eat dinner somewhere. I hope Jongno isn't as crowded on Sunday evenings as it is on Saturday evenings. Tonight, I might or might not walk very far, and in all likelihood, I won't be heading up the mountain. I double-summited again last night and ended up walking 21.8K steps. Tonight, I'll be happy just to make 15K.


coming soon

A slew of movie reviews will be headed your way:

•"Interstellar," which I just saw today (Saturday the 22nd)
•"Joe," staring an uncharacteristically subdued Nicolas Cage
•"God Bless America," a film by Bobcat Goldthwait, starring Joel Murray, brother of Bill
•"Jiro Dreams of Sushi," which is pretty much what it sounds like
•"Tim's Vermeer," which explores the mystery of how Vermeer painted so photo-realistically
•"127 Hours," starring James Franco: true story about the dude who cut off his own forearm


my brother's canine

My brother David sent me another clutch of pictures of his cute dog Penny. Here she is, thinking deep thoughts while communing with the squashes:


Friday, November 21, 2014

21.2K last night

21.2K steps done yesterday. We'll see whether I'm a go for another 21.2K steps tonight. November is coming to a close, and I feel that I'm no nearer to bringing my average up above 14K steps per day. I've been sick, I've been lazy, I've been tired, and all these lapses have resulted in a sagging average. It could simply be that I'm close to the asymptote: trying to hit 15K steps isn't as easy as it seems.

What's interesting, though, is that double-summiting has now become routine. It's the new baseline: single-summiting feels like slumming, as if I were letting myself down. It's no longer enough just to walk the 12K or 13K steps that a single-summiting involves; when I double-summit, I'm normally going for about 20K, give or take a thousand steps. I'll very likely be double-summiting tonight.


my little leftists

My reading/writing students are, this week, presenting the results of their projects. The students were given two projects to do this semester, and we teachers were allowed to pick what type of projects we'd have our kids doing. I chose a problem/solution scenario; for the first project, the students only had to do some research into a problem—social, economic, whatever–that had some relevance to their majors, after which they had to present their findings to me orally.* For the second project, the students had a three-part task: (1) teach the class some English vocabulary words that they had encountered in their research, (2) write a 5-paragraph problem-solution essay, and (3) sit in for a Q&A session with the teacher.

The essays have been a bit depressing. Although these kids generally write at a higher level than the equivalent intermediate-level kids at my previous job, they have all, thus far, advocated some sort of government-centered measure for every problem they've researched. It doesn't seem to matter what the problem is: whether it's nuclear waste or the need for college grads to find decent jobs right out of school, my kids seem to think that the Korean government has all the power and all the answers. How to get more kids studying the natural sciences instead of medicine? Have the government offer more scholarships in that area. How to deal with nuclear power plants? Government regulation and funding. How to get kids more interested in math? Get the government to revamp the math curriculum. And so on. This has been a bit disappointing, but it hasn't been surprising.

*This is not how I would have designed the project, but the decision to format the projects this way wasn't mine. Were it up to me, a project for a reading/writing class would involve only reading and writing, not oral components. I'd probably assign an essay or a short paper.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

in a strange place

This is turning out to be a singularly weird week. I'm not sure what it is, but things feel out of balance, off-kilter. Just plain weird.

I didn't walk up the mountain last night, as it turned out. I stayed in and watched "Joe" (starring Nicolas Cage) on my laptop, then went to sleep fairly early—if 2AM is early. My yeogwan isn't equipped with an ondol (heated floor), so it's cold indoors. The bed has a large heating pad on it, but I'm afraid to turn it on for fear that I'll die in a fire. This isn't completely irrational: the yeogwan manager uses huge safety pins to lock down the bedding, and he punches those pins right through the electric heating pad, quite possibly nicking some wires in the process. My fear of an electrical fire is, pardon the electrician's pun, grounded.

Can't quite put my finger on what the general problem is, but time and events are flowing strangely this week, and I don't have my bearings. Maybe there's a Korean term for this mental state—hell, for all I know, there's a proper English term for it. But I don't know the term any more than I understand why I feel so off-balance.

Will meditate on this. My starting point will be: what would need to happen for things to feel right again? Maybe I just need to win the lottery, buy an island, and chill.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

heading home

A long day in an office in Daechi-dong, and now it's time to head home. Heading up the mountain tonight. Not yet sure how far I'll walk.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

the things you see when you don't have a gun

The complaint used to be that Seoul didn't have much interesting going on in terms of art and architecture. I can't speak for the city's architecture, but I beg to differ when it comes to art. On one of my nightly walks, when I wasn't far from Cheonggyae Stream, I came across this stately fellow, whom I've passed by several times since:

When it's dark, it's easy to imagine the above whale, obviously undead, swimming lazily through the air as it patrols downtown Seoul, paradoxically light and heavy, like a bus floating in interstellar space. Is it a predator? Does it fight for justice? Is it on a mission of revenge, after which its bones will return to their underground repose? Only Cthulhu knows.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Pritz und Fritz

My take on the whole Pritz thing:

I love it when the Koreans trot out the Nazi regalia, then feign wide-eyed innocence in the age of the Internet. A bit like Koreans in blackface, eh? "We honestly had no idea that this would be offensive to anyone!"

In case you missed the brouhaha: Pritz is apparently an obscure girl group who decided to wear outfits that look suspiciously like Nazi uniforms. The costume designer denied this, unconvincingly citing a completely different inspiration for the girls' gear. What Pritz gets out of this is free publicity, so I suppose the whole thing is a win-win... unless you're Jewish.


I'm desperate to bring my November walk average back up, so on Sunday I decided to take matters into my own tentacles: I did my usual double-summiting... twice. I also decided I wanted to hit 40K steps, but because I started walking at 7PM, I knew I wouldn't be able to rack everything up before midnight. 40K is more than a quadruple summit: it's a quadruple summit plus a walk from my neighborhood to Jongno and back.

Hitting Namsan's modest peak four times was tiring but glorious, and because I hadn't eaten all day, I was pretty sure that I had lost a significant amount of weight. When I got back to my place and weighed myself, I was astonished: I clocked in at 114.7 kilograms (253 pounds)! That's the lowest I've been in years, and that weight actually puts me at or slightly below my best Sookmyung-era weight of 255 pounds.

The walk took me past midnight and into Monday morning. Here are my stats, according to my pedometer:

Sunday: 29,701 steps, 14.4 miles, 2250 calories burned.
Monday: 10,616 steps, 5.0 miles, 697 calories burned.

Combined: 40,317 steps, 19.4 miles, 2947 calories burned.

So I burned almost a day's worth of food (253 pounds of body weight times 12 calories per pound equals 3,036 calories per day to maintain weight) by walking around 20 miles. And since my pedometer shortchanges me when it comes to distance, I can multiply 19.4 miles by 1.2 and get 23.28 miles, which is probably closer to the actual distance I walked. So I almost walked a marathon.

My left hip joint started bothering me toward the end of the walk; I'm going to have to go easy on that because I don't want a return of the hip-joint pain. Walking myself into a crippled state would feel like a bitter irony.

To end November with an average of 15,000 steps per day, I'll probably need to mix double-summiting with single-summiting for the rest of the month. Easier said than done: there are, to be honest, days when I'd rather not walk at all. Walking, as much as I love doing it, takes a lot of time, and now that there's a chance I might have a social life (uh, more on this later, maybe), I might have to start switching over to more intense, less time-consumptive exercises. It might no longer be about the steps: instead, it might be about the gasping and the subsequent hours-long metabolic boost that comes from paroxysms of extreme effort.

What I find most delightful about tonight's ultra-megawalk, though, isn't the four times I reached the top of Namsan, nor is it the 3,000 calories burned or the 23 miles walked or the over 40K steps: it's the weight loss. 114.7 kilograms is my lowest low point yet, and it means I've broken through the 119-kilo barrier and fallen through several more floors to a whole new level. I hate to say it, but a combination of starvation and walking seems to be the royal road to weight loss. (As I mentioned above, I hadn't eaten all Sunday.) Although it's not a habit I want to get into, there are undeniable benefits to fasting for a whole day.

No time to sit on my laurels, though: I need to do a double summit Monday night. I'm out of the 12K doldrums and back in the 13K range, but I need to up the average to 15K by the end of November, and I have less than half a month in which to do it.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

today's big effort

I'm excited to announce that, today, Sunday, will be devoted to a rather large physical effort, but I don't want to spoil things by saying exactly what that effort will be. So stay tuned, and much later tonight I'll fill you in on what will, ideally, have happened.

Right now, though, I simply want to do some laundry, but the laundry room is locked because some dude is using it as a shower. Apparently, his own yeogwan room's bathing facilities aren't good enough. Consequently, my Big Effort must suffer a delay until Shower Guy sees fit to reopen the laundry room to the general public.

And in a sad, "this too shall pass" vein, I'll note that my laptop's touch pad has started to go wonky. I used to be able to click the bottom of the pad with conviction, but now the pad barely moves and clicks at all, almost as if something is wedged underneath it, preventing the full range of movement. There's still a barely audible and palpable click, but it's a faded echo of what it used to be. I'm worried that the pad will soon become totally unclickable. That would be a damn shame. More frustrating is the notion that a problem has developed in my laptop so early in its lifespan: I bought this computer only last year.

UPDATE: The trackpad is clicking normally now. Go figure. Perhaps all it needed was a public shaming. My instinct, though, is that if I can't figure out why something previously wrong has gone right, then it's best to expect the wrongness to reoccur.


Saturday, November 15, 2014


Yesterday, I barely walked, so my average has plunged yet again. I'll try a double-summiting tonight, and might try a revolutionary triple-summiting tomorrow, just to bring the average back up. I'm also fasting today; I had dipped back down to the 117-kilo mark, but I binged on pizza twice yesterday (naughty, naughty), so I have to reverse that karma today.

Right now, I'm off to buy gloves (again), then heading to the office to do a mass of grading and paperwork. Tonight, I'll try double-summiting. Hopefully this won't take me past midnight, but it might, depending on how late I stay in the office.


Friday, November 14, 2014

"I was just wondering where you hide your firearm."

Which way to jump? A decision looms on the horizon.


stay tuned

I'm gnawing on a rather important dilemma that will be posted as a "frank" entry. More soon.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

fate of the Sewol captain

It's been a while since I've written anything about the ill-fated Sewol ferry that sank this past April, taking about 300 people—mostly students—with it. The ferry's despicable coward of a captain had potentially faced the death penalty, but the verdict is now in, and it's thirty-six years in prison for the bastard. He's in his sixties, so unless he gets paroled early or something, he'll be spending the rest of his natural life in jail.

Earlier on, my own feeling was that Captain Lee Jun-seok deserved to be flayed and roasted slowly, with dogs gnawing on his entrails right before he gave up the ghost. But I find that I'm actually OK with this sentence: Captain Lee deserves to suffer a long, long time. He can spend the remainder of his life denying any wrongdoing, but my hope is that he'll be tortured by the ghosts of all those lost children and will contrive a way to commit suicide in jail. He's a piece of garbage. My mother, who used to love shouting at the TV whenever the news reported on some scumbag or other, would have barked, "Chop him into two thousand pieces!" Sorry, Mom, but that fate would have been too brief and merciful for this asshole. It's too bad he's not serving time in an American prison: his remaining years would be painful, indeed.

As things stand, I'm not among the people outraged that Captain Lee's sentence wasn't stiffer. Thirty-six years is good enough for me. I take grim satisfaction in knowing that this killer of children, this walking incarnation of the sin of omission, will languish in jail until he unburdens the world of his foul presence. There's some measure of justice in that.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

20.2K, and the mountain almost all to myself

The nice thing about cold weather on the mountain is that it weeds out the fair-weather pussies and leaves just us crazies. Things got cold in a hurry here in Seoul; in a matter of days, I went from short sleeves to wearing a coat, liner, hat, scarf, and gloves.*

That's how I bundled up tonight. After several frustrating days of level-ground hiking to Gwanghwamun and back (not very entertaining, but certainly educational in terms of learning downtown geography), I was impatient to get back on sloped ground to keep working my heart and lungs. My cold is still with me, but I think I have it under control thanks to an unrelenting bombardment of meds.

So tonight I single-summited Namsan and managed to walk a total of 20.2K steps for the day. My average, which until a few days ago had sagged down to 12K steps per day, is now back up to 13.8K. I'll hit 14K soon, perhaps within a day or so, and do my best to get my November average closer to 15K, if at all possible.

I still need to buy proper gloves. I did actually buy myself a pair the other night at the local Peace Market (pyeonghwa-shijang), but they turned out to be crap, and I ripped them accidentally, so no refund possible. Luckily, they weren't expensive, so it's no big loss. Pretty soon, I'm going to want to buy a face mask to replace (or supplement) my scarf. A naughty part of me wants to buy a Bane-style winter face mask instead of a normal one.

Despite the extra protection, tonight's walk up the mountain was rather cold. The only gloves I had were those ajeossi-style work gloves—the kind with the flimsy cotton weave and the palms painted with red rubber. I made an interesting discovery while wearing those gloves: I can use my smartphone with them. No need for fancy, high-tech fabrics that interact well with a haptic interface: rubber on the screen works just dandy.

Along with being cold, tonight's walk was fairly lonely, but that's the way I like it. I saw maybe six people, total, while I was ascending and descending the mountain. A few buses passed me, and the usual complement of Chinese tourists was still milling about and jabbering at the very top, but the ascending bus route was largely devoid of anthropoid life. Almost no hominids but this big one. I did, however, see one crazy, gray-haired Korean dude who tromped his way up the mountain while I was on my way down. I had to admire his fortitude: his head was totally unprotected. I'd have caught pneumonia had I tried the same trick.

So! Gloves. Real gloves. And a face mask. Those are what I need to shop for next, and then I'll be totally set for Namsan. My newly purchased winter hat isn't bad, although I noticed that it does a terrible job of retaining heat when the wind starts to bluster. I can supplement the hat by wearing my windbreaker, which has a nice hood. (Heh: wind. Break.)

*This means that people from New England, Montana, and Canada will think of me as a fair-weather pussy, too. As is only just.



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

" you show me some GODDAMN RESPECT!"

My ears are burning.


Monday, November 10, 2014


A string of lethargic days has brought my November step average down to 12K steps per day. Gotta rectify that. I'll try hitting at least 20K steps tonight, and the next several nights, but I'm still sick, so I'll walk on flat ground to avoid sweating in the cold air.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

lunch with two more SMU girls

Lunch today was at Shanti #1, a somewhat pricey Indo-Nepalese chain restaurant in the Hongdae part of Seoul (Shanti #2, the sister branch, is located within walking distance of #1). I met two of my former Sookmyung students there—Yeon-ji and Da-jeong, whom I had taught during the latter part of my three years at Sookmyung. Both ladies seemed to have lost their English, alas, as they forced me to speak in Korean pretty much the entire time, except for a few scattered phrases. I had the chance to catch up with my ex-students a bit, to find out what's been going on in their lives since college. I, in turn, told them about my three jobs and about my life inside a shoebox of a yeogwan. Neither young lady had aged, it seemed to me.

The meal itself was quite tasty. Portions were too modest and a bit overpriced, but there was no shortage of flavor. I wouldn't mind going back to Shanti and ordering a bit more next time around, but I'd need to be feeling pretty spendy. As the girls mentioned today, the Hongdae area is overpriced in general, which is somewhat ironic given that it's a university district: such districts are often cheaper than other parts of town so as to attract the large college crowds. But Hongdae has become known as the nightclub/party area, and it's also acquired a rep (justified or not) as something of a foodie district, which is probably why prices are high.

We three promised to meet again soon; the girls said they'd be willing to join me on a Namsan hike. Speaking of which: I'm still sick, so I doubt I'll be going up the mountain today, but I'll do my best to get my steps in on flat ground.


a quarter-century ago

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Not everything about East Germany collapsed on that day: I was studying at the Université de Fribourg in Switzerland at the time; I visited the Wall a week after its fall, and there was still a Checkpoint Charlie that I and my friends had to pass through, changing our D-Marks to the ridiculous-looking Ostmarks. But the Wall itself was finished—kaput—at that point: people with sledgehammers stood beside it or atop it, swinging passionately away at the structure, smashing sections of the Wall to bits.

I collected eight chunks of the Wall, but gave them all away to friends (including one girl for whom I had the warm-fuzzies). Mom was furious, as was my great Aunt Gertrude, upon discovering that I'd given away such important souvenirs. I'm not sure that keeping those chunks would have meant much, though: in the age of eBay, how do you prove that your chunk of concrete actually came from the Berlin Wall? It's a bit like the "splinter of the True Cross" problem: there are probably enough supposed splinters of Jesus' cross out there that, if they were all put together, you'd be able to reconstruct Noah's Ark.

I'd love to go back to Berlin. I'm sure that its present reality no longer matches my memories of the place. The East Berlin of my memory was bleak, blank, bland, and blighted—a fitting metaphor for the dead-end nature of socialist ideology. The streets were clean but empty; the spare meal that I and my college friends ate screamed poverty and depression; the field of muscular sculptures in one part of the city was a show put on for no one; the bookstores seemed to have little on offer aside from some stereotypically red books.

For me, a unified Germany incarnates the great question: "Where Are They Now?" Has the former East Germany finally been brought up to speed? Has the robust economy of unified Germany evened itself out, so that the eastern parts thrum with as much vitality as the western parts? Are there still easterners who migrate west in hopes of finding better work opportunities? Has the former East Berlin, and by extension the former East Germany, become a happier, livelier (and very likely dirtier) place? How has the infrastructure changed? How much has the east modernized? I'm dying to know. I'm dying to walk those streets and see the people and hit the bookstores and eat the food and drink in the atmosphere. If I ever find myself with enough cash to do so, I need to get my big self back to Germany. Those Germans from 1989—Wo sind sie jetzt?


Saturday, November 08, 2014

meeting two more Sookmyung ladies

Tomorrow, despite being sick, I'm heading out to the Hongdae district to have lunch at an Indian restaurant with two more of my Sookmyung ladies. We'll soon find out whether they're as camera-shy as EJ and SM were. A shame that I won't be able to taste what I'm eating, but it'll be good to meet my former students and chat for a while.

I used to envy one of my coworkers at Sookmyung who always seemed to inspire intense loyalty in many of his students. Kids from two or three semesters previous would drop by his office just to say hi to him; I never inspired that sort of long-lasting loyalty. Or so I thought until recently. It's nice to be remembered and appreciated.


Friday, November 07, 2014


I finally did an experiment to see whether my pedometer has been shortchanging me in its measurement of distance. As I'd mentioned before, I knew that I walked at a speed of 3.2 miles per hour after having taken careful measurements while back in the States. The local bike path that runs along the George Washington Parkway has markers placed precisely at every mile; those markers, coupled with the Google Earth ruler (which can measure distance down to the inch), are what led me to the 3.2 mph figure. So I reset my pedometer to show kilometers, then took a lap around our campus's 400-meter track. Sure enough: the pedometer, that stingy bastard, registered only 300 meters of travel. Since I don't know exactly how the pedometer reckons distances, I don't know whether that's exactly 300 meters, or something more like 325, 350, or 375 meters. (The pedometer shows one decimal place when measuring kilometers; when I started walking that day, the pedometer read "4.0 km"; after one lap, it read "4.3 km.")

Conclusion: I may have to multiply my registered distance by 1.06 or 1.33 to get a more accurate notion of my true distance traveled. The average of 1.06 and 1.33 is approximately 1.2, so that'll be my multiplier from now on. Henceforth, whenever I report distances traveled, you can assume I've multiplied my pedometer's figure by 1.2.

Ken Cooper, who wrote the 1970s classic Aerobics, notes that if you walk down the same path that you walk up, the difficulty of the up-slope and the ease of the down-slope cancel each other out. I'm going to assume that the same goes for speed: I'll walk slower than 3.2 mph uphill, but faster than 3.2 mph downhill. The overall average will therefore be 3.2 mph.


bereft of taste

One of the best ways to get me not to eat is to deprive me of my ability to taste food. With my nose currently stuffed, I have very little desire to eat, and anything that I do eat will need to be spicy: spicy food makes the nose run and sometimes helps me regain my sense of taste. Then again, I've eaten spicy meals that did a number on me yet failed to break through the blockage. Last night, I went to a local 24-hour Korean restaurant that specializes in kongnamul-gukbap. The menu gave the option of ordering the spicy version, so I did that. The soup looked great, at least, and the kongnamul had a good, firm, fresh crunch to it, but I had no clue how it tasted. Eating meals while in that condition is a strange experience: I end up trying to imagine the taste, if that makes any sense.

I've just ordered myself a spicy meal here at the office, partly as a way of celebrating being paid by the Golden Goose after a month-long delay in payment. We'll soon find out whether this meal can do what yesterday's meal couldn't.

In exercise news: I don't think I'll be heading up Namsan while I still have this cold. To get my steps in, I'll stick with flat ground for now, which means plenty of walks through Jongno in my near future. That way, I can walk long distances without working up a sweat and potentially catching an even worse cold. Flat ground is a bit boring, and I'll be somewhat deconditioned by the time I start going back up the mountain, but I don't want to dig myself any deeper than I already am, cold-wise.


Thursday, November 06, 2014

krank und müde

I'm a bit sick, and also a bit tired. Went to Yeouido, this morning, to meet my supervisor at my other job, KMA, and managed to get some extra steps in that way. If I do any walking at all tonight, it'll likely be an easy stroll toward Jongno and back. I'm at nearly 8K steps right now; adding another 4K or so shouldn't be a problem, but if I finish under 10K this evening, I'm not going to sweat it. No need to push myself into greater sickness.

Now I just need to go buy myself some gloves and a hat...


voter intimidation: a pox on both houses

Some Republicans apparently engaged in unsavory, unethical strong-arm tactics, according to Wikipedia (you'll have to pardon the grammar in the following run-on):

In Pontiac, Michigan, local Democrats cited reports of voter harassment and intimidation by Republicans over questioning legally-cast ballots with election workers repeatedly having had to ask them to step aside. A clerk called police for help. [Source]

Meanwhile, Democrat activists have sent around a creepy, threatening, Orwellian flyer according to Malcolm and many others:

We will be reviewing the Kings County official voting records after the upcoming elections to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014. If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not. (emphasis added)

As an Australian colleague of mine used to say back during my Sookmyung days: "They're all dirty bastards." Only too true.

Will the new wave of dirty bastards do any better than the current one? Well, one can always hope. The conservatives bring their own baggage to the show, so we're guaranteed to see grown men tripping over their own dicks now and again. But if the now-dominant GOP succeeds in rolling back absurdities like Obamacare, in promoting energy independence, in diminishing the role of government in citizens' affairs, and in returning a measure of respectability to American foreign policy (reorienting us toward the countries who truly are our allies), then I'll declare that a good start. But as I said before, I'm really not hopeful.


wankiness is next to godliness

I'm not a big fan of the sort of soap you see below—the kind you find in so many Korean public restrooms. My main problem isn't so much sanitary as it is aesthetic: to access the soap, you must wet your hands and then basically jack the soap off with a series of tugging/caressing motions. It's a rather unpleasant feeling, and there's just no getting around the Freudian nature of the soap as it projects phallically outward from the wall.

Kind of reminds me of this:


Wednesday, November 05, 2014

3, 2, 1 says I've had 3 views in the last 2 weeks from 1 country. Not the same as beaming 3 people from 2 locations onto 1 platform, but I'll take it.


Tuesday, November 04, 2014

you're dogshit, punk

The office fails to convince me that attendance at an optional event is, in fact, mandatory.


college students are becoming humorless

I received an email from a certain Miss DB of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. She wrote:

Dear Mr. Kim,

My name is DB and I am a senior in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. I serve as a student ambassador with the Georgetown Discovery Initiative, which was started by President DeGioia in 2006. This initiative is not a solicitation; rather, the President is interested in creating a two-way dialogue between the university and its alumni and giving them an opportunity to share their Georgetown experience, perspectives and ideas, and to engage the alumni to help shape the future of Georgetown.

I would like to meet you in the next three weeks for a brief interview lasting no more than 45 minutes. This interview would serve as an opportunity for the university to find out more about your time at Georgetown, your perspectives, and your interests. I would also be more than happy to discuss what is going on at Georgetown today if you are interested.

My schedule is flexible. During the week I can meet you on Monday, Wednesday before 6 pm, Thursday after 4 pm, Friday, and weekends. I can meet you at your office or home, or wherever is most convenient. Please let me know if you'd be willing to participate.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration, and I hope we can set up a time to meet.


It was obvious that Miss B had no clue I was out of the country, so I wrote the following reply:


Thank you for your email! Not sure how you found me, but the information you used probably needs to be updated: I currently live in South Korea, and have been back here since the summer of 2013, so unless your family is filthy rich and you've got a hypersonic hydrofoil parked somewhere, I don't think we'll be doing a face-to-face interview anytime soon. And, no: no Skyping, thanks.

"No more than 45 minutes" is "brief" to you, eh? Ha ha! That's almost a full class period! To me, "brief" means ten minutes, tops. If you shoot me a set of questions to answer by email, I'll be happy to pound out some half-baked answers for you. A caveat, though: I'm afraid I'm not a shining example of Georgetowniness: you might be better off interviewing a more successful (and thus more interesting) subject.

You're SFS? I was SLL, back when SLL was still called SLL (School of Languages and Linguistics; if I'm not mistaken, it got swallowed up by the evil dragon that is the College of Arts and Sciences and is now called FLL, yes?). We Ling-langers used to give the stink-eye to the SFSers, who always seemed to think rather highly of themselves thanks to their heavier courseload and the Global Significance of Their Work. Sigh... Maybe it was just insecurity on our part. Anyway, that's all ancient history to me these days.
"...the President is interested in creating a two-way dialogue between the university and its alumni and giving them an opportunity to share their Georgetown experience, perspectives and ideas, and to engage the alumni to help shape the future of Georgetown."
I have no idea what any of that means, as it's utterly devoid of specifics. Sounds vaguely political, though. Is it?

But I'm curious as to what questions you might possibly want to ask an old fart like me. So fire away!


BSLA French (GU), MA Religion and Culture (Catholic University)
SLL '91, R&RE '02
(since we're waving our alphabet soups at each other)

I thought the above was kind of funny, but Miss B's reply was terse and humorless:

Dear Kevin,

I'm sorry if this information bothers you. Thank you for informing us that you're currently in South Korea. Since the program requires us to meet alumni in person, we are not able to meet as you noted. Thanks for your reply.


Note the switch from "Mr. Kim" to "Kevin." Note, too, that the only thing Miss B latched on to was the perception that I was somehow bothered by her email. She sensed none of my amusement, nor my teasing, nor my self-deprecation, nor my genuine interest in finding out more about her. As far as she was concerned, I was offering a lengthy, sarcastic "no."

The printed word is often hard to interpret in terms of tone, but it's also true that, for the interpreter to perceive something as negative, he or she has to be in a certain frame of mind. Miss B saw only one thing—my being bothered—and that one thing didn't even exist. Although I admit I do find it slightly creepy that a college senior managed to track me down, I also know that my email address is a matter of public record (it's on this blog, for goodness' sake), so things aren't as creepy as all that.

I wrote back equally tersely:


No bother at all. Good luck in your search for an interviewable subject.


And thus ended what could have been a fruitful exchange had Miss B been of thicker skin and in more of a sharing mood.


midterm elections

I won't be voting in the midterm elections, but I'll be watching with interest to see whether the conservative backlash truly materializes. People are placing their bets on a huge Republican comeback; the race of greatest interest seems to be the U.S. Senate: will the Senate tilt to a GOP majority, thereby dethroning Senate Majority Leader and Democrat bête noire Harry Reid? Pundits are saying "yes," but I doubt that's the end of the story. Every party that comes into power ends up messing things up in some way or other; each party loses its luster almost immediately after the glow of electoral victory fades.

The real test will be the test of time: will the party in charge manage to put in place policies that maximally benefit the nation and increase its (to use a crude term) index of happiness? I admit that I have my doubts. I don't think the Democrats' formula has worked any magic on our economy or our international prestige, and it's by no means a sure thing that the Republicans, if they regain the Senate and sweep other posts, will reveal their superior wizardry. So color me skeptical: I'll believe the results when I see them. We'll talk in two years at the presidential election. I'll be voting then.


a wee bit sick

Not sure how far I'll be walking tonight: I've got a bit of a sore throat, probably from last night's walk. This is going to become problematic: the weather's suddenly much colder, and I still sweat during my walks—not a good combination of factors. I'm now bundling in layers, but I have no gloves or face mask, so I lose heat rapidly from important parts of my body. I have a coat, but it may be too early to put that on: it'll just make me sweat more. When I finally come into some money, I might invest in some gloves and a decent face mask. Meanwhile, tonight's walk might just be a horizontal stroll around my neighborhood, well away from the mountain.


current November average: 19,277 steps

We're only a few days into November, so it's far too early to say how the month's going to end. I'm shooting for an average of 15K, and since November 1 began auspiciously with my 28K-step walk with JW, I have high hopes that I'll reach my goal. November 2 was a bit of a rest break from the previous day: just 8,002 steps. Tonight (well, the night of November 3), I double-summited, which means I racked up 21,268 steps. So my current November average is 19,277 steps, which is well above 15K. Honestly, I don't expect that to last: I'll be taking breaks throughout the month, and each break will wreck my overall average, forcing me to walk even more during my "on" days. But as long as most of my walks are over 12K or 13K, I'm pretty sure that I'll reach my goal this month.


Monday, November 03, 2014

adieu, Brittany

Brittany Maynard, the brain-cancer patient about whom I've written before, was as good as her word, taking her own life at the beginning of November. I disagree with her refusal to call her exit a suicide, but the important point is that she went on her own terms, refusing to let the disease get the best of her. My heart goes out to her parents, her husband, her relatives, and her friends, all of whom had to endure not only Brittany's disease and death, but also the sharp, nasty edges of media exposure. Brittany chose to make her fight for a "death with dignity" a public one, which couldn't have been easy for her or for her friends and loved ones. She made some of those close to her promise to continue the fight to spread Oregon-style death-with-dignity laws throughout the nation, so in her absence the struggle will go on.

RIP, Mrs. Maynard.


this past Saturday in pictures

As I mentioned earlier, I was out and about with my buddy JW—currently a resident of Pune, India, but here in Korea on business for a few days—and we did almost 30K steps of walking together this past Saturday. Here are a few pics. JW was looking remarkably thin, even though he's never been fat (hover your cursor over the pics to see the captions):

JW had a lot to say about life in India. Short version: he's had just about enough of Indian culture, and he's ready to return to Korea, but it's obvious that his time there has changed him in certain important ways. I'll be writing a "frank" post that goes into more detail about my interactions with JW regarding this and other matters.


improvise, adapt, overcome

When you spend as much time as I now do at the campus vegetarian buffet, you start to get bored, and your mind begins searching for creative rearrangements of the food on your plate to trick yourself into making it all more palatable. Here's one such recent attempt:

The above "wrap" wouldn't have been possible had the buffet not had those spiral steamed Chinese-style buns on hand. I like the soft bread, but I keep wishing I had some nice garlic-butter sauce on hand for dipping.

The ingredients in the "wrap": a large sweet-potato fritter (often called a gorokae in Korean; I suspect this is an attempt at a French word, mais je ne sais pas lequel), some grilled mushrooms, some kimchi, and some Western-style salad greens. Most entertaining.


the garbage and the holy light

As Lorianne recently commented with regard to fall in New England, autumn brings its own special quality of light. This is also true in Seoul. I stepped out of my humble yeogwan room on October 27 and saw, at the end of the hallway, the stairway garbage pile struck by an impressive ray of autumn sunlight. So I snapped the following pic:

God bless the garbage.


dinner with my women

Here's a "mosaicked" pic of dinner at Seorae with two of my former Sookmyung students: EJ (left) and SM (right), now both in their thirties:

EJ is married and works in an admin office at her alma mater. SM is single (but looking) and working on her Master's in interpretation at the prestigious Ewha University. Neither woman consented to have her face splashed on the blog, hence the mosaicking. (EJ actually does display her pictures publicly on Kakao Story, KakaoTalk's social-networking service; like a lot of Koreans, she irrationally believes she has full control over what happens to her image when she uploads it to a public space.)

During dinner, EJ didn't go into much detail about married life; Korean women are often vague and evasive about their relationships with their boyfriends and husbands. Notions of privacy are strange here, not drawn along similar lines as privacy notions in America. People in Korea will ask a foreigner all sorts of offensively prying, personal questions, but will clam up when certain questions are asked of them in return. Even after nearly ten years here, I still don't know the boundaries. Lack of fluency in the language may be partly to blame.


Sunday, November 02, 2014

highwaters will never die

In Seoul, nerd fashion lives on.

Take highwaters, for example—the sort of pants that would get a student laughed out of the classroom in the States: they're called "highwaters" because they look as if they were designed to stay dry in flood conditions. The pant legs go down no farther than the ankles. In the States, this is also often an indication of poverty: Mom and Dad weren't rich enough to buy Junior a pair of pants that kept up with his growth rate, which led to classist sneering in the classroom. But in Seoul, it's not obvious that highwaters indicate poverty: in this monied, fashion-conscious town, they're more likely a deliberate fashion choice, which makes them all the more execrable and worthy of scorn.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

a day out with one of my best buddies

I met my Korean friend JW today at the top of Exit 6, Dongdae-ipgu Station, at a little after 1PM. He was never a fat guy, but he looked amazingly skinny after four years of living a married life as a POSCO prole stationed in Pune, India (he's a general manager now—definitely moving up in the world). We did my double-summiting route, then continued our walk past my neighborhood and into Jongno, where we ate dinner at my other friend Tom's favorite place, Seorae, which serves galmaegi-sal (grilled, boneless pork chunks).

Before Seorae, we went on a quest for books (for JW, who has suddenly gotten a hankering for Buddhism despite being a committed Catholic) and for Legos (for JW's son) at Youngpoong Bookstore. JW, who was tired from our walk, wasn't in the mood to walk all the way to Kyobo, which is the place I had suggested earlier. As JW guessed, the Legos were hellaciously expensive: he had guessed that a large set would cost around $150; the actual price turned out to be a ridiculous $190, so he settled on buying a toy safe for his son for under $30. "My son likes sticking things in safes; sometimes, when we're in hotels, he'll lock things in the hotel safe and we have to call the front desk to get the safe opened," JW explained.*

We basically walked all day, from 1PM until around 9PM. By the time we were done, I had racked up nearly 30K steps (28.5K), which wasn't a bad way for me to begin November. JW had gone running/walking for 90 minutes earlier in the day, so he can add about 9K steps to my total. I felt sorry for his feet: he didn't bring appropriate walking shoes, so he's likely to have raw skin (he had no socks) as well as blisters. As for the blisters, I told him about my experience walking 600 miles in the Pacific Northwest in 2008, and the best advice I could give was: "Just walk right through them." Blisters pop, and that can't be helped. But eventually the pain of your blisters will fade and you'll find you can just keep on marching with little to no problem at all.

Stay tuned: I have plenty of photos to upload, some from today's massive walk, some that are simply part of the backlog. More soon.

*When I got back to my place, I popped onto Amazon to see how much a large bucket of Legos would cost in the States. The answer: under thirty dollars. I shit you not.