Sunday, July 31, 2022

Biden re-COVIDed, Pelosi to Taiwan?

Two big news items from the US. First: Joe Biden, after testing negative for COVID only a few days after testing positive, tested positive for it again. Some are saying this is a reinfection, but there's a good chance it's simply that a different test produced different results re: the original infection (some articles call this a "rebound case"). I personally anticipated that Biden would get reinfected, like Trudeau, but I didn't suspect he'd be reinfected so soon, so I'm tentatively thinking this is just the original infection, which never left. (Has anyone heard of being COVID-free after only five days? Especially someone as frail as Biden?)

Second: Nancy Pelosi is mulling a direct trip to Taiwan. This could be great PR if it's the Democrats who prove to be ballsy enough to treat Taiwan officially as its own separate, sovereign country. And frankly, I wouldn't disagree with such a move. Trump may have physically stood in North Korea, but I don't recall that he ever came out and said, officially, that Taiwan is its own country. (Correct me in the comments if I'm wrong.*) China, of course, is upset that Pelosi might make such a visit, and it has even blustered that it would have the right to intercept Pelosi's plane if she made the trip. My own feeling is that Pelosi (not to mention Schumer, Schiff, AOC, and that whole cohort) deserves incarceration, so if China wants her, they can have her. Let's see whether our newly woke and pussified military can mount a rescue operation to save her if China kidnaps her. Some people are actively rooting for Pelosi to be shot down en route; I don't go quite that far, not because I believe in the sacredness of Pelosi's life, but because I think she deserves to spend her final years suffering.

Then again, I just finished bingeing "The Terminal List," and there's a scene in which our vengeful main character finally finds the man who killed his wife and daughter, and he makes the assassin suffer by opening up his guts, stringing his intestines up on an overhead pipe, and forcing the man to walk forward, pulling the rest of his own guts out until he dies. The suffering isn't long, but it's intense. I wouldn't lose sleep if Pelosi got similar treatment. Or was consigned to a Uyghur labor camp. A little wisdom before dying—learning the meaning of suffering—might be a good thing for a creature like her.


*According to JSTOR, Trump came close, saying he didn't see why the US should be bound to the One-China policy. Still not a recognition of Taiwan's sovereign, separate status.

cycling paths in the Philippines

Really interesting article about bike paths in the Philippines here.

While on her way to another hospital shift as a radiology clerk in Metro Manila, April boarded a bus and watched the news with her fellow commuters. The rise of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines led the government to announce an extensive lockdown, which included suspending all public transport operations. April doesn’t own a car and she couldn’t afford to miss work because she has to provide for her elderly mother and disabled brother. This meant she and other healthcare workers would have to walk for hours after a long shift. But she soon realized she had another option. 

“I never thought of riding a bike to the hospital before,” April recounted. “But when we healthcare workers didn’t have the option to use public transport, I tried to pedal. At first, I was nervous, especially on major roads. But in the long run, we got used to it and became more confident.” 

Just like April, scores of commuters who used to rely mostly on public transport turned to cycling as a result of the pandemic. And many stuck to their bike even after mass services resumed. With more and more cyclists converging on main roads, it was necessary for the national government to think about solutions for accommodating the growing number of bikes and ensuring all road users can get around safely. 

Within 9 months, the Philippines was able to create almost 500 kilometers of bike lanes along national roads. This multi-sectoral effort went a long way in raising the profile of cycling as a reliable and sustainable form of transport. Importantly, it also empowered and inspired local governments and communities to add on to the new network by building their own bike lanes.

[ . . . ]

Almost 65% of respondents from a post-construction survey said that they used active transport and light mobility vehicles (LMVs) more once the cycling infrastructure was introduced. 

As the cycling network grows in the Philippines, healthcare workers like April now have another safe and healthy way to get around. 

“Even after the lockdown, I will still use my bike to go to work and go home,” April said, “because I believe I will not only help lessen the pollution, but I will also help myself get fit.” 

With the continued partnership and support of communities and civil society, governments can continue to invest in active mobility infrastructure—and many others can join April on this journey toward healthier cities and communities.

The presence of safe, walkable bike paths might actually tempt me to visit the Philippines. It's a Southeast Asian country, which means oppressive heat and humidity, two things I deplore (which is why I'm hating Korean summer).  But the thought of being able to plan and walk a bike path there might make such a trip meaningful. I won't go there until the country drops its stupid "vaccine" restrictions, though. Here's hoping the PI lets go of its fear.

Note: 500 km of bike path is not very much if we assume that that distance is spread over many separate paths. I'll need to see which path is the longest. If I were to hit the PI, I might have to hike several small paths instead of a long one. For perspective: the east-coast path I walked was about 610 km, and the Four Rivers Path has an official distance of 633 km.

some images

Saturday, July 30, 2022

found at SSG

Some funky sodas I found at SSG Food Market:

I'd never had a cucumber-flavored drink before. It was definitely cucumber-y.

I was also fascinated by the price difference between two brands of cashew nuts. Below is a 200-gram container being sold for an outrageous W19,000 (currently about $14.60, US):

Here is a 352-gram bag of cashews being sold for a fraction of the above cost:

W3,380 is about $2.60, US.

Could the difference in quality be that pronounced between the two brands of cashews? I doubt it. In both cases, the nuts are roasted and unsalted. Otherwise, they both come out of the earth. Does terroir matter when it comes to cashews? The bottled cashews have a label saying they're organic, but does that justify paying nearly six times as much?

While I was at SSG, I also got the filet mignon that I'll be cooking up Thursday morning, right before I head out to the luncheon with my former coworkers. The lady at the meat counter had enough to give me only four 250-ish-gram steaks; she did have more tenderloin, but it had been cut into tiny, 150-gram portions, which I thought to be too puny. I added two of those tiny steaks to my order of four full-sized steaks, and I'll eat those at the luncheon. The bill was, again, pretty expensive. But how often do you throw parties for former coworkers, right?

There's a bit of prep I can do well before the day of the luncheon, but some things have to be done that very day for maximum freshness. The steaks, for example, need to be seared at the last minute. The apple pie can be made a day or two in advance, and the same goes for the peas and carrots, although I might also do those on the day of. The mashed potatoes can be done several days in advance, and the pie filling for the apple pie can, too, along with the dough for the pie crust. Chimichurri, for the steak, can be made in advance, but it's usually better fresh, given that it's made of fresh herbs. Anyway, I've done this prep before, so it ought to go pretty well. Expect photos Thursday.

this may be the end

My pants, purchased in 2017, have just about had it:

new rip as of this morning

I've taken these pants in for repairs so often that I've probably paid more for the repairs, at this point, than for the original pants. I recently bought two new pairs of hiking pants, but they're a little tight, so I'll have to shrink into them. Meantime, I've got my jeans. They're not the best walking pants (denim can be abrasive over long distances), and they lack cargo pockets, but for now, they'll do. I hate to say goodbye to the pants I've worn faithfully since 2017, but with rips like the above happening almost weekly, now, I think it's time to bow to reality, do the proper Buddhist thing, and let go of my attachments. 

Ave, atque, vale, pants.

McDonald's McPlant burger turns into McFaceplant

McDonald’s Ends Testing McPlant Burger, Adding Pressure on Beyond Meat Stock

McDonald’s announced that it has concluded the U.S. trial of its McPlant burger, which is made with the plant-based protein manufactured by Beyond Meat (BYND).

In November 2021, McDonald’s began testing the meat-free burger in eight restaurants across America. In February this year, the company introduced the McPlant burger at around 600 locations. According to third-party reports, the experiment ended as a failure. In a recent note, according to CNBC, JP Morgan analyst Ken Goldman cited employees from McDonald’s revealing that the burger did not sell well enough.

“Consensus contemplates 21 percent growth for BYND’s total top line this year, followed by another 25 percent next year. These rates will not be easy to hit, in our view, without [McDonald’s] in the U.S.,” Goldman wrote.

In a June note, Peter Saleh, an analyst at global financial services firm BTIG, wrote about franchisees telling him about disappointing McPlant burger sales. The sale numbers were at or below the low end of estimates.

Early last year, Beyond Meat announced a three-year partnership with McDonald’s. Another partner, Taco Bell,  was dissatisfied with Beyond Meat’s “carne asada” and has yet to test it in a single restaurant. The loss of potential sales to these big food chains is a significant threat to Beyond Meat, and its share price has plunged for several months.

Given my own nasty experience with Beyond Meat, I'm not sure how the company is still around. I did enjoy the Plant Whopper being sold by a local Burger King a while ago (this was in conjunction with an Australian company, v2food, that made the meatless burger patties), and I'm still mightily curious about the Impossible Burger. Anyway, my gut feeling is that McDonald's should have partnered with Impossible, not with Beyond. Beyond products are shit, and anyone who thinks "they taste just like beef" is fooling himself. My understanding is that Impossible products have actually fooled some carnivores (by no means all carnivores), which leads me to think it must taste better overall. I keep hoping Impossible will find its way to Korea, but it may be a long wait. At the Foreign Food Mart last night, I saw Beyond Sausage in the freezer section, and I made a face. How on earth can Beyond have a longer reach than Impossible? I guess they're just marketing more aggressively.

easy weekend

I do believe I'm going to just take it easy this weekend. No long walks—just some cooking. I've got some things to prep for a luncheon with former coworkers next Thursday, and I may as well start prepping while I've got some free time. On the menu next week: something very like the menu I'd served a couple months ago: filet mignon, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, and apple pie. (When I had the gathering with my friends, the veggie was asparagus, and dessert was cake.) I'll be doing the sous-vide-reverse-sear thing again for the filet since I now know it's a foolproof method. Oh, and I'm getting my filet from SSG Food Market. Those filets look like solid muscle, the way they should. No random hunks of intramuscular fat. This will be a good luncheon. Good enough.

Trump thinks we could be headed for a full-on depression

Given how many times Donald Trump has made true predictions, I'd pay attention when the man says we could be headed for a full-on economic depression.

Former President Donald Trump has warned that America’s economy is on track for a bigger disaster than a recession, with his remarks coming shortly before government statistics showed GDP printing negative for the second consecutive quarter, which is a rule-of-thumb definition for a recession.

“Where we’re going now could be a very bad place,” Trump said at a rally in Arizona last week. “We got to get this act in order, we have to get this country going, or we’re going to have a serious problem.”

The former president singled out the collapse in Americans’ real wages, a historically depressed labor force participation rate, and the Democrat push for the Green New Deal that he said would crush economic growth.

“Not recession. Recession’s a nice word. We’re going to have a much bigger problem than recession. We’ll have a depression,” the former president said.


Soaring energy prices have been one of the key contributing factors to inflation, accounting for around half of the headline inflation figure, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In his criticism of Biden’s policies, Trump singled out what he called “Biden’s war on American energy” and blamed it for pushing up gasoline prices.

Since taking office, Biden has taken a number of executive actions targeting the oil industry, including rescinding the Keystone XL pipeline permit, halting new oil and gas drilling leases on federal lands and waters, and ending fossil fuel subsidies by some agencies.

The price of gasoline is around double what it was when Biden took office, with the president blaming various factors, including a lack of refining capacity, the war in Ukraine, and corporate greed.

In a bid to lower prices at the pump, Biden ordered the release of oil reserves from the national strategic reserve, called on U.S. refineries to boost output, and pushed OPEC to pump more crude.

In his speech, Trump said this amounted to “begging” other countries to pump more oil instead of trying to ramp up domestic production.

“We have more liquid gold under our feet than any other country in the world. We are a nation that is consumed by the radical left’s Green New Deal, yet everyone knows that the Green New Deal will lead to our destruction.”

“Just two years ago, we were energy-independent. We were even energy-dominant. The United States is now a beggar for energy.”

As Barack Obama said, Never underestimate Joe's ability to fuck things up.

if Dan Murrell doesn't like it, it must be bad

I never watched any of the TV series "Picard" because I kept hearing it was a shit-show, but along comes critic Dan Murrell with a belated review of the first two seasons of the series, and Dan hates it. I watch a few critics on YouTube; politically, most of them skew left (with the notable exception of The Critical Drinker). Dan Murrell (surname rhymes with twirl), who's pretty mild-mannered, is as much of a leftie as the other critics; he doesn't complain much (or at all, really) about things like encroaching wokeness and other forms of Hollywood poison, but if even he hates a show like "Picard," then "Picard" must be a pretty bad show. Anyway, if you're prepared for the ultimate flaying of a TV series, here's Dan in his own words:

I've never heard the man be this critical. That in itself is astounding. I mean, seriously, this is wave after wave of ranting about story logic. Brutal. And a lot of his insights sound very much like something The Critical Drinker might say, especially regarding shitting on canon.

Friday, July 29, 2022

dinner at California Kitchen

In the Gyeongnidan area of Seoul, among the foothills of Namsan, there sits a bar/restaurant called California Kitchen. I went there with my buddy Charles tonight. It's a place he knows, and I'd never been there before, so I said yes to a new experience. Got there, gift in hand, and chowed down on a double burger and chorizo burrito. 


belching beaver

artisanal soda... after which I drank three Cokes (cheat day!)


chorizo burrito—very potato-y, not very chorizo-y

double burger—the star of the show (note the restaurant-grade, heavy-plastic plates, which I use at home)

All in all, California Kitchen is a good place. Not a 10, but somewhere between a 7 and an 8. The chorizo burrito was rib-stickingly voluminous, but it was stuffed with fries (not necessarily a bad thing; the Greeks do something similar with gyros), and the chorizo didn't come through. That said, it was a good burrito, and it had a nice, smoky dipping sauce. What I really enjoyed, though, was the burger. My only complaint, there, was that it was billed as a double burger, which it technically was, but the two patties were smash-burger patties, i.e., very flavorful, but also very small. Two smash-burger patties equal a single regular patty, which is why this is only technically a double burger. That said, the burger was cooked perfectly, and the cook even somehow managed the trick of making smash burgers while still managing to keep part of the patties' center rare and juicy. That's not normally how it works with smash burgers, which generally cook through (to well done) in under a minute. The dipping sauce for the french fries was another smoky sauce, this time barbecue. Charles pointed out other interesting items on the menu, so I'm motivated to come back here.

As Charles noted, it was a humid, sweaty, uphill walk to California Kitchen from Noksapyeong Station. Lucky for me, our table at the resto was directly under an A/C vent. At other times, I might complain about being too cold, but not tonight. After dinner, we walked over to Itaewon because we both had things to buy at the Foreign Food Mart in the middle of that district. That meant another sweaty, hilly walk over a steep rise, then down to Itaewon's main drag, then up the final little hill to the Foreign Food Mart. I got my frozen hunks of lamb (which I'll grind to make qeema as a prelude to making meat emulsion for gyros) and a 1.2-kg bag of frozen peas (the American kind!). I took a cab directly to my place from the mart.

So the gift I gave Charles was a bag of 12 toll-house cookies (chips probably melted in the summertime heat), about 250 g of fusilli pasta for him and the wife, and a mess of my boeuf bourguignon, done right this time (no burned taste from overcooked bacon!). This was all part of a "redemption package," if you will, since I had fucked up a batch of chocolate-chip cookies and boeuf bourguignon before. Here's hoping everything is in order this time.

new Amazon Prime series

I have seen the first episode of "The Terminal List" on Amazon Prime Video, and it's not what I thought it was going to be at all. Stay tuned for a review after I binge Season 1.

are the lion and bear boxing?


good Christ, have you seen this?

It's not just a joke: Biden really looks ready to keel over. All those "Weekend at Bernie's" swipes don't even approach the dire reality of the situation:

ooooh, something’s happening!

The nuts are a mix of macadamias and cashews I had lying around.

Read about the history of toll-house cookies here.

Having learned from previous mistakes, I have now upped my cookie game. No suntanned cookies this time! I even used a new ice-cream scoop to make sure the cookie-dough dollops were at least roughly even-sized. Yeah, the cookies aren't perfectly circular, but as the perennial chef's joke goes, that just means they're... rustic.

I confess I ate a cookie's worth of raw cookie dough. And that was enough to throw the numbers off: this batch, none of which burned this time, yielded 29 cookies. Dammit! If only I hadn't eaten that dough! I'll be taking the majority to the office to share with my boss and coworkers (we'll see how greedy my Korean coworker gets this time), and the rest... will serve a different purpose. More on that later, maybe.

29 cookies. Let's hope there's power in prime numbers.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Styx again: recession confirmed

Nothing's changed, really, but the second-quarter contraction is now confirmed, so the United States is officially in a recession. Uh... yay?

Styx notes a paradox: leftists want to say you're a conspiracy theorist if you say we're in a recession, but at the same time, they want to say that a recession is a good thing.

"wave of investigations"

The Epoch Times headline:

House GOP to Unleash Wave of Investigations If Chamber Flips Red This Fall

That should really be "wave of arrests" followed by "wave of hangings."

From the article:

With an expected GOP takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives following November’s midterm elections, Republicans in the chamber are poised to launch a slew of investigations aimed at dialing up the pressure on the Biden administration over a range of issues—from border security to Hunter Biden to the origins of the pandemic.

Domestic concerns faced by everyday Americans—most notably a historic inflation rate—will be key priorities, according to Chair of the House Republican Conference Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).

House Republicans will take the administration to task on alleged “policy failures that have created an inflation crisis, energy crisis, border crisis, and crime crisis impacting every American family,” Stefanik told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.

Big Tech’s censorship of conservative voices will also be scrutinized, she added.

On the foreign policy front, the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in the United States and abroad, and U.S. strategy toward Iran are set to come under focus.

Republicans are already laying the groundwork to take on “an aggressive oversight role” next year by issuing preservation notices and document requests so a potential GOP majority “will be ready to hold the Biden administration accountable from day one,” a House GOP leadership aide told The Epoch Times in an email.

I have about as much confidence that GOP investigations will lead to justice as I do Dem investigations. What's to distinguish the US from a place like Korea, where the right and the left constantly investigate each other while real corruption still festers? I'm very much in a "burn it all down" kind of mood. Taxation without representation? How about investigations without rectification? Being black-pilled means despairing of ever seeing justice. That's me.

pretty much lost interest after Phase 3

The Marvel movies, all part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), have been released in what are termed "phases." Phase I introduced most of the MCU's major players, like Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America. It ended with "The Avengers." Phase II raised the stakes with new heroes (like the Guardians of the Galaxy) and more powerful villains (like Ultron). It ended with "Ant-Man." Phase III was the culmination of the so-called Infinity Saga, and while it probably should have ended with "Avengers: Endgame," it actually ended with "Spider-Man: Far From Home."

And that's about where I checked out. I did watch Phase IV movies like "Spider-Man: No Way Home," but I have no real interest in multiverse stories because, once you posit a multiverse, anything anyone does is meaningless. A beloved character dies in one universe... and so what? She prospers in another. (I didn't see "Doctor Strange II," but I know that, in that movie, Peggy Carter dies in an alternate universe, and her death is utterly uncompelling because "our" Peggy Carter has lived out a happy life with Steve Rogers in "our" universe.)

DC, which rules the comic-book world but has been playing catch-up with Marvel in the cinemas, is also going the multiversal route, so this is a good time for all of us 50-plus people to just say "fuck it" and move on to better stories that don't suck the narrative sap out of everything. I am, frankly, sick of multiverses, and I've expressed my disdain for them on multiple occasions. Not only are they narratively dry, they're philosophically unworkable because, for every universe-ending villain you can think of, just multiply that villain by infinity, and... well, you see the problem.

I'm not saying I've disliked every single multiverse movie I've seen. I thought "No Way Home" was a good movie despite huge flaws, and I really enjoyed "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." But overall, I have multiverse fatigue at this point, and I'd prefer to see my stories play out in the one universe I know for sure that we all inhabit.

let the recession begin!

Many would say the American recession began a while ago thanks to Biden's utter mismanagement of the economy, but today (Thursday, US east-coast time), an official report is likely to note a contraction in the economy for the second quarter in a row, which is the classic definition of an economic recession. The Biden administration has been at pains, over the past few weeks, to redefine what the word recession means, and/or to claim that a two-quarter contraction of the economy is not the most important factor to look at. In other words, it's the usual hand-waving and shifting of the goalposts to distract the stupid masses from the real problem. Here's Styx (posting a bit prematurely, I think) on today's probable announcement about another economic contraction and what that really means:

I took the above video from Rumble, so there should be, at most, only one ad at the very beginning, and not ads every 30 seconds, like on YouTube.

are electric vehicles the future? not so fast!

Here's an interesting take on why EVs (electric vehicles) are not the future—at least, not yet. The video focuses on a particular disadvantage I don't often see discussed elsewhere.

fourth time!

I think I have a new girlfriend. I passed her a fourth time during my Wednesday-night walk. I took a photo of her while I was on my way toward the Han River, then on my way back, as I passed her again, I took a video that I uploaded and embedded right here. Here's the pic:


And here's a brief video (blow it up and watch it at full size):

So these American-style orb-weavers come out in the summer, and the Korean orb-weavers don't show up until September or so, as the weather gets cooler. Korean orb-weavers, with their bright, fat abdomens, are everywhere by October. It's as if these spiders work in shifts.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

camping advice

I like this guy's commonsense style. The advice he gives isn't particularly deep, but it all makes sense, and it corresponds to my own experience. None of it is too abstruse; he's talking right at my level. While I consider myself to be, at least in a limited way, a fairly experienced hiker/camper at this point, the fact is that I haven't really challenged myself with very many mountain paths, and I suspect that that's going to be the next step in my hiking journey. There's the Baekdu Daegan trail here in Korea—450 tough kilometers, from what I hear, and in Europe, there's the fabled Grande Randonnée 5 (or GR5), which goes from water to water—from Hoek van Holland to Nice, France. Sometime before I die, I'd like to try those trails, along with through-hiking both the Pacific Crest trail and the American Discovery Trail. If I had a death wish, I'd try hiking through the Australian Outback's "red centre," but I'm not a big lover of deserts, and the Outback is huge. Anyway, enjoy the following Dan Becker video. I've slapped it up here because he mentions the Grayl, a water-purification system that I have. Becker has a more recent, lighter version.

Russell Brand on the continued shaving-away of your privacy

a red-letter day

Something highly unusual happened as I stepped into my building's elevator today. I heard the sound of a man belatedly approaching the elevators. I was already inside the elevator, and the doors hadn't closed yet, so I held the door open to allow the man to do the usual Korean thing and jog tardily in. Instead, I was greeted with silence, so after a few seconds, I called out, "Are you getting on?" The man quickly shuffled over and got in. This was astounding: someone who was polite enough to wait for the next elevator instead of running into the elevator at the very last second! I may never see this sort of thing again, but at least I now know there's one person in Korea who has some consideration.

travel companions

Made a new friend during Tuesday's walk home:

cicada, I think, but wingless

And I saw my orb-weaver friend for the third time:

How's it hangin'? (sorry for the blur)

I'll even throw in a pergola for good measure (they're prettiest during the summer):

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

harissa and zaatar

I just bought some bottled harissa (liquid sauce), powdered harissa seasoning, and powdered zaatar* seasoning via iHerb. Just tried all three... and I must say, after all the hype, I'm not really all that impressed. 

The zaatar's top notes are oregano/thyme (the bottle's label says thyme) and citrusy sumac, and there are little chunky bits that look like ground sesame seeds, making me think I could make this seasoning myself just using my mortar and pestle (although I'd have to buy hyssop). The bottled harissa is also a lot more tomato-y than I expected, although it's got a peppery kick from chilis,** as well as a smooth undercurrent that feels almost like roasted red bell peppers. The best item of the bunch is the powdered harissa seasoning, which I look forward to combining with other sauces to make my own blend of red sauce.

The Berlin street döner kebab (I fell in love with these when I lived in Switzerland in 1989) often features both a tzatziki-like white sauce and a harissa-ish red sauce, but the döner red sauce is normally spicier. I've been looking to recreate that sauce for a long time, and I'd thought that harissa would be a major step in the right direction, but if the bottled harissa I now have is any indication, the real thing (supposedly Moroccan) is kind of mundane, kind of meh, almost like an arrabbiata, but chunkier. I think I can do better on my own. 

Not to worry: I'll be using the sauce and seasonings in future dishes for sure, but the experience isn't going to be nearly as exciting as I'd thought it would be.


*Many spell zaatar with an apostrophe (za'atar) to indicate the glottal stop.

**A brief sorry-not-sorry to my British readers, who are probably frustrated that I wrote chili, not chilli. That's the Yankee spelling, I'm afraid. One lone L. This applies to many other words as well: traveled, not travelled; canceled, not cancelled, etc., although plenty of Yanks do intentionally or inadvertently spell words the UK way, and no one really cares.

"Squid Game," Season 1: review

Sang-woo, Gi-hun, and Sae-byeok

[WARNING: big-time spoilers if you're the only person never to have seen this series.]

"Squid Game" was the Korean phenomenon that took the world by storm, and I missed watching it back when it was popular. It received tons of praise and was discussed everywhere, with all sorts of videos and articles devoted to it. As a result of this media storm, which included plenty of reaction videos on YouTube, I ended up learning all about the story by a sort of osmosis. Even without having watched the nine-part first season, I still ended up learning all the major plot points. This past week, I finally sat down and watched the show.

For the one person left on the planet who doesn't know what "Squid Game" is all about, here's a one-paragraph explainer. Released in September 2021, the Netflix series was created, written, and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, who says he was inspired by certain animé stories as well as by the current social crises involving wealth disparity, unsustainably high cost of living, and the rat-race nature of life in modern South Korea. Season 1's main cast includes Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi, Kim Joo-ryoung, and Lee Byung-hun. There are two main stories: the A story follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a former laborer and chauffeur who has fallen on hard times and become a gambling addict betting on horse races. The B story involves Officer Hwang Jun-ho (Wi), who is looking for his missing older brother. These two plot lines intersect only at the beginning of the season; aside from that, they run parallel to each other. Both Gi-hun and Jun-ho find themselves immersed in a secretive society that takes financially desperate people off the streets and has them play simple games, the loss of which results in death. There is, however, the promise of an enormous cash prize at the end to act as a motivator. We meet a varied cast of characters along the way: among the desperate gamers are Seong Gi-hun the ex-chauffeur, Cho Sang-woo the corrupt investor (Park), Kang Sae-byeok the petite-but-tough North Korean defector (Jung), Oh Il-nam the elderly man with a brain tumor (O), Jang Deok-su the gangster evading his bosses (Heo), Ali the Pakistani migrant worker (Tripathi), and Han Mi-nyeo (Kim). The so-called Front Man running the games (Lee Byung-hun) is always masked, always cool and collected, speaking with an altered voice that reminds me a lot of the computer voice from those hilarious Pyeon-gang Haniweon commercials.

Explainer done, let's talk details. The show invites us to learn about and care for many of the characters in what will be, horribly, a steadily dwindling cast. The people in the game were all hooked in pretty much the same way, including Gi-hun: they were invited to play a game of ddakji, in which you throw a folded square of paper down at the opponent's folded square on the ground, the object being to hit the opponent's square hard enough to cause it to flip over. Lose, and you either owe W100,000, or you receive a slap across the face (everybody chooses to be slapped as they already owe too much money). Win, and you win W100,000 in cash on the spot, and an invitation to participate in an unnamed, but much higher-stakes, game. Most of these people, hard up for money and motivated—like most gamblers—to win more, end up accepting the invitation to participate in the larger game. They are all gassed and taken to a remote island off the peninsula, where an enormous complex exists. The complex includes sleeping and gaming areas for the gamers, labyrinthine stairwells and underground chambers serving multiple purposes, including the disposal of dead participants via cremation. The masked guards who keep order also live a rigid lifestyle and have their own monitored quarters. Along with all this is a great deal of luxurious space devoted to guest VIPs who might want to watch some or all of the games. 

Day One of the games starts with 456 participants (Gi-hun, our protag, is #456) and a game known in the West as red-light-green-light, but known in Korea as The Rose of Sharon Has Bloomed. To everyone's horror during the very first game, losers are mercilessly shot down by unseen snipers, and thus do the players discover the true nature of the venture they've joined. The idea is to win six of these games. A clause exists in the contract that every player signed: if a majority of players does not wish to continue, the games will end, everyone will be sent home, and no one will receive any prize money. Early in the series, the players all do decide to take a vote, then vote to leave. What happens next is very interesting: back to their previous, desperate lives, the players all come to realize that living regular life is actually more hellish than participating in the games. Almost all the people who abandoned the games end up returning, and the games—morbid as they are—continue.

The second game involves trying to extract a shape that has been imprinted in a piece of honeycomb candy. The third game involves getting into groups of ten, then playing a deadly version of tug-of-war. The fourth game involves selecting a partner, which the players gladly do, thinking they'll be with someone they've gotten close to. Instead, the players must play marbles against each other, with the loser being shot. The fifth game involves trying to cross a fragile bridge made of randomly placed regular and tempered glass panels: one false step, and you plummet to your death. By the end of the fifth game, only three people are left; they are given a steak dinner and, after eating, are left with a single steak knife each and no instructions as to what to do next—the assumption being that someone needs to kill someone. The final game, with only two contestants remaining, is the eponymous Squid Game itself—a Korean game played by children with one side as "offense" and the other side as "defense," with the offense trying to maneuver across a geometric space that looks vaguely like a squid to reach the squid's very tip and win.

While all of this is happening, we follow Officer Hwang Jun-ho as he searches for his missing brother, sneaking onto the island, masquerading as various compound guards, breaking into the fortress's files, and looking for any information that can help Jun-ho find his sibling. The Front Man becomes aware that an intruder is loose on the island, so Jun-ho's time turns from mere information-gathering to a tense game of cat-and-mouse as the island's faceless guards are sent in search of the policeman.

There are a lot more subtleties, details, and subplots that I simply don't have the space or the energy to cover. A lot is going on in "Squid Game," which has a very ambitious narrative, but the story is always structured in a way that is easy to follow. "Squid Game" has learned a great deal from Western TV and cinema: many scenes will remind viewers of similar tableaux seen over and over in Western films and TV shows. You might have, for example, a slow-motion sequence in which dozens of contestants are being cruelly gunned down, and as bodies fall and blood artistically flies through the air in ribbons and gobs, something like soothing classical music plays in ironic counterpoint to the horrifying action. How many times have you seen that trope in Western cinema? The story itself, especially as it gathers momentum, inherently provides its own tension as we come to like certain characters and hope they make it through the next game, and the next. While it's never explicitly stated, the idea seems to be that only one person can win the entire game. This is not how it's put to the players, at least at first: they're merely told they need to win six games to receive the cash prize. Even by the end, with only three players left, two of the players talk about possibly splitting the prize money and doing good things with it.

uniform colors are hard to take seriously

"Squid Game" can be read as many things—a criticism of cutthroat capitalism is one of the most popular interpretations, given how money drives the plot, although I've seen several articles and videos representing a school of thought that aggressively denies the series is about capitalism at all. Some have mused that the series forces us to confront the often artificial nature of choice by showing us scenario after scenario in which choices always lead to someone's death, as if life were a zero-sum game. I myself am tempted to put "Squid Game" on the same shelf as a whole wave of Korean TV and cinema that seems to see modern Korean society through a Marxist lens (see my review of "Parasite"). It's possible to see how a Marxist might appreciate notions of class struggle shown in the series, but as I thought it over, I began to realize that the Marxist angle, while plausible, is somewhat superficial. Marx was concerned, in his writings, primarily with the working poor—the proletariat. He saw the proletariat eventually rising up and breaking its own chains in a revolutionary, eschatological struggle. But in "Squid Game," while Jun-ho the policeman makes an effort to undermine the system he discovers, it's not at all obvious the system has toppled. In fact, the final episode ends with a one-year time jump that shows the mysterious island is still busy hosting yet more games. So "Squid Game" doesn't give us a Marxist revolutionary eschaton. There's no triumphal overthrowing of the system. Also: the people in the game are not the sort of poor folks Marx was thinking of: I chose my words carefully, above, when I described the participants as financially desperate. One of Gi-hun's childhood friends, Sang-woo the unscrupulous investor, isn't what I'd call "poor." He'd lost his money, sure, but he still belonged to the privileged, white-collar class.  The gangster Deok-su is another character who started fairly rich and fell on hard times. Tellingly, in the final episode, Gi-hun is able to ask the Front Man what this was all about, and the Front Man tells Gi-hun that, for the runners of the game and the VIPs who came to watch it all play out, it was like betting on horses. The human participants in the game were, essentially, horses from the point of view of the game's controllers—playthings made to struggle for others' amusement, often in unpredictable ways. (Recall that Gi-hun bets on horse races at the beginning.) None of this really gibes with a Marxist interpretation of the series. If anything—and this is an insight I'm stealing from my buddy Charles, who has made a study of Korean literature—I'm guessing there's a more fundamentally Korean dynamic at work: the idea of being small and helpless in the face of much larger forces like nature, fate, or God. I think a deeper reading of "Squid Game" needs to lean in a more Korean direction. Western viewers and critics, in reaching too quickly for the Marxism button, potentially blind themselves to a text's deeper truths.

At the same time, writer/director Hwang has said he doesn't view his creation as particularly profound, and he was indeed explicitly critiquing various aspects of Korean society, from the cold nature of business to the blasé actions of the police (when Gi-hun, temporarily away from the island, tries to report what happened to him, the police don't believe him) to the fixation on money to how foreign workers are treated (the character Ali, a Pakistani who speaks Korean with a heavy accent, is offered as something like a symbol of the plight of many foreign workers who find themselves in the muck of Korean blue-collar jobs: early on, before he ends up in the game, Ali accidentally injures his Korean boss, who had been refusing to pay Ali for his work). The series does seem to want to say quite a few different things, so it's not entirely wrong to view it, on some level, as social commentary.

I admit I was a bit worried after I'd watched the first episode. The first episode, which starts before the games begin in earnest, gives us Gi-hun and his family situation: he's a bum with a gambling addiction; he's separated from his wife, who has remarried, and he has a daughter he loves but doesn't really know how to care for. (In fact, Gi-hun's selfish and self-undermining personality made it very hard for me to feel much sympathy for his plight. He has moments of niceness and begins to think deeper thoughts, but any changes in his character are prompted by the horrible things happening to him, not by any natural empathy or curiosity. He's very Scrooge-y in that sense, and I don't trust his end-of-season metanoia. Then again, maybe Gi-hun is intended to be an anti-hero.) Gi-hun's also got a mom who needs radical medical treatment for advanced diabetes, but Gi-hun apparently doesn't feel enough urgency to get a real, steady job to help her pay her many bills. All this family drama is something I've seen before on various Korean soap operas, along with the yelling, the screaming, and constant fucking crying. I cannot emphasize enough the extent to which Koreans love melodrama—something a fellow online reviewer has frequently called "misery porn." Maybe Koreans see themselves as perpetual victims, as small and helpless in the face of much larger forces. Whatever the reason, Koreans love weeping, shouting, and overacting in their TV shows, and the first episode of "Squid Game" made me think I might be in for more of that. Luckily, I turned out to be wrong. Except for a few later episodes and plot lines involving the foreign VIPs, most of "Squid Game" is fairly tightly written, with a compelling narrative that gathers its own momentum and keeps us from mawkishly dwelling too long on any one catastrophe. Sure, there's plenty of screaming and crying toward the end, but by that point, the histrionics are justified by the circumstances: everyone's been put through the wringer.

The acting throughout the first season is generally good, although Korean actors have certain tics and mannerisms that produce twinges of annoyance in me. As a Westerner and a non-fluent Korean speaker, I sometimes can't suspend disbelief when these things happen. It's hard to give examples of what I mean, but I'll try. First, take characters who rant and yell loudly, then end their rants by suddenly cutting themselves off, as if such a gesture makes what they say more impactful. (Imagine someone yelling, "You dirty son of a—!" and stopping right there, but not because anyone interrupted them. Not to say there's no swearing in this show; there's plenty of foul language. But the whole yell-and-cut-yourself-off thing is a vexing aspect of many Korean dramas. I guess it's just a cultural quirk that I dislike.) The actress playing Han Mi-nyeo struck me as overacting quite frequently, bug-eyed and mugging in an exaggerated way, so her presence was grating, and I was glad when she met her fate. A lot of Korean acting seems geared more toward the stage than toward the screen, and the acting isn't helped during those occasional moments when the story itself falls down: certain story beats in "Squid Game" are a little too easy to predict because they follow the typical rhythm of Korean dramas. All that aside, most of the principal actors did a fine job in their roles, and many of the actors in minor roles did as well.

The cinematography and set design of the show are very interesting. You, as the viewer, definitely get a feel for the weird surreality of being on an island, with strangers, and having to play deadly games. Some of the games are played in roofless, walled-off areas where the walls have been halfheartedly made to look like fields and open sky. And while some parts of the compound are huge and capacious, other parts are labyrinthine, claustrophobic, and serpentine, with twisty, particolored, Escher-like staircases, random offices, and a plethora of secret doors leading to unpainted, brick-and-stone sections of the compound.

the Squid Game court, with basic shapes

"Squid Game" also contains plenty of symbolism and iconography; I'm sure, in fact, that my ignorance about certain aspects of Korean culture probably kept me from seeing some things that would be obvious to Korean viewers. Among the symbols, especially in the first two episodes, are squids themselves, which appear as we pass certain markets early on. Also very prominent are circles, triangles, and squares. When placed together, these basic shapes form the squid-like field or court for kids who play the Squid Game. The masked guards at the compound all wear face shields that have a single circle, square, or triangle painted on them, possibly indicating rank. (The guards' uniforms apparently became hugely popular among both cosplayers and Halloween celebrants.) It's safe to say that a lot of thought went into the world-building—the sets, the uniforms, the overall ambiance.

The series isn't without some major questions and problems, though. For me, one interesting question, which occurred to me after the Season 1 finale, is who's running the show now that the secret society's leader is gone?  The games are obviously continuing, and the whole motivation for this secret society that takes desperate people and makes them play deadly games comes from the founder's belief that both the very rich and the very poor need to have suspense, fun, and excitement reinserted into their dull, oppressive lives. It's implied that this secret society has been around for years, so maybe, by now, it has its own momentum and can continue even with the founder dead. But who's actually running the show, now? If the Front Man was the true second-in-command, then I can see how he might become the big bad for Season 2 as the new leader of the organization. But that leads to another question/problem: this organization is huge, and... what? No one noticed its existence or all the missing people? A third problem is the B story. I simply didn't find Jun-ho's search for his brother—which involved a lot of skulking around inside the compound—nearly as compelling as the A story, which follows Gi-hun and his fellow terrified gamers. Jun-ho's ability to infiltrate such a secure compound struck me as massively implausible, and I didn't buy into his ability to pass as one of the guards after stealing a guard's uniform and inhabiting the guard's CCTV'ed dorm room. Jun-ho's casual murder of several compound workers also had me questioning what sort of policeman he was. Fourth: besides the B story, there was a weirdly meta moment in which two characters are discussing their fantasies when one mentions a film with the actor Lee Byung-hun in it. Now Lee Byung-hun is in this show, playing the Front Man, so does this mean we're in some weird universe where both Lee Byung-hun the Front Man and the actor Lee Byung-hun both exist? There was also a large subplot involving organ harvesting, but by the end of the season, that subplot seemed to have gone nowhere. I was also annoyed, to some extent, by the portrayal of Ali as a simpering, constantly over-bowing foreigner (generally, Muslims don't bow as bowing is reserved exclusively for God). How many times did the poor guy have to say "Kamsahamnida!" (thank you) to a dude who would eventually fuck him over? Other aspects of Ali were interesting, but I got the impression that the Korean writers (I guess that's mainly Hwang) didn't quite know how to handle foreigners. Which leads me to my and everyone else's main peeve: the goddamn VIPs. The VIPs arrive to watch the games right around the time the players are negotiating the bridge made of glass (but why not be there from Day One?). This group of mysterious elites, also masked, is mostly American and European, with one Chinese man thrown in for good measure. The dialogue for these characters is written in plausibly decent English, but it's so inane. Almost no one says anything deep. This is one of those times when a screenwriter ought to respect his own limits and seek other people who know the subject matter better. Just as Ali was written poorly, so were the VIPs, and I can't say they added much to the overall show. A little Tarantino-ish wit would have been nice. Then there's the matter of Sae-byeok's severe injury at the end of the glass-bridge game. Why did the game end with explosions? How were the explosions in any way a part of the game? I also couldn't help noticing that Gi-hun, at the very end, is suddenly imbued with a sense of mission, but this mission means he has to neglect his little daughter yet again. Gi-hun seems utterly unable to transcend his own selfishness, and this problem may be partly due to bad screenwriting. Finally—and I'm not sure whether this actually counts as a question or a problem—by the end of the season, we still don't know if there's any deeper purpose to these games. Could it really be as simple as the founder's conviction that the very rich and the very poor need to spice up their lives to relearn the value of existence? Does it make sense that the reward for this insight is death for most contestants and cash for the lone survivor? I'm still not sure, philosophically, how all of this is supposed to hang together.

The show nevertheless makes for good, compulsive bingeing. Like the TV series "24," it ruthlessly follows a formula guaranteed to ratchet up tension: put characters we like into situations where they are forced to make morally repellent choices. Many of the characters on the show are indeed well written and complex, and the psychology of the situation seems at least somewhat plausible to me. I also forgot to mention one very important plot point: the players discover early on that there's no penalty for just killing each other. This leads to a few Lord of the Flies-type situations as the strong prey on the weak, and as with "Cobra Kai" and "Better Call Saul," the whole wolf/sheep dynamic is a recurrent theme. Players die; masked minions come in with ready-made coffins, and then it's off to the crematorium. The season ends with a bunch of loose ends, and while a second season hasn't been confirmed as of this writing, I'd say the first season did a good job of giving us a whole sinister world to explore. What will happen now that Officer Hwang knows who the Front Man is? What will become of this secret society once it's no longer a secret? What made a group of people put themselves in the godlike position of deciding what humanity needs or doesn't need? If Gi-hun is really now on a crusade to take the society down, how far can he get with no training? That last question is a real poser. Gi-hun, by the end, is still basically the same flawed asshole he was at the beginning. Can he transcend things like gambling addiction and a bum's life to become the kind of man who can take down an enormous secret society? And with the society's founder now dead, what justice or revenge can Gi-hun hope for?

There's also an uncomfortably personal angle to "Squid Game" that may be worth exploring. When I was little, I was horribly cruel to insects that were unlucky enough to stray within reach of me. I had a particular fascination with ants, and one of the more dastardly things I used to do was to create a Play-Doh island inside a shallow bowl, fill the bowl with dish soap (if only Mom knew how much soap I wasted that way), then drop captured ants—dozens of them—onto the Play-Doh island to see what they'd do. A fascinating and morbid pattern began to emerge as I did this exercise over and over again: the ants would all eventually try to swim off the island, becoming mired in the dish soap and suffocating as they followed some genetically programmed imperative. I must have killed hundreds of ants this way, and for no reason other than sick curiosity. And once I'd figured out how inevitable the ants' behavior was, the exercise became even more interesting. This must be what it was like for the VIPs in "Squid Game" as they watched the frightened contestants figure their way through the various games and/or try to kill each other. Human behavior, especially in groups, tends to follow its own inevitable logic. I can see how, in a twisted way, it might be fun to watch that logic play out. But also, much later in life, I knew what it meant to be financially desperate, to live from paycheck to paycheck, and to have to weigh questions like Do I take the bus home or get a meal now and walk? I was once in such a low place that I almost signed for a payday loan. If you don't know what that is, it's basically a deal with the Devil: you agree to receive your requested sum—say, $1500—and you must pay it back with interest by your next payday. The catch is that the loan's APR is set, not around 18% like for a credit card, but at 400%-600%. If you're deep in debt, and you sell your soul for a payday loan, you're on the hook to the loaner for a long, long time. It's an impossible pit to crawl out of, and I was this close to damning myself. So while I know that it's like to watch helpless little beings in a deadly situation of my making, I also know what it's like to be so desperate that I'd do almost anything for even a little relief. I've lived both sides of "Squid Game," in a way, and I hope never to do that again.

"Squid Game" is a good, complicated series, and I can see why it generated so much discussion. As a text, it can be read on many levels. It's got social commentary, some elements of the Marxist critique of capitalism (at least superficially), and a whole dollop of culturally specific man-against-cosmos ideas. Unfortunately, it also killed off almost all of its characters by the end, leaving me to wonder just who will appear in the next season. And as the seasons progress (assuming Season 2 does as well as Season 1), what will the show really be about?