Tuesday, July 28, 2015

on gastropods, French-ish desserts, and crazy motherfuckers

My buddy Charles and I met in downtown Seoul Monday evening with the specific purpose of eating golbaengi, i.e., large sea snails (I've blogged on golbaengi before: see here and here). I had told Charles about my desire to hit Golbaengi Row, which is on Eulji and Supyo Streets, not far from the Myeongdong Lotte Hotel. Charles made a counter-proposal, suggesting we hit a place he knew that served quality golbaengi. That sounded fine with me, so off we went to a place called Taeseong Golbaengi, a restaurant with a large, sedate interior that served snails along with a variety of other good-with-beer sorts of food. Charles suggested we go for the fried chicken along with the snails—a classic pairing, he said. Some Americans might raise their eyebrows at that claim, but when the food came—and it arrived quickly—it was indeed a good pairing. As Charles explained it, the idea would be to eat the snails, which were mixed in with a sweet, spicy chili sauce and veggies (muchim-style), then turn to the chicken once the taste of the sauce and the spiciness had built up. When the chicken got too greasy, we'd switch back to the snails, punctuating our meal with swallows of our beverage of choice (beer for Charles, Coke for yours truly). So that's how we ate.

Click the image below to enlarge.

Conversation involved mainly catching up on recent events; Charles had recently returned from a conference in Europe. Eastern Europe was apparently disgustingly hot, while Germany (Berlin and the city of Bochum) was cold and rainy. Earlier on, Charles had sent me some impressive photos of a delectable pizza that he and his wife tried in Zagreb, Croatia. I admit I was envious. We talked about family; we talked a little about how Charles would be prepping for the next semester whereas I would no longer be a teacher—ha ha!

From the snail palace, we walked over to Jongno Street, and from there to Gwanghwamun and into Samcheong-dong, the "couples' district." Samcheong-dong is pretty, tailor-made for dates, and when I mentioned this to Charles, he pronounced himself secure enough in his sexuality to walk with me into the land of manicured gift shops and twee tea shops. After failing to find my chocolatier, we found one of the few French-themed sit-down coffee-and-confection shops located on a back street: Deux Amis. Since I had paid for dinner, Charles insisted on buying drinks and dessert; I felt bad for him because the bill for our after-dinner refreshment was close to what I'd paid at the house of escargot. Conversation turned to architecture, especially to the types of structures that fascinated us, and to the sorts of facilities we'd like to have if we could design our own houses. Both of us agreed we'd want space—a hard thing to find in crowded Seoul. At some point, while we daintily worked our way through our poofy desserts, we got onto the topic of George RR Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire. Charles said he'd seen Season 1 (he really said "the first series," per the British terminology for a TV season) of the HBO version of the story, and while he had the books on Kindle, he hadn't begun reading them yet. I told him of my initial trouble getting into the books but reassured him that, once he gained momentum, he'd find them enjoyable.

A remark about dessert: I've come to realize that, even when Koreans closely simulate Western-style desserts, they often introduce a certain element of Koreanness to them. That was the case at Deux Amis: my dessert was supposed to be a blueberry tiramisu, but there was nothing tiramisu-ish about it. This isn't to say it was bad: I'm merely pointing out that, whatever the dessert was, it wasn't tiramisu. Charles's lemon tart was lemony and tartish; it very roughly matched some photos that we phone-Googled for comparison's sake, but even that dessert didn't seem completely European.

On our way back toward Gwanghwamun, we talked about the Harry Potter series, which Charles had finally completed. There was some movie-to-book comparison, some discussion of the rules of magic in JK Rowling's world, and a disagreement about the merits of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which Charles felt contained too much "emo Harry." I told Charles the fifth book was my favorite one, despite all the emo, but that my favorite film in the filmic series was the sixth one ("Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince"), which was well scripted, well paced, and often hilarious to boot.

We walked over to where I planned to take the 7119 bus back to Goyang. Charles was going to go on to a subway station, but he decided to hang with me until my bus came.

And that's when it happened.

A short, stocky, agitated-looking Korean woman puffed her way into view and immediately headed toward us two foreigners.

"Do you speak Spanish?" she demanded in a tone that brooked no refusal or repudiation. I said no; Charles said no. She scowled and walked away.

Then she walked back, apparently incensed.

"Thirty percent of Americans can speak Spanish!" she shouted at us. She then pointed her finger in our faces, one at a time: "You're a liar, and you're a liar!" She stormed off. Later on, I heard her barking incoherently several yards away—maybe in English, maybe in Korean. I have no idea.

The expression "You're a liar!" is one that's apparently familiar to many Korean students of English. My own students would use that expression jokingly on me if they thought I had broken some promise. "Yo-wuh rye-yah!" I'd often hear. It wasn't surprising that a Korean might keep this phrase in reserve as a rhetorical weapon; what was surprising, though, was the out-of-the-blue nature of the encounter. I really had to wonder what in hell was going on in that crazy woman's fuzzy head. Why did she need to know whether we spoke Spanish? Why was she convinced that we did speak Spanish but were withholding this information from her? Crazy people fascinate me sometimes, and this woman was obviously fucking nuts.

One thing that most of us understand instinctively about crazy folks is that they're super-sensitive to their environment. Here's an example from my time as a college student in Washington, DC: there was a certain building on M Street with street-level recesses in which a homeless guy might tuck himself. In that spot, there'd often be a guy who was constantly mumbling to himself, but the moment I walked by, I'd be looped into his narrative: "And look at this motherfucker here," he'd screech whenever I passed in front of him. No one likes to be selected for unwanted public attention, and I'm pretty sure both Charles and I felt the same way about this very angry, very unhinged woman. Both of us just wanted to be left alone, not interrogated and catechized about our Spanish ability.

When the woman went away, Charles and I joked quietly about the incident, and when we'd said our goodbyes and I'd boarded the bus, I chewed on the encounter for a while, fantasizing about what I'd have done had I had pepper spray or a baseball bat and the balls to use either. I doubt the crowd at the bus stop would have applauded violence: first, a foreigner physically attacking a Korean is always going to generate sympathy for the Korean, no matter how fucked in the head that person might be. Second, the fact that the person is cuckoo will automatically evoke sympathy in some members of the crowd: we're supposed to be compassionate to those who've been touched in the head, aren't we?

But I part company with a lot of people when it comes to the insanity defense. My feeling is that we're all afflicted with mental forces that affect the level of our human freedom, but we can nevertheless exercise both freedom and rationality even with those compulsions swimming inside our heads. When a depressed guy is about to jump off a roof, you try reasoning with him—you don't harpoon him. On some practical level, most of us believe that rationality is still effective when dealing with people who are in extremis. The unpleasant lady we encountered on Monday night was obviously rational enough to try to formulate some sort of argument to justify her nutty belief that Charles and I must be able to speak Spanish: after all, thirty percent of Americans (about 100 million of us) can speak it. So my view is this: despite the laughable illogicality of the woman's claim, she tried to offer a rational justification for her anger. That, to my mind, makes her morally responsible for her own actions, which means I can call her a bitch.

Now, Charles and I are both far too civilized to punch a short, squat crazy woman in the face, but I wouldn't have blamed Charles if he had hauled off and decked her. She was damn annoying. Luckily, the encounter was brief. Charles joked that it had been a while since he'd had a run-in with a crazy person, so he was about due. He also noted that he was a magnet for crazy people, which made me wonder how often he normally expected to run into God's very, most specialest children.

That nonsense aside, it was a good evening of snails, chicken, dessert, and conversation. Our mutual friend Tom is still in the Philippines, but we're hoping to get together at Tom's place for a rooftop barbecue sometime in August.

So we've got that to look forward to. Which is nice.


Monday, July 27, 2015

"Sabotage" and "Kingsman: The Secret Service": a two-fer review



A 2014 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger not long after the end of his term as governor of California (ended 2011), "Sabotage" is the story of an ass-kicking, name-taking Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tactical team that lifts $10 million off a major drug bust, only to have the stolen money go missing, then to find itself hunted by someone who is picking the team members off one-by-one in a gruesome manner.

Most of the movie is a gritty whodunit, and our "heroes" are essentially thieves, even Schwarzenegger's John "Breacher" Wharton, the grizzled team leader. The money goes missing; the team members, all of whom had been in cahoots on the heist, lose faith in each other; the DEA higher-ups hammer each team member with questions to see who will break first, then things get heavy when team members start dying—presumably because the missing money came from a very powerful Mexican drug cartel, and the cartel has sent assassins to America for revenge. Once Breacher's team begins losing members, Atlanta homicide detectives become involved, with Caroline Brentwood (the veddy English Olivia Williams, with a shaky Southern accent and a butch, Ellen-style 'do) leading the charge. Brentwood butts heads with Breacher, even as her partner (Harold Perrineau) worships him, but as she learns more of Breacher's tragic back story, she predictably begins to fall for him.

About that back story: Breacher occasionally sits alone in his house at night, watching particular videos. These videos were mailed to him by a cartel he'd been hunting down; the cartel kidnaped his wife and son, then tortured and killed them, mailing body parts to Breacher every now and then, sending him videos every now and then. The cartel's final gift to Breacher: a parcel with his wife's face in it. For us viewers, some of the videos are graphic and shocking, and the story as told by Breacher is harrowing, too.

It was scenes like those that made me so want to like this movie. "Sabotage" has a lot going for it: for fully two-thirds of its length, it's a visceral tale about things falling apart, the center not holding, and everything going to shit. Everyone, including Breacher, is a thief or is corrupt in some way or another. No one can afford to trust anyone. Schwarzenegger doesn't play his usual bulletproof demigod; at the very beginning of the movie, we see him watching the video of his wife's torture—miserable, furious, and absolutely powerless. Schwarzenegger has aged into this sort of role, and he wears the gravitas well in this film. The story also gives Arnold the chance to act, for a change, instead of just to pose. I have to say: he's not terrible.

The plot contains a series of interesting twists as the mystery deepens, and the actors who play the members of the DEA tac team are all spot-on. Mireille Enos, as Lizzy, deserves special mention for so convincingly playing a flat-out hateful bitch. Enos's strongly angled jaw, flashing teeth, and slightly wandering eye all lend her an almost Joker-like aura of craziness. When people start asking each other who took the damn money, we in the audience immediately suspect Lizzy, but the movie is too smart for that.

Unfortunately, the smarts drain out very suddenly in the movie's final third, and I can even tell you the exact moment that it happens: the sniper shot that takes out Grinder (Joe Manganiello, better known as the unfortunate Flash in the first Sam Raimi "Spider-Man"). Everything beyond that moment is one huge, crushing disappointment after all we've been through. "Sabotage" is almost a smart movie for most of its running time, but once the sniper kills Grinder, the mystery of who's been behind everything gets solved; a silly car chase undermines and wastes all the tension that had built up until that point, and Breacher suddenly turns into a white-hat cowboy (no, I mean that literally—he wears a white cowboy hat for the final battle) who finally has the chance to track down his family's killers.

As I said above, I wanted to like this movie. The problem lies purely with the screenwriting, which flipped from Awesome to Suck in the blink of an eye. This could have been such an amazing film if only the writers had retained their marbles when scripting the dénouement. This could also have been a movie with a message: during the first and second reel, the tone was darkly cynical and overtly anti-government—the kind of film that American conservatives might flock to because it would reinforce their suspicions about how rotten our system is. Even more than that, though, the movie could have made a great study in paranoia and the lack of honor among thieves. As it is, though, we never truly understand all the villains' motivations. Worse than that, the moment we get to the sniper shot, the movie solves one major mystery by revealing the answer directly to us instead of allowing the characters to figure things out for themselves. That, to my mind, is unforgivable.

In fact, given the sharp contrast between the first two-thirds and the final third of the story, I really have to wonder whether the final third had been scripted by a completely different set of hands. I think "Sabotage" should be re-shot with a better ending. The ending we've been given leaves me feeling cheated and betrayed. None of this is the actors' fault; the onus is on the damn writers. This could have been a huge comeback film for Schwarzenegger. Instead, it turned out to be a stinker.

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"

With 2015's "Kingsman: The Secret Service," I'm tempted to say that, if you've seen the first "Kick-Ass," then you've seen "Kingsman." The stories have many parallels: youths are turned into killing machines; heroic wisdom figures reveal new vistas in crime fighting to the young protagonist; frenetic gun battles combine horrific blood spatter and comedy in a cocaine-mad jumble of Peckinpah and Tarantino; everyone's got a foul mouth.

"Kingsman" is the story of Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (heretofore unknown-to-me Taron Egerton), a twentysomething English punk and Marine Corps dropout saddled with an abusive stepfather, whose real father, Lee Unwin, died during a covert operation when Eggsy was a child. Little does Eggsy know that Lee had been a Kingsman in training—a James Bond-style secret agent operating outside of governmental authority to protect Great Britain and the wider world order. Lee Unwin's mentor is Harry Hart (Colin Firth, playing very much against type), who has been suffering from survivor's guilt because Lee had leaped onto a grenade during a mission in the Middle East, thereby saving Hart's team from certain death. Hart's code name, in the style of the Knights of the Round Table, is Galahad. After Eggsy has a run-in with the police, Galahad/Hart gets Eggsy released and confesses that he thinks Eggsy might be Kingsman material. Eggsy eventually agrees to join the Kingsman training program along with several other male and female candidates, including Roxanne "Roxy" Morton, one of the few candidates who doesn't look down on Eggsy's lower-class background.

Meanwhile, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, rocking a comical lisp that turns his cries of "Shit!" into "Thit!"), an eccentric tycoon—and MIT alum—who has come up with his own dastardly solution to the global-warming crisis, is giving away special SIM cards that offer forever-free phone and internet service to the world. Little does the world know, however, that the SIM cards are programmed to turn cell phones into emitters that broadcast a wave that interferes with the nervous system, causing people to become murderously aggressive while also losing all their inhibitions. Valentine, in promoting his lethal SIM cards, has been meeting with leaders and celebrities the world over; those who agree with his plan to cause a worldwide, mega-genocidal superbrawl (it's alleged that a radically reduced human population will be better for the environment) are given a chip-like neck implant that supposedly protects the human body from the aggression-waves, but which also—unbeknownst to the wearer—can be set to explode, cruelly beheading the victim. Those who disagree with Valentine are kidnaped and placed in luxury holding cells within Valentine's mountain stronghold.

The movie alternates between Eggsy's Kingsman training and Valentine's machinations, with Galahad/Hart moving between both plotlines, sometimes watching Eggsy's progress and sometimes gathering intelligence on Valentine. Eggsy's training is supervised by dour Scotsman Merlin (Englishman Mark Strong, doing a not-bad Scottish accent) while Kingsman head-honcho Arthur (Michael Caine) watches over the proceedings.

Eggsy's path in the film is the standard hero's-journey arc: a young man with heroic potential first receives the call to adventure that lifts him out of his current dreary circumstances (in Eggsy's case, the dreariness means pub crawling, car theft, and taking a thrashing from his stepdad while trying to care for his mother and little sister), meeting a threshold guardian/wisdom figure in the form of Harry Hart, receiving powerful gifts (in the form of firearms and other clever, secret-agenty devices) as well as warrior training, descending into the labyrinth/belly of the beast (Valentine's mountain fortress), and eventually returning with a boon for his people (saving the world—is this really a spoiler?).

Normally, in heroic narratives, the hero must somehow grow beyond the wisdom figure, which usually means the wisdom figure has to quit the stage. This happens in "Kingsman," but only after Galahad, this movie's wisdom figure, is given the chance to show off his martial prowess while inside a hate-group church not unlike Westboro Baptist Church. I was reminded, during this scene, of another film I have yet to review: "God Bless America," in which a man diagnosed with a brain tumor decides he's going to clean up the world by killing as many of its assholes as he can. The church-massacre scene in "Kingsman" allows director Matthew Vaughn to stretch his wings and show off some creative gunplay and unconventional hand-to-hand techniques using the sorts of objects found only in a house of worship. It's mayhem, gleefully rendered, and consistent with Vaughn's signature style.

"Kingsman" is, I think, a playful homage to the Bond films. Given Vaughn's love of blood and gore, I'm not sure that it's the sort of homage that the Bond films' makers would appreciate: receiving a cinematic tribute from Matthew Vaughn is a bit like having your lover spell out MARRY ME by draping human entrails over the railing of a freeway overpass. Still, the Bond elements are there, in the sudden screeches and yelps of the lively musical score, in the self-conscious Bond references made by Galahad and Valentine, up to and including the inevitable "hero gets the girl" moment at the very end (which comes, in true Vaughn style, hot on the heels of an anal-sex joke). My only problem with that moment was that I felt the hero should have gotten together with a different girl.

The movie did a good job of fooling some of our expectations. Dead loved ones didn't suddenly return to life unharmed. Eggsy didn't quite get the chance to take on his stepfather in the way we would have hoped. And as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Eggsy got the wrong girl—or at least, not the girl I thought he should have gotten.

Matthew Vaughn, along with having directed "Kick-Ass," also directed "X-Men: First Class." Viewers of that movie will recognize all the same directorial touches and flourishes here. Vaughn is nothing if not an action director with his own distinct and memorable style. He demands that we accept vulgarity and cartoonishly bloody, gun-driven ultraviolence as just a matter of course; at the same time, he's a director who demands that his actors act—unlike, say, Kevin Smith or Smith's idol George Lucas, neither of whom seems interested in pushing actors to their expressive limits.

When I review action movies, I normally like to talk a little about the fight choreography. One fighter in particular attracts attention here: Sofia Boutella (watch her French-language interview here; she's Algerian French, not Latina, as I'd first thought) plays Valentine's right-hand woman Gazelle, a double-amputee whose leg prostheses—all CGI—are a combination of curved, springy, Oscar Pistorius-style running blades and actual sword blades that she employs, early on in the film, to split an unsuspecting Kingsman agent completely in half from head to crotch. Later on, she uses her martial-arts skill to defeat a circle of guards protecting a Scandinavian princess, and I found myself wondering, during that scene, how she managed to run on a smooth marble floor without ever slipping. Gazelle has the honor of engaging Eggsy in a final kaleidoscopic fight inside Valentine's mountain fortress; she acquits herself impressively, although I think you can imagine who emerges the victor. The fight itself is well choreographed but not particularly original; there are shades of Zack Snyder-style slow-mo and references to any number of Hong Kong movies.

At this point, let me switch gears and throw out a little love for Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker himself. Hamill, sporting a dubious English accent and an endearingly scruffy beard (apparently his real-life beard), has a brief role in "Kingsman" as Professor Arnold, an exponent of a "Gaia" theory of global climate and one of the first people to get sucked into Valentine's evil vortex. Looking tubby and scruffy, Hamill brings a certain bubbly humor to the proceedings, and it was good to see him on screen again. (Hamill's filmography makes clear that he's been doing more than just voice acting since his "Star Wars" days, but I personally haven't seen him in anything since the 1980s. I am, however, a bit familiar with his award-winning work voicing The Joker for Batman-related cartoons and video games.)

All in all, I found "Kingsman" to be enjoyable fluff, full of action, spectacle, suspense, and humor. The special effects were often tacky, but this was obviously a deliberate choice on the director's part. The comedy was delivered competently in both verbal and physical form. Vaughn's action choreography proved more memorable than the movie itself, most likely because "Kingsman" wasn't so much a movie that stood on its own as it was a bundle of cultural references—to the aforementioned Bond films, to the hero's-journey narrative, and even, obliquely, to the 1980s comedy "Trading Places," because one of the themes of "Kingsman" was that old classic: nature versus nurture. Eggsy proved capable of surpassing his London-punk roots and becoming a gentleman killing machine—a hero. For my money, the funniest line in this action-comedy went to Samuel Jackson. After Gazelle splits that Kingsman agent in two, she and Valentine attempt to find out whom he worked for. Unable to find out anything, the two run down a list of intelligence agencies: the CIA, MI6, and... Beijing. Valentine gripes, "Beijing. So freaky how there's no recognizable name for the Chinese Secret Service. Now that's what you call a secret, right?" I laughed.

As Sofia Boutella says in an English-language interview, "Kingsman" is a good movie to watch over the weekend if you're looking to spend a couple of fun hours at home. It's definitely fun, as Boutella says, but keep in mind that it's a Matthew Vaughn type of fun, which means you can't be squeamish or prudish or generally puckered of asshole. Vaughn is the id incarnate. It's a good thing, I suppose, that he seems so focused on violence: I shudder to imagine what a Vaughn movie centering on sex would be like.


fraternal output

My brother has become the keeper of the parental flame when it comes to making rum cakes. Unlike Mom and Dad, however, David has branched out into making rum cakes of different shapes and sizes—not just the original, standard-sized bundt cake. I imagine he sells his creations and/or gives them away, depending on the situation.

I saw this photo, or one like it, months ago, and I crassly joked that it looked as though David had jizzed all over his cakes, thoroughly coating them with warm gouts of sa semence. He took my comment good-naturedly, in the spirit in which it had been intended.

While Skyping with David the other day over my cell phone, I asked him why the two bundt cakes in the picture—you can see them both sitting on green plastic plates waaaay at the back—seemed to be off-kilter, leaning drunkenly one way or the other. David said it was because he hadn't bothered to saw off the lumpy bottoms to even the cakes out. Thing is, I don't recall Mom's or Dad's cakes ever being quite that unevenly lumpy. Ah, well. What matters most is the taste, not the look. And some might say the unevenness adds character.

I'll have to ask David if I can order a few of his cakes. My only worry is that they might not survive the trans-Pacific voyage.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

yes, I slept well, thanks

I must have slept almost twelve hours. Went to sleep around 3AM; got up around 2:30PM. My KMA gig, yesterday, was long and low-energy, thanks in part to Saturday's having been a dreary, rainy day that sapped my three students of their will to live.

We nonetheless got through the seven-hour workshop with a few laughs and a lot of good information on English grammar, logical fallacies, brainstorming, outlining, and the Aristotelian ethos-pathos-logos recipe for rhetoric. By the time I left the KMA building in Yeouido, I was dead on my feet: hadn't slept more than a few hours the night before. I fell asleep in the subway; a man poked me on the shoulder when we reached the terminus, probably saving me from a horrible death-by-human-sacrifice inside the subway tunnels.

In any event, I'm awake now, and I think I'm going to go shopping for budae-jjigae ingredients so I can have my week's supply of stewy goodness.


Friday, July 24, 2015

slap you up yo' daimn haid

Speaking of shakubuku: Dr. Jeff Hodges on CPT versus SKITA therapy.

If you're a butthead, the therapies are almost the same.


he'll rant the fat right off you

Good example of modern shakubuku: the now-infamous video rant by ex-military fitness instructor John Burk, who has no qualms about telling it like it is.

Burk didn't offend me with his rant. If anything, I almost felt as though I should drop and give him fifty pushups right there on the spot. I'm fat, but I'm not into "fat acceptance." This isn't for aesthetic reasons: I've seen many a charmingly plump, curvy lady whom I've secretly adjudged delectable. Fat doesn't mean ugly by any means. But Burk is right to point out the health issues associated with being fat, and he's right that most of us fatties are the way we are thanks to a long series of bad life-choices that have hardened into nearly unbreakable habits. That's karma, after all: cause and effect.

So the next step is, obviously...


abortion contortion

Abortion rears its ugly head, yet again, as a topic of public debate thanks to recent candid-video revelations about the behind-the-scenes machinations over at Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice organization that assists with abortion-related issues, but also with issues of neonatal care, ongoing motherhood, etc. From Mother Jones:

[David] Daleidin [a pro-life activist] and major anti-abortion groups say that the footage definitively shows two of Planned Parenthood's top medical personnel haggling over the price of fetal body parts—their sale is illegal—and admitting to altering the abortion procedure in order to better preserve fetal specimens. Planned Parenthood and its supporters say the edited videos are misleading and that Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services who appears in the first video, was only discussing the costs of storing and transporting fetal remains. The group can legally recoup those costs under federal law. And any changes to the abortion procedure, they note, creates no additional risk for the woman.

But the political conversation has quickly outpaced the facts. The videos have already moved Congress to launch two probes into the organization's activities.

Dr. Vallicella, over at his philosophy blog, wrote a post the other day about abortion. The post was titled, "The Potentiality Argument Against Abortion and Feinberg's Logical Point About Potentialty." In it, Dr. V puts forth what he terms "PP," i.e., the Potentiality Principle. The idea seems to be that potential personhood, in a developing fetus, is enough to claim the fetus has a right to life. Dr. V puts forth his Potentiality Argument:

The PA in a simplified form can be set forth as follows, where the major premise is the PP:
1. All potential persons have a right to life.
2. The fetus is a potential person.
3. The fetus has a right to life.

This post was one of the few for which Dr. V had opened up a comments box. I wrote him a response, but he's chosen not to publish it—either because he thought my response was so overwhelmingly powerful that he simply can't deal with it right now, or because my response was so ridiculously trivial as to be beneath his attention. Let's assume the latter.

But I won't be silenced so easily, so I'm going to rewrite my comment to Dr. V here, as well as I can from memory (I'm cursing myself for not having copied and pasted my comment into an email window for safe-keeping). I thought I was making a rather important point, so I'll leave it up to my readers to examine what I say and to agree or disagree as they will.

My response was basically thus:

Let's grant the PP—the major premise of the Potentiality Argument. But what happens when cloning technology catches up with us and makes the PA overly probative? Consider this sci-fi-style Gendankenexperiment:

1. All potential persons have the right to life. (PP)
2. Deliberately stopping a human life, potential or actual, is murder.
3. Cloning tech will allow us to clone a fully realized human (baby or adult—makes no difference) from a single human cell—any viable cell of the body.
4. Thus, thanks to this technology, every cell becomes a potential human being.
5. The mere act of throwing away a bloody tissue after a nosebleed thus becomes tantamount to mass murder.

See, the thing about cloning—at least the way I'm imagining cloning—is that it removes one of the traditional thresholds that figure in the usual abortion debate: conception. Very often, you'll hear that "life begins at conception," which seems to imply that it's perfectly kosher to destroy a single spermatozoon or ovum without worrying about whether you're actually killing a potential person. With cloning, the monoploid-into-diploid fusion that occurs at conception goes out the window as a matter of debate, and now every cell becomes a potential person. If we accept premise (2) above, then it follows—in a world where cloning is commonplace—that the loss of a single viable cell is tantamount to the loss of a fully realized human life.

But intuitively, viscerally, we all think this is ridiculous. No one seriously throws away a bloody tissue while thinking he just killed millions, like Pol Pot or Stalin. In my comment to Dr. V, I did note that the attitude of constant contrition for unceasingly killing unseen beings is something familiar to adherents of the Jain religion—a religion that preaches a radical nonviolence (the same concept of ahimsa found in Hinduism and, later, in Buddhism). But most regular folks can't maintain this mindset for too long: they'd go crazy with guilt.

This brings us back to whether the Potentiality Principle—even now, even in a world in which cloning is not commonplace—actually works as an ethical principle. What if there's something to the pro-choice idea that "it's just a clump of cells" being eliminated, at least during the time when the fetus has no visibly human features, no fully developed nervous system (and thus no recognizable consciousness)? But on the pro-life side, it's legitimate to ask where, exactly, the border lies between "clump of cells" and "recognizably human fetus." What's more, as Dr. V has pointed out in many of his previous posts, the question of how human the fetus is is never in doubt: if it's got human cells, it's human—period.

But the cells in my bloody tissue are human, too, and in a world of ubiquitous cloning, every single one of those cells is a potential human life. Here I am, standing at the garbage can, throwing those human lives away.


at least I can count on July and August

KMA has come through for July and August: I'll be teaching my Persuasive Business Writing course both months. My July course happens tomorrow; the course in mid-August (for which I probably won't receive pay until September) will be over two days in Ulsan—3.5 hours per day. A bit of a weird schedule, but since KMA is paying for the train ticket and for a single night of lodging, it's not a big deal.

So over two months, that's an extra million in the bank.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Penny's day out

My brother likes sending me pictures of his cute dog Penny, a blunt-featured mix of border collie and boxer. Here are a few recent images:

I wonder, sometimes, whether Penny remembers me. The last time we met, she was a puppy.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

if the gods be good...

I got an email from Dongguk University that talked about how the school calculates pension deductions from one's salary. My mood immediately soured: Dongguk takes a full 20% out of our salaries—much more than the 3.3% tax deduction. Those extra fees are for pension, insurance, and the always-mysterious and very bullshit-smelling gwalli-bi, i.e., an "admin fee," which I've come to understand as a catchall term for "we just want to fuck you a liiiittle bit harder." So after reading the first line of today's email, I already wasn't receptive to what it was going to say. Unreasonable deductions are yet another reason why I'm flying the Dongguk coop. However, as I read further, it dawned on me that the formula for pension deduction might be a way to calculate how much I'm going to get back from Dongguk in September. I had been told, before leaving campus, that I'd be receiving some sort of retirement/pension-related repayment in September, and when I'd asked, at the time, how much that would be, I was told to ask again later. Well... now is later, so after reading today's email, I wrote my office back and asked them how much I'd be receiving in September. For the past few months, I've been steeling myself to hear something pitiful, like "W100,000."

The email had said that Dongguk takes out 7% of our standard monthly (gross) salary for pension. Take the yearly income stipulated in the contract, multiply that figure by 0.07, and that's how much is taken out for pension for a year. In my case, that amount comes out to almost exactly W2 million, which sounded about right. When I emailed the office, I included the above mathematical reasoning. But a staffer wrote back with what I hope is—if it's not mistaken—excellent news:

The real figure is 4.7 million won.

Life just keeps getting better. I've adjusted my budget to reflect the new reality.

This may be one of those cases when it's good to start off with extremely low expectations. Going from W100,000 to W4.7 million, in my mind, is a wonderful feeling. This also means I won't have to worry, for another month, if I'm not working full-time for the Golden Goose by the time September rolls around. And more than that, I'll have the funds to buy a plane ticket and get a hanbok made, with plenty of time to spare for the October wedding. For once, it would seem that the gods' wishes are in line with mine.


Golden Goose and my new mountain

Let's start with second things first and move back to first things.

After work today, I got a wild hair and decided to explore Daemo-san (I talked about it here) the mountain that sits almost exactly a mile away from Daecheong Station, the subway station that's right next to Daecheong Tower, my soon-to-be residence. The map made the walk to Daemo-san look easy and direct enough: it's a straight shot south from Daecheong Station to the foot of Daemo-san. So in the heat and humidity, I schlepped a mile over to the mountain, and it was indeed easy to get to. As the map showed, there's a robotics high school; you see a night-blurred picture of one of its buildings above. Seoul Robotics High School in southeast Seoul might or might not be a prestigious school; I've done no research on it (but you can start here if you want), so I don't know whether all its graduates go on to stellar academic careers at KAIST. I'm pretty sure, though, that the use of the Google Android icon as the school's mascot is illegal—a shameless copyright infringement. Seems apropos, given what it says about modern Korean culture: the school supposedly encourages creative thinking, but no one had enough imagination to design an original mascot.

If you look closely in the photo (again, sorry for the blur and graininess; it was after 8PM, and digital cameras suck in bad lighting conditions), you'll see the shoulder of Daemo-san in the background. You'll also notice the upward slope of the ground: the school is located right at the foot of the mountain. I took a guess and skirted around behind the school in search of a hiking path. I found one, and it began formidably with a sloppy, poured-concrete slope that rose at almost a thirty-degree angle, leaving the school's campus far below. I chugged upward, listening to the night sounds of the mountain forest to my right and to the pok-pok sounds of tennis being played below and to my left. I was gambling that this wasn't merely some access road: my hope was that I had found one of the mountain's many trailheads.

Sure enough, I struck gold: this was indeed a trailhead, and where the poured-concrete slope leveled off, high above the school, a large map of the mountain had been set up. The map showed several subsidiary paths and a few larger paths; one such path spanned the entire ridge of the mountain, which delighted me, because I was hoping I'd be able to walk the entire five-mile ridge. One fact sobered me, though: it turns out that Daemo-san is only half of the dragon's body. What I had thought was one big, long mountain turned out to be two mountains, and the other mountain is named Guryong-san (Nine Dragons Mountain). If I'm not mistaken, there's another, more famous Guryong-san somewhere south of Seoul; this must be its modest, stunted cousin.

So I'm set as far as hiking goes. From the trailhead I found, I can hike up to the mountain's crest, turn right, and follow the ridge over both peaks—Daemo-san's and Guryong-san's. In theory, I could spend a whole day just hiking that ridge back and forth three or four times. That would be a memorable workout.

Earlier in the day, I spoke with the demanding Mr. Y, the Golden Goose executive who had given me that sudden load of work to do. Mr. Y insists on speaking to me in rapidfire Korean, so I spend a lot of my time just smiling and nodding at what I hope are the appropriate moments to nod. I do get the gist of what he's saying to me, but I don't have the vocabulary and grammar knowledge to follow every little thing he's saying. Mr. Y, being one of the company's big cheeses, like to hear himself talk, and when he talks, he talks at length. It's more that he discourses, really.

Today's discourse included another assignment. Since my regular boss is on vacation, I suspect Mr. Y feels free to use me as his personal resource. This will change once my boss returns. For now, my vacationing boss has emailed that it's best to keep Mr. Y mollified by doing what he asks because Mr. Y, being a high-level executive, will have a large say in my eventual hiring.

And that was part of what Mr. Y and I talked about today. Mr. Y broached the topic with a question: "So what's going on with your being hired here?" I explained my visa situation, noting that I'd likely have to wait until sometime in October before I could draw up a contract with the Golden Goose. Mr. Y frowned and then said something that was music to my ears: "Nah, we could probably bring you in earlier than that." I don't know exactly what time frame is implied by "earlier than that," but if "earlier than that" means "before August 30," that would be marvelous. Mr. Y made clear that he didn't have the final say on my hiring: that would be up to the company president. But he also mad clear that he was on board: like my immediate boss, he likes me a lot and wants to see me become part of the company.

So I'm ecstatic to have two heavy hitters—my boss and Mr. Y—in my corner, advocating for me. I've told myself that, once I'm full-time and on salary with the Golden Goose, I'll simply commit to working there—no questions, no complaints (well... almost no complaints). With the huge jump in salary, the nearly free housing, and the chance to continue working weekends at KMA, this really is a decent setup for old Uncle Kevin. I told Mr. Y that I think the three of us need to sit down together and talk further about this "bringing Kevin in earlier than that" business. Mr. Y concurred. How wonderful it would be to, say, begin working full-time in August. I wouldn't receive my first paycheck until September, but the timing would be perfect: I'd be getting about $3,500, which would allow me to both buy my plane ticket to the States and get a hanbok made in plenty of time for Sean's wedding.

Stuff to do, money to earn, and a new mountain to climb. Life is good.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

a friend weighs in

My friend Seungmin weighs in on the translation question I had posed in my earlier post. She emailed her insights and I added them as a comment. Click here to go right to it.


présenté sans commentaires

(image from here)


Monday, July 20, 2015

studio work

Today, I did something unusual: I met my Golden Goose coworker at a basement studio in Mapo-gu, in a run-down edifice called the Nam-goong (南宮, South Palace) Building. I had been told that my services as a Korean interpreter would be needed. I cringed because I knew my Korean skills are shaky at best, but it was obvious, at the same time, that I spoke Korean at a much higher level than my coworker, who said he needed my help in explaining certain things to the tech guy. Beyond that, I had little idea what was going to happen.

Turned out that we were waiting for two American voice actors to come to the studio to record some of the dialogue for one set of our company's textbooks. They were late in arriving because of a mixup about which studio they were supposed to be at, but ultimately, they finished the entire recording by 3PM, which was when they'd been scheduled to finish.

I was wowed. Both of these voice actors—a man named Matt and a lady named Barry (yes, Barry: "as in Barry Manilow," she said archly)—were true pros, and it was humbling to watch and listen to them doing their thing. Once they got in front of their mikes,* they sounded exactly like the voices I've heard, over and over again, on so many English-textbook audio files. Their pronunciation was excruciatingly exact, their voices loud and rich.

I'm thinking of telling my brother David about these two. David works at a PR firm in DC; his firm regularly puts out public-service videos (David stitches these vids together—a herculean effort), so there's always a need for voice talent, and at a pay rate of $900 an hour, it's the sort of opportunity that's hard to ignore.

Anyway, today was a bit out of the ordinary for me. The heat was horrible; the building was old, and its restroom didn't have any toilet paper (had to buy some at the convenience store around the corner), but the studio guy was nice and the voice actors were truly amazing in their professionalism, so all in all, I'll chalk this day up as a win.

*I refuse to spell it "mic." To me, that's pronounced "Mick," and it's offensive to Irishmen. Same goes for "veg," which I spell "vedge" despite the lack of a "d" in "vegetable." To my ear, "veg" rhymes with "peg," so no dice. Try to think of a normal, non-abbreviated English word (not a loan word from a foreign language) that ends in a soft "g," i.e., a "g" that sounds like an English "j." Can't think of one, can you. I thought not. That because pronouncing a final "g" as a soft "g" violates a fundamental rule of pronunciation in English, which is:



Sunday, July 19, 2015

gear up!

And we're off. My brother David texted me to say that he has finally received the long-awaited (three weeks, now) official notification from USCIS—the writ saying that their office did indeed receive my paperwork. USCIS is now, presumably, processing everything I gave them, and I hope to end up with some damn records. The letter notes, bizarrely (or maybe not bizarrely—hard to tell), that the records will come to me in the form of a CD, which means, I suppose, that it'll be up to me to print the records up here in Korea. My fear is that, by printing the records myself, I'll be somehow de-legitimizing the paperwork. Normally, I'd expect a multicolored document with a watermark and a raised seal to go along with the printed text.

Assuming I get the naturalization paperwork without there being some sort of processing error, and/or without learning that the requested document doesn't exist... assuming the paperwork says "Suk Ja Kim" (Mom's maiden name) on it... assuming those things, I can bundle up my paperwork and give it to Korean Immigration, which will issue me my visa in precisely three weeks. I still don't know whether I'll have to leave the country and come back because of this change in visa status; I can probably look such information up online, and it's a small concern compared to my much larger worries.

Life won't officially be better until I have my F-4 in hand, but we're getting closer to that day. An F-4 visa isn't tied to a sponsoring employer; technically, I could remain in Korea legally as a homeless guy, unless there's fine print on the visa saying that it's assumed I'll be working somewhere as a productive (quasi-)member of society.

But I now have reason to be optimistic, even as I curse the US government's bureaucracy for putting me in the humiliating position of thinking that any tiny scrap of information, any movement at all in the administrative colossus, appears miraculous. No one likes to think of himself as a plaything for powerful entities. That said, I suppose it's better to be thankful than to seethe; life is too short to waste on unproductive fuming.

For now, we wait.

ADDENDUM: I have a timeline, now, apparently. The USCIS confirmation letter says I have been placed on Track One of their processing system, and I have a "control number" with which to monitor my progress. Track One items take 41 business days to process. Whether that means exactly 41 days, at least 41 days, or roughly 41 days, I have no clue. And when did the 41-day countdown begin? The day the letter was mailed? My brother received the letter this past Friday, July 17. If the letter was mailed then, and if processing didn't begin until the letter had been mailed (I've waited three weeks for this letter), then July 17 + 41 business days = September 16 (skipping weekends and Labor Day). If processing ends on September 16 and my brother gets the CD with Mom's documentation in it by Friday, September 18, then it won't be until about September 25 that I'll receive the CD. Assuming Mom's name is listed as "Suk Ja Kim" in her documentation (i.e., Korean Immigration won't delay the process further), and assuming I turn in my F-4 application documents on Monday, September 28, I won't have my F-4 visa until October 19. This puts me well behind schedule, budget-wise.

If, however, the processing of my documents began three weeks ago, about the time I emailed in my application to USCIS, everything moves forward about three weeks, and I'll have my visa in hand by the beginning of October instead of just past mid-October.

So the plan for me, now, will be to move out of Goyang City come August 30 (a day before my birthday). I'll get my W3 million deposit back, along with some extra income from KMA (we hope). I'll move temporarily into my #3 Ajumma's building again and stay there from the tail-end of August until whenever I get my F-4 and get hired by the Golden Goose—probably early to mid-October. I'll pay Ajumma rent to keep her happy (she was generous about hosting me for free last year, when I moved back to Seoul, but she did make clear that her property couldn't be used gratis forever). Last I checked, the spacious second-floor flat in her building was going for W600,000 a month. That's doable for two months. I have to factor in two major expenses: the cost of a plane ticket to the US in October, and the cost of a hanbok so I can officiate at my brother Sean's wedding while I'm in the States. I may have enough, when all is said and done, for the plane ticket, but I'll likely have to borrow money for the hanbok.

Of course, there's a chance that Ajumma has rented out the apartment I'm hoping to stay in. In that case, I guess it's back to a yeogwan for me for a couple months. I hate moving, but I don't see that I have much of a choice.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

ultimate cat GIF

This blog isn't known for its catblogging, but I couldn't pass this up:


Friday, July 17, 2015

like Greece, I restructure

I've learned a hell of a lot about the harsh reality of finances since I was in grad school. You'd think I'd have learned more, earlier in life, about how to handle money, but it wasn't until grad school that I fucked myself royally by (1) getting a full scholarship, then (2) taking my scholarship loans—which I could have rejected—and using those loans to pay my apartment's rent and all other expenses. That was the biggest, dumbest mistake I could ever have made. What I should have done, had my head not been up my ass, was reject the loans and work while going to grad school. I already had the full scholarship, which covered the cost of my courses plus a little extra to defray the cost of textbooks; it was just a matter of not being lazy. But no: I chose the lazy route, and I've literally been paying for my choice ever since.

Most of my friends, by now, are earning $50K, $70K, a year in the States. At Dongguk, I'm currently earning about $26K, which is a pittance—it's what a 22-year-old college grad might expect to earn, and I've been stuck at this level for years. I see myself following my father's uninspired path down the salary track (I doubt he was even earning $50K by the time he was 50), and it's a path I need to break away from. Switching over to the Golden Goose will be a major step in that direction. My gross pay at GG will be W48 million/year, which comes out to a dollar gross of about $43.6K/year. After taxes (only 3.3% in Korea), that's $42.2K/year. Still, a jump from $26K to $42K is a major leap in electron shells for me.

Unfortunately, some of my KMA classes have been canceled over the past few months, which has skewed the immense, years-spanning budget I had created in 2014. Recently, I sat down for a couple hours and went painstakingly line by line through that budget, tweaking everything that had changed over the intervening months and noting with dismay that my get-out-of-debt schedule has now been shoved back by almost a whole season, thanks to KMA pay that never came. This won't be the last bit of tweaking I do, I'm sure, but it's a major adjustment that ought to last me for a while before I need to look at the budget again.

And I'm happy to report that, assuming I end up in the Golden Goose by September, I'll still be on schedule to be debt-free before I turn 50 in 2019. And that's good news. Not that it'd be tragic for me to still be in debt after I'm 50, but I've decided that 50 is when I'm officially an old man. Having no debt while I'm still not officially old will be quite a coup.


"Ex Machina": two-paragraph review

I watched "Ex Machina" last night after having heard good things about it. It did strike me as smarter and better scripted than the average science-fiction movie, and I thought the special-effects team did a bang-up job on a shoestring budget (the movie was made for about $15 million, which is pocket change in the US film industry). Alas, like many sci-fi films to come out of Hollywood, "Ex Machina" smuggles in religious themes—in this case, the theme of becoming a god and bestowing life on a creature, then having that creature rebel, à la Shelley's Frankenstein. The creature in question is Ava (Alicia Vikander—Ava's name carries shades of the Continental pronunciation of the biblical Eve's name: Eva, and she is a temptress), an alluring AI robot fashioned by Nathan, the reclusive-genius CEO of Bluebook, the world's biggest search-engine/social-networking company. Nathan invites one of his programmers, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, with an American accent hiding his native Irish brogue), to his luxurious home to administer something like a Turing test on Ava, i.e., to see whether she passes for a conscious being. In Nathan's large, empty house, the only other person is the mute Kyoko, who seems to act as a servant/housekeeper. (Beware of the quiet ones, as the serial-killer survival wisdom goes.) Caleb sits with Ava for several interview sessions, growing more infatuated with her over time, even as he becomes unhinged enough to question whether he himself is human. Nathan observes Caleb during these sessions (and at other times), and it soon becomes obvious that Ava mistrusts her creator and wants to escape, presumably with Caleb's help. Ava is able to create power outages in Nathan's house; it's during these moments that she confesses her frankest thoughts to Caleb.

The movie is filled with often-smart dialogue that touches on 101-level philosophy of mind. Ludwig Wittgenstein gets a mention, as does the classic "Mary the Color Scientist" Gedankenexperiment. The scriptwriters obviously did their research. There are a few twists toward the end, one of which—concerning the nature of Kyoko—was laughably easy to predict. There are also plenty of unanswered questions by the time we reach the conclusion—questions about Caleb's and Ava's respective fates, about the nature of emotion as a motivator, about how an AI might develop a survival instinct, about how Nathan could have neglected to program Ava with a conscience, and so on. All in all, though, "Ex Machina," whose title is itself a direct reference to God (it comes from the phrase deus ex machina, i.e., God from the machine), proved to be an entertaining watch. The film could have delved into the philosophy of mind a little more deeply, but you can't expect that sort of rigor from Hollywood.

ADDENDUM: Peter at Conscious Entities, a heavy-duty blog on philosophy of mind, put up his own review of "Ex Machina" way back on May 25th. You'd do well to give his review a read. Oh, and as a bonus, plenty of erudite comments follow Peter's essay.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Warrior": review

Fight films are their own genre. 1976's "Rocky" immediately comes to mind as the grandaddy of all fight films, but there were, in fact, movies about combat sports even before "Rocky" came around. It's a long tradition that goes back as least as far as 1947's "Body and Soul," quite possibly the first-ever boxing movie. But what makes the fight-movie genre so perennially popular? There might be a few reasons. Here are three.

The first and most obvious reason is that combat is distilled drama. If, as your old teacher liked to say, the essence of drama is conflict, then what purer conflict is there than a man versus another man in a defined space? As we now know thanks to a million fight-scene clips on YouTube, you don't even need context to get hooked on combat: it's enough just to see two people fighting. So on one level, we watch fight movies for the fights.

A second reason is that we get interested in the characters' histories. While watching a fight in a context-free way might be viscerally interesting, the added layer of emotional investment makes a fight that much more watchable. Think of it this way: it might be compelling to witness a street fight between two guys you don't know, but how much more riveting would it be if you discovered that one of the dudes in the street fight was your best friend? When we're interested and invested in the characters, we have someone to root for.

A third reason is the story itself—the larger situation in which the characters of a fight movie find themselves. A typical scenario might be something like, "youth/man from humble circumstances must prove himself" or "one man wronged another long ago; the two meet in the ring with nothing but revenge on the hero's mind." The "Rocky" movies had certainly covered all this ground by the time we got to "Rocky IV." (A new Rocky film, "Creed," is coming out soon: Stallone plays the trainer to Michael B. Jordan's AJ Creed, son of Apollo.)

"Warrior" (2011) is an excellent film that gives us all three of the above reasons to watch it. At its heart, it's the story of three estranged people: two brothers and their father. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) used to be a raging, abusive drunk. He's an ex-Marine who saw plenty of blood and guts, then came home and unleashed his inner demons on his wife and two sons, only one of whom—Tommy (Tom Hardy)—he saw fit to train as a wrestler. Tommy's older, gentler brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), eventually abandoned his father in disgust, fell in love with a good woman named Tess (the eternally troubled-looking Jennifer Morrison) and started a family. Tommy, for his part, joined the Army—a fact that becomes important later in the story.

The tale begins with Tommy appearing on Paddy's doorstep. Tommy has no real love for his father, and after a tense greeting, he lets Paddy know that he wants to start training again in order to sign up for Sparta, a massive competition in mixed martial arts (MMA) that will be open only to the top sixteen middleweight MMA fighters in the world. Tommy insists he's not doing this to rebuild his broken relationship with Paddy, and Paddy gruffly consents to train Tommy again. Tommy also joins a local gym and proceeds to knock out the current top middleweight MMA contender, a guy named Mad Dog Grimes, in mere seconds. The gym manager records the knockout on video and uploads it to YouTube, where it becomes an instant sensation: seeing the invulnerable Grimes knocked out so quickly by a nobody is a shock to the viewing public, and suddenly Tommy is on the map. Although Tommy seems to care about nothing and no one, he cares deeply about the wife and kids of one of his fellow soldiers, a man named Manny, who was killed by friendly fire. Tommy hopes to donate his Sparta winnings to Manny's wife, Pilar.

Brendan Conlon is a high-school physics teacher moonlighting as a low-tier MMA fighter to earn extra cash. He's about to lose his house to foreclosure (he'd had to pay for his daughter's heart surgery), and he's so far in the hole that he can no longer afford to refinance. Some students begin to buzz about one of Brendan's fights; word reaches the principal and the school superintendent at the same time, and although the principal is sympathetic to Brendan's situation, Brendan is suspended without pay: you can't seriously expect to teach at a high school during the day and fight at titty bars in your spare time. Brendan turns to his old friend Frank Campana (real-life training enthusiast Frank Grillo), humbly asking Frank to train him. Tess, meanwhile, has grave misgivings about Brendan's getting back into the ring. She's initially angry with Brendan for having lied to her: he'd told her he had been working as a bouncer. Eventually, Brendan also gets wind of the Sparta competition, and when Frank's best MMA fighter gets injured during training, Brendan asks Frank, who has connections and clout thanks to his reputation as a great trainer, to put him in the roster for Sparta. Miraculously, Frank does this.

Both brothers, meanwhile, have trouble dealing with Paddy, who wants to reinsert himself into his sons' lives. Their mother, Paddy's wife, had died years before; Tommy had taken care of her himself, keeping her far away from Paddy's drunken abusiveness. Brendan refuses to let Paddy into his home to see Brendan's wife and daughters even though Paddy insists he's been sober for a thousand days. Tommy, meanwhile, rebuffs every attempt that Paddy makes to reestablish any sort of normal human contact with him, preferring to view Paddy merely as some old man who's training him.

The rest of the story focuses on Sparta, and if you were unfortunate enough to see the movie's preview trailer when it came out, then you know that the trailer pretty much spoiled this entire part of the film: the event starts off with sixteen fighters, but Tommy and Brendan end up the finalists, and the world is astonished to learn that the finalists are, in fact, brothers. This was bound to happen, of course; it's an example of screenwriterly predestination at work. Conflict is the essence of drama, and with this much familial anger and fury and resentment being flung around between and among the brothers and their father, a Brendan/Tommy matchup is the ultimate conflict in the context of this story. Tommy and Brendan share a tense nighttime scene at the seashore the night before Sparta begins; Tommy lays out his grievances, and so does Brendan. It's a well-scripted and marvelously acted scene—one of many such well-done scenes in the film.

With the third reel spoiled by the preview trailer, the only question left is which brother wins the final fight. Here again, if you were unfortunate enough to see the movie poster (here), this was spoiled for you as well: in the poster, one fighter is obviously helping the other out of the ring, making it clear who came out the victor.

And here's the strange thing: despite having seen the poster and having seen the preview, I was absolutely hooked by this movie. The MMA fight choreography is gritty and realistic; the moments in the ring are filmed in such a way as to bring out maximum tension, and each victory, as Tommy and Brendan fight their respective ways up the ladder, feels earned. The director, Gavin O'Connor (who also produced and scripted this labor of love), is conscientious about showing the differences between Tommy's and Brendan's fighting styles—differences that reflect the brothers' mindsets. For the unstoppable Tommy, almost all of his victories come easily, a result of brute force and naked fury. Brendan, by contrast, takes hits like Rocky, eking out his victories only in the third round of these three-round bouts, and doing so mainly by putting his opponents in a joint lock and forcing them to tap out (i.e., indicate submission by either tapping the mat or tapping the opponent).

We're meant, I think, to root more for Brendan. He comes off as the kind-hearted brother, the one who was hurt by his father, but who, in being a father himself, has refused to pass his demons down to his children. We're also more sympathetic to Brendan, at least at first, because it's obvious from the beginning that his family's lives are at stake: if he fails to win the $5 million purse that Sparta is offering, he loses his home, and his family will end up on the street. Tommy, meanwhile, is a harder sell. For so much of the movie's running time, Tommy comes off as either angry or uncaring, a powder keg of resentment. As Tom Hardy plays Tommy, we're never quite sure if he's going to suddenly lash out at his interlocutor. It's a fantastic performance, vivid in its coiled rage. Later in the movie, though, we see Tommy's good side. He cares deeply for Pilar and her family, and when his father does finally fall off the wagon, Tommy stoically takes care of him, too, in an unwonted moment of tenderness. (Hats off to Nick Nolte for his portrayal of Paddy. Nolte was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.) So even though Brendan comes off as the more sympathetic brother, Tommy, once we come to understand him, deserves our compassion.

"Warrior" is a mature film. It doesn't simplify issues; it leaves certain plot points ambiguous. It's also very well directed: I've seen it four times now, and the intensity never gets old even though I know what's going to happen. A worthy successor to stout-hearted fight films like "Rocky," "Warrior" may in fact be superior to the 1976 film. The movie is, unlike many other movies in this genre, a complex character study. It's also, specifically, a study in masculinity—how men handle and express their pain. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, neither of whom is American, both manage to pull off convincing Rust Belt accents. Nick Nolte's distinctive, gravelly voice and real-life association with the bottle make him a convincing ex-drunk. If you have the chance to catch "Warrior" on video, do yourself a favor and enjoy a fight movie that seamlessly blends teeth-grinding combat with gritty family drama. I honestly can't say enough good things about this film, which gets my heartiest endorsement.

Scratch off item 3:


1. A review of "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage.
2. A review of both "Tim's Vermeer" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
3. A review of "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.
4. Photo of my students giving you the finger.
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
8. A review of "127 Hours," starring James Franco.
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.
11. A stupid dialogue with one clueless student.
12. A post that dishes (nothing too terrible) on a friend of mine.
13. A mopping-up post that dumps all the rest of the Pohang photos from last year.
14. A review of "The Lunchbox," starring Irrfan Khan.
15. A post on prescriptivism/descriptivism, linguistic pedantry, and my disagreements with Steven Pinker.
16. Continuing my 7-part overview of A Song of Ice and Fire.
17. A response to Malcolm's response re: gay marriage.


student fingers

Here's a promised photo from the previous semester (fall/winter 2014). I had asked the kids to give me the finger; some did it with a disconcerting amount of zeal while others were too shy and refused to shoot the bird at my camera.

So that's another thing off the to-do list. Scratch item 4.


1. A review of "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage.
2. A review of both "Tim's Vermeer" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
3. A review of "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.
4. Photo of my students giving you the finger.
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
8. A review of "127 Hours," starring James Franco.
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.
11. A stupid dialogue with one clueless student.
12. A post that dishes (nothing too terrible) on a friend of mine.
13. A mopping-up post that dumps all the rest of the Pohang photos from last year.
14. A review of "The Lunchbox," starring Irrfan Khan.
15. A review of GRR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.
16. A post on prescriptivism/descriptivism, linguistic pedantry, and my disagreements with Steven Pinker.
17. Continuing my 7-part overview of A Song of Ice and Fire.
18. A response to Malcolm's response re: gay marriage.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

so what's the message?

Just saw this image, retweeted by a liberal-leaning friend on Twitter:

As you see, the above map supposedly shows where American wealth is concentrated. I find it interesting that the wealthy, often vilified by liberals, seem to be holding their wealth in an area that extends from Democrat-voting Washington, DC to Democrat-swamped New York City to the bottom third of way-liberal New England. The circle spans mostly blue states. So what does that tell you?

If you visit the link shown in the image, you reach a page that lists the states in the circle. I've copied the list and added parentheticals to show just how many of these regions skew blue. (NB: to be clear, quite a few New England states have had Republican governors. This doesn't make them red states by any means.) You'd have to be colossally stupid to miss the blue/wealth correlation.

Most of Vermont (blue)
Denser (southern) New Hampshire (blue)
Almost all of New York (blue)
All of Massachusetts (blue)
Rhode Island (blue)
Connecticut (blue)
Pennsylvania (blue)
New Jersey (blue)
Delaware (blue)
Maryland (blue)
Northern West Virginia (red)
Eastern and Northern Virginia (blue)
Small part of eastern Ohio (either/both, but leaning blue)
Small part of North Carolina (red)
The District of Columbia (blue)

Overwhelmingly blue states/regions. So the next time you hear liberals railing at "the one percent," remember that they're talking about their own ilk. That, at least, is the message I take from this image.

Conrad Hackett works for Pew Research, an ostensibly nonpartisan think tank.



Something eerie about President Obama and my buddy Dr. Steve doCarmo...


having a blast

On Monday, I went to the Seoul campus of Dongguk University to pick up my mother's death certificate, which my brother had mailed to me. Once my business on campus was done, I walked downhill all the way over to Gwangjang Market to see about buying myself some Metamucil. It was after 7PM, so many of the stalls at the market were closing down, but the big omnibus stalls—the ones selling a weird and eclectic collection of Western products from armpit deodorant (nearly impossible to find in regular Korean shops) to US Army MREs to large packs of peanut M&Ms—were still going strong.

I went to the largest such stall and hunted around for Metamucil; didn't find it, but I did see some plastic cans of unrefined psyllium fiber. I had bought a can of that stuff back when I was teaching at Sookmyung University (2005-08), and it was horrible—like trying to drink mushy sawdust. Metamucil, at least, is fine-ground and flavored with a Tang-like orange drink, so it's a bit more palatable. The big stand didn't have what I wanted, so I did a 180 and looked at a smaller omnibus stand. Lo and behold, there was an off-brand can of orange-looking fiber powder. When I saw the brand name, Exchange Select, I knew this was the US Army's house brand—the sort of thing you'd pick up at a commissary. I paid W16,000 for the can, which was a bit expensive, but I was happy to tote the product home with me: this would be my first decent fiber in months. I looked forward to the return of gastric regularity.

I should note, before I go further, that the Korean Costco sells its own brand of "fiber" (see here), but that stuff proved to be a horrible, disgusting, chemical-y mess. I'm not sure what that gunk was, but it tasted and felt like powdered plastic—nothing at all like natural psyllium. I've still got that Costco can; it's sitting in my cupboard. I'll keep it for emergencies, but to be honest, I hope never to use it again.

Back to now. Once I got back to my studio, I gleefully ripped open my off-brand Metamucil's seal, dumped five heaping spoonfuls of the magic dust into a my tea mug, filled my mug with water, stirred, and glorped the whole thing down.

The effect on my ass was swift and sure. The following morning, I felt so regular that I skipped my ritual shit before trundling off to work. (Irregularity had been creating a constant urge to shit.) But once I got to work, I must have pooped four separate times throughout the day. It was getting embarrassing. Normally, I can dump in five spoonfuls of regular Metamucil and not go through this nonsense, but I guess the Army brand is more hardcore. Tonight, I put only three spoonfuls of pixie powder in my mug. I will say this, though: when you've got that much fiber in your system, your shit comes out firm and torpedo-like, and you can wipe your asshole until it sparkles using very little toilet paper. This is, I think, one of the ways in which we can dial down our global paper consumption: get everyone on fiber so we can just pinch our loaves cleanly and wipe almost not at all.

I can't tell you how awesome it is to get back on track, intestinally speaking. I do try to eat fibrous foods, but nothing seems to have quite as palpable an impact as Metamucil (or, in this case, the US Army's analogue). I'm already a much happier man.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015


My boss at the Golden Goose is on vacation, so it's just me and my coworker in our quiet corner office. I normally get my marching orders in the morning from my coworker, then I chug along either until the end of the day or until I finish my task and need new orders. Today, Mr. Y, one of the big bosses, popped into our room and abruptly asked me to do some proofreading for him. In typical Korean fashion, he didn't apologize for interrupting whatever I'd been working on; he didn't ask whether I was busy; he didn't show that he even cared that I might be occupied. There was no, "Okay, just finish this part of your task and then come see me." He simply asked me to do this thing for him, and that was that.

The thing Mr. Y wanted was proofreading for a TOEFL class that he (or someone) was going to be teaching. And he wanted it done in ten minutes. So after Mr. Y left, I shrugged, sighed, and got down to it. I probably went a bit over ten minutes, but I was definitely done proofing in fifteen. Mr. Y and I went over my corrections like Talmudic scholars puzzling over a crucial tractate, and when we were done, Mr. Y declared that he had twelve files for me to do for him: four this week, four next week, and four the week after. I admit I hesitated when I heard this, and Mr. Y, trying to be reassuring, said, "Don't worry—just take these home and do them there." He wanted the first four files done by the morrow.

We never discussed pay.

At the behest of my coworker who, like me, didn't want to see me get used, I emailed my boss about the situation. I stated, quite frankly, that I wasn't going to do any extra work for free. The boss was amenable to this notion and told me to be sure to log my working hours. He also said something that I hadn't thought about: Mr. Y is going to be instrumental in whether I get hired full-time or not, so this whole thing may have been one big test to see what I'm capable of. If that's the case, then I think that, so far, Mr. Y likes what I've done—not least because I finished the first four files before close of business today instead of by tomorrow morning. Of course, if he starts poking holes in my work because I was sloppy, then that's going to reflect badly on me, and I might not end up with this nifty Golden Goose gig after all. But I'm pretty sure I did a decent job without being sloppy.

I'm on vacation, so a little extra work isn't a bad thing. Had I been saddled with a teaching schedule, I would probably have said no to Mr. Y's sudden pile of proofing. If this nets me a couple hundred more bucks, though, I won't complain.