Monday, March 30, 2015

a hard error to spot

I'm about halfway through George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire pentalogy: I'm currently in the middle of A Storm of Swords, having slogged through A Game of Thrones and then skipped lightly through A Clash of Kings.

Martin's an impressive storyteller insofar as he's able to juggle enormous amounts of fictional trivia about the world he's created. His ability to flesh out characters seems to vary, depending on how well he likes the character he's describing, but he's generally not too bad with characterization. As a writer to be judged on technical merits, however, Martin often falls prey to rookie-level errors—his worst offense, by far, being the infamous comma splice, which is when you use a comma, instead of a semicolon, to separate two independent clauses. I've stopped trying to count the number of comma splices I've encountered in Martin's work, and am doing my best just to grit my teeth and ignore them in favor of being caught up in the flow of the story. ASOIAF contains other types of errors as well: there's the occasional typo (should we blame the copy editor for not catching those?), and then there are errors like the following one, which is hard to spot even for veteran editors:

On the morning her new gown was to be ready, the serving girls filled Sansa's tub with steaming hot water and scrubbed her head to toe until she glowed pink.

Did you spot the error? There may in fact be two or more, but if there are two or more, they're all the same type of error, produced by the same cause.

Give up? Here's a hint: antecedents. Did that help? No? Let's try another approach, then.

Look at the following erroneous sentence. The error in the example below is the same as the one(s) in Martin's sentence, so watch this carefully:

In Carl Sagan's book, he writes about the nature of science and the dangers of pseudoscience.

Note the pronoun he. You know that pronouns replace or refer to or represent some noun, which is called the antecedent (i.e., the thing that comes before, hence the ante). So now ask yourself: to what noun does he, in the above sentence, refer? If your answer is, "It refers to the proper noun Carl Sagan," then I'm afraid you're wrong. Why? Because, Dear Reader, in the above sentence, the possessive locution Carl Sagan's is functioning as a possessive adjective modifying the noun book. Ergo: the pronoun he has no antecedent! The phrase Carl Sagan's exists, but not the proper noun Carl Sagan.

Finding the above type of error is hard, but luckily, correcting it is easy:

In his book, Carl Sagan writes about the nature of science and the dangers of pseudoscience.

Before we go back to GRR Martin's erroneous sentence, let's meditate a moment on possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives. Some slapdash guides, both online and on paper, refer to words like his exclusively as possessive pronouns, but such words are often possessive adjectives. Learn to tell the difference; it's not that hard. Just keep in mind that an adjective modifies a noun, and you're good to go.

Jake washed his car. (his = possessive adjective modifying car)

That car was his. (his = possessive pronoun referring to That car)

Now armed with this new knowledge, you can go back to Martin's sentence and, I hope, easily spot the problem(s):

On the morning her new gown was to be ready, the serving girls filled Sansa's tub with steaming hot water and scrubbed her head to toe until she glowed pink.

While I hesitate to read a great writer's mind, I suspect that Mr. Martin had intended that possessive and those pronouns to refer to the proper noun Sansa. The problem, of course, is that Sansa doesn't exist in this sentence: there is only the possessive adjective Sansa's. So I'm sorry, Mr. Martin, but that one sentence contains three errors in it, all caused by the same problem: the lack of a proper antecedent.

Those with eyes to read, let them read.


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behold the power of Matt

Matt of Gusts of Popular Feeling has published his interview with my friend Young Chun regarding Young's book The Accidental Citizen-Soldier. You can read Matt's interview here.

Ever since I reinstalled SiteMeter (after a hiatus of a couple years), I've noticed that, for every 100 visits my blog receives, around five or ten a day come from Matt's site, whether he links to me or not. That, friends, is power. I'm in Matt's debt for sending people my way, either intentionally or inadvertently.


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Indiana

Much to ponder about the ongoing furor involving Indiana's Republican governor Mike Pence, who recently signed into law a "religious-freedom restoration" bill (also known as the "religious-objections bill," or Indiana Senate Bill 101—read the digest at the link) that makes it illegal for "a governmental entity" to "substantially [burden] a person's exercise of religion." In practical terms, this could mean that a bakery run by people with certain religious convictions would have the right to refuse service to, say, a gay couple requesting a gay-themed wedding cake (e.g., two plastic men standing atop the cake instead of a man and a woman).

I have no legal background, so I'm in the dark regarding the legal implications of such a law, but here are some observations gathered from online: first, opponents of the law argue that it promotes bigotry and discrimination. Second, supporters of the law see it as a blow in favor of the exercise of religious freedom. Third, Indiana is the 20th state to enact religious-freedom legislation, so such laws exist in almost half the country. Fourth, a strong "#BoycottIndiana" hashtag movement has grown on Twitter; whether this will actually translate into significant loss of business for Indiana has yet to be seen. Fifth, one conservative reply to #BoycottIndiana has been to note that protestors should also boycott the other nineteen states with similar laws. The point, I gather, is to show that the current protests are no more than a flash in the pan, a far cry from a serious effort to enact justice across the land.

Readers of this blog know that I'm all for things like gay marriage. I see homosexuality as no more moral an issue than that of left-handedness—a condition that was also once stigmatized. I'm left-handed, and not by choice. I'm heterosexual—also not by choice. As I've argued in the past, one's sexual orientation is about as moral as the question of whether one likes onions or no onions on one's pizza. I prefer my pizza onion-free; does this mean I should condemn onion-lovers to hell for their preference? I put zero stock in scriptural arguments against homosexuality. I acknowledge that anti-homosexual scriptural passages exist, but I see no reason to give them any weight: the ancient scriptures were written by people trapped in a particular time and place; much of what they wrote has faded to irrelevance in the face of modernity and progress. Furthermore, people have always picked and chosen when they interpret scripture; hermeneutics is inevitable. Islam needs to strip away the unenlightened elements in its scripture, doctrine, and practice; why should Christianity be any different (if anything, Christianity has gone much further down that road than Islam has!)? Religious traditions should and do change with the times.

I don't subscribe to slippery-slope arguments such as "If you let gays marry, then men will begin marrying sheep, dogs, and their sisters." It's easy to draw a civilized, bright-line distinction when it comes to marriage ethics: marriage is a lifetime commitment between and among two or more consenting, non-related adults. There—was that so hard? Note that the words "consenting" and "adult" imply "people capable of making weighty, rational, uncoerced choices." That excludes children and animals. The phrase "non-related" excludes the possibility of incest. And the phrase "or more" allows for polygamy or for Heinlein-style "circle" marriages involving more than two people of any combination of sexes, as portrayed in Heinlein's novel Friday... if that's how you swing. Gay marriage would be safe and kosher within the boundaries I've described—boundaries that I think are moral because they respect human freedom, adult choice, and the ability to conduct one's personal life however one likes, without worrying about the prying eyes of government. If anything, I think my definition of marriage should be embraced by conservatives, who often claim to want less, not more, government intrusion in their lives. My formulation of the concept of marriage is a libertarian one: live and let live—and, sexually speaking, let people do whatever the hell they want in private as long as they're not violating each other's human rights. What's not to love?

That said, I respect the right of a church to reject marrying a gay couple. This is precisely because I do respect freedom of religious practice. Although I personally see scripturally based anti-homosexual attitudes as bigoted, I understand that it's possible for certain people to arrive at their convictions through entirely rational and doxastic processes. For this reason, I can see why a given church might exercise its corporate freedom to say no to a gay couple desiring to get married on its property. The couple can just go and find another, more religiously liberal church, if a church wedding is what they want.

As for the question of whether gay marriage is a states'-rights issue... I used to be a federalist, but it was conservative philosophers like Keith Burgess-Jackson who pushed me to concede that, if a gay couple were to get married in one state, then through the "full faith and credit clause" of the US Constitution, their marriage would have to be recognized in all fifty US states. Gay marriage therefore cannot be merely a states'-rights issue; either gay marriage is legal in all fifty states, or it's legal in none.

What confuses me—and this is where my lack of a legal background becomes a problem—is what to do about businesses that wish to refuse services to certain clientele based on religious grounds. I'm not talking about the owner of Chick-fil-A: he might be for "traditional" heterosexual marriage, but he's never refused to serve sandwiches to gay folks, as far as I know. I'm talking more about this wedding-cake situation that's been in the news: can a business legitimately describe itself as a "religious business," and if so, does it enjoy religious-practice rights similar to those enjoyed by a church? Is a "religious" bakery's refusal to make a gay-themed wedding cake the same as a church's refusal, on theological grounds, to perform a wedding on its property? I honestly don't know the answer to this question, and what's more, I'm not sure whether the answer is a legal one, a moral one, or a religious one. Were I a betting man, I suppose I'd bet on legal, since we're talking about a business, and thus talking about money, goods, and services.

But what if it's not so much a question of a religious business, per se, as it is a question of the practice/expression of one's private religious convictions? In the wedding-cake example,* I suppose the bakers could argue that being forced to make a gay-themed wedding cake would violate their personal rights to practice their religion as they saw fit.

It seems to me that this whole situation would be much clearer if private businesses made their employees sign agreements waiving their rights to make religion-based objections regarding the services the business provides, e.g., "When you work for Crystal's Bakery, you understand that you might end up serving clientele who stand in violation of your personal religious precepts. You agree that, as long as you work for Crystal's Bakery, your own moral convictions will not take precedence when it comes to service: all clients will be served, without distinction, prejudice, or discrimination."

In fairness, it should be noted that many conservatives on Twitter, even as I write this blog post, are arguing that Indiana Senate Bill 101 contains no language in it that would permit the sort of discrimination that occurred in the wedding-cake incident. Governor Pence himself is on record as saying that, had he thought the bill supported any sort of discrimination, he would have vetoed it. Obviously, the skeptics are roundly mocking this claim.

I suspect that, far more than any specific legal moves, the tides of history will move the country one way or another: either there will be more states adding religious-freedom laws to their books, or gay-rights activists will win the day, and such laws will eventually be repealed. There's also the market to consider: if one bakery can be shut down by protests and boycotts, others can, too, and Adam Smith's invisible hand will have done its work. The nice thing about free societies is that freedom can be expressed in a variety of ways: if not by legislation, then certainly by voting with one's feet—and with one's wallet.

ADDENDUM: this National Review article (the Review is a conservative rag) might be interpreted as a rebuttal to my blog post. It's worth a read, as is this Federalist article.



*In case you're wondering, I'm referring to an Indiana-based bakery called 111 Cakery (pronounced "one-eleven cakery"), which originally caused an uproar when it refused service to a gay man who had requested a cake for a "commitment ceremony." 111 Cakery has since closed, despite insisting that its business had continued to be profitable even after the uproar and protests began.


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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Happy Palm Sunday



(pic first found and posted here)





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"Wild": review

Cheryl Strayed's novel Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail became an instant classic in 2012. Barely two years later, Reese Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard, swooped in and turned Strayed's memoir of a long, therapeutic walk into a movie titled, quite simply, "Wild."

I haven't read Strayed's book, so I don't know whether she documents the entire PCT hike, but the movie ends, bizarrely, short of the end of the PCT: in Cascade Locks, Oregon, at the Bridge of the Gods, as opposed to several hundred miles later in Canada, where the PCT officially terminates.* (Strayed apparently walked 1,100 of the trail's 2,600 miles.) Witherspoon herself plays Strayed in the movie version, providing us with voiceover narration that is, occasionally, barely audible as befits the quiet, contemplative overall mood of the film. The movie glides along two parallel tracks: the PCT walk itself, and a disorderly series of flashbacks to instances in Strayed's life—the moments that had led her onto the trail.

For obvious reasons, I was attracted to this film because its main character's experiences mirrored so many of my own—a fact that Strayed herself has noted in comments she's made about the fan mail she's received from readers of her story: many of our lives are connected by similar events, creating a subtle network of experiences that allow us to relate to each other. I, for one, understand Strayed's initial hardships on the trail: misjudging how much to stuff into her backpack, dealing with the backpacker's equivalent of saddle sores (strap sores and pack sores where her gear made constant, rubbing contact with her body over the long miles), learning commonsense survival skills along the way, with Mother Nature as her teacher. I could relate to the moments where Strayed found herself completely alone, surrounded by a vast, ineffable silence. I smiled at the moments when she seemed to commune with some of the animals she encountered, and also at the moments when she met good folks on the trail. Strayed's mother had died of cancer not long before Cheryl decided to hit the PCT as a young, twenty-something girl. My own experience with a mother's cancer happened after my 600-mile hike was done, but I could relate to Strayed's mindset all the same.

Yet there were aspects of Strayed's story that were unfathomable or inaccessible to me, mostly because Strayed was a twenty-something woman who encountered a number of men on the trail. The movie handles maleness cautiously, in an almost paranoid manner at times: every male is a potential rapist, as the über-feminist line goes. In the end, the movie showed a balance of good men and bad, with only one or two men standing out as truly dangerous.

Another aspect of Strayed's experience that I couldn't relate to was the entire sexual dimension: Strayed's mother had died, and Cheryl had gotten divorced before starting her long hike; she had plunged into a blurry cloud of drugs and sex, and always seemed to have one foot in the local hippie culture. I couldn't relate to any of that, but I understood that the movie was trying to say something about how people handle grief and loss. One of the central lessons of the film is that Strayed takes ownership of her life, not rejecting her mistakes, but instead understanding that she could never have become the woman she is now had she never been through those experiences—the abusive stepfather, the prickly sibling relationship, the acrimonious marriage, the mother/daughter conflict (mostly brought on, the film suggests, by Cheryl herself), the divorce, the drugs and sex with strangers, the pregnancy and abortion.

Luckily for us, Cheryl Strayed is a writer, which means she is, at the very least, capable of a certain level of self-awareness. She could see her life veering off the tracks, see how far she had become separated from her idealistic goals, see how off-balance and off-kilter her world had become. Were it not for this introspective skill, there would be no story, and thus no movie. Many people, similarly self-destructive, find themselves unable to pull out of their nosedive because they can't see their own trajectories, let alone write about them.

Reese Witherspoon does a convincing job in the role of the author/narrator. Laura Dern, as Strayed's seemingly Panglossian mother Bobbi Grey, is nearly saintly in her role. I was tempted to think of Ma Strayed's portrayal as unrealistic in the extreme—an idealized hagiography rooted in Strayed's feelings of remorse about how she had treated her mother—but in the end I found Dern's performance to contain enough inner sadness to convey to us that her character wasn't a relentlessly blind optimist: Bobbi had been through a shitty existence, but she had made the choice to fight through the muck of her life with a strong will and a happy heart, and she was determined to pass only that happiness along to her sullen, rebellious children, who came to appreciate what she had done only when she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.

The movie's cinematography caught much of what is beautiful about the PCT, and since I myself have been to the Bridge of the Gods (see here and here, on my other blog), I was hit by many of my own fond memories from a similar trek. "Wild" reminds us of just how amazingly, gloriously empty much of our country still is.

Cheryl Strayed's story shares elements with any number of long-hike movies, including the similarly titled "Into the Wild" (reviewed here). Unlike "Into the Wild," though, "Wild" ends on an upbeat note. Strayed's voiceover epilogue reassures us that she ended up married, with children, having found something like the truth of herself as she marched those miles. I was a bit surprised by the movie's sudden ending in Cascade Locks, at the Bridge of the Gods, but upon reflection, I think it seemed the right moment for some closure: those final few hundred miles to Canada wouldn't have taught Strayed much more than she'd already learned.



*Since writing this post a couple hours ago, I've visited Amazon.com and read through the preface of Strayed's book. She did indeed stop her hike at Cascade Locks, evidently feeling no need to go farther.


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the equine bringeth no joy


I woke up this morning, stretched... and was attacked by my first charley horse in over twenty years. What's funny is that I had just discussed charley horses with a coworker the previous week, so I guess the gods felt my number had come up for another one. Just a reminder, you see, of what real pain feels like.

Luckily, this one wasn't quite as bad as the incredibly painful charley horse I'd had in my youth: that one paralyzed me so thoroughly that I couldn't even utter a cry of agony. This morning, there was much screaming and grunting as I righted myself, set my foot on the floor, stood up, and angled my body into a stretching posture. The bunched-up muscle was in my left calf (if I recall correctly, my previous spasm was in my thigh). I stretched for a bit, then hobbled over to my satchel, brought out the aspirin bottle, and swallowed four tablets.

It's hours later now. I've spent most of the day in bed, generally afraid to move, just trying to let time and aspirin unclench the knot of muscle in my calf. I'm able to limp around now, and I stretch the leg at random moments. I might even try walking a bit outside later today (no promises). I think I'll be functional by tomorrow.

Just gotta remember to watch those morning stretches.


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Saturday, March 28, 2015

adorbs (the story of a Saturday meal)

So I visited JW and made a very late lunch for him, his wife, and his brood (if two kids constitute a "brood"). JW's kids are adorable. JA, the son, is whip-smart and fluent in at least two languages—possibly three, since he lived in India for four years and picked up a lot of Hindi. His sister, MJ, is also smart, but she's the shy one, taking more after her quiet mom. Persuading MJ to make a face for the camera, though, wasn't that hard because she's blessed or cursed with an impish sense of humor, as you'll see.

Below, we have MJ and JA on the couch, in TV mode. One creepy thing I noticed is that the siblings never fought once in my presence. Not once. That ain't right.


In the following image, JW takes one of about a billion photos of meal prep, including pics of his wife and yours truly trying to make this a worthwhile meal. The Missus insisted on helping out, so she became something like a sous-chef, but not quite: this was her kitchen, after all, and she knew it better than I did. She also had very quick nunchi (perceptivity, social awareness), and there were times when I think she knew what I wanted or needed even before I did. JW's lucky to have married a woman with that superpower.


Next, a photo of a moment inside the spanking-new family car, as I'm being driven to Gangnam Station, where I planned to catch the express bus back to Goyang City. Mom was in the middle of saying, "Don't pull that down!" when I snapped the shot. Her kids obviously don't always listen to her.


Below, the photo you've all been waiting for, and that magic moment when all parents love their kids best:


JW and his wife looked tired today. I know I probably shouldn't say that, but I can't help thinking that one of the reasons I'm still single has a lot to do with the sheer effort involved in raising kids. Kids leave you constantly tired—that's the main lesson I've learned from watching all my married friends in both the States and South Korea. Are children worth it? I'm sure the kids' parents would say yes, but they'd say so while looking as if they'd just run a marathon.

This final image, below, is from JW, whose phone camera has a timer. He mounted the phone on the counter, against the backsplash, to get this angle. I was in the midst of stirring up my pasta, which JW pronounced excellent, despite the absence of bacon (we didn't get to buy everything we'd wanted). Everyone loved the pasta, which was penne with Kevin-style Alfredo sauce (Gorgonzola instead of parmigiano), chicken, mushrooms, and baby spinach. Picky little MJ wasn't quite as keen on the salmon, but JA ate everything he'd been served, and he even phoned me later to thank me. Here's all of us (click for full size):


JW sometimes has the best intentions, but his execution isn't always as good as the conceptualization. I had told JW that I wanted to shop for my ingredients and begin prepping the Saturday lunch at my own place on Friday, so that it'd be a simple matter to lay everything out and quickly cook it all on Saturday. JW would have none of it: "Shopping together is an enjoyable way to spend time!" he boomed. "So let's meet, hike, shop, then do lunch." Of course, this best-laid of plans went awry almost immediately: I waited over 20 minutes for my local bus to show up and take me to Madu Station, so I texted JW that I'd be late in arriving at Gangnam Station (we had planned on my arriving at 10AM; I told him it'd be closer to 11). The express bus, however, turned out to be way faster than I'd thought it would be, and I was only 15 minutes late to Gangnam Station, not a whole hour late, as I'd anticipated. I texted JW at the beginning of my express-bus ride, giving him an ETA of 10:15AM, which is what the driver had told me. I then texted JW an hour later to say that I was about to step off the express bus at—yes—10:15AM, and he texted back, "WHAT?!?"—so he obviously hadn't prepared to leave his apartment in Samsung-dong to come get me. "Take your time," I texted him. I truly was in no hurry: I had already mentally calculated how the day was going to go, and I knew there'd be no time for hiking: we'd have to shop and go right back to JW's place to cook the food and serve it at a decent hour.

Turns out the Gangnam-area traffic was horrible, and driving the equivalent of three subway stops took the better part of an hour. Upshot: JW picked me up around 11; we hit the Yangjae Costco a bit before noon; we finished shopping around 1:30; we got to JW's place around 2:15; lunch wasn't ready until 3:30PM, by which point the kids were starving. I felt guilty about the delay, but it couldn't be helped, and I groused to JW that this was why I'd wanted to shop and prep on Friday. JW and his wife also told me that they intended to visit JW's parents in Huam-dong (right next to Namsan), which meant they needed to leave around 4:30PM. That gave us about an hour for lunch, which wasn't bad: we didn't have to rush our meal, which JW praised several times. (That's a rarity: JW's often a critical guy, and not shy about voicing his criticisms, so it was nice that this meal passed muster.) We ended up leaving the apartment closer to 5PM; I hit the express bus and transferred to the local bus at Madu Station in Goyang, at which point JA, JW's son, called to thank me for the meal and to say that he and his family still hadn't arrived in Huam-dong yet because of the incredibly bad traffic.

Before we parted company, JW's wife was apologetic: "We asked you to come and cook for us; we made you work; you spent so much money on the food... next time, we'll treat you!" She's a gentle soul. I waved off the money thing; that didn't worry me. I'm not going to be spending much over the next couple of weeks, anyway: I bought so much at Costco that I've got plenty of supplies to last me a long while, and the Missus made sure I took a lot of it home with me, loading two Costco shopping bags with food and sundries.

So in that nonlinear way that Koreans are infamous for (and I have to admit that I contributed to the nonlinearity), today turned out fine. I didn't buy any bacon, which I felt detracted somewhat from my pasta dish, but no one complained about its absence. I didn't get to make a chicken satay appetizer, but that was mainly because we were already so damn late with the food prep that an appetizer seemed more like punishment than an extra perk. I didn't make my homemade berry sauce for dessert—in fact, we never even ate the dessert I had bought from Costco (mini blueberry cheesecakes—six for W15,000). But everyone was stuffed in the end, and the meal went over well, all in all. A day well spent.



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gag

When JW and his family dropped me off at Gangnam Station, I encountered this memorable bit of tackiness:


As much as I've voiced my dislike for Itaewon on this blog, I'm also not that big a fan of the Gangnam section of Seoul, and this is one reason why: it's way, way too self-conscious, too full of itself. PSY's song was a parody of this mentality, and Gangnam co-opted PSY's parody and turned it into an earnest endorsement of the district. Good Christ.


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wassfer lunchie?

I'm visiting my buddy JW and his family on Saturday morning; there's a #7412 express bus that goes from Madu Station, in Goyang City, all the way down to Gangnam Station in the southern part of Seoul. JW says he'll meet me at Gangnam Station; we'll hike a while at a local mountain, then we'll shop around for lunch ingredients, at which point I'm to become his chef-for-hire. I'm a little worried about our timing: lunch is going to happen rather late, and JW's got kids, who probably won't want to be kept waiting.

So what's for lunch?

APPETIZER
marinated chicken skewers with satay-style peanut dipping sauce

MAIN COURSE
salmon steak (balsamic/brown-sugar glaze)
fettuccine Alfredo, Kevin-style (with Gorgonzola instead of parmigiano)
garlic bread

SALAD
Mediterranean salad: spinach base, feta, red onions, tomatoes, quail eggs, olives, cucumbers, raisins, olive oil/balsamic dressing

DESSERT
White cake (or Korean cheesecake), ice cream, and homemade wine-and-berry sauce plus bananas and Nutella ganache on the side

That's the plan, anyway. With JW, nothing ever goes according to plan (he's Korean; Koreans are infamously nonlinear), so what we end up with might not look like anything I've written above. We may end up roasting hot dogs, for all I know.


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gas bill: low, the way I like it

I had no idea how much a monthly gas bill in Korea would cost me when I came back to the peninsula in 2013: I had never paid a gas bill before. (From 2005 to 2008, at Sookmyung Women's University, I lived in campus housing, which meant that I paid no utilities at all.) When I went down to Hayang, near Daegu, to work at Catholic University, I was furnished with a decent—if somewhat small—studio that had its heating system built right into the floor, Korean-style. This system is called an ondol, and it's a holdover from traditional days. In these modern times, wall-mounted thermostat controls the ondol's output: on/off, temperature, whether to heat water along with heating the floor, a "go out" function that minimizes heating so as not to consume tons of gas, etc.

In my Catholic/Hayang days (August 2013 to August 2014), I relied on the ondol during the winter months to keep myself from freezing. I knew that gas prices would rise as the weather got colder, but I had no idea how much an average winter's gas bill could be. I was floored when I finally got that bill: W120,000, or about $110, US. That was ridiculous.

As winter waned, I ranted to my brother David about how expensive gas was, and David's reply stopped me in my tracks: why not just buy an electric space heater if electricity is so much cheaper in Korea? (My electric bill only rarely went over $10.) By the time I had this brother-assisted epiphany, though, winter was almost over. Because I had decided to leave Catholic and was facing an uncertain future, purchasing a $120 heater didn't seem the wisest choice. I held off.

Months later, I was in my cramped yeogwan next to Dongguk's Seoul campus, suffering the chill after my yeogwan-provided electric blanket had died, when I finally decided to stroll over to Saeun Sangga, the electric/electronics market, to find a space heater. In the dead of winter, around two months ago, I found one, and it served me excellently during the rest of my tenure at the yeogwan.

But I didn't unpack and use the heater immediately when I moved to where I am now, in Goyang City: for the first half-month of my time in my new studio, I risked using the ondol, then finally switched back over to the heater. I was afraid, at first, that the heater would prove to be too tiny and weak to heat up the much larger space I now enjoyed (that yeogwan truly was a little shoebox). Luckily, I was wrong, and I've been using the heater ever since.

My electric bill came the other day, and it was barely $10 despite near-constant use of the heater. My gas bill, which reflected a half-month's aggressive usage before I switched over to the heater, was a cool W60,000. In other words, had I used the ondol the entire month, I'd have paid as much for gas here as I had paid back in Hayang. These days, I switch on the gas only when I'm showering, washing dishes, or maybe doing laundry (if I want my clothes washed in warm water).

My gas bill in April is going to be even smaller because (1) gas prices will have started to creep back down in tandem with the warmer weather, and (2) I'll have used nothing but my electric heater since the previous gas bill. A W25,000 gas bill is entirely conceivable.

As an aside, I'll say that I'm eternally grateful to the employee of the Catholic U. branch of Daegu Bank who showed me how to pay my gas and electric bills via ATM. I've been paying them that way ever since, and I find ATM payment to be a hell of a lot more convenient than going to a bank during banking hours, taking a ticket, waiting in line, and twiddling my thumbs. I'm all for whatever allows me to function more independently in a foreign environment, and this guy was a godsend.


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Friday, March 27, 2015

upon a cloud

Ah, sweet mattress bliss.

Here, in photo form, is the story of my bed's transformation from hard pallet to fluffy cloud:

1. The "Before" Photo


Above, we have a photo of my bed as it was when I originally bought it. It hasn't been a bad bed, but it's just been a wee bit too hard for my taste, and that's why I bought the memory-foam mattress pad.

2. The Arrival of the Miracle


The above box was large and bulky but, like the foam pad inside it, remarkably light.

3. A Closer Look


Here's a first look at the mattress pad. This is no mere sponge: this is memory foam. It's covered in its own zippered lining, which I decided not to remove. I might remove it later on, though, because it's a bit slippery on top of the original mattress.

4. My Bed's Pathetically Thin Padding, Before Memory Foam


When my bed first arrived, I asked the delivery guy about whether he was going to get the other mattress out of his truck. He laughed and said the other mattress was for a different customer: this was it. I did my best to hide my astonishment. It really looked as though there were nothing on my bed. To my relief, I discovered there was just enough padding to make the lying-in-bed experience comfortable... but it was only just barely comfortable. In the above photo, you can see how the mattress cover droops down under the level of the wooden frame. That's how much spare material there was, given how thin the bed's original mattress was.

5. Superposé


Above: the new mattress is placed atop the old.

6. Condom Rewrap


My first mattress's elastic-cornered mattress cover sheet was too large and loose; the addition of the foam padding eliminates that problem, filling out the sheet nicely.

7. The "After" Photo


And here is where things now stand. I expect I'll be enjoying a mostly heavenly night's sleep tonight. It's the simple things that make me happy.


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no news is bed news

Normally, I know when a taekbae or yongdal delivery is coming because I have an app that supposedly tracks such things, showing me the delivery phases via an abstract, clock-shaped progress icon. Today, however, my studio's wall-mounted security phone started ringing, as if a pizza delivery had come for me.

"Taekbae!" the guy barked when I picked up the phone. I immediately knew what this was about and buzzed him in: my mattress topper had arrived, and had somehow managed to do so without alerting my package-tracking app. Strange.

A couple days ago, I'd ordered a memory-foam mattress topper to lay atop my current mattress, which is barely an inch thick. While I love my new bed and appreciate that I'm no longer sleeping on the hard, harsh floor, the current setup is still a little too hard for my taste. So, delving once again into the only-sometimes-trustworthy depths of the We Make Price app, I found and ordered this topper, which I'm about to apply to my bed.

Pictures may follow soon. If I'm not fast asleep on my new mattress, of course.


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Thursday, March 26, 2015

an email from a student

I've been asking my students to give me periodic feedback about the class during mandatory consultation sessions. I told them they had to do three consults with me: once during the Week 1-5 period, once during the Week 6-10 period, and once during the Week 10-15 period. At least one consult would have to be face-to-face; the others could be via text or email.

So here's part of an email I just received tonight:

At first, I was difficult this class because students should talk in English. So, I was nervous in class. But This class has different format with other class like Round-robin format, Team play style ,, Thus, I could participate in class more and more. And now I enjoy this class.*

Cut the girl some slack: she's a Level 1 student, so this wasn't a bad effort when put in perspective. I've once again got the students doing round-robin work (per what I did in Daegu, not what I did last semester at Dongguk's Seoul campus—last semester was primarily team teaching, with the round-robin format being used only twice the whole semester), and they all seem to be enjoying it. Time passes faster; the classes are noisy, and the kids are speaking nothing but English (barring a few exceptions) for 90 minutes straight. I'm still convinced this is an awesome method, and I'd be proud to let any colleague walk around my class, watching how on-task and focused my kids are.

I'm hoping that the mandatory consultations will alleviate some of the end-of-semester shock and bitterness when grades come out: students get upset, I think, because they're surprised at their own grades, and they're surprised at their own grades because they don't fucking bother to check on their grades throughout the semester. It's a mess of their own making, really, but we teachers pay the price in our evaluation scores. "Tanj," as Larry Niven's Known Space characters are given to saying: There Ain't No Justice.

This girl who wrote in isn't the only one to express pleasure at using the round-robin approach. All the students in all my classes were smiling and laughing and clapping: their energy was self-sustaining, and it all happened with little to no intervention from me. All I did was provide the format for the interaction.

I've got one more round-robin day planned for this semester, then two team-teaching days on the calendar (keep in mind that these are three-hour classes that meet only once per week, so I see the kids only sixteen times). I sort of wish I'd planned for more round-robin days, but the calendar is already set, like it or not.



*A cleaned-up version of the student's email might read as follows:

At first, this class was difficult for me because students had to talk in English, which made me nervous. But we also used different [learning] formats from [those in] other classes, with things like the round-robin method, team teaching, and so on. I found I could participate more and more, and now I enjoy the course.


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heavy, the leader's burden

One of my female students wanted to talk to me about something that had been troubling her, so after class I sat down in our building's clean, streamlined second-floor lounge, which doubles as my "office," and we talked. I had divided all my classes into teams, and my student—we'll call her Daisy—was one of the team captains. According to Daisy, one of her team members isn't pulling his weight, and she wasn't sure how to handle the situation.

We talked a bit about leadership; I asked her whether she wanted to step down as captain, and she said no. I asked her how she had become the team leader; in many cases, with Korean students, it's often just a matter of who wins or who loses at rock-paper-scissors. In Daisy's case, she said her team had selected her. "And you said yes," I said. She nodded. "But you could've said no," I pointed out. She nodded again, now fully aware that she was responsible for her own situation. I wasn't about to let her off the hook.

I told Daisy that a good leader needs to communicate clearly with his or her team members, making expectations explicit from the beginning and not being satisfied with anything less. I said this might not make her many friends, but it's a risk you take when you manage people. I told her that she didn't need to be nasty when dealing with a slacker, but she would need to be firm. Lastly, I told her that, if the slacker kept giving her problems, she should tell me.

I was secretly worried, the entire time we were talking, that Daisy was going to break down and cry, but she turned out to be made of sterner stuff, which was a relief. I told her that she needed to get to know her team members—find out what each was good at and start to exploit those skills. At the same time, she needed to figure out who she was so she could come to know her own leadership style. Some leaders are loud and strong, I noted, while others are quiet and thoughtful. But all good leaders are decisive, have a plan or a vision, and act with confidence. Daisy looked down at her feet when I mentioned the confidence thing. She doesn't see herself as particularly charismatic, and I could see that, for her, growing a spine was going to be a painful process. I wanted to give the poor kid a hug, but that would have been patronizing.

In the end, the most practical advice I could give Daisy was "come see me" if her lazy team member kept slacking and/or giving her shit. I joked that she should think about asking some ajumma on the street for advice: Korean ajummas don't take crap from anyone, perhaps because they realize that life is short and one's precious moments shouldn't be wasted either being weak or dealing with the weak.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"The Grand Budapest Hotel": a very brief review

I'm going to keep this short because so much has already been said about "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Suffice it to say that I'm not a fan of Wes Anderson's over-quirky and affectless approach to movie comedy,* but various sources, including my friend Steve Honeywell, had described "Hotel" as the least Anderson-y of Anderson's films, which might make for tolerable viewing. I elected to take that bet. Long story short: I enjoyed "Hotel" and thought Ralph Fiennes gave a marvelous performance. The language of the script was charmingly anachronistic (phrases like "get it" and "fucking faggot" didn't strike me as particularly 1930s in tone); the use of F. Murray Abraham as the old narrator of the framing story recalled Salieri in "Amadeus"; Willem Dafoe's hilarious turn as a demented killer evoked his Bobby Peru from "Wild at Heart." And I think I've figured out what makes "Hotel" so much less Anderson-y than Anderson's other films: the man was channeling the Coen brothers. No other review has mentioned this, but I thought "Hotel" was thoroughly infused with a Coenesque sensibility redolent of the noir-zaniness of "Raising Arizona"—but with a painting instead of a baby as the object of desire. Anderson did something this time around that he's failed to do in his other comedies: he made his characters human. That was a relief.



*Anderson isn't alone in this: a lot of indie films these days seem to think there's something funny about having characters who deliver their lines in the plodding, emotionally detached, expressionless manner of not-yet-rotten zombies. It's a sad state of affairs when soporific performances take the place of actual verve and real wit. I blame German and East European cinema for exporting this aesthetic, and I blame stupid young American directors—as well as veteran American directors, like Anderson, who should know better—for seeing value in it.


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Sorted Food sorts out a mystery

Behold, I shew you a mystery...
—I Corinthians 15:51

I've taken to watching the Sorted Food channel on YouTube. This is an online show involving a gaggle of twentysomething British guys who cook, do a lot of painfully corny ad lib, and interact with their viewers. The guys occasionally read viewer mail, which comes in via Twitter and other channels. In one episode, a fan wrote in to explain why, in a container of granular materials, the larger granules always end up on top. As it turns out, it's through a dynamic called granular convection, which partially solves the mystery I had encountered in this long-ago post I'd written about feta cheese. So happy to have that (partially) solved.


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punctuating "I wonder"

When you start a sentence with "I wonder," you're making a declaration about your state of mind. Because it's a declaration, it's a not a question, so don't use a question mark.

WRONG: I wonder how he is?
RIGHT: I wonder how he is.

Think of it this way:

JACK: Is there a God?
JILL: I wonder.
JACK: You wonder what?
JILL: I wonder whether there's a God, silly.

Jill's just declaring her state of mind. It would have made no sense to punctuate either of her lines with a question mark.


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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

news

Distressing news from one of my best friends means I'm not posting anything meaningful tonight. Sorry.


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Monday, March 23, 2015

"The Overnighters": review

[WARNING: SPOILERS.]

Commenter John from Daejeon thought I should see what he described as "my favorite film of 2014," a documentary titled "The Overnighters." John writes in the comments:

Kevin, if you get a chance, please watch my favorite film of 2014, "The Overnighters," especially as it deals with religion and religious hypocrisy. I'd like your take on this modern, real-life "Grapes of Wrath" movement to the oilfields of North Dakota and the impact on the local community as well as those trying to better their lots in life.

This film ought to be required viewing in my book as it would spark a lot of uncomfortable, but necessary, conversation that most religious people prefer to avoid while they act as if these problems don't exist which writes off huge segments of fallen people that no longer fit their definition of humanity.

Personally, I can't wait for a sequel now that Saudi Arabia has flooded the world with cheap oil and caused frackers to [lay off] much of their North Dakota work force in those holier than thou communities.

Anyway, don't let those 2-percenters on Rotten Tomatoes scare you off. It still scored 5% better than "Birdman's" 93%.

So I sat down and watched. The documentary is about one pastor's attempts to help the workers—mostly men—flooding into the town of Williston, North Dakota, in search of oil-related work after the news gets out that fracking has caused an oil boom there. Jay Reinke, late-50s husband and father, is the pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, and he has opened his church's doors (not to mention its parking lot) to the neverending stream of people looking for a place to stay while they pursue what they hope will be a six-figure salary working out in the oil fields. Reinke sees himself as building a community, and he even gives this growing flock of possibly transient laborers a label: The Overnighters. As will become obvious, though, most of these folks won't be staying for only a single night.

Reinke's decision to help the newcomers causes strain on several fronts: his own congregation is upset at how these new arrivals are altering church life; the city is expressing concern as to whether safety codes are being violated by men sleeping on cots inside the church or in their cars in the church parking lot (and elsewhere in town); the arriving men, not all of whom are mentally stable, are themselves sources of conflict; the local journalists are hunting for any whiff of a scandal as they stoke the townspeople's fears that there are sex offenders among the laborers; Reinke's own family is given short shrift as the pastor feels obliged to spend more and more of his time managing his church and hosting these people, who would otherwise be homeless without him. Then suddenly, in the final quarter of the film, Reinke reveals something about himself that causes everything to collapse—right at the same time that the city decides to move against him.

It's a depressing movie, and it's bound to leave a person with very mixed feelings. Reinke himself comes off as human and horribly flawed. The men coming to town with dollar signs in their heads and fantasies about picking up high-paying work within 48 hours are quickly brought back to earth by the harsh reality of life in Williston: there's competition for those oil jobs, and all the employers are doing background checks, so not everyone can get the much-sought-after hookup. Several of the men that Reinke tries to help are former addicts and/or felons, and the documentary shows what happens to their relationship with Reinke when they either fall off the wagon (as happened with one of Reinke's closest assistants at the church) or fail to reveal certain facts about their legal history when applying for work (as happened with one gentleman that Reinke hosted in his own home). In such cases, Reinke has little choice but to cast such errant sheep out of the fold; this makes for very unpleasant viewing.

If we take the documentary as a character study about Reinke himself, it's fair to ask just how sympathetic a character he is. Director Jesse Moss manages to catch some uncomfortably private moments throughout the film, and it becomes obvious that not everyone around Reinke views him as a man of warmth, honesty, and integrity. Reinke himself, both at the very beginning of the movie and at its end, notes that there's a disparity between his public and private selves—something he attributes, at the start, to the demands of being a minister but which, by the end, may in reality be more a function of his own tendency to hide certain discomfiting truths from others.

The local church, Concordia Lutheran, doesn't come off looking all that compassionate, either. Its members' feathers are quickly ruffled by the presence of these big, burly guys sleeping in the sanctuary, in the hallways, and in the multipurpose rooms. Members are leaving as a result, and the next rung up in the local Lutheran hierarchy gets called in, at one point, to mediate the congregation's inner conflict. Complaints revolve around claims that the workers' cell phones go off during the services, that the workers themselves tend to slouch or otherwise act uncouth at worship time, and that their presence is a general nuisance that's causing the cohesiveness of the main congregation to fray. Pastor Reinke listens to these complaints with patience and aplomb, wondering aloud about what, exactly, is so provocative about granting mere floor space to those in need of a place to stay a while. "Who is my neighbor, and how can I serve him?" is Reinke's refrain.

In the end, several factors come together to undo the entire Overnighters program. One dogged journalist (or so it's implied) publicly reveals the fact that Reinke is hosting a known sex offender in his own home (Reinke and his family all claim to feel safe around this man); the city declares that Concordia Lutheran is in violation of certain safety codes even as Williston mulls a ban on RVs in various parts of town; Reinke's right-hand man falls off the wagon (meth), gets ejected from the flock, and declares himself Reinke's enemy from now on. On top of all that, as the film is about to draw to a close, Reinke confesses that he's been hiding his homosexuality for years. He expresses sadness about what all of this means for his family; we, as viewers, now perhaps shocked and flabbergasted, can't help but wonder what the past two years were all about after this glimpse into Reinke's deepest soul.

Thus does the world implode around Jay Reinke. The Overnighters is dead as a program, and the pastor himself has deeply wounded his family and lost his congregation (he ends up resigning his ministry). Reinke himself is no sex offender and no pervert: he's simply a closeted gay man who is finally outing himself. The moment he confesses all this to his wife is hard to watch, and I'm not sure whether to congratulate or excoriate the documentary's director for pointing his camera's unblinking eye right at that moment and not looking away. I can tell you that I sure as hell wanted to look away; Reinke's wife doubtless felt betrayed on multiple levels. (The film leaves unresolved the question of whether the Reinkes got divorced or chose to forge ahead as a family. We also don't have the chance to witness the children's reactions to Reinke's difficult confession.) I suppose cynics will claim to be unsurprised by Reinke's revelation; if you're already predisposed to seeing clergy as somehow sexually suspect, then I guess Reinke's self-outing merely confirms your prejudices.

The documentary provides us with no simple answers, which may be why dedicated commenter John from Daejeon liked this film as much as he did. What is the church? In Williston, is it a force for good or a source of contention and strife—a haven for sex offenders and other criminals? Who is Pastor Reinke? Is he a hero who tried to help his neighbor, or is he a glory-seeking, egomaniacal liar with a hidden agenda? I'm with John on this one: "The Overnighters" is an excellent, must-see documentary. It's hard to watch, hard to fathom, and it presents humanity in all of its bizarre, paradoxical, frustrating, noble, and base complexity.

According to Box Office Mojo, the documentary—which has won some prestigious awards—has made barely $110,000 in American theaters. It won't be seen by many. It won't have the impact that the director might have been seeking. Then again, with the movie's message so open to interpretation, it's hard to know what sort of impact the movie would have had if it had managed to garner a wider audience.



ADDENDUM: check out this Buzzfeed article as well; it gives more background on Moss, Reinke, and the movie. Justin Chang's perceptive review for Variety is here.


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Sunday, March 22, 2015

on "Whiplash": two different takes

My friend Steve Honeywell reviewed "Whiplash" (JK Simmons, Miles Teller) not too long ago. Gord Sellar also wrote a review of the movie. Both reviews are definitely worth your while, especially because both Steve and Gord say that "Whiplash" is of personal relevance: in Steve's case, this is because he's a teacher who happens to have two daughters involved in the arts (as dancers); in Gord's case, this is because Gord is an experienced saxophonist who knows more than a thing or two about jazz. Neither review comes out particularly positive about the movie, but it's obvious that the movie elicited strong reactions in both cases, which means that it engaged both Steve and Gord on some level. I admit I'm curious and want to see the movie, but after reading both reviews, I consider myself to have been duly warned.


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vocative or appositive?

English is wonderfully ambiguous at times. To wit:

This is my friend, Sherlock Holmes.

If I said the above line, would I be (1) introducing a friend named Sherlock Holmes to an unknown interlocutor, or (2) introducing Sherlock Holmes to an unknown interlocutor who is a friend? The first option is appositive; the second is vocative.

In all likelihood, (1) is the more probable option because, had I been addressing Sherlock directly, it's doubtful I would have called Sherlock by his full name: addressing someone by his or her full name sounds unnatural. But that unnaturalness aside, it's conceivable that I might address my friend as "Sherlock Holmes," and if it's conceivable, then the appositive/vocative ambiguity legitimately exists.

When we speak of appositives, we're talking about expressions—usually phrases—that serve an adjectival function: they add a bit of information to a statement or other locution. Sometimes appositives are accompanied by commas; sometimes they aren't.

My best friend Mike is a budding terrorist.

In the above sentence, Mike is an appositive that adds information to the subject, i.e., the noun phrase My best friend. However, I could just as easily have written:

My best friend is a budding terrorist.

—and you'd have understood pretty much everything you needed to know about me and my best friend. Upshot: the appositive Mike, in this case, adds little to nothing to the core content of the sentence, so there's no need for commas. Here's a slightly different case:

Coriolanus Snow, the president of Panem, stared at Katniss with his cold, dead eyes.

The power relationship between Snow and Katniss doesn't come out unless you somehow emphasize that Snow also happens to be the president of the land in which Katniss is a rebellious citizen. This makes the appositive the president of Panem mightily important, which is why we set it off with commas.

Sometimes the comma/no-comma choice comes down to a question of style and/or emphasis. Going back to the "Mike" example:

1. My best friend Mike is a budding terrorist.
2. My best friend, Mike, is a budding terrorist.

I've already affirmed the correctness of (1), but (2) is also arguably correct if you, as the writer, deem it important that the reader know your friend's name is Mike. The point here is that (1) is not incorrect, so don't let anyone tell you it is. By extension, the "Sherlock" sentence that began this post can be rewritten without any commas at all:

This is my friend Sherlock Holmes.

And that's clearly appositive.

So much for appositives, which sometimes use commas. By contrast, vocative expressions, which involve addressing or calling people (hence the voca), always take commas, and I've ranted on them before, so I won't go into them again here.


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Saturday, March 21, 2015

one happy asshole


Fiber: FOUND! I thought about ordering fiber capsules from iHerb again, but the inconvenience of ordering overseas, coupled with how goddamn long iHerb took last time (over 20 days), made me think twice. During tonight's trip to the local Costco, however, I found the above Kirkland (Costco's house brand) fiber supplement. Having just tried a few spoonfuls of it, I have to say that it doesn't seem as good as Metamucil (psyllium fiber) going in, but the real proof is what happens when something is going out.

We'll know more tomorrow. Oh, yes, Precious. Yes, we will.


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publiez ou périssez

People I know both well and marginally are publishing. Jeff Hodges will soon release his second novella (I learned my lesson after calling such a narrative a "short story" last time—never again!); my friend Young Jin Chun has published his autobiographical novel; Peter at Conscious Entities just announced the publication of his work on philosophy of mind, and one of Jeff Hodges's acquaintances, Mark Russell (whom I might know as well, if it's the same Mark Russell that I'm thinking of) has just published a young-adult fantasy-adventure story titled Young-hee and the Pullocho—not exactly a title that's going to grab an audience unacquainted with Korea and Korean culture ("What the hell is a pullocho and why should I care?"), but it might snag people with a measure of curiosity and a sense of mystery.

I read the first few pages of Russell's novel with keen interest because I've been thinking about writing something in a very similar vein. I might buy Russell's book—which is written in a fast-paced and engaging manner, as befits a children's story. Now if it turns out that Russell has written exactly the sort of story I've been wanting to write, well... then he'll have stolen my fire, and I'll have to think twice about writing. I'm already a little distressed to see that a possible villain in the story is a dokkaebi, a Korean goblin—the very creature that I had thought of making the villain in my own story. And in just a few pages, Russell also manages to show that he's very conversant with Korean mythology, ascribing powers and properties to supernatural folkloric beings that are consistent with Korean perceptions of those beings. It was an impressive, and intimidating, first fifteen pages, but those pages have almost inspired me to make the purchase. Frustratingly, Russell's book isn't available as an e-book.

Note to Charles: Young-hee might be a book you'd be interested in as well, given its ties to folklore and its casual mix—from the get-go—of modernity and the magical (if I recall correctly, you once said you enjoyed stories that combine the mythical and the modern). Russell has obviously made an effort to make this a very specifically Korean story, which I applaud, even though I'm still worried about how marketable that title is.

All these folks, with their stories and books, are lighting a fire under my ass and forcing me to consider focusing on writing the story I have in me. If I don't write my own story, I might wither and die, so it's publish or perish for sure.


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multiple missions

When you suddenly have money, the desire to spend is overwhelming. I'm going to go about today's spending spree in as un-spree-like a manner as possible so as not to hemorrhage cash, but there are some essentials that I need to buy.

1. A trip to the local Daiso to buy a couple extra wastebaskets. This will make it easier for me to sort my recycling inside my studio so that, when I dump the recycling into the containers outside, they'll already be separated into their predetermined categories.

2. A trip to the local Home Plus to buy a memory-foam mattress pad. My bed is nice, but it's a little hard. It could stand a bit of softening, and memory foam strikes me as the way to go. Also, my elastic-banded mattress cover is loose right now, like a large condom on a small dick, so a little extra volume might make the bed feel better about itself.

3. A trip to Costco to grab some slabs of meat and other groceries for the coming week.

That's going to take a good part of my day. I've got prep to do after that, and if I have time, I might also go do some walking. (Or running.)


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at least I made it look halfway pretty

Feast your eyes:


Alas, the dish looks better than it tasted. They say the key to good cooking is good ingredients, and that was certainly the case here. This was my first attempt at making an old favorite dish of mine, shrimp-and-chicken curry. The curry that I'd bought from the local grocer, though, turns out to be from New Jersey (Joizy!), and it sucks. I had to use dried basil because my own basil plants are growing so damn slowly that they won't be ready for weeks. So that sucked. The frozen shrimp that I used were the tiny, wimpy, flavorless kind; they also sucked. I used duyu (soy milk) instead of coconut milk, and that sucked... or at least it wasn't all that helpful. Oh, yeah—see those peas? They sucked as well. Those are typical Korean peas, which means they're hard as pebbles and just as flavorless.

I really need to get a sack of good old American-style frozen peas. Fresh basil, fresh ginger, real Indian curry, and a brace of well-hung shrimp would also be nice.


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Friday, March 20, 2015

it's all coming together

As much as I rail against expats who come to Korea and refuse to make efforts to understand or involve themselves in Korean culture, I admit that I have my own ways of channeling America into my life in Korea—of constantly reaching back to the homeland when I get sentimental... which happens more often than I'd like to admit.

So today, I decided to attempt the not-so-reliable We Make Price once more to order myself a most coveted item: a slow cooker. I'd racked my brains trying to figure out how one says "slow cooker" in Korean, and my early attempts dug up the phrase "slow rice cooker," i.e., neurin bapsot (느린 밥솥). Go to Google Translate, and you'll see that "느린 밥솥" translates to "slow cooker." Look "느린 밥솥" up online, and you'll find that such an item is indeed listed in one dark corner of China's ginormous Alibaba website (Alibaba is several orders of magnitude more ponderous than Amazon.com; it's sometimes hard to wrap one's mind around how truly huge the Chinese market is, given its 1.4 billion potential customers). Granted, it's possible that the Korean title in that Alibaba entry may itself merely be a Google-ized translation of the term "slow cooker," but my point is that the term is out there and in use, like it or not.

However, a second foray into correct terminology netted me the Korean term seul-lo kukeo (슬로우 쿠커), which is merely the hangeul rendering of "slow cooker." A light went off in my head, and I typed "슬로우 쿠커" into We Make Price's search engine. Et voilà: where "느린 밥솥" had failed to produce search results on WMP, "슬로우 쿠커" succeeded, and the site showed me exactly the sort of slow cooker I've been wanting to buy. WMP is selling a tiny 6-liter cooker and a more impressive 8-liter one; I chose the bigger one, which was selling for a fairly reasonable price of thirty-something dollars.

In the States, Costco sells gigantic packs of pork-sirloin tip roast. In the Korean Costco, this exact cut doesn't exist, but to my delight, I discovered that the local grocer's meat counter sells enormous hunks of deung-shim (등심), which is also sirloin, and just fatty enough to make the meat tastier at the tail end of the slow-cooking process. A single slab of that sirloin will set me back about W17,000, which isn't bad when you consider that galmaegi-sal (also a cut of solid, boneless pork) sells for W17,000 per 500 grams at the restaurant Seorae. The local grocer also, bizarrely enough, sells legitimate, American-style packs of full-size flour tortillas, so all the ingredients for a decent pulled-pork barbecue quesadilla are coming together. I can get the meat, tortillas, and jalapeños at the local store; I can buy the requisite cheddar or jack at Costco, along with a huge bottle of good ol' Amurrican barbecue sauce. (My own favorite brand is the luscious Sweet Baby Ray's, but I don't think that's on sale anywhere near me. Maybe I could find it in Itaewon...?)

None of this is good for the waistline, but it's all good for my sanity. So as much as I dump on expats who wall themselves off from Korean culture through their own food joneses, music, and general lack of curiosity about Korea's inner workings, I can at least understand the sanity thing. I'd go nuts if all I had to eat was Korean food.


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"The Judge": review

I wanted to like "The Judge," which stars the great Robert Duvall alongside another capable Robert—Robert Downey, Jr. But at every turn the movie, like its eponymous main character, did its damnedest to make itself unlikable. Duvall plays hard-nosed veteran judge Joseph Palmer, and Downey plays his hotshot-lawyer son Hank. The two have had a stormy relationship since Hank's childhood, and now Hank's mother, the judge's wife, has just died and the judge has apparently gone out and hit someone with his old Cadillac. The movie's two major plots center on the elder Palmer's trial and on Hank's still-contentious relationship with his father. There's also Hank's relationships with his siblings, his ex-girlfriend, and his young daughter, who is caught in a custody battle involving Hank and Hank's soon-to-be-ex-wife.

There was enough grist here for a good family-cum-courtroom drama to justify the nearly 150-minute running time, but the movie waffled the dramatic possibilities that the story offered and came off as surpassingly strange: the music was too lighthearted (it often reminded me of the score for "Scent of a Woman," and sure enough, it turns out "The Judge" was indeed scored by the selfsame Thomas Newman); the editing was weirdly paced, and the tone wavered drunkenly between tearjerker and comedy (with a naughty whiff of incest thrown in for good measure). I know this has been said about many a mediocre film, but "The Judge" couldn't decide what sort of movie it wanted to be; it found its footing only in the last five minutes—by which point it was too late to salvage the narrative.

It's a shame to have that much raw acting talent on screen and to see it squandered by poor direction, editing, and scripting. I don't question the premise of the film, but "The Judge" felt like a textbook case of over-Hollywoodizing what must have been, originally, a fairly decent story. Sorry, but I can't recommend this movie, which was too long to boot.


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Thursday, March 19, 2015

la faute

An error, spotted in this awesome article on a revolutionary new 3D-printing device:

To save your life, a surgeon will first insert a tube, and carefully guide it through the clog.

If you guessed that the error was the second comma, you'd be right. The rule is: don't use a comma in a compound predicate. Some people blithely believe you can put a comma just about anywhere because "a comma marks a pause," which is an odious—and often erroneous—intuition, given its dangerous fuzziness (as when people alter sentences because something "doesn't sound right").

SIMPLE PREDICATE: Johnny came in.

COMPOUND PREDICATE: Johnny came in and sat down.

The and signals the arrival of a second verb that is also linked to the sentence's subject. Both verbs operate with equal force; there's no need to introduce a comma, which inadvertently makes it looks as though you're trying to write a list of actions.

RIGHT: Johnny came in and sat down.
WRONG: Johnny came in, and sat down.

You might think the comma could somehow sneak in there to mark a dramatic pause, but if it's a dramatic pause you seek, go with an em dash or even an ellipsis:

Johnny came in—and stared in horror at the bloody corpse on the floor.

Johnny came in... and stared in horror at the bloody corpse on the floor.

Stylistically, both of these are superior to a comma. Now look at this:

Johnny came in, and he sat down.

The above isn't an example of a compound predicate. It's a compound sentence: two independent clauses joined, in this case, by a comma-and locution. Note that there are two subjects (Johnny and he), each with its corresponding verb (came and sat, respectively).

Let's stray a little bit further into comma-related murkiness. Normally, you use a semicolon to separate two independent clauses; mistakenly using a comma in such a situation results in the dreaded comma splice.

WRONG: Johnny came in, he sat down. (comma splice)
RIGHT: Johnny came in; he sat down.

Semicolons can also pop up when used as "supercommas" in lists where items in the list have commas embedded in them:

For the party, I'm inviting Jack, my boss; Tom, my best friend; Lucy, his wife; and Mary, her sister.

Were I to use nothing but commas, (1) there'd be a bit of grammatical awkwardness at the very end of the sentence, and (2) it would seem as though I were inviting twice as many people as I'm actually inviting to the party.

But sometimes a comma can be used instead of a semicolon to separate independent clauses, and this is the only such exception I can think of. It's a bit of a writerly trick:

We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!
—Bill Murray, "Ghostbusters" (1984)

Bill Murray's triumphant riff off Caesar's Veni, vidi, vici is an example of a technique called tricolon, in which a speaker speaks in threes ("of the people, by the people, and for the people"). Clauses in tricolon aren't bound by typical punctuation rules. What's more, because it lumps three independent clauses together with no coordinating conjunctions between them (and, but, or, etc.), Murray's utterance is also an example of asyndeton: a chain of related clauses with no conjunctions between the links of the chain.* Thus the clauses really do become mere items in a list, so using a comma is perfectly justifiable.

I could go on, but I think that's enough punctuation nonsense for today.



*From here: "Asyndeton uses no conjunctions and separates the terms of the list with commas. [It differs] from the conventional treatment of lists and series..."


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prescriptivism/descriptivism: a warmup

My Aussie e-friend Rory Daly (follow him on Twitter here), long absent from the blogosphere after a recklessly awesome beginning years ago, is back in action with a new website called East Edit, one arm of which contains a blog wherein Rory and his lovely spouse Minnie dispense des perles de sagesse on writing. East Edit also happens to be Rory's company. Based in Brisbane, EE provides services in writing/editing, Web writing, copywriting, and "legalese to plain English." (That last service sounds rather dangerous, given that you never want to misinterpret the language of, say, an important contract.)

If you followed the comment thread of this recent post, you saw that Rory and I don't see eye-to-eye about certain linguistic matters, and he made reference to this disagreement on his own blog in a recent post of his own, writing:

I’ve been having a lively conversation with my friend Kevin, around the merits of certain grammatical rules. I seemed to have ended up in the descriptivist camp, while Kevin is representing the prescriptivists.

Of course, the delineation is never that simple. I think there’s more of a spectrum, with ‘do whatever you want’ at one end, and ‘thou shalt not’ at the other. Within that spectrum, I’m possibly more on the descriptivist side than Kevin, but will still venture deeply into prescriptivist territory, depending on the subject, the day of the week, and how much sleep I have had.

Based on Rory's description of his own position, I just don't see him as antipodal to me. So this is the comment that I wrote him in response to his post:

I've been accused of prescriptivism before, and it's a charge I deny. I'm a stickler, for sure, even a grammar Nazi—but if the descriptivist maintains, thanks to observation, that languages naturally change and evolve, well, I agree with that implicitly. In fact, I consider it trivially true. Of course languages change: all phenomena do. But does this mean there are no rules, or that "it's OK to ignore Rule X (because I say so while numerous experts around me disagree)"? No: I think a happy medium between the "de" and the "pre" is achievable, and I'd like to think that I inhabit that space.

As any Buddhist after Nagarjuna can tell you, there are two truths at work at the same time, in language and in everything else: there's Form (conventional truth) and there's Emptiness (ultimate truth), and you can't have one without the other. Emptiness, the formless, is knowable and deducible only through Form. Language evolves, and this is undeniable, but the other undeniable truth is that language is woven together with strong thews of structure, logic, and tradition, all of which contribute to any given language's robustness over time. A language's structure and its antistructure—its order and its chaos—operate simultaneously. Knowing this, I couldn't possibly be a full-on prescriptivist. Sure, I have prescriptivist sympathies, but I too believe that there are archaic rules that can be tossed. The difference between you and me, as far as I can tell, is that you're willing to toss some of those rules earlier than I am. So it's more a matter of timing than a question of deep differences in philosophy. I mean, hey: this website of yours purports to speak with some authority on English usage. That's a prescriptivist sentiment, however subtle and veiled. In the end, we're not so different, you and I. And you're right, in this blog post, to point out that the prescriptivist/descriptivist dichotomy hides a more complex reality.

Anyway, I'm still planning on writing that massive piece on this very topic, but I can't say when it'll be out. In my mind, the essay keeps growing and growing, which doesn't make starting it any easier.

As I wrote, all of this is prep for a large article I hope to excrete sometime soon, in which I tackle the whole prescriptivism/descriptivism issue with a thesis that you may or may not find surprising. Meanwhile, I'd like to remind the people who think I'm a prescriptivist that I've shown myself not to be such, even if the context wasn't explicitly language-related. Go back and read my repost on "The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol!" to see what I mean. In that debate, I take the "tree is pagan" people to be the stodgy prescriptivists, conflating current meaning with original meaning ("The tree was originally pagan, therefore it's currently pagan!"). I, by contrast, maintain that meanings change through such acts as appropriation (currently a swear word in modern liberal discourse, which goes to show how goofy some liberals can be—as if appropriation weren't always occurring everywhere). My position on the Christmas tree's significance aligns more closely to a descriptivist outlook than to a prescriptivist one. A different post of mine also highlights my descriptivist leanings as I discuss the word decimate, which originally meant "destroy the tenth part of," but which now means "utterly destroy." That same post talks about changes in the meaning of nice, and whether it's OK to say "Scotch-Irish" instead of "Scots-Irish."

I'm more complex than I appear at first blush: think of me as the original incarnation of Walt Whitman's "large and contain multitudes" guy. So, John Q. Public, don't paint me as a simple grammar Nazi, 'cause I ain't: I'm that and more.


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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

America's image abroad

Saw this via Drudge today:


In the background are the words "El Cascanueces," i.e., "The Nutcracker" ("le Casse-noix" in French). The article about Spain's spring Fallas festival in Valencia (pronounce fallas as "fah-yahss," not "phallus"), which apparently comes right before bullfighting season, is here. Obama and Putin are but one tableau among hundreds at the festival.

The displays are satirical, and supposedly all in good fun. But if satire, like stereotypes, contains a grain of truth in it, then America's image abroad is that of an emasculated weakling, lightly ballet-kicking (or foot-tickling?) the privates of Mother Russia. And from the look on Putin's face, there's no place he'd rather be.


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Korea's inverted economics

I got paid! By both Dongguk and the Golden Goose! So for a few glorious hours, I get to marvel at having $5,000 in the bank, which is the most I've had in the bank in a long while. It's all going to disappear more or less instantly, I'm sad to say: W1.5 million will be going to my coworker to repay his generous loan. Another W1.5 million will be heading home to my US account. Another half-million won will go to studio rent early next month, and a goodly chunk of what's left will be stuck back in my secondary account for safe keeping. Whatever's left will be for shopping and other instances of random awesomeness.

But despite this straitlaced financial picture (oh, yeah: KMA texted to officially cancel this weekend's gig), I'm normally in the habit of celebrating payday in a modest manner—generally by ordering a larger-than-usual meal. I got home from the Golden Goose a little after 9PM, and I dithered until after 10PM before deciding I wanted a Saint Paddy's Day pizza from a local pizza joint. I knew there was a chance that I wouldn't be able to order anything after 9PM, so my Plan B was to hit the local galmaegi-sal place, which had caught my eye back when I had just moved into this neighborhood.

As I had feared, the pizza joints weren't picking up calls at 10:15PM, so I lumbered out in search of galmaegi. The local restaurant is called Mapo Galmaegi; I had already swung by a couple weeks earlier to stare at its menu and check prices. I could see right away that everything was more expensive than Seorae, the galmaegi-sal place in Jongno, downtown Seoul; and tonight, when I entered the restaurant, sat down, and grabbed the menu, my initial impressions were confirmed: Mapo was way the hell more expensive than Seorae.

At Seorae, you can get 500 grams of solid pork (the galmaegi-sal in question) for W17,000. Add the dwaenjang soup, the bottles of soda, and the bowls of rice (gonggi-bap), and the tab for two people is a little over $40. Not terrible, but not McDonald's, either. At Mapo, galmaegi is sold in ridiculously teensy portions of 150 grams; each portion is a whopping W8,000. So do the math: at Seorae, it's W17,000 for 500 grams of meat; at Mapo, it's W16,000 for 300 grams—a ripoff. But I was feeling spendy, so I sat down to a Mapo-style meal consisting of 300 grams of galmaegi-sal. The meal wasn't bad, but I couldn't help comparing what I was eating to what I'd gotten used to having at Seorae. I think of Seorae as "Tom's restaurant," since my buddy Tom is the one who introduced the place to me. Tom has a knack for finding good deals and good value; I don't have anything like his acumen. My finding Mapo merely reinforced that point: the place has inferior meat, skimpy portions, and exorbitant prices.

Which brings me to the subject of Korean economics. I now live in Goyang City, which is tiny compared to Seoul. As an American, I'm used to the notion that small towns and cities are generally cheaper, overall, than big cities. Having lived in Korea for a decade, however, I know this doesn't hold true here on the peninsula: in Korea, small-town food, transportation, and other conveniences tend to be more expensive. I'm no longer surprised by this fact, but I still have trouble wrapping my head around why this is so. Why, for example, were taxis more expensive in Hayang, back when I lived there? Why did Hayang restaurants generally serve stingier portions at elevated prices compared to what one can find in Seoul?

If there's a possible free-market reason for Seoul's cheaper prices, it may be this: competition naturally drives prices down, and Seoul's fractal layout—in which restaurants sit next to restaurants, and cafes sit next to cafes—ensures that there will always be heavy competition. Seorae wasn't the only galmaegi place in that part of Jongno; there were other grill-'em restaurants only a few yards away. You can't attract customers unless you lower your prices, so the presence of all those competitors much have some sort of depressing effect on prices. In Goyang City, by contrast, restaurants sit farther apart; there's less competition because there's less of a restaurant density, so to speak. As a result, prices are higher, and townies are a sort of captive audience who get screwed thanks to the lack of competition.

If that's the rationale behind higher prices in Korean small towns, then I have to wonder why I take it as a given that, in America, small towns tend to be cheaper. Why are small-town prices cheaper in the States? It's at times like these that I truly regret never having taken any economics classes.


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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ave, Young (#3)!

The hits keep rolling in for my friend Young, now that he's published his autobiographical novel, The Accidental Citizen-Soldier. Check out his press release here. His TBS eFM interview is linked here. And as always, I strongly recommend that you go buy his book and read his incredible story for yourself.


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how to celebrate the day?

Saint Paddy's is upon us. I'm happy because I get paid by Dongguk on the 17th of the month. That's a good thing, this month, given that I'm running on fumes and still haven't been paid by the Golden Goose despite nearly three weeks of waiting. Seriously, I'm very unimpressed with the speed at which the GG's finance department processes payment. This would be a different story were I a full-time, salaried worker at the GG, but I'm not: I'm a freelancer, so I'm paid on a per-project basis, a fact that annoys my GG boss to no end as he hates filling out the payment paperwork. I've been expecting a three-million-won windfall for nearly a month, but the dough hasn't arrived because our finance department is on drugs, so once again, Dongguk beats GG to the punch.

I also haven't had a decent gig come down the pipe from KMA for either February or March, so that sucks. I might have a KMA gig this coming weekend, but I've been told that only one student has signed up for that course. There have to be at least two or three students for a course not to be canceled, so I once again sense a cancelation in my future. Still, my KMA supervisor is trying to find me things to do—other opportunities than just the ones already scheduled on the calendar. I give him props for trying. That said, good intentions don't fill a bank account, and some actual work would be nice. As Saint Anselm observed, a million won in the bank is greater than a million won in the imagination.

In any event, I get paid tomorrow (well, technically, today), so I can send most of that money over to my US account and have a tiny celebration with the rest while I wait for my other job to finally pay me. Since I have only a nodding acquaintance with beer, I doubt I'll be seeking out any green beer on Saint Paddy's, but I might indulge in some bad-for-you food.


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