Caveat: Wingdings

An advanced-level elementary student was writing an essay for me in the computer lab the other day. She printed her essay and came running to me in either feigned or real panic. She showed me the printout, below. Obviously, something was amiss.

"Teacher! What's wrong. The printer is broken," she complained.

I went and looked at her screen and then again at the document.

"The printer isn't broken," I sighed. "You need to stop playing around with font choices in Microsoft Word and spend more time writing your essay."

Wingding 002

What is this font you speak of, O master?

I have been in a very strange mood, lately. I feel like an old man in a rest home for the mentally deranged. Just a feeling…

What I'm listening to right now.

Harry Nilsson, "Without You."

Caveat: 백문이 불여일견

백문이              불여일견
百聞이              不如一見
hundred-hear-SUBJ not-same-one-see
Hearing it a hundred times is not the same as seeing it.

“Seeing is believing” or “A picture is worth a thousand words” or “The proof is in the pudding.”

I chose this proverb because I thought it would be easy, not realizing it was another one of those Chinese-masquerading-as-Korean linguistic fossils. Still, I’ve gotten a little bit competent using the online dictionary, flashing back and forth between the 영어 / 국어 / 한자 [English / Korean / Chinese] tabs, so I figured it out in record time. It was trivial to find the proverbial meaning, since that meaning is the only one conveyed in the Korean-English dictionary. What takes time is sorting out the individual syllables – and you don’t get to lean on Korean syntax in sorting it out, because it’s not really Korean, it’s Chinese, with its rather gnomic and aggressively un-analytical rules.

I wonder sometimes if the South Koreans’ current obsession with English (both as a language of “globalization” to be learned wholesale in schools and academies, as well as a never-ending source for neologisms for their own language) isn’t just a continuation of their two-millenia-long, one-sided love affair with Chinese. They just changed the object of their attention. Regardless, the language seems remarkably open to a certain style of lexical borrowing.

In this light, note, especially, that little Korean particle (이 =- subject marker) inserted into the above proverb. If Chinese is good, then Chinese with some handy disambiguating particles must be better.


Caveat: Entropy Engines

I found this rather mind-blowing article at a website called Physics Buzz. It's about some theoretical modeling work being done in the field of AI (artificial intelligence). I can't begin to claim to really understand it – and that's just the layman's article, I wouldn't dream of trying to read the actual published paper. Apparently there are some interesting results emerging from a simulation program they call "Entropica" that suggest that just programming something to seek the "most possible future histories" (which sort of suggests something quantum-mechanical but I don't think it really does) leads to intelligent-seeming behavior. Is it really intelligent, if it's just trying to maximize entropy? Very weird and interesting. A few paragraphs from the summary:

Entropica's intelligent behavior emerges from the "physical process of trying to capture as many future histories as possible," said Wissner-Gross. Future histories represent the complete set of possible future outcomes available to a system at any given moment.

Wissner-Gross calls the concept at the center of the research "causal entropic forces." These forces are the motivation for intelligent behavior. They encourage a system to preserve as many future histories as possible. For example, in the cart-and-rod exercise, Entropica controls the cart to keep the rod upright. Allowing the rod to fall would drastically reduce the number of remaining future histories, or, in other words, lower the entropy of the cart-and-rod system. Keeping the rod upright maximizes the entropy. It maintains all future histories that can begin from that state, including those that require the cart to let the rod fall.

"The universe exists in the present state that it has right now. It can go off in lots of different directions. My proposal is that intelligence is a process that attempts to capture future histories," said Wissner-Gross.

I predict that if the research behind this article turns out to be "real" – in the sense that it isn't later falsified or found to be lacking in rigor – that it could be a more-than-incremental step in the development of AI (i.e. revolutionary).

Caveat: Leaders & Problems

I have two unconnected observations about "business" – I've been in a kind of involuntary "MBA" mode of thought, lately. I'm not really meaning to – let's just call it a relapse to an earlier life. This mode of thinking is brought by the many very serious conversations we've been having at work about the business of being an English hagwon in what is becoming an increasingly difficult context.

First, a meme-pic that was floating around the internet recently. I definitely agree with the concept here.


Second, a quote I ran across – I'm not sure who said it. If you think about it carefully, you will see it's meaning. And it puts a different perspective on solving business "problems."

"Everything you think is a problem is somebody else's income." – Anon

Caveat: Still Home

Two years ago yesterday, I moved back to Ilsan after my strange year in Jeollanam, and started my new job at Karma.

On this two year anniversary, it's easy to get nostalgic and think about what I feel about being here. I've been much less content about "being in Korea," lately, as many of my acquaintances know. And my job satisfaction suffers because of that, although even now I don't think "job satisfaction" is a major factor in my discontent. It's just that my discontent is negatively impacting job satisfaction.

Not sure that makes sense.

More later.

What I'm listening to right now.

GOSSAMER, "Her Ghost."

Caveat: A Smoggy Disposition

Last night I dreamed I was giving a lecture to some business school. I have no idea why I was invited to give a lecture at a business school – I think lately, I've been thinking a lot about "business school" type things, in the light of the flailing business conditions at my current place of employment. As a consequence, my dream world invited me to give a lecture at a business school.

I was explaining something related to "dispositional" versus "compositional" analysis. Yes, I'd actually put those words onto powerpoint slides and was explaining the difference. Here's the thing: I don't think the meanings I was giving these two terms are really their meanings in some business context, but what I was saying made some sense, if viewed as philosophy or semantics.

I said that "compositional" was about finding the elements that make up some object or process or whatever, while "dispositional" meant finding the intent behind the object or process. This makes sense etymologically anyway, but it made for a very boring dream.

Because that's all I remember. Why do I dream this way? Why, dispositionally, I mean?

Yesterday was very springy here in suburban Seoul. Spring in Seoul always reminds me of winter in Mexico City. The temperature ranges tend to be similar, they are both fairly dry, and there's the smog factor – spring is Korea's smoggiest season – I think it's because of the prevailing winds from the west, which bring us the Chinese eco-disaster, with an admixture of locally produced smog, too.

Having said that, yesterday wasn't the smoggiest I've seen. It was only that the blue sky failed to make it down to the horizon, fading instead to a sort of pale gray.

Caveat: 도둑이 제발 저린다

도둑이      제발             저린다
thief-SUBJ most-definitely fall-asleep-PRES
The thief most defnitely falls asleep.

“A guilty conscience needs no accuser.” This is to say, the thief gives himself away, maybe. I’m not sure what that means about the thief falling asleep – there is a sort of karmic conception where in people who do bad things suffer health problems – is that what’s going on here?

Grammatically (or rather, lexically), I wonder about 제발. All three Korean-English dictionaries I consulted gave “Please” or a more strong “For god’s sake” as the only possible translation of this term, but my intuition was that it didn’t mean that, here. So I looked in the online Korean-Korean dictionary (the same dictionary, by the way, that I most frequently use the Korean-English part at:, and found the following additional meaning for 제발: “[반어적인 구문에 쓰여] 어떤 일이 있더라도 반드시.” Roughly, this seems to mean: “[used ironically] surely most definitely.” This kind of ironical “most definitely” seems to be exactly the meaning called for here.

Why are Korean-English dictionaries so bad? I understand that they’re all bad in basically the same way, since they all copy each other. But why was the original one that everyone is copying so bad, and why is there no stepwise incentive to improve the copies?

Incidentally, speaking of bad translation, sometimes after puzzling through the meanings of these proverbs, I will plug them into the googletranslate out of curiosity. The result of putting this one in was exceptionally amusing. Googletranslate gave “Please find my overcoat thief.”

Caveat: It’s Raining Cats

What I'm listening to right now.

My Robot Friend, "It's Raining Cats." This song is derived from that more well-known "It's Raining Men" by The Weather Girls (1982), but with different lyrics. As of this posting, it has 540 views on youtube. I'm predicting more than that.

The lyrics:

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

By the same auteurs, "Robot High School."

Caveat: ათოვდა ზამთრის ბაღებს

ათოვდა ზამთრის ბაღებს

ათოვდა ზამთრის ბაღებს,
მიჰქონდათ შავი კუბო
და შლიდა ბაირაღებს
თმაგაწეული ქარი.
გზა იყო უდაბური,
უსახო, უპირქუბო.
მიჰქონდათ კიდევ კუბო…
ყორნების საუბარი:
დარეკე! დაუბარე!
ათოვდა ზამთრის ბაღებს.

Snow Fell on Winter Gardens

Snow fell on winter gardens,
A black coffin was carried out
And the banners unfurled,
Swept up in the wind.
The path was desolate
Formless and dark.
Another coffin was carried out…
The cry of the raven:
Let the bells toll! Bury them!
Snow fell on winter gardens.

– Galaktion Tabidze (1916)

The original poem is in the Georgian Language. I actually studied Georgian once, but I can’t even remember the alphabet at the moment – it’s not like I make much effort to keep up on it. So I guess I include the Georgian here, above, just for the sake of completeness and as a linguistic oddity. Thanks to the googletranslate, I can even provide a fairly reliable romanization: at’ovda zamt’ris baghebs at’ovda zamt’ris baghebs, mihk’ondat’ shavi kubo da shlida bairaghebs t’magatseuli k’ari. gza iqo udaburi, usakho, upirk’ubo. mihk’ondat’ kidev kubo… qornebis saubari: dareke! daubare! at’ovda zamt’ris baghebs.

Caveat: W3 is what?

This is the world's first (oldest) webpage. It's at CERN, where Tim Berners-Lee created the WWW protocols and httpsd web server in 1990-91. That makes the below a 22-year-old website. Interesting.


I think it's cool they still have it up and available – I'm not sure to what extent it retains its original form, but based on appearances it matches closely with my recollection of what the internet (er… "world wide web") looked like in the very early years.

I'm pretty sure my first experience with WWW was at the University of Minnesota libraries, which were already running the locally developed gopher protocols (which was an early alternate version of www, basically) for their online library catalog in 1993, and they were experimenting with https in the same vein. I distinctly recall seeing "websites" that looked exactly like the above – all white with black text and blue links, zero or quite minimal graphics.

I wrote and published my first website in 1995, in raw html using a text editor, as a first-year graduate student at University of Pennsylvania – I used the now defunct geocities hosting site. I was publishing syllabi and supplementary materials for my Spanish classes that I taught there at that time. I called it "macondonet" after García Márquez's fictional town, Macondo.

I wish I still had the code for those early pages – it would be fun to keep them live somewhere as a sort of nostalgia trip. I was lucky in that I was attending early-adopting institutions at the time the internet was first emerging, and thus I got to be an early adopter, too. I think it's ironic that all these years later, as a teacher, I'm "lower tech" than I was at that time.

Caveat: 똥인지 된장인지 분간할 수 없다

똥인지           된장인지
          분간할               수   없다

shit-be-WHETHER miso-be-WHETHER distinguish-FUTPART able not-have
[He] can’t distinguish whether it’s shit or soybean paste [=miso].

Shit“He can’t tell shit from shinola” or “Wouldn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground” might be similar in tone and meaning.

In the picture at right, the shit is asked: “You… are you shit?” “Are you miso?” The shit answers, “Turns out~ Shit~”

Caveat: Teacher

Student: "Teacher! How are you?"

Teacher: "I'm good, how about you?"

Student: "Not so good, teacher."

Teacher: "Because of the tests coming?"

Student: "Yes, teacher."

Teacher: "You know, saying 'teacher' all the time is not really how English-speaking students talk. It's 'konglish'."

Student: "I know, teacher."

Teacher: "In the US, students almost always address their teachers by name. So I would be Mr Way. But mostly they just don't say 'teacher' or a name at all."

Student: "Mr Way? Really, teacher?"

Teacher: "Yes, really. So instead of saying 'Really, teacher?' you would just say 'Really, Mr Way?' or just 'Really?' Do you understand?"

Student: "That's … strange, teacher."

Teacher: "I know."

Student: "Goodbye, teacher. See you later, teacher."

i was surprised at how much madison got off

Caveat: Double Demographic Whammy

I ran across a pretty interesting article at Quartz. Quarz is an annoyingly-formatted spin-off of The Atlantic – perhaps I'm just too old-school to appreciate the smartphonesque stylings at Quartz. Regardless…

The article is about South Korea's demographic problems, which are even worse than I'd been thinking. The article includes the graph below, which the article reproduces from KNSO (Korean National Statistics Organization, I think), which covers the range from 1960 projected out to 2050. The proportions between youth, working-age and elderly is striking.


The article goes on to talk about the youth problem. The idea that a country with 22% youth unemployment has a shortage of workers is something I'd already sort of realized. The article attributes this to the country's over-obsession with college education, which leads to a vastly over-qualified workforce relative to the types of jobs available, but I'd like to suggest a different reading.

South Korean society has changed so much, and so fast, that there is a kind of "culture-gap" between the youth and the older members of the society. This was observed in the recent elections, for example. In a country where personal relationships – those built between peers, especially, but then between one's family and one's peers' families, too – are so important in finding jobs and building careers, the fact that youth and older workers essentially pertain to different cultures means that they no longer have a space in common where they can build those critical relationships.

If, for example, the young people are no longer interested in working until 10 pm and then going out drinking with their older work-mates in an appropriately deferential way, then those older work-mates are going to begin to view those younger workers as "bad workers" and begin to exclude them from the social circles where jobs are retained and careers are built.

This is just speculation, on my part. But I think there's more going on that just an "education gap" in Korea's weirdly astronomical youth unemployment rate.

Caveat: ¡Karmatrón!

Kt00102Karmatrón es el nombre de un comic (historieta) que recuerdo vagamente haber encontrado durante me estadía en México en los 80. Una clase de derivativo de la serie de los transformers, sin duda, pero con curioso subtexto religioso.

Ahora me interesa tanto por su nombre algo irónico (respecto al nombre de mi lugar de empleo acá en Corea) que por alguna nostalgia por su temática.


Caveat: 잘나도 내 낭군, 못나도 내 낭군

잘나도           내  낭군,         못나도       내  낭군
is-handsome-TOO my dear-husband, is-ugly-TOO my dear-husband
My dear husband is both handsome and ugly.

So, the one place where I found this phrase or proverb translated (interpreted) to English (actually he only interprets the truncated second clause but I suspect it’s familiar enough that the first clause is then understood) seems to think it’s equivalent to Churchill’s “Democracy is the worst form of government except those others that have been tried.” That commenter also suggests “Every human being is defective.”

I think those are very broad interpretations – too much poetic license being taken. But I can’t be sure…

2mb loves you
I found another spot where some blogger blogging in Korean seemed to implying a political context for it, too – but my Korean is too lousy to really guess what that’s about. What I did understand is that a substitution is suggested, replacing “내 낭군” [my dear husband] with “우리 대통령” [our president], hence “잘나도 우리 대통령, 못나도 우리 대통령” [Our president is both handsome and ugly] (meant metaphorically maybe – but see picture of former president, at right).

I think maybe a better phrase might be something short and more personal: “I like him/her/it, warts and all.” Just that we accept the good with the bad in any given situation. Since I haven’t been able to find the source context for this line, I’m really just speculating. My intuition is that it doesn’t feel like an “old proverb” so much as a recent phrase that was popularized in some novel or TV show or suchlike.

Caveat: IIRTHW Part I – What is an English hagwon?

[In the form of various unstructured entries with fairly random thoughts, I’ve been working on this project for several years, and it’s come to have the name “If I Ran The Hagwon” (abbreviated as IIRTHW). This topic seems to be evolving into my first effort at something resembling long-form journalism on my blog. Here is Part I. Additional parts (number to be determined) will follow.]

Part I – What is an English hagwon?

To talk about this topic, first we need to define some terms, and provide some context and background. “Hagwon” is a transliteration for Korean 학원 [hagwon], often translated as “academy” or “institute,” but I’m not at all comfortable with those translations. In fact, a hagwon
is not an academy or an institute in the way we understand those ideas – both words convey a different although overlapping set of concepts that fail to exactly match up with what is conveyed by the Korean word “hagwon.”

A hagwon is an after-school supplementary educational institution, sometimes specializing in a particular subject area or sometimes more general. Sometimes they are focused on “exam prep” (in the style of what are called 学習塾 [Gakushū juku = “Cram Schools”] in Japan), but not always. In Korea, there are hagwon offering almost any subject you can imagine: I’ve seen chess hagwon, baduk hagwon (baduk is the game that is called by its Japanese name of “go” in English), computer-game design hagwon, lego hagwon, and robot design hagwon. The most common type of hagwon, aside from the broad-based, multi-subject test-prep sort, seems to be in the following topics: math, science, English, Chinese, and 국어 ([gugeo] i.e. Korean writing and literature for Korean native-speakers).

Hagwon serve all school grades, but the high school ones tend to be more strictly in the “exam prep” style (because the 수능 [suneung] is king – which is the Korean SAT-analogue), while the elementary and middle school levels are more diverse. (As a minor note on usage and linguistics, I have opted to treat the nativized word “hagwon” as an uncountable noun, hence the plural is also “hagwon.” I think this sounds more natural than putting an “-s” on it – e.g. “hagwons” – given that Koreans don’t make much use of plural markers.)

For the purposes of this essay, I will mostly talk about “what I know” – that is to say, I will focus on talking about hagwon specializing in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instruction for the elementary and middle school levels, essentially grades 1 through 9. Before going into specifics, however, it’s worth the effort to make some more general observations about the “hagwon market”
and the nature of South Korean education.

South Korea has been ranked near the top of all the world’s countries on many lists of quality of education. The UN Education Index from 2007 puts South Korea at number 8 worldwide. A recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit put South Korea at number 2, after only Finland, which includes data from OECD’s PISA project. But as someone who has worked in Korean education for the last 5 years, I find it remarkable – even inconceivable. My gut reaction is: are all the other countries really that bad? How does Korea do this?

The fact of the matter is that Finland and South Korea are almost diametrically opposed on most matters of education policy. Finland essentially bans private (tuition-charging) schools. In South Korea, private education flourishes, and, if you take into account the hagwon system in its broadest brush strokes, South Korea is arguably one of the most privatized and capitalistic systems of education on the planet: it’s an Ayn Rand fantasy version of education policy, given how lightly
the hagwon system is regulated by the government.

My personal conclusion has been that Korean education is good not because of matters of policy but rather because of Korean parents and culture. Korean culture values education, and Korean parents value education, and so they jump into the education market (on their children’s behalf) with both feet forward and with their wallets wide open. Without having been there, my suspicion is that Finland, in its almost diametrically opposed way, is successful for a similar reason: Finnish parents and Finnish culture value education, and they demand quality education from their system. Beyond such generalizations, I can’t really figure it out.

With that in mind, though, the conclusion is obvious: education policy isn’t as important as people make it out to be. Otherwise, how could two countries at such opposite extremes of policy both be at the top of the charts?

Korean public schools aren’t really that good. The year that I spent in a public, rural elementary school in South Korea was eye-opening. That time led me to understand that in point of fact,  education in South Korea doesn’t take place in public schools. Public schools are more about socialization and building cultural consensus, and education, to the extent that it occurs, is mostly peripheral. It’s a sort of side-effect, or hoped-for outcome. And hence we find the flourishing
hagwon system. If you want your kid to learn English, don’t count on the public schools, despite their requiring English from 3rd through 12th grade – it won’t happen. Instead, send them to a good English hagwon. Likely the same applies for other subjects as well.

The hagwon, then, is the real epicenter of Korean education. The main thing that schools do that is related to education policy is give tests.

These tests, standardized in the extreme and mostly centralized by the government, are the engine  that drives the hagwon industry. Parents don’t, in fact, enroll their kids in hagwon for the purpose
of education, but rather, their explicit purpose is that they want to improve their kids’ test scores. Even here, education, to the extent that it occurs, is a sort of side-effect.

It’s worth pointing out that this is hardly new. Since the beginning of Joseon in the 1400’s (and  probably well before that in some form), ambitious families have been sending their kids to various academies and institutes with the goal of getting good scores on various types of tests. In pre-modern times, it was mostly the various civil-service exams, which when executed successfully could lead to government work and sinecures. This is how ambition has been fulfilled in Korea from time immemorial.

The hagwon system, then, is merely a sort of modern expression of this ancient system. Indeed, looked at in this way, the hagwon system is Korea’s native education system, while the public school system, introduced mostly by the Japanese during the colonial period, on Western models,
is just a sort of Western cultural window-dressing, and a convenient way to administer tests.

This is my effort to summarize what a hagwon is. In the next part of this essay [maybe next week?], I want to explore how the unapologetically capitalistic nature of this hagwon system determines what is possible and what is not vis-a-vis various educational methodologies, and vis-a-vis the
presumed purpose of English education – which is to provide some degree of competency in English.

[Part II]

[Part III]

Caveat: Where Are We Now?

I was huge fan of David Bowie when I was in college, oh so many years ago.

I remained a fan, if not a super enthusiastic one. Once I saw him in concert, while I was in graduate school and Michelle and I were living in Philadelphia. I think it was one of the few concerts I went to during that epoch, in the mid-1990's.

Sometimes I can go for a long stretch without listening to anything by him, but recently I had a chance to hear one of the songs from his new album, which has gotten a lot of rave reviews. I'm inclined to agree – he's aged really well.

What I'm listening to right now.

David Bowie, "Where Are We Now?" That's his new one.

Here's an old one, that I used to listen to almost every day for a few years in the late 1980's.

David Bowie, "Life On Mars?"