Caveat: Life’s Small Ironies

I quit my last job, among other reasons, because I had become burned out on the notion of trying to sell poorly designed and executed software to skeptical end-users.  Behold the irony of finding myself in essentially an identical position here where I'm supposedly working as an English teacher – with the further complication that the end-users in question are a bunch of variantly-motivated Korean teenagers.

Caveat: Lousy Technology

LinguaForum Language hagwon has a website.  It's trying to create internet-based curriculum support, including a means for providing teachers an ability to assign web-based homework and evaluation tools that students can use.  This is an admirable goal – but jeez, are they falling short.

They want me to use the web-based tool to assign writing assignments to my "comprehensive" classes.  I had been under the impression that there was some web-based pre-built curriculum-compatible questions, but in actuality what I was given was a blank form where I had to fill in what the assignment was, give it a title, explain it, etc.  I was reduced to a time-consuming effort to copy an assignment onto the website from the paper materials I already had.

Further, I was then unable to edit or delete mistakes.  How is this any kind of improvement over a piece of paper from a photocopy machine?  Further, the LFA (RingGuAPoReom EoHagWon) website uses technology that is apparently quite fragile – the site crashes when I try to access it using either Firefox or IE 7.0 under Vista – it only works when I log on using IE 6 under XP.

So, argh.

It was snowing beautifully this morning, but by this afternoon it was blustery but above freezing and the air was damp, and the sky was gorgeous, full of scudding clouds.  I had a flashback to an October morning in Hornopirén, Chile, and Spring snowstorm-turning-to-rain.  Same hint of woodsmoke in the air, but the setting there was ends-of-the-earth, and here in Ilsan, it feels closer to the center-of-the-world, with high rises all around and taxis and buses bustling by on broad boulevards.

Caveat: Subway Maps

I discovered a website this evening that features subway maps (and descriptions and histories) from everywhere in the world.  I managed to waste an immense amount of time there.  So the interesting question is, what city has the largest subway, that you've never heard of?

Caveat: Original of Laura

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great writers of the recently ended century, left an unfinished manuscript when he died, which is called "The Original of Laura."  He had explicitly requested that it be destroyed, and now, years later, his son (Dmitri Nabokov) can't decide whether to go through with it or not.

Nabokov, of course, is famous for the novel Lolita.  Personally, I like both Pale Fire and Ada much better – especially Ada, with its alternate-universe North America which seems partly inhabited by vaguely frenchified tsarist Russians.  I would be fascinated to read a "lost" work of the author's, but something about respecting a person's last wishes comes into play too.  Dmitri is stuck with a terrible dilemma.

Meanwhile… here is building I saw a while back, a few blocks from here on the other side of the Jeongbalsan (Jeongbal hill).

Caveat: A dumb war

The following is excerpted from a speech by Barack Obama, in 2002.  Yes, 2002.

What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perles and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income; to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That’s what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

Now let me be clear: I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.

I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the middle east, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, in other news, the incoming president, 이멍박, is saying he plans to merge the republic's foreign and "unification" ministries.  This seems like a very good idea – currently, there is a sort of dissonance between the tones of the two – almost as if the republic has two completely separate foreign policies.

The foreign ministry keeps a somewhat hard line and handles positions in multilateral negotiations involving the north, e.g. with the U.S., China, Russia, et al., trying to contain the north's weapons programs.  At the same time, the unification ministry is a much kinder, gentler bureaucracy that seems focused on nothing so much as extending South Korea's immense wealth and successful social welfare programs to the miserable north, regardless of the extent to which the north's government is complicit in creating all that misery.

Caveat: Working

I'm feeling kind of exhausted from work.  Number of hours are up; a lot of documentation being required by new employers, which I actually approve of, conceptually, but it's a lot of work getting used to it.

And I'm engaged in a bureaucratic tangle with my bank over the close/transfer of my stepson's trust account, now that he's reached age of "majority."  Argh.

So, meanwhile, here is a picture of the public school (문화초등) that's half a block from where I work.  200801_ilsankr_school

Caveat: Klingons

Did you know that a group of people are working to translate not only the works of Shakespeare, but also the Bible, into the Klingon language?  Is this a great world, or what?

In other news, I definitely despise my web host provider,  Since coming to Korea, I have not once been able to complete any kind of transaction with the hosting admin website without also having to call them up to get them to accept a credit card number, or unlock a password which has been locked (probably because I'm coming at it from some disreputable "foreign" IP address), or some other problem.

This, despite the fact that I was very careful when trying to choose a provider to find one that allegedly would allow me to work with them exclusively online.  So… they suck.  But transferring my domains and website away from them while in my current overseas location will likely be very painful and possibly expensive.  Which leaves me in that most unpleasant of positions, the helpless consumer.  Maybe the people who run are grumpy, human-hating klingons.

Below is a picture of where I work, with it's new dark purple LinguaForum Eohagwon sign across the second floor.  So those second-floor windows under the purple sign are classrooms where I teach.  200801_ilsankr_lfaakawork

Caveat: It’s raining helmets… and the Mexican snowplow squadron

I looked up at my television a while ago, which I had on on some Korean channel.  I saw a man on a motorcycle, he looked like a zombie.  He had a passenger riding behind him.  Suddenly it began to rain a large number motorcycle helmets from the sky.  The driver of the motorcycle was struck by one of the falling helmets.  The television had my attention.

It was apparently the scene from a movie – the show was some movie review show, where they show clips of movies and talk about them, but, since it was in Korean, I didn't really have much ability to capture what this movie was.  But the scenes were pure magic realism, and I was captivated.  There was a scene where a woman was reading a white book that fell on her from the sky.  And a scene where an immense number of empty plastic bottles and containers (ie. trash) was growing into a giant pile in the center of some huge city.  It grew to such large size it towered over the skyline of the city, like a mountain.  People went and climbed and had picnics on it, enjoying the view.  And could throw their empty containers over their shoulders – so convenient!

So.  I had to know what this movie was.   Hmm… how to search?  Google.  I typed in "falling helmets" and "movie".  I found a blog about movies – some woman in Minneapolis, of all places.  And lo, there it was:  Citizen Dog (Mah nakorn) – a Thai movie from 2004.

That, and yesterday's snow, has me thinking about a story I started once – my own little foray into magic realism.  Like everything I've tried to write, it never got finished.  The story is set in my familiar haunts in Mexico City.  It starts on a morning I actually experienced, when I emerged one chilly morning from the Casa to see it snowing.  Of course it quickly changed to rain – it doesn't really snow in Mexico City – except on the higher elevations surrounding:  Desierto de los leones, or Tres Marias.

But then my little story diverges:  in the story, it never stops snowing.  Partly, I was influenced by headlines of a freak snowstorm in northern Mexico – Durango / Chihuahua / Cd Juarez, which had recently received several feet.  I had been obsessing on the concept of hardworking squadrons of Mexican snowplows.  I thought 'the Mexican snowplow squadron' might be a great name for a rock band.

Back to the story.  For forty days and nights it snows.  Of course, this means utter social chaos and human tragedy writ large across the hyperinflationary, delamadridista Mexico City of the 1980s.  And meanwhile, snowbound in some small non-profit casa de huespedes, the main characters find friendship, love and meaning.  Really, I was trying to write this.  Once.  Several times.


Caveat: Octopus and Potato Pizza

With my lowest level students we were working on a memorization passage about food, and were discussing pizza.  Everyone knows what pizza is, but when I asked the question, "what goes on pizza?" I got some unexpected responses:  e.g. potato, octopus, among more known ingredients.  I really haven't experienced much in the way of Korean pizza, though what I have had is good.  But I hadn't seen those particular toppings.  Still… this is Korea – it seemed plausible.  I'll have to see if I can have some, some time.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are so long.  7 classes back-to-back, and then one more after a short break.   I'm exhausted.

Maybe it will snow – it's in the forecast – but I haven't been particularly impressed with the forecasts, here.  I can hope.

Caveat: “힐러리!”

Thus read the headline running across the tv news.  What do you suppose it means?  "Hil-leo-ri!" Which is to say, it was announcing Senator Clinton's recent victory in New Hampshire.  Of course, the slog has only begun.  But the result was unexpected, apparently – Obama had been leading in the polls leading into the voting.

I'm not a Clinton supporter.  Aside from my discomfort with the trend toward dynasticism that a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton alternation would suggest, I also feel Edwards, Richardson and Obama all offer more constructive, less cautious, less "stay-the-course" platforms.  And despite my libertarian tendencies – which sometimes make certain Republicans attractive to me – Ron Paul (who otherwise would be the closest match) is definitely not my sort of libertarian:  he's rigidly anti-immigrant and pro-life, neither of which strikes me as remotely libertarian.  So I guess "liberal" trumps "libertarian" in this election.

I have found Richardson the most appealing of the candidates – not least because he's a chilango agringado, which I can relate to, being a gringo achilangado myself. But it looks to me like he's running for Vice President, rather than President.  At least, his resume combined with his poll numbers hint that that would be the most likely possibility.  Maybe I'm leaning toward Mr Obama, then. 

Caveat: Chocolate Rain Obsession

Today was a very long day at work.  I really liked my students today, though.  Especially the incurably silly Gavin, Cathy, and friends in the new ER2(T) class, with their "happy singing zombie students" act.

Not to mention the "8th grade princess mafia," aka the new TP1(T), which by some quirk of exam-scores and fate has become a girls-only class.  They're smart-alecky and unshakably in love with their cellphones, and only motivated under very generous definitions of the term… yet, they manage to be unmotivated almost exclusively in English, and thus I can't bring myself to complain.  I was feeling sad for the super-smart Lainy and Julia, the only 7th graders in the group having recently been promoted into it, given the other girls' very cliquey behavior, but they're so smart they hold their own and put the others to shame with stunning performances.

So.  I stopped in the H-mart on the way home at dusk, and bought some food for my barren cupboards, including not just cabbage and tomatoes but a decadent bag of doritos and some chocolate milk.  Then I proceeded to spend the evening surfing wikipedia and other bits of the internet.  And became obsessed with a little internet meme that peaked over the summer, known as "Chocolate Rain."

I'll let you pursue it, if you're interested – the tale of Tay Zonday, a University of Minnesota PhD candidate who, using a quirky youtube video, bootstrapped himself from obscurity into talk show appearances, big-bucks product jingles and endorsements, and major-talent collaborations.

And yet he continues to be a grad student, and the original ditty is actually an intriguing piece in its monotonous way:  a little allegorical study of racism, with references to, among other things, the riots in the Paris suburbs.  And, to quote:  "Chocolate Rain / Made me cross the street the other day / Chocolate Rain / Made you turn your head the other way."  And continues, "Chocolate Rain / The bell curve blames the baby's DNA / Chocolate Rain / But test scores are how much the parents make."  People who complain that the song is pointless, haven't read the lyrics.  And those who accuse him of selling out are missing the point completely, I think – publicity is a two-way street, and a thinking artist with a social-change agenda may in fact have a weird sort of  obligation to leverage offers of publicity and money from commercial interests in order to further that agenda however he or she can.

A Brazilian vlogger observes (and maybe I'm just quoting him to showcase my own multilingual erudition, but I liked the way he phrases it): 

É impressionante como a internet consegue transforma em celebridades os mais inusitados dos seres e as suas mais toscas exibições de talento. Veja o exemplo de Tay Zonday, um garoto que gravou uma canção chamada "Chocolate Rain" fazendo uso de uma voz grave, quase que robótica.

I've certainly got the tune and words stuck in my head, now.  And so I listen to dozens of remixes and parodies of "Chocolate Rain," while eating doritos and drinking chocolate milk, while I sit in my little apartment in happy Ilsan, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea.

To quote Mr Zonday:  "This internet thing is wild!"

[Update: youtube embedded video added retroactively, 2011-08-03, a part of background noise.]

Caveat: Fog

It was foggy this morning as I walked to work.  Later, when I left, the afternoon sun (yes, afternoon… with the odd "vacation schedule" for work) was a eerie silver disk hanging over the pointy-topped apartment high-rises and church steeples of Ilsan.

Caveat: Saved by hip-hop?

I was watching part of an episode of a program called American Dad on the AFKN channel on my television.  Something involving a criminal with a german accent, whose brain has been transplanted into first a fish, then into the body of a seventies-era-looking black man.  Meanwhile a hippie dude who says he is a "tree in a man's body" is running some kind of eco-terrorist thing.

And there's a werewolf subplot.  And the pet space alien, Roger (a regular, apparently, described at wikipedia as "sarcastic, alcoholic, surly, lonely, aloof, and flamboyantly effeminate"), loses a pair of sea monkeys he dearly loves, after feeding them some champaign.  Near the end, Stan says, "for the second time of my life, I was saved by hip-hop."  Bizarre cultural references abound.  Was this a good use of my time?  I don't know, but I laughed very hard, several times.

I sure get tired of those military public service announcements, though.  It's like watching them collectively, as an institution, try to convince themselves that they have a clue.

I am drinking something called citron tea, which is made from something that is inexplicably almost identical to orange marmalade jam – you scoop out a spoonful of it into a cup, add hot water, and drink:  presweetened vaguely tea-ey hot citrus drink.  I bought a huge jar of it for 3000원 (about 3 bucks) last time I was at the supermarket.  I like it.

Caveat: “how many times can this train wreck wreck?”

The above is a quote from a blog on the New York Times website, talking about Britney Spears.  I was doing some random web surfing… honestly, I don't really care that much about Britney.  But I was immediately impressed with the twisted and unusual phrasing of the question, which uses 'wreck' as both a noun and verb, in sequence.  I love things like that.

So.  I'm so glad people use language creatively, even when discussing Britney's latest crisis.  It gives me hope.  In a weird way.

Caveat: Someone’s Vacation

Not mine.  The students are on a month-long winter vacation from the public-school component of their educations.  The consequence is that the hagwon has extended hours – so, our "vacation schedule" entails more teaching hours than last month.  Well, it doesn't help that, now under new management as LinguaForum Academy, we're trying to take on more students without appropriately expanded staffing, either. 

Regardless of causes, I'm working more.  Yesterday, I had 7 45-minute classes in a row.  And Tuesdays and Thursdays will look like that for all of January.  In related news, because of the "vacation schedule," suddenly we are also working from 9am starting time, instead of a 4pm starting time.  I'm having some trouble adapting to the sudden change in working hours, though, as usual, I always find that something forcing me out of bed in the morning can weirdly affect my outlook – negatively in the short term, as it makes me grumpy… but, oddly, positively in the longer term, as somehow I always feel more "virtuous" at the close of the day, having risen early and done productive work well before dusk.

Ah well.

Caveat: Consumption Gap

An editorial / review in a recent Economist magazine ("Economics Focus:  The new (improved) Gilded Age") discusses something that I've been pondering for many years, but haven't been very good at articulating.  Despite the sharp – even alarming – rates of increase in "income inequality" throughout the world in recent decades, something else is going on that isn't being captured in standard economic statistics:  this is the somewhat weird but, I believe, oddly compelling observation that although incomes are diverging, lifestyles are converging.

I don't know if this is really true, but the anecdotal evidence offered in the article is interesting, such as the observation that a $300 refrigerator and a $10,000 one aren't that different in terms of the what they can do for you.  Likewise, the cheapo Hyundai sedan vs the Jaguar.  They both are typically driven by owners on the same crowded highways, despite a 1000 percent difference in price.

This ties in with an idea I like to think of as rooted in marxist analysis (though I'm not confident that that's its provenance):  as capitalism continues to evolve, it drives constantly toward manufacturing new "necessities" which, as a matter of course, are not true human necessities but strictly market-created artificial ones.  And the rich, with all that extra income that the income gap is giving them, go chasing after these artificial necessities, while the lot of the poor continues to improve, albeit slowly, with respect to the profoundly less artificial  necessities which they seek to satisfy.

So incomes are out of wack, and constantly more so.  And consumption, as measured by dollars outlaid, is also diverging.  But if you measure consumption by a more intangible concept such as "range of experience," you will find the experience of rich and poor converging in strange ways.  Fishermen in India, bankers in southwest Connecticut, and grandmonthers and schoolchildren in Korea all use cell phones in markedly similar ways to improve the quality of their very different lives, at almost universal levels of adoption.  And, in other extremes, obesity (a disease of affluence) strikes the poor more than the rich.

OK.  I don't know where I'm going with this.  I'm not trying to say it excuses governments' complicity in the capitalist plunder of the world's people and resources.  Capitalists, being capitalists, require ethical supervision, I suspect.  But I do think the apocalypto-alarmist rhetoric from the anti-globalization camps and the anarcho-left may be rooted in an inaccurate analysis of the current state of the world's economy, vis-a-vis real human needs (i.e. as opposed to manufactured needs).

Caveat: A lot of monkeys…

… does not a masterpiece create.   At least not using typewriters.  As physicist Seth Lloyd explains:  "No matter how far into Hamlet a monkey may get, its next keystroke is likely to be a mistake."   But then he goes on to explain that if you assume the monkeys are typing on programmable computers, they very well might come up with Hamlet.  This is a counterintuitive distinction, but it gets at the heart of his thesis, which is that the universe's complexity is a consequence of its underlying programmaticity (I made that word up, not him).

Caveat: Then and Now

I went on a little exploring adventure today.  I took the subway all the way to 동두천 (Dongducheon), which is probably about 25 km northeast of here, but because the trip has to go through downtown Seoul which is to the southeast, it was probably about  a 40 km journey.  It's not the longest possible journey on the subway by any means, but it is definitely from one end-of-the-line to another.

I didn't necessarily plan it, but it ended up being an appropriate thing to do on New Year's day – this is very close to being the exact 17th anniversary of my first arrival in Korea, and my first exposure to the country was at the U.S. Army's Camp Casey, located in Dongducheon. 

My arrival:  I was exhausted from a never-ending MAC flight from Los Angeles, via Anchorage and Tokyo.  We arrived at around sunset, I recall, at Gimpo airport (now a domestic-only airport – but Incheon didn't exist yet) and were herded onto buses bound for Casey, which was at that time (and still is?) headquarters for the 2nd Infantry Division.

I vividly remember standing in formation in the bitter, bitter cold, until well after midnight, waiting for my name to be called with my unit assignment.  I was in my dress uniform, with no long underwear and no overcoat, and the transition from California's climate to Korea's was stunning.  Finally around 3 am we were settled into overheated, overcrowded barracks, and over the next several days we did lots of "hurry up and wait" until Sergeant Wise came and collected me and took me to what would be my posting here, at Camp Edwards.

But over the next year I made frequent visits to Camp Casey and "TDC" as we called it (TDC=Tongduchon, an obsolete romanization of the same name) – fetching supplies, coming to training sessions, handling bureaucratic things.  It was Division HQ for our isolated support battalion 30 km to the west.  So it was a familiar place, and probably the only "off-post" part of Korea that became truly familiar to me during my time here.

And so on this anniversary, I strolled around TDC in the bitter cold.  The town was vacant because of the holiday, the sun was setting over the rugged silhouettes of the mountains, and the U.S. base was eerily utterly familiar and yet completely unrecognizable in any specifics, at least from the outside.  I lost my interest in the difficult memory quickly, and got back on the subway into Seoul.  There had been no subway from Dongducheon to Seoul when I'd been here in 91.

I'm watching the news in Korean.  It seemed very cold today – the high was around 15 F (-10 C), which is still not even that unusual by Minnesota standards, I admit – but I didn't bring all the layers (sweaters, etc) I would properly use to face a Minnesota winter, either – so I was underdressed.  The bits of ice in the fields and on the streets was beautiful, but there is no snow on the ground (though I did see some on the rice paddies as the train went through Uijeongbu, which is sort of a valley through the high ridge of mountains between Seoul and Dongducheon). 

Part of why I'm here is to "overwrite" those old, unpleasant Army memories, I think.  But one thing seems to repeating itself, at least so far: I'm experiencing a lot of loneliness.  So far I've failed to forge any friendships here – a combination of bad luck in my selection coworkers (in that they are all basically born-agains and it's difficult for me to find commonalities with them, though they are entirely decent people) and my own failure to get out and find alternate social activities.  This needs to change.