Caveat: Not My Proudest Moment

The handover is complete.  Danny and Diana left the school today completely in the hands of its new owner, LinguaForum, and left for their missionary training.  I had a rather idiotic minor tantrum over additional work that seemed to be piling on at the last minute – additional student evaluations which in principle I support but when I'm given 24 hour notice that they need to be completed, I'm rather easily annoyed.

Then the staff (minus Danny and Diana) went out for dinner, which was alright, though I didn't do very well with the efforts at earnest discussion of what happens next now that the erstwhile owners are completely out of the picture, especially as the soju was circulating thickly.

And the we all went out to a noraebang (karaoke room, basically).  Now, most people know I neither sing well nor am I particularly accomplished at singing badly in an uninhibited manner – therefore my efforts at karaoke are both self-conscious and painful for me, and probably unpleasant for others, too.  But I made efforts to be sociable, and to make amends for my earlier tantrum at work.

All this, in the wake of one of my best in-classroom experiences so far.  Students took charge of their class, where we were having a little debate.  They made up teams, they discussed strategy, they coached each other.  There was some Korean used, but the speeches themselves as they took turns in the debate were all in perfectly acceptable English (at their level, of course).  But wow… the way they showed enthusiasm for learning, for helping each other:  I was very impressed and pleased.

So that was a proud moment.  But what followed.  Wasn't.

Caveat: Origins of Jared-teacher

Julie: "Teacher, teacher, how old are you?"

Jared: "I'm six hundred and sixty-two years old."

Joey: laughs, says something in Korean.

Julie: "Really?  That is very old."

John: "Jared-teacher is alien."

More laughing.

Julie: "Teacher.  What year are you born in?"

Jared: "I was born in 1345."

Julie: "Ohhh."  Begins calculating on her notebook.  Says something in Korean.  More laughter.

Joey: "Teacher ape-like alien."


Jared: "Yes I'm an alien.  Remember, we discussed this."

Nodding.  Laughter.

John: "You come UFO?"

Jared:  "My spaceship looks like this."  I draw a picture on whiteboard.

Julie: "Where are you from?"

Jared: "I'm from Mars."

Students exchange glances of confusion.  "Mars-eu mwa-ye?" 

David: "What is Mars?"

Jared explains with a picture on the board, drawing a diagram of the solar system.

Julie: "Ahhhh!"

Jared:  "Ne.  Hwaseong."

Someone: "Mars-planet!"


Caveat: Subsidize This

Did you know, back in September when I bought it, my cell phone here only cost $30?  I mean, the actual little physical gadget – there was still the calling plan, and all that, too.  But anyway, the reason it cost me $30, and not $200 (the price on the box, roughly), was because we registered it under boss's name.  Because Danny is a citizen of Korea, the Korean government pays for the rest of the price of the cell phone.

That's right:  the Korean taxpayer makes sure that every Korean citizen is guaranteed a rock-bottom-priced cell phone.  Talk about subsidies!  I thought California water subsidies were bizarre, but this was amazing. This might explain why Korean cell phone adoption rates are among the highest on the planet, and also why Korean companies such as Samsung and LG have managed to catapult into positions of global market dominance.  Ain't government subsidized capitalism swell?

In other news, I just got to watch the "Star Wars" episode of the TV series "Family Guy."  I'd never seen this before.  For some reason the scene where Luke Skywalker chops off Danny Elfman's head with his light saber, after finding that John Williams had been killed by the storm troopers, made me laugh for a long time.  I don't understand why that happened.  Then there's the moment when Redd Foxx gets his fighter shot down by Darth Vader and he shouts "I'm comin', Elizabeth!"

I bought some Korean pickles.  I didn't even know they made them, but they were pretty good – pickled with hot peppers included.  Interesting flavor… they could grow on me.

Caveat: Experimental Philosophy

What would experimental philosophy be?  I mean, beyond the practice of science in general, to the extent that science is, still, what used to be called natural philosophy?  I mean, could you practice experimental ontology, for example?  How would that work?  Could I work this into my ongoing career as an itinerant epistemologist?
I ran across the idea in a novel I finished reading over the weekend.  Kiln People, by David Brin.  Sci-fi, entertaining, humorous, essentially founded on a single improbable conceit: what if technology that allowed people to make innumerable temporary but fully functional copies of themselves were widely available and cheap?  Well, anyway, one idea Brin skims across in the novel is that of religion and/or philosophy as experimental sciences.  I was intrigued.
I also started reading another novel over the weekend – Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.  Rather in a different vein than hacky sci-fi, but also entertaining, in its way.  I used to be in that category of people who would roll his eyes and groan at the thought of tackling a James novel, but something in the Turn of the Screw, which I read for a semiotics class in 94, converted me.  With Melville, he’s the cream of 19th century American Literature.  Hard to explain.  I’ll see if I can add more as I work further into the novel.
So you might gather, I spent the weekend reading.  I was feeling profoundly antisocial and unmotivated, and my computer was ill with a linux mess I created for myself which left me without my standard resort of dinking around online.  The computer’s healthy again, and work focal.
I stopped and bought some 삼각김밥 (samgaggimbab, which I roughly translate as “three-cornered-rice-wrap-thingy”), which are rice and some kind of savory additions molded into a triangular shape and wrapped in a sheet of seaweed stuff, a la Japanese California rolls and such-like.   They’ve grown on me recently, very convenient  Korean fast food, I guess.  Here’s a picture I found of the stuff online by googling the term:

Caveat: Character Building

Yesterday, I tried to come to my blog site to make a post, and it was down.  Inaccessible, anyway.  And now, I forgot what I was going to post about.  I swear it seemed interesting at the time.

The stock market is very depressing and scary to watch, lately.  And I've lost some money, for sure.  But… I'm feeling very wise, since I backed out more than half my assets into cash, last summer, and that turns out to have been a safe place to have it, given current volatility.

Work has implemented a new weekly grading system.  It's a lot of work – I put in several hours today filling out grades for all 150 or so of my students.  But I'm actually very glad they're doing this – it introduces an element of accountability for both students and teachers that was missing up until now.  Giving grades doesn't just provide for an opportunity for students to prove how they're doing, but does so for teachers, too.  And that might help me feel more secure about how I'm getting along.

Bitterly cold, crisp days.  And clear.  Hair, still damp from a morning shower, freezes when I step outside, and my cheeks get numb in the wind.  And yet, based on reports, it's much warmer here than it has been in Minnesota.  Regardless, I love weather like this.  Not sure why.  Not like I necessarily really enjoy being out in it for long periods… but it's bracing.  Strengthening, somehow. Character-building, might be a good Minnesota way of putting it.

Caveat: How to use a giraffe

I have these little prizes I give to my students for good performance.  Little trinkets I buy at Insadong, for example – never more than a dollar or two each.  One thing I'd acquired were some cute little hand-crafted stuffed giraffes – I'd been inspired by that Korean language giraffe tongue-twister (naega geurin girin geurimeun etc.) I've managed to memorize. 

Today I had a student select one of these as a prize.  She seemed pleased with it.  But as it stood in its red-spotted glory on her desk and she studied it carefully, she uttered the following deeply-thought question:  "How do I use this?"


How does one "use" a red-spotted stuffed giraffe?  I was unable to answer her question unequivocally, and I wanted to turn it into an opportunity to use the language, too – we English teachers can be very sneaky, that way.

"What do you think it is used for?" I asked back.  She shrugged, and several of the other girls in the class began to whisper to each other – so I extended the same question to the rest.  "How should she use this?" I asked. 

It wasn't, actually, a very successful class discussion, as class discussions go.  We decided maybe she could use it as a christmas tree decoration, next December, or perhaps she could use some thread to attach it to her cellphone, as a sort of chunky-but-cute decorative device.  And there was always the option to "play" with it, but with these older kids, that seemed like a kind of last resort. 

This afternoon, I left work, and the sky was a deep cerulean.  Not the par-for-course yellowish haze that makes me feel like I'm living in a sort of extremely cold version of Mexico City, sometimes.  The result of two days of continuous snow and wind, with warmer temperatures that had meant very little of the snow stuck.  But now it was much colder, and with the blue, sparkly sky and fragments of crunchy ice on the sidewalk, it was very Minnesotaey. 

I've almost never run into anyone from the school outside of the school – Ilsan is too big and densely populated to accidentally meet people, maybe.  But I was about halfway home when I passed a student, Isaac, on the street.  It's an odd thing, how context defines behavior.  In class, Isaac is one of those students who is brilliant but insolently lazy and imperious.   Not a bad kid, but not one characterized by fawning politeness or traditional Korean notions of  deference, either.

But here on the street, passing on the sidewalk, with no one else around, he executed one of those quick but deep bows Koreans reserve for their much elders.  I nodded my head, hopefully the right level of return respect courtesy, and then waved "hi," American style and grinned at him.  And puzzled on the what makes someone behave one way in one social situation, and another, in another.

I came home and had some rice. 

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.

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.

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.

Back to Top