Caveat: Faith Based Disaster Management

It seems that in the recent presidential campaigning in the US, both McCain and Obama tend to have problems with endorsing and supporting pastors, priests and various other reverends making outlandish, intolerant and otherwise inappropriate remarks.  This has led to both campaign staffs developing extensive "Faith Based Disaster Management" skills, as one recent blog described it.

I like the term.  Not sure where I'm going with the concept, though.

Caveat: Densities

I just read an article that included the information that Los Angeles is now the most densely populated metropolitan area in the U.S.  This is so contrary to perception and conventional wisdom – to imagine that it is more densely populated than especially crowded-seeming east-coast cities like New York or Boston.  And I wonder especially at the criteria – there is a lot of "in between" space in Los Angeles – the Santa Monica mountains, or the little ranges of mountains between the airport and downtown, or the Arroyo up toward Pasadena.  How do these open spaces count in the calculation of densities?  Alternately, how do the open water spaces of a water-oriented city like New York get counted?  And what about "freeway space" – which abounds in LA and virtually doesn't exist in NYC – is it excluded in the calculations, too?  I just can't see that, on a comparison of built-up areas to built-up areas, that LA is higher density, given how high-rises so dominate places like Manhattan or the projects of the Bronx.

Then again, Mexico City manages to be one of the densest metropolises in the world with very few (relatively speaking) high rises.  I'm just not sure about all this.  Regardless, we also need to understand that higher population density doesn't necessarily imply lesser transportation dependence.  NYC may "seem" denser because of the very high level of public transportation usage in the city, compared to a place like LA. 

Caveat: 뭥미?

A new bit of Korean youth slang: "뭥미?" (mweong-mi? said in a kind of dumb rising tone). It means something like "what the?" (as in "what the hell?") although you won't find it in a dictionary.  When I say it in the right situation to one of my classes, everyone collapses in riotous laughter.  But when I tried it out on Curt (my boss), he said "is that Korean?" Generation gap, y'know?

Caveat: Dodging Popperazzi

I finished Lee Smolin's book, The Trouble With Physics.  I've been looking at some critical reviews, online, too.  Several people mention Susskind's use of a term "popperazzi" to refer to people who make a big deal of Karl Popper's ideas about the importance of "falsifiability" in developing scientific theories, and I think that it is probably accurate to say that Smolin's book is, at least in part, a popperian review of contemporary physics, especially string theory.

I'm not a physicist, nor a mathematician.  And I don't really have an opinion about string theory, either way, although I never found it as intuitively appealing as, say, general relativity or even quantum mechanics, to the extent that I understand them at all.  In that vein, I'll confess I find Smolin's earlier-enunciated, and currently somewhat academically marginalized, loop quantum gravity theory more intuitively appealing.

But I also would agree with Smolin's critics that his popperian view of string theory is overly combative and ends up coming across as academic sour grapes.  It's too polemical to be useful.  And I do think that Popper, to the extent I understand him, may not have been the last word on how science works.

Caveat: Missing the Train to Trenton and Other Misfortunes

I woke up from a series of stunningly unpleasant nightmares this morning.  I don't often have nightmares, actually.  Not sure what it's about.

First, I dreamed I was waiting for a train to Trenton.  I'm not sure why I needed to go to Trenton, although it's not purely random:  there was that year I lived with Michelle in Yardley, across the river from Trenton, and it was a year full of frustrations, as it was the summer I took my master's exams, which, despite my passing, were not what I had hoped for.  I couldn't figure out where I was, exactly, either.  The place I was in could have easily been somewhere in Korea.

Anyway, I was not near the platform and the train was pulling in.  I ran to catch the train, but I realized I had dropped an important list.  The list was written on a long piece of tissue, like from a roll of toilet paper.  Wind blew it under the train, and I couldn't bring myself to board the train without the list.  The train pulled away, and waiting on the other side of the tracks was a woman in a grey Oldsmobile – like Michelle's old, generic-looking (85?) Oldsmobile.  The woman scolded me for missing the train.  I realized the list was still blowing away in the wind, and I had no chance of catching it.
Then I was having a different dream.  Things were not clear at all – more a gestalt of images than any kind of comprehensible plot line.  I was in the mountains of Guatemala, trying to drive one of those recycled 60's-era school-buses they use for public transit there.  True to form, there was a Virgin Mary on the dashboard and blinking Christmas lights around the front windows.  But my passengers were a group of my students from the hagwon, and one of them was on some kind of Quest.  You know, the sort of thing that involves dragons and swords of power or stuff like that.

But we'd managed to misplace some of the other students, and we were looking for them.  And there was something in flames, and the road was bad and had donkeys in it, and women with bundles of coffee or something stumbled around in the periphery. And then I lost control of the bus and jumped away, only to watch it carom to the bottom of a hillside and knock over a tree.  And my students were all standing around me, crying.

And then I was having a different dream.  I was trying to find someone's house, driving my old 1965 VW Bug around something that was like a cross between Los Angeles and Seoul.  And I came to this really bad neighborhood. Maybe more like Mexico City at this point.  And I drove down this dead-end street that was very steep, downhill.  And I parked my Bug at the bottom, and got out to knock on the door of this house, but it was the wrong place.  And then I went to get into my Bug, but I remembered that the starter was broken (Which was common with that car), and that I would have to roll-start it.  But the problem was that I'd parked almost at the bottom of the hill, and it was a dead-end.

I decided to try to kind of roll it crossways at the end of the street, but as I started pushing it, it dawned on me that there was no barrier at the end of the street, just this gaping deep chasm.  And suddenly I realized I was going to roll my car right into the chasm.  And the brake wasn't working.  And stupidly, rather than just jump away, I thought of trying to get in front of the car to stop it.  And so the car pushed me right off the cliff, and I fell into the chasm with my car above and behind me, and I crashed at the bottom and was crushed by my VW, and I woke up breathing very fast and scared.

Caveat: The Franchise

I am enfranchised.  Meaning, I can vote as a U.S. citizen, despite being, currently, a resident of South Korea.  But here's something interesting:  if I were living in Puerto Rico, instead of South Korea, I would lose my franchise – despite the fact that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., while South Korea clearly isn't.   Why in the world is this the case? 

I mean… I know why it's the case – it's because of Puerto Rico's "special relationship" with the U.S. (i.e. the fact that basically it's a colony).  But all the same, there's more than a little bit of irony in the fact that by adding Puerto Rican residency to an otherwise enfranchised U.S. citizen causes that citizen to forfeit his or her franchise.  It's like the federal government grants the status of convicted felons, gratis, to the whole island.  Weird.

Caveat: The Ironies of Theoretical Physics

I'm reading a book by Lee Smolin, entitled The Trouble with Physics.  It's an interesting book – one of those layman's accounts of all kinds of weird and interesting things about what's going these days in the world of theoretical physics.  A "popularization" I guess it's called.  Partially, it's a rant (though a largely courteous one) against the domination of string theorists in the current world of physics academia.

Anyway, I re-learned something I remember learning before, and for some reason it struck me as incredibly funny.  The graviton (an as yet not-well-documented fundamental particle which is the "carrier" particle of gravitational force, much as a photon is a "carrier" for electromagnetism) is a necessarily massless particle.  That's right – the graviton is massless.  Isn't that… funny?

Caveat: 헐!

I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I feel that I’ve come to understand its linguistic pragmatics quite well.  The word is “헐” (roughly pronounced as a long, drawn out “hol”).  I may be wrong, but I think that its literal meaning may be close to “broken” or “busted.”  But in terms of pragmatics, it seems to be used very similarly to the way youth culture in the U.S. uses the word “dude!” as a kind of general purpose exclamation of surprise, interest or dismay.   I’m trying to pronounce it authentically and use it appropriately, and a few times my students have been quite amazed and pleased at my having used it.  헐!
Today was a day of contrasts.
I had one extremely terrible, horrible class – a group of lower-level elementary students who just wouldn’t behave.  I finally had a loud, verbal tantrum and set them to copying sentences, I was sooo frustrated.  I almost never resort to these sorts of make-work “punishments” that are next best thing beating the kids with a stick (which is completely out of the question as far as I’m concerned, regardless of what my colleagues may do).
But I also had a fabulous class for the debate topic, with the lowest level middle-schoolers.  The debate question was “Are pets a good idea?”  –  fairly elementary question, but about right for their level.  And they all wanted to say “No, they’re not.”  So we improvised, and they had to debate against me – I would make a little speech, then one of them, then I would, then another, then I would, and another.  And I selected two of the students to be “judges” and placed a handicap on myself, since I allowed the judges to only score me up to 5 points, whereas they could score their peers up to 10 points.  It went very well, and the students won.  It was pretty cool, and I could tell they were having fun and actually learning something.
Then I had an interesting occurrence in my TP cohort, where I’ve been forced to give up the “debate program” in favor of a very dry, boring text that’s intended to prep them for the iBTOEFL (internet-based TOEFL) speaking section.   They were moaning and complaining about the boringness of the book, and I was trying rather lamely to defend it (and failing, as I really at heart agreed with them).  And then, after the class was over, they were standing around in the lobby area on between-class break and the six girls lined up in a row in front of the counter, and Pete was standing behind it, and I heard my name (Je-re-deu-seon-saeng-nim) and something about textbooks in Korean, and, lo and behold, they were holding a rebellion:  they were collectively requesting to Pete that their class with me be returned to the debate curriculum.  I couldn’t help grinning and I’m certain Pete saw my expression, and so I ran away and decided to let their complaints have their effect.  And maybe, just maybe… I’ll get to go back to teaching something that I want to be teaching them.  I’m excited.

Caveat: And So On

I recently found out that the new president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, is exactly one day older than I am.  This is very weird – the idea that someone my age is the president of something like Russia.  I suppose Obama is only a few years older, too, should he win the presidency in the US.  That's an odd thing, when world leaders start being people who are one's contemporaries.


 "A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order." – Jean-Luc Godard

Caveat: Orange Moon Over Ilsan

I was walking home and saw a very vivid orange moon.  I took this picture but it didn’t come out very well.  The moon was very bright and very orange.
I had a class today where none of them did the homework.  This is normally a very devastating and difficult issue… but somehow, their refusal to work is of a different quality from previous experiences of this problem, as I actually enjoy these kids in class a lot, they can be funny, and are often engaged and interested during class.  They’re just unmotivated with respect to homework, I guess.
So, today, I got a clue that there might be some “reverse-status” peer pressure, too – i.e. pressure to do badly.  This is common with teenagers in the States, but not something I’ve seen much of here.  The reason I think this may be occurring with this group is because it turned out, well into the class, that one of the students had, in fact, done her homework, but had apparently been embarrassed to show it to me.  I saw she was copying an in-class exercise from a paper that suspiciously looked like the homework, and I got down in front of her and pulled the paper out, and she actually pulled back, before letting me see it.  Lo and behold, it was the homework, and it was actually very well done!  So all of her peers had zeros, and I gave Eunjeong a 100%.  And she seemed sincerely unhappy with this.  Very… odd.  Kinda sad.
Here is a picture of an oldish building (or rather, design-to-look-oldish) I saw in Seoul recently, coming down a steep hill on side street, south of the river.

Caveat: Wandering in a straight line

I was listening to the U2 song "The Wanderer" just now – the one Johnny Cash sings vocals, and there's this vivid post-apocalyptic image of a man walking down an "old eight lane" highway.  I was thinking of that book I read a while back, The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Then I was thinking of Wim Wenders' movie, Paris, Texas.  One of the greatest movies.  How it opens:  the amnesiac Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) walking along through the Texas desert, in a sort of mindless straight line, clearly disturbed, obsessed, broken.

I feel like that man sometimes.  Just walking through the world in a line, no longer with any purpose except to move forwards.  Wandering, in a straight line.

And so then I was thinking of other movies I love, and I thought of Fitzcarraldo (by Werner Herzog).  I looked it up on wikipedia, and discovered a wonderful quote by the director:  he described himself as a "conquistador of the useless" in discussing the fact that rather than use special effects, he actually moved a real, giant steamship over a hill in the making of the movie (which is about moving a giant river steamship over a hill in 1890's Peru).

Caveat: E is for Effort

Another thing that happened at that depressing teacher's day dinner last Thursday was when Grace said "E is for effort."  This was in response to someone (was is Curt?) asking her what she thought of my teaching.  It was said very positively, and she said some other positive things about me and other teachers, too, but upon reflection, I feel as if it's a classic example of being "damned through faint praise."

It's weird for me, actually.  In most everything I've ever attempted in life, if I get a less-than-stellar review, the qualification has generally been something on the order of "very talented, but not the best effort."  Consider, above all else, my fiasco in the PhD program at Penn.  But more recently – the unpleasantness in Long Beach as a database programmer and administrator, and now this teaching experiment – the reviews have been inverted:  "great effort, but, well, with respect to talent… no comment."  What does this mean?

On the one hand, it's because I keep pushing myself to try new challenges.  And, specifically, to try things where I know that I cannot fall back on my innate "Mr Professor" academic talents, such as administrative jobs and this very socially oriented teaching job.  But on the other hand, is it some change that comes with getting older?  Am I getting stupider?  The talent isn't there anymore?  So it's effort, or nothing. 

Regardless, one thing neither Grace (whom I most respect) nor any of my other colleagues take the time to say is:  great teacher.  And, of course, there are where my insecurities lie, too.  I was watching a cheesy Korean comedy in which a mom tells her daughter that teaching is easy – anyone who is a role model to others is a teacher.  I'm trying to figure out what this means – I have an intuition that it will help me to understand Pete's perspective regarding misplaced idealism, maybe.

I guess getting an E for Effort is better than being told I suck, across the board.  And I know that at least most of my colleagues like and respect me, at least at some level – there's the business of being nicknamed "professor" – just like at every other single job I've ever held.  But Grace's comment…  Pete's denunciations of my misplaced, inappropriate idealism (and I'm really not sure what this means, except that he's clearly perceived my excessive perfectionist tendencies and he feels – probably accurately – that these tendencies have no place in the world of hagwon teaching)…  these things have me singularly gloomy, this weekend.

It was deeply, darkly overcast and raining all day today.  A rich, textured, rainy sky, like the most gorgeous, reliably rainy August afternoons in Mexico City, although cooler than that.  I lazed around the apartment and tried to study my Korean.  I walked to the Homever store and, behold, there was Land-O-Lakes brand Pepper Jack Cheese for sale, imported from Minnesota.  I bought some, for the nostalgia of it. 

The nostalgic mood continued when I got back, and I listened to Cat Stevens for several hours.  That's a trip back in time, for sure.  I read a volume of the Deathnote manga (or manhwa as it's called here – long-format graphic novels) – these stories and related movies are so popular with teenagers here, I started reading them as an effort to have another useful basis to show some knowledge of their world and interests, but have found them appealing and interesting reads in their own right. 

Caveat: Teacher’s Day

Thursday was "teacher's day."  I'm not sure what this means, and it wasn't really that serious an event.  But several of the students gave gifts, and a few of the parents brought things too, and after work we went out for 생선회 (saeng-seon-hoe – sashimi i.e. raw sliced fish), apparently an occasional tradition.

Several of the teachers got pretty drunk – that's a very common tradition on "after work outings" and one reason why I've been careful to remain a teetotaller here – that's the easiest way to avoid getting into embarrassing situations, as happened Thursday night, when Pete got pretty plastered and proceded to launch into a diatribe against me and my idealism.  I felt embarrassed on his behalf, and self-conscious on my own, and it sort of brought to the surface the major tension that has existed between us. 

There's no resolution.  I don't know what's going to happen.

Here's what one 4th grade student wrote in a little note to me for teacher's day – it was the only handwritten note I received, and it was more touching than all the little pieces of soap and canned coffees and cloth flowers:  "JARED  Hi!  I'm a Jinhyun Celebration teacher's day (Shiny Jinhyun)".

Caveat: The Quest for the Google-Killer

In the world of internet search technologies, there has arisen a trend where people are constantly looking for the "google-killer" – the "next big thing" in search algorithms or interfaces that will finally vanquish google's market dominance.  There are problems with this quest, that render it somewhat unpredictable if not quixotic:  first of all, google is a moving target, meaning they are constantly innovating their algorithms and methodologies behind the scenes;  second, google, like many other large technology companies, has realized that brand-image is king, and as such, that marketing and design trump genuine innovation and genius (in this, they've learned well from Applecorp).

The technological problem of finding a better "search engine" is daunting, as we are right at the borders of AI (artificial intelligence).  Thus, the next step seems to require real breakthroughs in natural-language- (and/or web-meta-language-) processing and interpretation.  So-called "semantic webs" come into play – and somebody has to build these huge semantic databases, "tag" them appropriately (i.e. figure out how to automate the "tagging" process), and then spider through them effectively and rapidly. 

A recent offering seems to go in the right direction:  Right now, it's limited to a small, largely well-formed subset of the World Wide Web – namely, my own favorite haunts at wikipedia.   But its ability to make sense of my "natural English" questions and find appropriate articles is pretty amazing.  Try it out.

I'm listening to Jason Bentley on KCRW – he's playing The Black Ghosts' "Here It Comes Again." Great track… Jason Bentley rules.


"I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." – President U.S. Grant, on the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, in which he served as a decorated junior officer.

Caveat: Dialectic

What is dialectical analysis?  I often pretend to understand, but sometimes I don't think I understand at all.  I'm reading a new(-ish) book by Ian Buchanan entitled Fredric Jameson:  Live Theory.  Jameson is one of the most important cultural theorists (i.e. literary critic, cultural critic, etc.) of recent times.  I've always found his ideas to be extremely clear and insightful – the sorts of insights that make you look up from what you're reading and go "wow, yeah, that makes sense!"

But this writing is very dense, and presupposes an immense amount on the part of the reader.  I guess I'm little rusty on all this lit-crit and philosophy stuff.  I'm only 5 or so pages in, and already managing Deleuze and Althusser (and, in my misguided opinion, Lacan, although he's not been explicitly mentioned).  And, of course, Marx.  Jameson, like Eagleton, is what's known as a marxist critic.  I like to use the small "m" because it's important, in my opinion, to make clear that a marxist analysis as a critical or philosophical pursuit isn't the same thing as a political compromise (not that I'm trying to imply anything, either way, with respect to the degree of political compromise Eagleton or Jameson specifically hold).

Indeed, given the current world-situation, I would almost hazard a guess that a clear marxist analysis of the world economic and political picture might lead one to conclude that Marxist political compromise needs to be ruled out.  Certainly the Communist Party of China seems to have reached that basic conclusion – I read an interesting description of the Chinese political color as being infrared (as opposed to red).  The term captures a great deal about the nature of that weirdly fascistic (and fetishistic?) brand of communism, eh?

Caveat: Shades of Gray

I saw beautiful overcast skies today.  Not a slate, even color, but dozens of solid shades of gray, with sharp fractal boundaries between them, each distinct and quite visible.  A tortoiseshell sky recorded on black and white film.

I opened my 4 dollar umbrella (that I bought from a streetside vendor when I lost my pricier one a month or so ago) because I we feeling raindrops – but it didn't really rain as I walked to work.  I noticed on the umbrella there was written:  "it's a rainy day. "  Clever. 

I feel moody today. 

Caveat: Gnostic Dreams on Buddha’s Birthday

A dream I had.

Out of the blue, I got an email (or was it a phone call?) from Oviedo.  The infamous Oviedo – the professor who'd sponsored me into the PhD program at Penn, and who'd then been so disappointing as an adviser, and who had devastated me so completely with his statement upon the conclusion of my qualifying exams by saying "frankly, we passed you because of what we expected from you, not because of what you actually did."  This tidbit of condescension had been the "last straw" that had caused me drop out of the program in 97.

So Oviedo wrote (or said?) "what are you doing?"  Not very complex or interesting communication, but given who was saying it, a loaded question.  I answered back (via email) that I was seriously "looking into" going back and completing the PhD, but in linguistics, not Spanish.  This was a lie, but I couldn't bear to say the truth.  In the dream, the truth wasn't at all clear, though – I wasn't necessarily working at what I'm working at in my waking life. 

So having sent the email, though, I felt guilty.  I communicated some with some other professors (ex professors) but none of them had "real" names.   They were "dreamland" ex professors, I guess.  One of them invited me over to London.  Somehow, in the dream, London was close by – but I needed mountain-climbing gear to get there.  So I went shopping for mountain-climbing gear, around Seoul.

I was on this side street, looking for a store that sold what I needed, and ran into Oviedo in person.  He seemed very sinister.  He wanted me to come with him, to visit some people "in the department."  I waffled, and made an excuse about there having been water damage at the school (not true, and how was this an excuse?).

I ended up with some other people – coworkers from Burbank, maybe.  I got a handwritten note from someone who claimed to be a "production designer" for a linguistics PhD program.  What the hell is that?  Like it's some kind of movie, not a graduate program.

I ended up on the same side street where I'd just evaded Oviedo, only to find myself in some kind of basement apartment, in a brownstone that sort of resembled the one on Kimbark at 62nd, that I'd lived in on Chicago's south side in 85 (although the apartment I'd lived in there had been on the 3rd floor, not the basement).  The apartment was unfurnished, but there were quite a few people there, kind of milling about like there was supposed to be a party, but nobody could find it or knew what was going on.

At this moment, "Dan" showed up.  "Dan" (always in quotation marks) is a recurring character from my dreams.  He doesn't recur often, and he does not seem to be related to, or derived from, any specific "real" individual, although in facial appearance he seems to resemble a composite of several guys I knew in high school who used to hang out with a guy named Dan – but the actual guy named Dan (who was palely blond and wide-eyed) plays no part in the appearance or personality of this dream "Dan."

The dream "Dan" is a dark-haired, powerful, swarthy, mysterious character.  He is a bit like a Hindu deity – he seems to be able to conjure additional limbs, eyes, and other body parts on demand.  Also like a deity, he is difficult to look at directly – a bit like an Escher painting, or a burning bush in the wilderness.  Once, in a very vivid dream I had in the early 80's, he was aboard a starship, and battled General Jaruzelski (the nefarious Polish communist dictator) in singular combat, and "Dan" was just a blur of rainbow light.

The last time he put in an appearance in one of my dreams was several years ago, at the least – and it had been only a vague one, a sort of flickering visitation from the edge of something else.  The last time he played a key role in a dream was when I first returned to L.A. from Alaska in 98.

Here, now, he was once again the star of the party.  I always feel apprehension and jealousy about "Dan."  And this was added to, in this instance, by the fact that he arrived with a beautiful woman at his side.  She looked like a Korean television drama star, very urbane and self-assured, with a sly smile.

But, the woman turned out to be the "production designer" who'd sent me the note earlier, and she came up to me immediately, making me feel very self-conscious, and offered to "have a look at those leaks" (the ones I'd used as an excuse when avoiding Oviedo earlier – how did she know about that?).  I was alarmed.

We walked over to the kitchen area of the apartment, and there were some decrepit cabinets with peeling white paint, and with evident water damage around the baseboards, which she pointed to expansively, while a crowd began to gather.  I felt weirdly embarrassed – somehow my lie turned out to be true, and this was just proof of the original lie.  Then "Dan" came over and said something like, "maybe it's time…."

The woman herself looked alarmed, now, and giving me a strange grimace, she opened one of the cabinets, revealing a sort of hidden passage, and climbed inside, pulling the door shut behind her.  "Dan" gave me a kind of sinister wink – and grew Oviedo's beard for just a split second – a sort of hollywoody CGI special effect, very scary, but typical "Dan" stuff.

"It's the aliens!" screamed someone at the party – one of the witnesses.  Maybe Joanne, from Burbank.

That's when I woke up, in a puddle of sunlight, much later than I normally wake up.  Covered in sweat.  My window was wide open, my bed is right below it – sometime during the night, I'd opened it up, but I didn't remember doing it.  It smells like summer.  Someone is banging on something down in the courtyard below my window.  I get up, get some toast to eat, put on water to heat for instant coffee.  I sit back down on my bed, feeling strange.  Today is Buddha's Birthday (a sorta holiday, observed here in Korea based on the lunar calendar).

Feeling cold, suddenly.  I shut the window, just as a cloud covers the sun.

Caveat: Cooking Shows

For some reason, I've got a cold again.  Cough cough, sneeze sneeze.

I watched Korean television today – there seemed to be this long-running marathon of some cooking show.  There were two guys:  an older, professorial type who seemed to be in charge, and a younger guy who often did slapsticky things and seemed to really enjoy actually eating the various things that they made.  It was cool to see them making this very European-looking meal including pasta with seafood, something with potatoes and cheese, etc., then digging in with chopsticks. 

Caveat: The Joys of Pronouns

I have book I bought, called Survival Korean Vocabulary, by Bryan Park.  I like to browse through it when I have some minutes to kill, as it organizes over 6000 words thematically and provides very idiomatic-seeming sentences in which each word is used, so it's a good way to "surf" the language and try to acquire some new words, at least for passive recognition.

So in there I found the following quotable line, in one of the little "tip" boxes the author provides:  "Unlike in English, Koreans don't enjoy using pronouns."  I think this is true.  But it's a wonderful way to phrase the concept.   As if English speakers derive some frisson of pleasure from pronoun usage.

Caveat: 뺑끼

The word of the day:  뺑끼 (bbaeng-ggi).  I don't know what it means, exactly – my students seemed to feel it was important that I learn it – they emphasized the spelling of it and the emphatic pronunciation.  Sometimes I can't tell if they're pulling my leg, or messing with me in some way.  So I didn't just want to take their word for what it meant.

I couldn't find in the dictionary I use, nor was it in the dictionary in my phone.  I googled it, and found it in another online Korean dictionary called zKorean.  And also, it was in a long list of words titled:  "틀린 말 바른 말" (teul-lin mal ba-leun mal = "wrong talk right talk").  I'm assuming it's either slang or somehow not-quite-correct Korean.  The one dictionary said the meaning was "paint."  My students insisted the meaning was "lie" (as in, to tell a lie).  I could see how one meaning could shade into the other, in slang terms.

Caveat: Acts 3:15

Sometimes people spot me and hand me pre-prepared, hand-written Bible tracts, in English.  I think they must have a little reserve supply along with all their Korean language preaching stuff they carry around, just waiting for a Oegugin to come along to give it to.  So, in neat, meticulous handwriting, in photocopy, I have:  "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.  We are witnesses of this."

What should I do with this information?

Caveat: Holiday. Laziness. Baseball?

Today is a holiday.  After my trip to Suwon yesterday, I'm feeling unmotivated to go exploring today, especially given the vast crowds I'm bound to encounter out and about, anywhere I might go.  So I'm having a lazy day at home.  I cleaned my bathroom.  I've been reading an adolescent-lit book, a novel called Warriors by Erin Hunter – about feral cats living and fighting and stuff, sort of a la Watership Down.

I turned on my television, and found myself watching – yes, actually watching – a Korean baseball game.  Normally I don't watch sports on television.  Normally, I find baseball exceptionally boring.  Perhaps the combined factors of my own strange state of mind and the fact of baseball being played and announced in a foreign language so enthusiastically caught my fancy.  The teams playing were the Doosan Bears and LG Twins, both sharing the same home stadium at Jamsil, which was the 1988 Seoul Olympics baseball venue.   The pitcher for the Twins was a guy named Oxspring, from Australia, of all places.  I didn't know baseball players came from Australia.   I liked the fact that the name was hangeulized on the back of his uniform:  옥스프링 (ok-seu-peu-ring).

Footnote to the above:  I did go out, just now.  The "La Festa" (pronounced Ra-peh-suh-ta) shopping mall two blocks away was indeed crowded – it looked like Times Square, or the State Fair.  I didn't even bother trying to go into a store – there were sales like mad, and lines to go into popular ones.  Good to see everyone having so much fun.  It is strongly breezy, clear, sunny.

I saw a cat someone had tied to a string, sunning itself and licking a paw and washing its face, behind a cooler on the sidewalk from which a woman was selling icecream.  Six soldiers in freshly pressed, highly starched, bright green-brown-black-spotted fatigues – on leave for the holiday I expect – were chatting and smoking cigarettes nearby.  The cat watched them warily, and ignored the fact that I had stopped to look at it.

Caveat: 저는 오늘 수원에 갔어요

Today I went to Suwon.  This once-upon-a-time walled city is now a bustling exurb of Seoul with almost a million inhabitants, and is the capital of the province of Gyeonggi, which is where I live.  Gyeonggi is a horseshoe that wraps around Seoul on all sides except the direct west, so although I live northwest of the city, Suwon is directly south of the city, and the subway journey took slightly over two hours.
It was a grayish, overcast day – perfect for exploring, as it was neither too hot nor too cold.  I got off at the Hwaseo subway station, and walked, mapless, east and south until I found the north end of the old city walls.  Then I climbed the hill called Paldal along the walls on the west side, and finally drifted down to the south gate and worked my way out to the train station (and the main Suwon subway station).  By then, it had started to drizzle.
I took the train back to Insadong and bought my weekly fix of magazines.  Then I came back to my humble abode, and prepared myself some delicious gimchibokkeumbap – the best I’ve made for myself so far.
I was surprised to learn today that it is possible to go much further than Suwon on the subway – you can actually go as far as Cheonan on a subway ticket. Cheonan is in the next province south from Gyeonggi, called Chungcheongnam (South Chungcheong, but actually mostly to the west of “North” Chungcheong).  This would be like being able to go to Richmond, VA on a DC metro ticket, or like being able to go to Madison, WI on the Chicago Ell.  And it means that you can traverse nearly a third of the country’s north-south length on the Seoul subway (looks like well over 100km on the map).  At this rate, they could eventually cover the whole country in a single subway system.  That would be cool.  I would ride it.
Here are a few pictures from Suwon.
A parapet.
A wall.
A path.
The south gate.

Caveat: Al menos una locura por año

«Si yo no hiciera al menos una locura por año, me volvería loco».  This is a quote from from Vicente Huidobro's poem, "Altazor."  Roughly translated: "If I didn't do at least one crazy thing each year, I'd go crazy."  The only thing I might change, in that sentiment, is to increase the frequency – maybe one crazy thing per week would be better.

Huidobro was a truly magnificent poet, and one of my personal favorites.

Caveat: Where to Go When You Visit Alioth

Alioth is a star in the big dipper, also called Epsilon Ursae Majoris, and one of the 50 brightest star in the night sky.  Apparently, someone has managed to create a rough "map" of this star – meaning of its surface, I guess – despite the fact that it is more than 80 light years distant from Earth.  This is possible because of the peculiar fact that the star's strong magnetic field's poles are at 90 degrees to its axis of rotation, meaning that the magnetic pole and the distortions it causes in the spectral make up of the star's surface swing past the Earth's vantage point with the interval of the star's spin.  This allows astronomers to create a map of the different elements that compose the star's surface (which is irregular partly due to the strong magnetic field), as they swing past their viewpoint. 

I like the idea that we can make a map of something so far away, just based on deductions from viewing the spectral lines.  And once we have a map of something, we can write a tour guide, and tourists can't be far behind, right?  Let's all go to Alioth for the summer!

Caveat: Meditations for a Newsletter

My boss is trying to put together a newsletter for the school, as part of a broader marketing strategy.  He asked me to write some material (most of which would end up being translated, since the target is parents, not students).  Because I'm not feeling particularly imaginative, I thought I'd use some of this pre-translated material as the content of my blog today.

Pronunciation Clinic.  Each passage
provides opportunities to explain specific pronunciation problems.
In the above passage [not reproduced for this blog], for example, we talk about

  1. "dark L" versus "clear
    L" – the letter "L" in American English has two
    pronunciations, depending on if it is at the beginning of a syllable
    (clear or "light" L) or at the end of it (dark L).

    There are two difficulties for Korean speakers in learning
    these sounds:  1) Korean has no sound like the "dark L"
    and 2) the Korean has
    a "clear L" sound, but unfortunately, only at the end of
    syllables (because Korean at
    the beginning of a syllable is not an "L" sound at all,
    but an English "R"!).  This means that Koreans are used to
    saying the "clear L" sound only at the ends of syllables,
    which is exactly where English always changes to a "dark L".
    For some speakers of American English especially, when we hear a
    "clear L" in place of a "dark L" at the end of a
    syllable, it can make it difficult or even impossible for us to
    understand, since in our language a "clear L" at the end
    of a syllable is "impossible"!

    This passage
    (above) has a perfect contrast of these two sounds, in the words
    "normal" versus "normally".  The "L"
    in the first is at the end of the syllable in the first word, so it
    is a "dark L", while in the second word, because of the
    adverbial ending -ly, the "L" "moves" to the
    beginning of the following syllable, so it is a "clear

    Because Korean has no sound similar to the "dark
    L", and because they tend use "clear L" instead, this
    creates confusion for native listeners.  I tell my students it is
    better to change the "dark L" into a weak, vowel-type
    sound similar to "O" (or Korean ).
    Thus the last sound in /normao/ sounds more like "dark L"
    than /normal/ where the last "L" is a "clear L"
    (American English speakers will hear /normar/ if you make it a
    "clear L", and that's not a word!)

  2. "Schwa" is the name we
    give in English to the sound we write phonetically as /ə/.  This
    sound is the most common sound in the English language – and
    it doesn't exist in Korean!  So it can be difficult to learn.  Part
    of the problem is that the schwa sound can be represented by any of
    the English vowel letters – a, e, i, o, u, y.  Look at the

  • 'a' in about [əbaʊt]

  • 'e' in taken [teɪkən]

  • 'i' in pencil [pɛnsəl]

  • 'o' in eloquent [ɛləkwənt]

  • 'u' in supply [səplaɪ]

  • 'y' in sibyl [sɪbəl]

English often changes vowels to schwa
when they are unstressed.   For example, the word "the" is
almost always pronounced [ðə] because it is an unstressed word
in English.  But people are surprised to learn that, in the very rare
case where the word "the" is stressed, it is often
pronounced [ði]!

Another good example in the above
passage is the word "satisfaction" which is pronounced
[sætəsfækʃən]. Note the stress is on the third
syllable, and this causes the vowels in the two syllables on each
side of the stressed syllable to "drop" to the schwa.  The
best way for Koreans to learn this sound is to listen to a native
speaker carefully and repeat the sound in various words over and over

Keys to mastering English!

People so often ask me, "what is
the easiest, fastest way for me to learn to speak English like a
native-speaker?"  Here are some ideas.


There are many things to remember, but
I think one important thing that people often forget is that learning
a language requires constant imitation.
  Do not be afraid to repeat what you hear.  And repeat it again.
And again.  Memorize phrases, and repeat them to yourself as you walk
places, or when you're alone at home, or as you go to sleep, or as
you wake up.


Another important
thing is that you must not be afraid of failure.  Someone once said:
"Speaking a foreign language is something that everyone
appreciates, even if you do it badly."  In this way, it is
different from most things – nobody wants to ride in a car with a
person who drives badly, or eat food made by someone who cooks badly.
But even if you speak English (or Korean, or whatever language
you're learning) badly, you're still a hero.  So don't be shy.
Speak!  Every effort is worthwhile.

Confusion is Fun!

last thing I tell my students is:  "If you understand everything
I'm saying, you're not learning anything."  If I think my
students are understanding everything, I start to use more difficult
words or grammar on purpose, because I want
them to be a little confused.  It pulls them along.  So don't feel
afraid or frustrated if you don't understand everything you hear in
English – see it as an opportunity to learn something new.   Learn to
love the feeling of confusion you get when you hear difficult
English, and remind yourself that the feeling of confusion means
there is something new there for you to learn.

I really should take my own advice on language-learning, with respect to better and more effectively learning Korean.  It's always easier to give advice than to follow it, though.  Sigh.

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