Caveat: existentialist-in-chief

I was reading an article discussing General Clark's recent comments regarding McCain's qualifications to be "commander-in-chief."  (The thought being, roughly, that having been a prisoner-of-war is brave and shows strong character, but isn't the same as command experience.)  I was thinking about that phrase, commander-in-chief.  And began toying with the idea of McCain as "prisoner-of-war-in-chief," reflecting on the way that a person's formative experiences and character can come to define a presidency:  Nixon as rogue-in-chief, Reagan as movie-star-in-chief, Clinton as bubba-in-chief. 

In this vein, and if McCain is to be prisoner-of-war-in-chief, what would Obama be?  I think about aspects of his character and formative experiences, and think, maybe something like community-activist-in-chief?  Perhaps, less charitably, he could become our Urkel-in-chief.  There's definitely something to the idea that, like the sitcom prototype (the legendary Urkel), Obama manages to transcend racial and cultural stereotypes in part through his nerdiness – which is to say, nerdiness as an essential stereotype runs "deeper" than race.  Which actually says something pretty positive about the state of race relations in America, maybe.  I  think it was Joel Stein who first suggested the comparison between Obama and Urkel, but I don't know that most of the comparisons have been entirely meant to be positive.  Still… who am I, as pale white ubernerd, to judge?

Caveat: 고시

Actually, I have nothing to say, today.  I didn’t think about what I might post here, and my mind is currently kinda blank.
Here is a picture I took with my camera phone just outside of the back exit to my building, earlier.  I thought the sky looked cool, but it didn’t really come out in the picture.  On the other hand, the building across the way, with all its advertising, looks very colorful.

Caveat: Parlez Hançais?

Konglish (Koreanized English, sometimes also called Engrish, though that term also includes Japanized English, and I don’t really like that term) permeates Korean popular culture, especially in the spheres of marketing.   Konglish exists at several different levels, from more-or-less correct English messages attached to advertising, to random English words or pseudo-English words plastered on t-shirts, to “hangeulized” English in the form of minimally adapted loanwords into Korean, and especially used as product names and brand names.
Many examples of “hangeulized” English (i.e. English written using the Korean writing system, and adapted therefore to Korean phonology) can be found on the shelves of the grocery store.  Here is an example:
This is a brand of iced coffee that I buy.  The cursive-looking hangeul at the top spells out “Kantata” (i.e. Cantata, as in a piece of music), then right under that in smaller letters it says “orijineol wondu keopi” (original wondu coffee).   The phrase “wondu keopi” repeats under the coffee beans picture, and then it says “peurimieom beullendeu pollipenol 100 mg” (premium blend polyphenol 100mg).  See how that works?
Ok, actually what I want to write about is what appears to be an emerging related phenomenon, which is the use of “hangeulized” French, also in marketing. The advantages seem to be a) French has a novelty factor, while English is rather worn out, b) French has the same high-social-status element that English does, but with less historical and geopolitical baggage (at least here in Korea – don’t try this in e.g. Vietnam).
What’s really interesting, to me, is the subtle way that the French phonological system, as represented using the Latin alphabet, is hangeulized differently for a given etymon than would be done for an identical word in English. Here is a bakery that just opened a few blocks west of here (and note the use of perfectly acceptable English in the supporting text to the brand-name):
The sign’s hangeul reads “bon geurang bageteu” (which is bon grand baguette in French – bad French, actually, since it messes up the gender agreement between the adjectives and the noun, I think). The word “grand” is common enough in both French and English, and if it were an English word being hangeulized, they’d do something more along the lines of “geuraendeu,” but, because it’s French, they capture the different quality of the french vowel, along with the nasalized ending, by doing it as “geurang.”
I’m sure very few people find this as fascinating as I do. I can’t make excuses for my stupid interests. But I’ve decided this hangeulized French needs a name, along the lines of the term Konglish. And I think “Hançais” is just perfect – “han” meaning Korean (in Korean), and -çais for the French part, of course.

Caveat: Crazy about Crazy

The Korean word for “crazy” is “미친” (mi-chin).
When we say someone or something is crazy, in English, there’s not really a value judgment involved – at least, it’s not a very strong one. Being a child of the 60’s, myself, I would go so far as to say that there are plenty of times when the word “crazy” can be used to mean something almost complementary. As when you’re sitting, reminiscing with friends, and someone says, “those sure were crazy times.”
But if you say someone is “michin” in Korean, it’s a grave insult – at least on the level of “son of a bitch” according to some of my students, if not a great deal worse.  There’s a great deal of cultural anxiety about craziness, here. And this got me to thinking about the issue with the madness about mad cow disease and the national paranoia over American beef imports.
Perhaps the real problem is the name of the disease. If it were only ever called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), would anyone care about it, in its extreme rarity?  Did the British name the disease unpropitiously? Are Koreans going crazy and rioting in the streets because of a crazy fear of craziness and of a crazily named disease?
What might Foucault have to say about that? And how might this national anxiety about craziness impact the reception of a text such as Don Quijote? Maybe I should research this – I saw a Korean language edition of DQ on sale at Kyobo the last time I was there.  Maybe I’ll pick it up, and try to decipher clues to its reception.  Ha… as if my Korean were even close to being up to the task. But it’s an interesting question, I think.
Here’s a coworker at the hagwon. He remains nameless.

Caveat: “나의 이미지”

A student of mine writes about her self image.

My image is white. White means glitter, truth, objectivity…  I am very strange. I am do not planning. I just do inclined self or ask other people.  I have truth for other people.  I’m greeting to other adults.  And I’m extremely obstinate.  I am elementary school grade 4th.  We eat dinner with relation. I said “I want sit here.”  but, mother said, “No.” Finally, I am sit there. This is, I want to do, I do until end. I am uneasiness. I am coward. At saturday, I talk with church sister and friend about scary stories. I don’t like scary. I listen scary stories to other people, so, I don’t close window. My sister day, “You are fool and coward. It’s not scary!” As a result, I hit my sister. But, I’m really thank My sister.

I didn’t give her high marks for organization, but I told her it was a very vivid essay that had almost poetic properties. Which is what I think.

Caveat: If you can’t avoid it, enjoy it!

The sentence "if you can't avoid it, enjoy it!" was the cheery conclusion of a 5th grader's essay that I was grading today.   I liked the philosophical sentiment of it, though I also thought it has an unspoken corollary:  "if you CAN avoid it, then, by all means, do so."  Some things in life are unavoidable, and we should take those things with calm, equanimity, and even try to enjoy them.  But other things in life are clearly avoidable, yet all too often, we just keep putting up with them, tolerating them, letting them annoy us, when it would be all too easy to walk away from these things, or push them out of our way and move on.  Sometimes I think we possess an excessive loyalty to the status quo, whatever it is.

Which brings me back to the "why" of my current adventure – vis-a-vis my ruminations about whether to renew my contract or not.  Clearly, because of the option to renew, I am in an "avoidable" situation, as far as continuing my experience here.  So the question is, do I want to continue?  Are the benefits I'm deriving greater than the annoyances I'm suffering?  What's the calculus of my life, so to speak?

Caveat: Polysyndeton

I got off work early because the middle schoolers are preparing for mid-term exams and I have been excluded from teaching the exam prep given how Korean-language-intensive the test-prep curriculum is, and so I walked home, and the air was humid and the streets and sidewalks were more crowded than they usually are when I walk home, and there were two cats staring at each other from the bushes on either side of the walk, ignoring the people, and there was a truck selling tomatoes, and there was a cart selling a large variety of unidentifiable fried things on sticks, and then I got to the main intersection that I have to cross and there were three tow trucks and a police car congregated but I could see no accident, so I gave them a wide berth and finished walking home, and climbed the 5 flights of stairs to my apartment and got in and turned on the air conditioning, and that is the first time since last September that I have felt compelled to do that upon getting home.

Caveat: 변기 물이 새요

I have a maintenance problem in my apartment: “변기 물이 새요” (beongi muri saeyo = toilet water-SUBJECT leak-POLITE = the toilet leaks).
So there’s this guy here fixing it – hopefully. I hate how tongue-tied I can get, trying to speak. For example, I know very well what my apartment number is. But when I was at the doorman’s desk reporting my problem just now, I was utterly incapable of saying a simple o-i-sam (five-two-three).
Brain malfunction. The guy was clearly puzzled, as I’d just managed a more or less fluent sentence explaining that my apartment had a leaking toilet, and then I couldn’t tell him what my apartment number was (which is presumably a much simpler bit of Korean). Argh.
The offending device:

Caveat: Ugly American Cows

pictureMy friend Bob asked me in an email about what it’s like to be an American in Korea right now.  I realize that, if you look at U.S.-based news coverage of the events here, you’d think things were suddenly pretty bad.  And I will admit that I definitely am careful about what I do and where I go on the weekends – avoiding places where protests occur, like downtown Seoul (I haven’t gone near downtown in almost a month except a quick shopping trip to pick up some presents for my students on rainy Sunday early afternoon).
But it’s not really that different, for me, as a foreigner, than it was before the recent explosion of protest and anti-Americanism.  Which is to say, there are inevitably people who seem hostile to westerners, or at the least, suspicious.  With strangers, however, there’s nothing on me or about me that brands me as, specifically, an American (as opposed to some other type of anglophone westerner, such as a Brit, Australian, Canadian, etc.).  But the other thing, which I think I’ve noted before, is that I really think this whole anti-American-beef / anti-American-trade-agreement is much more about dissatisfaction with the recent downturn in the global economy – which America is experiencing too – and about frustration with Lee Myung-Bak’s imperious young presidency.
“Compassionate” and reformist conservatives all over the planet are in trouble with their unfaithful publics, these days:  Bush, Sarkozy, LMB, and Howard (who was recently thrown out by the Australians).  People get worried when the entrenched social safety nets get threatened too much, on the one hand – especially when economies turn South.  But also, what all these figures have had in common is an imperial style that wears thin fast in the face of scandal and evidence of mismanagement.  Not that I think liberals necessarily do any better.  But there just seems to be some unifying characteristics, is all.
So… I don’t think the protests are so much anti-American as they are anti-LMB and anti-Bush and anti-globalization.  But Korea relies more on globalization than almost any other country – certainly among the world’s top 20 economies, it’s among the most dependent on external markets.  China depends just as heavily on external markets, if not more so, but the immense size of the country and its population means that it’s inevitably more resilient (I think… I theorize) to global shocks and shifts.
Anyway.  All of which is to say, I don’t feel, for example, any notable increase in hostility toward me from either strangers or from acquaintances.  Those who are hostile to me are hostile for the same reasons they were before, and are in any event a minority.
On the other hand, I would not want to be an American cow in Korea, these days.  That would be… scary.  Very scary.  The mad American cow is like this eerily reviled symbol, now.  But what it stands for is as much a cypher of Korean government indifference as for anything specifically American.
Keep in mind that Koreans believe some unusual things – their weird, wired, webophilic culture has embraced all sorts of urban myths as fact, accentuating and exaggerating things that, on objective analysis, seem patently silly.  I remember learning last fall, for example, that a plurality of Koreans believe that it is possible for an electric fan to kill a person while they sleep, merely by blowing on them.  Here is a blog on the subject of “fan death.”
I don’t think that paranoia about American beef products is quite in the same mythical category as fan death, but I think it provides a context for understanding how unsubstantiated scientific “facts” about some given health risk can be transformed by a very large, tightly-networked culture into a fearsome reality and lead to mass protests.  The main thing that is surprising to me is not that so many people have developed such an inordinate fear but rather that the current Korean government has proven so remarkably inept in managing the situation.  They seem weirdly incompetent and naive with respect to forces that their recent high-speed technological bootstrapping of their society have unleashed.
I like to point out – as mildly and nonconfrontationally as I can when talking to people – that FAR MORE people have died in the recent protests about mad cow disease in South Korea than have EVER died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human version of mad cow that is presumeably caused by it), not only in Korea (where no one has died from it), but in the U.S., too (where only 3 people have died from it).  In fact, the only country where there has ever been more than a few cases reported of vCJD is the U.K., which is where mad cow first exploded and was identified as a cause, and where subsequent changes in meat processing and cattle raising techniques have basically shut down the avenue for perpetuation of the disease.

Caveat: Verbcastles

Allegedly, the Korean language has no relative pronouns.  So how do they phrasally modify a noun?  They do this cool thing whereby they can nominalize a verb (and all its accompanying baggage, subject, object, etc.) and make it the object or subject of another verb.  And this can pile up:  a nominalized verb phrase functioning as the subject of another verb, which in turn is nominalized and made the subject of another, etc., ad infinitum.
I won’t even dare to try to show an example – I don’t want to embarrass myself by publishing mutilated Korean.  But it’s mind-boggling complex and yet syntactically elegant.  We can do it in English, within certain limits, but our natural Subject-Verb-Object word order makes it difficult to enchain indefinitely, while Korean’s Subject-Object-Verb order means the structures can nest comfortably.   Maybe I can try to conjure some reliable and concrete examples.

Meanwhile, I have been contemplating sandcastles, and found this old picture of a sandcastle Jeffrey (my stepson), Andrew (my brother) and I built on a Santa Monica beach in 1994.

Think of them as complex syntactical objects made of sand.

Caveat: 좋지도 않지만 나쁘지도 않아

… just doing OK.
In the last month, I’ve reestablished communication with two very long-lost friends who found me because of my facebook presence.   It’s pretty cool.  So I have been tweaking my facebook profile with the realization that apparently it’s a good place to be “visible” in the internet world.  Maybe I should make a myspace profile too?
I’ve also been working on trying to update my “website” – for the first time since last summer.   I’m trying to re-learn CSS so I can get beyond the default formatting that I inherited when I built the websites last year, using the pre-made example kits that come with the ASP.NET development platform.
I’m very happy to have bought a new MP3 player.  It’s nice to put it into “shuffle” mode and walk home at night through the humid streets, listening to Slick Idiot or Cat Stevens or U2 or Depeche Mode, completely random.
Here is a picture of me wielding an alligator and a stupid face for the benefit of my bemused students.

Caveat: 응!

I’m reaching a kind of landmark with my time in Korea.
Cumulatively, I have now spent more time living in Korea than I did in Mexico.  And I wonder at the fact that my Korean is still so bad.  Well, not really – there are clearly reasons my Spanish improved so fast when I lived in Mexico, that haven’t applied in this situation.  I was much more immersed when I was in Mexico.
That year I spent here in Korea while I was in the Army was the opposite of immersion – my exposure to the language was minimal and my opportunities to study it virtually non-existent.  And since I’ve been here this time, my work environment does not provide me with the opportunities I had when in Mexico.  Then there’s the issue of the fact that a 20 year old brain is going to perhaps acquire language more efficiently than a 40 year old brain.
Yesterday I was learning the words 법 (beop) and 법률 (beomryul), both of which mean “law” in slightly different ways (one is a derivative of the other, and they relate semantically a little bit like the law/legal pair in English, I think).
But it wasn’t the meanings that threw me, but rather the fact that I still haven’t wrapped my mind around the allophonic (pronunciation) rule that says that in a syllable ending in -/p/ followed by a syllable beginning in /r/-, the -/p/ changes to a -/m/.  I understand it phonologically – it follows well-documented, similar patterns found in many languages.  It’s just hard to remember to do it.  And if I forget to do it, the Korean listening to my speaking ends up hearing gobbledygook.
I did sort of work out a cute little aphorism for describing some essential, stereotypical difference between English and Korean pronunciation.  As many know, in English, our “default” sound is a kind of very relaxed schwa sound that leaves the lips relaxed and slightly rounded – that “gaping uh” sound.  Further, English has a lot of semivowels (like /r/ or “dark” /l/) that purse the lips out a little bit, as in a /w/ (which purses the lips a lot).  Korean, meanwhile, seems to have as its “default” sound a kind of high, tense, unrounded vowel (hangeul 으, romanized as “eu” but /ɯ/ in IPA), and many consonants and vowels are much less rounded than in English, with the sides of the lips drawn back almost tightly.  When trying to get Koreans to better pronounce sounds such as /r/ or /w/ in English, I’m constantly saying something like, “push your lips out.”  And when they’re trying to help me better pronounce one of those difficult vowels, they’re saying something like, “pull your lips back tight.”  Hence my aphorism:  Korean is a smiling language, English is a kissing language.  Hopefully you can visualize this.
Last summer I visited Arcata (my birthplace and hometown) and went out to Mad River Beach.  This is a picture I took of a small stone and a sand dollar I saw lying in the sand in the sun in the surf.

Caveat: Carbon Amortization

I was reading an article about Priuses in the New York Times (online) that caused me to think, once again, about something I find very troubling about all the discussion of reducing the carbon footprints of the automobiles we drive, about legislating improved mileage and/or offering incentives to buyers of lower-carbon-footprint cars.  And it is this:  what about the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process?  What about other environmental impacts of new cars?  Bear with me, while I try to think this through.
Suppose I have a Hummer.  It’s a nice, ecologically disastrous beast, with a very high carbon footprint, that I bought in a solipsistic moment some years back.  I don’t know enough to actually assign a meaningful number to its day-to-day carbon footprint, but lets say its daily value is “10.”  So, one morning, after a long talk with some friends, I wake up feeling guilty, and decide to buy a Prius.  So I buy the Prius – and lets say, for the sake of argument, that its daily carbon footprint is “2” – i.e. it puts out 20% of the ongoing emissions as the Hummer.
But what was the carbon footprint of manufacturing the Prius?  Is it unreasonable to imagine it might be some rather large number compared to the daily value?  I mean, just the delivery from manufacturer to dealer is going to be some largish multiple of the daily footprint, e.g. 20 or 50, right?  There’s steel, engine, tire manufacturing.  And farther back, there’s high-paid executives and designing engineers at Toyota and their contractors, sitting in air-conditioned offices over years, making the Prius a reality.  ALL of that is part of the vehicle’s carbon footprint.  Is it unreasonable to imagine that the carbon footprint of the creation of that new Prius might not be, say, in the 1000’s?  10,000’s?  What if I go out on a limb, and guess, say, 8000 “units”?
The consequence is as follows:  I’m reducing my personal carbon footprint, by switching from Hummer to Prius, by 8 units per day.  But the Prius’ manufacture entailed a footprint of 8000.  So, that means I will have to own the Prius for 1000 days before I “break even” in terms of carbon footprint.  That’s almost 3 years!  Wouldn’t it be better for the environment to urge people to KEEP their current cars longer, rather than switch out to lower-footprint vehicles?  This would be true regardless of the type of vehicle they currently own.
And I understand very well, I just pulled these numbers out of a hat, and the analysis could be extremely mistaken.  But what I wonder about, is why don’t you ever see anyone doing this kind of analysis, in the media?  And there are other issues – the Prius has a contingent of non-carbon-related environmental issues, around its high-tech manufacturing processes, and its massive array of batteries – these are not in any way resolved.   What about battery disposal?  What about the toxics involved in battery and plastics manufacture?
I cannot argue that in terms of real, long-term life-of-product carbon footprint, my father’s 1928 Ford Model A is lower than almost anything else on the road (or, er, in storage, at the moment), because of its under 20 mpg and “dirty” exhaust.  But it nevertheless represents maximizing the utility of the manufactured object vis-a-vis its intended purpose.  The carbon footprint of the car’s manufacture has amortized for 80 years now!  Meanwhile, that self-righteous bastard driving the 2008 Prius, which replaced his 2005 Corolla, which replaced his 2000 VW, which replaced his 1992 Chevy, etc., etc., has left a landscape strewn with massive-manufacturing-footprint disposed-of vehicles.  If he had kept each of his earlier vehicles for three or four years longer than he did, and avoided the Prius completely, he’d probably do more to reduce his carbon footprint than a lifetime’s worth of Prius driving.
I’m going to call this problem the problem of “carbon amortization.”
Below, is a picture of my mom, my sister, and me, with the family car, somewhere in Oregon, 1970.
My father still has this car.  He hasn’t had it running in a few years, due to financial constraints, but I know he intends to drive it many more miles – as do I.

Caveat: Perhaps Dubya is the real Kira?

I have become substantially absorbed in the ongoing episodes of the manga series called Deathnote.  I bought volumes 9, 10, and 11 on Sunday and have ploughed through two of them in the last two days. 

These texts definitely have a lot going on in them, and I've decided it's quite a bit more than just a serialized graphic novel in the suspense/thriller genre.  The main characters are quite complex, and moral ambiguity is pandemic – no one is faultless, and you can't even decide who the good guys are – as opposed to the bad guys – although the authors do tend show some of them in a more sympathetic light than others.

The central protagonist is Light (Raito) Yagami, an academically gifted Japanese teenager who's father is a career policeman.  He gains the power to kill people by merely knowing their names and faces, and sets out to "make the world a better place."  I won't go into the details of the plot and character development here – If you're interested, you can start at wikipedia or any number of other places on the internet to find out more.

From what I've read in my own explorations online, the authors did not specifically intend for the series to be philosophically deep, nor did they set out to create a semiotic masterpiece.  The main writer (Ohba) explicitly states that he tried to avoid being "ideological" – whatever that means.

Nevertheless, the text is brimming with all kinds of tasty ideological morsels (and morasses) – to such an extent that I think it would be extremely fruitful and interesting to undertake an in-depth semiotic study of the text, perhaps something in line with Frederic Jameson's method, as he outlines in his seminal work, The Political Unconscious.

I can't help but be constantly aware of the geopolitical backdrop for the writing of the series – these times we inhabit, the first years of the 21st century.  It's set in a Japan still basically attached to the U.S. strategically, but increasingly unrooted culturally and economically.  The early books constantly had me flashing to the awkwardness of Japan's postwar identity, and also to the looming moral cypher that is represented by the United States' nuclear umbrella.

But in the most recent episodes I've been reading, I keep thinking about righteous hegemonies… about U.S. unilateralism, vis-a-vis the character of Kira (the machiavellian boy Light, who's become a demonic-powered avenger, Kira, but is also masquerading as one of his hunters, the character named "L").  In chapter 75 (book 9), Light says "If we catch Kira, then Kira is evil.  If Kira rules the world, then Kira is good."  To which Aizawa responds, "So the victor is righteous…"  Which is to say, righteousness has less to do with morality than with might and victory.  "Might is right."

And isn't that what's going on in Iraq, now?  Isn't that what happened in Japan 60 years ago, for that matter?  Yet there's a muddled moral imperative, however contrived, that drove both that old war and the one we are witnessing now.  Personally, I continue to be compelled to reject those revisionists who insist there's some qualitative moral difference between any given war and any other.  I have decided that Kira represents the exercise of inordinate power, whenever blinded by its own moralizing rationalizations.  Yet one finds oneself sympathizing, at least sometimes, with those rationalizations.  Because they're "rational," of course.  And because Light-Kira is the protagonist.

I like the way that the authors exploit the graphic format, also.  In book 11 there's this long, complex dialogic thing going on, involving a conversation between Light and Takada, who are speaking for the benefit of known eavesdroppers, but secretly supported and manipulated by notes being passed between them, and at the same time commented and subverted by the listeners, all in a chaotic progression of comic-book frames that becomes dizzingly non-linear.

Caveat: Champions

Two weeks ago we had a debate competition among the ER-ban students (advanced-level elementary).   This was a kind of consummation of all my efforts, and overall I was pretty happy with how it went.  Some of the students clearly enjoyed participating and put in a great deal of enthusiasm and effort, which was great to see.
The classes divided into teams of 3-5 students, and at the end of the competitions (one on Monday and one on Tuesday), each of the ER classes had a champion team.  Here are some quick portraits of my champion teams.
pictureThis is the ER2-Tuesday team.  The most talented students, from the highest-level class.  From left to right, that’s Tina, Christina, Maria, Cathy, and Stephanie.  Tina is smart and a little goofy.  She has a great sense of humor and is not afraid to try it out in English.   Christina will someday be a famous cartoonist or manga author, and although she’s not intellectually inclined, her English is actually quite good.  And she’s a great artist.  Maria is brilliant and academically motivated. Not to mention brutally competitive.   Cathy is one of those always-positive personalities that can make anyone around her happy, and never gives up.  Little Stephanie, despite being several grades lower than the others, speaks phenomenal, idiomatic English and is quite thoughtful.
pictureThis is the ER1-Monday champion team.  Actually, the reason they won was because John2 was visiting the Monday class from his home class, which was ER2-Tuesday.  Otherwise the girls would have won this class championship.  But they’re good guys, and I was happy to declare them the winners.  From left to right, that’s Jake, John2, John1, and Joey.  The ER1-Monday class has an informal tradition of making sure everyone’s English name starts with the letter J.  Jake is extremely smart and very focused as a student, but needs to work on getting along better with his peers – he can seem kind of standoffish.  But he reminds me of myself at a similar age.  John2, as I said, was just visiting from the Tuesday “ban,” but he bonded quickly with the guys because they realized he was a huge asset to the team – he was only debater in the overall competition who actually spoke completely extemporaneously.  John1 is the class goof, quite intelligent but uninterested in anything involving actual work.  But he’s also almost always an asset to a class, because he’s constantly got something interesting or off-the-wall to say, to keep things entertaining.  He says he wants to be either comedian or a doctor, but that he suspects being doctor involves “too much study.”  Joey is moody but quite brilliant.  He can often argue with his peers, but he also can surprise with his idiomatic, well-formed fragments of English.
pictureThis is the ER1-Tuesday champion team.  They weren’t perfect, but they were impressive partly because they managed with only three members.  These girls are among my favorite students in the school  They are, from left to right, Taylor, Gloria, and Ellen.  And me, looking bemused and dorky, as usual.  Taylor is an extroverted yet amazingly intellectual kid, with stunning enthusiasm and a true gift for not only learning but also pulling her peers along selflessly.  Yet she can also demonstrate a very competitive spirit.  She’s a natural leader – and if she keeps her confidence, might someday be a stunning success.  She wrote all of Gloria’s speeches for the competition, and refused to take credit for them, but I saw her doing it.  Gloria is a super friendly girl who often gives the impression of understanding more than she does.  She just grins and nods and shrugs, and only later do I realize she was faking it.  But she has managed to make friends with the two smartest girls in the class, and she leverages that friendship to her own academic benefit, I don’t think cynically, but just as if it’s part of the natural order of things.  I actually think she would do just fine in an immersion environment, because although she lacks a lot of knowledge, she’s extroverted and has good non-verbal communicative competence.  Lastly there’s Ellen.  She initially can seem very shy, and she’s much less extroverted than the others.  But she’s got a quiet confidence about her, and in any one-on-one conversation, she’s among the best in the entire school – and not just among the elementary students, but including the middle-schoolers too.  It’s not so much her level of ability as the fact that she refuses to ever give up.  She just circumlocutes and puzzles along until she’s made her point, whatever it is.  She will never take the linguistic cop-out and leave you with “I don’t know” or “I can’t explain.”

Caveat: Memorializing Insecurities

I just wrote this really long entry, and posted it, and it didn't show up. 

In it, I talked (among other things) about my negative feelings about my teaching abilities – and then I said something to the effect of:  I should stop memorializing my insecurities online, as it does me no good to dwell so much on the negative.  So I think there's something karmic (or at the least apophenic) in the fact that the post failed to stick.

I was watching an episode of That '70's Show, recently, and the character Hyde says, "Oh my god, I've been using sobriety as a crutch!"  I found this extremely funny and philosophically fascinating, too.  It seems there's a human impulse to obsess negatively on almost anything:  drugs or other classic addicitons, for sure, but also religion, politics, or even sobriety.

Caveat: Sith Master of Silicon Valley

I was reading a Forbes magazine article (byline Brian Caulfield and Wendy Tanaka 06.13.08) about the failure of the Microsoft-Yahoo deal and Yahoo's subsequent scramble for googlence, and one of the lines that stood out to me was a characterization of Larry Ellison (the wildly eccentric boss of Oracle Corp) as the "Sith Master of Silicon Valley."   I liked the idea that this might be on target.

I'm a shareholder in Oracle, and furthermore, I hold an Oracle certification as a Database Administrator – which is ironic since all my actual DBA and development work has been with Microsoft's competing SQL Server product, for which I hold no certification.

Despite this, I am not a fan of their product line, exactly – it is about as baroque as a high technology product line can get and still function.  The reason I bought stock in the company was, rather, because I saw first hand, during my years working with the Paradise Corp (a pseudonym) IT department the amazing ease with which Oracle's enterprise sales team took my employers for a multimillion dollar ride.  A project which was started in 2003 is still going on, years after the original anticipated "go live" date, and as far as I know, it barely works if at all, and only with a zillion caveats (appropriate to mention, I suppose, for this blog).

I figured if all of Oracle's sales teams were half as effective as the ones working my IT higher ups at Paradise, that company had a locked down revenue stream for decades to come.  So, through thick and thin, I remain a loyal Oracle shareholder – and among all my long-term holdings, it's been, overall, one of the most pleasing.  Or maybe that's just the luck of jumping on (and off and on again) the bandwagon at the right time?

Caveat: My Life as a Multimillionaire

Sometimes I can't get over being a multimillionaire.  In Korean currency, that is:  there are about 1000 KRW to each dollar – so my Korean bank account has millions at the moment.  It seems like so much, with all those zeros!

But actually, I'm living quite modestly, of course.  And the stock market hasn't been my friend, either.  Since my last comment on investments, some months back, things have been pretty level for me, but there's been no leap forward either.  Ah well – it's all a bit like gambling, I suppose.

The point is (as I explained to my accountant):  I'm kind of living a "vow of poverty" in a weird, nonreligious way.  A secular monk.  And I'm cool with that – I find money issues generally annoying if not downright depressing. 

I did finally buy a new MP3 player yesterday.  I got a tiny 2GB Samsung product called "Yepp."  I knew I wanted to go "generic" – to avoid the greater and lesser Satans.  Microsoft is the greater Satan, of course - and this requires no explanation.  But many people don't understand why I consider Apple (and iStuff) to be the lesser Satan.  I guess it's a matter of content over hype – I still harbor this old feeling of betrayal when the transparent, essentially "open source" hardware known as Apple II was replaced by the hyped-black-box concept called Mac.  Apple II was my first computer.  And I learned 6502 Assembly language on it, and how to hack Apple's DOS.  It was a great learning experience and converted me, for ever and ever, to the open-box philosophy, vis-a-vis computers, anyway.

The weather has been steamy and summery lately, but today the humidity is lower and it's quite pleasant.  I'm going to work at having a positive attitude, a la "The Secret" – so hyped by Oprah and on the internet.

Caveat: The Beef

There have been massive and ongoing protests here in Korea over the government's efforts to comply with what should have been a rather routine resumption of imports of U.S. beef.  Most international analyses of this situation that I have seen focus on the fact that it is about more than beef, but that it's not necessarily simple anti-Americanism either.  Something in-between:  it's about authority and control – meaning, whether or not South Korea can or should yield to American pressure to resume imports, or whether it should stand on its own authority and resist.

I find this intriguing, given my own neverending saga over the question of authority and how to deploy it successfully in my current work environment.  This evening, I became frustrated because I felt that one of my coworkers had undercut my authority by telling me, in front of a student, that maybe I shouldn't make them stay late to finish homework (a fairly common form of mild discipline for students who don't complete their work).  This set me up, since to make the student stay at that point I was not only being "unfair" to the student but also ignoring the plea for compassion from one of the student's other teachers.

When I complained about this, the response was: oh, we're not undercutting your authority.  And a demand for concrete examples of other times I felt this occurred, since I had worded my complaint rather broadly, and said that I felt my authority was "frequently undercut."  This wasn't wise of me, as arguments with my one supervisor always seem to devolve into arguments of the factuality of my complaints – a good strategy on his part, since the burden of proof is on the complainer.

Regardless of the wisdom my complaint, I found myself feeling especially put off by a suggestion that somehow the only reason I lacked authority with my students is because I somehow don't have the creativity or force of personality to make that authority for myself.  And coming home and looking at the news, I started to think about the radically different relationships American and Korean cultures cultivate with respect to the concept and practice of authority.  All of which is to say, I'm aware that there's a cultural gap underlying the communication gap, which is brought to the fore by the "authority" gap that I'm experiencing everyday.  And I have no idea how to proceed.

Caveat: Englyns

I’ve been experimenting with writing englyns – these are complex, rigid Welsh poetic forms – not in Welsh, though.  This is a small englyn penfyr I made:

nobody sees sky’s glimmer, the sun falls,
-nobody feels the summer-
nobody sees air’s shimmer.

Sometime back I tried writing one in Spanish, too – probably not as good. And this one is about being angry:

a veces siento enojo de perro,
ira de piedra, un rojo
enfado de hombre cojo

Traditional Welsh poetry is fascinating to me because of its demands for such highly structured forms – almost like Japanese haiku, for example.  And, as Georges Perec once pointed out (and probably others), it is constraint that leads to truly innovative artistic expression, and not freedom.

I remember as one of my most productive periods of poetry-writing the time when I was experimenting with highly constrained forms such as the alexandrine sestina, with additional non-traditional constraints on such things as “characters per line” (thus I could produce completely justified poetic lines using monospace type with no additional spaces).

[UPDATE: the first englyn above was included in my daily poem series and republished on this blog on June 9th, 2021, as poem #1774.]


Caveat: Charisma, Authenticity, Control

Last night, one of my advanced students stunned me with one of those overly frank and penetrating observations that seem far-too-frequent lately:  they said that I lacked "charisma."  For a moment, I almost thought I had misunderstood.  But it was too close to the mark (vis-a-vis my insecurities about my qualities as a teacher) to be a simple misunderstanding. 

Another person recently remarked that my blog wasn't the "real" Jared.  In essence, that it lacked authenticity, I guess.  And again, guilty as charged.

Last week, the thing that had me so frustrated was a remark by my boss Curt, when he said to me something to the effect that "If you can't control your class, you must not be a very good teacher."  And, by Korean cultural standards, there are definitely classes where I'm certain I'm perceived as not being in control.  Of course, he also said that if I couldn't make the clearly inadequate curriculum work in my classroom, then I wasn't trying hard enough.

I'm not even going to try to reason through the connections between these three observations.  I don't know that any of them are inaccurate.  I also can say, from the "inside," that they aren't the whole story, but that doesn't leave me feeling any less discouraged. 

Lastly, it was announced yesterday that RingGuAPoReomEoHagWon (my employers) was going to be folded into another language academy venture just acquired by the parent holding company.  And this other language academy has a stunningly bad reputation vis-a-vis quality and management, from the little I've heard or observed.  Nothing stays the same for long.  But given how I'm currently feeling, I can almost guarantee that when the moment comes to re-negotiate my contract, I'll opt out.

Life will go on.  What's next?

Caveat: Monks About

I recently came to the realization there must be a Buddhist temple in my building. Sometimes I hear chanting-like noises, and at first I thought it was a neighbor’s television – but it really didn’t sound like a normal television program. And then I saw a sign near the back entrance to my building, and that sort of confirmed it – the swastika is the standard Korean symbol for “Buddhist establishment” used on signages and maps. Here is a picture of the back entrance to my building.

Caveat: Humilific Fun

“Humilific” is a real word – it describes a class of Korean words (mostly verb infixes and pronouns) that are used to show deference on the part of a speaker with respect to a listener.  They are somewhat the inversion of an honorific, which are linguistically more common, and which exalt the listener’s position with respect to the speaker.  A good example of a beginner’s level humilific is the use of 저(jeo) instead of 나(na) to mean “I” (first person singular).  When I call a student’s house, and I get a parent who I can’t expect to speak English, I have a phrase of badly pronounced Korean where I say “I am the English teacher” and I use this humilific form for the “I” in this sentence:  “저는…” (jeo-neun …).
Here is a picture of a building I saw in Suwon, on top of the hill I climbed there last month when I went there, just for kicks and to provide something interesting to look at.
And for those who feel that the price of gas in the U.S. is out of control, consider this:
pictureThat’s 1913 Korean won per liter, which comes out to about $7.25 a gallon at recent exchange rates.  The fact is, American gasoline is highly subsidized, if only indirectly – not least by that astronomical Iraq war cost, but also by military aid to e.g. Saudi Arabia.

Caveat: Californio

A speech by Pío de Jesús Pico, a mestizo businessman of Los Angeles who was the last governor of California when it was still part of Mexico: 

What are we to do then? Shall we remain supine, while these daring strangers are overrunning our fertile plains, and gradually outnumbering and displacing us? Shall these incursions go on unchecked, until we shall become strangers in our own land?

So he was what has been called a Californio – a pre-U.S.-annexation Californian of Spanish or mixed Native American and Spanish descent.  Pico actually had an African great grandmother, too, from what I understand.  I've always found the history of the Californios fascinating – it's a kind of forgotten group.

He took refuge in Baja California during the war, but afterward he returned to Los Angeles and made peace with the gringafication of the region, even running for city council at one point, and building a famous hotel.  But he died a pauper because of his extravagant lifestyle and gambling habits.

Caveat: Holy Cow… uh, Brains.

One change I'm beginning to notice since the election of the conservative and pro-American Lee Myung-Bak as president last December:  many who oppose the new president, one whatever grounds, incorporate a certain strident anti-Americanism into their discourse.  This is logical, as South Korea's relationship with the U.S. is (and has, historically, long been) an emotionally-loaded hot-button on both the left and right.

This is nowhere more visible than the current outcry over something that was supposed to be a routine aspect of moving forward on a free trade agreement with the U.S. that was part of the president's platform: the resumption of imports of American beef.  South Korea, like Japan, had placed a ban on American beef imports back in 2003 after the incident where an American cow had been detected with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), more commonly called mad-cow disease. 

Now that the government has moved to remove the import ban, many Koreans are in a panic over the possibility of infected U.S. beef unrestrictedly entering their markets and diets.  It hasn't helped that there have recently been other issues with the U.S. beef supply (not directly related to mad-cow but definitely related to broader food-safety concerns), such as the authorities closing down that giant processor in California a few months back when it was discovered the place was allowing clearly sick cattle to proceed to slaughter, in contravention of law.

I'm of two minds regarding the Korean public's hue and cry over mad-cow.  On the one hand, I regret that political opposition to the president and his policies, often quite legitimate, is being anchored to an issue with such flimsy scientific foundations as BSE, which is not clearly understood by any scientific community in the world, and given that no incontrovertible case of transmission of "mad-cow" from meat to human has ever been documented in the U.S. (although 3 cases of "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease" have been found via autopsy – but that's out of a population of 300 million, and it's never been shown that BSE is the only possible source of vCJD).

Nevertheless, I do believe strongly that there are other very strong health and environmental reasons for attempting to reduce consumption and better regulate the world's beef supply – and U.S. beef industry practices are central to this.  Factory farming of beef is neither environmentally sound, nor is it sustainable, and, likely, it will eventually be linked to all kinds of currently poorly-documented and little-understood health ills.

For these reasons, I tend to support the South Koreans' protests as being "right action for wrong reasons."  Which is pretty common in politics, in general, in my opinion.   Burning effigies of American cows – have at it!

Caveat: The Supremacy Clause and Judicial Activism

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Medellin v. Texas (earlier this year), I have felt deeply troubled.  The so-called "supremacy clause" of the U.S. Constitution states:  "all Treaties made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the land."  But the court held that unless the Congress passes specific laws implementing treaties, treaties are not binding domestic laws.  How is this interpretation in any way in line with constitutional intent?

I'm not trained in law, but the supremacy clause, and our governments' disregard for it, has always troubled me.  I feel strongly that the "founding fathers'" intent was in line with something U.S Grant subsequently envisioned: 

I believe at some future day, the nations of the earth will agree on some sort of congress which will take cognizance of international questions of difficulty and whose decisions will be as binding as the decisions of the Supreme Court are upon us.

Essentially, I think that the Supremacy Clause must have specifically had in mind the sorts of binding supranational treaties we now see with organizations of states such as the U.N. or the E.U.  I don't think that such supranational polities were in any way beyond the conception of the founders of the U.S., given that it seems very likely they viewed their own project as a supranational rather than national project – there was nothing subtle or requiring interpretation in the name they chose:  United States of America.  They expected more states to join, they thought they were already supranational, and they were not trying to build a nation, but rather replace it, as a concept, with something new.  In this sense, the E.U. as it stands today is perhaps closer to their conception than the contemporary U.S. 

That's just my opinion.  So… whatever.  I had a bad day today at work, so I decided to rant on about something where I'm both uninformed and singularly unempowered.

Caveat: Eliminating the Middlemen in Government

We could just put the corporations in office, directly.  I read a sci-fi novel years ago that had such a scenario, where instead of electing an individual to the presidency, Americans voted in a corporation for a fixed term of office – essentially granting that business a contract to "run the country."   I wish I could remember the title or author.  The concept is too "loaded" (in a satirical sense?) to be effectively searched out in googleland – which is to say, every effort to describe the concept for the search engine only leads to infinities contemporary political and satirical commentary.

I was reminded of this by a clever and silly Onion video I found last night.

Caveat: Apophenism

Wikipedia says: "Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data."  I think this is one of the most salient features of human psychology, and a defining characteristic of postmodernity as well.  Or perhaps I'm just seeing patterns in random data?

One of the most amazing novels, Pornographia, by Witold Gombrowicz (a Polish-Argentine writer), deals with this phenomenon.  The somewhat embarrassing-to-cite title is in fact misleading – and part of the apophenic game that goes on throughout the whole novel, as it leads the reader into making all kinds of efforts to see meaning where none is to be found.  The title's relation to the novel is in fact the first apophenic movement of the novel, which continues in the same mode throughout.

Actually, the thing that made me think of apophenia  might seem surprising.  I was thinking about macroeconomics, the relationship between command economies and truly market-based ones, and all those gray areas in between.  This was prompted by a recent short article in The Economist (May 31st, 2008) that was explaining the recent government-mandated "restructuring" of the massive and fast-growing Chinese telecoms industry.  To quote the line from the article that got me thinking:  "Each time the government has arranged things to mirror the outcome produced by market forces in the West."

First, I thought, "how clever."  They get the best of both worlds (from their point of view):  command economy as well as the presumed efficiencies of market capitalism.  It's like if the proposed God of the ID (intelligent design) people had a little (or not-so-little) Darwinist laboratory running somewhere "on the side" where He (yes, He – we're talking IDers, right?) that can give Him ideas, and then He imitates it and makes it even "better." 

But then I started thinking.  First – just how random and/or market-driven is what happens to e.g. telecoms markets in the West?  And second, is it really proven that the patterns that emerge in terms of how markets are structured represent some kind of best-rises-to-the-top principle?  We presume that market economics is Darwinist and necessarily leads to efficiencies, but why would it?  Maybe the patterns we see in truly unconstrained markets (to the extent they are, in fact, unconstrained) are just manifestations of apophenia?

I think I want to add the title of "Apophenist" to some of my others.  It's a neologism, although google makes clear it won't be mine, as it's already out there.

Caveat: 도스타코스 (K-Mex?)

I went into Seoul and shopped at my favorite bookstore – Kyobo, just north of Gangnam station (on the Green Line) in the massive Kyobo Tower, along Seochoro.  I bought some manga books, a Korean language grammar, and a novela by García Márquez entitled La hojarasca – yes they have Spanish language books at Kyobo, although the selection is only about a single shelf’s worth.
So… I was walking southward back toward the subway station, feeling pleased with my purchases, and lo! there was a taco and burrito joint.  Really.  In Seoul.  I took a picture of the sign:
The place is called “Dos Tacos” (in Hangeul, 도스타코스 = doseutakoseu).  I went in and had a delicious veggie burrito.  It’s definitely Americanized-style Mexican food, passed through a slight but perceptible Korean filter, but it was a nice change.  I wonder if there’s a future in K-Mex cuisine?
I’ve noticed that my blog host seems to be inserting my picture uploads differently than before – it appears to be placing them inline rather than making thumbnails and linking them out.  I wonder if I like this better.  I’ll have to think about it, and try some things out.
Earlier, I had been wandering, a bit randomly as is my occasional wont, and I saw some flowers growing through a fence near a railroad right-of-way, also in the Gangnam area.  Here is a picture:

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