Short Takes (My last posts of the year—Merry Christmas!)
What is with Obama this week? He's actually doing something. Did his mom yell at him? He's announced that diplomatic relations will be re-established with Cuba, and trade relations will eventually be normalized. Really: this is one of the most important news events of the year, and it signals a huge shift in U.S. policy towards the quasi-communist state. There are predictable GOP howls of overreach. Yes, I realize I'm not exactly Cuban or Floridian, but to me it's long overdue, and along with health care probably what people will remember Obama for in 30 years. The embargo accomplished very little besides providing Latin America with a convenient scapegoat in the U.S., and now it's gone. Cuba will end up having stronger economic and political links to the U.S., the standard of living will rise for Cubans, and the regime will probably feel safer taking a more liberal line, particularly in a few years when Fidel is respectfully buried. Cagily for Obama, it also removes another ally for North Korea or other antagonists. But:
Perhaps Obama will also make good on taking a tougher line on this barking-dog gangsterocracy in North Korea (they're not Cuba: they are terrorists, literally). But as for Sony and American theatres: You goddamn cowards. Sarcasm warning! No: Rolling over and kowtowing to an adolescent tinpot dictator who employs highschoolers to write threatening e-mails with Google Translate does not make you look weak and foolish. In no way will this set a future precedent for North Korea, whenever it feels like distracting its citizens from their starving, to threaten other international corporations or states over how they are depicted. Nor will it embolden any other group of ideological crackpots armed with hackers who don't like some fictional media product. This will probably never happen again. OK: sarcasm end. Why does this event remind me of Rudyard Kipling? Dear Sony and theatre chains:
"And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane."
I didn't mind Exodus (2014) but didn't love it. Really good films make me think about them for years (Interstellar, below, especially The Matrix films). There's a cliché about movies which have so many special effects that they don't have much heart, but Exodus sort of fills that bill. The story is interesting and the film fills out Moses' character and motives quite nicely. The special effects are wonderful. I just didn't really find myself identifying emotionally with any character, or thinking that much about the narrative. Admittedly, there's always a central problem with Biblical movies: we know how it's gonna end. (Spoiler: there's some water.)
Hollywood seldom depicts Christianity with sympathy or tact, but Exodus handles its scriptural source fairly respectfully, certainly not as badly as Noah (2013). The plagues do not have some liberal-guilt eco-explanation: they come from God. Moses is visited by... we're not really sure if it's actually Him or an angel... on the mountaintop, in the form of a boy, but the boy seems real in the movie and not a dream. The plagues and Red Sea are certainly real enough. My only gripe is that the boy acts more like a petulant teenager than a loving Father, and is probably red meat for internet atheists who want to emphasize God's smitey cruelty in the narrative. But otherwise not a bad film, and I can't really dislike anything too much with Ben Kingsley in it.
Interstellar (Spoilers in this Post)
I liked it, I really did—emotionally. Despite my grumpiness on this blog, I'm actually a softie and the father-daughter relationship between Cooper and Murphy makes the story really sad. But ironically, for a film that's being trumpeted for its cerebral plot and its attention to physics, it just didn't make logical sense to me. I know every film has some degree of suspension of disbelief. If I think about it, it makes no sense in The Matrix that machines could extract more electrical energy from a human than it would require in food; Jack really probably could have fit onto that piece of driftwood with Rose, or found his own. But I simply couldn't buy Interstellar. Hence my objections below (spoiler alert, again).
Perhaps we've been tricked, and despite the rather PC-ish tropes—materialist selfishness leads to environmental catastrophe; the women are tough and intellectual, the men are nurturing and cry (we get it, we get it)—maybe it's actually a Republican movie in disguise! The message is: The people of the future are ingrates who don't deserve our help, so let's build that new coal plant on the bird estuary!
Stairway to Heaven, Part 2
One of the worst feelings is seeing common opinion change in front of your eyes, know it is wrong, and not be able to do a thing about it. I use this analogy a lot, but it works: it's not some social rule that we're supposed to spend "three month's salary" on a wedding ring; that was cooked up by de Beers in the 80s. Before then, you spent whatever the hell you wanted to. Now I see the same "everyone knows" truisms forming on suicide (or whatever euphemism we'll be coerced to use for it). It seems to have happened quite recently, since Robin Williams' death and now 29-year-old American Brittany Maynard's death over her terminal illness. My friend Ken Maher also writes on his blog about a woman planning to abort her child out of supposed mercy, believing she cannot offer it the life she wants to. The response on social media is disturbingly consistent: how dare people, or the big bad church, judge people when they're in pain and make an empowering, brave decision.
In C.S Lewis's The Great Divorce, Lewis's guide tells him it is best he not get involved in counseling a grieving but obsessed mother: "Son, that's no office of yours. You're not a good enough man for that. When your own heart's been broken it will be time for you to think of talking." Out of our misplaced compassion we want to defend and protect such people. But whether it's harsh to say or not, all of these decisions are motivated by narcissism and selfishness, and no, I don't have to respect their choice.
Anyone who points this out can expect four rebuttals. 1) You don't know what it's like to suffer what these people did. No, I don't; but I also don't know what it's like to walk into the Canadian parliament and shoot at people. I can still have a moral opinion on the decision while sympathizing with the people who make them. 2) They were dying anyway and had no prospect of a livable life. Well, wait a minute: we are all dying anyway and suffer some pain, from the moment we are born. I realize I'm arguing for a point on a spectrum, as every day we freely make choices which shorten our lives by smoking or speeding, but overall "livable life" establishes a precedent that we can set that bar where we like. This is exactly what is happening in countries with liberal assisted suicide: in the Netherlands last year a 47-year-old depressed mother of two had herself euthanized over ringing in her ears. 3) They have a right to choose their own life or death. Maybe. But when did this become some self-evident principle, that dying is a personal right no one can question? We didn't get a say in our own births, and we don't exist in a vacuum without responsibilities to others in our families, lives, and communities. 4) What they did was courageous. Yes, the act of death takes some nerve, but giving up isn't courageous. Surrending to the Wehrmacht is not courageous. Fighting it is.
I wrote a poem about this years ago for a friend whose brother killed himself over marital troubles. I still feel the same, that most suicides are acts of self-pitying selfishness, and using fine words to claim that the act is "empowering" does not help people who are struggling with the same burdens. Rather it promotes a culture where life is worth only whatever we say it is. Here is an extract:
Why not, take the sewerpipe to Heaven
For it’s becoming the stylish thing to do
In a society which works to make tomorrow better for you,
Our greatest asset, how better to give thanks?
It’s not as though anyone might have taken offence
At you telling God and the world they failed to meet the standard
The roses themselves are right now holding a meeting
Wondering who to sack for not smelling pleasing enough for you.
The End Justifies the Meanness
I shouldn't argue about religion, partly because no one is likely to be argued into or out of faith, and because one of Christianity's principles is kindness; thus when militant atheists provoke believers into anger, they can already claim a smug victory. I also think it's important to read and to think about opposing arguments to religious faith and to one's positions generally. I don't agree with Christopher Hitchens, but he always gave me the vibe of David Hume-like gregariousness. We could disagree over tea. Thus I've tended to read and give attention to Salon in the past.
Today I'm taking it off my bookmarks and I won't cite it here anymore. Why do I need to respect a website which offers none back to me? Since Salon's alliance with Alternet, it's become progressively hostile and derisive toward Christians and believers generally, and lately, after a series of frat-boy wrestling matches—whoops, 'academic discourses' between Bill Maher and religious scholar Reza Aslan, Salon has begun to cross a rather fine but important line, not only between attacking the idea but not its adherents, but also between two rather different ethical positions: 1) People have the right to follow beliefs we don't like; and 2) They don't if those beliefs are wrong. Jeffrey Taylor today:
|[Religion is] a threat to us all... Religion must be dumped, ushered out of the public arena and back into the private, personal realm for those still inclined to harbor it or too weak to do without it... We can also cease displaying knee-jerk respect for those who propagate faith. A priest, rabbi, or imam should merit no more deference than a witch doctor – all traffic in gullibility, human misery and vulnerability, and none can prove the efficacy of their ministrations. We must point out the inherent dangerousness of faith itself – of believing things to be true without evidence.|
Along with the incendiary language, there's a few rather ugly assertions being made here. One is that because religion is false it shouldn't be allowed into public dialogue or deliberation. But more ominously, because religion is in fact dangerous, its practitioners do not deserve some rights of citizenship, one being public or political participation, and their livelihoods and qualifications deserve no recognition or respect. Atheism, however, is not also a private preference but in fact a patriotic imperative. Christians have seen this movie before. And if banishing and socially ostracizing believers doesn't stop social problems and violence, well, stronger medicine might be necessary.
The problem with "The end justifies the means" is that it does for everyone else too. If you're going to make a video meme about little girls spouting obscenities, saying it's okay because it draws attention to sexism and sexual assault, what will you say when the next week people are defecating on camera for tort reform using the same arguments? Similarly (and unfortunately I need to betray some anger in saying this), this recent strain of aggressive atheism I see in the west lately has the same problem—funny for a group always trumpeting a monopoly on reason. Yes, there are religious extremists; yes, Maher is correct in stating that believers can't always hide behind the dodge that "only those radicals do it, not me." I'm more worried about the cure advocated, which is that believers should be treated with open abuse, their public role ended, their practices driven into obscurity, their churches harassed, and whatever other steps are deemed necessary, because we think their beliefs are pernicious. It's okay, because we're right and they're wrong. What could possibly go wrong with this precedent?
Calm down. A lone gunman shot dead a soldier at the national monument in Ottawa before entering parliament, where he was killed by a sergeant-at-arms. There's a great deal of pride about how well-handled this was by authorities and by the media, mixed with a lot of shock because this sort of thing is so unusual in Canada, and there are worries that the country is taking a turn toward American-style terrorist violence. But this is something we should remember right off the bat: this sort of thing is so unusual in Canada. Its rarity should be taken note of and appreciated. This morning two students were killed in a high school shooting in Seattle, and it hardly registered on the news, saying something awful about how common such events are in the states.
I remember waltzing into parliament on a freezing December night in 2000 right before the elections to look around, with virtually no questions. That's going to end. We like to say how Canadians are so nice that we don't need security, but this is naive. We're a middle-power democracy; we don't need a fortress state, but it looks a little kiddy to me that we don't think our national parliament needs armed guards at its entrance. This will change regardless of sentimentality otherwise.
I find people's responses more interesting. There are cranks like Russell Brand who assert that this proves that Canada shouldn't be getting involved with ISIS, arguing that the attacks are being used as an agenda "that will not only entitle them to further wars abroad, but will entitle them to inhibit our freedoms." (Ah, this mysterious, wonderful them that can be blamed for everything.) Brand takes issue with Stephen Harper's statements, saying "It's an attack on all of us. Is it? Is it, really? Are those institutions protecting all of us?" Well, uh, yes, Russell: as a matter of fact, parliament and the armed forces do have a certain role in protecting all of us in Canada, seeing as that is their explicit function.
At the other end of the spectrum, and I really do risk giving offence, Facebook today is stuffed with "Support the Troops" and yay-for-Canada graphics and posts. I guess that's fine, considering what's happened, and maybe it reacts to something I'm only dimly aware of; until I visited a friend in the forces this summer I was unaware that there are actually people in Canada opposed to soldiers. Otherwise I get a little fed up with being nattered and guilted into support the troops! support the troops! on a constant basis. We should respect and appreciate their sacrifice, but their role is to protect and not command submission: if I can't go to the bathroom without genuflecting before the damn troops, the freedom they fight for doesn't really exist. If this sounds far-fetched, it does feel sometimes like the U.S. has crossed that line where "support the troops" means they have more legitimacy to govern than elected officials. Though, oddly, our governments often don't treat actual soldiers and veterans well. (This isn't a healthy trend: "Let's mock and cheat the barbarian soldiers hired to guard the Roman provinces! What could possibly go wrong with making Germans angry?")
What this all means to me is three points: 1) Canada's doing fine; 2) we can honor soldiers without fetishizing them; and 3) sometimes a break from Facebook is in order.
Why I'm a Centrist
According to the quiz at Political Compass I am slightly left-wing and a little bit libertarian, and close to French president Francois Hollande's politics. But I wouldn't exactly call myself a socialist. By Canadian standards I'm Conservative (and would die before voting for a Tr*deau, so much that I refuse to print the name). But in the U.S. it was amusing for me to be this sexy leftist Che Guevara radical in the eyes of fellow classmates. I'm not exactly sure what my politics are on a philosophical basis, partly because this left / right continuum seems so limited and partly because both wings seem to have deal-breakers for me. Why can't I be left or right by North American standards?
Why I Can't Join the Right-Wingers
Why I Can't Join the Left-Wingers
Well, now I've vented. Facebook wears me out after a while. But I still feel like a political party of one.
Off the Grid
I don't usually post about family and friends online, but my friends Paul and Susan Horsman in Canada (I went to high school with, and recorded with Paul) were recently featured in the Edmonton Journal for their net-zero home. As an architect Paul designed and built a house with super-thick insulation, heat pumps, LED bulbs, and roofs full of solar panels. This enables him to generate power and heat by day and switch to buying power by night when the sun is down. Unless he plans to collect rain, pretty much all he has from the city grid is water. I'm pleased with what he's done, because Edmonton's not the most tropical place and it shuts up any naysayer who might object that solar doesn't work in cold-weather climates. The upfront costs of about $37,000 to fit a house with all of this gear eventually amortizes itself to the point where energy is essentially free, excepting maintenance; thus it appeals to the eco-greenie type, the tinfoil-hat survivalist, as well as the generic cheapskate.
As usual, the Americans are pulling in both directions, both sponsoring some solar works in hotter climes and allowing corporate energy interests to lobby civic governments to tax or frustrate home-energy projects. Florida just mandated being connected to an electrical utility. You can't make this stuff up: they made consumption compulsory. Churchill once noted that the U.S. will always do the right thing, after exhausting all other options. Paul just changed the world a little. I'm jealous.
Kids These Days
One of my favorite websites lately is Quora.com, which allows you to answer questions on any subject you feel qualified to. Because it's fairly heavily moderated and only allows one answer per person, the snark index is pretty low and people are usually polite. I enjoy sharing my infinite knowledge, and like reading about what other people say. Usually I get a few "upvotes" for a response, but I curiously had about 4,500 votes for my answer (posted below) to the question: What are valuable skills that many young people are losing? My answer repeats much of my post on Smartphonia.
There were many supportive comments; a few hostile ones along the lines of you-think-you're-so-smart-professor; a few concerned about my relationship with my father!; a few pointing out that if you tap a 2x4 stud the pitch should be higher. Two recurring comments were interesting to me. One is that there is no such thing as "natural intelligence" in the sense of a pre-born special ability to interact with physical surroundings. That's true. I used the term poetically, but I didn't mean to imply that people can't learn to be interested in nature. Indeed, the point is that they can and don't choose to.
The second, and maybe deeper question, is whether this is necessarily a bad thing. A few turned this into a sort of generational war, arguing that people in the past valued recognizing animals and knowing physical skills because they had an impact on survival, and now they don't; young people know how to code and type and think differently because in our environment this determines economic and personal success more than knowing how to gut a fish. Maybe. I only share my opinion, that sometimes the car breaks down or the electricity goes off, and someone who grows up with a level of physical and tactile experience with problem solving is in a better position than the person who has only done these things via a screen. And though I realize it's ironic for me to write online about this, to me seeing college students in Korea walk down the streets buried in a tiny screen and not hearing birds sing or seeing flowers bloom is a shameful waste of life.
The First Day
I went to a new church in Seoul for the first time this Sunday, as I've recently moved and am looking for a new congregation. Seoul is a ways away from Songdo, but my denomination is small and I prefer a more traditional service to praise-and-worship. I realized that I've done this a whole lot of times over the last ten years as I've moved repeatedly. Perhaps this discussion reinvents the wheel; it would be interesting if there is a literature in church practice on how to deal with newcomers. The ushers were polite, and the pastor was pleasant, but no one else spoke to me at all. However, I've seen the other side of the spectrum where the welcome was so overbearing and high-pressure that it scared me off. Once in Daegu my wife and I literally were rushing down the street away from a few members who were following and frantically trying to get telephone numbers out of us and commitments to stay for coffee, stay for Bible study, would it be alright if we just moved into your apartment tonight? Yes? Okay? How about now?
So what do I want, anyway? And how can churches know what to do when everyone is different? I don't know. I just know that the congregations I've stayed at were good at giving me a friendly greeting and a little chat but respecting my space until I'd come back a few times. It's an art. But for heaven's sakes, don't force new people to stand and introduce themselves when they're shy. It serves your needs and not theirs.
KOTESOL (Korean Teachers of English as a Second or Other Language) is an organization supporting language instructors of English in Korea, and they have regular conferences and a small journal. I attended their main annual conference at the COEX convention center in Seoul this weekend after not attending since 2009. I realize I'm not a member and that I don't technically do language instruction anymore, but everyone has their own blog thoughts and I suppose mine might be helpful too for the 3-4 people who read them.
Pluses of this year's conference
1. Better organization. The 2009 conference I went to at Sookmyung felt half-assed, with room and schedule changes, a botched lunch-order program, and a general feeling of no one knowing what was going on. In 2014 within ten minutes I could tell there was an atmosphere of professionalism. People directing you to the right area with signs, a quick sign-in process, video and amplification that just worked. It felt more world-class.
2. Good presenters. I like the thinky stuff, so I enjoyed hearing Michael Long and Ahmar Mahboob talk about teaching and language theory. I'm less a fan of the lower-level "practical" sessions, which often feel juvenile to me. I don't want to learn a cool new "classroom tip" using tape and scissors. Not everyone on the KOTESOL Facebook thread agrees, and that's fine. There was variety.
Minuses of this year's conference
1. No coffee. There was a small church-urn of coffee available (appreciated), but there was always a lineup, and after commuting from Songdo at 7:30 AM I could have drunk it myself. Really, COEX? A giant multi-story glass and steel conference behemoth and you have to leave and walk down the street for coffee or go into the basement mall because there are no cafés or shops? Like Beijing Airport: There was no there there.
2. Too much meta-dialogue in sessions. This is a pet peeve I often have at conferences, but at KOTESOL it often seems worse: I walked out of a session because for a 50-minute talk the first 15 minutes were about the presenter and presentation that was to follow. Introductions, remarks, and video clips about how important the topic is, thanks given to endless colleagues no one knows; for God's sake, stop stroking yourself and your department and deliver the damn material!
3. Sponsored sessions. It's fine when publishers hawk their books at tables. But there were a lot of sessions which were simply commercials by Oxford, Cengage, et al. for textbooks or TESOL programs; I counted three given by MacMillan by the same guy. The one I went to made me really angry, because 1) it was given by a salesman and not an academic, and the "content" was childish—some warm-up patter with the same tired clichés about "change is important" and "students need communicative English for global success" (thanks for that), followed by having the attendees role-play a book-chapter conversation. Does Jane Goodall do role-plays? When she reads papers at the Royal Society does she have her audience scratch each others' bums and exchange bananas? Who actually believes that having adult teachers imitate children speaking a foreign language has value as professional development? 2) it greatly pisses me off when this hooey is accepted for multiple sessions after having had presentation applications rejected; and 3) KOTESOL isn't cheap, and it's both undignified and poor value to have infomercials at what ought to be a serious academic conference.
But again, despite my grouching, overall I'm glad KOTESOL exists and thankful for what their volunteers do. Language teachers do need more professional visibility in Korea than Dave's ESL and crappy Korea Times columns.
|Central Park, Looking West||Canal City Mall||Tri-Bowl|
|From 32nd Floor of G-Tower||From Michuhol Park||Convensia, from Central Park|
Songdo is basically a bespoke city, much like Dubai; it was built from scratch on partly reclaimed land on the southern tip of Incheon, which is on the Korean coast southeast of Seoul. Pretty much any review you see on the web of Songdo should be read with its date in mind, as the city was only started around 2009. While it's essentially "finished," nothing in Korea is ever finished being built, and there is still ongoing construction. It's not a large area, and with some determination you could walk across it in an hour or so. There's little traditional Korean architecture here, and mercifully almost no "modern" architecture (i.e. soulless grey concrete). The buildings are very interesting with their swoops and glass angles, and there's lots of shiny bling everywhere like garbage collection in vacuum tubes and underground parking lots with open sky sections. I appreciate that there's also lots of park space and lakes and fountains, and it's a bicycle-friendly place, something Korea needs.
I've been living here since July. This isn't a place to be if you're 24, as you're going to be bored and isolated, but if you are a little older or have a family Songdo is very pleasant. As people gradually trickle in and fill up the place it's feeling less artificial and sterile, though with its futuristic look it can still have an alienating Blade Runner-ish vibe, especially at night. In many ways Korea did get this right: streets are American-style wide; there's an enjoyable outdoor mall with canals and actually quite decent international restaurants (still no Mexican, but there's Thai); there's more English spoken in the shops than elsewhere; there's an honest attempt to give people more to do on their days off than drink. The cost of living is actually lower than it was in Daegu, partly because not so many people want to live here yet but also because it's closer to Incheon where things are shipped in.
There are things which nettle. You can build a futuristic city but not futuristic Koreans, and so drivers still might, or might not, stop for pedestrians or stoplights, and I've already seen the parks littered with chicken boxes and soju bottles. When everyone's a newcomer the city has a bit of the cold transient feeling that Vegas had for me. Some of the superduper tech-industry buildings are a little empty and feel more feathers than chicken. If you believe more than 20% of the ridiculously hyperbolic press Songdo is given by the press and promoters you'll be disappointed—if a Korean garbage dump had a website or promotional ad it would still have every possible buzzword in it: "Korea's Award-Winning Super-Posi-Glocal Innovation Strategy Bio-Information Advanced Green Techno-Garbacenter is taking its place as a leading world powerhouse among the garbage dumps of Paris and New York!" For a city endlessly praising itself for being green Songdo's public transportation is awful. Driving to Seoul takes about 30-40 minutes, but double that on a bus or subway with transfers at Bupyeong/Gyeyang. There's no KTX link. A bullet train may happen—eventually. But like I say, I appreciate the effort. And I have to say the subway stations are the cleanest I've seen in my life, nicer than some hotel lobbies.
Phoning It In
Yes, I know his job's hard. Hard, hard, so hard. Yes, I know it's not as easy as it looks, with so many armchair experts second-guessing him, and a do-nothing congress bent on defying anything he tries to pass. But after a while, this sounds like a lot of excuse-making. Obama recently mused about social media that "the world has always been messy" and social media merely allows us to see that. Well!... the world is messy... too bad you're not in a position to do something about that.
It essentially feels like the USA has elected a slacker president, who says "Aw, mom" whenever asked to show leadership. A few days ago, as a terrifying offshoot organization of Al-Qaeda (Islamic State) continues to spread across the Middle East, massacring minorities and seizing arms, Obama admitted that “We don’t have a strategy yet.” The leader of the globe's largest armed forces stated bluntly that he just hasn't gotten round to coming up with any ideas on how to stop the implosion of a continental area tied to the western world order. The man is great at beautiful speeches promising that we'll stand up for freedom in Iraq, or Ukraine, or Syria, or wherever, and then doing nothing except invoking the idea that tyrants are on the wrong side of history. This somehow is meant to be adequate, for people like Putin will be punished by history... in the next century or so. Except, as Jonah Goldberg points out, "being on the right side of history in the long run counts for little when in the here-and-now, the guy on the wrong side of history has his boot on your neck."
The normal caveats, yes, it's not so easy, etc., yes he is doing airstrikes on IS, yes he passed hard-hitting sanctions on Russia prohibiting imports of chunky peanut butter and vibraphones. But, dammit man, stop telling your enemies what you won't do in advance. In working with the Republicans on health care in 2011, he constantly stated he was open to compromise and was then shocked—shocked!—when compromises were demanded. Now, when dealing with the Russians invading Ukraine, he rules out sending troops; just as he ruled out sending troops to Syria, and is presently ruling out sending troops to Iraq. If you want to depress yourself, Google "Obama rules out." How can anyone be afraid of a world leader who not only has no bite behind his words, but places restrictions on himself before negotiating? When he was first running, Obama seemed to style himself after Reagan. Lately his well-wishing impotence reminds me more of Carter. I'm just waiting for him to be scared by a rabbit while golfing near a lake.
Pope in Korea
The New York Times is generally a respectable paper which I like. But claiming that Papal Visit That Thrills Catholics Is Unsettling to Protestants in South Korea is representative of largescale religious tensions in Korea is twaddle. A few hundred bigots demonstrating next to Pope Francis's assembly and calling him a communist is not a protest. This is a protest: 100,000 people angry about American beef in 2008. Koreans have a rich tradition of mass public dissent, much of it because of the Japanese occupation.
Just as the Westboro Baptists don't by any stretch represent mainstream religious opinion in America, these claimed "tensions" greatly overstate what is generally a pretty live-and-let-live coexistence in Korea between branches of Christianity but also with Buddhists. Despite the rather in-your-face megaphone evangelism I see here sometimes, I see zero evidence of general animosity between Catholics and Protestants (though the country does have problems with pseudo-Christian cults). Korea is not nineteenth-century Ireland, and the author of the article should know better.
Today I posted a link on Facebook to an blog essay about Robin Williams by Matt Walsh. Even on Facebook, where the readers are at least nominally friends, I had to delete the link because of the harsh feelings. Holy hell. Americans claim they don't worship any royal family, but heaven forfend a popular and likeable celebrity is criticized. It makes me long for centuries when actors were considered no better than prostitutes. But the issue has been bothering me, and so I post it here, where I can be sure that almost no one will read it. If they do, I have no comment section. I don't want to sift through obscenities and offers for cash and women anymore. Call me a snob.
I was never a huge fan of Robin Williams, and I found his 'sad clown' trope whiffing of boomer narcissism. No one makes you be a famous millionaire comic if it saddens you (I feel the same about Bob Seger's Turn the Page; if you hate being on the road so bleeding much, stop being a rock star). Nevertheless, I liked Williams as Mork and as a Dead Poet teacher, and by all accounts he was a nice guy. His passing is regrettable and I have pity on his battles with depression. But I have the feeling that people are getting carried away by their affection for the man, for there are now all sorts of excuses and contorted validations for his suicide, and suddenly everyone's a guru preaching on mental health issues. We read that there's nothing selfish about suicide; that depression can become a form of madness which places control out of one's hands; that Williams didn't kill himself, his illness did it to him. There's even the idea that his suicide was an empowering liberation, with the Aladdin cartoon of him reading, "Genie, you're free." Anyone who disagrees is a cruel know-it-all / hates Robin Williams / knows nothing about how hard the burden of mental illness is, etc.
I have trouble buying all this. Yes, there may be people who are, to use the clinical psychological term, totally crackers, who end themselves in a fit and thus do not exercise any meaningful choice. But in his last appearances Williams did not suggest George III-sized incapacity. As Walsh notes, "suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision." If suicide were conventionally something the individual had no ability to choose, we'd need a new word to denote voluntarily killing yourself. And if we were to ease into the idea that mental-illness level depression excused one's actions and removed free will, how would we react if Williams (very hypothetically) had been moved to take others with him?
Fair enough, maybe my logic isn't sound here. We all think only our own arguments make sense. I don't mean to meddle in Williams' personal matters, and I have no trained background in such issues, so I'll stop; maybe it just seems too cold. But I'm annoyed by the vitriol spewed at Walsh for raising some honest questions: we needn't be experts on mental illness to have opinions on its ethics. If we deserve no blame for succumbing to depression, because it's all chemicals, how can we deserve credit if we overcome death by taking whatever steps necessary? I have little insight into how hard those steps must be. But I'm not going to encourage a mindset which tells those struggling with personal problems that in cutting down the loved ones they abandon they have neither choice over nor responsibility for what they do. I don't think people consciously wish ill, but in lavishing sympathy and attention on Williams this way I'm uneasy with the precedent that's being set.
Short Takes: Real Men Don't...
There have been numerous public service campaigns with the "Real Men Don't" meme lately: RM don't buy girls / hit women / rape. I certainly don't criticize such movements if they substantially raise awareness of or reduce abuse of women. But allow me my petty quibble that I wish organizers could produce a better phrase, because it always seems patronizing to me. Real Men Don't Buy Girls or Rape? Is this how low the bar is set for us to be "real men," that we deserve praise for not sexually attacking women or molesting young girls in developing nations? How about Real Men Don't Mass Murder or Burn Down Orphanages? Again, I guess I have to sadly accept that there must be subcultures and places where human garbage actually need to be informed these things are wrong, but I don't find much to celebrate that merely not being a sexual criminal is presented as a moral standard to aspire to.
In Praise of Computer Science Majors
This may seem a rather random post, but I had a conversation with a friend recently about giants in computer tech. In comparison to Bill Gates, who has been a huge humanitiarian benefactor, I've always had a grudge against Steve Jobs for being a terrible person, and Mark Zuckerberg is also depicted as callous and selfish in The Social Network. But what these people have in common is that they are perceived as the ambitious, brash, alpha-male type leaders that American culture loves to glorify. I'm not criticizing this personality type, but my experience is that Computer Science majors generally aren't the anti-social cowboy type at all.
An odd personal confession: Many of the English majors I studied with in college weren't very likeable or sociable people. Some graduate students were arrogant hipsters, convinced that Bob Dylan is great because the ignorant masses think he sounds like a drunken cat, or toiling away in secret on some obscure poet or concept that you probably wouldn't understand. The creative writing students were a mixed lot, some very nice, and some edgier-and-more-self-destructive-than-thou, convinced they were destined to live in Vegas to write the next Fear and Loathing and wear Hawaiian shirts ironically.
Ken's Rant: Smartphonia
I'm always a little embarrassed when my father can look and see bluejays and robins and firs and birches and rain coming, and I see birds, trees, and clouds. Nevertheless, I'm Daniel Boone compared to most of my students, and I wonder if western students now are just as bad. Basically, many young Koreans now will have very few visual memories of their youth which weren't from a 4-5 inch screen, because their eyes are glued in my class, at home, while eating, while walking, and even sometimes while biking or driving, to their cellphones. Stop playing with your god-damned smartphone for ten minutes and look around you; think about stuff. A world of sights, scenery, animals, and people is going ignored while you play a video game with cats, or send emoticons to your friends, punctuated with the blast of an annoying sound effect everytime a message is sent. Sitting in a cafe nowadays is an incessant background chorus of dings, whistles, and 'Ka-kao' chirps.
Nothing is wrong with smartphones per se. But their constant use can be rude and noisy to others, ruins your eyes, and is dangerous if you're walking across an intersection while texting. But most importantly, not even being able to see your surroundings anymore, or to carry a spoken conversation, is a pathetic waste of life.
(Reuters) Russo-Soviet forces continued yesterday to bombard Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands with rockets and incendiary missiles, and intelligence shows that up to 80,000 troops are massing on the English channel and the borders of France. British Prime Minister Bean lamented that the Russians have "totally ignored their promises" to respect the UN-cobbled agreement to go no further west than Austria. U.S. President Barack Obama maintained that "We stand firmly behind our European allies and tell the Russians firmly that their attack on freedom will not be tolerated." The president added that the Russians invading England was "a line in the sand which would bring immediate and serious consequences." The White House indicated that Mr. Obama was already planning additional and more biting sanctions on Russia, including recommending the prohibition of sales of pasta, soap, and window cleaner to the country, except for humanitarian purposes. Sources say that the president is also considering taking action by writing a book, which is to be tentatively titled "Profiles in Courage under Crisis."
More seriously: a new article in the Economist: What Would America Fight For?
Subway Crash in Seoul
It hasn't been a great month for public safety in Korea. Yesterday two subway trains collided on line 2 in Seoul, causing about 200 injuries. Apparently authorities are complaining that some injuries were caused by passengers refusing to stay on the train, instead exiting and walking along the rails to the next station. I can hardly blame passengers for being contemptuous of PA directions to stay put right now.
The Sewol Ferry Disaster
The actual disaster has been well-covered by international media, more than I expected; ferries are one of the more dangerous ways to travel, and sinkings happen all too frequently in Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines when boats are overloaded. But the Sewol was only about half-full of people, and it was full of grade eleven students on a spring-break trip to Jeju Island, which makes the loss even sadder. The high school is about a kilometer from my workplace in Ansan, and the whole city has been a little somber in the last week with street memorials full of fluttering paper scraps with pleas and prayers on them. One of my coworkers had a son on the Sewol one week earlier.
The actual causes are also newsworthy, largely because of the appallingly bad judgments and acts of cowardice involved. A shipping company that ignored safety procedures, overbuilt passenger cabins, underreported its container load, failed to train crew or maintain rescue boats, had malfunctioning steering and PA equipment, failed to secure cargo, and evidently even skimped on water ballast to cut fuel costs, all resulted in a ferry with a dangerously high center of gravity which toppled when steered too sharply through rough waters. Worse, the captain was not present and left the wheel to an inexperienced young third mate while he rested and smoked, failed to notify the coast guard when the ship first began to list, instructed passengers to stay in their cabins despite coast guard directions, scurried off the ship as it sank and lied to rescuers that he was just a passenger, was first seen drying his money on land, made a sad face at his arrest, and then backpedalled to a guarded sort-of apology after presumably talking to a lawyer. Many of the crew abandoned the boat with him. Were Dante alive, he might depict a new level of hell to damn this human garbage for his incompetence, duplicity, and absolute selfishness.
I generally like the Park government for finally growing a pair against North Korea, and she showed leadership in meeting angry families, but President Park made it a part of her election platform to strengthen safety enforcement and rescue agencies in Korea, and little happened. The claims from bereaved families that authorities were disorganized and slow to organize passenger rescues are understandable when people are stressed, but there's some truth to the fact that a similar sinking in Japan in 2009 resulted in no deaths due to a quickly coordinated response which was lacking with the Sewol. There were Japanese offers to help in the rescue, apparently because the Sewol was a Japan-built ship and the divers would have some familiarity with it. The rumor that the aid was declined because Koreans would rather die (literally) than have Japanese help is hopefully untrue. But it would not shock me.
Admittedly, when I first heard about the sinking I was less concerned, thinking good grief, it's not 1912, it's not midnight, and the waters there are cold but not Titanic-cold; surely people can jump into the water with lifejackets. Apparently not. Why did hundreds of people obey a stupid order to stay in the lower decks on a sinking ship? Did they learn nothing from Jack and Rose? Some international media and local bloggers attribute this to the Confucian Asian impulse to obey. I hate the way people trot out Confucianism as some sort of elite secret decoder ring that explains everything in Korea, as though all a Texan does can be understood by consulting Socrates. Yes, some of the teens lacked critical thought (in my spitier moments, I think, another reason to put away your God damned cellphones and look at things); apparently two classes, one of high-achievers and one of discipline-problem students, survived by challenging orders. But listen, armchair experts: you're sixteen and a 69-year old captain who does this every day has issued instructions; and when the ship is sideways, water is pouring in, and the lights are going out, it's not so easy to take decisive action for anyone. We all think we'd be Bruce Willis in such an emergency, and we wouldn't, and that's scary to think about.
Korea has developed a great deal since its postwar rubble, something you will hear about 8,342 times when you tour here, and as an expatriate I can get sick of the yay-for-us press which can't report on onions without invoking the Korean wave. The cost of rapid progress and the country's bali-bali 'hurry-up' culture is that safety standards are sidelined. Once I took pictures of a building under construction and was shooed away by the foreman, afraid that I was documenting building codes being ignored; at my old university, Keimyung, side doors are routinely chained closed. Nothing can replace 302 lost lives. But I'm pleased that some of the local press is more mature than I thought. There is some soul-searching, if only out of national mortification that a country with a futuristic airport and high-speed rail system has rustbucket boats, on how Korea needs to transition from a mindset of hell-bent development to a concern for safety and living quality. I have some sympathy for Korea on this. It wasn't so long ago in the west that safety laws were (are) seen as nettlesome bureaucracy, and I remember when many of us were too macho to wear seat belts; 302 is also about how many Americans die daily from smoking. It's been a sad week here and I'll leave it at that.
Say It's Your Birthday
I spent the day after my birthday at Eulwangri Beach, next to the airport in Incheon. I grow old... I grow old... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Applying to the Air
I have to be careful not to burn bridges. Who knows what will be dug up years from now? I suspect that because academia involves a good number of fields with small numbers of people in them, even professors with secure positions are careful about criticizing the system. Well, I'm going to criticize the system. The typical process for hiring faculty at western universities isn't, well, a problem the size of global hunger, but it's inefficient and unfair.
I have a good job in Korea that I'm pleased with, but I spent years applying in North America and Europe. The standard method for applying for a faculty position in English is to find an opening, put together a bundle of forms including a cover letter, CV, statement, references, transcripts, sample publications, letter from pope/ mother/ president /etc. and e-mail it all, or send it on paper to those unis still in the Victorian era. Should you be among the fortunate elect chosen for an interview, your travel expenses may be subsidized, or maybe not; you might need to fly to the MLA sessions on your own dime, and if you protest, well, someone else won't be such a diva. At the end, the committee may be dealing honestly and you have a shot at employment; if not, they hire the inside candidate they intended to anyway after being required to go through the motions.
It makes sense that you want to make application a slight nuisance to discourage frivolous applications. But the present system is a waste of everyone's time, as applicants need to amass all this paperwork, professors have to write references, and committees need to shovel through the mess, for jobs that may or may not really be open in good faith. It is also highly assymetrical in terms of power. The applicant must obey all directives and click all the boxes, has to bug former supervisors for references hoping not to exhaust their goodwill, and sometimes has to pay for transcripts or whatever else administrators dream up. In return, the university owes nothing, and after all of these energies you may receive little or no response.
I'm always amazed how businesses and institutions can be so stupidly inconsiderate to job/school applicants. I still don't shop at stores that treated me badly in the 80's. Students ask me for advice on which university they should attend for graduate or summer work. In advising them, I remember the places which were gracious to me and those which didn't think me worth a form e-mail saying we got your application and we acknowledge you exist.
Okay, what could I possibly know about this? Well, it's not my business whether Scotland separates from England or not. It just caught my attention that some of the independence leaders in government are claiming that Scotland can still keep the English pound to assauge voter fears. The politicians are asserting that they can simply make England a deal they can't refuse: let us use your pound or we'll renounce our share of the UK debt.
I'm puzzled that the BBC didn't unpack or question this threat, as it's the same one Quebecois activists make in Canada. It's also a really stupid threat and an empty bluff. Much of a country's national debt is owed to its own citizens, in the form of savings bonds, pensions, building loans, support for post offices, army bases, and so on. If Scotland walks away from the English debt, it would hurt itself as much as it would England. But again, it's their funeral, as they say.
I'm not going to give a link to this piece of trash on Salon, not because I want to frustrate my reader(s), but because to me one of the sadder things about the everything-for-free mentality of the internet is that there's a lot of really terrible journalism out there, and really, Salon should know better than to turn into Alternet. The writer here can hardly suppress his glee at reporting on Bill Maher's hateful 'comedic' rants against religious believers, and consistently refuses to use a capital G in referring to God, as though it's some edgy act of defiance.
It isn't. It's an irritating (and ungrammatical) act of disrespect to Christian and Jewish readers, and it shows a sort of teenage frat-boy snark that belongs elsewhere, not on a supposedly respectible blog news site which claims to have editors. You don't make yourself look like an adult with little typographical snips like this.
I don't think the media in America have a liberal bias. I think the liberal media have a liberal bias, and the conservative media have a conservative bias. While I'm not a conservative per se, I do think it's true that more progressive outlets such as Huff/Slate/Salon et al. get away with abuse toward Christians that would get them ostracized or shut down if it were other identity groups. There's this little trick where they always attack "those right-wing fundamentalist Christians," and if pressed, use the weasel explanation that they don't mean all Christians and so it isn't hate speech. Except the difference is never explained, and there are never stories about liberal or intellectual religious movements. Alternet would just smirk that there aren't any, but at least they put their cards on the table.
Ukraine: Words, Words
I made fun of Barack Obama's incessant reflex to 'compromise' on everything two years ago, and he's back at it against an enemy much bigger than Congress. The Crimean peninsula in Ukraine has been invaded, seized, and annexed by Russia after a bogus election. Russian troops are settled in southern Ukraine with the possibility of 'liberating' other parts of a country torn by a popular uprising, and the Soviet empire redux seems ready to swallow increasing parts of eastern Europe. Obama's response is, as ever, rhetoric and wimpy action: minor sanctions, freezing of bank accounts and travel privileges for some Russian officials. What bold, manly leadership! What's next? A strongly-worded protest to Aeroflot asking that their air miles be voided? Asking Congress for permission to cancel Putin's Christmas card? If only we had you in 1939 to stand up to Hitler.
Yes, I know that Canada / Europe hasn't done much better, but they don't have the world's largest army headed by a spineless speech-maker. I generally like Obama and support many of his policies (healthcare, Cuba detente), but for God's sakes, man, when are you going to move beyond stirring words and actually fight for something? When a Canadian has to tell you to be less nice, what does this mean? Reagan and JFK had their faults, but they would have been moving troops by now, or at least pushing Turkey to close off the Bosporus to Russian trade, as one friend of mine has suggested. Stalin was once told that his actions against Catholics would inflame the Vatican, and he scoffed, "How many divisions does the pope have?" This is the language Putin seems to speak as well, and a few sanctions just make the U.S. look laughable.
I have accepted a position at Hanyang University in Seoul (at their Ansan campus) to be an English literature professor. More to follow.
Better Dead than TED
Benjamin Bratten at the Guardian has a column criticizing the TED series of talks, claiming it is becoming a sort of junk-food pablum which oversimplifies complex problems into "a cheap spiritual buzz":
|I was at a presentation that a friend, an astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling ... After the talk the sponsor said to him, "you know what, I'm gonna pass because I just don't feel inspired ...you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell." ... [D]oes TED epitomize a situation where if a scientist's work (or an artist's or philosopher's or activist's or whoever) is told that their work is not worthy of support, [it's] because the public doesn't feel good listening to them?|
That's perhaps a bit harsh. There are still many excellent TED lectures which discuss serious and complex technological or social problems, and there is a difference between explaining information clearly and oversimplifying it. And there's a danger that TED could eventually face an anti-intellectual backlash as being a bunch of rich white guys praising each others' insights.
Nevertheless, if such criticism serves as a helpful warning to TED then I'm for it. While I like Thomas Friedman, he's prone to to these self-important epiphanies: "When I was in [exotic city in India] and about to meet [important person], the taxi driver said he had a flat tire. And that's when I realized it! The world is flat!" Perhaps it's inevitable that the intertia of TED (and maybe some old-school greed) leads it to expand from its core of science and humanities. TED occasionally has religious speakers, but I am annoyed that it generally avoids theological topics yet increasingly embraces a touchy-feely new age "empowerment" ethos. Bratten quotes a speaker who says, "If you remove this boundary ... the only boundary left is our imagination," calling such feel-good inanity an empty placebo which distracts us from the truth that solving real-world problems is messy and difficult. Moreover, this style focuses too much on the "personal journey" of the speaker and "inspiring" the audience rather than on the issues. Aristotle would have parsed this immediately: a speech composed only of facts and logic (logos) can feel cold, but one which only emphasizes the speaker (ethos) and tugging at heartstrings (pathos) is childish and manipulative. Hopefully TED can find a balance.
You know what? When it comes to career decisions, "Follow your dreams!" is actually pretty stupid advice. Maybe it's time for somebody to finally put a nail in this king-sized feel-good cliché. "Follow your dreams" is the beautiful platitude people always give others but don't follow themselves, because they prefer to have, for example, warm clothes and food. "Money isn't everything," but to a certain point it's something, and before choosing a high-risk creative career you should realize that it may mean foregoing a house, family, or retirement. I'm not saying you must have a soul-destroying office job, but to understand that every career decision involves costs and tradeoffs. I will not tell you to follow your dreams and be a professor because you love teaching and great thoughts; I was lucky, but you will probably never get a full-time position. If you're fine with that, go ahead; so long as you proceed with eyes open and not on motivational-thinking pablum.
The second most irresponsible piece of career advice is to "Never compromise." To me, a risk assessment and reasonable compromises are signs of mature thinking. Someone who lives on handouts while waiting for their band's big break isn't somehow purer to his or her artistic vision than someone who has a reliable job and plays in a band on the weekends. So what is the career advice from old and wizened Ken? I guess it's just to say that if worse comes to worse, you have 16 hours a day and 48 extra hours a week to write your screenplay and to do the things that won't make money but you love. In their day jobs, Chaucer was a customs clerk and Shakespeare was a businessman and landlord. They made out all right.
Duck, Duck, Goose
I haven't even seen the reality A&E TV show Duck Dynasty, but there's a huge brouhaha (i.e. people laughing while drinking beer) over its lead, Phil Robertson, who has made critical remarks in GQ about homosexuals, condemning them as sinners. The sky falling and threats of boycotts and anti-boycotts ensues. Naturally, the right-wingers in the culture war in the U.S. (who would happily suppress gays from speaking out) are outraged that liberals don't like freedom of speech when it's not the correct opinion; the left-wingers (who would happily support forcing businesses to support social goals) are suddenly staunch laissez-faire supporters of A&E for canning Robertson.
In fairness, Robertson also makes some nasty racial comments. But I'll commit my usual logic error of writing about an issue that I don't think is worth writing about: Why is it important what a television actor thinks? Is Robertson running for president? Did we care in the 70's what Don Knotts' politics were? I'm more bothered by this growing mania in the states that only one right opinion is allowed and it needs to be fought over. If you don't like what he says, as George Carlin would say, there's a highly useful feature on your television called an 'off' button. Postscript: an insider source claims, "It's an absolute disaster for A&E." Sure it is. The whole thing may have been cooked up as noise marketing to juice the show's ratings.
Because if nothing else, this blogette hits the hard issues of today (and because I've probably bored four of my regular six readers of this site with my dreary post on ESL); thus I'm going to talk about the movie Love, Actually (2003) and the recent "controversy" over whether it deserves to be a Christmas classic or whether it's "the least romantic film of all time," according to Christopher Orr at Slate. Orr's case is that, partly because the film is so compressed in trying to cover some nine subplots, the characters experience a pretty shallow form of love where they merely meet each other and then go through elaborate and humorous twists in order to consummate their love without ever really getting to know each other:
|I think [Love, Actually] offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you”—preferably with some grand gesture—and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome. (Slate)|
Orr also notes that what could have been the most interesting depiction of people navigating the challenges of real, actual love, the subplot of the bored husband (Alan Rickman) and wife (Emma Thompson) whose marriage is broken when Rickman buys a necklace for his horny secretary (hinting, but never actually stating that the two have had an affair), gets nothing more than a brief scene at an airport where it's also not clear whether the two are reconciling or not.
Perhaps. But medieval romance and much modern romance is built on the "love at first sight" motif, and it wouldn't be out of place in Troilus & Criseyde or Twelfth Night. It's, to say the least, a fictional conceit with a long tradition. Emma Green at Atlantic tries to build a philosophical defense for the film. For me, I tend to agree with the critics in the it's-just-a-movie camp. Brown & Cheney at NPR are a little less serious, asking what it is we want from a film with ridiculous fantasy sequences of a boy running through airport security at Heathrow to see his lady love and not being shot or seized and sent to Tripoli to be waterboarded; or with a British playboy who claims that his accent will drive those little American vixens crazy, and in an admittedly funny twist does. The apex of this (or the dealbreaker for Jen Chaney's husband, who says "I'm outta here"), is Hugh Grant as British prime minister who wants to jump, jump! for our love and does a preposterous dance sequence in his office where he calls Thatcher a "saucy minx."
In short, certainly there are problems with this movie, just as I have problems with Wile E. Coyote; if he has such a huge credit line with Acme, can't he just order in some groceries? And as for the Trix rabbit, is there any actual justification why Trix is only for kids and why the creature must be tortured with unrequited longing? Love, Actually is a piece of Christmas cheese, and to me criticizing it is in some way giving it more seriousness than it deserves. It's a Wonderful Life is another overrated movie with a questionable plot. Isn't labelling films as Christmas classics actually slumming it a little, suggesting that they're just time-fillers for the holidays when it's cold out and you're half-awake, relaxing after turkey, and tired of arguing with your relatives over Obama?
At Last! A Discussion of Second-Language Terminology!
I fully admit this won't interest everyone, but I live and work in Korea, and for many of my colleagues this is a recurring topic: What is our occupation's name? When I first began to teach the English language to non-native speakers in Mexico and Korea, I called myself an ESL teacher: so far as I knew, English as a Second Language was the standard term. Now (surprise, surprise), someone is offended. There are alternative formations (English Language Learning; English for Speakers of Other Languages) based on theories of language acquisition which differentiate, for example, between someone learning English in an immersion environment or in a non-English speaking country. Some acronyms are based on disputes over ethnocentrism or linguistic dominance (ESD, English as a Second Dialect) or simply reflect regional usages (UK / US terms). Some indicate the purposes of the students, such as EAP, English for Academic Purposes, for university students learning English.
This tangle of competing acronyms is insanity. It reminds me of one night in college when friends and I decided to form a band and spent the evening joking and debating over the name of our band over drinks, and never actually touched an instrument. I am glad that someone else has realized this and has sarcastically suggested alternative descriptors for language teaching; my favorite is TENOR, Teaching English for No Obvious Reason.
My own educational background has been in English literature and composition theory, and although much of my teaching experience has been in ESL-ish environments, this is increasingly less so. Basically, in my present position I teach students who are reasonably functional in English and I would say I straddle EAP and being a professor of composition/literature. This is perhaps one of the largest frustrations of my job, in that while learning the English language is very important to Koreans, its practitioners are not particularly well-regarded. The distinction claimed is that they teach only language and not 'content.' I have to constantly insist to administrators and even colleagues that I am primarily not a language teacher, and my classes involve mostly lectures and not nerf-ball word games.
This admission is a little fraught because it makes me sound more professorial-than-thou and because I have friends and colleagues who are serious about the scholarly issues of second-language acquisition (SLA). Thus on one hand I must admit my skepticism: SLA does feel like the education theory papers I read as an undergraduate, which tried a teensy too hard to justify themselves as a discipline with charts and pedantic jargon. When I went to the KOTESOL conference in Seoul in 2009, some of the more practical sessions were useful, but for others it was again a lot of feathers and no chicken: many sessions were either touchy-feely chicken-soup-for-the-teacher's-soul new-age crap, or six-syllable terms trying to give an academic veneer to simple concepts. Students learn better when motivated. Whoda thunk? In the dispute over TEFL/ESL/ELL/ELT/etc. I find myself increasingly asking, why does this matter? On the other hand, I realize it's an emerging field, and I have to concede that people feel the same about English literature and its theories and schools. I think I find myself disenchanted with SLA because I'm just not in that camp. I studied Chaucer, not Krashen. No offense intended.
And, being the great analyzer and cataloguer that Germans are, I propose a new simplified way to visualize English teaching in Korea. If your job is principally concerned with teaching the English language, and the content is less important than the process, you're an EL (English Language) instructor. If the content is becoming the most important issue and you generally take it for granted that the students understand you, you're on your way to being a professor in a subject discipline, whether it's literature/culture, composition/rhetoric, linguistics, or the theory of teaching English (pedagogy).
When I was a boy I didn't know many swear words. How could I? Adults never swore around children in my community, and such words weren't on television or in print. Thus the excitement among my friends when we began swearing in junior high, as though we'd invented these magical terms. That seems innocent now. When I lived in Las Vegas I saw parents swear blue streaks at their children. I had police officers curse at me.
As you get older you decide on some positions which make you less cool. One of mine is that I increasingly dislike swearing in speech or in print. This doesn't mean that I'll reach for my smelling salts everytime someone curses, as I do it myself sometimes, for better or worse. But to me, putting foul language in every sentence is not only rude, it's counterproductive. When you rarely swear, you mean it when you do; constant swearing reduces the impact of the words and makes them clutter.
Lately it's become trendy in journalism to fill one's blog essays with vulgarities to show one's street cred, or to prove that one feels passionate anger and should be taken seriously. Thus the article I read today on "How to P--s Off Your Barista" on HuffPost. By the end of the column, instead of feeling sympathy for baristas, I felt the writer's points had been lost in the shock of her constant vulgarities, which had really just served to antagonize the reader. Worse, this sort of thing only works for a little while, until everyone wants to show that they feel passionate anger and should be taken seriously.
I've heard the excuses that "they're just words" or, more recently, the argument that medieval English speakers swore constantly. I don't buy either one. Words communicate meaning, or else the user would just emit a random combination of sounds. And since when did we let the speech habits of the Elizabethans determine ours? There are people who see swearing as a mark of their frankness and independence. To me it is a mark of limited vocabulary. You have the right to take my God in vain; but when did we forget the principle that having the right to do something doesn't mean you should?
Xpress University of Educafun
A day in the life (April 6, 2043) of Greg the Humanities director at Xpress MOOC University of Educafun. I made this short animated video using GoAnimate. Is this where we're headed?
Rand Paul, the Victimized Plagiarist
In C.S. Lewis's "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" (1942) the devils in hell, while consuming damned souls, wish their bland dinners had more spice in them:
Oh, to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured.
In some respects it's diabolical fun to see Senator Paul Rand, after continuous evidence has come out of him plagiarizing from other writers in his speeches and Washington Times columns, to be so unrepentently hostile about his actions—it's much more interesting than Kim Hye-soo's generic, insincere apology for plagiarism. It's even better than a simple oaf like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. After it was shown that Rand copied-and-pasted text from Wikipedia into a speech, and copied entire paragraphs from another writer's op-ed into his own op-ed on drug sentencing without attributing his sources, what has Rand done in response?
Remember, this is someone who has a M.D. degree. Whose writing copies from Wikipedia. Plagiarism does take into consideration the writer's intentions; there is a spectrum between knowing, deliberate copying — and in the middle, copying through carelessness or negligence — and someone who doesn't know any better. But the onus is on the negligent plagiarist to be sorry about it and to make reparations, and Rand isn't sorry at all. It's also interesting that someone with extreme libertarian ideas of individuality doesn't have much respect for the private ownership of a written work.
The Poppy Wars, Begun they Have
Well, I spoke too soon, for now some Canadians are arguing over Remembrance Day. In Canada and much of the old British Empire it's customary on November 11 to wear a red poppy to observe the soldiers who died in wartime. Who could have a problem with this? When I see posts on Facebook telling stories of people in supermarkets disrespecting the troops followed by a stirring chewing-out I always suspect that the stories are invented urban legends. Are there really people out there who don't approve of war veterans? Some activist students associated with the Rideau Institute, a left-wing advocacy think-tank in Ottawa, are distributing white poppies this year to celebrate "peace" rather than "war." While they aren't explictly condemning the holiday, veterans groups are angered that a symbol of sacrifice and patriotism should be misrepresented for someone else's agenda.
I know I often write that people are offended too easily, but for heaven's sakes, what did these people think would happen when they try to piggyback their pet cause and create division on the one day of the year in which people show simple, uncomplicated respect to those who died for their country? Shame.
Now it's Halloween. Of Course.
Once again, it's America. EVERYTHING must be a fight. Can we name a national or civic celebration or holiday in that country which does not now figure into the culture wars, or which doesn't offend someone? There's a battle line on religious holidays but also Columbus Day and now Halloween. Valentine's Day will get its number called. Be patient. The fun police will target it.
The University of Colorado Boulder has banned offensive costumes on campus for Halloween, such as ethnic stereotype or "oversexualized" outfits. I made someone angry on Facebook today by not automatically agreeing with this as a good liberal ought to—and was served with a racial slur ("because you're a white male")—for not speaking out strongly enough against racism. Sorry. I can agree that there are costumes which are in poor taste which shouldn't be worn. Telling people they can't do something is different. As a medievalist, to me the tradition of the carnaval, where people are permitted to flaunt or invert social rules and party for a set period is a healthy one which allows people to blow off steam. I'm also irritated by this double standard that I must tolerate everything others do, but no one must ever be put out by what I do. Why can't we not whine about First-World problems like people dressing up as a cowboy-western fantasy Native or cheesy "sexy nurse" on October 31, and do think more about how we treat or view people the other 364 days?
Open Access and Paywalls
For many this will be a boring subject, but well, this is what I do: university professors are expected to write articles for academic journals about their disciplines. These small-run journals are expensive to print and often recoup their costs by charging online readers to view the articles, often through an intermediary publisher or index. These articles might run upwards of $30, which can be costly when readers may be consulting dozens. Most university libraries have subscriptions and access is free through their websites, but someone eventually pays; these charges are hidden in tuition fees or other revenues. A growing movement in academia is open-access, whereby journals make their articles available for free. Much of this is in response to beliefs that scholarship should be shared freely, but also due to anger over the fact that giant publishers receive support from author subsidies, but then charge taxpayers for access to the information they've helped pay for. And some make a lot of money doing this.
Robert Kelly, at one of my favorite blogs, argues that it feels highly unethical for publishers to charge so much for article access (there was even an academic community revolt against Elsevier last year), and wonders if the open-access model is fairer and better for making knowledge as widely available as possible. The problem is that someone has to pay for the article to be edited and printed, and with open-access this is usually the author. The result is that open-access journals often have a terrible reputation for accepting absolutely anything paid for while pretending to have high standards. In the past few years there has been an explosion of illicit or dodgy developing-nation journals inviting papers, which later on attempt to coerce fees for publication. There are standards for ranking journals (the most popular are SSCI and A&HCI), and the paid-for journals are generally at rock bottom.
To me the problem with the disreputable journals is not that they are open access, but rather that they have no effective peer review, as their business model is based on payments from authors and not payments from readers. Thus they have a dishonest incentive to accept anything. Perhaps the challenge is finding another way of making it possible for journals to provide open access and meet costs. The internet seems both a blessing and a curse in that it makes dissemination of articles cheap by eliminating paper costs, but also imposes few limits on how many articles can be accepted or how often an “issue” can be created. Why a "Quarterly?" Why not a "Daily" if the fees are coming in?
I maintain that inevitably there will be a means of pseudo-free access to academic articles, paid for somehow, perhaps by universities or by the micropayment system Jaron Lanier talks about. I’m not philosophically opposed to paid articles, I just agree that the pricing schemes are unreasonable. It should be possible in the near future for libraries that wish to have print versions to cheaply run off their own. This would make print distribution nearly unnecessary and ought to greatly lower costs.
All of this also simply dances around the real problem that our academic model presently relies far too heavily on publishing original and rarified scholarship, with much of it superfluous. In my discipline so much has already been done that we have increasingly ridiculous articles about Shakespeare's existence, written by people seeking tenure. I don’t know how academia can bring itself back to a higher value on teaching or more accessible writing (like, *coff,* blogs), especially with so much of the university system in funding crises and challenged by MOOCs and other technologies. I can only hope in my lifetime that an improved model will evolve.
Trinity Western's Law School
Although as a writing professor I do deal in "arguments" a lot, I know I wouldn't be a good lawyer. I don't do confrontation well, and to me the western obsession with binary winning / losing is limiting. I don't say this to seem arrogant, as though my Asian enlightenment makes me broader-thinking than thou, but because I do think Asian concepts of justice, which are more concerned with finding compromises all parties can support in order to make peace, are more, well, just.
Trinity Western is a small and very conservative Christian university near Vancouver, Canada. Recently they've announced plans to open a law school which has been met with a great deal of opposition by legal and gay rights activists, as Trinity bars homosexuality and other "non-Christian" behaviors from its faculty and students. When American friends have asked me how Canada handles gay rights, to me the country reached a pretty workable and practical compromise in 2006, ruling that the government would guarantee that gays are free to marry as they wish and guarantee in good faith that conservative Christians are free to criticize it. Churches worried that they would be sued into extinction by homosexual couples wanting to marry, but so far this has not happened.
While I'm not fond of Trinity's rules, to me attempting to block their plans through legal appeals violates this compromise, particularly when one of the main arguments used to support gay rights was that "it's not your business and doesn't affect you." It also sends a chilling precedent that if today conservative Christians are barred from the legal profession because of their beliefs, tomorrow it may be an increasing list of other careers and certifications. I'll refer to my post on Intelligent Design and conflict resolution again by further saying that for LGBT activists to attack Trinity is maybe good war but terrible conflict resolution. It reduces any opportunity for trust or dialogue by telling Canadian Christians that they were suckers to believe the government on the Civil Marriage Act in the first place.
Friend Zone Phil
I don't usually write about rather personal things here, but I am bothered by the recent trend of memes, jokes, and snark directed at male-female friendships. I've written before that to me there's an unfortunate and perverse contempt for friendship in modern western culture, but I find the nastiness toward men who are "friend-zoned" particularly sad. The message now is that if you are a young man and have a non-sexual friendship with a young woman you are either one or both of the following:
1) A loser. Some random quotations which I don't think deserve links: "A girl loves beta male attention, as long as it’s platonic, on her terms, extractive, and focused on feeding her ego. Naturally, these girl-friends never talk about their sex lives with the beta.... What they often hear instead are requests for help with term papers." The overall picture is of a girly-man who is played for a sucker, used by girls for emotional support, and then ignored when things improve with their boyfriends. This attitude isn't any kinder to women than it is to men, implicitly questioning why a man would bother being friends with a woman if there is no sexual payout for his troubles.
2) A passive-aggressive "nice guy." This dissatisfied false friend is "dishonest," "secretive," "manipulative," and "constantly sees himself as the victim." Nice guys are "too busy trying to figure out how to defend themselves or fix the other person's problem to really just listen." In other words, being nice is at best a character weakness and at worst a lying front, and such men are no better than aggressive, bullying alpha males; they simply have a different toolkit for their manipulative narcissism, and one that's more insidious and contemptible because it's hidden. There are such men.
Along with male friends, I had many female friends in college and some remain so. Yes, with some of them I might have welcomed things going further, but I don't remember those years with anger for feeling used or mistreated. Those women were kind to me and cared about me. In some ways I had privileges boyfriends didn't: they weren't jealous over me and I didn't have to put up with any drama I didn't want to. As for the idea that I was just stealthily trying to shame, spite, or manipulate them through phony solicitude, what can I say if people are determined to be cynical? To me it again just shows that such people have never really had a friend.
Comments Are Off
Venerable (the last thing I want is to be called "venerable") magazine Popular Science recently announced that they are shutting off user comments on their online version for new articles. You'll also notice I don't have anywhere here or on my website for comments. Whatsa matter with me and PopSci, are we elitists or anti-democrats? Not really, but it's reflective of one of the sadder changes in the internet since its early days. In ancient times—the mid-90s—the internet was much less powerful, but felt a lot more innocent to me. I could generally surf without being bombarded with scams, viruses, and hate speech. Now unless I'm on some specialized forum or blog website, nearly all comments are spam or abusive. Until there are better mechanisms such as non-anonymous identities, it is sad but I want no part of comment boards. It's just too much time to weed out the occasional thoughtful reply from the muck of jeering and rants slamming Obama/religion/the world banking overlords. I hope PopSci will be followed by other media sites, because I do think this constant nastiness and snark is poisonous to our minds and souls.
"There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply." - John Ruskin
How nice! Now in the U.S. there is a big push for saving money through having computer programs grade essays, and "about a half-dozen companies are vying for government contracts" to write the software. Apparently the GRE / GMAT people are experimenting as well. Don't I feel loved as a composition professor?
As with MOOCs, my fear isn't really the software, for "text analysis" can do a passable job of parsing grammar or vocabulary, like a better version of Microsoft Word's grammar check, but it can easily be gamed into passing papers written with trash arranged into the right patterns. My fear is the jerks who have so little regard for writing that they want this software propagated in order to save a few bucks (and the hucksters who want to grab those bucks), and who probably don't care if it doesn't work well. And as the article notes, what message does this send to students who see that no one else will ever read their writing because it's not worth anyone's time?
As I wrote about Jarod Lanier's book this summer, we all love and have high-flown words about free music, software, news, videos, flight reservations, courses, and now grading... until we find that we can't get a job as a musician, programmer, journalist, producer, travel agent, or teacher, and notice that some start-up is busy automating our back-up career option. I'm as guilty as anyone of this. But please: if anyone reading this blogette is a software designer, will you please write and market some code to emulate an educational reformer or entrepreneur? To effect the supreme irony, please write a software algorithm, optimally written in Bangalore, to write Thomas Friedman columns. (Here's one for inspiration.)
National Post columnist Diane Francis, in her new book Merger of the Century, argues that it would be in both Canada's and the U.S.'s interests to become one country. In this way, Canada would be protected from foreign economic forces and America would benefit from its skilled workforce and natural resources. In return for joining the U.S., she argues that Canadians would retain special health care, special gun control rules, special liberal drug rules, individual payouts of $492,529, and magic flying ponies for everyone. I made up the last one, but only that one.
I happen to think that greater cooperation between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico on cross-migration, visas, and trade are good things, and that the condescension I sometimes hear towards the Americans is disgusting and dangerous. But that doesn't mean I want to be an American, even with the preposterously rose-colored arrangement she proposes. The Americans can't agree on basic health care but they would somehow sign all of these special rights into law, including those additional ones already given to Quebec? Does she believe Canadians would go for this either? It's not like we fought a war over this or anything.
Yes, a merging of Canada and the U.S. would have political and economic advantages. This is also true for Korea and Japan, and for the Middle East. A merging of Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia is a great idea. Message me when it happens. I am a citizen of the world, but countries generally exist for cultural, economic, religious, or other reasons that make blending them a little more complicated than a business merger.
The Hetero-Male Canon Only?
Canadian novelist and University of Toronto professor David Gilmour (No, not the Pink Floyd guitarist) writes on Hazlitt that he only teaches "the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women." Basically, he rules out females, homosexuals, and Canadians, leaving pretty much U.S./Russian males. You can guess how this went over: the outrage and apoplexy on the Globe and Mail and in the comments! How offended I am! I feel violated... where are my smelling salts... someone—where are my CBC documentary application forms?
Let's unpack this. The people saying the man should be sacked and this is why there shouldn't be tenure... prove why there ought to be tenure: to act as a brake against being fired because the public doesn't like your opinions at that moment. Second, I don't have a problem with the man's personal tastes so long as he's not teaching required first-year survey courses and giving students a biased selection. If there's room in English departments for a dozen different __isms and __ Studies, there's room for Macho Manly-Man Old Spice Studies, though admittedly his courses should be identified as such. Third, I'd like to be clear that I don't agree with Gilmour's frat-boy bigotry, and by all accounts the man is a turd; I just think he has a right to his choices.
Nothing good will come from this. Some male commenters are angry that it only seems to be a controversy when a professor favors male authors. Some female commenters point out that an all-female course would be sent to Women's Studies. Most people will simply continue to write off English faculties as filled with pretentious, arcane battles over PC nonsense. I can only repeat: my English professors were good people who tried to respect other opinions and present a fair selection of readings. For the record, my book choices are pretty dull. But there are no Canadians. A man has to have some standards. :>
Update: As expected, the good-humoryd womyn of the U of T want his head, and the CBC is on it like flies on honey. Again, I'm not defending Gilmour's choices, but it's hypocritical and terrible public relations to protest an all-hetero-male lit course when English faculties are chock-a-block with queer/feminist/world courses or other specialized subgenres.
Texas Textbooks and Creationism
I've already written about Intelligent Design / Creationism here and here. As usual, I'm not an expert and no one has to care what I think. But I do think about this issue and would like to expound on it. This week a lobby of Creationists (people who believe in a literal six-day creation) in Texas are pushing changes and emendments to public school science textbooks which will add challenges to the theory of evolution to the state curriculum. I am defining the term specifically because most Christians outside the U.S. do not assume that the earth was created in six actual days and believe the Genesis account is probably poetic or allegorical—that is, they accept some combination of creation and evolution, a position I tend towards myself. But I know people who are literal Creationists and they are not imbeciles or fanatics, and while I'm not really convinced by them, they do have a point. Wait for it.
American culture tends to be a little confrontational and binary in its differences, and I use little like I would say "the Pacific Ocean contains a little water." Everything is a fight! In America the smartphone you buy puts you into one of two battling camps. A book I'm thinking a lot about lately (which is on my book list) is William Ury's Getting to Yes, a business text about resolving conflicts by persuading your opposition to adopt a win-win outcome. If you're thinking that this sounds idealistic and girly-man and that in the real world negotiation is tough talk leading to I-win-you-lose zero-sum victories, keep in mind that this only works if you can coerce your opponent: if you refuse to meet me or tell me "take it or leave it," and I have other options, you're in trouble. Second, positive-sum negotiation doesn't involve being weak, it involves being creative. How could this be applied to the issue of teaching evolution vs. intelligent design?
When I see how journalists, bloggers, and Internet commenters treat Creationists I always wonder what the endgame is. The response always seems the same: an assault of jeering and sometimes threatening abuse where Creationists, and sometimes Christians or those of religious faith generally, are mocked as naive, idiotic, mentally ill child abusers. Richard Dawkins has said that he won't waste his time talking to Intelligent Design advocates; this brilliant man is essentially proud of refusing to listen to other viewpoints. But this policy tells Creationists that reaching out in good faith is pointless and drives them inward into closed communities. Why would a group have any reason to try any sort of dialogue or compromise with you if you have absolutely no respect for them or their position? The tactic can be called positional bargaining, or more simply, war. It hasn't worked. The opponent has been around since the first century A.D. and is not going away. Nor is the idea going to work that Creationists simply need to be gently "educated" to liberate them from Socrates' dark cave of ignorance. Some of these people are not stupid and they can smell out the condescension in an approach which isn't a compromise at all.
Much of the reason for this atmosphere of total distrust is that there are good and bad actors on both sides. On the Intelligent Design side, there are scientists who have legitimate questions about evolution whose careers are incinerated for it; but there are also fundamentalists who want to pull a Trojan-horse trick of sneaking Biblical six-day creationism into science classes and crowding out evolutionary theory—despite their professed concern, many don't think much of school anyway. Equally, there are honest scientists who simply believe that non-scientific topics may be valid but don't belong in the precious time allotted to science class; but there are also people like Dawkins and Hawking who bleat that religion isn't an acceptable academic subject for science, unless you're attacking it, in which case it's fine. Not much will change until both camps are candid about their imperfections and can build trust.
So what's my creative win-win solution? I've written about it before, and I can't understand why it isn't publically discussed when it's so simple: Creationism and Intelligent Design should be taught and discussed in Social Studies class. Social Studies class deals broadly with the humanities and liberal arts, of which theology is a part; theology shouldn't be taught in science class because it's chiefly not a scientific topic. Note I did not say IT/Creationism is untrue, only that it primarily does not approach truth scientifically, just as English, Mathematics, and History deal with things that are true according to a different epistemological set of tools for judging ideas and phenomena, but are also not scientific in process (All right, maybe I'm a philosopher and not a business negotiator). A possible objection is that students may now be faced with competing explanations for the earth's origins. Excellent! Education is all about learning to weigh and judge or reconcile competing ideas. Public school students who cannot do this face far greater problems.
A lot of media are reporting on the racist invective online following Indian-American Nina Davuluri's winning of the Miss America pageant. A bit of perspective, though, in that there are probably more words written about the racism than actual racism, which seems limited to some infantile Twitter noise about Davuluri not being a real American, she must be an Arab/Muslim/terrorist, etc, why didn't a real American like blonde Miss Kansas Theresa Vail win? Except that Indians are not Arabs. And Davuluri is a Hindu. And Vail speaks Chinese and has French ancestry. Really, do we need to give such trash oxygen when most of the public, thankfully, doesn't really think this is important? So I'll stop here...
The New iPhone and Apple
In the past I've made fun of Apple products, but perhaps I'm getting more practical in my doting age. They're just brands. My daughter likes Apple products, because she's used to them, and I like PC and Android products, because I'm used to them. I wouldn't say one is better anymore than beer is better than wine.
I don't mind the company, but the fans can irritate me. You are not some special and edgy nonconformist if you rush lock-step like everyone else to line up to buy the latest Apple product. They're a company; they exist to make a profit. They were founded and run by a big bag of mean who betrayed his friends, gave nothing to charity, and outsourced as much as possible. If you don't like Windows that's fine, but why is Apple somehow purer than Microsoft, a company founded by a gentle family man who spends his time giving away billions to fight disease and improve education?
Anyway, if people need to have the new iPhone, that's fine. I think it's iPoppingly overpriced and the tiny screen will cause iStrain.
Ahem, all right, I feel the poetic muse rising in me.
|Jingle bells, iPhones are hell, way too overpriced
Oh, what fun it is to type on a screen four inches wide
Jingle bells, iPhones are hell, way too overpriced
Oh, what fun it is to type—oh, wait, the battery died...
Nothing but klass here. The most important internet topic in the last week of August was, because Syria is so far away, Miley Cyrus's dance at the American Video Music Awards with Robin Thicke. Should I even write about it, knowing that when everyone tut-tuts about how terrible it is, Cyrus and Thicke have won by getting us all to pay attention? No one should be surprised by this. Every former Disney star tries to shed her child star image by being a raunchy badd girl. Cyrus joins Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears in this, and there will be more. Their publicists will post the same drivel that "shes telling the world she doznt care what u think." Because, you know, it's a complete accident these starlets have publicists.
A great number of Facebook posts are weepy sermons on how young women and men shouldn't emulate this behavior, because Thicke and Cyrus are sad people with secretly empty and cheap lives. No, they aren't. I'm not sure this is the right tack. I would instead remind people that TV shows and movies are fun but they're fantasies and shouldn't be confused with real life. Most of us don't take our behavioral and clothing models from Star Wars, and we shouldn't from music videos either.
Aesthetics are a different matter. I don't condemn Cyrus, but I did think her performance was wooden and forced. Like a robot programmed to be a stripper, she checked off all of the requisite gestures designed to provoke people without any human feeling in it. Just wearing flesh-colored undies and sticking your tongue out is not automatically sexy. If she's a bad role model, it's for her lack of imagination. Madonna would have at least done her homework first.
Let's Follow a Meme.
Holidays in Edmonton
I've just come back from a few weeks in Edmonton, visiting friends and family. Good time and beautiful weather, 20-25 degrees and sun most days. Edmonton was seen as a sort of backwater decades ago, but it's become a really big and cool city. Some impressions I had about my time there:
People You Will Meet at a Korean University
Here are common types you will meet at a Korean university or school. (Please take it in fun. None of these types represent any particular individual; they're composites over several workplaces.)
|The Megaphone Griper
Everything is a fight. They shout at admin over their classes, they yell at staff over their housing, they complain about students, food, taxis, and anything Korean. It's always someone else's fault. Don't bother asking why they are here if they hate it so; no matter where they go, and it's a new place every two years, they'll hate it. Good side? Usually generous with cigarettes during a bitch-break.
The Home Nationalist
This teacher has drifted from teaching into campus administration or public relations. He or she is constantly meeting another important ambassador or dignitary, in a business suit with a giant, photogenic smile and perfect hair. Well-connected in the expat community, but speaks good Korean and will make sure you know this. Often the token foreigner in ad voiceovers: "Kia."
The Party Teacher
|The Bitter Second Careerer
A damaged individual who came to Korea to flee a failed marriage or career, the second careerer is generally competent at his job but can be crusty and blunt, not caring about what impression he makes regarding clean speech, hygiene, sobriety, etc. He takes all of his vacations in Thailand or the Philippines and is suspiciously knowledgeable about the local women.
|The Very Serious ESL Practitioner
She is a professional educator, and don't you forget it. If you aren't studying for a MA-TESOL or don't know the latest paper by Ullman on second language acquisition theory, she doesn't have time for you. Usually crabby, with little social life other than attending KOTESOL conferences. Often bitter as she's still paid the same as the Party Teacher and liked less by admin.
|The Academically Scholarly Doctor Professor
Dr. ASDP will not sit on committees, attend M.T.s, or socialize. He attends meetings grudgingly. His office windows are covered over. He sees himself as an academic here to profess and publish, and it's strictly lecture-only with no touchy-feely fads such as comments on essays. He's not a problem but no one ever knows if he still works here.
|The Korean Enthusiast
Either because he is bitter about his home country (usually the states) or because everything is new and shiny, he's constantly extolling how great the Korean miracle is, how Hangul is scientific, how kimchi cures cancer, how terrible the Japanese were, etc. He hasn't actually learned any Korean yet, and after he's been here more than three months he's at a higher risk of burning out.
Who Owns the Future?
I'll reiterate one of my favorite images: imagine someone standing on the city limits of Rome around 500, bewildered and trying to make sense of what has been lost and what will happen. Everybody thinks their own time is special, but it really does feel like the world of the early 21st century is rapidly changing into something else, and I think we can be excused for feeling apprehensive and confused. Something I've thought about lately is, just what are people going to do for jobs in the future?
I recently finished Jarod Lanier's Who Owns the Future? (2013). Lanier, a Silicon-Valley era comp scientist who popularized the term virtual reality, has written a surprisingly critical endictment of the internet in its present form. What ought to have been a means of creating value in the world is engaged in destroying it: Lanier claims that the internet is now dominated by 'siren servers,' giant content sites such as Google/Apple/Facebook et al. who offer users "free" results or media or social media space in return for selling their information to advertisers and other groups. In effect, these servers demonetize information (but only information provided by users), removing it from the economy. We all like "free" music, news, video, education, and flight and hotel booking—forgetting that the people who used to create this information are are now out of jobs.
I've always felt some frustration with Thomas Friedman's tut-tutting that we'll all just have to be more competitive in the global age and innovate. Almost by definition, most of the highly successful internet ventures have grown by automating jobs, not by creating them. The reason Priceline exists is because it efficiently does what travel agents were formerly paid to do. I wonder how Friedman will feel when his fabled whiz-kid entrepreneurs in Bangalore make a program which writes globalization columns. Over at the Atlantic, there's an interesting column on how robots are taking everyone's jobs. If manufacturing jobs are increasingly outsourced or done by robots, or if goods themselves might be printed, and low-level services such as taxi driving and cleaning might be automated, and if much of the white-collar workforce might ultimately be replaced by online algorithms (there's now software claiming to mark exam essays and do simple legal work), what will people do for a living? Lanier proposes that the internet remonetize information and pay users for contributing. I'm not as convinced it will happen.
I suppose in real life there are practical limits to automation. Software bartenders and counselors may not work out—though ominously, people said the same about bank tellers and supermarket checkouts. Assuming that a large proportion of the western workforce does become redundant, what happens to us all? I don't know; so let me speculate with three options. One is that the future is like the Jetsons, where we all share the remaining work and have far more leisure. The second is dystopian, where the 1% invest in much harsher security to police the half-starved unemployed masses. I think it's more likely that at some point economies will realize that capitalism can't function without consumers and that if printing clothes (or food) is cost-effective, it's easier to give everyone a guaranteed minimal income and encourage volunteerism. I'm not saying this because the 1% is so nice, but because they're efficient: pacifying populations by armed coercion is hugely expensive and unstable. (Unless this too becomes very cheap online somehow. That would make an interesting website: "Protecting your compounds against ravaging armies since 2036.")
Bad Korean Meals (Re-Post)
The food in Korea is good, when it's good. When it's bad, it's downright diabolical.
Shakespeare (or Not)
I guest-taught a lecture on the Merchant of Venice at my university this week. Koreans generally aren't interested in literature, let alone British drama from 400 years ago, but they seemed surprisingly aware of some of the issues—what about the anti-semitism in the play? Did Shakespeare really write all those plays?
The latest in conspiracy theories is that when you don't like someone famous or want to seem clever, you deny that they existed: the 'birthers' of history. I find it irritating and often dishonest. If you don't like Christianity, fine; but to claim that Christ didn't exist because He didn't leave behind a driver's license and passport is setting the bar at a level few ancients would meet. Similarly, what is it that people would be satisfied with for Shakespeare? We have some 50 documents of his life and work, more than for many early writers, or even kings.
Nevertheless, the old zombie cliché that "we don't know much about Shakespeare" and the "controversy" about whether he wrote his plays won't die, no matter how many English professors must sigh and roll their eyes. Every year a new book comes out claiming that the queen, Marlowe, de Vere, space aliens, Shakespeare's mother / dentist / wife / boyfriend / time-traveling avatar wrote them all, often based on the same snobbish assumption that a glover's son who didn't go to university couldn't have written all these wonderful plays. Keep in mind that in 1997 alone, 4780 books or articles were published on Shakespeare. Most were not featured on Salon. OK, I'm an English professor, and if you need to know what I think: Shakespeare wrote his plays—so long as you understand that in his time 'writing' did not usually mean creating a new story, but adapting existing ones. Audiences respected the authority of tradition.
Walt Disney didn't really 'create' any new stories for his movies; he drew his plots and characters from folk stories, fairy tales, and Victorian novels, arranging them for animated movies. Shakespeare similarly took prexisting histories of kings (Henry, Richard), semi-real or legendary characters (Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth), and older European tales (Merchant of Venice). I'm not suggesting Shakespeare slapped his plays together or didn't care for his work as an artist, but he was also a businessman whose daily life was running a theater. Shakespeare probably didn't have time to sit in a garden for months writing like John Milton, and so he likely sat with trusted friends and actors in the theater and collaborated on scripts over ale, acting as final editor. The plays were well-regarded but hardly high literature at the time, and so my 'Occam's Razor' theory is that this arrangement was good enough.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
You're probably used to me griping about everything, so do I recommend you see the new Great Gatsby movie? I actually don't have strong feelings either way and won't bash it like I did the Beowulf travesty. I didn't love the movie but I liked it. Film adaptations are difficult to pull off, and it's an honest attempt to do Fitzgerald's classic novel.
At times the film does feel like it's trying too hard to be epic or cool. I don't have a problem with the way Baz Luhrman plays with anachronisms in his movies because that's the way he rolls, and it's interesting how he gives a touch of contemporaenity to the film by having modern hip-hop music playing at Gatsby's parties (I'll nit-pick that he has Rhapsody in Blue for a fireworks scene, a jazz standard recorded after the novel's setting in 1922). I do think there's some cheese at times; the parties go on way too long with an impossible decadence, allowing, I guess, those disappointed by the lack of robots and explosions in the movie to have some visual glitz. And for criminy's sake, why does every New York City apartment scene have to have someone playing saxophone on a balcony?
I've never been a DiCaprio fan, but he does his best as Gatsby, and it's hard to make the "old sport" shtick sound convincing on screen. The Gatsby in the novel is more naïve and less the muscular wheeler-dealer in the movie, and when DiCaprio smiles warmly at Toby Maguire's Nick (an important image in the book) it looks like he has gas. Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton) are simplified into almost cartoonish versions of their characters; Fitzgerald's Daisy is more shallow and manipulative than Luhrman's (Mulligan really just looks like she's about to cry throughout the movie) and his Tom is slightly softer (Edgerton plays him as a bullying jerk without any gentle nuances). But again, this was interesting, and I'm glad Luhrman didn't call it Great + Gatsby.
Ken's Rant: First They Came for the Professors...
Koreans are generally respectful of educators, something I appreciate. Something strange I've realized about North Americans is that we have a pretty high regard for professors as an abstraction, but not so much for the actual people who do it. I like being a prof, but what do people at home believe about us? Some information from the Chronicle.
1. Professors make hundreds of thousands of dollars working eight months a year.
(Yes, a tenured business professor at an elite institution might make this. The average established and tenured professor at a high-end U.S. university makes $120,000 a year. But a typical professor who isn't tenured and doesn't have decades of experience makes $60,000. An adjunct who teaches strings of single courses might make $30,000 a year. That adjunct teaches all summer.)
2. Once professors get tenure they can do what they want.
(Maybe. Except hardly anyone gets tenure anymore. As of 2013, about 23% of profs have tenure, and that percentage is falling as people retire. Most professors now are at best full-time or on contract, and at worst they are adjuncts with no job security at all.)
3. Professors are a bunch of lib-leftys who hate Christianity and fill their students' heads with socialist philosophies.
(I was a university student for over a decade. Not once did I have a prof attack my faith. Where are these people who do? As for me changing my students' views, I can't get them to look away from their cell phones in class, but supposedly I can dictate their political and philosophical beliefs? I wish.)
4. Professors don't even teach much. They sit in ivory towers doing useless research.
(I teach 12-14 hours of class time a week—not so bad, but I do certainly teach. The rest is spent preparing, grading, writing, meeting students, or in administrative work such as meetings. I don't know that my research is important, but professors do occasionally produce something useful, such as the internet.)
Japan and Korea
To put it briefly, they don't like each other. Foreigners in Korea are sometimes encouraged to take a side in the eternal Japan vs. Korea antagonism (at every airport you can find "Dokdo is Korea" buttons or other souvenirs), and some expatriates try to fit in by disparaging Japan. But it's best to stay out of it, as inevitably a foreigner will see some cracks in this zero-sum argument: are you really 100% in the right and the other side is totally evil? Did Japan do no good in the last 400 years?
Nevertheless, I'm amazed by Prime Minister Abe of Japan, who visits shrines of war criminals, suggests that Japan "invading" its neighbors may be too strong a word because no one's really 'defined' invading, and has his picture taken in a WWII fighter plane with the military number of a biological torture unit on it—imagine Chancellor Merkel of Germany being photographed in a Stuka bomber with a swastika on the side and you'll get the idea. See Kelly on this for more. Meanwhile, the mayor of Osaka claims that the comfort women (the Korean and other Asian women forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers during the war) were "necessary" as soldiers were stressed. No mention of, uh, who caused this stress to happen. Of course, many Japanese are appalled and mortified by such comments. But why say them?
Something that's interested me recently is the linguistics and cultural practice of apologizing. I’ve had a spate of cheating lately in my classes, and it seems there’s a difference between students who regret their actions and apologize out of personal guilt, and those who give pro forma apologies which to me seem more a performative act of ameliorating social shame; they will then ask for a break on their grades. One of my favorite books lately is Nisbett's The Geography of Thought. Nisbett would probably argue that western apologies involve the individual and eastern ones attempt to heal a social rupture in the relationship or community. I suppose the problem with a western apology is that it can be narcissistic: the apology is all-about-me, performed tearfully on Oprah. Internet culture is rife with constant outrage at celebrities or corporations for misdeeds or PR mistakes, and I wonder how sincere these forced mea culpas are if people are simply protecting their careers or sales. Modern English has the politician's non-apology mastered ("I'm sorry if people were hurt by my actions"). Yet the fact that east Asian apologies may not really involve admission of guilt at all makes them equally problematic, especially when they're at a national level. Is it really an apology if one's merely regretful that bad things happened—after you got caught?
The Japanese have paid reparation money to Korea in treaties and dismantled much of their post-war military, but to me there doesn’t seem to be a thorough and compelling sense of guilt as there is in Germany. Is such even culturally possible, or am I being unfair and stereotyping? I once had an argument with a coworker who claimed that Japan owes Korea nothing after settling its claims in past treaties. I agree that legal reparations mean a great deal, but so do attitudes and emotions. Would it be possible for Germany to enjoy the present trust it has in Europe without Willy Brandt kneeling in Warsaw, or their making Nazi salutes illegal, or other various actions which demonstrate a sincere conviction of regret, if Germany had just offered money and made a performative apology? I’m puzzled by why the Japanese cannot see this, and by how costly their face-saving has been to themselves and to east Asia, and can only conclude there must be other reasons beyond domestic politics. To hedge or deny that there were invasions and forced prostitution seems so incredibly stupid and blind to the rancor it causes that it attracts me to the idea of a cultural explanation.
SATs Cancelled for South Korea
The entire sitting for the May SAT (the Scholastic Aptitude Test for American universities) has been cancelled for South Korea as a massive cheating conspiracy has been uncovered, according to CNN. Hagwons have been reportedly buying and selling the stolen tests to students pressed to obtain high scores for American universities. This is after ETS refused to administer the computer-based GRE exam in Korea for years because of equivalent allegations of systematic cheating.
Despite the snark on the CNN thread, Korea is not a country where everyone cheats. I have good students who do their best and they don't deserve to be tarred by the actions of others. What I find especially sad is the cultural attitude that the test is not only the most important thing, but the only thing. Thus students who have spent years practicing for these college entrance exams typically neglect learning critical thinking or creative skills, leaving them unprepared and unmotivated for the university program itself. Let this also be a warning for the current U.S. mania for no-child-left-untested. If exams becomes the only thing anyone values, we can expect more people to try to game them.
lol dnt wry abt txtng (Don't Worry About Texting)
Watching Ted videos is about the pinnacle of geek, but I eat them like candy. I saw a really interesting one by linguist John McWhorter about texting, called Txtng is killing language. JK!!!. I admit I look down on the compressed words sent by teens in text messages, and the emoticons and acronyms used, as at best childish and at worst terrible English. Yes, I'm getting Florida old, aren't I? I have friends and co-workers my own age who worry that written English will become corrupted by text messaging.
McWhorter is more optimistic, claiming that conventional writing is very different from the way people actually speak (unless you truly do speak in elevated speeches like Jane Austen), and that texting is not writing or meant to replace it; it's partly a representation of real speech (we don't 'say' capital letters) and partly a new, evolving language of its own. He argues that people who speak multiple languages and dialects can separate them and are better at using language generally, and the same is true for texting. Another way to think of this is: what exactly is sign language? It's neither speaking nor writing; it's a different form of communication and in fact a different language. Is this what texting is becoming?
I have to admit that for all the griping about the ruination of English, my students don't actually use the language of texting in e-mails or their assignments and do mostly seem to distinguish the two forms. The issues of declining social skills and the brain-rewiring imputed to smartphones are separate and serious matters. But I suppose from this video I can make peace with the alphabet-soup messages my daughter sends; we wanted students to learn foreign languages, and here they are not only using one but inventing one. I'll just have to remember that it's not English or writing and isn't trying to be. Though I must admit my wife has a point—what about very bad students who probably can't distinguish texting from writing? Not sure about these people.
This was very amusing. A news article from satire site The Global Edition: Vegetarian Finishes Conversation Without Pointing Out That He's a Vegetarian.
|SAN FRANCISCO, (The Global Edition) – Roger Berry (31), web designer from San Francisco, shocked the people at “Mickey’s” coffee house today by completing an entire conversation with another human being without even once pointing out that he’s a vegetarian, San Francisco media reports.|
I'm not a vegetarian; I'm a lessetarian (I eat less meat). If you would like to know more you can see my site. Otherwise I won't tell you what to eat, because it's obnoxious when people preach about their healthier-than-thou diets. I'll just tell you what I eat, because I think it works for me and I am healthier in the last few years than I really ever have been. I have three easy dietary rules which I usually keep (rule four: don't stress about it):
|1: Cut the soda. The occasional beer is way healthier than endless daily cans of cola, which really has nothing in it that's good for you: ten teaspoons of sugar per can. Alternative: carbonated water with lemon.||2. Less meat, more vegetables. Again, calm down, because this gets everyone excited. Not no meat; less meat. A smaller chop, one slice of bacon, and some more vegetables, nuts, and tofu. Plus: It's cheaper.||3. Smaller portions. So why are the French healthier when they eat all of those rich foods? Because they don't eat a pailful of everything. Eat slower and you'll be less inclined to stuff yourself with extra helpings.|
Psy's New Video
Psy's new follow-up song to Gangnam Style just came out today, in fact. And it's... well.. terrible. There are videos in bad taste but funny, or videos that are unintentionally campy or goofy in their awfulness, and various shades of ironic (or Alanis-type ironic). But this isn't that at all... it's just dog-howlingly bad. I'm torn whether to write about it as you may ignore me anyway and see it on YouTube out of curiosity. But you won't get the link from me. The song and video consist of two 'jokes,' both of which could be written by a twelve-year old boy: you say "mother, father, gentleman" quickly until it sounds like a dirty word, and... (no!) he's not actually a gentleman. Kate Bush this isn't.
I suppose I write in case people ask me whether this is some Korean humor they're just not getting. Korean humor is heavy on slapstick, but the premise in this video seems to be Psy acting like a rich frat boy and being mean to women, until one is as big a childish jerk as he is and they dance off together. Everything feels recycled from his last video, but cheaper and dumber. Look, I'm not above a fart joke, but there has to be a joke; the video could have American Pie-type wit, and it doesn't. The lyrics are dirty without being clever, and the women are supposed to be sexy, but when you see Psy ripping a girl's bikini top off or pulling her seat away it just feels ewwwy.
What is Going on There, Ken?
On my darker days I wonder if anyone reads this blog. I am surprised that my friends at home don't seem that interested in what's happening here, and my Facebook feed is filled with the usual how-cute-my-baby-is pictures or click-like-if-you-love-your-father/sister/friend/trapeze artist posts.
If you do care, you can see my many previous posts on North Korea here, here, and here, but to address all of the threats and rumblings of war as of late, there's a large disconnect between what western media are reporting on North Korea (death! war! imminent apocalypse!) and foreign academics here, who mostly see Kim Jong-Un as trying to build street cred with his generals and the NK populace by looking tough, something especially important for a 30-some kid in a Confucian society. Much of this ridiculous rhetoric is for domestic consumption, or even to send a message to China to watch themselves and keep the money coming. These are the tactics of a gangsterocracy which operates by spreading terror and appearing insane in order to obtain attention and aid, not actual craziness.
No one here in my circle is taking the oh-so-touching warnings for foreigners to leave South Korea "because we can't ensure your safety" seriously, and the locals are highly jaded by decades of these overblown threats. I would personally be more worried by a sudden collapse and overeager reunification, which would result in clusters of bitter, ex-army misfits from NK wandering South Korean streets with a grudge against westerners. These are not men you want drunk on soju.
I think the game will eventually be up for North Korea. There is some math you just can't get past; the country can't feed itself and it has run out of friends. China has supported NK not out of ideology but from risk aversion, and they're growing weary of the deal. The U.S. is starting to look like it did with Iraq in 2003 as they increasingly fish for a pretext. Once you've threatened people with nuclear bombs, how do you top this to maintain fear? I tend to think the regime is too crafty to choose suicide and will probably settle down in hopes of getting the best deal in sustaining itself. But don't rule out a coup.
I like President Park a lot after the appeasing jellyfish South Korea has had for presidents. Older Korean women can be as tough as nails.
Can We Let It Be?
Growing up, my family was churchgoing but my brothers casually listened to KISS and I listened to everything, from ABBA to Zappa. That doesn't seem odd now but in the 70s a lot of parents felt uncomfortable about rock music. I think this was good parenting because rock music never felt like forbidden fruit to us. But heavens to Murgatroyd, some people take the Beatles seriously, almost as though they are a religion. Serious, serious. Oh, so serious.
I love the Beatles (that's my foot on Abbey Road in October 1998) but wish the members were more like William Shatner, who self-deprecatingly told obsessed Trek fans to get a life. I've never joined in the late-night dorm argument about whether John or Paul is the more important Beatle, as to me it's debating which blade of the scissors cuts the paper. Without each other, Lennon would have been a bigger jerk than he was already and his I'm-such-an-intellectual-rebel imitation of Bob Dylan would have become toxic; McCartney would have been recording easy-listening string muzak by 1968.
There's now some sort of hipster law that you have to prefer the Let It Be... Naked remaster of 2003 with its stripped-down cut and hate the 1970 Phil Spector original with its orchestral overdubs. I like both for different reasons. Naked sounds to me like an unplugged session, intimate and raw; but the original sounds more rich and full and finished, and besides, I grew up with it; that counts for something. I don't buy the argument that a pared-down melody is better by definition. I know they're different albums and concepts, but Abbey Road is packed with effects and dubs and Moog beeps and these arrangements are a valid part of the recording. I don't think Maxwell's Silver Hammer (or Tomorrow Never Knows!) would sound very good on one acoustic guitar. It doesn't need to.
Gay Marriage in America
This little logo is plastered all over Facebook this week as U.S. supreme court judges deliberate on the legality of gay marriage. I think one reason people become so worked up about this issue is that it is so binary: like abortion, you're likely for it or not. I have friends and colleagues who are solidly against it, but gay marriage has been legal in Canada since 2006 and the sky hasn't fallen. The Canadian government didn't make a moral judgment; they just decided that the government's business isn't to decide who can get married. Whatever one's beliefs are, to me this is reasonable.
The problem is that Americans aren't a people known for compromises. Gays and lesbians, of course, fear being persecuted or treated as second-class citizens. Opponents fear that if gay marriage becomes legal they will eventually be attacked, and that legislation or lawsuits will force churches or chaplains to marry gay couples or to dictate that someone running a wedding hall will not be able to refuse a gay couple on conscience, for example. This is not going to go away if each side belittles the other's concerns, but if U.S. legislation can build in good-faith safeguards for both parties I think gay marriage will become a non-issue more quickly than anyone might expect.
Ken's Three-Day Itinerary of South Korea
Korea is not Thailand-level fun for a tourist, but it's well worth seeing on a stopover. Maybe this sounds like I'm damning with faint praise, but if tourism officials could swallow their pride and admit that most tourists probably won't want to stay in a small country for two weeks the nation might be marketed as a fun 3-4 day layover. I'm not holding any great hope of this happening, as Korean tourism is seemingly run by administrators in their nineties who believe that foreign tourists are dying to come to Korea to visit a temple, put on a hanbok, listen to a drum concert, and practice drawing Korean letters with brushes. I'll switch now from high-contrast black to grey, the most boring color imaginable to describe this 'holiday.'
So as a public service, here's my three-day itinerary for North Americans for an enjoyable warm-weather stopover in Korea on your way to Thailand, which is where you're going anyway:
Day 1: Seoul. Land in Incheon. Go downtown to Namdemun or Myeongdong, or old Insadong. Walk around and look at stuff. Sit in a galbi restaurant or a soju tent and eat some pork and swill some soju. Sing badly in a norebang. Drown in neon. Sleep in a cheesy love hotel room with flickering disco lights.
Day 2: Transit to Busan. If I tell you Gangnam is overrated you'll ignore me anyway, so get it out of the way for a morning of shopping. Take the KTX train to Busan. Hang out at Haeundae Beach and see bikini girls and sit on the sand. Have dinner in a beach-view restaurant. Stay in an area hotel or love hotel.
Day 3: Busan. Go to Beomosa temple. Climb the mountain and see things, and sit at a rest area for baked potatoes and rice liquor. Walk around in Nampo-Dong and look at the markets and eat raw fish. Relax in the evening and drink coffee or watch the people. Fly out of Busan in the morning.
Stretch or shrink as needed. You're welcome.
Short Takes: Plagiarism
From the Chosun Ilbo: Actress Kim Hye-soo has she is ready to forfeit her master's degree following a plagiarism scandal. At a press event for her latest TV soap in Seoul on Monday she once again apologized for plagiarizing a substantial part of her master's thesis at Sungkyunkwan University in 2001. "I belatedly realized I made a mistake and told my professor to follow the procedure to revoke it," she claimed.
No, you didn't belatedly realize anything. No one accidentally plagiarizes half of an eighty-page graduate thesis any more than they accidentally invade Poland. Doing it is bad enough, but it's worse to insult everyone's intelligence by claiming you're sorry after you got caught twelve years later, and then claiming you didn't know attending a graduate program in one of the most elite universities in the country and falsifying a master's thesis is a crime. Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?
Short Takes: Something I Appreciate About Korea
I've noticed this recently about Korea. Absolutely. no. graffiti. anywhere. Asians generally don't tolerate this sort of thing.
Why I Came to Korea Ten Years Ago
I feel reflective, and I'm not even near a mirror, and it's also exactly ten years that I first came to Korea (spending 7 here in total). While Korea has never been synonymous with wild, abandoned fun I have had a good career and been overall treated with kindness. Thus I feel a little sheepish that I initially came strictly out of necessity. In 2001 I graduated with my MA and my country beckoned to me, just not with the finger I would have preferred; I simply could not find a job post-9/11 and I actually did go to Mexico to work; I spent a year teaching there and then came to Korea in 2003.
I still have mixed feelings about Canada. We pride ourselves on being more open-minded, humble, and caring than Americans, except when we aren't, and to me the way we handle university funding and student loans must be one of the dumbest systems on earth. When I finished I was given a few months leeway and then my payments were automatically geared to the size of my loans at prime-plus-five interest, then about 13%, for monthly dues of about $750. This was more than my salary and I returned home to look again for work. Threatening letters and phone calls followed, my bank account was seized, and I went to Korea because it was the country that advanced flight tickets for teachers.
Objection: No one made you study English. Your country doesn't owe you a living. These things are true. Scholar never rhymed with dollar. I am absolutely not justifying refusing to pay your student loans; you borrowed the money and you have a responsibility to pay it. What I think is crazy is the collection system. Some countries have employment schemes for graduates; others make university cheap or free; some gauge payments to income and treat loans as a paycheck deduction, all better systems than Canada's, which is to maintain the fiction that higher education is cheaper than in the states (increasingly, it's not so) while forcing graduates into rapid default. Trying to coerce impossible and non-negotiable payments wastes resources, drives educated workers out of the country who may not return, and benefits no one except for the vermin who work at collection agencies.
Threats and Hoops
Yesterday North Korea threatened that if the U.S. doesn't back down from proposed sanctions stemming from the North's nuclear tests, and doesn't cancel its regular military drills with the South, that they will cancel the 1953 Armistice. Sure you will. Just like the other six times you have declared the armistice void, and after already shelling a South Korean island and sinking a submarine in the last three years. What armistice? Let's continue to put this into perspective: the North has 2-3 nuclear weapons that might work. The U.S. has some 5-9,000 that will work. The North knows this.
There's a good post from Robert Kelly at his Asian Security Blog, who feels that celebrities and politicians should never make highly public visits to the North, as they are essentially Lenin's useful idiots: they come back saying that "the North isn't really so bad" and their visits are manipulated into domestic propaganda (we are so superior to the western barbarians that their important leaders all come here to pay us tribute). While I strongly agree, I don't mind Dennis Rodman going there, and I would warmly encourage O.J. Simpson and Honey Boo Boo to make the same trip. The more ridiculous and trivial the celebrity the better. The two best ways the international media can hasten the end of this murderous gangsterocracy is by laughing at it instead of quaking in fear at each overblown, hyperbolic threat it makes, and by flooding the country with information about the outside world.
Short Takes: W's Paintings
I'm not a big fan of George W. Bush as a person or president, but for journalists to print stolen images of his paintings is low— and for art critics to pan his technique is tacky and mean. He's an amateur hobbyist, for pete's sake, and to judge his efforts by the standards of professional painters isn't fair, particularly when they are shown without his consent. Perhaps some of these art critics should take up the guitar, and after their first lesson someone from Rolling Stone can compare their playing to Jimi Hendrix's.
I've also read Thomas Friedman's new NYT article, Revolution Hits the Universities, and as with Fish, I like Friedman and have some of his books—The Lexus and the Olive Tree is great—and I've seen the man live at UNLV. But sometimes I don't believe he knows what he's talking about. His article is in praise of the recent growth of MOOCs, massive open online courses:
I can see a day soon where you'll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. "There is a new world unfolding," said Reif, "and everyone will have to adapt."
Another unfortunate perfect storm for the universities: MOOCs cut costs (always welcome), are shiny and digital and global (which always appeals to Friedman's "whiz kids in Bangalore" fantasy) and lets those uppity profs get theirs; why does the world need 5,000 history professors if we can hire a few from Harvard, tape their lectures, and have every student in the world watch them? The article argues that this is an excellent way to extend education cheaply to impoverished countries. I had no idea these countries have no teachers.
The problem is that this race to MOOCs looks only at content delivery. When you sit in a physical classroom you interact in real time with real bodies as a preparation for doing so in future careers, socializing with people with eyes and faces whom you've flirted with, drank with, argued with; you learn to deal with bad moods, flat tires, snow, and overhead projectors that crash using all five senses. How nice to digicam a few Ivy-league profs (let's face it... they're better people) and dismiss the others. But papers need to be critiqued and marked, students need advising, and presentations need to be watched, something difficult in giant mega-online courses of thousands of students. How would a laboratory biology or language conversation class work? How would you write a thesis? I suppose the PhD would disappear along with its practitioners anyway (this might be an issue when those few all-star profs retire).
For people who presently have no access to higher education, these are valid experiments. I mean no slight against well-designed distance education programs, and ideally MOOCs will augment classroom courses rather than replace them. But I'm resistant to this vision of millions of happy university students taking online dim sum courses from the six remaining universities in North America. Your education is far broader than the materials you learn in the lecture. Lots of jobs in the future will indeed be online. For the ones where you need to dress respectably, arrive on time, talk to difficult people, and get your hands dirty, I'd appreciate graduates who have left their bedrooms.
More on this from Don Tapscott's The Week University (As We Know It) Ended at HuffPost, which reports from Davos and glowingly predicts the liberation of higher education from the monopoly of universities, led by Coursera, Udacity and edX. Not coincidentally, Coursera, Udacity and edX and a lot of backers at Davos stand to make a giant cha-ching of money from selling such programs. Funny how this 'information wants to be free but greedy universities want to monopolize it' idea didn't apply before when corporations were protecting copyright.
Fish on Favoritism
Recently I read Stanley Fish's NYT article "Favoritism is Good," in which he argues that our western principle of 'fairness' in hiring or giving favors is misplaced, and that favoritism and nepotism actually serve positive functions:
...It’s not only O.K. but positively good to favor those on your side, members of your tribe. These are the people who look out for you, who have your back, who share your history, who stand for the same things you do. Why would you not prefer them to strangers? ... Favoritism – giving more than an even break to your own kind — is not a distortion of judgment, but the basis of judgment. And being impartial to those who are a part of you — through blood or creed or association or profession... is not to be virtuous, but to be ungrateful and disloyal, more concerned with hewing to some abstract principle of respect for all than with discharging the obligations that come along with your most intimate relations.
I don't usually read or write on comment sections on websites, because so much of it is abusive sniping and point-scoring. True to fact, few supported Fish and there were plenty of snarky posts slamming English professors in ivory towers, etc. I like Fish and am glad he writes on interesting ideas and has opinions. I just don't agree on this one.
Suppose I am in charge of hiring a new employee. Should I hire my trusted old college roommate or a stranger who is slightly better qualified? Perhaps it is valid to consider that my roommate is a known quantity and may be more loyal. In this situation, some favoritism is justified. But this assumes that I have the honesty and judgment to make a calculus in which our relationship is a factor, but a small one weighed against many other variables.
What if I am not competent or honest, and I hire my roommate knowing he is totally unqualified? I used to live in Newfoundland, a place I loved but a culture in which nepotism and benefiting friends and family was rampant. Not coincidentally I believe, the economy was terminally depressed and entrepreneurship rare. Why better yourself with skills, education, or ambition if it has no connection to your future success? Being not born there, I saw jobs I applied for given to people with few qualifications (the graduate student council at MUN was a prime example, existing chiefly to distribute advantages to council members), and eventually became disillusioned and left.
This is the problem I have with Fish's argument. It compares impartiality applied by the worst people to partiality applied by the best ones, rather than conceding that loyalty is equally problematic and can be corrupted. People often say that "it's not what you know, but who you know." My assumption has always been that people mean this as an unpleasant fact of life and not an endorsement of the idea.
Rick Santorum, January 2013: “If you go to our schools and particularly our colleges and universities, they are indoctrinated in a sea of relativism and a sea of antagonism towards Christianity."
If we could go back in time and tell one of the medieval popes, “the Catholic church hates women and free thought and sex and cute puppies and just alters scripture whenever it wants to strengthen its control!”, he might answer, “I wish! After two centuries we can’t get people to agree whether Christ is begotten or proceeds from the Father. Do you really think we have the power to change Bibles from Alexandria to Reykjavik?”
If we could talk to the highest, most secret string-puller in the American CIA and tell him, “Alright, level with me. You people really did kill JFK, Marilyn Monroe, fake the moon landing, plan 9/11, and covered it up, right?” He would answer, “I wish. I wish we had that sort of organization, power, and discipline to do something of that scale without anyone knowing. We can’t even cover up the president having an affair.”
There’s something touchingly innocent about the conspiracy theorist. In a vastly complex world with random and unexplainable events, everything can be explained by secret groups that simply make giant bad things happen. In my case, all of the English professors held an underground meeting in Kalamazoo where, after a spirited plenary discussing the difference between further and farther, we decided that we would seduce all of our students into godless homosexual vegetarian socialism.
If only. I can’t get my students to look away from their cellphones or to do the readings, and you think I can get them to change their religious or political beliefs to the ones I like? How nice it would be to have that kind of influence.
The Geography of Thought
I don't have much to do during my winter break and so I've been reading and trying to publish. I recently ran into a book titled The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett (2003), recommended to me by a co-worker. I wish I had known about the book years before as it would be greatly helpful for anyone intending on living or teaching in eastern Asia (Japan, Korea, China) for an extended period.
The book is rather binary in making distinctions between us and them, something that I constantly labor to get my students past; in fairness, Nisbett fully concedes this and argues that his intention is to make patterns clear by generalizing. In brief, he argues that people born in western and far-eastern cultures have fundamentally different approaches to thinking and problem-solving based on their cultures and histories. Greco-European culture, influenced by trading, mixing of peoples, and moving populations, developed an emphasis on logic, reasoning, and analysis—we understand things by classifying them in isolation. Chinese-Asian culture, influenced by stasis and large populations dependent on agricultural cooperation (more on this, see Diamond's huge Guns, Germs, and Steel, a good read or at least a good book to hold a door open with), emphasizes relationships and contexts—we understand things by seeing their relationship to everything else; an obsession with logic and analysis can be impractical in that it divorces objects or ideas from their real-world context.
Because I teach learners of English and am a medievalist I have a weird interest in articles: the words a and the. It's fiendishly difficult for Koreans to learn how to use a and the in writing, as they have no such words in Korean (nor do Latin, Russian, Tagalog, or Old English itself). The book would seem to make much of this clear; Korean is a high-context language where these words aren't necessary, whereas English has a mania for categorization: is it a duck, the duck, or ducks as an idea? To an English speaker the distinction is essential, whereas to a Korean it is probably silly, like some imaginary language where every object has a different word depending on what color the speaker's eyes are.
Nisbett doesn't say one system of thought is better, as both have strengths and weaknesses. Greco-Western emphases on analysis are extremely useful in science and mathematics, but its logic-chopping can result in ridiculous over-theorizing; the Chinese, preferring to see things in context or in regard to real-world application, were weak in geometry and physics but more advanced in other fields such as medicine—the body is seen as an interrelated network rather than as a group of components which can be treated separately or removed if faulty. Aristotle was a pioneer in many of the west's basic principles of literary theory and science, but he was unable to understand gravity; because he interpreted objects as solitary units and didn't consider their external relationships, he assumed that some objects sink because they have 'heaviness' in them and others float because they have 'floatiness' inside.
One gripe. The book doesn't have much good to say about the medieval era in Europe; Nisbett calls it basically a thousand years of academic torpor, which is hogwash. The Carolingian court had scholars and translators; Alfred supervised Old English writings; the early French medieval universities were small but lively and flourishing. As I lamented in my dissertation, few people on the internet think themselves authorities on ancient Sumeria, but everyone thinks they're an expert on the "dark ages," usually based on Monty Python movies. My mini-rant is over. Check out the book.
Korea can be a tough place to love, and there are things I've given up on changing or understanding here. The work and study culture are hugely inefficient, based on an obsession with time spent and obedience rather than productivity: I was here at 7 AM to arrange pencils as directed so I'm a better person, regardless of whether anything was done.
I feel like screaming whenever U.S. commentators praise the Korean educational system as a model. Korean education is rooted in antiquated teaching theories, valuing only rote memorization, seat time, and repetition. If you want to see what the system is like, memorize a book in a subject you don't understand for 18 hours a day and then write it out in an exam. But then why do Asian kids do so well in North America? I'm of course generalizing, but Koreans succeed in spite of their system because of their supportive educational culture, which attaches enormous prestige to education and teachers and stresses school attendance. That, and Korean mothers, who make sure the homework is done and the children are in class. There are no sick days. Got your arm chewed off by a mountain lion? Tough. Get on the bus. When such families go the US/Canada, a fair-to-good system with highly-motivated students is a successful combination.
Despite their support of its worst features, the reason Korean education works at all is Korean ajummas: the hardest working people in Korea, without which the country would fall apart.
Some Good Things
Lest I be accused of being a grouch again, there are nice things about Korea which I appreciate.
|Near the Library, Keimyung||Near KAC, Keimyung||Nampo-Dong, Busan||From My Apartment Window|
1. The customer is king. Service in restaurants and shops is generally much more polite and respectful in Korea than in Canada. This is especially so for utility services or ordering things online. If your telephone doesn't work, someone is there that afternoon to fix it. If you're sick, you see the doctor that day. In Canada? "We don't offer that service." "We'll try to fit you in for July." You'll be shocked if you fly here: attractive, helpful attendants; punctual flights.
2. Un-PC-ness. The third picture, in the downtown square of Busan (Nampo-Dong), has a public nativity creche in its Christmas celebrations. During Budda's birthday, there are paper lanterns. Taxis might have crucifixes, or crescents, or other symbols. Canada: "What! Public display of religious symbols! Gasp.. won't somebody think of the children! I feel violated!" Korea: If you like it, take pictures; if you don't like it, walk past. Why is this so difficult?
3. Safety. Something that's struck me recently is that Koreans, for their perversity, can be charmingly innocent. When you're moving, you leave things outside while you're waiting for the truck. Why wouldn't you? Who would take a stranger's things? If a small child is done late-night school at eleven at night, she walks home. Why not? What could happen? There is of course sex and drugs and crime here, but there's just less awareness of the darker side of life for most people. By the way, gun deaths in the USA per year: about 32,000. Korea: about ten.1 (As a comedian would say, "Probably committed by American tourists.")
1 Ten is still quite high. The obvious solution to reduce this is to have more guns.
They finally did launch their tinfoil rocket and are currently bragging about the accomplishment—though probably with inward annoyance that the international media were distracted by the shootings in Connecticut and the South Korean election. The satellite which the rocket was ostensibly sent up to launch is already flopping uselessly in space. A few months ago I wrote a short Slate-type essay for publication on North Korea. So far, no mainstream blog wants to publish it, as I suppose I have little International Relations credibility and there's no Kim Kardashian in the story, but you can read it here.
Happy New Year!
I call this a blogette because of its size, although it seems to be growing. Here you can read about my vitally important news and opinions on everything. I am a Canadian. I am an English professor at Hanyang University in Korea. I am a Christian. I am a Lessetarian. My band is Kill the Wabbit. My website is here; sometimes it has mistakes.
Things I've Written
|Great Scott! The Future|
|But That Nice Paul Pot is Nothing Like His Dad|
|Burn, Witch, Burn|
|That's What They Want|
|We Can Work It Out|
|Psy's 'Gentleman' Disaster|
|Am I That Useless?|
|North Korea's Kooky Showmen|
|Satire is Alive and Well (Maybe Too Well)|
|Address to the Class of '69|
|Gypsies, Thieves, and Filesharers|
|The End of Countries|
|What is a Gen X'er?|
|No More Friends|