Ken Eckert’s Moldy Rutabaga Blogette
and Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomena

April 2019

Notre-Dame, Paris

I’ve been there, and it’s gorgeous. The fire at the 13th-century Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, even if much of it was spared, is a huge loss to Christianity and to western architecture, culture, and history. The cathedral is nearly as old as Magna Carta. I am lucky I saw it, because while it will be restored and reopened, that might not happen within my lifetime. I was actually pleasantly surprised for once that media coverage of the fire was generally respectful. Yes, Trump did not fail to say something stupid, offering to send water bombers; but Obama didn’t ask us in soaring rhetoric to see the fire’s side of things, and Trudeau didn’t offer a tearful apology because the firefighters weren’t gender-diverse enough. Yes, there were still the usual vermin making pedophile jokes and jeering at the fire, but not too many. Still. Questions.

Q1. Why can’t the Catholic church repair Notre-Dame when they’re the world’s richest organization? A1: Because a) the Catholic church does not own Notre-Dame. It was seized from them by the French government in 1905 and remains state property, and so the church has no direct say in its restoration. Second, the church isn’t the world’s richest organization, and is less wealthy than it’s constantly accused of being. It apparently has assets of $35 billion— whereas the Bill Gates foundation has $52 billion, and Harvard has $37 billion. A 2,000 year-old global organization with some 1.2 billion adherents has less money than… a computer CEO, or a university.

Q2. Why are rich people donating millions of dollars to rebuild Notre-Dame? Why can’t they help the poor and needy? Q2: Because it’s their damn money and they can do as they like with it. If we are suddenly so concerned about the poor and needy, we can help them too instead of spending $138 billion a year on video games.

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Alberta Election, April 16, 2019

My home province of Alberta just had an election. I’m turning into my mother, trying to see both sides on everything. But you guessed it: I’m 67% for the UCP (Conservatives), 33% for the NDP (New Democrats), which I’m sure will please no one on any side. I liked Stephen Mandel and hoped he’d get his own seat, but no. Although friends at home on Facebook are predicting fiery death rained from the sky should the other side win, UCP leader and premier-elect Jason Kenney is not a nazi, and NDP ex-premier Rachel Notley is not a communist. They’re still Canadians, dude. During the debate, they said things like, "I’m sorry, but I respectfully disagree. Sorry." Yes, Notley is left, and Kenney is right, but that’s by Canadian standards. By American standards, it would be like Nancy Pelosi vs. Bill Clinton.

On the NDP’s pro side, they weren’t that bad, and I didn’t mind some of their policies. Rachel Notley is actually, um... a nice person with some integrity, and they had a fairly scandal-free government. For her I never saw the personal hatred, the physical fist-shaking kick-her-in-the-effing-teeth fury that voters had for Kathleen Wynne in Ontario. It took Notley long enough, but she was starting to actually get it by this year, that in order to finance generous social programs and a green transition, for now the oil must be sold. To me the two deal-breakers were the NDP’s mean-spirited bullying of private Christian schools, and far worse, the abysmal levels of debt the province was plunging into, to the tune of an estimated $100 billion. This is in a province which ought to be awash in oil revenue, and it’s economically stagnant. I have several friends who have lost their jobs. Every complaint over this was met by vague promises and the usual progressive sanctimony about "fairness." Unsurprisingly, angry and jobless people were tired of being told by the media they hate children, and they’re racists and whatever-ists, for reconsidering the Conservatives.

The Endless Money Pot in the Sky. To liberals and progressives, the only possible reason for not spending money on everyone who deserves a dignified wage or helping hand is flat-out meanness. I think that’s sometimes true, and I’ve encountered people for whom unwillingness to pay for things really is just "why-should-I" selfishness or racism. But often it’s because conservatives don’t believe in the Endless Money Pot in the Sky, which can always be replenished by "asking us to pay a little more," or "going after the rich," because "people should come before numbers." Most conservatives aren’t opposed in theory to helping others, but know that there isn’t such a pot; that while governments do have a kind of Keynesian flexibility that households don’t, the iron law is that eventually things must be paid for. To take a random year, in 1997, because of the growth of federal debt, Canada paid $45 billion on interest, money lost that could have gone to these same programs. The ever-convenient raising of taxes on "the rich" is sometimes merited but has limits. The rich can leave and go elsewhere, or, as Thatcher correctly noted, "you eventually run out of other people’s money."

The reason I endorse the Conservatives is that they are taking seriously the problem of debt, empty office space, joblessness, and the exodus of oil companies from Alberta; and they are speaking with much more necessary defiance to Ottawa. On the downside, I’m no big fan of Kenney’s rather flimflam, lizard-like demeanor, and I wish the party would take climate change and alternative energy more seriously (even Preston Manning supports a carbon tax). But overall, the results so far are that the Conservatives will have 63 seats and the NDP 24. That’s about 67% to 33%, which means I’m so far overall pleased by the result.

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September 2018

Canada Trip

Random thoughts. I like Vancouver, though I never seem to adore it like everyone else. It was cold in July, everything’s a hundred kilometers apart, and there’s not a lot of history or architecture. It’s nice; I just don’t think it’s worth ten squamillion dollars for a house there. Toronto is interesting, fast-paced, and has beautiful buildings; but as ever, it’s the center of Big Important Things Unlike Your Tank Little Town, and true to form, I think the U of T’s Robarts Library is the first library in North America that has ever refused me admittance. Screw you uppity toffs. The Ontario ‘spade’ area of Barrie and my friends’ home in Collingwood is a region I like more every time. Edmonton is as comfortable a hometown as ever, though the economy is hurting and the whole city looks like it could use some paint and love. It is so pleasant that it’s almost unsettling to see strangers in Canada being polite to each other or even smiling in public areas such as trains, instead of glaring at you for being in the way and then turning back to their phones.

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Kavanaugh vs. Ford

33% for Kavanaugh, 67% against. I suppose opinions on this today are like mixtapes—everyone has one, and no one wants to hear yours. It’s an explosive issue online right now, and people are angry. But if everyone has things they get nervous about, for me one is mob justice. Your anger does not make you righteous, and people are not guilty of crimes because enough social media memes say so. How bad is it? People want a political cartoonist fired for depicting Ford unsympathetically.

In defense of Kavanaugh, he’s surrounded by no small number of bad actors. Has Ford received death threats? So has he. So has his wife, and perhaps mother. No one says believe them. The mob smeared his career, jeered his virginity, and made fun of him for crying. Many argue that all accusations of sexual assault made by women should be believed and it’s even unfair to question Ford—because rape, unlike other petty infractions such as murder or kidnapping, is serious. “I believe her” is lunacy, and alienates the good men who want to be on your side. You can’t assume every allegation of sexual assault is automatically true without opening up a horrific precedent; nor can one maintain the risible lie that “feminism helps men too” while with a straight face deciding that the accused don’t deserve a hearing. Kavanaugh is probably guilty, but I object to him being railroaded before he was able to defend himself and calling it principled.

Having said that, there’s also enough Republicans on Kavanaugh’s side who’ve made paint-peelingly idiotic and offensive statements; and many of the bad actors on her side aren’t her fault. People are understandably distrustful of a party which has shown such contempt for women’s issues. It takes courage for Ford to go through this when the odds are poor for women who do so, and her steady adult demeanor at the hearing gives credibility to her claims. In contrast, Kavanaugh sulked, gave petulant answers, and lost his temper. Whether Kavanaugh is or isn’t guilty of attempted rape, he’s being considered for high office, and his absence of control and gravitas is certainly not what a supreme court justice ought to display under stress. Equally, even if he did not try or commit a rape, is it too much to expect a prospective supreme court judge to have inhabited a certain maturity or depth since childhood for public service?

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March 2018

Jordan Peterson: 12 Rules For Life

I don’t agree with everything that Jordan Peterson says or writes. Dude is pretty intense. But to me it’s one of the most important books written in years. And for those who feel he should be keelhauled for complaining about saying "ze," the book is mostly about, well, the twelve rules, and not really so much about his recent political views about gender. My full review is here.

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February 2018

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I’m not a big sports guy anyway, so I’m not terribly interested in spending $500 to fight for a train ticket to Pyeongchang in order to sit in -10° wind cheering the second qualifying round of women’s 175 meter snow-something. Moreover, the South Koreans have bent over to get the North Koreans to participate (no, I won’t write backwards), at which time they will be sure to attempt to propagandize the glories of their racially-pure Korean paradise to international media. Presumably the main goal is to attempt to seduce South Koreans into embracing their northern blood-brethren and turning against those fiendish Yankee bastards who have oppressed them for 70 years with aid, technology, and trade. Naturally, doing so will involve some minor sacrifices, such as alienating the Americans who protect you, as well as suspending press freedoms as you ‘request’ the media to not say bad things about the North and prosecute protesters for not having the right ‘permits.’ What could possibly go wrong with the motives of a repressive prison state run by a terrorist crime family which repeatedly threatens to nuke you?

Anyway, pardon my bitterness over this business, to which I unwillingly contribute tax dollars as a foreigner. Few other things could make me support Trump, almost against my will. I’m at least cheered that many western journalists see through this transparent feint, and that many Koreans actually oppose allowing an enemy nation to set terms and dominate the news coverage of the games. A more interesting question posed by the National Post: Why are the North Koreans so strangely poor at winning actual medals at Olympic games, in comparison to Soviet and other communist regimes which poured money into winning events? My answer: They don’t care.

North Korea is not communist– essentially it is an absolutist monarchy ruled by gangsters, with a sham ideology of juche covering up purely race-based nationalism. As such, whereas Soviet-bloc nations enjoyed heavy infusions of Soviet athletes and monies, North Korea cannot accept non-Koreans in its society or teams, and diverts most aid that might be used for training to its inner elites. Further, the Soviets were committed to spreading communism, and winning medals was a means to show prestige. North Korea could not care less about the subhuman remainder of the world and has no interest in freeing the workers from their chains– it wants to bully or force South Korea into its possession and then to be left alone forever. It is presently interested in the Olympics purely to propagandize to South Koreans and to turn them against the Americans– a geopolitical agenda unconcerned with whether anything is won in an event.

This is not 1988 and many people here are going to regret hosting the Olympics, just as most nations now find it an overpriced boondoggle even under the best of political circumstances.

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October 2017

Hef in Hell?

As the old saw goes, while it’s sawing, sawfully, we shouldn’t talk about religion or politics at a party. Throw in sex and we have a hat trick—so as expected, the news of Hugh Hefner’s passing at 91 is controversial. We’re so used to people saying “He’s in a better place now.” Umm... is he? It’s interesting to see political cartoons set at the golden gates trying to work this idea, with Hef either being jokingly greeted by Saint Peter, or Hef telling him that he already lived in heaven.

On the plus side, I suppose there are a few concessions to Hef: He propelled a liberation of sexual ideas in popular culture; he was an equal-opportunity pervert, arguing that women do and should enjoy sex, and he employed and furthered the careers of African-Americans and other then-minorities. There was a certain ideal of show biz cool in his Mad Men-era jet-set mansion lifestyle. Though probably few only read the articles, his magazine had cutting edge journalism, philosophy, interviews, and cartoons. The arguments that he encouraged rape culture are pretty flimsy ones. Dare I say it—some of the criticism does redound with “prudish Christians and spoilsport feminists” as the NYT puts it; there likely are some feminists who hate Hefner because he had fun and men having fun is bad, and there likely are some men hypocritically condemning him out of sexual jealousy.

But the minus side is pretty long. While Hef didn’t invent print pornography (there were lad magazines and Tijuana bibles long before 1953), Playboy and the lifestyle he sold destroyed marriages and led to a coarsening of culture, along with a greater commodification and objectification of women. A legion of young men didn’t grow up, hoping to emulate this stylish rat-pack fantasy of rutting and smoking with no need to ever look past oneself to wives or children. Despite Hef’s claim that he loved women, his life suggests he loved women as one does grapes, as something to be consumed and discarded. While the women who populated his mansion and grotto chose to be there, they were apparently poorly treated and easily replaceable when they aged past their best-buy dates. If there’s no agreement on this point, it does seem arguable that Hef would have benefited from dying much younger: By the 21st century, Playboy was shrinking financially and selling assets, and rather than the groovy, sexy, swinging image of previous decades, seeing this skeezy octogenarian limping around held up by eye-rolling identibimbos in a sad, decaying mansion looked pathetic. His final years, uncool and alone with the virility he worshiped failing him, would make a wonderfully Shakespearean last scene.

C.S. Lewis would have kindly written that there are far worse sins in life than sexual addiction. Who knows what soul the man had? But I suppose I agree with Matt Walsh, who writes that death doesn’t automatically make us honorable: “If we must learn anything from Hefner’s life, it’s that a life of selfish pleasure seems so pointless once it’s over.”

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Tax Osteen the Churches!

Revelation: Not many Christians like Joel Osteen or his prosperity gospel, either. He has a punchable face; he perverts the basic values of Christian humility and generosity; he makes us all look bad: Osteen’s CEO ego and his mansions and wealth overshadow the genuinely unselfish and caring leaders and shepherds. After the Harvey flooding in Houston, he handled matters terribly by refusing to open his glittering megachurch to, y’know, feed the hungry and clothe the poor; and then he lied, claiming that the complex had been damaged, and then that no one had asked. Lakewood church finally, grudgingly, complied; but by then other churches and charities and even Islamic houses of worship had helped with aid. You can guess what social media remembered—there were the usual angry slams against Christians and calls to tax churches.

What if churches were taxed? For one thing, churches as organizations aren’t taxed in North America, but the pastors, staff, and congregational members in them sure as heck are. Pastors already do pay income tax as individuals. As well, my own church runs on a budget of about $100,000 a year. From that it pays building utility bills (i.e. heat and power), maintenance, salaries, operating expenses, charitable and mission outreach, and the like. In organizational terms, that’s a peanut-sized budget. Most churches are not like Joel Osteen’s megachurches and just don’t create the sort of revenue that would raise much in taxes even if they were applied. But I suppose what makes Christians nervous isn’t the money, because there wouldn’t be much—rather it is this sentiment that the purpose of taxes is to punish people or institutions rather than ensuring that everyone pays a fair share. Invariably when I hear this scowl that “churches should be taxed” it isn’t about financial justice; it’s about using taxation to kick down an activity someone doesn’t like and wants stopped.

My wife thinks I am rather naive about this, for in her time as a church secretary with Koreans she saw enough financial hanky-panky. Fair enough. Again, just like I worry about the people who hate universities so much that they don’t really care if all-online classes work so long as they save money—I’m not so concerned about actual church taxation as I am about the people pushing for it, who probably won’t be satisfied with that when it doesn’t raise much.

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August 2017

There’s No ‘Quacking Like a Duck’ Business. They’re Frickin’ Nazis.

We all know what this is about: the alt-right neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, VA, to which there’s a certain amount of discussion and heated feelings on social media— just as there’s a certain amount of water in the Atlantic. They’re quite the Nazis—apparently unaware that Hitler was an educated vegetarian who confiscated private guns. But they do have the racial hatred down and should be taken at their word. There’s still some question as to whether they are Nazis, which I find pretty silly: they heil, carry swastikas, and some speak German and have the funny mustache—not a lot of ambiguity left there; what, uh, exactly is still needed?

I write with no schadenfreude as a Canadian, and I like most Americans I’ve met—but holy freaking Dinah, everything is a fight there. There is no our anything; there is their president, who I refuse to recognize, and the dog food company I buy from that’s run by a CEO who supports my team, and the dog food company I won’t, which is run by the CEO who supports the enemy’s. One of the serious problems emerging in American culture is its descent from a “high trust” society to a “low trust” one, where every institution—elections, judiciary, education, media—has to be regarded with suspicion for whose tank it is in. There are two or more subcultures in the States now which have absolutely no trust in the other, let alone social interaction. If I’m a progressive or a conservative, the people on the other side aren’t fellow citizens who I disagree with, but are actually evil and need to be restrained. With no sense of community or shared purpose, it’s hard to maintain a civil society.

It’s a good thing for leftists to denounce the alt-right thugs and useful idiots in Charlottesville and advocate against them. They are scum. But I’m also seeing a unhealthy amount of opportunism as progressives tear down statues and beat the drum of identity politics, as they demand all conservative movements be branded as hate groups. That’s preposterous—it waters down the definition of a radical or terrorist group to cover almost everything, and it antagonizes centrists and moderate conservatives. If you try to stealth-criminalize everyone who’s not a Bernie Sanders progressive as a hate advocate, you’re going to lose every election—or push the country closer to a civil breakdown. Hate speech isn’t protected speech, but the temptation to reclassify every opinion you don’t like as hate speech is a dangerous one and should require a high bar.

And for criminy’s sake, liberals, don’t squander your public goodwill by taking a cheap shot at Christians. Like it or not, many took your side, literally.

I’m a bit alarmist, maybe. I hope. I think the far harder project for the U.S. is to re-foster community—people have to buy in to the social contract and trust institutions, so that you have loyal opposition, not enemies. At present, we have this binary tribalism. I’m not equating Antifa or counter-protestors with neo-Nazis—one group wants opponents fired and the other wants them dead—but there is this regular assumption now that extreme action is okay if my side does it, because I’m right, and anyway, they do worse things. The conservative elites and media in the States have to convincingly disavow the alt-right Nazis even if Trump won’t, and the liberal elites and media need to respect that disavowal. Like any terrorism, I don’t think you can defeat alt-right extremism—it’s a matter of ongoing containment. You deny them oxygen by refusing permits, shutting down websites, and outing ringleaders. The media has enjoyed selling clicks while tut-tutting the protest—but as time goes on, these protests are going to shrink in size and impact until they become an ineffectual public joke, as the Westboro people are, a pathetic real-life version of Al Bundy’s “No Ma’am” team.

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Guam and North Korea

In the past I’ve dismissed most fears of actual war with North Korea as childish alarmism to get website clicks—and pointed out that South Koreans remain pretty meh about such talk, having heard it for half a century. I admit to being more nervous than usual, and I’ll admit that a few of my expat colleagues in the country are now re-weighing staying here long term. North Korea, to repeat the things I seem to endlessly repeat, makes these overblown threats because this is all the leverage it has. It has no intention of attacking the United States or Seoul with a nuclear strike, because it knows very well that the Americans would exterminate them as a nation in response. Rather, the continual goal is to reunify the peninsula by force, by frustrating the Americans into leaving so that the regime can bully South Korea into absorption. For this reason, I find the recent U.S. alarmism over nuclear attack annoying, because in a real sense it is awfully narcissistic; it’s not always about you, dudes. I think North Korea chose Guam fairly randomly, wanting to show that it’s tough after Trump made a belligerent speech threatening “fire and fury.” Otherwise, again, the goal for the Kim crime family is taking South Korea and then telling everyone who isn’t in the superior Korean race to go to hell, forever. Does no one ever notice that these supposed Marxists have zero interest in freeing other nations’ workers from their chains?

I actually think Trump did the right thing in calling Kim’s bluff over Guam and essentially saying, well, are you going to do it, little dog? In a regime where Kim Jong-Un is a near-god, he cannot afford to repeatedly lose face in front of his inner circle by backing down. Even if Trump has minimal competence or sustained interest in anything, I give him credit for not making another anodyne on-the-wrong-side-of-history Obama speech with pretty words that accomplish nothing. A knee-jerk hatred of everything Trump does shouldn’t obscure that even a blind squirrel finds some nuts. The sanctions help—now, more of them, with teeth this time. But I do worry about a miscalculation or accident leading to a scenario where either an embattled Kim or Trump can’t afford to blink.

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April 2017

It’s War. No, Now It’s War. No, Really, This Time It’s War.

Well, yes, someday it might be war. But you would be surprised at how blasé South Koreans are about the threats made between Trump and the North Koreans over the past week or so. While people do take it seriously, it is discussed within the context of the upcoming presidential elections. Otherwise South Koreans have been hearing these overblown we’ll-turn-Seoul-into-a-sea-of-fire Dr. Evil threats for decades and roll their eyes. For odd reasons, the political parties here have somewhat reversed positions: The right is globalist, outward-looking, and in some ways progressive, whereas the left is ultra-nationalist, isolationist, and traditional, and still can’t quite convince itself that North Korea and China are the bad guys. But again, politicians have been relatively quiet about recent events. When I read social media from the west lately, however, it is full of panicked posts, mostly capitalizing on hatred of Trump, announcing that WWIII is around the corner.

I’d be a fool to not be a little worried, living about 50 kilometers from the North Korean border in Incheon. I’ve had ‘the talk’ with my wife: What would we do? The Americans might protect our daughter. As for me, I will ask for help from the Canadian embassy, which will be closed until the next 9-11:30 weekday, when they answer the phone in French and tell me they don’t provide that service. At any rate, I’ve written about North Korea here, here, here, and here, and every year I’ve lived in South Korea I’ve been told the North can’t possibly last much longer. But it always does, and its dangerousness keeps increasing. How bad is it this time, really?

Don’t listen to the following people:

x1. The America Haters, who are usually trolls, or paid Chinese bloggers, or liberal arts millennials hoping to get laid on the next road trip to Coachella. Their narrative goes that the U.S. has no moral superiority over North Korea, and might be worse, as poor North Korea is just defending itself against a country which bombs everyone, and wants to be left alone. In short, these people are—idiots. No one is claiming that the States has pure motives, or that they don’t have blood on their hands. But the States is imperfectly an open society with free press and movement of people, and it optimally intervenes militarily to prevent worse atrocities, such as in Syria. North Korea is a totalitarian regime run by hereditary gangsters; operates mass concentration camps; deals with contraband heroin, weapon technology, foreign assassinations, and conterfeit money; and uses starvation as a tool for control. It regularly threatens South Korea and the U.S. with atomic weapons. If you actually think Standing Rock is “just as bad” as Camp 22, and you’re spiteful enough to take North Korea’s side, I suppose my question is, what exactly would meet the bar for defending the U.S.? If a repressive, terrorist hyper-racist mafia state which sees all non-Koreans as subhuman still elicits your sympathy, what would not?

x2. The ‘but North Korea will win a war’ Scaredy-Cats. That’s simply ludicrous. Under no realistic circumstances could North Korea militarily prevail over South Korea, let alone the United States and Japan as it claims. North Korea has a huge but poorly-rationed army, its weaponry is mostly Soviet-era and hampered by fuel shortages, and it has perhaps a dozen nuclear weapons which might work. The United States has state-of-the-art weaponry and 3-4,000 nuclear weapons which will work. Certainly, China entering as a military force changes everything, but South Korea alone has some 700,000 soldiers and 21st century equipment. The justified fear is that in the first few days the North can take enormous casualities in Seoul; that is true. But within a week its forces will be like a medieval cavalry facing a German panzer division.

x3. The ‘Kim is crazy and could do anything’ people. As I’ve written repeatedly, North Korea uses threats and bluffs because that’s the only leverage it has. It has lasted 65 years through the appearance of being unhinged and unpredictable. In real fact it operates with cold, steely genocidal calculation. The Kim family knows very well that use of nuclear weapons on Seoul or America is suicide for themselves. It is the threat of use which they hope to use to extract money or benefits for regime survival—or, in their dream scenario, to cow South Korea into absorption.

x4. The China will Attack! people. China hates North Korea. They were ideological allies of convenience half a century ago, but now China wants the benefits of being a respected international partner, and they have to keep taking flak for propping up an ungrateful sponge they now despise. Why do they do it? China doesn’t give a shit about any other country (see: bullying of South Korea over THAAD). They fear the domestic problems which would occur after a North Korean collapse, with streams of hungry, angry refugees; or just as bad, a reunited Korea allied to the west, with U.S. and U.N. troops. China won’t do diddly to defend North Korea unless it sees its own interests threatened. Admittedly, that’s a big variable. But China won’t be blinded by socialist fraternity; they’ll act based on their usual what’s-in-it-for-us foreign policy, and they may accept deals.

x5. The Diplomats: ‘Why are we scared of dialogue if they ask? Can we blame them if we won’t talk?’ Yes, we can. The United States doesn’t have high-level talks with Somalian pirates or ISIS chiefs, because doing so would lend them legitimacy and respectability—and because we know such groups won’t hold to any agreement. North Korea is not a Marxist state; it is an organized crime family which uses racist triumphalism to coerce citizen unity. Gangsters aren’t interested in ideologies; they want power, stability, and cash. The regime uses an intensive propaganda program which teaches its citizens that they are the pure, superior Korean race, and we have no obligation to deal fairly with stupid, inferior foreigners. The regime is openly and explicitly proud of bragging to its citizens that it violates international agreements. North Korea has never held to any bargain, and anyone still advocating six-party talks is either out to lunch or sees them as a delaying tactic.

So what do we do, Mister Expert?

I don’t know. But I think North Korea is closer to collapse than it has been since its famines of the early 90s, and maybe closer. Its young leader is feared but not respected, and he has alienated key parts of the regime through show trials and executions. It is now much more difficult to preserve an information cordon in the country as ever-improving cellphone signals, USB drives, and drones flood in. North Korea’s cash supply is increasingly threatened as countries clamp down on its slave labor and illicit trading. Russia can’t subsidize it; China wants to less and less; and even South Korea is finally, finally beginning to see that it can’t bribe its long-lost brother into loving it (this infuriatingly might change post-election). The regime has been uncannily resilient, but it’s in a very bad place now. The biggest danger for the U.S. or others is miscalculation or military error, which will escalate fast.

Much depends on whether Trump really is a hyperactive kid who will lose interest by next week, or if he’s smarter than given credit for. The optimist in me thinks he (or his advisors) actually are on the right course. For Trump to bomb Syria and Afghanistan (notwithstanding whether it was the right thing to do there) sends a message to North Korea in the only language they understand: force. Similarly, sending aircraft carriers to the region is high-benefit, low-cost. It scares North Korea and China without committing to anything, and they can be recalled without losing face. In the meantime, maximizing sanctions and embargoing Chinese companies dealing with the regime squeezes off their money. If Trump is a buffoon inside the U.S., he has some things correct in foreign affairs: It is true that China has done nothing, and it’s true that the U.N. will do nothing, and it’s true that more has shifted in America’s direction in the last week than in eight years of (as much as I like the man) Obama’s pretty speeches followed by nothing.

Am I losing my mind here? Am I actually starting to slightly like Trump? I leave it to my vast legions of three, possibly four, readers of this blogsite to say. And do not think I’m unaware of the personal risks I have living here in Incheon. I have friends on base—who might die—as I can. And as much as I’d love to see North Korea liberated, my existence will probably be more dangerous after reunification. All I need is thousands of drunken, unemployable, bitter North Korean men wandering around Seoul at night, filled with a lifetime of hatred for foreigners. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

As ever, my online-friend Robert Kelly has more to say on this, and he’s a specialist in the matter as opposed to being a crank like me. Though I guarantee that while writing this post neither my wife nor daughter wandered into my room.

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October 2016

A Democracy of Potty-Mouths

I wrote about this two years ago, and still feel the same: That constant swearing doesn’t make you more genuine or ‘intelligent,’ as I keep reading lately. Rather, it’s the opposite: It suggests that you have a childish inability to control yourself, that you have an adolescent spitefulness in shocking people, that you lack respect for others, and that you have an inability to express yourself. Incessant cursing also tends to drain the dynamic range out of your writing and speaking– someone who rarely swears will make a real impact when they do for emphasis. “But I’m angry and passionate about my cause!” Yes, just as every cause is justified to someone, resulting in a public sphere where everybody curses all the time.

Perhaps it makes me classist, in saying that news media should hypocritically censor Trump’s obscenities, but report straight poor blacks who are quoted swearing, as Slate claims– without once considering a third option of just never printing vulgarities without asterisks or brackets. It’s interesting even if saddening to see the slide in journalistic standards over the last decade, much of it through competition with the internet, where profanities are common. I remember in the late ‘90s where newspapers almost comically danced around conveying that Bill Clinton received oral sex. Now Trump plainly uses all of George Carlin’s seven deadly swear words, and the press has largely given in and printed them. I can see where this is going from the comments: The argument is already being made that any criticism of swear words is at best elitist prudishness about sex, is at middling anti-democratic in wanting to censor others (notice such people are usually the ones trying to police our speech 24/7), and is at worst counterproductive to exposing what people, particularly women, experience. No, no, and no. I’m not somehow opposed to sex because I don’t want to see its most degraded verbal synonym used in every sentence as every part of speech. Nor does bathroom defecation need to be a part of every utterance. I’m not demanding that media avoid them because-of-the-children, but expecting that they be above this, because there are vulgar ideas we don’t need thrown in our faces constantly.

We don’t have to spew obscenities to treat seriously sexual assault or other social problems, and to me degrading a woman’s genitals by comparing them to a slang for a cat and then larding the word around everywhere further trivializes the problem. In this limited area Trump has won a point if we now take these words as normal and appropriate for public discourse. I know I’m not perfect. But I tend to swear silently, and it’s always about Korean subways.

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Barf.

The Beatles have made a substantial contribution. Bob Dylan, however, is the worst poet alive. He can maybe get one good line in a song, and the rest is gibberish. - Kurt Vonnegut.

His voice sounds like a drunken Fozzie bear. His lyrics, even where decipherable, are irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t happen to live in 1963. Why, oh, why, do people revere this man so much? I simply cannot understand. He is known for being rude and aloof, and typically hasn’t bothered to acknowledge the Nobel he’s just been given. The response is the usual maddening enabling, “Oh, that’s just Dylan, who doesn’t kowtow to the important and famous.” Why are these bad manners simply uncritically accepted from him?

Please stop about how real and authentic he is. Or how he’s such-a-rebel because he played an electric guitar (the courage!) in front of stoned folkies at a festival. There’s some folk music I love, but much of it is pretentious twaddle stuck in the hippie era, and people need to stop being intimidated by the folkie snobs. There’s no reason why folk is by definition more honest somehow than prog rock, jazz, or even some hip-hop, all because young guys who live with their parents play acoustic guitars at parties, singing cheesy truisms in order to get laid. And spare me the condescension about how I just don’t get it, and I need to check out Album x to appreciate Dylan’s true greatness. I’ve listened to him, for as many minutes as I could bear to stand. There’s nothing to get. Lyrics are not more poetic or profound because they are accompanied by guitars instead of synthesizers. Because Dylan’s lyrics can be political or hostile to the establishment doesn’t make them superior. Years ago I wrote about how this idea that “only people with education can understand his Dylanness” is intellectual posturing, and I’ve had the stink-eye at grad parties and pubs for it. I have no regrets. His music to me (I admit I liked the Traveling Wilburys) remains mostly trite and unlistenable.

Giving the man the Nobel Literature Prize is no more than a trendy pandering to nostalgic boomers still convinced the world began and ended with the ‘60s. Bob Dylan does not deserve a literature prize regardless of anyone’s taste for his music: Sung lyrics are not literature, which is, well, ‘literary,’ i.e. a textual performance (yes, he published a book– in 1971); and the prize is not a lifetime achievement award. The prize which in past honored Shaw, Steinbeck, Munro, and Márquez is now given to this pretentious boob, and its award is an insult to any authors who actually, y’know, write things: Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, among others who might have richly deserved this acknowledgement. This is what the Nobel committee thinks of authors. “You just don’t understand the wider meaning of literature.” Fine. If literature now means whatever we want, why not architects, or interpretive dancers, or supermodels, or Trump, whose train wreck of a campaign must be a sort of full-on performance art, at base? At least he’s written some books in the last decade.

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September 2016

Peak Political Correctness?

Voltaire never said, “I don’t agree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” And whenever you hear someone parrot this saying, it is usually a means to feeling morally fair and even-handed, while doing nothing about the person being shamed, harassed, fined, or fired for saying the wrong thing. Somehow this “defending” never occurs, though it is always promised, as though this counts for something.

This coming U.S. election has proven itself already, as Obama is increasingly open in saying in our increasingly potty-mouthed times, a shitshow (OK, I swore). But maybe one positive outcome is that there are signs that peak PC is happening; I don’t remember people being so openly contemptuous about political correctness. Even a U of T professor recently states that he’s not recognizing any “right” of people to choose their own pronouns. Somehow it has become assumed that English can be changed by fiat, or that everyone has a democratic entitlement to make new words and others must accept them into the lexicon. But mostly what rankles is the idea that I have to because HuffPost says so. True, some of this is right-wing blathering about freedom (which is partly justified, as much of PC’s dialectic is warmed-over Marxism, as Lessing notes). But the problem with this is that opposition to PC then becomes an us-vs.-them party line, and it would be healthier if liberals also recognized that there is nothing “liberal” about a methodology which has never once been voted on by anyone, but has always been imposed by political, media, corporate, and campus elites: because fairness. There is growing resentment of a set of rules and attitudes which, like Camus might say, are despicable because they are only obeyed out of fear– because one is afraid of ostracism or losing one’s livelihood. I predicted in June that there would eventually be a backlash to frivolous use of the charge “racist” where the term would be embraced ironically, and it’s happening.

About time. The people who do defend political correctness are also mostly despicable, and if it’s true that in forty years we will see protesters of gay marriage in ‘15 as the same troglodytes who protested interracial marriage in ‘65– then the cheerleaders of PC codes on campuses and workplaces also deserve to be tarred with the same piercing disgust and eye-rolling as we viewed the McCarthyites and the rabid Victorians who called for slipcovers on chair legs. In recent polls, around 35% of millennials stated that speech which offends minorities should not be protected; the numbers thankfully drop quickly for Gen-X, boomer, and war generations, as we get further back to the people who, well, fought and bled for something kinda like this. In the 90’s there was a lot of smirking among fellow X’ers for those naïve, tree-hugging hippies of the ‘60s. Imagine how young people in a half-century will view the millennials in retrospect, a cohort of which over a third did not see free speech as a basic right, and of which 70% say it isn’t essential to live in a democracy. Shame. Who will praise these ideas, or the safe-space cowards who threw tantrums for them? Will anyone write folk songs or the next Forrest Gump for these quislings?

The retort I read is that PC is just the impetus to be polite, and the rules of civility have simply shifted so that it’s rude to make whatever-ist comments, just as our parents’ cocktail parties had their own speech prohibitions. Somehow the people who think it’s fine to shout down or physically attack an invited speaker to a campus are now Emily Post. Beware of this back-door equation of etiquette with PC, and the false binary that its detractors only want to be loud, jerky frat-boys and make fat jokes like Trump. It’s perfectly consistent to want to be able to discuss ideas or have differing opinions, while being respectful to others. But again, almost none of us got a say on what these replacement rules of propriety now are. Moreover, not discussing at all an ever-expanding number of politicized no-go zones isn’t really “politeness”– it was, and is, merely self-censorship. Those who advocate certain forms of speech as ways of showing inclusion for marginalized groups aren’t so much the problem; that is very different from decreeing there be no choice. Politeness, by definition, is voluntary.

The fear of expressing the ‘wrong’ view, ironically, also does little to solve issues, for the interchange of opinions and information is chilled. Much public speaking now is vanilla and bland, and we complain that politicians are vanilla and bland. In Canada, it’s a statistical reality that First Nations people experience problems with alcohol abuse and unemployment; but no one can talk about these issues productively without being called names; ditto with race in the U.S. It would now be difficult for me to teach the Merchant of Venice in the west, not because of the anti-Semitic issues, but because of the male protagonists in the play who embrace and express their love for each other. Some students will read them as homosexuals (I don’t agree, but fair enough); some will belly-laugh like Beavis and Butthead that they’re fags ha-ha; and those who disagree will say nothing because they fear being called homophobic. Rather than risking having a failed discussion about historical concepts of male friendship, it’s safer to just not teach the play, especially if I’m an adjunct. This is how we will be remembered: for a philosophy that’s like a too-tight Band-aid, one which can never heal wounds because sunlight or opposing winds are not allowed.

We can do better; we can stop taking it, and recognize that political correctness is a coerced mindset which lacks any moral or popular legitimacy. We can show that speech can be civil without it being policed. And if humanities departments have to wither for a decade because enough millennials with a brain finally refuse to enrol in them, perhaps it’s a necessary loss if it helps kill this nonsense.

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Girl Watching (Revisited)

If it’s ever read, probably some feminists will respond to my rant here by thinking, “Gee, thanks for your advice for us!” But I sometimes wonder if advocacy groups as a class really think much about how their message is actually received, or if it’s only about the message itself. Today on Facebook there’s the umpteenth promotion by some group, where women whose body types don’t conform to media ideals of beauty are presented as models. Perhaps the whole point is that how men feel about these campaigns doesn’t matter, because we’re the problem. Or, more charitably, it may be that the ads aren’t directed at us. Fair enough. But I’d kinda think that if changing social norms is the goal, these questions might be relevant:

1. Yes, how edgy and transgressively postmodern you are, how naughty and body-positive empowering it is, to parody men’s ideals of beauty with ostensibly unattractive women... just like all the other media campaigns over the last three decades which parodied beauty norms and were equally cheeky and rebellious. Geez, do you know how many hits on Google “challenging beauty standards” gets with pictures of heavyset women jumping through the beach surf, as though no one’s ever made fun of Baywatch previously? At some point, really, the ‘80s would like their trope back. Or don’t gripe when the self-congratulatory beauty parodies... are parodied. The internet can be merciless.

2. Yes, I agree that popular media portray impossible standards for young women to attain. And that’s awful. But you know what... most of us know that these beauty depictions are unrealistic. I am aware, thank you, that Victoria’s Secret images are Photoshopped and airbrushed; that does not prevent anyone from enjoying them, anymore than they find images of Jessica Rabbit attractive. Perhaps there really are young men out there so stupid that they think these models actually exist as shown and other women should meet their levels; perhaps they also think that half-naked women will inevitably show up at their doors to deliver pizza or complain about the noise, and will then have sex with them, because they saw it in a video. But it’s a little condescending to continually tell me that these beauty images are unattainable; I, uh, know that. Many women read romances with buff, shirtless pirates named Lance Heartskip (not this pirate!), who need to be tamed by the women they seduce. Most know too well that such men don’t actually exist and are exaggerated fantasies.

3. I’m just not sure what good such campaigns do in the long run. Our emotional and physical responses to certain body shapes and types don’t change much over the centuries, and are unlikely to be legislated or conditioned into someone’s agenda of diversity or fairness. If anything, I imagine many men see these promotions as women trying to take away something from men because they enjoy it. That’s a pretty old cliché of feminism; but I’m not totally sure there isn’t some truth to the charge, and making your target audience feel you’re mocking them or that you’re acting out of spite is never a very effective strategy. Again, maybe the whole point is to appeal to women’s thinking in the ads, and that’s fine.

I wish there were a better way. I just don’t know what it is.

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Canada Musings

I was back in Canada for three weeks this summer, in Edmonton. Great weather and nice to see friends and family. A few miscellaneous ramblings, as Car & Driver used to put it:

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July 2016

THAAD All Over

I’m just writing about Korea less on Quora and social media. Perhaps I’m burning out temporarily, tired of being Koreasplained to by angry nationalists for not saying every type of kimchi is sufficiently wonderful, or for daring to say something nice about Japan. If I’m not allowed an opinion which isn’t 100% Uncle Tom, then I’m just walking away and taking my marbles home.

North Korea is another matter. For the entire time I’ve been here I’ve read pundits predicting that the regime can’t possibly last, but it always does. But I do think that North Korea is going through a dangerous phase right now where collapse or opening is more likely than at anytime since the ‘90s. Sanctions are proliferating and biting; South Korea has stopped trying to pay NK to be friends; its information cordon is failing. And now THAAD, a U.S. defense weapons system, has apparently been approved by South Korea for installation here.

China has responded by being... well, jerks, trying to bully Seoul over the decision. While they have some grounds (who wouldn’t want an unfriendly country’s missiles in their neighbor’s yard?), this is the country that claims others are “interfering in our internal affairs” if someone belches the word “Taiwan” in a Reykjavik tavern, or if a Canadian journalist has the temerity to question a Chinese diplomat IN CANADA– and now they are code-threatening South Korea for taking steps to defend its existence from an enemy’s missiles. With friends like these, it’s hardly surprising that SK has acted in its own interests. I expect that China will attempt to frustrate the implementation of THAAD by fomenting opposition inside SK, but will ultimately minimize its effects with a counter defense system for domestic security and prestige. Or, they may also read the defense system as part of the intensifying global and geopolitical costs of sheltering and enabling a genocidal terror regime. This could go any way, but unless China acts on spite and doubles down on supporting NK, or the South Koreans elect another Daehan Minguk leftist who tries to bribe NK into loving them, the Pyongyang mafia is on increasingly thin ice, cut off from funds and allies.

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Bye Songdo

I’ve been busier than the free onion dispenser at a Korean Costco, because we’ve moved. We had a two-year lease in Songdo, the new planned suburb in southern Incheon, and now we’ve moved to an apartment in east Incheon. I have mixed feelings on Songdo upon leaving. On the plus side, Korea did get it right; the streets are wide, the architecture is really interesting, there are lots of parks, and there’s a good international vibe. Nicely done. On the down side, it’s isolated– for all the usual self-trumpeting about how eco-super-global-world-leading-techno-global-hybrid-green Songdo is, it has poor public transportation links. Because everyone’s new there, it’s a cold place with very little community. And– dare I say it?– it’s overpriced. Our utility bills were higher there, real estate is inflated, and everything in restaurants and shops costs more in Songdo. Central Park is great, and I know many expats really like its Singapore / Manhattan international feel, but... well, it’s awfully pricey for a damp ex-bird swamp.

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June 2016

Orlando & Brexit: Not a Cartoon Network Show

Yowch, it’s been a rough week or two. 50 dead in Orlando from a mass shooting. England decides in a 52/48 referendum vote to leave the European Union. So what are my critical thoughts on this, which you’ve all been waiting for?

Politics are fractious anywhere, but I often wonder if western culture was always quite this balkanized, where not only do different constituencies not agree, they’re not even having the same debate. Someone commented on Facebook that if there’s another mass shooting like Orlando, Trump will win. I’m skeptical of that. The GOP tribe blamed the shootings on Islamic terrorism, and Democrats blamed it on homophobia (bizarrely blaming Christians, just to be sure), and there the narrative rested without much mutual analysis of other possibilities.

A similar phenomena seems to have happened on Brexit. I suppose I’m 80% against England leaving (not that it’s my business anyway as a non-citizen); the EU has been a positive economic and political force which has strengthened the European economy and made war less possible. England will have an economic cost to leaving. On the other side, I admit to some sympathy for those people who haven’t benefited from globalization, who resented having their immigration levels dictated by a distant bureaucracy in Brussels, and who saw EU integration as nothing more than a raft of intrusive and costly rules they have little say in. These people are treated with patronizing scorn by media and politicians, and are still presently dismissed as xenophobes and bigots without attempting to understand their grievances and legitimate problems. As the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley says, “Top tip for winning future elections: don’t call the electorate ‘thick’ or ‘losers.’ It, er, turns them off.” I’m also rather disturbed by the online gripe currently circulating where millennials complain that the votes of oldies in England should be suspect because they’ll live with the results for fewer years. Do we really jettison democracy that quickly and adopt Logan’s Run ideas when we don’t get our way, to now say that some votes should count more than others? Remember, these were the idiots calling everything offensive and discriminatory, who now think that ageism is just fine.

Again, I think leaving will be a mistake, though the sky won’t fall and the pound will bounce back. Scotland might leave, but some of these copycat calls for referenda are just froth (Texit? Seriously?). And if the EU takes the humbling as a sign it should pull back on overreach and go back to being a currency and trade union, rather than further directing how bananas should be shaped, its survival may be surer. I suppose we all argue based on what we fear; I’ve had people scold me on Facebook for enabling these violent, brownshirt wannabe 52% oiks who hate immigrants. But to me the danger of mob rule isn’t much worse than that from governments or elites who treat citizens with contempt for not voting “properly.” In Canada in 1992 the Charlottetown Accord failed in a referendum, and as a result we haven’t had a referendum since, as presumably the little people can’t be trusted to heed their masters. The same happened with Brexit, with many resenting the referendum itself for allowing mere voters a say in difficult matters with big words, along with attacks on the idea of having them at all. It’s equally cancerous to make people feel that their betters don’t care what they think, or that they’ll be called names just for asking questions.

Addendum: My prediction as a sometimes linguist: within a decade the word racist is going to be emptied of meaning and increasingly useless as a term. You just can’t hurl it at seventeen million Brits, or immediately at anyone who doesn’t agree with you, without it eventually losing its power and inviting defiance against the word.

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May 2016

When Push Comes to Shove

On one hand, Justin Trudeau’s recent rock-’em-sock-’em isn’t exactly a controversy on the level of Watergate, or the burning of the Reichstag. Although he roughly banged into the NDP MP, her reaction did seem to be like a soccer dive, and has been mocked as such in the media. Today’s press and social media have jokes and memes of the entire NDP party arriving to parliament in full-body casts and slings. On other other, Canadians pride themselves (maybe too much, but so be it) on being a lawful and polite people, and look with scorn on countries where parliaments or elected assemblies descend into fist-fights. This is all the more so with the freaking prime minister, who is expected to act with dignity and mature gravitas anywhere, let alone in parliament. Trudeau acted like a tantrum-throwing child, shouting the f-word at other MPs and then running out to shove one into his seat and knocking the female NDP member. In the gallery, apparently “Stephen Harper can be seen observing the altercation with a cocked eyebrow and a bemused expression on his face.” I’d be looking with bemusement too, a classier expression than saying “So, miss me yet!”

That being said: Trudeau did apologize profusely, and I think most people accept his apology as sincere. We’re Canadians; we know our apologies. It’s time to let it go. Anything past this is starting to look like personal axe-grinding and petty point-scoring, whichever party is doing it. Besides, as I expand on below, it’s all pretty chiclet-chewing stuff compared to what’s happening in the U.S. right now.

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Go Bern Yourself

Enough. I’m not feeling the Bern, and I’m tired of the sanctimony and bullying from his supporters. I liked some of Sanders’ ideas and thought he was a good challenger to Clinton, and he seemed to be a man of some integrity. But the fans are bloody obnoxious, and increasingly have an end-justifies-the-means approach to victory whereby you support the party when you win a state, and when you don’t you whine, riot, and attack officials with death threats, as in Nevada. If this guerrilla assault doesn’t work, you come up with abstract, Marxist-lite platitudes about how his revolutionary rightness should simply override whatever people merely vote on. What was the name of that party you were running for? And please don’t hand me this incessant claim that “our people didn’t do it, they were imposters.” You can still speak against the actions themselves, and the fact that no one is should be telling.

Worse, Bernie Sanders has done nothing to condemn the violence and threats, offering a phoned-in statement with a non-apology justifying it as merited by the spontaneous will of the people righteously protesting rules he suddenly sees as unfair. Even worse, he discredits and assails party leaders who dare to criticize him for his stance, vowing to get them fired when in office. How is this better than what Trump does?

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April 2016

The Center Cannot Mold

Something I appreciate about Korea which is kind of intangible is the cultural belief that things will get better, as opposed to the gloom I see in the west and especially when I lived in Vegas: the assumption that things will get worse and our civilization will inevitably decline. Perhaps there’s something about western culture (Roman Empire-ish) that we love this narrative of loss, even when it isn’t true: in some respects people in the west have safer, easier lives than ever before, and the vastly increased knowledge of bad news via Internet and TV falsely amplifies our impressions. Yet in my career area, there are so many jeremiads about the death of the liberal arts and the professorship generally that they form a genre. One could easily put together books of collected essays titled Now That’s What I Call Reasons to Not be a Professor, Vol. 4.

For the humanities, the fearmongering is warranted. I’m not sure there has been a time when there has been such a perfect storm of forces arrayed against humanities education. Politicians openly scoff at liberal arts programs and propose bills to defund un-“practical” majors. Corporate techno-hucksters are busy peddling MOOC substitutes for teaching. STEM disciplines with sexy eco-digital robot nano-biotic buzzwords get all the funding, and the humanities get the scraps, if that. Because of the strange bedfellows of current American politics, we have a Republican party which is contemptuous of higher education and a Democrat party which corrupts the humanities from within. The self-inflicted ideological cancer of the humanities partly answers the question, why does everyone hate us? I first fell in love with English literature because I was drawn to the beauty and history of the stories and words and theories, and not to be a social justice warrior for values not my own. When I see North American universities remove Shakespeare and Chaucer from the curriculum for reading lists enforcing warmed-over Marxist agendas of victimhood, and see debate and discussion shut down by the various stormtroopers of the perpetually offended, I don’t see a healthy institution, or one likely to receive much sympathy or support from science, medicine, or engineering departments, let alone from the public.

I understand why some people feel that the humanities are crap, or the ever-popular “philosophy and sociology are nice, but aren’t practical for getting a job” theme, which allows people to think of themselves as both enlightened and worldly at the same time. What I don’t understand is, why are such people such poor winners? So you don’t think students should major in the humanities: well, you’ve gotten your wish: they increasingly don’t. The percentage of university students in the US and Canada who major in all the combined humanities was about 15% a generation ago, and it’s about 10% now and falling. Maritime Canadian universities have seen a 45% average decline in humanities majors in the last decade. So you think humanities professors are all out-of-touch crackpots who abuse tenure? Congratulations. Tenure is dying. A generation ago, about 60% of professors were tenure or tenure-track; now it’s about 25% and falling. Actual tenured professors in the USA account for about 17%. Within a generation, tenure will be a historical concept.

In the longer run of decades or centuries from now I think the western university system will adapt and revivify. Universities and humanities education are just too essential to western culture and growth to totally and permanently disappear, and I’m hopeful that some new post-industrial and post-scarcity economic system will emerge which will both enable more leisurely learning and require more abstract skills. But I’ll be retired or gone then, and for those now in their university years, training to be a professor is a very risky career choice, with certain exceptions. All of them in STEM.

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March 2016

Short Takes

1. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

To repeat what I said in August about Donald Trump, the ordinary political and rhetorical tools won’t work in taking down Trump. You can call him every -ist there is; you can write all the preachy, P.C. open letters you like, which he won’t (can’t) read. There’s a whole demographic of people in the states who are so tired of being called all these names just for being alive, and who have seen their standard of living decline since Reagan was in office, who will cheer for Trump all the louder. Trump could say almost anything to outraged elites and journalists, and this demographic would love him more; he’s rich, and he can say what he wants and get away with it. I don’t think Trump can win an election, and I certainly don’t hold with the violent white trash who support him. But trying to shut down their rallies by protests and cheap tricks will not make anything better. There is an entire subculture of people in the states who do not trust the establishment, or its values or its media, so much so that many will vote for someone the wealthy, respectable, or progressive set is shocked by, out of spite. There are going to be rough spots as the west transitions from late capitalism into an information economy, and whoever does win in November will not have an easy time holding an increasingly divided and fractious country together. Remember, this is the country that allows concealed guns in classrooms.

2. Alberta

I don’t know why I defend Alberta. It’s not like I owe the province something after I had to leave in 2003, not being able to build a life there (a mean part of me feels schadenfreude in seeing them wrecked by the NDP). I never gelled with the cowboy culture well. But out of loyalty, or just caring about the people I left, or just resentment myself, I still cannot believe that Canada threw away a cold but competent prime minister to elect Prime Minister Selfie, an ex-drama teacher who apparently does little beside preen for social media photos or attend forums announcing feel-good platitudes about Muslim terrorists/ the environment. If you’re going to preach about objectifying women, don’t crow over how hawt Justin is. Worse, it’s the same Trudeau middle finger to the west already. The Ontario car industry is in crisis in 2008? Piles o’ dough to help them. Bombardier in Montreal is about to go bankrupt again because of shoddy work and mismanagement? Bailouts are on the way. But Alberta, which doesn’t have much savings after being raped for $10 billion a year for decades to pay for the rest of the country, gets nothing but mocking. Worse, Trudeau does nothing to promote the pipelines which could help ship Alberta oil out east, kowtowing to enviro-nazis who cannot seem to understand that oil is still moved one way or the other, and is presently transported in fuel-burning trucks or imported on fuel-burning ships from Saudi Arabia.

Yes, I know that global warming is a serious problem. We can support alternative energy (I’m all for it) and enable clean oil in the meantime. Why is it so hard to contemplate doing both?

3. Saudi Arabia

One of the most important events of the decade has gone by fairly unreported, as the mainline media has been consumed by ISIS and Trump, and social media has been obsessed by whining about how the mainline media doesn’t sufficiently fawn over Bernie. Few people of my age or older could have anticipated that OPEC, the petrochemical cartel which brought world economies to their knees in the seventies, would now be more or less finished. Much of the blame should go to Saudi Arabia, which played and lost a dangerous gamble over the last year. Seeing that world oil prices were falling, SA decided to maintain production in order to drive its competitors out of business, before jacking up prices again. This isn’t some crackpot theory: SA’s oil minister, Ali Al-Naimi, explicitly stated this plan, telling oil executives in Houston about their intentions. Now SA is in trouble, as Russia and Venezuala continue to produce, and now Iran is ramping up production post-sanctions, and Saudi Arabia, having an economy based on 1) sand and 2) oil, as well as, by the way, fighting a war in Yemen, is rocketing toward financial insolvency.

When I worked in a foreign relations program in Keimyung in Daegu, some of my faculty colleagues were contemptuous of the concept of soft power, the idea that countries which have a moral or cultural influence of goodwill abroad can partially compensate for a lack of hard military or economic force. But Saudi Arabia, I predict, will be a good demonstration of soft power’s viability; the country basically has no friends, as can be seen already by Obama’s quick abandonment of the kingdom as he tries to rebuild a relationship with Iran. As with “what’s-in-it-for-me” China, SA’s lack of allies or international sympathy is going to be a liability if and when an economic emergency does arise.

4. Australia

I don’t know why I’m so cranky lately. Maybe it’s the Trump effect on people. I did spend a few weeks in Australia this January on research / holiday, and really liked it. The people are friendly and relaxed, and there’s just more fun in the air. Melbourne is a wonderful, pretty little city with markets and shops and a gorgeous campus–like a southern San Francisco; Tasmania has wild, exotic plants and animals and Hobart has colorful wood and brick buildings; Sydney has a laid-back beach vibe. I’d easily live there. Basically, Australia is Canada with nice weather and without the stick up its bum. It’s not a cheap destination, but it’s one of the un-hassle-est destinations I’ve ever been to.

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February 2016

Ken’s Letter of Divorce

Concordia University of Edmonton, Canada is my alma mater, where I attended high school (1982-85) and my bachelors program (1987-91). At the time it was known as Concordia College, and it was affiliated with Lutheran Church-Canada (LCC), had a vibrant Christian life on campus, and a community of faculty, alumni, and local congregations. As of November 2015, the university has removed all references to Christianity from its mission statement and online graphics (re Brave New World its cross is now a plus sign), and apparently self-identifies as a non-denominational public institution.

Consider this my final letter of divorce from the college.

As maudlin as it sounds in our cynical year of 2016 where many emotions are as narcissistic and ephemeral as the Facebook memes with horses and sunsets they are packaged in, Concordia has always had a place in my heart, and in many ways made me what I am. Although I first went there reluctantly as a boy, over the years I developed a deep affection for those halls, and the college was a sort of extended home and family. I sang in the choir, lived in the dorm, served on student councils, acted in student plays, was recording engineer for the choir and orchestra, and even worked there over summers. I am proud to say I founded the college’s student newspaper in January 1988, the Blue and White, which still continues. I knew my teachers and professors, and this intimacy fostered intellectual and critical skills which have benefited me throughout my career as a professor. I had close friends there who partied and worshiped with me and who married each other, and whose parents or children attended there– a real-life Hogwarts. This is how a university can remain important to someone life-long, decades after attending it.

There were problems of course, ones I could see even at age 14. In the early 80’s Concordia was becoming a dumping ground for delinquent teenagers; the gym burned down and there wasn’t money to build another one; hard-core Christians and more laid-back ones didn’t always agree (a big fuss over Sexual Healing on the cafeteria jukebox!). As I became an adult I saw deeper and more entrenched difficulties. The four most serious diseases Concordia has always faced since my time were 1) the habitual nepotism in hiring staff and faculty family (my classmates and I used to comment around ‘85 that the only member of the president’s family not working at the college was the dog); 2) cheaping out on infrastructure (I know they had money problems, but Schwermann and Founders Hall were so poorly maintained that they looked like cracked-plaster cattle slaughterhouses at times– how I remember painting doors white in ‘89 because white paint cost less!); 3) the overweight in middle management (they built a new wing, the Tegler Center, and so far as I could tell, it was all offices, no classrooms; like the joke that GM was in the pension and not car business, Concordia seemed to be in the office staffing business in order to accommodate their latest Coordinating Liaison of Stapler Life); 4) the let’s-try-everything-trendy lack of direction (if you’re going to be a university, then have some damn dignity and stop offering certificates in locksmithing, bartending, and 8-track tape repair in order to appeal to everybody).

Signs of marital strife with my alma mater grew over the years. The bland Concordian newsletter thinned out, went online, and disappeared (I guess there’s only so many gushing stories you can write about what Michael Slipchuck had for breakfast). In 2005, my high school class had a reunion, and the date was announced with no input from alumni (in June, a few weeks before I would have been in Canada anyway to get married), and by all reports the campus tour was so careless and phoned-in that my classmates were making sarcastic jokes about the rushed pace. In 2011 the high school, the goddamn genesis of Concordia, was thrown under the bus and exiled to south-side Edmonton, where a year later it would succumb to the clever business strategy of compensating for enrolment drops by hiking tuition. In 2013 I applied to a professorship in English literature at Concordia, and let me say that of hundreds of faculty applications I have sent over the years, Concordia was the ne plus ultra of unprofessionalism. I know it sounds elitist to say this, but there is a collegial etiquette applied to prospective faculty. It is not like dropping off a photocopied resume at Safeway; applying to a posting means piles of forms, personalized references, writing samples, and costly transcripts. Normally, European universities would extend a kindly-written letter of decline; American universities would send me a legalese-filled but polite e-mail rejection; Canadian unis would at least notify receipt of my CV. Concordia could not even be bothered to acknowledge getting my application package from Korea, the equivalent of a raised middle finger in academia. Screw you, Concordia.

And now it is no longer even a Christian university, having decided that it can better appeal to students and chase funding dollars by secularizing. I get it; easy for me to complain from the bleachers, big important business realities etc., and Canada is less a Christian nation. Maybe many people don’t care about that. But for those who do, this isn’t so much a sudden injury as a long metastasizing cancer. Concordia was becoming less religious by the late 80’s, and in 1992 those students there because they couldn’t get into the U of A protested the campus shutting down during daily chapel, and the college capitulated like a French division facing the wehrmacht. As time went on, chapel and Spiritual Emphasis Week shrank in prestige and participation, Christian identity in administrative and student council offices became compromised and contested, relations with local congregations and district offices became strained, the requirement of board members to be LCC-elected was deleted, and the beautiful little glass chapel at the front of the main hall which symbolized the college disappeared. The Concordian rather dishonestly still portrayed an idyllic Christian ethos no longer operant in order to glom donations. And in November, without any consultation with the kinship of alumni and organizations which have built, served, and supported it for a century, CC/CUC/(the)CUE or whatever the hell it called itself that week officially walked away from everything it meant for these people. Admin claims the changes “would not alter the deeper identity of Concordia,” but this is just more PR fluff; what is this nebulous “deeper identity” if you disavow the synod which can’t afford to subsidize you anymore after a century of help, behaving more like a Voldemort than a friend? This. is. how. Concordia. treats. people. Note the irony in the word concordia, suggesting hearts in union and harmony.

And that’s the last straw. I’ll always cherish the many friends I’ve made at Concordia and the role it played in my life. I’ll still maintain the Grad ‘85 and choir pages on my site for those people. I still support the seminary and the district offices of the church, and will encourage what remaining faith-based activities continue at the university. I understand that not everyone who attends there is religious and that they have a place as well. But I will no longer support Concordia in any way or form as an alumnus, and if they’re going to be a for-profit second-rate Grand MacEwan I won’t give one bent farthing to their misty-eyed fundraising initiatives appealing to the university’s noble “mission.” They don’t have one.

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October 2015

Short Takes

1. KOTESOL

The annual Korean Teachers of English as a Second/Other Language conference was held at the COEX convention hall in Seoul this October. I will make none of my customary grouching about KOTESOL this time, because it was actually pretty well-organized, and some of the sessions were downright interesting. For once, there were decent coffee facilities. I’m not saying this just because of my star-studded presentation on teaching literature, which you can watch here, in case you’re having trouble falling asleep.

2. The Canadian Election

I really can’t say much about the upcoming Canadian election this Monday without vomiting a little at the thought that the son of the man who nearly destroyed the country from 1968-84 by antagonizing our allies, worsening regional rivalries, and spending our way into a near Argentinian-style credit collapse (1983) might be elected. It is not that I particularly like Prime Minister Harper, but I am worried about the alternatives far more. Chief among my irritation is the Liberal Party media headquarters, oops, CBC pretending to be an objective public broadcaster. From the Calgary Sun: “The Canadian Media Guild (CMG), a union representing 6,000 workers in the Canadian media including the CBC, recently registered as a ‘third party’ with Elections Canada, so it can advocate and advertise for more funding for the CBC during the election.” Because ONE BILLION DOLLARS yearly of taxpayer funds is insufficient for tweeting fawning videos of Justin Trudeau canoeing down the Bow River.

3. Tipping Over

Never been a fan of tipping. And as a recent article in the New Yorker notes, it’s odd that Americans, with their obsession with equality, insist on it, whereas the French and many Europeans don’t tip at all. It’s something I appreciate about Asia that I don’t have to combine accounting with my dinner here either. The NY article reports that a chain of local restaurants (Danny Meyer) will discontinue tipping and raise prices instead, and it predicts that the practice may be on the way out generally in the big apple. I’m all for it, and lest you think I’m cheap, I don’t mind if prices rise a little so that people can live on restaraunt wages. Nor is tipping fair anyway. My personal experience of working in a pub is that tip size reflects boob size; I could break my back for customers, but the attractive girls still got everything. The bar tried pooling tips, but there goes the argument about tipping “ensuring prompt service” with individuals. I suppose there might still be the problem of how to prevent unmotivated, impolite customer service. Other non-tipping industries seem to have developed an effective mechanism for curbing this, though, a practice called “firing people.”

4. No, It Isn’t Amazing

Alright, it’s petty, but I wish someone would write a browser plug-in to delete the word “amazing” from web pages. Perhaps it’s this American love for superlatives to make every post oh-so-special, or the idea that we must even democratize every experience so that it can be amazing too. But great Caesar’s ghost, your hamburger is not amazing. The cat video is not amazing. The Black Friday prices at Woolco are not amazing. If everything is amazing, then nothing is. Using this word is lazy language, trying to stick in a dramatic intensifier rather than communicating that something is wonderful or surprising through your description.

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September 2015

How’s That “It Doesn’t Affect You” Working Out?

Outraged, outraged, oh, so outraged we are on the internet today, because unlike British scientist Tim Hunt, whose university could be cowed into throwing him under the bus for making sexist codger jokes, Kentucky Rowan county clerk Kim Davis was elected and can’t be fired for refusing to register gay marriages, only impeached. What’s a disappointed social media lynch mob to do except to slut-shame her over her failed marriages and make fun of her appearance... after previously sermonizing to us that we’re not allowed to slut-shame women or make fun of their appearance? Look, I want to support fellow Christians on this, and I’m well aware of the growing public hostility felt towards us. I sympathize with Ms. Davis for having deeply felt conservative religious beliefs, and find the hateful comments attacking her values disconcerting and hypocritical. Everyone says they will go to the bastille to fight to the death for your right to say it– until you’re not saying the currently right things, because you’re only being publicly humiliated and fired, not arrested, silly.

Please spare me the remarks about how we must do our duty and lie back and think of England when we take an elected position, because we all have to negotiate and make moral judgments in the workplace; and American progressive liberals certainly have no compunctions about breaking the law for a higher social cause when it’s the correct one. As well, she didn’t take the job “knowing what she would have to do,” like the person who moves next to an airport and then complains about the noise. She was more like the person who moves next to a forest, and then an airport is built on it a quarter-century later– she was elected to a position which conformed to her religious beliefs in 2014, and in 2015 she was required to do changed duties which didn’t. Forgive me for thinking that ruining her career over this doesn’t seem quite fair. Third, spare me the anachronistic argument, “what if she refused to marry white and black people?” If she refused to register a mixed marriage in 1968, I’d disagree, but try to salvage a way to get it done without throwing away someone’s 27 years of service.

But, I can support her beliefs while also believing she has handled this poorly. Perhaps I’ve been in Korea too long. Justice here is more a desire to restore social order through a practical solution, and less standing on principles and demanding zero-sum victories. To me the professional thing to do in Davis’s situation would be to go to her superiors when the change was announced and try to find a workaround which would make everyone happy. The obvious bandaid would be to have her deputy clerks act according to conscience and process those marriages she disapproved of. I worked in a film department in 2001, and one day when I was doing reprints I had a batch of x-rated negatives of naked people. I asked my supervisor if there was a policy on this, and she responded that she would refuse to print the order, but I could act as I wished (I did print them: within limits, not my circus, not my monkeys). Similarly, if I were Mormon and worked at Denny’s as a waitress and suddenly caffeinated coffee was on the menu– I’d ask to be made a cashier or cook. Of course there are boundaries: sudden legislation requiring that left-handed people be dismissed would be something to fight back on. But mostly I’d find a way to work it out peacefully, or else I’d leave.

Rather than doing this any of this, Davis made it all about herself, forbidding any of her six deputy clerks to process gay marriages despite official requests (so much for that acting on conscience), ignoring multiple orders from courts and superiors, and marching proudly into jail as a martyr in order to stoke up conflict. Rather than looking like a hero, to many people she has made Christians look like jerks who feel they are above the law. Saint Paul she is not, and I just can’t get behind what she’s done.

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August 2015

Korean Tourism

After living here a while, I haven’t “gone native,” but I do have some more sympathy for Koreans at times. Yet I often ask myself a recurring question when faced with some bureaucratic or administrative lunacy here: is this ridiculousless evidence of incompetence, or of diabolical hidden cleverness? (I asked myself this a lot in my last job.) The question seems a perfect fit to international tourism promotions in Korea. Are they horrible because the government ministries which promulgate them just don’t get it, or is there a deeper, subtle agenda at play?

Generally, Korean promotions for international tourism have four typical qualities: 1) they may or may not be even in English; 2) they have some cutesy cartoon logo or a trite, meaningless slogan vetted by a marketing tribunal (Hi Seoul / Sparking Korea); 3) sweeping pans of skyscrapers and ludicrously overblown buzzword-stuffed hyperbole (The New Miryang Award-Winning Geo-Global I.T. Next Generation Digital Hyper-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!); and 4) sanitized, approved eat-your-peas scenarios of what foreigners should experience (mixed rice, hangul calligraphy, and hanboks in front of placid temples), with no regard to what they might want. As the Financial Times noted, official promotions depict “Korean culture as a serene bubble from the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910). Wild days out are to be had at ginseng festivals and celadon exhibitions.” As much as I don’t like Psy, his “Gangnam Style” video shows a quirky, messy, urban (i.e. fun!) Seoul that a 70-year old tourism mandarin would completely fail to understand or appreciate. The resulting image association is: Thailand: beaches, partying, and sex. Korea: Korean traditions. If you were 25 and choosing a vacation destinition, which would it be? I know there are bitter expats here who would say there is nothing fun to do in Korea, but it’s not true. The country has interesting markets, cool foods, beaches, shopping, and nightlife. Why are such things never in the advertisements?

Robert Kelly argues that along with the “hot” conflict, South and North Korea also engage in a “soft” contest of legitimacy: a struggle over who the “real” Korea is. Thus South Korea stokes up conflict with Japan, for example, partly to solidify national identity as Koreans. Might this also be true of the country’s tourism efforts? They might just be very bad; but what if their goal isn’t really attracting foreign tourists at all, but instead depicting to Koreans an idealized Korea so wonderful that it attracts foreigners as well? In short, the aim of the advertisements is to impress and unify Koreans. Any tourists who do come are gravy.

In all of these tourism and branding efforts, so far as I know not one crinkled won has been spent on doing things which would actually make tourism here more inviting for foreigners: English-friendly signs and directions; a vibrant international cuisine; and affordable accommodation which can be easily booked online from abroad in English.

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Trump-eter

Be skeptical of claims by journalists or commenters that Trump is lowering the, harumph, tone and dignity of the American election with unseemly behavior, or that Trump in turn dislikes reporters. They lurrve each other. Each shot fired at Trump just feeds the beast; for him, any coverage is free publicity! In turn, whatever Trump spouts, and the more outrageous the better, the more papers sold and clicks made. A marriage made in... well, made. Really, I’m not that worried about him being president, as demonizing women, P.O.W.s, Latinos, Asians, and who else next (blacks? redheads? cosplay fans? people who wear glasses?) doesn’t seem a solid electoral strategy. I’m more concerned with the effect his xenophobic statements make internationally, as well as the prospect of the GOP continuing to be a joke. This is actually not good long-term for the Democratic Party, and certainly not for American democracy.

But I do understand why he has attained such a following. Human beings, whatever we might like to think, are not ruled by reason. There’s a healthy amount of juvenile spite involved in Trump’s popularity. If you’re white trash in a trailer park; a southern fundamentalist; a city blue-collar laborer: no one cares what you think. For Republicans, you’re no use: you’re poor; for Democrats, you’re no use: you’re not one of the trendy oppressed. If you do ever speak your opinion publicly or online, people will demand that you be fired or silenced– the people who seem to have comfortable jobs and degrees, who talk down to you with their white guilt as they condemn your beliefs and ancestors. Then along comes someone who says whatever he wants and does whatever he wants, and throws shit at anyone he wants. The message isn’t important; he can do it and he can’t be fired or silenced. It shouldn’t be suprising that such people would love him for it.

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Joy to the World, the School Burned Down

Lots of stories this week about impending teacher shortages in Kansas, Indiana, and California and countrywide in the United States (soon coming to a Canadian province near you!). Lots of gleeful crowing and I-told-you-so from educators and promoters of public education, that after years of bad pay, the killing of job security protections, and a general hostility to teachers from politicians such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, it’s not suprising that intakes in teacher education programs have fallen, new teachers are leaving, and veteran teachers are retiring en masse.

Only a few journalists and advocates seem to have realized that this isn’t an occasion for schadenfreude: that for GOP-controlled states, this is a good thing. They wanted teacher shortages, so that they can justify “temporary” measures appointing substitutes and people without licenses or teaching degrees in classrooms. These people will of course be hired on the cheap and with fewer job benefits, and if Gresham’s Law works here, bad teachers will drive out good: why would students continue to take education degrees if they can work for the same salaries without doing so? I see expat Korean teachers on Facebook now saying, “Now we can go home because we’re needed!” The smarter ones are staying put for now. Needed, not wanted, and certainly not valued.

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The Second Contagion of Trudeaumania

I try to stay out of electoral politics because I’m not in Canada anymore, and because I don’t want to antagonize friends. And let me make a quick concession that I’m no huge Stephen Harper fan. But for Pete’s sake, Canadians, I cannot believe that Pierre Trudeau’s son may be elected this October without people asking more questions about how he might differ from his autocrat father who nearly bankrupted the country. (Now, don’t beat around the bush, Ken, tell us what you really think.)

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Professors and Teachers

Interestingly, or not, in my ten-odd years in Korea the online arguments between expats have changed very little in terms of subject. Some of the topics have grown up a little, so that there are fewer lengthy exchanges on “do Asian girls from country x or y have bigger boobs” and more on “pension contribution schemes.” Yet “what do foreign teachers do” still fights pretty much the same wars as when I arrived in 2003. Basically, there are the let’s-face-it realists, who caustically intone that degrees are a useless scam which only serve to inflate the egos of those with them, and that foreign teachers are not much more than prostitutes who perform a facade of babysitting sullen, listless students for ungrateful Koreans. At the other end are the teaching-as-journey fetishists, who believe they are the world’s most important professionals, here to enable and empower students through their self-actualizing self-reflection gleaned at KOTESOL (fiat lux!). Another breakdown of this is here. Another dimension of this binary is the perennial (though lower-temperature) foreign professor versus foreign teacher hostility. Profs will snip at those backpacking hogwan flunkies with their psych B.A.s; the teachers see the profs as arrogant, and at worst deluded pretenders who call themselves “professor” because the university gives them a computer for their shared cubicle. Both extremes are about 25% true.

Everyone hates the middleman, but once again I sit somewhat in the center (maybe a little more with the latter group). As I get older I have less patience for seeing teaching as some sort of holy sacred rite, or with the idea that one’s career must be pursued with passion. That feels narcissistic to me; how about just liking your job and showing up every day, and then going home? But I have even less patience for the cynics who cast their jaded emo scorn on degrees they don’t have, and a practice they’re not good at. I don’t think we’re here to save the Koreans, but I do think we can do good and there are professional ethics we should hold ourselves accountable to.

Insofar as professors and teachers, well, cut us former group some sympathy. Whenever someone mistakes me for a teacher, I’m not sure whether I should be the big jerk and say, no, I’m a professor. If you think there are misgivings in North America about teachers, it pales next to the well, la-ti-ta! profs get for supposedly being insufferable. People are instantly annoyed when I begin to say, I’m not a teacher. So what’s the difference? A teacher’s main focus is the students. A professor’s main focus is the subject. Yes, let me immediately concede: 75% of what we do is exactly the same! But as a professor, I research and publish, and discuss and exchange issues at conferences about my subject (and not its pedagogy). Much of my work is not immediately related to classroom teaching. Teachers, correspondingly, have other responsibilites professors don’t have. If people feel that these activities of profs are horse-twaddle, so be it; I’ve never said one profession is better than the other, only that they’re overlapping but different.

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Korean Coffee Culture

If I may get sociologicalish, how people view coffee and tea indicates a great deal about their culture. When I was growing up in Edmonton in the late 70s and 80s, these were considered rather oldster drinks: coffee was blue-collar, slopped at truck stops or donut shops with cigarettes, and tea was sipped by your aunt off Royal Doulton (pinkie finger out!). Neither drink was considered an adult’s forbidden fruit in the way alcohol was. When I lived in Newfoundland, the Anglo-Irish culture flipped things around: tea was the working man’s drink, and coffee was an elitist, hoity-toity concoction. Coming back to Edmonton, the 90s-00s Starbuck’s café culture had taken hold, where coffee was now more gentrified. It cost more and you had to endure annoying yuppies / proto-hipsters droning on about roasts, brewing styles, and low-fat soy lattes, but it did taste better than the old coffee-urn stuff.

When I first came to Korea in 2003 there weren’t many coffee shops. The hot drink of choice was green tea or instant coffee from little packets (which was terrible), and other than the odd western-style donut shop, coffee shops (tabangs) were very dicey and smokey places where “coffee girls” were known to offer other services in addition to brewed ones. Fast forward to 2015, where it’s not much different from the Simpsons episode where every shop in a mall is a Starbucks. I went to a movie complex in Daegu once where there were six coffee shops in a row in the theater atrium. There can easily be a dozen cafés next to a university’s gates, especially a woman’s one, and inside my campus at Hanyang alone there are four cafés–which are all full after lunch. By current estimates the average Korean has twelve cups a week.

What’s curious to me is how overpriced coffee is here, ranging from about $1.50 a cup to well over $6. That’s a garden-variety Americano, with specialty cappucino/latte/affogado/whatever-ino drinks going into the $4-$8 range. As expensive as Canada is, when I was home coffee was typically $2-$3. In supposedly costly Europe, I paid about $1-3 for café espressos in St. Germaine in central Paris, and this was fantastic coffee compared to the tub-of-coffeewater available in the states. Korean coffee is good, but why is it so pricey? I suppose because here it is still seen as a luxury good which ought to be costly, just as diamonds are expected to be expensive because, well, because they’re diamonds. It can make expats frustrated, but cafés are not open in the early morning here for a wake-up cup. Coffee in Korea is supposedly meant to be savored in the afternoon or evening with your scarf draped over your chair as you listen to non-threatening jazz played by white people, and look thoughtfully at tinted art pictures of cats, and perhaps because it is meant to be a frou-frou Bohemian experience it is expected to cost accordingly. (As my friend Rob reminds me, the café may also be filled with students grimly absorbed in their phones and housewives gossiping at 90 dB while their children run screaming, and the music sometimes is bad K-pop; but it’s the fantasy that’s sold, not reality.) It is not really a place for alpha male types, who tend to have their own machines at home, or who stay with the little instant packets (still terrible).

Yes, all Korean coffee shops have patio views which look like this.

I hope the price mentality will change. I stay away from Starbucks, and Angel-in-Us, and the ridiculous Cafe Bene, because they are a rip-off. I go to the hole-in-the-wall independents (Massa/Hands/Myunga), or in a pinch the ice cream or donut places that also have coffee, where it will still be $2-$3. I guess this makes me a cheap curmudgeon. But I think I have better taste in jazz anyway. One can only hear soft versions of “The girl from Ipanema” so many times.

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July 2015

Summer

I think I’ve realized why I always feel guilty for not being outside and doing fun, sporty, beachy things which cool people do in beer commercials. Perhaps it is part of my DNA growing up in Canada that when the sun shines you’d damn well better get out there and enjoy it, for rest assured the snow tolls for thee, and maybe it’ll be here tomorrow. My brain is at the same time telling me, it’s 31 degrees and humid in Incheon, and it’s not going to be fun, and anywhere you go will involve a long, sweaty subway trip to discover that fact.

I spent most of July in Canada. I really, really like Vancouver, and could easily live there. I know that global change is overall very bad, but it’s treated Vancouver well: nice, sunny summer days, parks, and lakes. It’s expensive, but so is all of Canada. Going out to eat in Edmonton is now getting to be a pricey outing, at $20-30 a meal; taxes and housing bite very hard. The assumption that everything is so expensive in Japan / Europe! doesn’t really hold when the daily cost of living in B.C. / Alberta is realized. Things may get worse with Alberta’s new NDP government. Usually New Democrat parties in Canada are synonymous with economies in freefall as the worker’s socialist paradise drives up taxes and drives out business, but this is Alberta, a province which voted Conservative every time since 1971, and I’m willing to give these people a chance; it’s been difficult for Conservative fans to drum up sympathy for oil companies complaining about threats of higher corporate levies. And true to form, we’re Canadians: the Albertans Against the NDP Facebook page is so polite it may as well be called “Sorry, may we tastefully critique our elected government, please?”

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June 2015

Guns, Guns, Guns

A few days ago, a 21-year-old youth shot nine people, including the pastor, in an African-American church in Charleston, SC. There is the predictable media frenzy, except that today there’s also shootings in West Philadelphia and Detroit. One statistic states there were 8,342 of this sort of shooting murders in the USA just in 2012. I think I may be wasting space by stating that gun murders take far more life than terrorism does in the USA, and yet public and government policy since 9/11 has focused nearly exclusively on the latter issue. Many people know this.

But what I’ve noticed is that there are roughly four or five different types of responses to gun massacres, based on the recent shootings in Charleston. On the far right, some Fox anchors and GOP candidate Rick Santorum called the crime “an assault on our religious liberty,” arguing it came from anti-Christian hostility. HuffPost and other progressive online media ran to their fainting couches with outrage over the right using this tragedy to promote an agenda... and then used the tragedy to promote an agenda by sermonizing on white privilege. The most sickening response is the NRA’s claim that the Charleston pastor was at fault for not allowing his congregation to be armed. President Obama, true to form, made an eloquent speech which will lead to no action whatsoever.

I liked comedian Jon Stewart’s comment: “I heard someone on the news say “Tragedy has visited this church.’ This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist.” He at least noted that this didn’t just happen, but had an actual cause. This is what I find saddest about these shootings, that none of these responses recognize something rather obvious: maybe part of the problem is everyone having guns? Call me crazy, but in countries where guns aren’t commonly available, there tend to be few gun deaths. The UK averages about 15-60 deaths a year (I imagine some deaths are by U.S. tourists; I know English food made me feel unhinged at times). Yes, I know it’s difficult to change the USA when guns are such a strong part of the culture, and there’s the little problem of upwards of 270 million guns in private possession. I just wish there could be more honesty that it’s not only social issues that are the problem, but that there are lethal weapons so easily available, and people seem to feel this is not only perfectly normal but a natural right—imagine a technologically counterfactual U.S. where its constitution guaranteed the right to personal atomic weapons. And remember, this is the country that sees the importation of Kinder chocolate eggs as perilous.

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Facebook Burn-Out?

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With Friends Like These

It feels like I write about both Obama and Christianity too much, and so I’ll stop after this for a while. I promise, 50% more bikini girls. I also realize it’s easy to join the bandwagon and cheer Obama in 2008 and jeer him in 2015. I do generally support him as president and argue that his initiatives on health care, student loans, Cuba, and Iran have been overall good ones. Maybe this allows me the luxury of some critique.

I don’t think Obama is a Muslim, and always thought this charge was a cheap shot, a cowardly way to delegitimize him without explaining why exactly it’s wrong to be Muslim. At the same time, his consistent faint praise of Christianity, always mixed with a little PC slap at it, is galling. At an Easter 2015 prayer breakfast the most Obama could say is that “sometimes when I listen to less-than-loving expressions by Christians, I get concerned.” No mention of the 148 people who died days earlier in Kenya for this faith. This follows his comment from February at another prayer breakfast that “lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” (A reminder that the Crusades were a defensive war, dammit.) Compare British PM David Cameron’s graceful Easter greeting. Who keeps inviting this guy to these functions?

There are people who believe the president should be staying out of religious matters altogether, and at the other pole there are apoplectic Fox fans calling this an “attack” on Christianity. I don’t side with the former or the latter, but I think I’d rather Obama avoided religious topics than to be constantly belittling Christianity out of some idea of fairness. There is this principle running through Obama’s presidency that criticizing America etc. shows that you love it and want to make it better. While I think that’s often true, there’s a limit. [Bob is my best friend, even though, as I’ve been saying all evening, Bob is a filthy, stupid, crazy loudmouthed racist cheapskate who should be driven away with punches and kicks. But I love him like a brother.] At some point, if you never have anything good to say about something, you don’t love it, Barack, and if you can’t say something positive about the Christian faith on Easter, stop attending prayer breakfasts and stop pretending you’re something you’re not.

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February 2015

Alberta Winters

Once in the deep winter of 1995 in my hometown of Edmonton, Canada, I was visiting a friend and his neighbor was happily shoveling snow off her walk and singing. I joked that she was crazy to be so cheerful. She replied that I was crazy to live in a place where I hate the weather. That’s not the sole reason I left, but weather was a factor. Edmonton has gentle, warm summers, but it’s horrible from late October to late April. Why would sane people live in a place where they despise the climate one-half of the year?

It’s not always blizzarding, though. An Alberta winter is a random string of weeklong cold snaps (0 to -20 Celsius), occasional warm snaps (10 to 0), and really cold snaps (-20 to -40). The coldest I remember was about two weeks in January 1996 of -45 Celsius. This is why Albertans don’t have much of a homeless problem. Not because we’re so caring and sharing, but because if you try to live outside, you’re dead. Alberta winters are sunny, which is a mercy, but don’t try to tell me about how it’s a dry cold. It’s minus bleeding 40; stick your face in a pail of dry ice and tell me it’s not so bad. People would even add “wind chill” to this to make it sound more impressive, and claim “but with wind chill it’s minus 68.” I always thought wind chill was a slightly made-up concept and didn’t really respect it—isn’t minus 40 enough?

The weird thing that I have trouble explaining to people is that Edmontonians of course liked the warm days, but disliked the cold snaps worse than the really cold days, particularly when they dragged on into March. For me growing up in the seventies and eighties, when a winter vacation to the beach was as likely as one to Mars (it just wasn’t so common or cheap then), -20 was merely dismally cold and gloomy, time to read an Archie comic and dream about surfing (no wonder Edmontonians are the highest per capita consumers of Archie). But when it’s -40, your life has purpose, and it becomes a game of survival. Can you actually start your car? Can you make it to work or school? If you can, and if you get proficient at driving in snow, you’ve beaten the elements and you’re a man, unlike pansy Americans who skid off the road if they hit a snowflake. In some ways it’s like a weird carnival, where social rules are relaxed. People understand if you’re late. You can chat with strangers about how bizarre it is to see gas-cylinder doors slam, and your spit freeze in midair, and an icy steam rising off the ground, and the way sound itself seems to move more slowly.

You should put an Edmonton blizzard on your bucket list, and see it once. But a day or two is enough, and I’ll respect you if you flee after then for Punta Cana.

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January 2015

Christians ne ont pas besoin d’être Charlie Hebdo

(Christians owe no obligation to ‘be’ Charlie Hebdo, and will get no thanks from terrorists or the blogosphere either way)

Don’t condemn or criticize first nations people. Or those of different sexual orientations. Or the obese. Or the 460 other identifications which we say need protection. Just don’t be racist, sexist, ableist, cisist, or anything else-ist. If you do, we’re offended. You should be shamed, and fired, and arrested, and your media or educational outlet boycotted, derecognized, and shut down to reflect our outrage. You don’t have the right to offend. Unless the target is religious people, which is fine. If you mock their beliefs and revile their followers with racist or hateful cartoons, we will stand up and march to protect your absolute freedom of expression. We are Charlie Hebdo.

No matter that French Catholics respected the freedom of the magazine to insult them and showed solidarity after the shootings, which they rejected. We must stand up for freedom by incriminating all religious people. That will teach them the meaning of tolerance. Oh, and the Pope? Wonderful fellow, who says nice things about loving everyone and sharing and saving the dolphins and the trees. What? He didn’t say we are perfect just the way we are? He suggested that the right to safely say and print what you like does not mean that it is always moral or civil to do so? Well, &*$@ the Pope, as Richard Dawkins’s “Foundation for Reason and Science” did with a profanity-laden personal attack. We stand for absolute freedom of speech (barring those categories above)! How dare Francis publicly express an opinion in speech that we don’t like.

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Touchy-Feely Teaching?

C.S. Lewis (I know I refer to him a lot) once wrote that the proper way to regard sex is not to condemn it as filthy nor to worship it as sacred, but to see it as humorous. Maybe teaching should be like this too. I’ve never liked the self-hating cynics on Dave’s ESL Cafe who dismiss ESL teaching in Korea as clown-nose babysitting, but neither am I comfortable with the wider trend in the west of spiritualizing teaching into some form of transcendental soul-fulfilling experience, if not a new-age religion of sorts. If you’re not a teacher you may not know what I’m writing about. If you are, you probably know at least a few people who lard their speech, desks, and Facebook posts with pictures of people meditating and slogans about “reflective” teaching and the “journey” of teaching. This isn’t just a private wont, as teaching instruction has also taken a very emotional direction since the post-hippie 70’s, with Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers advocating brain-storming, freewriting, and other activities in a very personal and almost confessional style. We are all now supposed to imbibe uncritically the clichés about being a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage,” the idea that good teachers put away their pretenses to superiority and act as fellow learners and “facilitators” alongside their students.

I’m not sure. I have friends who are into this mindset, and I’m glad they are proud of their profession or try to improve their teaching. I suppose what troubles me is that this approach is a response to the supposed “old school” teachers who were cold, dictatorial, and hit you with their splintered rulers. But these Miss Grundies retired in the fifties. There really aren’t many teaching models in my experience anymore who aren’t supportive and empowering, etc., and I think this touchy-feeliness can scare away prospective male teachers (it was a factor when I quit my BEd program in Edmonton in ‘95; I hated that correct answers were based on ‘feelings’). Worse, the idea that acting as a co-learning facilitator rather than a directive authority is student-centered, well, isn’t. In a way the focus on personal self-abnegation in the classroom is narcissistic, as it ironically fetishizes one’s abandonment of authority rather than answering what students might actually want. My students tend to like a benevolent leader, but they do want a leader who can confidently instruct some facts from time to time.

I feel the same way about some of the trendy memes floating around in Korean ESL in the last ten years. One of the more recent ones protests that teaching British/American English in Korea is cultural imperialism, and that minority forms of English are equally legitimate and should be taught—such as Singapore English or Indonesia English. Again, it feels to me that this value is just as ethnocentric, as it applies a western concept of “fairness” to teaching, one which students again may have no interest in; Koreans who go to Singapore and speak “Singlish” are going to get strange looks, and the dialect will be useless elsewhere. Overall, I don’t think it’s wrong to think about what teachers and professors ethically do here—people such as Pablo Friere have interesting things to say. But I have limited patience for those who want to bring an agenda of social justice into their teaching. As Stanley Fish would say, save the world on your own time.

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The Interview (2014): Not Really So Bad, Actually

Well, if you’re expecting high art, or you’re the sort of person who is offended by water because fish have sex in it, you won’t like The Interview. It’s full of poop and boob jokes and I don’t remember seeing a movie with so much swearing in it since Scarface. If you can take it as Dumb and Dumber in North Korea you may enjoy it. The plot centers on a dim-witted trash-talk show host and his producer who travel to Pyongyang to interview Kim Jong-Un when they discover that he’s a fan. The two become tangled in a CIA assassination plot with a sympathetic female insider. There’s some stock Asian stereotypes, but despite the PC tut-tutting in some media I found the movie less racist than I expected; most characters really are human beings (it’s the Americans who generally are jackasses). When the host offensively greets the North Koreans with “konnichiwa!” (“hello” in Japanese) is it a writing mistake, or a learned joke? A drunken party scene with Kim’s curvy harem also doesn’t hurt. I’m only human.

Is it ethical to laugh at North Korea considering the horrible daily reality of the regime? Not at the atrocities themselves, no. But if mocking Kim Jong-Un in the way that Chaplin barbed Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) helps people to be less intimidated by Dear Leader, that’s a positive step. One way the regime will be brought down is by information reaching its citizens, but also by the foreign community (and especially South Korea) treating it with derision instead of deference. I’m glad to see a little of that happening here, where the local journalism is starting to grow a pair and call the state a “crackpot country” ruled by “spoiled brats” instead of pandering to our misunderstood ethnic brothers. China has done little to defend North Korea in this except a few perfunctory mutters in the Global Times that mocking Kim is “senseless cultural arrogance.” One Free Korea (good blog) has perhaps imbibed some of The Interview’s constant profanities in telling the Global Times to “f—k themselves,” for China would be the first to complain about other nations meddling in its internal affairs.

Ken’s grade: Don’t expect Apocalypse Now. But still better than the second Star Wars!

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December 2014

Short Takes

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.

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November 2014

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).

  1. NASA wants to evacuate humans off the planet because the ability of the earth to grow crops is exhausted. Wait a Minute (WAM)—what are they growing the crops in on the spaceship colony at the end of the film? Does dirt somehow work better in space, or are the crops grown hydroponically? And if the latter, why can’t this be done on earth?
  2. It’s heartbreaking that Cooper sacrifices decades of time to go to the watery planet, where time moves much faster due to relativity. But WAM—they’ve come from NASA and they’re all highly-trained scientists and they never thought it out that the explorers who preceded them a few years earlier have actually only been there for about twenty minutes? Why would they bother going there without any good evidence the planet supports life when the cost in time is so staggeringly high? Does the movie need so badly to portray every male in the film as a stubborn idiot that it has Cooper make this terrible decision?
  3. Poor Cooper has to watch stored messages of his family aging in front of him, and accusing him of abandoning them. WAM—They can receive but not send messages? I’m starting to wonder about this NASA that can build interstellar rocket ships with cryogenics and AI robots, but can’t synthesize food on earth or provide two-way transmission in space (must be built by men, obvs.).
  4. Near the end of the film, Cooper sacrifices himself into the black hole, which turns out to be populated not by a friendly alien race but by humans in the future. The humans then construct a sort of time-space sandbox where Cooper can interact with Murphy in the past to communicate messages to her, saving humanity. Yikes! Triple WAM! WAM A: These super-advanced future humans need Cooper to save them so that the future can happen? How does it make sense that they cause themselves to exist? WAM B: Who are these lazy future humans who need Cooper to save them? Why can’t they do the job themselves if it’s clear that they can move freely across space and time? They might miss the Stones concert? The little future snowflakes can’t get their hands dirty? WAM C: Not only are future people slackers, they’re jerks. Cooper has just saved earthkind, and the people of the future do not send him backward in time, or let him transmit his information to Professor Brand at NASA before the space project, which would make it unnecessary; they don’t even give him a freaking lift home, letting him drift in space!

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 (okay, 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!

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Stairway to Heaven

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. 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. But 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.

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October 2014

Bang Bang

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.

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Off the Grid

I don’t usually post about family and friends online, but my friends Paul and Susan Horsman in Canada 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.

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The First Day

I went to a new church in Seoul for the first time this Sunday, as I’ve recently moved. Seoul is a ways away from Songdo, but my denomination is small and I prefer a more traditional service to praise-and-worship. I sometimes wonder if there is literature in church practice on how to deal with newcomers. The ushers were polite, and the pastor was pleasant, but it wasn’t the warmest experience otherwise. 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? And how can churches know what to do when everyone is different? I don’t know. I just know that the congregations I’ve remained with 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.

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2014 KOTESOL Conference

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.

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September 2014

Songdo Review

From top left: Central Park; the Tri-Bowl; from the 32nd floor of G-Tower; Central Park at night

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 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.

There are things which nettle. You can build a futuristic city but not futuristic people, 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.

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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.

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August 2014

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.

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May 2014

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 humans 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.

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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.

Despite my field, and my coding abilities which end at Javascript, I’ve always felt an affinity with Computer Science guys (and they were mostly guys). Most of my Comp Sci friends were really more beta-type ‘nesting’ males, preferring to work alongside each other, if not together, in a community. It was a group with surprisingly little ego where there were friendly rivalries but a pretty good ethic of sharing a piece of code that works or helping each other with problems, and this very much was the spirit of the internet in more innocent days, despite the bikini-girl jpgs. At least the group I knew best in Newfoundland kept odd hours, sometimes working in long jags in the middle of the night, constantly stopping for tea or coffee. Their weaknesses were multi-player networked video games, and very seldom alcohol or drugs. They attracted fewer women into their circle, but good women. I may idealize their culture too much from the outside, but they never sneered at me for being a medievalist.

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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.

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April 2014

Europe in Flames

(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.

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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 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 for this incompetence, duplicity, and 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, but 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 side doors were 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. 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.

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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.

If I were to rate countries, the Dutch are on top. Their unis were unfailingly polite, sending multiple e-mails or real, live letters thanking me for applying, updating where I was in the process, and sending personalized apologies for declining me. In the middle are the Americans, which sent automated e-mails acknowledging my application and sometimes informing me I wasn’t selected (except for top unis, which snootily sent less). Low down are Canadian unis, which sometimes sent a javascript acknowledgment and occasionally a follow-up, but often not. At rock bottom, and maybe I do burn a bridge—applications to my alma mater Concordia in Edmonton, where I attended for seven years, went totally unanswered; to this day I don’t know if they were even received. In academia, where there’s an expectation of collegial etiquette, that’s a middle finger telling you that you don’t matter.

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.

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March 2014

Scottish Independence

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.

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Little Things

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.

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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.

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January 2014

Happy New Year!

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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.

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December 2013

Follow Your Dreams

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.

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Love, Cheesily

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?

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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). You’re welcome.

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Dirty Words

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?

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November 2013

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?

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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?

  1. Blamed his staff, who apparently wrote some of his pieces under his name; because, what Important Person™ does his own writing, puh-leeze!
  2. Tried to pull a legal dodge, claiming that it isn’t plagiarism if it wasn’t done on purpose: “there is a difference between errors of omission and errors of intention."
  3. Played the put-upon victim, calling the accusations “insulting” and “attacks coming from haters."
  4. Minimized and mocked the seriousness of plagiarism, promising to add footnotes to his writing in future “to make people leave me the hell alone.” Because, in the end, it’s all about me; as Huffington Post reports: “It annoys the hell out of me,” Paul said. “I feel like if I could just go to detention after school for a couple days, then everything would be okay. But do I have to be in detention for the rest of my career?"

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.

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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. 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 Halloween. Valentine’s Day will get its number called. Be patient. The fun police will target it.

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October 2013

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.

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Friend Zone Phil

There’s a 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.

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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.

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Computer Grading

"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 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.)

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Camerica?

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.

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September 2013

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 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.

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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.

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Miley Cyrus

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.

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Let’s Follow a Meme.

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August 2013

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:

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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; no matter where they go, and it’s a new place every contract, they’ll hate it. Good side? Likes a drink, and usually generous with cigarettes during a bitch-break.
The Home Nationalist
It’s always the Canadians. Every July 1 they have to attend a stupid parade in Seoul and get intoxicated and cover themselves with henna maple leafs. All their conversations have references to Corner Gas, Rush, or donuts. They insist on ending sentences with the Ontarian ‘eh’ tag. All of their friends here are Canadians. They’re angry with me right now for not worshiping at the altar of crappy Tim Hortons.
The Suited Native
This teacher speaks good Korean and will make sure you know it, although you may not see him or her much, as the Suited Native is always conspicuously schmoozing with the Koreans and shunning the foreigners. Often drifts from teaching into administration or public relations. Constantly meeting another provost, ambassador, or dignitary, in a power suit. Often the token foreigner in ad voiceovers: “Kia.”

The Party Teacher
The Party Teacher is loved by kids and teenagers because he’s basically one himself and would probably play the same games at home in his parents’ basement. Dressed in casual clothes and usually hung over or texting one of four Korean girlfriends, he’s viewed with some odor by serious teachers but mostly liked by all. Does whatever is asked by admin and has a job for life.
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 Korea 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.

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July 2013

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.”)

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Bad Korean Meals (Re-Post)

The food in Korea is good, when it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s downright diabolical.

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June 2013

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.

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May 2013

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.

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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 through, um, starting the war. 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.

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April 2013

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.

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Fooditarians

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.

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Psy’s New Video

Go to full post on this

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 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. Humor here 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.

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What is Going on There, Ken?

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.

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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.

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March 2013

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.

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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.

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Why I Came to Korea Ten Years Ago

Ken’s Rant

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.

But 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.

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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.

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February 2013

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.

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January 2013

Friedman on MOOCs

Go to Full Post on This

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 than you are) 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.

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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.

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He’s Baaack

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."

I wish.

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.

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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.

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Korean Education

Ken’s Rant

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.

Left: Campus, near the library. Right: 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. Personal 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.* (As a comedian would say, “Probably committed by American tourists.”)

* Ten is still quite high. The obvious solution to reduce this is to have more guns.

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North Korea’s Kooky Showmen (Go to Full Post on This)

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.

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Happy New Year!

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November 2012

Gangnam Style

Okay, everybody’s seen it, or you can join the one billion people (or one million people good at hitting F5) who have watched Psy’s Gangnam Style pop video on YouTube. And everyone with a Korean blog has written about “how I’m sick of that stupid song,” or “how hawt the girls are,” or have written serious discussions of it as a Korean cultural phenomenon. I’m reluctant to analyze the song because it makes me sound pedantic—It’s just a song; shut up and dance! But I can’t help it; the song says so much about the society it comes from. For an interesting international relations take on the song go to Prof. Robert Kelly’s site.

What do Koreans think of this song?

It’s actually a satirical song, a gentle joke poking fun at the crass consumer materialism of the Gangnam district in Seoul, the Manhattan of Korea. Psy pretends to be a big shot success while dancing on a cheesy tourist bus, hanging out in a children’s playground, and meeting his dream girl on a subway. Psy wants a girl who can handle her coffee!—but this is what social climbers do here, they sip lattes in trendy cafés. Satire always takes a risk in that people don’t always know that it’s satire; Mellencamp’s Little Pink Houses and Springsteen’s Born in the USA are actually highly critical songs. In talking to my students about the song, some feel it’s a song criticizing only those uppity Gangnamites and not Koreans generally, and many feel it’s just a slapstick comedy song about Psy looking silly. I’m puzzled/amused by the fact that the Korean media have completely missed the joke. Instantly seduced by how many hits the video has had, the media are simply using it to beat the drum once more about how awesome Korea is and how now even foreigners are aware of how wonderful we are (now that Kim Yuna’s figure-skating has worn out its usefulness). Over Thanksgiving I saw it in a dance contest at a hotel, heard it at a rest stop, and watched it used to sell smartphones on TV commercials. A song criticizing the obsession with shallow bling is used to sell bling.

On the other hand, the song or Psy can’t be blamed if the country’s journalists ignore its sarcasm in the stampede to use it for jingoism. Korean pop music is so thoroughly, totally, absolutely awful in its manufactured, cookie-cutter vacuousness that it’s encouraging to see a song with some originality and subtle humor in it. I’ve heard years of the same infantile, teasing boy or girl bands with names like NterChangeAbL and lyrics like “1! 2! I wanna dance with.... you!” Really, this is a comparatively imaginative song and I don’t mind it. The eye-candy backup dancers don’t hurt.

There’s an interesting article at the Financial Times about Gangnam Style and tourism. Korean tourist promotions, normally government-promoted, are as safe and soulless as the K-Pop. The country is so thin-skinned about any criticism or negativity that advertisements for Korea are filled with tepid eat-your-peas things that obedient tourists should experience (temples, museums, cooking, Hanbok, how bleeding great Hangeul writing is, um, temples...), rather than anything tourists might want to see (shopping, scenery, beaches, markets). The Korea shown in Psy’s video is quirky and earthy, just what makes travel fun. I’m not expecting the tourism minions to learn from the video, but it’s actually a pretty good sales pitch for people to come here.

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October 2012

European Vacation

If I haven’t written much lately it is because I’ve been tired. I was gone for the month of August on a family vacation to northern Europe (Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam) and home to Canada. I’ll write more on Europe as time passes—I’m in the process of revamping my entire photo section; for now I’ll just give a few impressions of my trip.

1. Paris

I was pleasantly surprised by Paris and how much I liked it. Much of what I expected about France turned out to be wrong in a good way. I wasn’t pickpocketed, it was clean (except for the grungy subway), and if you’re polite and at least try to speak French people will treat you all right. Man, the first day when I had a meal without mayonnaise and red-pepper sauce sloshed on everything I nearly wept.

a. Architecture. Paris is gorgeous. Maybe it’s after living so long in Korea. Korean markets can be fun, there’s scenic temples, and the neon at night is cool, but basically Korea is where architecture goes to die unless your favorite color is unpainted concrete. After a while, I wondered why I was bothering to turn my camera on and off; we stayed in St. Germaine in a rented apartment for a week, and you could probably walk around all day in central Paris with your shutter held down and every picture would be interesting and scenic. There is so much attention paid to making every street beautiful.

b. Coffee. Coffee in Paris to me symbolized everything good about Europe. In the USA, two dollars buys a paper keg of mediocre coffee; in Paris, two dollars buys a small cup of fantastic coffee. Everybody gave me horror stories about how pricey Parisian coffee would be unless I sat at the bar, but with the euro weak it was no more than expresso in a Korean coffee shop. Plus you can sit at the bar and watch TV or read a paper with the locals and no one bothers you. Wonderful.

c. Restaurant service. Well, it’s just my experience, and for others mileage may vary; but I found Parisian waiters polite and workmanlike. Like efficient civil servants, they ask you what you would like and then bring it and leave you in peace. I actually prefer this to the overbearing obseqiousness in the American-style restaurant I went to in Calgary: “Hi, my name is Effervescence and I’ll be your server tonight! I’m a second year drama major! Is this a special occasion or just a night out! Would you like me to tell you the specials and my personal recommendations! I’ll be back every three minutes to ask if you’re still working on your meal and if you need anything!”

2. Bruges

Bruges is the cutest town in the world, a medieval fantasy. More or less a museum of a village fixed in its 15th-century trading heyday, it’s filled with lego-type roofs, medieval brick and worked metal, rock-tiled roads, and canals with swans. You can walk or bicycle everywhere and see museums, nunneries, breweries, and chocolate and waffle shops. You will get fat if you stay too long.

3. Amsterdam

Amsterdam rocked. I always thought of the Dutch as thrifty and stoic, and imagined that the electricity would go off at six and everyone would go to bed. Most people have the opposite cliché, that Amsterdam is Sodom and Gomorrah. Neither stereotype is true. The people are friendly, totally bilingual, and extraordinarily polite (when I’ve applied for professorships in US universities, I typically receive a form e-mail; Canadian ones ignore you; Dutch universities send a personalized thank-you). Prices (except for lodging, which is ouch) are reasonable, the food is good, and it’s easy to get around.

When I tell people I went to Amsterdam, the first association I hear is their tolerance of certain substances (root beer, that’s it!) and of the world’s oldest profession (farmers, right?). I learned that a permissive culture isn’t necessarily decadent; the Dutch I know are fine with others doing these recreations but would never think of setting foot in such establishments. Second, if you don’t approve of farmers or root beer, you can avoid such places and will never see them. No one will make you walk that district with the bored-looking, um, farmers sitting in the windows, and there is so much else in Amsterdam to experience.

Ken’s Guide to Safe-for-Work Coffee Shops in Amsterdam

This coffee shop, with traditional script and an outdoor patio, probably does not sell ‘root beer.’ “Cheech & Chong’s” coffee shop, with a windowless upstairs and a Jamaican flag, probably does.

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July 2012

Ken’s Rant: Anti-Vaccination

While it was, um, enjoyable research to find internet pictures of Jenny McCarthy, the woman becomes more irritating to me by the month. I sometimes use her as an example in my writing classes of how, when researching a topic, you should be suspicious of the opinions of anyone with expertise in something unrelated— Warren Buffett’s ideas on the death penalty should not have any special value, and I don’t care what Bill Gates thinks about medical marijuana. A perfect example is supermodel Jenny McCarthy, famous as an advocate for the anti-vaccination movement in the USA, which holds that children should not be vaccinated while questions persist about its purported links to autism. McCarthy’s qualifications to speak on medical practice are that she has an autistic son and that she posed for Playboy several times. Does anyone see a problem with this? Lindsey Beyerstein on XX Factor notes:

Vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise, thanks to the startling success of the McCarthy-fuelled movement. Nearly 90 percent of kids in the United States still get their 14 recommended shots during their first few years of life. But communities where the anti-vaxxers have taken hold, like Ashland, Ore. and Vashon Island in Washington, have seen outbreaks of preventable diseases that were banished decades ago. Washington, a hotbed of vaccine skepticism, has reported over 2,000 cases of whooping cough this year. [source]

If I wanted to be nasty, I might comment that perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing in Darwinian terms; if there really are parents so foolish and perverse that they would believe a tearful playmate over pretty much every licensed or qualified medical practitioner in the country, perhaps it’s better that their children are thinned out by nature. But it would be better to shiver over this cultural contempt for expertise. Large numbers of parents have decided they know better than those big-shot physicians and have left children open to an exponentially greater danger in the form of diseases thought to be nearly extinct. As an example, measles:

Confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1348 in 2008; two children died. In one small hospital in Ireland, 100 children were admitted for pneumonia and brain swelling caused by measles and three of them died. So, 14 years after measles had been declared under control in the U.K. it was declared endemic again in 2008. [source]

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May 2012

Busan International Auto Show

Okay, I am flesh and blood and like to see the racing girls, but I may have been the only person there who actually wanted to see the cars. There were a few exotic or concept cars, a few racing cars, and some expensive Cadillacs and Audis, along with a lot of strange choices—why would people want to see this year’s Kia minivan when they can go see one on any street? Otherwise it was enjoyable, and I never need many reasons to visit Busan, still my favorite city in Korea.

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April 2012

North Korean Missiles

Forgive me some schadenfreude after the North Koreans, to very public embarassment on the world stage, had their newest toy crash into the ocean one minute after launch. The regime is now apparently preparing another nuclear test to save face after their not-in-any-way-whatever-phallic inability to, uh, keep up the missile. This is one rather personal consequence of tying a nation’s reputation to one young man’s potency.

I’m also rather pleased, after the usual hyperbole from the North Korean regime that we’re-going-to-turn-South-Korea-into-ashes-any-minute-now, that critics are now refusing to take the threats and posturing seriously and are beginning to ask whether ignoring the North entirely or calling their bluff and confronting them is a better course. Have a look at Prof. Robert Kelly’s Asian Security Blog for some insight into this. Kelly basically argues that the South Korean preference is to deny the North attention and hope they’ll go away because 1) Seoul is really close to the border and really vulnerable, and 2) as the decades wear on, South Koreans care increasingly less about the basket case up north and don’t want to pay for worse-than-Germany-level reunification.

I’ve written a few times on the matter, and I am not an International Relations specialist but I live here. My take on the issue is that South Korea should certainly fight back symmetrically if provoked, but on the whole North Korea is a humanitarian catastrophe internally but is less dangerous externally than imagined to be. I’m generally told when I go back to Canada “But the North is crazy!” The North Korean regime is not a group of madmen; they just play one on TV. If anything, the North Korean regime is much more a “militarized crime family,” as Hitchens said, than a government possessed by a specific death-cult ideology. Imagine Italy falling into the hands of the mafia after World War II, which then imagined a bogus mythology of Italian racial purity to justify its rule, and it’s not dissimilar.

North Korea has not lasted sixty years by being insane; they have lasted through the carefully crafted appearance of unpredictable lunacy which keeps other states afraid and paying attention (or just paying, as in South Korea’s attitude until its recent conservative government). In effect, North Korea runs the world’s largest protection racket: “You have a nice country here; it would be a shame if one of our rockets (which were built for purely peaceful purposes, of course) were to land on it.” I certainly watch the news, but I have my doubts that the North would overplay its hand with a serious attempt at violence. Crime syndicates know that if you ruin your victim he can’t pay protection anymore. In all the threats and tests we also forget that the missiles and weapons of the Americans do fly straight and are already plentiful. I expect the North Korea regime to continue to choose survival as a pariah rather than suicide. What a wonderful world.

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Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix

Some 60s songs are really rather stupid when you think about their lyrics. Check out my take on The Monkees here. Really, I think Jimi Hendrix’s song would have been much better with some more attention to writing, as per the following suggestion:

Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun of your hand?
Hey Joe, I said where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?
I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin’ ‘round with another man
I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin’ ‘round with another man

Hey Joe, have you ever considered marital counseling? You really seem to have some anger issues.
Hey Joe, is there a reason why we have to keep repeating every statement twice?

It’s just a thought, mind you. It just bothers me a tad that the speaker in the song has someone walk past him with an open firearm intent on homicide, and does nothing about it besides taunting the murderer the next day, “where you gonna run to now?” Aren’t both of them fine young men to bring home to mother.

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March 2012

Canadian Dialect, Eh?

As my army of regular readers knows, I am dubious about nationalism. There’s nothing wrong with love of country, and I admire any soldier who defends his or her homeland. What I mean is the sort of small-minded jingoism which reduces everything to my country versus yours. I’m irritated by Koreans who travel to Italy and bring their own food; I’m disturbed by American or Chinese we-can-do-no-wrong exceptionalism. I’m equally contemptuous of Canadians here who won’t associate with anyone else and look down on the American expatriates. I have never worn a maple-leaf henna tattoo on my face in my life and would rather be dead.

I’m sometimes asked about Canadian English. Canadians have some local vocabulary, but only a fluent speaker would be able to differentiate the language from American English. Insofar as dialect, there isn’t one Canadian dialect any more than there is one American dialect. Our dialect lines are more north-south than east-west, so that British Columbia has some of the slangy, bouncy sound of Californian English, the prairies have the slow, flat midwest sound, Ontario has some of the raised vowels of the northeast seaboard, and Newfoundland has a strong Irish and island dialect. Try this for size, admittedly a contrived example:

Newfoundland Standard English
Sure’n, I likes a good scoff ‘n’ scuff when me ‘n’ da b’ys are out on a tear, but dat place was some fausty. We were after gettin’ on da beer, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph! When I saw all o’ ye, me missus was stood by me dere and she couldn’ take it no longer. Yeah, I like a good meal and dance when the boys and I are out on the town, but that hall sure was moldy and stale. We were getting started on our drinking, but good grief! At the moment I saw all of you, my wife was standing there beside me and she couldn’t endure it any longer.

I don’t know why I loathe the interjection “eh,” but I do. I think there are a few reasons. One is that it’s not commonly used outside Ontario; it’s not standard Canadian English but rather central Canadian English, and when I’m in Edmonton and hear it it’s a sure shibbeloth (well, look it up) that the speaker comes from central Canada. I never said it growing up, my friends didn’t, and I still don’t. I suspect the other reason I dislike it is that it reflects the lingering attitude that Ontario is Canada and we’re only the colonies, and thus central Canadian English is Canadian English. This all sounds a little humorless, and I still do like Bob & Doug, but I neither say eh nor aboot myself.

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January 2012

Ken on TV

This January the university had winter camps, which are premised on the idea that if students work 16 hours a day in the cold with poor food they learn better. While teaching a writing class a television crew came in to cover the festivities, which were featured on the TV news that night. It’s all in Korean, but here it is.


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December 2011

Korean Politics

One facet of Korean culture I find baffling is its politics. The foreign teachers I meet in Korea generally are young and college-educated and have centrist or liberal politics. It’s thus surprising that here up often seems down— the conservative (GNP) party wants closer ties to America and strongly supported the FTA, both things which benefit the jobs and lives of foreign teachers, whereas the left-wing parties fought bitterly to sabotage it, releasing tear-gas canisters in parliament to try to stop its passage. Korean leftists are more like extreme rightists, beating the drum of Korean nationalism and blaming every problem on the foreigners. Bizarrely, many college students here support such parties, marching in candlelit protests against the US and then heading for the coffee shops to drink lattes and listen to Lady Gaga.

Seoul recently elected a left-leaning mayor, and predictably, there’s already blathering about how the US forces should leave, the FTA sells out our nation, and the North Koreans are our brothers who just need to be loved more. I’m thus unsurprised to hear that the board of education is booting out the native English teachers from the public school English programs in Seoul, beginning in 2012. There’s the usual not-so-thinly disguised hostility that foreigners date our women are unqualified, aren’t effective as teachers compared to Korean teachers of English, and cost too much.

As I’ve said in other places on my website, ESL is a slightly sleazy industry. There are lousy teachers here only interested in fast money and women. A bachelors degree in Sociology does not make you a qualified educator. But the placement programs in Korea were shakily run from the start, hobbled by bureaucracy and hostility or confusion from Korean co-teachers and local administrators. I expect many of these released teachers to find work in private academies (hagwons), but the day is coming when China will slurp away the pool of native-speaking teachers just as Korea previously did to Japan.

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The Cleanest Race - B.R. Myers (2010)

For anyone looking for a good read which will explain North Korea, this is it— or at least read the interview. (Please do not think that December 2011 is a Korea-slam. Do you really want me to write drivel about how wonderful kimchi is?) Myers is one of the few academics who looks beyond the hyperbolic rants in the North Korean international releases, revealing that the threats in English to turn everything into a sea of fire are largely unconnected to what citizens inside the country read or see on TV. Some of Myers’ conclusions contradict the usual western news and diplomatic assumptions about the reclusive state:

1) It’s not a communist state. Myers claims that there is little that’s actually communist about North Korea despite the “worker’s paradise” rhetoric. It has centralized planning, but so did Nazi Germany’s and imperial Japan’s economies, to an extent. The North Koreans have virtually no interest in exporting their ideology as classic Soviet-bloc states did; they don’t want to free the international workers from their chains. They want to unite the pure Korean race and then shut out the debased, quasi-human rest of the world, forever. Its only binary is race, not class struggle; you’re Korean (good) or not (evil), and the distinction is permanent.

2) The Juche idea is a smokescreen. Myers believes that the Juche ideology of extreme self-sufficience is simply a ruse to keep critics and outsiders off-balance. North Korea has no trouble accepting aid, simply labeling it as grateful tribute from cowed foreign inferiors, whether Chinese or western. Whereas communist nations were more than happy to educate new recruits, North Korean ideology is extremely non-intellectual, portraying its people as simple, childlike souls guided by spontaneous passions— all requiring the friendly guidance and protection of a dear leader, of course.

3) It’s not a Confucian state. North Korea is not a Confucian holdover substituting reverence for the dear leader for the king. Its propaganda uses consistently feminine imagery, portraying its leaders in maternal, sheltering terms. Again, the regime’s valorization of purity and innocence hardly jives with Confucianism’s respect for education and philosophical inquiry.

The result is what one commenter called a country with one giant Stockholm syndrome— starving citizens who nevertheless believe that their race (and thus leaders) can do no wrong. Thus Myers doesn’t see much possiblity of internal revolt, but rather the biggest danger to the regime is the creeping realization that the South isn’t being oppressed by the Americans and doesn’t exactly yearn for liberation. This makes the recent tolerance of cellphones in the North puzzling.

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October 2011

Enough already. I’ve stayed off the internet for the last few days because I’m sick of the nauseating plaudits. How great the man was, how visionary he was, how he changed everyone’s lives. I’m going to bury Caesar: I admit Jobs’ innovations were among the most important of the 20th century. This does not make him a beautiful human being. He cheated his partner Steve Wozniak, abandoned a daughter, screamed at his employees, and cut off all charitable giving at Apple. A new biography states he “parked in handicapped spots, was rude to every waiter he ever encountered, and believed he didn’t have to bathe.” He did not invent the graphical user interface. Xerox did, and both he and Bill Gates viewed the failed Xerox GUI computer at a demonstration, modeling their respective operating systems on it. I’ve never understood why Bill Gates, who has arranged to give away his entire fortune, is the bad guy. In interviews Jobs slung insults and snark at Gates, and Gates always responded to his remarks with class and generosity.

Let me reveal a dark, shameful secret that no liberal arts graduate is supposed to have: I’ve never really liked Apple products. I’ve always found their software frustrating to use and counter-intuitive. To me their products are gimmicky and overpriced, and almost as annoying as their hipper-than-thou fans. The man deserves respectful commemoration, but he was no saint. He ran a business. He sold things for profit, and people paid for them.

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September 2011

Craig Ferguson & The Tiger-Mom

Maybe my choice of comparison will seem very strange. I recently bought a Kindle and the first books I’ve read, I guess because they’re at A and B, is Craig Ferguson’s American on Purpose and Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Being in Korea, I’m actually not that familiar with the late-night show, but I enjoy memoirs and Ferguson is very likeable. He talks about his childhood in Glasgow and there are the expected thugs and bullying teachers as Ferguson joins rock bands, abuses drugs, and cheats on girlfriends and wives until he gradually matures, stops drinking, and becomes a comedy entertainer. Ferguson tells us his past sins without exoticizing or bragging about them, but neither is there the revival-tent Oprah-esque melodrama of how he had “the courage to be healed.” Instead, Ferguson is funny and self-deprecating. He blames himself for his excesses while admitting he had a good time, and ends the book grateful to be a citizen of a country which gives him opportunities.

There’s been a few times in my life where a book was so bad or made me so angry that I refused to continue or threw it against the wall at its end: Moby Dick. Middlemarch. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, with its whiny, martyr-complex narrator. Anything by Joel Osteen, who preaches that the reason you’re not rich is because you don’t have enough faith, although being the son of a wealthy and famous televangelist might help. I would have thrown Battle Hymn at my wall, except it would have broken my Kindle. I don’t know why I have such strong feelings over this text, and I’m a little late to the party in talking about it. But I hate this book because of Chua’s binary view of the world. You are Chinese or Western. If you are a Chinese mother, you scold, humiliate, and beat your preschool daughters. You force them to play violin or piano and deny them sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. You reject birthday cards they draw for you because they are not perfect. As a result, all 1.2 billion Chinese are successful and love their parents. The alternative is to be a Western parent, where you are vaguely aware that you have children and occasionally check in on them in their 20’s when they are in your basement playing Grand Theft Auto in their pajamas and shooting heroin, pausing to praise them for developing their self-esteem and inner specialness.

Whenever Chua uses the word western there is a contemptuous sneer about it as though she were saying syphilitic. Whereas Chinese parents love their children, who never disobey their parents and get As in all subjects, Western parents are “perfectly content to let their children turn out badly.” Western academics are called “Dr.” in sarcastic quotation marks. Americans are lazy, weak slackers who are fat from eating “Kentucky Fried Chicken” and full of “psychological disorders” that “don’t exist in Asia.” Disney movies appeal because they offer consolation to “people who never win any prizes” and probably work as “janitors.” At the same time, Chua never accounts for the fact that while her automaton offspring are virtuoso performers due to their Chineseness, all the music they perform was written by creative European composers who did not spend their childhoods in prison-camp conditions. (Chua’s response to charges of racism is the “I was only joking” dodge, further heaping condescension on critics who aren’t smart enough to understand her “humor.”)

I hate this book because at the end I’m not sure what the point is. After all the self-congratulation about how hard Chua’s childhood was, how she attended Yale and Harvard and became full tenured professor at sixteen, how she lectures or vacations in (insert list of important places you haven’t been to) while not piloting the space shuttle, how important and sophisticated her friends are, how successful her children are, and how she does all this and forces her daughters to practice sixteen hours a day because she is more driven-than-thou... what? It isn’t a compelling narrative, as she hasn’t learned anything from her narcissism, despite her humblebrag about how her daughter ‘schooled’ her with a trivial act of defiance. Her techniques won’t work for those parents who don’t happen to have her position, connections, or time and money to fly their children between world-class teachers. Last, why try to enlighten Americans anyway if they’re too slovenly to act on it? (the same people who fund the university you work at enabling you to spit on their values). Ferguson gives me the impression that he writes to share. Chua seems to write to make you feel small.

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August 2011

Bad Korean Meals

The food in Korea is good, when it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s downright diabolical.

Daegu Jazz Festival

There’s lots I squawk about regarding “Deadgu,” but there was a fun little jazz festival with a free outdoor stage for three days this August. The Korean version of jazz is heavy on the Starlight-Lounge piano cheese and light on anything that might reflect jazz’s African-American origins, but I will admit that the Latin band, the Amigos, really did get down and dance. It’s not often you hear Asian bands singing in Korean, English, French, and Spanish.


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1960s Pop Songs

“Take the last train to Clarksville, and I’ll meet you at the station. You can be here at four-thirty, ‘cause I’ve made your reservation.”

Never understood this Monkees song. Why the last train to Clarksville, and not the next one? You have something more important to do that you want your girlfriend to take the last possible train? What a romantic devil. “I would like to see you tonight, but I’d like to wash my hair and feed the cat and finish the novel I’ve been reading. Why don’t you take the very last train so that you’ll arrive by the time I’m ready and my other girlfriend has gone home?”

“Take the last train to Clarksville, now I must hang up the phone. I can’t hear you in this noisy railroad station all alone.”

So not only is the speaker asking this girl to arrive as late as possible for his convenience, but he’s cheap. Why do you need to hang up the phone? What does the noise level have to do with needing to end the call? It’s because you want her to pay for a train ticket but don’t want to spring for another dime for the payphone, you lying cheapskate!

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The U.S. Debt Crisis

I still like President Obama and think he has accomplished some good things. The USA, dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, now has some measure of universal health care, and recently new fuel standards were passed to lessen dependence on foreign oil. I’m not jumping off the bandwagon, but I’ll voice my frustration that lately when I see Obama I think of what Theodore Roosevelt said about Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I could carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone than that.”

The Americans nearly plunged world markets into chaos by being a hyperpower unable to pay its own bills, all because a fanatical group of useful idiots in congress refused to raise taxes on the super-rich, who presently pay less than their secretaries. Faced with this standoff, Obama did what he almost always does, which is propose a moderate position to look like a statesman, offer to compromise with the tea-party Republicans at the beginning of talks, and then cave and accept a deal almost entirely on their terms. That’s quite the negotiating skills there, Lou. I wonder what this president would have done at other times in history?

The Roman Empire Declines, 400 The Germans Invade Poland, 1939 Sentient Robots Revolt, 2136
“Understand that I oppose the destruction of Rome and these ravaging barbarians. But I believe we can come together and compromise. We can’t all have what we want. Now, I’m being more than generous in asking them to not burn and sack the city on Tuesdays, but I’m open to all options.” “Our shared traditions as Americans are built on being generous and willing to meet halfways. Now, I’ve been more than reasonable in giving Mr. Hitler 80% of Europe and only asking that he not take over Malta and Portugal with his Panzers, but there has to be some give and take.” “Now, I’m sure not everyone is pleased that humanity is being taken to another planet to work in salt mines as slave labor, but being flexible and open to consensus is what Americans expect. Not everyone got everything in this deal, but we’ve disagreed without being disagreeable.”

Okay, I’ve had my fun.

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Rain Floods in Korea

Korea has been whammed with some serious rain this summer, leading to flooding and deaths in Seoul. I was in Busan this weekend and there’s damaged and impassable roads everywhere with sunken concrete. Daegu was apparently too boring for even the rain to bother with it. Although it’s been a wet July, there’s been no problems here yet.

July 2011

The website is going through some large changes this month, both in the code behind the scenes and in presentation and content. Because so many tablets and other applications don’t run Flash, it’s now gone (I won’t miss it—Flash is a huge nuisance to program and implement). In its place is some new Jquery javascript code which makes things like the imageflow picture carousel you’ll see throughout the site. The site still doesn’t run well on Internet Explorer 9, but I’m not alone on that. I think lots of web designers hope IE9 will be like Windows ME and will be replaced quickly and forgotten.

June 2011

Riots in Vancouver

One of my friends commented on Facebook that we shouldn’t be surprised at the riot that just happened in Vancouver following the Canucks’ loss in the Stanley Cup finals; after all, we expect the players to beat each other violently during the game. To me there’s a difference in that game violence is controlled, voluntary, and doesn’t affect private property... a little like ‘fight club,’ admittedly. But as much as I grew up with hockey and it’s in my blood, I think a growing backlash is going to be justified as citizens ask why we subsidize this sport with tax monies only to have to clean up and pay for damage to our cities after fans terrorize the streets.

When my Oilers won the Stanley Cup in Edmonton in 1984, there was a small riot downtown. This week, after the playoff loss, there was a giant riot in downtown Vancouver which resulted in stabbings, injuries, burned cars, and looted businesses. The police were shocked, shocked! that there was a riot... so very much like the after-game riots in Montreal in 2010 and in 2008. Why, it’s almost as if there’s a pattern to this.

Every time there has been a hockey riot the press and authorities have said “this was the work of troublemakers and not true fans.” Oh, well. Why didn’t you say so? Carry on then. Where I live in northeast Asia, there are lots of public demonstrations, but if there is any potential for violence or vandalism the police are out in full number and heavy gear. Offenders are quickly arrested and fined or caned. And by the darndest coincidence, there aren’t many sports riots. In many ways I’m politically liberal, but with public order I pray to the dark gods: either confront criminal rioters with force or cancel the damn playoffs.

Michelle Bachmann, ID, & the Funda-atheists

I have friends and co-workers who are atheists. They’re nice people and we respect each other. I don’t agree with Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, but they’re gifted intellectuals in other fields. Hitchens can be funny and he knows the value of a good cup of tea [edit: this was written before his recent passing]. Recently Bill Maher wrote an essay entitled “New Rule: Not Everything in America Has to Make a Profit.” If I have a new rule, I suppose it is: Not Everything Has to Be a Fight. I’m not indulging in the sort of snide America-bashing Canadians sometimes do. I’m pointing out that religion in America is becoming increasingly polarized, aided and abetted by the internet, and to me the potential consequences are serious.

If atheists can be good people, the corollary is that they can be incredibly nasty too. Recently Dave’s ESL Cafe, a discussion board I frequent, gave up and banned all religious discussions because the comments had become so abusive. Atheist groups have the right to put jeering messages on buses and billboards. This doesn’t mean the practice isn’t spiteful or hurtful, or that anything goes. I see posts on discussion boards or blogs which would be declared hate speech and taken down if we substituted “Christians” with other identity groups. Criticizing my faith is one thing, and advocating that I should be harassed, prohibited from certain jobs, or arrested for taking my child to church is another. This isn’t free-thinking; it’s fundamentalism applied to an opposite worldview. But Liberal Christians and everyone in the middle need to be aware and involved because we are attacked on both sides. If I moved to the USA, I’m not sure who would fire me first from a professorship—P.Z. Myers for being a Christian, or Michelle Bachmann for not being Christian enough. Extreme political movements seldom end well for believers. French, Russian, and Chinese revolutionaries all attacked the church. Hitler (sorry to “Godwin the thread) corrupted church leaders where he could, and where he couldn’t, wellthere were 3,500 priests in Dachau alone.

The problem with the Intelligent Design and Evolution controversy is that there are honest and dishonest actors on both sides. On the ID side there are scientists with legitimate concerns about evolution (good) and six-day fundamentalists trying to sabotage science education (bad). On the other are scientists who sincerely want to pursue their studies agnostically (good) and those who believe religion has no place in science, unless one is disproving religion, in which case it’s fine (Hawking).

In my online course on university life, I discuss problem resolution through win-win scenarios. To me the impasse over teaching ID in high school science class is simply solved: Intelligent Design should be taught in Social Studies class. As a chiefly theological branch of inquiry, it belongs with the social sciences and humanities.

Objection 1: “Aren’t we admitting that ID isn’t true if we state it isn’t a science?” Well, noHistory and English Literature aren’t scientific, but they deal with realities we would say are true. Mathematics isn’t scientific in a strict sense, as numbers are artificial constructs, but it’s ‘true.’ These subjects all rely on an epistomological sense of truth which isn’t inferior to the narrow type of truth which comes from scientific observation—it’s just different.

Objection 2: “Won’t it confuse students to hear conflicting explanations of human origins?” High school and University ought to involve dealing with differing or conflicting information or viewpoints. If students can’t handle that, the school systems have bigger fish to fry than science class.

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May 2011

Dr. Ken

"Graduation is when the world beckons to you... but not necessarily with the right finger."

I’ve finished my doctorate and have completed all the paperwork, and I’m just waiting for the official diploma to arrive. It’s nice to be done. As soon as I did my defense in April, I promptly got sick with a cold. Others tell me that this is quite normal, that your body will have a little breakdown for a while, and that many people will be depressed similar to women after childbirth. Well, it hasn’t been that bad. But after being so busy this semester I have felt out of sorts for a week or two, as though I always have the feeling I should be doing something

"What do you do with a doctorate degree in medieval English Literature? Why are dissertation topics always so ridiculously obscure?"

It’s true that the topics can be very specific or odd. I once had a professor at Concordia whose friend did her dissertation on the three conjunctions “and, or, and but.” Thesis topics tend to be extremely specific for the simple reason that if you discuss a broad or familiar subject—"Is Hamlet crazy"you will need to read everything already written on that argument, which might take you the rest of your life. For this reason, a topic which breaks new ground is easier and more respectable. My dissertation was on the relationship between Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas and medieval romances. Some people find this interesting, most do not, and some get hostile in questioning the topic’s usefulness. For most English professors at least, these specializations are a little like the ones physicians have. A medical doctor might do research on East Icelandic Accordion Disease and then spend most of his time treating sore throats, on call if someone with that ailment does show up. Similarly, in the future I might teach one or two Chaucer courses, but I will spend most of my time teaching writing and literature survey courses, which is fine. That’s assuming, of course, you get a job at all, unfortunately a more appropriate question for anyone doing graduate work in English.

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My Winter Vacation

There’s a kind of Russian-roulette aspect to vacations, I think. Every once in a while you get burned. This February I went back on a family vacation to Singapore and Bali. In my last trips there I found Singapore irritating and Bali heavenly, but my experiences this time were more mixed.

Now that I’m getting used to Singapore, I’m liking it more. The country-state is a little like Apple. It’s expensive and you will do things their way, but everything works. Although it’s still always impossible to find a taxi, I’m beginning to like Singapore’s cleanliness and efficiency, and I admit the architecture and the zoo are very nice.

I’m sad to say that Bali is not as much fun as it used to be, at least for me. Part of it is that I’m admittedly getting older, and the noisy nightclub and motorcycle din of Kuta which used to be exciting for me is now aggravating and fatiguing. But I do believe that Kuta has deteriorated. It was a week and some of inflated prices, cheating taxi drivers, dirty rooms, truck-driver swearing Australian tourists, and jammed sidewalks with homicidal motorcyclists. The only way I would go back to Bali is to go to the highlands, which are quieter and friendlier. It broke my heart to see some of my favorite beaches on earth covered with litter.

It didn’t help that I and my mother-in-law got Dengue Fever, a sort of malaria-lite disease which has really ruined my health for some four months since. Interdum habere feriae et interdum feriae vos habit: Sometimes you have the vacation and sometimes the vacation has you.

* Free access to this website for a year to anyone who can tell me what this is. *

As a special note, I have never had worse “food” or service as I did on China Eastern Airlines this February. Inedible dinners. Every flight hours late. A transfer both ways at Shanghai Airport, a facility setting new and exciting heights in arbitrary bureacracy, rude staff, nonexistent signage, and ripoff prices. Lest anyone think I’m just a grouch, let me say that Incheon, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok have excellent airports for efficiency and service.

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Beer (Mini-Rant)

I admit to a somewhat working-class mindset. As I’ve written about on my beer website, one of my pet peeves is wine snobs. To me wine is an enjoyable drink almost ruined by the social expectations that you have to choose the right one, and so I am adamant that beer not be ruined in the same way; it’s the people’s drink. Alas, Salon has a new article about “How to enjoy your beer” with the usual pretentious twaddle about the necessity for the cultured connoisseur to sniff refinedly for notes of “caramel-toasted malt, black jellybean or green apple” in one’s beer. Drink responsibly, but don’t be afraid to to drink what you want as you want. Dante has a special plane of Hell for these pompous killjoys, just above the more-Irish-than-thou people who are always righteously prescribing the proper way to pour a Guinness.

Ken’s (Full) Rant

In late February, a foreign private institute teacher in Busan took his own life by jumping from an apartment building. The press reported the incident while expressing condolences over the young man’s death and advocating that the country offer improved counseling services for foreigners with personal problems.

Ha! Ha! Just kidding. The local newspapers reacted with horror that an obviously insane foreigner who was probably addicted to drugs and alcohol was in the country teaching vulnerable Korean children, and called on the government to strengthen immigation regulations and screening for foreign teachers. The Busan Ilbo thundered that “a severe alcoholic who caused a disturbance in a public facility and jumped to his death worked as a teacher and openly taught students in Korea” (Link to the blog Gusts of Popular Feeling, which provided the translation).

And so in addition to repeated and humiliating drug tests and police checks for sexual or violent crimes, now psychological profiles are being suggested as a requirement for visas in case we might selfishly litter the public commons with our bodies. How nice to know we’re loved.

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January 2011

Downtown Daegu at Night

The standard procedure for Korean tourist organizations is to ignore anything a foreign tourist might say and to generate advertising slogans such as “Visit Korea Year 2009-2012.” Well done. Here’s my free contribution: there’s lots of natural beauty here but one of the best (only?) good things about the cities is night time. Here’s downtown Daegu (Banwoldang) at night, lit up with Christmas neon and busy with shoppers. It’s a fun place to be.


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Ken’s Rant

It’s a Wonderful Life and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

One of the things I worry about living in Korea and away from western culture is that sometimes my grip on what’s normal or current seems to slip. I watch clips of Letterman and there’s actors I’ve never heard of saying catchphrases to the audience that I don’t understand and aren’t funny. But one of my biggest shocks came this Christmas season when I saw two movies that left me rather unsettled.

I must be one of the ten people on the continent that had never seen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) before. A Christmas classic about faith and redemption. One of those movies in the video rental store with “For the whole family” stamped on it. What I wasn’t expecting was one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen. As Salon notes, if you missed the last fifteen minutes of the film it would watch like a Beckett nihilist drama.

What’s wonderful about this poor man’s miserable life? He watches his dad humiliated by a greedy capitalist and just when he’s about to get lucky for the first time his father dies and out of guilt he throws away a European adventure, a university education, and all of his life’s ambitions to stay in a stiflingly boring, one-horse town while his friends and relatives leave and achieve fame and success. He doesn’t even get to have a honeymoon when there’s a run on the bank and he has to go back to a run-down, abandoned house he’s moved into. When his bank is again tottering on ruin because of theft and his alcoholic uncle he ponders suicide as he stands alone in the dark and cold questioning his existence. Who wouldn’t want to jump under these conditions?

Then, in a turn of events that’s supposed to cheer him up, an angel appears to show him that if he were not born, things would be even worse. If he were unborn, his relatives would be dead, townspeople insane or ruined, and his wife a lonely, broken spinster. Isn’t that nice? I know that when I’m in a low mood, I would feel a lot better if an angel demonstrated that without me being born all of my friends and family would have met grisly deaths and fiery rain would have fallen down as the earth writhed in starvation, war, and torment. There’s nothing like guilt to cure existential angst. I’m beginning to agree with Slate’s Gary Kamiya, who says that Harry Bailey should have stayed in Pottersville. The movie tries to depict it as an alternative Sodom and Gomorrah, but it’s a slammin’ place. I know I would have walked away from my rotten life to have a few drinks and find some showgirls if I had that little to lose.

But in comparison to the new Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I (2010) the Frank Capra movie is a walk through sunshine with Barney. At the beginning of the movie a Hogwart’s employee is shown bound and tortured above Voldemort and associates before being executed. Throughout the movie witches and wizards are killed, Harry and friends spend their time dipped in blood or arguing, Hogwart’s turns into a Nazi boot camp of repression, purges, and show trials, and the land of the “muggles,” ordinary humans, becomes a post-apocalyptic warzone of abandoned, scorched, frozen winter. This is based on a children’s novel? Who wrote the screenplay, Nine Inch Nails?

I know that the producers were consciously aiming at an edgier, darker scenario to show that the Harry Potter series is growing up along with its fans. But to me the charm of the early novels and movies is their fun and wonder, set in a magical world of adventure. While I suppose that Harry’s world has to necessarily become more adult and less puerile as he matures, man, this is a cold, grim movie. Terminator 3 has a cheerier setting. Can I not have a little bit of happiness and warmth in a film? Do I really have to choose between this and Love, Actually?

An extra kick in the arse to the Daegu theater I saw the film in. One second before the film ends a staffer opens a brightly-lit exit door at the front of the theater, and one second after the end he shouts out that it’s time to leave. Charming. One day there’s going to be a class-action suit against theaters begrudging patrons the titles to the movie they overpaid for, and I’ll lead it. No better are the people who fly past me to rush out two seconds after the film ends because the Dalai Lama might have text-messaged them during the movie. I always wonder what these people are like in bed.

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Happy New Year!

This is an unusually frigid Korean winter and things have been dull even by Daegu standards, which is pretty bloody dull. I’ve now finished the first draft of my dissertation, and I’m waiting for my committee to send back changes. Hopefully it’s changes along the lines of “take out a comma” and not “rewrite eight chapters.” All the same it’s nice to get this far.

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October 2010

Well, my bad. I have not written anything on this blogette for a long time, disappointing my legion(s) of fans. What have I done since June?

July: Edmonton, Canada

Here are some rather random pictures of our vacation back home: The Welsh tent at Heritage Days in Edmonton with the longest town name in the world; the hoodoo park at Drumheller (which is much smaller than I’d expected*); and a carnival ride at Klondike Days (oops, Festival Days, or Twenty Dollars for a Cold Corn Dog Days, or Corporate Sponsorship Beige Days, or whatever we’re allowed to call it now that it’s not Klondike Days anymore). It was nice to be home. The mosquitos were glad to see me. Edmonton is doing well as usual, but it might finally be more expensive than Vancouver. My yardstick for going out for lunch used to be that $10 would usually be enough. Man, that’s a salad now.

*"That’s what she said."

August: Korea Tourism Conference, Yesan

This was a weekend conference at Yesan, southwest of Seoul. Yes, I took a cellphone picture of the belly-dancers at suppertime. Do you want to see a picture of people listening to a conference paper?

September: Chuseok at North Chungcheong

Chuseok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. It’s nice to have a few days off, but sometimes I’d rather hide under a blanket in my bedroom than deal with it. You cannot fly anywhere; every flight everywhere is triple in price and booked. You cannot go anywhere; every road is jammed. I try to do something fun, but I always feel a little like Satan’s devils in Paradise Lost who try to make Hell more liveable by, say, installing some air conditioning and some plush carpeting. Still, I’ll admit that the botanical garden we went to, Herb Nara, was very pretty. It was a few dollars to get in and the food was good. Try this in Los Angeles.

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June 2010

Daegu (I’m starting to pronounce it dead-gu) is usually a city which would make rocks fidget with boredom, and so my eternal thanks to anyone who tries to add a little life. One thing I like about Keimyung is that there are a lot of music concerts. One of the music professors, Kang Il-Lee, has regular performances of accompanied trumpet, or his big brass jazz band, Volcano (click to see a YouTube clip). A nice guy, and fun music that makes me think of easy jazz from Pink Panther movies.

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April 2010

Well, this blogette has been awfully serious lately. How about a few cell-phone pictures from my daily life? (Nobody’s paying you to look at them).

Subway station in Busan. It says a lot that Korean vending machines have books and North American ones have potato chips and cola...

A late-winter blizzard in March didn’t last long, but it froze to the trees. There was no spring this year. Flip the switch, here’s summer.

Sigh. “Let’s victory!” I see things like this on the subway wall and wonder what I’m doing here.

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March 2010

Health Care

The Americans have recently passed sort-of universal health care. While I’m pleased to see the US join the 20th century at last, I’m astonished by the violent responses to its passage, not only by the ordinary yahoos, but by elected representatives who stirred up the protestors. See Paul Krugman’s essay on this. What would Reagan say about the backlash?

"It’s time for the people to stand up and fight this bill and say that if Carter won’t fix things, our Smith & Wessons will. Folks are entitled to be outraged about this and not take it. Let’s put the Democrats and Carter in our crosshairs. I hope he fails.” - Ronald Reagan, 1980

This is an imaginary quote, of course, but whether you like Reagan or not, I can’t imagine the man or the GOP of 1980 advocating domestic acts of terrorism. Is this what’s now normal in the USA, where elected officials are at personal risk and opposition members tacitly encourage vigilante violence when they don’t get their way in the vote count? It is a very poor example to set for other countries where these actions are commonplace.

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The Vatican Scandal

I guess if I’ve already discussed politics, I can touch religion. I have mixed feelings about the child sex abuse scandal rocking the Vatican. New revelations are turning up about priests abusing children for decades and church superiors ignoring and threatening victims and acting only to protect their reputation. Every day I see increasing evidence of this chain of suppression coming closer to the pontiff himself.

On one hand, imagine eight senators were exposed as long-term child molesters, and that the senate administration had acted to cover it up. Very few people would say, “well, this proves that the houses of Congress are corrupt institutions and that parliamentary democracy has been discredited.” Similarly, when female teachers sleep with young students, it’s a big smutty joke about the lad getting some from the hot teacher. No one I know says, “they should close down all the schools! I’d never let my child be around a teacher. This just shows that public education is evil.” Yet an awful lot of people say these same things about the Catholic church.

On the other hand, the numbers of people involved, and the extent to which the entire criminal and moral disaster was treated so dismissively and so callously, can’t be ignored. I think this reveals a very different mindset between the essentially medieval church structure and the postmodern world. The Catholic hierarchy seems to cling to the idea that being wrong is fundamentally impossible. Much of the world sees a self-important institution believing that it’s too big to fail. Do we need the indignity of the pope being unable to travel to certain countries because of warrants for his arrest for him to take this more seriously?

A lot of people’s faith has and will be destroyed by this scandal. I don’t think it’s the end of the Catholic church by any means, but I think they have two broad choices, and neither are pleasant. In many ways giant organizations and even countries are like individuals, in that people will forgive someone who’s really sorry and walks the walk, but not someone who apologizes shallowly. Germany is a pretty well-respected country in Europe, and its repudiation of its Nazi past has been genuine and substantive. Japan has never really persuaded anyone of more than regretting losing World War II, and as a result the country is disliked throughout Asia. The church could undertake a massive effort to find, expose, and prosecute criminal priests and administrators and beg public forgiveness through clear and genuine acts of contrition and help for its victims. There are fundamentalist atheists for whom nothing would ever be sufficient except for rolling up and dying. But I honestly think the general public would be somewhat won over. The alternative, making a pro-forma apology and then refusing to make other amends, will be worse. A lot of people don’t care about sin anymore, but no one likes arrogance and pride.

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Ken’s Rant

Should You Be an English Professor?

I like being a professor. I have a fairly good job, the hours are good, and it’s enjoyable when someone learns something or grows as a student. I don’t regret the career that’s been given to me. I think regret is a foolish emotion anyway. When you regret something, you’re assuming you fully know the alternatives. If I hadn’t been a professor, I might have had some other career I loved, and been hit by a bus the next day. No one has perfect knowledge of what might else have been.

Getting past this logic-chopping, do I recommend young readers of this blog (both of them) that you become a professor? No, I don’t. I couldn’t with good conscience advise you to enter this career, at least as a professor in the humanities, or specifically in English. Why shouldn’t you be an English professor?

Okay, I’ll stop. What is the matter with me that I have been so crabby and angry all 2010? Perhaps it’s the dark and cold of a Daegu winter. Maybe my blogette posts would be cheerier if I bought a sun lamp.

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Globalization

Globalization has perhaps been the most important civilizational and economic force in my lifetime. And it’s odd that I find global economics so interesting when I was so poor at the subject in university. You’re not always good at thing you like to do! To quote Tom Friedman once again, globalization is a little like the sunrise; whether I like it or not won’t have much effect on whether it happens. I also think that it and post-industrialism are such an enormous change in human civilization that there’s no way I can accurately evaluate whether it’s good or not, any more than a factory worker could say that the industrial revolution was good or not in the year 1750, or what the breakup of Rome was leading to in 500.

My take so far is that globalization is good for the wealthy, good for the poor, but wrecks the middle class. As such, it has raised standards of living in the developing world (outside of Africa, generally) where there wasn’t much middle class to begin with. I suppose there is a sort of global justice here for the developed countries to share the affluence, but I am beginning to see long-term that globalization has been much more detrimental than beneficial to my ability to make a living. In the west, if you are very wealthy, globalization allows you to produce goods and products somewhere else where labor is cheaper and keep the profit. If you are poor, a wealthy upper class brings jobs in the service sector.

The section of society which is no longer very necessary is the middle class, which sends an increasing number of young people to university for jobs which they will never get. So many men that no one needs, except at best to cut hair and to mow grass. The question of whether my generation is richer than my parents’ one is interesting. We have so many more labor-saving technologies and entertainments than before, but so much less security. You cannot graduate high school and walk into a reasonably safe expectation of a house and job and retirement if you work hard. That social contract doesn’t exist anymore. It leaves many of us as dazed as a Roman citizen must have been around the year 500, realizing that the old empire had disappeared but unable to see the future and understand what was coming to replace it.

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February 2010

Because I lived in Las Vegas for a few years, and usually had a February holiday when I lived in Korea before then, I haven’t had to savor an actual winter since about 2003. I don’t miss it one iota. We had a short holiday planned for Malaysia this February but could not go. Some bureaucrat told us that my daughter had to show up in person with ID to pick up her school form on the prescribed day or she couldn’t attend the school. For that one act we had to cancel our vacation and spend January shivering instead of on a beach. It has been an unusually harsh Korean winter. I have tried not to be in a foul mood all month, but I still am. As I have to keep explaining, because I come from Canada, it doesn’t mean I like winter. Other people can fall in love with the far north. I’ll live in Bali.


Campus during a blizzard. The snow likely snapped more than a few umbrellas, but people still try.

A comic convention in Busan my daughter went to, where people dress up in character outfits.

More on schools. I’m often asked about the Korean school system and how it compares to the west. Based on my experience teaching first-year college both in North America and in Korea, I no longer think I would rate one higher than the other. They both have strengths and weaknesses. First I need to discuss showupism.

Showupism

To me, showupism is the dominant labor principle of the developing world. In a sentence, showupism is the idea that time spent means productivity, end of story. When I lived in Mexico, I learned that Mexicans, despite the stereotypes, work long hours. They just don’t do much. If I went to a restaurant, there were 18 people working there and no one to take your order, because everyone was chatting to their boy or girlfriend or doing nothing. At the Pemex Oil site I taught occasional classes at, there were lots of laborers employed, who spent most of the day talking, fooling around, or sneaking off to drink booze or watch exotic dancers.

I’m often told how Koreans work such long hours. But it’s a little like someone bragging that they’re a better person because they watered the plants for two hours with a spoon rather than for twenty minutes with a pail. I’m sure there are wasted work hours in the west too, and some people probably do have jobs like Dilbert does. But relatively speaking, many employees here don’t seem to work very efficiently. The exception is the older women who run restaurants and sell things in markets. Korea would grind to a halt without the ajummas working their butts off.

Schools in North American and Korea

If I were to compare western and Korean schools, I imagine asking a freshman class in Korea about who fought in World War II. I would immediately get correct answers. If I then asked, “How would the war have ended if atomic bombs weren’t invented?” I would get confused silence. No one would know how to hypothesize new ideas. In Las Vegas, I would have plenty of theories employing high-level abstract reasoning—and it would all be lacking any factual basis. My students wouldn’t know where the countries are, and would mix up history with Hollywood movies, so that the Japanese, led by anime women with gravity-defying boobs, would be defeated by Private Ryan with a proton blaster.

To me, Korean schools have highly motivated students and parents, but the school system is inefficient and counterproductive. The curriculum is based too much on memorization of facts for tests (knowledge retention) and too little on reasoning or questioning (knowledge expansion). Students have ridiculous daily schedules from morning until night, and as a result don’t learn very much as they’re usually cloudy-headed from sleep deprivation. But the only thing that counts is how much time they spend studying, so that they can take one university entrance exam which determines whether they will be neurologists or street-sweepers.

North American schools are the opposite. Really, despite the problems, the American and Canadian systems I’ve seen have pretty good materials and teachers who keep up with evolving methodologies, and quality is more important than quantity of hours. But the public schools aren’t well-funded and aren’t well-supported by parents and children. My daughter would often tell me about friends in her class who simply missed school for days or weeks because they were “sick” or on holidays, and everyone seemed to pass regardless. In Korea, you were hit by a truck, there’s an earthquake, and you’re hallucinating from typhoid fever? Tough. Get your rusty behind on that school bus. In America? Well... school is just something to kill time until you take up more important work, such as being a model, athlete, or hip-hop star. While the west has been fighting over what to teach in schools (phonics, whole language, evolution, intelligent design), we have overlooked who shows up for class at all or graduates from it. Who wants to be an egghead or be another Miss Kerbappel or Principal Skinner, anyway?

Perhaps someday a country will combine the best of these two systems. When Koreans go to North American schools and have the benefit of both cultures, they can be amazing.

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January 2010

Happy New Year!

Welcome to the year of the tiger, 2010. Stupid Flanders.

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November 2009

I’ve been busy. I’m still working on my dissertation and on getting used to a new workplace. I did find time to go to the 2009 KOTESOL (Korean Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) conference in October in Seoul. It was an enjoyable time, although I found it a little user unfriendly in comparison to other conferences I’ve been to. Look, your online schedule of speakers and events has to match the guidebook you hand out when people arrive or there will be mass confusion. As well, at times I had the nagging quibble that the speakers could have talked more about the actual workplace problems of teaching in Korea. All I really heard about it was a prediction that “the days of backpacker ESL teachers are coming to an end.” I’m not so sure.

To me, the long-term state of Korean universities is fairly positive. Standards and salaries are improving and from what I can tell foreign professors are treated better and tenure is getting easier. I’m somewhat more pessimistic about the public school foreign-teacher programs and the hogwan (after-school school) industry. I don’t discourage people from teaching in Korea, but newcomers need to be wary; both private hogwans and government programs have a poor record of mistreating teachers. And while pay and benefits are stagnating here, they are improving in southeast Asia. I suppose supply and demand is an important factor, because the hogwan industry is also shrinking. But as for foreign-teacher supply, it’s hard for Korea to compete with Thai beaches and sun in January.

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September 2009

I am now living in Daegu in a large apartment complex. Korean apartments have changed. We have a nice view and the complex is actually a color other than Concrete Grey. There’s a button to do everything now, and even remote controls for everything just in case you need a button for the button. And just next to campus one can find a Pizza and Character sandwich. What can be better than that?

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August 2009

Flying 8,000 km with two cats is a hassle I won’t try to relive anytime soon, but we have moved from Las Vegas to Korea. Northworst Airlines does not let you check pets into cargo in the heat of summer, but you can bring them on as carry-ons— for $150 each. There are strict size and weight restrictions, and Sushi (on the right) barely made the 15 lbs. limit with crate. That’s over $10 a pound— pretty expensive steak. Why does the airline charge all this when it makes no difference to them whether you bring a live animal or a box of bricks on? Because they can! If you fly with pets, take extra time as they need to be inspected at security to make sure that it’s a real cat and not a clever robotic one with its bum filled with plastic explosives. The cats were actually pretty good and seemed to find the vibration of the engines soothing. Other than this our flight was uneventful, and for a US carrier the food was surprisingly edible.

Korea

Since we’ve returned, everytime my wife and I go somewhere, one of us will remark, “Korea’s changing.” I see university students in Italian restaurants listening to jazz and drinking wine, and I see the same old drunk men on the street spitting everywhere and glaring at me for being with a Korean woman. I generally think globalization is a good thing. But last Sunday I was walking through a market in Busan, with its narrow paths crowded with goods and different foods being cooked, and noticed that the traditional markets are dwindling, at least in Nampo-Dong, as people are going to Costco instead. I like being able to eat tacos in Korea now, but I’m not sure all the changes are good ones.

Having said these things, though, Im still glad to be back in Korea. In some ways the US was more xenophobic than Korea is. I really did like UNLV and there were some nice people on campus, but living in America was an enormous hassle, from the limitations on employment that put us below the poverty line, to the endless fees (some quite costly) and constant paperwork to enter and stay in the country. I had to leave; the job market was poor for educators already and no employer wanted to sponsor a non-citizen. Thomas Friedman says that if he were president, every foreigner to get a graduate degree in the US would get a green card stapled to his diploma. I know America is a little stressed by illegal immigrants, but I’m disappointed that the country can’t distinguish an Indian doctoral candidate in bioengineering from someone who snuck across Tijuana to pick fruit.

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Ken’s Rant

Rules, Rules, Rules

Something else which always heartens me in Korea is how comparatively free people here are in certain ways. North Americans cherish our big freedoms, those of voting, press, assembly, etc., but in the activities of daily life we are so constrained by rules, rules, rules, made for the government and for big business and not for us. I am trying to be philosophical and not to sound like an anti-corporate rabblerouser.

But a few things made me wonder. When we brought our cats to Korea, they were required to have shots more than 30 days earlier. We were at 29. Korea: Good enough! USA & Canada: Rules are rules. Next, please. Today a clerk made me banana juice and I couldnt drink it because it had milk in it, which makes me sick. Korea: You poor thing, Ill make you kiwi juice. USA & Canada: Sorry, corporate policy. Next, please. Korea: Crosses in business windows and taxis. Canada: A public display of religion? Perish forbid, someone might be offended! Korea: People smoke and drink beer on the beach. They clean up after themselves. No problem. USA & Canada: Police helicoptors swirling and then waterboarding in Algeria, followed by a fine— my God, wont somebody think of the children?

I don’t generally like Bill Maher with his anti-religious snideries, but I did like a recent column of his where he proposes a “new rulefor America: Not everything has to make a profit. Again, I dont want to seem like an ugly Canadian. In many ways my country is no better, and I maintain that Americans overall treat their university students better. Nevertheless, in Korea— which is supposed to be the poor country— I have full health coverage and inexpensive medicine, and in the USA— which is supposed to be the worlds richest country— my and my familys health deteriorated over the last three years because we could not afford medical care. Despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly want national health coverage, it may die again in Washington because of politicians who see a plan as somehow unnatural if it doesnt allow someone to make piles of money. Once again, I liked UNLV and thought it was a deceptively good university, yet I have to explain to students here that I taught there in classrooms with chalkboards and was urged to put course materials online because our department couldnt afford photocopies. Its a strange world, and getting stranger.

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July 2009

Michael Jackson

I didn’t hate Michael Jackson or wish him ill, but I’m a little relieved to be out of the USA and away from hearing him everywhere I go in public. North Americans pride themselves on not looking up to royalty, but the public mourning for MJ seems as mandatory as it was for Lady Diana in England in 1997. Even the schmaltzy accolades after Elvis Presley’s death in 1977 weren’t so ridiculous. Beat It is a cool song, but do people really think he’s the greatest singer ever or that he deserves a Nobel Prize?

People seem scared to say anything bad about MJ because it might seem racist. If that’s the case, whatever he did, James Brown did it three times better. Michael Jackson did some cheesy Hansen-style records as a boy, had two good albums in ‘79 and ‘83, and then his publicity people decided he was the King of Pop. What is more pathetic than taking such a title on yourself, and what is more depressing than the hype catching on? Thriller was great, but everything after was just, well, Bad. And I don’t want to hear about how people feel sorry for MJ because he never had a childhood and had so many people after his money, etc. There’s a beggar selling gum in a Manila slum who never had a childhood and has people after his money, etc. who doesn’t have his own mansion complex.

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June 2009

 

I am teaching summer session again, and am preparing to move. I’ve been hired by Keimyung University in Daegu, Korea. This is after some a plethora of job applications to American and Canadian universities and colleges, which resulted in nothing. Yet it’s a good job and far better than risking my hide every day with Las Vegas drivers.

Ken’s Rant

Flying

Anyone who flies an Asian airline for the first time, even if it isn’t Singapore Air, will likely have a pleasant surprise. Because this is my page to rant freely, I’d like to again ask my rhetorical question: why is it that the developing countries have clean, well-organized airports, comfortable airplanes with attractive, friendly stewardesses, seatback monitors, and decent airline food — and the rich countries have Kafkaesque monstrosities of switched and delayed flights, and cattle-car airplanes with crabby staff and a grudging cup of orange juice? I suppose there are clear enough economic reasons, but it never makes sense to me why even Malaysia or the Philippines can do flying so much better than the USA or Canada can. Kuala Lumpur’s airport is an expansive, shining, clean complex with free amenities and well-marked indicators. Pierre Trudeau airport in Montreal in 2004 was fittingly a maze of duct-taped hallways, cardboard signs, and 1970s televisions with blurry text.

Why can’t we do this right anymore? What has changed in thirty years that suddenly makes it so expensive to run an airline that the customer has to be charged ten dollars for a beer? The prize goes to Air Canada. I’m mortified when foreigners have these jerks as their last impression of my country, and one additional reason I’ve boycotted the airline is from being snapped at by their glorified flying waitresses.

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May 2009

This was a nutso May as I had to finish teaching and prepare for my doctoral comprehensive exams. Basically this involves three days of four hours each where I wrote exams on the epic form, medieval literature, and rhetoric & composition theory. Then there’s a fourth day where I meet with everyone on my committee and they grill me on my answers. The oral defense was actually more easygoing than I expected, and perhaps the department has a history of candidates doing a meltdown in the meeting room. After the defense, I was addressed as “Dr. Eckert” for the first time. For the rest of my life my mother will likely tell people, “My son is a doctor, but not the type that helps people."

After the defense I went on a quick trip back to Edmonton. People at home were thoroughly sick of the eternal snow and cold of the Alberta winter of 2009, and on the second day of my trip it snowed a little. It’s an interesting world when you can fly four hours from Las Vegas, and jumping in the swimming pool to cool down, to snow. Two things that always strike me when I go back home — how bad the roads are from the punishing climate, and how every woman in the city seems to wear black horn-rimmed glasses. There’s just an “Edmonton” look to people.

This winter I was looking for work and I applied for a position or two in Edmonton. The local economy, terrified that I might come back, promptly deteriorated. Since the 1980s, when I have lived in Edmonton the economy was awful and whenever I lived somewhere else it was roaring. If you pay me enough, Albertans, I’ll stay away for good. “Nice job market you have here.. ‘twoud be a shame if anything were to happen to it..."

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March 2009

Website

I’ve finally finished my music page, which I’ve called What’s on Ken’s Mp3 Player. It is hopefully a good way for others to get turned on to some of my favorite music, and hopefully I won’t get into trouble with my song excerpts.

Update: Within the first week my hosting provider was anxious about this page! I had to assure them that I am only posting 30-second clips of the songs. For good measure, I unfortunately also had to downgrade the quality of the samples.

Ken’s Rant

Record Companies

I am complying to obey the terms and to be a good internet citizen. Still, I hope the day comes in my life when people can make a non-profit website about their rock collection or their azaleas without worrying about going to Alcatraz for putting on a piece of music or a photo. I miss the early days of the internet when it wasn’t all about money. At the turn of the last century in the early time of the Model T, Henry Ford was badgered by lawsuits for years by various businessmen who claimed they owned the idea of making car engines. I hope in fifty years we can laugh at groups like the RIAA who were so selfish in grasping for endless profit that they spent their time shutting down YouTube videos of a cat dancing to a Prince song.

To me, one of the fundamental ‘problems’ with the internet is that it was created by and for institutions who have a non-capitalist mindset: academia, and to a lesser extent, the military. This is not a value judgment; it just means that universities have been around longer than modern capitalism and have different priorities. The internet is all about sharing things, and that design doesn’t fit well with corporations who exist by selling things and creating scarcity. I do not know how the two mindsets can co-exist. Anyway, as a practicalist, I think sharing media files on the internet is a little like the sunrise. Our opinion on its legality will do nothing to prevent it from happening.

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December 2008

Okay, another cat picture. But it looked cute.

Click on the picture to see photos I took December 17 when it snowed like crazy in Las Vegas. It came down so hard that they closed the airport. I was even surprised to see Las Vegas drivers, who usually drive like sugar-crazed chimpanzees, going really cautiously through the stuff. In Edmonton, the flights wouldn’t even be late and people would say, Don’t be a baby— this isn’t snow. Let me tell you about the winter of ‘83.

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November 2008

We now have a cat for my daughter. She seems to think that she is human, as she’s pretty intelligent; she’s figured out that doorknobs open doors somehow but can’t quite jump that high, and she meows in short little bursts that suggest she thinks she’s talking. I won’t give away all the exciting details, but here she is at about five months old.

Yes, I know I can’t vote here because I’m Canadian— I’m surprised by how many people I meet who don’t understand that— but I did go to an Obama rally on Saturday in Henderson (suburban Las Vegas). It was quite a spectacle, with personal searches, police helicopters and roof snipers, and security everywhere. Obama made his usual speech to an enthusiastic and well-behaved crowd by Vegas standards, which doesn’t say very much, but it’s true.

Ken’s Rant

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin was pranked last weekend by a Montreal comedy team which impersonated French president Nicolas Sarkozy. In response to a question about Canadian prime minister “Stef Carse,” a local Quebecois entertainer, Palin replied that “he’s doing fine.” I was not surprised but a little saddened to realize that the nominee for the vice president of the USA does not know the name of the prime minister of Canada, the country’s border state and largest trading partner, two weeks after his re-election. Go back and re-read that last sentence and realize this is a candidate for Vice-President of the United States. I know we’re a small country. But you’re the possible replacement for the American president, for criminy’s sake. The Republicans used to be a party of intellectual conservatism. Now it is presently run by people who might accept a telephone call from Mexican president Speedy Gonzalez.

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October 2008

This is my last semester of coursework for my Ph.D, and then I will continue to teach while I prepare for exams called comprehensives. This is three stressful days of four-hour long exams, all of which will determine whether I end up without a degree, making french fries for a living, or with a degree in English literature, making french fries but being called ‘doctor’ by the shift supervisor. Because of all these things flying around, I haven’t written much in this blogette, disappointing my millions of loyal readers.

I suppose the excitement in my life lately has been the car accident which half-destroyed the townhouse we moved into this summer. On a Saturday night in late July, a neighbor who’d evidently drank too much iced tea at the church social lost control of his car, drove up our driveway, and smashed apart the dividing wall and our car inside. It has taken two months of insurance company paper-shuffling and buck-passing to get everything fixed. The police were professional but quite unsurprised— “it happens all the time.” It happens all the time in Vegas. There’s a city movement here to put concrete barriers around bus stop shelters because of the fatalities caused by drunk drivers hitting them. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

Ken’s Rant

Presidents Who Are ‘Just Like Me’

So what do I think about the upcoming American election? Well, perhaps no one cares. It’s also not a good idea to talk about politics too much. Third, anything I say about this might go stale as fast as garlic bread by election night. Having all these caveats in mind, I will try to talk about what I see as interesting long-term features of the election. Don’t I already sound ‘elitist’ and too ‘professorial’? Somewhere along the line in this campaign, having a passport and using a lot of big words became a bad thing.

People have asked me why a Canadian is so interested in American politics, and I guess I have to say that the Canadian prime minister doesn’t have his finger on atomic weapons or the fate of the world economy so much as the next American president will. It’s a globalized world, and we all have to live with the consequences of your election. Right now Iceland is teetering on bankruptcy because of your country’s Wall Street (non)regulations.

I don’t agree with McCain’s platform or his tactics, but I’ll grant that he’s a legitimate and presidential candidate. I also concede that some people support Obama for the wrong reasons— “because he’s good looking.” I do think that Sarah Palin represents the absolute worst sentiments in American politics: the Oprah-ization of north American culture. We no longer support candidates based on competence, but by how much I can identify with them, and by how much they relate to me, me, me. I want to ask people at these rallies: do you choose your doctor this way? Do you want a surgeon who is plain-speaking and outside the medical estalishment— someone you can have a beer with, as opposed to one of those big-shot Harvard-educated elitist specialists who’s been a Mayo Clinic insider for their entire career? I think I know which doctor I want treating my leukemia. But yet many voters support someone who can declare war based on this principle. I don’t want a president or vice-president I can have a beer with. I’d rather he or she be sober at 3 AM.

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April 2008

My wife and I decided Vegas wasn’t for us, and I kicked a few tires in applying elsewhere as a transfer student. No success so far. Perhaps it’s a combination of factors— a bad economy, the fact that I’m already part-way through my program at UNLV, the drunken death threats breathed into the telephone to the admissions departments. Notre Dame waited until late April to notify me and Purdue only e-mailed me a frosty and grudging ‘no’ after I repeatedly asked them to acknowledge my application after I gave you a hundred dollars and a stack of forms. Am I wrong for thinking that after all this money and time putting together application forms and obtaining transcripts, exam reports, paper samples, and references, asking for a response is too much?

Ken’s Rant

Expendable Applicants

Going beyond universities, it’s always surprised me that nobody in company managements ever notices that how you treat applicants has an impact on your sales. I understand record companies or publishers with piles of submissions. But there are lots of store chains I’ve really never bought anything at since the 80s (I have a looong memory) because they treated me so thoughtlessly when I asked for a job. I’ve been told “yeah, go through those doors and find somebody.” I’ve been in interviews where clearly people were going through the motions and made little attempt to hide it. I’ve applied endlessly to businesses which evidently posted help wanted signs only to pad their applicant banks (I’m thinking of an electronics chain which rhymes with ‘Radio Snack’). And often with these businesses I was previously a solid customer. I think the analogy works for universities. If / when I become a professor someday, would I be likely to recommend a university to a student asking for help or a reference after being treated like an unwanted pest as an applicant myself years earlier?

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March 2008

Happy Easter. We just came back from a few days visiting family in Mesa, next to Phoenix, Arizona. I have some new photos on my west USA page. Compared to Vegas, Arizona seemed eerily quiet and polite.

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Ken’s Rant

Thunderous Applause!

My daughter was in a school award and music performance this week. Half the night was clapping. What is it with Americans lately and standing ovations? You go to a social event and if the janitor can fart in pitch he gets one. It’s starting to cheapen the currency to give everyone thunderous applause. How are we going to express extra recognition if the dalai lama steps into the room?

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January 2008

This January I was able to organize a round-table discussion of community issues in our apartment complex. Click here to see a transcript of the evening’s speeches.

Thinking of moving here? Take the Are you a Good Match for Vegas quiz!

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December 2007

The teenage seller at my door fundraising asks for my name and signature while trying to avoid telling me that I’m signing up for a magazine subscription. When I refuse he sulks off mocking me. These are the manners taught in Las Vegas. On the bright side, the woman with the dogs has moved out after I called apartment security twice, once at 2 AM, because of the barking. Heaven knows what upstanding citizens will move in to take her place. I am really starting to sound like an old crank. Where is my cane, so I can hobble to the donut shop and complain about the government.

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November 2007

Don’t take any crap from your computer. If it’s acting up, or your keyboard decides half the letters aren’t going to work today, remind the other parts of the costs of failure.

Salon.com on the new Beowulf movie, which I saw tonight:

You see, the “real” Beowulf is not a particularly sexy story, and [director Robert] Zemeckis knows it. “Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me,” he’s quoted as saying in the movie’s press notes, recalling that he’d been made to read the damn thing in junior high school. “But when I read the screenplay that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary did, I was immediately captivated.” He asked Gaiman and Avary why their script was so exciting when the poem was so boring. They explained that the poem was written somewhere between the seventh and the 12th centuries... Since the only people who knew how to write in those days were monks, Avary and Gaiman figured these reputable men of the cloth would have edited out all the juicy bits, so they added some back in. If you see “Beowulf,” you’ll have plenty of opportunities to stare down computer-generated cleavage...

Enough. I’m getting nauseated.

Ken’s Rant

The Beowulf Movie

Angelina Jolie rising naked out of the sea isn’t so bad, admittedly. But after spending years working on Beowulf for my MA and studying other medieval works, it’s nauseating to hear a Hollywood director proudly telling us, “I don’t have a grain of respect for this classical work of literature, but I want to make a pile of money off of it, so I changed the story entirely so that there’s lots of Angelina Jolie booty.” Shame on you. Not only does it display a colossal ignorance of history to trot out the old cliche of humorless monks in cells tut-tutting any naughty bits— could they spare ten minutes to look at the fableaux, or the Miller’s Tale?— but Zemeckis’ cynical determination to tailor a great work to fourteen year old boys to make some fast loot is just saddening. The epic speeches and lifelong friendships are out; leering shots of a serving wench leaning over a table with her boobs hanging out, or women joking about Beowulf’s penis, are in. Character development is out; showing off your CGI monsters is in. Naturally, Beowulf can’t be a Christian anymore because it might offend someone. So why did you stop there, Zemeckis? Instead of the stodgy harp music, why not some techno? Why doesn’t Beowulf wear dark sunglasses and have some cool Kung-fu chops? That’s in this year, you know. And what’s with the boring robes the women wear— why not some bikinis and cowboy boots to zang things up, say with Beyonce as the queen, with a Hagar-the-Horrible Viking helmet so that the other Danes can ask if she’s “horny?

The cheesy, overdone 3-D effects, where swords and bodies and whatall constantly fly at the camera for no reason all indicate a film at creative rock bottom. It reminded me of the SCTV shows where Dr. Tongue would wave everything in his hand at the camera to show off the effect. There’s plenty of blood and monsters in the movie, but what’s truly frightening is that Hollywood men with power have the ability to keep throwing money at Beowulf remakes when they’re consistently awful. Please. stop. now.


Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Pancakes (John Candy) from SCTV.
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October 2007

Ken’s Rant

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August 2007

We just came back from a two-week holiday. We passed through Santa Barbara, Solvang, and San Francisco, California, and then Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver, B.C. before staying in Edmonton. Lowlights: I had my camera stolen in an Oregon gas station by California hippies and my wife got a speeding ticket from a zealous trooper in Utah. California was crowded but colorful. I liked Montana much more than I expected (great scenery, kind people) and Seattle and Utah much less (grubby downtown, high prices). Oregon was pleasant.. lots of trees.. old houses.. very restful.. peace and... I think I feel like a nap now..

Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, near Fort Mcleod, Alberta. The ancient natives would herd buffalo over cliffs. I would have liked just to hear the sound.

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July 2007

Last week it went up to 47o Celsius— 117o Fahrenheit. When I walk across campus from the writing center to my class, about five minutes, one feels a little dizzy from the sun. Staying outside is not safe. And still people sit and sun tan next to the pool. Are their brains already too baked to feel it? Don’t answer that question...

  1. Yes, I knew Las Vegas would be hot. I’m not expecting sympathy.
  2. As my pastor said, the next time someone says, “Yeah, but it’s a dry heat,” tell them to turn on the burner on their stove and to put their hand on it because it’s a dry heat.
  3. Ratatouille, despite having an unpronounceable name and being about a rat and all, is a surprisingly excellent movie. I’m almost willing to have faith again in the movie industry after Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

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June 2007

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March 2007

We are now living in an apartment in Las Vegas, and I’ve begun studies. The picture on the right is the main pool in my apartment complex. It’s very nice—when it’s not being repaired or full of screaming children. I think that day was a Tuesday.

Big reverse culture shock after living in Korea for four years. My main sensation is the excess of everything. Portions (and waistlines) are big. Cars are big. Buildings and supermarkets are big. In Korea, you just buy the toothpaste; here there are 93 brands and variations of toothpaste and everything requires a decision. Where Koreans are reserved, Americans are comparatively in-your-face (and Las Vegans, I have to say, can be pretty rude). On the other hand, no one beats America for instant gratification. It’s midnight; I want triangular taco chips with cheddar cheese, and with green salsa, and I want it right now!— cash or charge?..

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December 2006

I’ve given notice, my wife and I are trying to shed a great deal of junk from our apartment, and the tickets are bought. No one believes that I’m actually going to Las Vegas to study, but I am. In January I will be a student at UNLV. I’ve told the trainees that I’m writing my thesis on Elvis Literature. Way too many of them believed me.

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August 2006

I’ve just returned with my wife and daughter from a vacation in Edmonton, Canada. Edmonton continues to boom, which is wonderful if you’re a young tradesman, but not so good if your income is fixed or you’re visiting. Things have really become expensive here, and service is so bad in restaurants that it’s not that much fun to go out anymore. I feel like the old cranks who want another depression to teach people character. It might also be the fact that Edmonton only booms when I’m away and not looking for work that irks me.


My nephew wakeboarding near Deep Cove, Vancouver.

A display of mountain goats in the Royal Alberta Museum. Endangered, like everything else, because of the greedy despoilations of European colonizers. Next to the First Nations gallery, where a noble, peaceful, idyllic culture was destroyed by selfish, evil, oppressive male— OK... we got it...

A restaurant sign we saw in the airport, Taipei. Well, that says it all. Why does all airport food have to be so awful, anyway?

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June 2006

This June we went on another trip to Thailand, this time on a quickie tour. I’m not really a fan of package tours and the get up go here now do this now! schedules, but it was a nice getaway. See a video from the Sriracha Tiger Zoo, Pattaya.


Sriracha Tiger Zoo, Pattaya

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May 2005

See Ken & August playing jazz at the KNUE talent show (May 2005)

 

About Ken


Here you can read about my vitally important news and opinions on everything. I am a Canadian. I am an English professor 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

Funny Things
Review of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules
Great Scott! The Future
Burn, Witch, Burn
That’s What They Want
We Can Work It Out
100% Professional-Free
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