85-year-old Korean War vet Merrill Newman, who caused a stir when he was seized by North Korean authorities, has been deported by the DPRK.
(With thanks to Joshua for the update. I blogged about Newman here.)
Saturday, December 07, 2013
In 1992, a year after I'd graduated from college, a very cool movie named "Sneakers," starring Robert Redford, David Strathairn, Sydney Poitier, and Ben Kingsley, made its appearance. "Sneakers" is a heist-and-caper film; the premise is that Robert Redford is the leader of a team of white-hat hackers—ex-criminals whose job is to work with authorities by breaking into banks and other hardened facilities to test their security. Early in the movie, Redford's character, Martin, has a falling-out with Ben Kingsley's character, Cosmo. Years later, Martin's team learns of the existence of a universal decoder that ends up in Cosmo's possession. Such a decoder, or "black box," could wreak financial havoc on the world's markets; as Cosmo says at one point, the person with the power is the one "who controls the information." Martin and his team pit themselves against Cosmo, who is a rich, powerful info-tech genius. The black box is inside Cosmo's fortress-like home; breaking in requires all of Martin's team's skills.
At one point, Martin's task is to infiltrate a particular room that the team knows is guarded by both infrared sensors, to detect an intruder's body heat, and motion sensors that can detect any movement faster than a couple inches per second. The team hacks into the fortress's temperature controls and heats the room up to disguise Martin's infrared signature, and Martin slips into the room, very slowly, and walks carefully across it to his goal, sweating the entire time.
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I did the same thing.
Working late in a Korean university's office means that, if it's after 11PM, the room's motion alarm is likely to activate. If you move once the alarm is set, the klaxon goes off, and then you have to grab your ID card and hold it to the alarm's sensor to switch it off. Sometimes this summons a guard; most of the time, turning the alarm on and off brings no security at all. The type of motion alarm that our school uses is ubiquitous across the world, and like the security system in "Sneakers," it's set to detect motion that's faster than about two inches per second.
It was at 10:58PM that the alarm switched itself on in my office. I was hunched at my cubicle, working on final exams, when the computer voice came on and announced that the alarm was now activated ("Gyeongbi-ga shijak dwaeyeosseumnida!"). I instinctively froze. My duffel bag—with my ID card inside it—was behind me, about three feet away. From there, it was a ten-foot walk to the alarm, and for whatever reason, I decided that, tonight, I was going to be Robert Redford in "Sneakers," and I would try to get my ID and switch off the security system without triggering the klaxon. I felt a thrill at the challenge I had set for myself.
When you have to move extremely slowly, it helps to have training in both theater and meditation. Luckily, I have both. Theater is all about embodiment: your entire body is basically a tool for expression, so you need to know how to manipulate that tool. This requires an understanding of balance points as well as strong proprioception (the ability to sense where your own body parts are without actually looking at them). That latter sense isn't as developed in me as it is in many athletes and dancers, but I've got more than a little of it. Meditation also helps insofar as it allows you to move mindfully, to break your motions down into their component parts and then concentrate on transitioning from position to position as smoothly and serenely as possible.
So I mapped out the motions and performed them. I knew I'd have to rotate slowly to the left, lever myself into a standing position, rotate further toward the shelf holding my duffel, take a step over, and reach slowly into the duffel while also turning my head so I could look into the bag's side pocket to see exactly where the ID card was. After finding the card, I'd have to remove my arm, bring it delicately down to my side, then walk about ten feet to the alarm's sensor plate, raise my left arm with the ID card in my left hand, and deactivate the alarm.
I wish there had been witnesses. I wish I'd had some way to film what I had done. My headspace was totally "Sneakers": for those few suspenseful minutes, I was Robert Redford's character, Martin Bishop. There were a few moments during which I almost lost my balance, and there were even more moments when I was tempted to whip my head repeatedly toward the sensor. Fighting such temptation proved harder than I'd thought it would be, but I kept myself focused in the manner of the tortoise in Aesop's fable: slow and steady. Bit by bit, I palmed my ID card and made my way toward the alarm like a man trying not to disturb a pit full of quiescent snakes. A thought kept popping up, almost mantra-like in the way it flashed in my mind: still no alarm, still no alarm, still no alarm.
When I was about six feet away from my goal, my cell phone suddenly burped in my chest pocket. I had been concentrating so hard that the phone's interruption severely startled me, and I reflexively jerked. At the same time, I managed to quell the worst of the motion. I glared up at the sensor; its red warning light had come on, a precursor to the klaxon. I held still and watched as it blinked noiselessly; after about ten or fifteen seconds, the red light winked out, and the sensor was calm again.
Five feet. Three feet. Two feet. One foot. I risked a glance upward; the sensor's red eye was still quiet, unblinking. I raised my left arm, card in hand, and managed, finally, to place my ID gently over the sensor plate. The computer voice blared: "Gyeongbi-ga haejae dwaeyeosseumnida!" Deactivated!
I gave a shout of triumph and punched the air victoriously. I also gave myself full credit for having found a unique way to entertain myself while alone in the office at night. Like John Henry, I had beaten the machine. Like Robert Redford, I had walked across the high-security room and stolen the black box. It was an awesome feeling. Even now, almost three hours later, I'm still riding high. You might call me lame for being so easily entertained, but my feeling is that life is spicier when you set little challenges for yourself, just to see what you're capable of.
This is not, by the way, the first time I've had to play the thief. Years ago, I was asked by some friends of the family, fellow church members, to house- and dog-sit for them. It was wintertime, and the family was to be away for several days. The mother, a dietitian, had left me food in the fridge and directions on how to care for the large dog, a very well-behaved black Lab who needed daily walks in the evening. The first night, I took the dog for a walk in the crunching snow, but forgot to bring along the house keys. To my further chagrin, I discovered, upon my return, that I had locked myself out.
So there I stood in the family's screened-in patio, wondering what the hell I should do. The kitchen window was right there; I could see the keys sitting on the kitchen table, only a few feet away. That's when the spirit of MacGyver entered into me and, inspired, I fashioned a sort of fishing rod out of materials—toys, mostly—that I found in the patio. The dog watched patiently while I raced against time to prevent us both from freezing.
The neighborhood was very dark that winter night, but I knew that, since the kitchen light was on and the kitchen window gave onto the patio, I'd be silhouetted against that window for any passerby to see. I had to factor in the possibility that some neighbor might think me a real burglar, which meant that I'd have to listen carefully for the crunching sound of people's footfalls. Luckily, the dog was perfectly quiet whenever someone did walk by. At those moments, I stopped what I was doing and remained silent and still. No one noticed a thing. Eventually, I was able to pry open the kitchen window, insinuate the jury-rigged fishing rod, and persuade the keys onto the hook. With great relief, I unlocked the house's side door and let myself and the dog into the house's warm interior.
All of this makes me wonder why I never entered a life of crime. I apparently have quite the aptitude for it; I'm a 275-pound version of Bilbo Baggins, burglar for hire. The Blobbit.
Friday, December 06, 2013
"X-Men: First Class" (XM1C) is something like an origin story for the X-Men. It begins in World War II-era Poland, as Bryan Singer's first "X-Men" did, then rapidly segues to the 1960s and the Cuban missile crisis. James McAvoy plays a young Charles Xavier (Professor X); Michael Fassbender plays Erik Lensherr (Magneto). The film chronicles the men's friendship, the origin of Professor X's academy for mutants, the gathering of an early crop of mutants, and one nefarious mutant's plans to instigate world war. Perhaps the hardest aspect of XM1C to swallow was the casting of Kevin Bacon as the top villain, but Bacon pulled the role off fairly well, despite some horrendously accented German at the beginning. (Not to be outdone, Fassbender complemented Bacon's German with some horrendously accented French.)
The bad news first: the musical score for XM1C was far too intrusive and too bubble-gum for the genre; it might have worked better for a TV special. The good news, though, is that XM1C was a vast improvement over both "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Neither of those movies had a compelling story to tell, and the battle of ideas that fuels the X-Men franchise was lost in the spectacle. XM1C was, happily, both more cerebral and more emotional than either of its predecessors. It took the time to explore its major characters' motivations, not to mention the psychic landscape of many of the minor characters as well. Although the movie's third reel dissolved into typical Hollywood bombast, the primary conflicts still felt gritty and personal. In the end, I found X1MC to be well worth watching, faux science aside. As with the first "X-Men," XM1C dealt with themes ranging from eugenics to racism, from celebrating uniqueness to feeling the need to belong, and from compassion to vengeance. Well done, indeed. And Logan/Wolverine's cameo was a classic.
UPDATE: One bit of noteworthy trivia: both XM1C and "Kick-Ass" (reviewed here) were directed by Matthew Vaughn. Both films include a scene in which a vengeful hero throws an edged object at a wall-mounted drawing of the hero's intended target. In "Kick-Ass," Hit Girl throws a shuriken at a drawing of crime boss Frank D'Amico; in XM1C, Erik Lensherr mind-throws a Nazi coin into the image of Dr. Klaus Schmidt (later renamed Sebastian Shaw). In the latter case, that act proves to be a creepy bit of foreshadowing.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
I've graded all my listening tests, and the results vary from glorious to grim. Some students did very well; others fell down horribly. Without naming names, I'd say the worst grade was below 50%, which is going to wreak havoc on that student's final average: the listening test is worth a full 20% of every student's grade. The best grade, meanwhile, was a 95%, earned by one of my beginners.
For the most part, though, the listening test exerted an overall downward gravitational pull. Before the test, I had classes with as many as four "A" students; now, no class has more than two. If students do well on the final exam, this picture may change (and the final is worth 25% of the final grade), but because I'm going to be somewhat stricter in assessing the final, the picture might not change all that much.
Meet... the Metashark!
Do you think the smaller shark is going, "Help! I'm being eaten by a shark!"? Or perhaps the smaller shark is thinking to itself: this is the world's most badass body armor.
Now if only the smaller shark had an even smaller shark in its mouth... we'd have the marine version of a turducken.
Just outside my neighborhood, right next to one of the local groceries I frequent, there's a street-food stand that opens up around 5 o'clock in the afternoon and stays busy past midnight and well into the witching hour. This stand sells, among other things, sosaeji, i.e., Korean-style sausage that's somewhat reminiscent of Wurst. A single large sausage on a stick costs a mere W1000, which is shockingly cheap: a puny variety pack of sausages, purchased from the local grocer, will set you back about W7500. For W7000, I could buy seven large sausages from the street vendor and have nearly twice as much meat as I'd get from buying the grocery variety pack.
The street stand is run by a husband-and-wife duo. I asked the lady, tonight, what the stand's hours of operation were, and she said that she and her husband start at 5PM and go on until 2AM. I have no idea how much business they can snag at 2AM, but it's obvious they're working hard. I bought five sausages from the couple tonight; they let me eat two of their little red-bean cakes for free as a thank-you for my patronage. If I ever decide to make some sort of gumbo or choucroute, I'll very likely visit this couple and purchase my sausages from them.
It seems that other languages have their own ways to say "yep." In French, oui becomes ouep (the French version of "yeah" is ouais). In Korean, nae becomes naep (넵). I wonder whether the same holds for German (does ja become jap?*) and Russian (does da become dap?). The "p" sound is a bilabial stop; I imagine that it has pancultural appeal because slamming the lips shut to make the unaspirated "p" sound imparts a certain finality to one's utterance.
*A quick online search turns up the possibility that Germans do, in fact, say jep.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
I've got three makeup sessions to go: two tomorrow and one Thursday afternoon. In all my classes, we've done everything—we've finalized homework assignments, finished projects, and reviewed extensively for both the listening exam and the final exam. The past two makeup days were devoted to games that helped the students practice their English. What's left to do? The only thing I can think of is to discuss the students' grades, person by person, which I plan to do both tomorrow and Thursday.
Also tomorrow and Thursday, my kids take the listening exam along with the students of all the other English profs. I'll be proctoring, as will my colleagues. Next week, it's nothing but final exams, and after that, it's all about entering and finalizing semester grades, dealing with students who are begging for grade changes (one of the most unsavory aspects of this job, and something I never dealt with at Sookmyung because I taught only non-credit courses), and closing up shop: our faculty office will be moving to another building over vacation.
The collective temperaments of my 9AM and 11AM beginner classes are quite different. The 9AM kids seem a bit more sweet and gentle, whereas my 11AM kids—some of them, at least—seem somewhat wilder and less considerate. This became more obvious today, when we played games.
As I'd mentioned before, I played a series of three games with my kids: crosswords, Password, and the 2-Headed Monster game. In the first class, the guys won and the girls applauded their victory. Afterward, when I gave a huge sack of candy to the guys, they gallantly divided their spoils with the girls. I thought that was great.
In the 11AM class, however, things were different. The mood was tenser, more competitive. At one point, the guys accused the girls of cheating. They smiled as they made the accusation, but I could see both teams staring daggers at each other. In the end, in this class, it was the girls who won, and they shared none of their candy with the guys.
It was a relief, though, to see that both classes got into the games. I had been worried, initially, that the students would be lazy and zombie-like. There was a lot of laughter, some suspense, and many a "facepalm" moment as the kids failed to figure out the best and easiest English-language solution to a given problem. It was also a chance for the kids to practice vocabulary (crosswords, Password) and grammar (2-Headed Monster). They were awful at grammar, but at least they made an effort to struggle through their declaratives and interrogatives.
Not a horrible day, all in all. And the 9AM class's surprising display of sportsmanship renewed my faith in humanity.
Make-up classes continue. I've got two today, then two tomorrow, then one on Thursday. Tomorrow and Thursday afternoon, I've also got to proctor listening tests. Not difficult work by any means, but also not the most interesting.
If quizzes make you quizzical, then tests make you...
Monday, December 02, 2013
Dr. House—better known as actor Hugh Laurie—recently tweeted his opinion of the Obamacare snafu:
Obama's struggle with Affordable Care. He's like a prison governor asking the inmates to make lemonade for his garden party. It'll be tangy.
The tweet is somewhat opaque, open to interpretation. Some on the right are guffawing, perceiving Laurie's quip as a dig against Obamacare, and possibly against Obama himself. I don't see it that way at all. Let's break down the simile/allegory, shall we?
prison governor (UK English) = prison warden (US English) = Obama
The above seems clear enough. Obama's the warden, which makes America the prison, as well as, possibly, the garden in which the garden party will take place.
inmates = ?
But who are the inmates? I'm going to assume the inmates are those tasked with implementing Obamacare, assuming the lemonade symbolizes Obamacare. The implementers could be Congress and/or the insurance companies working with Congress to implement Obama's policy. They could also be the doctors and hospitals and other healthcare providers who must shoulder the new policy's burdens.
inmates making lemonade = pissing in the drink = rebellious act
Assuming, in this garden-party/prison image, that the American people are the ones benefiting from Obamacare (the lemonade), then the American people are the party guests who will, unfortunately, be treated to "tangy" (i.e., urine-tasting) lemonade. This implies that the warden is, at worst, guilty of relying on the wrong people to make his lemonade properly. Obama is relying on Congress and/or healthcare providers (hospitals, doctors, etc.) and/or insurance companies to get this right, but there are rebellious elements determined to mess this process up (piss in the lemonade).
All in all, then, Laurie's tweet seems to be saying that it's not Obama or Obamacare that's the problem: it's the network of policy implementers who are determined to see this plan fail. If anything, Laurie's tweet comes off, to me at least, as supportive of Obama and Obamacare.
Your thoughts? Have I completely misread the great Hugh Laurie?
A recent poll indicates that Americans apparently no longer trust each other. How true this is, overall, I have no idea; I lived for a few years in the small mountain town of Front Royal, Virginia, and people there seemed to trust each other just fine. It was the sort of town in which you'd feel safe leaving your car door unlocked in the Food Lion parking lot. Admittedly, this may have had something to with the fact that Front Royal is the county seat for Warren County, Virginia, which means there was a very high concentration of police vehicles there.
Anti-diversity conservatives (see my post here) might seize upon this poll as evidence of the corrosive effect of diversity: the more the diversity, the less the overall sense of community, leading to a decreased trust in one's fellows. Perhaps America is slowly becoming a low-trust society; I wouldn't know, but I also wouldn't be too quick to blame this erosion on diversity: South Korea is an extremely low-trust society, and in comparison to the United States, is sorely lacking in ethnic and cultural diversity.* Mistrust is more of a cultural phenomenon than a racial/ethnic one.
Many factors doubtless play into the increasing feeling of mistrust in America. As interactive technologies, such as social networking, produce the ironic effect of isolating us further in our own homes, this isolation makes us socially stunted and awkward. Political squabbling is now leading to Americans' wanting to live in neighborhoods among people of a like-minded political outlook. The current conservative push toward more balkanization isn't helping matters; as I argued previously, ethnic purity increases ethnic ignorance.
If this poll is correct (and I'm not sure that it is; the linked article doesn't mention how many people were polled), this is a sad turn of events. The erosion of trust in a society necessarily means an erosion of that society. Let's hope this isn't the case, but if it is, let's work toward a rebuilding of the trust we've lost.
*Live here long enough, of course, and you'll see diversity peeking out all over the place. Koreans aren't all of the same racial stock (despite their silly danil-minjok, or "one race," attitude), and regional loyalties (with attendant differences in accent and local culture) ensure that diversity will reign: each region, in touting its own uniqueness, has an interest in doing things differently from surrounding regions.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
This is perhaps one of the best articles yet* to appear on the fate of 85-year-old Korean War veteran Merrill Edward Newman, who was very recently seized by North Korean authorities just as he was about to depart North Korea after a tour there.
Like many others, I think Newman's decision to go on the NK tour was foolhardy. Because he is a decorated vet who carried out many a deadly operation against the North Koreans, it should have been obvious that the North, with its long memory, would take a dim view of his presence in their midst, and would seize upon any excuse at all to kidnap him. According to the rumor mill, Newman unwisely got into an argument with a North Korean minder about the Korean War; the nature of that argument is obscure. This argument may be what led to his having been removed from the plane before takeoff.
I've talked with friends and colleagues about those North Korea group tours. You'll never find me on one of them. I can't see myself ever—ever—bowing and laying flowers at the feet of the huge statue of Kim Il Sung, or keeping my mouth shut about the depredations of the Kim dynasty. I also have no desire to feed the North Korean economy with my money. Mr. Newman's reasons for going on that tour are unfathomable to me; even if I heard him articulate those reasons, I'd never understand why he so willingly stuck his head once again inside the lion's mouth. It's unfortunate that an 85-year-old vet with more than one medical condition is now effectively a POW inside North Korea's borders, but I can't help feeling that Mr. Newman made his own bed, and is now sleeping in it.
Just more evidence that age doesn't always confer wisdom.
*Reuters shifted the link, for some reason, so I've updated it. Because this article may have a chance of quietly disappearing again, I'm quoting it in full below:
TITLE: Unforgotten fighter of Korean war: U.S. pensioner a POW at 85
(Reuters) - As autumn descended on a Korean countryside devastated by three years of intense war, a group of anti-communist guerrillas presented U.S. serviceman Merrill Edward Newman with a gold ring. It was September, 1953.
For Newman, the ring became a proud symbol of the role he played as an adviser to a group of battle-hardened partisans who fought deep behind enemy lines in a war that pitted the China- and Soviet-backed North against the U.S.-backed South.
Now, six decades on, the 85-year-old pensioner who lives in a retirement community in California, has become one of the last prisoners of that war. He returned to North Korea last month as an American tourist and was snatched by authorities from his plane moments before it was due to depart for Beijing.
When he returned to the isolated state, he was taking a risk, former guerrillas who knew Newman said. The North Korean regime has nourished memories of the 1950-53 Korean War as the inspiration for the country's identity and acts as if the conflict is still happening.
Technically, the war did not end. No peace treaty was signed between the United States, South Korea and North Korea.
On Saturday, North Korea released a video showing the pensioner reading a handwritten confession of his role in the war. The North's KCNA news agency said he was a mastermind of clandestine operations and accused him of killing civilians during the war.
"Those bastards already knew Newman before the war was over," said Kim Chang-sun, one of the men who presented Newman with the ring in 1953. Kim was still at school when he joined the 'Kuwol' Partisan Regiment, a force that Newman trained, he said in an interview in Seoul.
"They obtained the roster of our entire regiment," Kim said.
The 'Kuwol Regiment', or 'Kuwolsan' in Korean, meaning 'September Mountain,' was named after a mountain in western North Korea where the guerrillas sought refuge as soldiers of the North's Korean People's Army (KPA) swept down the Korean peninsula when war broke out.
From there, the partisans fought their way to North Korea's west coast and sailed to offshore islands where they launched last-ditch battles against the North Korean army.
The Kuwol Regiment was just one of many groups of anti-communist partisans that were under the command of the U.S. Army 8240th Unit, nicknamed the 'White Tigers'.
The White Tigers co-ordinated some of the most daring missions of the Korean War, embedding undercover agents deep in enemy territory - sometimes for months at a time - spying on and disrupting North Korean wartime operations, according to documented histories of the regiment.
The unit, whose existence was classified until the early 1990s, was the predecessor to U.S. special forces. Members of the White Tigers were handpicked from the U.S. Army, and not told about their mission until they arrived in Seoul.
"The advisers mostly stayed behind after sending Korean partisans into the North - mainly because Americans would be so easily recognized - but some of them did accompany partisan units and engage in combat," Bruce Cumings, an expert on the Korean War at the University of Chicago, told Reuters.
Ben S. Malcom, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, was one such adviser - a fellow White Tiger who served alongside Newman and led several raids along the North Korean coast.
He was awarded a Silver Star in March 1953 for bravery, but never received a badge marking his combat in the Korean War - the U.S. Army did not officially recognize special operations as combat.
"As soon as I lifted the receiver to my ear I stepped across that line separating the regular army from the clandestine army," Malcom wrote in his 1996 memoirs, describing a call he received from a commanding officer during the war.
"I went from being another faceless name on an army roster to a handpicked player in a unique operation about which few Americans knew anything," he wrote.
NEWMAN VISITS SEOUL
Soldiers who fought alongside Newman said he wore his commemorative ring when he visited South Korea after the war. He went there twice in the 2000s.
On one of these trips, he paid tribute at the National Cemetery to fallen friends. He was reunited with his old comrades over drinks and food and travelled with them to the border island that was headquarters of his unit when fighting ended.
Kim Hyeon, a member of the Kuwol Regiment who kept in contact with Newman and visited his family in California in 2004, was on a boat deep in North Korean-held territory on a summer afternoon in 1953, just weeks before a cease fire was agreed.
"At 1 o'clock on July 15, partisans used an operational boat to get within 50 meters of the North Korean coast under Lt. Newman's instruction," reads a book about the unit edited by Kim.
They picked up an agent and returned to an island outpost used by the partisans from the early months of the war, the book said. When the armistice was signed 12 days later, the men left the island behind and sailed south to freedom.
Kim has exchanged letters and emails with Newman, and they became close friends. But if he were Newman, he said, he would not have gone back to North Korea.
"In the eyes of the North Koreans, he would have literally been a spy engaging in some kind of espionage activity ... I wouldn't go there (if I were him)," Kim, now 86, told Reuters.
"Our members were working, fighting and engaging in espionage alongside Newman because he was an adviser," he said.
The Kuwolsan soldiers are well known in South Korea, and are depicted in popular culture as heroes in the fight against communism. The regiment and its guerrillas were the subject of a 1965 film called 'Blood-soaked Mt. Kuwol'.
Kim Chang-sun, the former rank-and-file partisan member, recalled Newman as a big American military officer with a warm heart who supervised their training and landing operations.
"He had this U.S. army food box and shared that with us. He stayed with us at a bunker," said Kim, now 81.
"They detained him because he served in the Kuwol regiment. He is just a very bad guy for them," Kim said, referring to the North Korean authorities.
It is not entirely clear why Newman took the risk of visiting North Korea. But evidently the war and his former comrades had left a deep impression on him.
"Kuwolsan was among the most effective guerrilla warfare units," he wrote in a congratulatory message attached to a book published by the Kuwolsan Guerrilla Unit Comrade Association in Seoul.
"I am proud to have served with you."
(Editing by Jack Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan and Neil Fullick)
This coming week, along with proctoring some listening exams, I'm going to be doing some make-up classes that were ordered by the university. My Monday and Tuesday students don't have to worry about makeup days, but my Wednesday and Thursday students do: they had at least two holidays off each.
So—what to do with my kiddies? We've already done our listening-test and final-exam reviews. What more is there? I went to the office today and cogitated a bit, then came up with the following makeup-day activities:
1. Crossword: guys versus girls. Divide the class by sex into two teams; select captains for each team, then have the students work on crossword puzzles with 36 words on them. The teacher will judge correct completion of the crossword by looking only at the captains' worksheets. Whichever team finishes the crossword first is the winner; points will be awarded thus: under 10 minutes = 20 points; under 15 minutes = 15 points; under 20 minutes = 10 points; under 25 minutes = 5 points, and 0 points for going over 25 minutes. Both teams must finish the puzzle, and will also need to mark time: the number of minutes ahead the winning team is will be converted to points (1 point per minute) and added to the winning team's score. If the team that claims to have finished first has failed to fill out the crossword correctly (I'll check it quietly, in an isolated part of the room), that team will be given back its crossword and told to continue while the other team is busily catching up.
2. Password: guys versus girls. A somewhat altered version of the TV show, this game will involve pairs of guys and pairs of girls. If the guys go first, then a pair will come up front; one guy, the "speaker," will be given the "password"; the other guy will serve as the "guesser," who has to guess the word based on clues provided by the speaker. The speaker will be allowed up to five one-word clues to say to the guesser; after each word, the guesser must make a guess. If the guesser guesses the password, the guys get a point, and another pair of guys will come up. Same deal: up to five guesses, then a third pair will take the stage. Each correct guess will be worth 5 points. Then it'll be the girls' turn, and they'll get three rounds, too. I'll be tallying up the guys' and girls' total scores from both the Crossword and the Password games.
3. 2-Headed Monster: guys versus girls. A pair of guys (one 2-headed monster) and a pair of girls (the other 2-headed monster) take the stage. The girl monster will ask a question that might appear on the final exam. To ask the question, each "head" of the monster can say only one word, so both heads need to be very careful about getting the grammar correct. If the girl monster asks the question correctly, she'll get 5 points for her team. If not, then no points are awarded, but the monster can ask the question again—correctly, this time (possibly with help from the teacher). The guy monster must successfully answer the question to receive 5 points as well.* After that, the guy monster will ask a question and the girl monster will answer; this will go on for at least three rounds, with points tallied at the end.
Whichever team, guys or gals, has the most points at the end of class will win the prize (most likely a huge pile of candy). That ought to take about 90 minutes.
*I've mentioned this before, I know, but I've stolen this "monster" concept from the improv show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" On the show, one of the tasks involved a "three-headed Broadway star" who had to sing a song about a topic provided by the audience or the host. The topic: cheese. Three guys lined up, shoulder to shoulder, and the piano began. On the episode I saw (this was the US version of the show), the "cheese" song was sung by the super-talented Wayne Brady, the equally talented Ryan Stiles (a holdover from the UK version of the show), and the hilarious Brad Sherwood. You can see the video here.
"Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" is a fantastic EFL resource. I occasionally troll YouTube for WLIIA videos of sketches that I can convert into exercises for my kids.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
A shot of the "Course B" cafeteria meal I had this past Tuesday: weird spam spaghetti and assorted veggies, including, of course, kimchi (which I wrapped around clumps of spaghetti and ate). The fries could have been from Ore-Ida. Click to enlarge:
My buddy Tom insisted that I blog this story, so... here you go, Tom. Happy now?
The BBC reports that the world's oldest "prehistoric toilet" has been found in La Rioja Province, Argentina: a patch of ground containing numerous examples of desiccated dinosaur feces, ranging from small to gigantic, that may be as much as a quarter of a billion years old. Scientists rejoice at the trove, which has the potential to reveal much about the ancient world.
A bit of trivia: our galaxy takes approximately 250 million years to revolve once. Assuming cosmologists are correct that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, this means that our galaxy has revolved, at most, only about 54 or 55 times. It's amazing to think that a single galactic revolution brought us from dinosaurs to modern humans. (I have to wonder, along with the Beatles, what the earth was like during Revolution Number Nine.)
Friday, November 29, 2013
I'm an unapologetic cultural assimilationist. I think that people who come to live in America, no matter their original culture, have a duty to assimilate into the larger culture and to obey the law of the land. If a Korean lives in America for thirty years, but still can't speak a lick of English, I think English-fluent Americans have a right to be annoyed and to grouse, "Why can't you speak English?" The subtext undergirding that question is assimilationism: Why can't you be more like the rest of us—the majority of us? Why haven't you made the effort?*
It used to be the case that America celebrated its ethnic/cultural diversity while also lifting up the values that were—supposedly—common to us all, the values that bound us together as a people who were together by choice. E pluribus unum. Nowadays, however, it's becoming much more difficult to find that balanced perspective: there's much more pluribus than unum.
This pluribus-mania manifests itself on both the left and the right. On the left, we've got the strong push toward a heedless "multiculturalism" that is essentially a form of blind relativism. According to this point of view, no culture can ever be superior to (or "better than") another culture; all cultures are equal, and no intercultural disrespect—even humorous—will be tolerated in thought, word, and deed. Along with these notions is the idea that people of diverse backgrounds must live and work together: if diversity is our strength, then to be as strong as possible, we should be forced into culturally diverse situations.
On the right, there's been blowback against this liberal push: increasingly among political and social conservatives, the dominant paradigm has become "stop the mixing and let everyone self-sort the way they want to because diversity is unworkable." According to this view, like favors like: Qui se ressemblent s'assemblent. Birds of a feather, and all that. More and more sociological studies are confirming what, to conservatives, has been a long-standing truth: the more cultural/ethnic diversity there is in a given region, the less the sense of true community, and the more the potential for verbal and physical conflict. Better to stop integrating schools, for instance, and just let people sort themselves however they want. Better to stop those nonsensical "diversity workshops" and "diversity appreciation" courses at universities: cultivating a simple sense of decency should be enough for us all to live together.
While I agree with conservatives that people naturally come together with people who are like them, and that the result is greater social harmony (cf. Scandinavian countries with their low diversity, low crime rates, and great education), I often feel as if there were something more sinister going on under the surface. This creepiness pops up at certain moments in public discourse: Michelle Malkin infamously advocated both "internment camps" for illegal immigrants as well as rounding the illegals up and simply trucking them out of the country. Both of these ideas hark back to darker moments in the history of the twentieth century.
While I agree with liberals that living in the midst of diversity can confer a sort of worldly wisdom and make us more aware of our common humanity, I often feel there's something sinister in the liberal project as well: it's a social-engineering experiment that is leading the country to a nihilistic dead end via the path of relativism. If a person can't condemn honor killings, clitoridectomies, and other horrifying acts against women because "we can't judge other cultures," something is deeply wrong with that person. There is, in my view, absolutely nothing the matter with judging other cultures from the axiological perspective one has. Values are, by definition, not negotiable, not provisional, and not parochial: they apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times. If you believe all women should have the right to express themselves as loudly and as proudly as they want, then you believe that's true not just for the women of your own culture, but for others as well: ALL women should have this right. Otherwise, your convictions aren't really convictions, and you reveal yourself merely to be a shifty, lying coward. Sorry, Star Trek, but I do not subscribe to the Prime Directive: it is possible for us to judge other cultures—just as they can legitimately judge ours.
Quite the opposite of "diversity training," I think there should be a stronger push toward "unity training"—a reminder that there's an unum that's worth preserving, worth dying for. This is the hard path: far from trucking people out or throwing them into internment camps, this path involves relentless education. Sure, let people self-sort into their ethnically un-diverse communities, but remind the citizens that something still binds them together, namely, a set of ideas that all American citizens should take as gospel: the primacy of the US Constitution, the gubernatorial paradigm it delineates, and the basic freedoms it proclaims; the value of free markets/free trade; the necessity of federalism to keep state and local powers in check; the need for a culture of free expression, free discussion, and free debate; the crucial role that science plays in technological progress; the simple belief in, and love of, liberty in all its forms. There should also be an obvious limit to our society's tolerance: we cannot tolerate intolerance. Let those who rail against this vision of America leave, if they're so convinced that greener pastures lie elsewhere.
The "new segregationism" that I sense among modern conservatives is disappointing because it's a turn away from the old assimilationism. Instead of "Why can't you be more like us?", it's become "You live with your people; I'll live with mine." The result of the new attitude will be exactly the thing that conservative thinkers like Allan Bloom, writing in the 1980s, feared: balkanization, resulting in an even deeper fragmentation as "undiversity" becomes the rule and incestuous amplification builds up within each "pure" group, leading to precisely the sort of racial and cultural ignorance I see daily in undiverse South Korea. It's an ignorance that, if it takes deep enough root, will lead to conflict just as surely as the multiculturalist route will.
*This is, by the way, how I feel about living in Korea. An expat has a duty to learn the language, understand the culture, and respect the laws of the country that feeds, clothes, and otherwise nurtures him. This is the most sincere thank you an expat can give. Most Koreans aren't assimilationist at all; they have low to no expectations when it comes to foreigners, which is why Koreans are eternally surprised whenever they encounter a foreigner who has bothered to learn any amount of Korean. I was happy to discover one Korean lady, however, who stands as a welcome exception to this Korean tendency: my new barber. She's loud, her accent is almost incomprehensible to me, but she goes on and on about how the foreigners who come to her salon really need to learn Korean. Good for her, I say!
Assume for a moment that our earth's total mass, which would be the sum of its biomass and its abiotic mass, is relatively constant. Assume, too, that the amount of biomass has been increasing (which has certainly been the case with the human population). Will there come a point when the entire planet becomes biomass? If not, why not?* Is there an asymptote somewhere—some threshold that defines just how much earth-matter can sustainably become biomass? Has anyone ever tried to map this out before? What would it be like to live on a planet where every iota of matter is or was alive?
*If you say it's because gravitational pressure will always mean there's a superheated (and thus uninhabitable) core, I'd counterargue that humans may be clever enough to start building their civilizations inward, toward the core, and perhaps all the way through it, possibly even cooling down the superheating along the way.
Koreans have no reason to celebrate American Thanksgiving, so it was business as usual for me at the university: I still had to teach my regular 3PM Thursday class. Toward the end of class, however, I was suddenly hit by the urge to take a massive dump. As normally happens in situations where I have to shit but can do nothing about it immediately, I began to sweat and to act in a slightly more agitated manner than usual, growling and pacing back and forth in front of my students like a zoo tiger impatient to rip apart the deer that's cowering the next cage over. When class was finally done, I hastily dismissed my students and charged out of the classroom with them—something I almost never do. Because I had arrived barely on time at the beginning of class, I had toted my travel bag with me. Normally, when I arrive earlier, I have time to stash the bag in my faculty office. As you'll soon see, the fact that I had my bag with me was rather important.
I rushed down the hallway to the men's room, weaving deftly and desperately among the milling students, envisioning nothing but the sweet release of the raging shit-creatures from the confines of my ass. Unlike the tiny restroom on the fourth floor (where our offices are located), the second-floor men's room was huge, and my introverted self was delighted to see that the stall at the very end of a long row of stalls was empty. I made a beeline for it, slammed the door shut, ripped down my pants, dropped heavily onto the toilet, and proceeded to release the fetid demons from my guts. They screamed wetly as they left me. I closed my eyes in pleasure. Yes: it was that good.
When I opened my eyes again, I instinctively looked right, toward the toilet-paper dispenser... and that's when the horror began.
Almost no paper on the roll.
In my fevered rush to set the monsters free, I had neglected to perform my standard precautionary: normally, one of the very first things I do is look to see whether there's any toilet paper. In this dispenser, there was barely anything—just the wispy remains of a once-proud rouleau, puny and evanescent, like the lingering sigh of a dying man. My mind began, Terminator-like, to calculate all the alternative scenarios in drop-down-menu form. With almost no toilet paper, and knowing full well that the demons had not exited cleanly from my anus, I could:
1. stand up, ass full of shit, and move one cubicle over to get toilet paper. The risk of falling chunkage, and/or of between-the-buttocks smearage, would be unacceptably high.
2. try to scrape the dregs of toilet paper off the roll in the hopes that that would yield enough paper for at least one good wipe—just potent enough that I could safely enact option (1), but with less shit coating the ass. But when I tried scraping, my fingernails were unable to get a purchase on the paper: it was too thoroughly glued to the cardboard cylinder.
3. wipe my ass with my bare hand, as I've heard, time and again, happens at public toilets all over India. But what would I rinse my hand with? The water from the toilet? Flush for clean water, wipe ass, rinse fingers, flush, wipe again... the scenario was just too disgusting.
4. create a toilet-paper analogue.
Option (4) seemed like the least repulsive plan of action, and was doable because I had brought my bag with me. I hopefully searched my bag for any sort of tissue-like paper, but there was none. I did, however, have inside my bag a plastic slip-cover in which were stored several sheets of A4-sized printer paper. If I could convert at least one sheet of printer paper into usable toilet paper, I could rip the sheet in half and get two good wipes from it. For you see: along with thinking about how to create toilet paper on the fly, I had to consider my mission parameters—what was the object of the game, here? The object of the game was simply to prep me for a quick move to another toilet stall. My asshole had to be clean enough that, when I began to walk and my buttock cheeks began inevitably to slide against each other, there wouldn't be enough shit to produce massive smearing, like a kindergartener finger-painting the inner walls of my hairy chasm.
So I rifled around inside my bag, found the plastic cover, and took out two A4 sheets. The paper was smooth; there was no way that it would lift any of the shit off. Lifting action required paper with a surface that was rough enough to grab the fecal matter, but smooth enough not to snag and disintegrate during or after a single wipe. To roughen the paper, I had to crumple it thoroughly. I did so, crushing it into a ball several times until the sheet was covered with a million tiny triangles. I stroked my finger across the paper, and came away unconvinced that the paper was rough enough for proper wiping. Something more needed to be done. Then it hit me.
I wadded the paper up, popped it into my mouth, and chewed.
The taste of laser-printer toner was terrible—bitter and artificial—and I imagined all those free-floating toner carcinogens nestling in weird places inside my body, biding their time and blossoming into cancers twenty years later. But when I pulled the paper out of my mouth and felt its surface again, it actually felt like toilet paper. Mission accomplished.
I ripped the paper in half and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had created a most effective wiping implement. I used both halves of the sheet and realized that I didn't need to crumple the second sheet of printer paper, which I slipped back into my bag. I flushed, pulled my pants back up, buckled my belt, and got the hell out of that cubicle, happy that my fingertips were shit-free. I washed my hands and went up to the fourth floor, dropped my bag off at my office work station, went over to the smaller fourth-floor men's room, and finished the wiping job. As it turned out, there wasn't much to finish: the ad hoc toilet paper had been so efficacious that over 90% of the ass-goblins had been airlifted out of the kill zone.
The whole situation made me marvel at what happens to people in desperate situations. They become clever and inventive, for one thing—their minds open up and consider previously unthinkable alternatives. But people also easily reduce themselves to barbarism: there was a moment, early on in my nightmare, when I seriously considered digging into my quivering asshole with my bare fingers. For a few seconds, that was actually a plausible alternative.
There we have it, folks: the story of my Thanksgiving nightmare. I can only hope that your own Thanksgiving was less... shitty.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
My buddy Dr. Steve sends me a link to this YouTube vid, which depicts the sort of effusiveness and plenitude that one would expect on a holiday like Thanksgiving.
How different would "The Empire Strikes Back" have been had the same thing happened between Han Solo and that tauntaun?
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
It's been a while since I wrote anything about religion. Perhaps my last major piece was The Tao of Chance, which covered a good bit of interreligious ground in its exploration of Christ-figures and notions of sainthood from various traditions. In recent years, I've felt as if I have nothing left to say about religion, religious diversity, or interreligious dialogue: I've shot my wad. Every once in a while, though, something will come along that piques my interest. In this case, I was—for whatever reason—roped into a Twitter conversation that began this way:
What do you all think about the term dharmalogian (as in Buddhist theologian) ? Term by @courtneybruntz
My off-the-cuff reply, in two tweets:
I'd rather stick w/nothing but Greek roots.
"Nomos" means "law," which is also one meaning of "dharma"... nomologian?
Other people disagreed. Seon Joon sunim wrote the following over two tweets:
Too restrictive. And a hybrid term (Sksrt/Greek) better exemplifies the hybrid nature of Western academic work in Buddhism.
If anything, dharmalogian is more restrictive, given the specificity inherent in cleaving to the Sanskrit: when a Westerner hears the word dharma, there can be no mistaking that the term refers almost exclusively to the Hindu or the Buddhist tradition. Nomos, by contrast, is a bit more open-ended. Seon Joon sunim's point about an etymological hybrid is well taken, but I squirm whenever I see such terms. There's a dude on Twitter who goes by the handle Lupus Anthropos, which strikes me as a clumsy fusion of Latin and Greek. (He should have called himself Lycos Anthropos; that, at least, would have been consistently Greek.)
Not that such hybrid terms don't already exist in Buddhist studies: a major example would be the noun Buddhology (capitalized or uncapitalized) and the adjective Buddhological, both of which take their cue from the older terms Christology (the study of the significance of Jesus as Christ) and Christological. Buddhology, then, is the study of the significance of Gautama as the Buddha; the analogy is fairly accurate.
But with dharmalogian, the word dharma is being used in such a way that an analogy is formed with theos (theos + logos, dharma + logos), and I'm just not seeing that. Theos is the undisputed core term in Christian theology, but in Buddhism, there are a few terms that are jockeying for that label: sunyata (emptiness) might be one; pratitya-samutpada (dependent origination/co-arising) might be another. Each of these terms—along with dharma—says something fundamental about the ontology of the cosmos.
Dharma is, of course, a hellishly tricky word to translate. There is a sense in which it means something like "fundamental nature," but I associate that particular meaning more with Hinduism than with Buddhism. Buddhists often use dharma to refer to the Buddha's teachings, which are a reflection of the cosmic law that is the engine of the universe. Dharma can also mean "phenomena," as in the Heart Sutra's famous formulation, jae beop gong sang (제법공상, 諸法空相): all-phenomena-empty-character, i.e., all phenomena (dharmas) have the character of emptiness. The Chinese "法" (beop in Korean pronunciation; fa in Chinese) means "law," but in a Buddhist context it means dharma and, by extension in the Heart Sutra and elsewhere, "phenomena."
So dharma might—might!—be a plausible analogue for theos, but there are major disanalogies, first among them being that dharma doesn't refer to a supreme being possessing personhood and a will. If theology is ordered discourse about a personalistic ultimate, is dharmaology (or dharmology) ordered discourse about an impersonalistic ultimate? The Buddhist takes a risk in saying yes because, if s/he is striving to establish an analogy between theology and dharmaology, it's important to recognize that, for Christian theologians, there are actually three Logoi: theology (about God), Christology (about the Christ), and pneumatology (about the Holy Spirit). Is dharmaology supposed to sit alongside Buddhology and some as-yet-unknown third term? When I think of John Hick's label impersonae, which Hick used to designate impersonal absolutes, my first thought, when it comes to Buddhism, is that the word dharma doesn't represent the impersonal ultimate reality: that would be sunyata.* Why not sunyatology and sunyatalogians, then? Probably because dharma is more widely known among laypeople... and besides, it sounds more charming.
Facetiousness aside, this is a fascinating terminological question, but an aging, crotchety, curmudgeonly part of my brain is wondering why a separate term is needed at all. What's wrong with "Buddhist theologian?" This term already exists, along with "Buddhist theology," and in both cases the word theos has been semantically stretched to accommodate more than the Christian notion of theos: in the Buddhist context, theos is re-understood as ultimate reality, be that dharma or sunyata or pratitya-samutpada or buddha-dhatu (bul seong, 불성, 佛性: Buddha-nature).
But that's just me being curmudgeonly. Dharmalogian sounds like a fine term, and while I still think it is, at best, a shaky analogue with theologian, it at least has the advantage of focusing the layman's attention on South Asian philosophy and religion (though it is, perhaps, not quite restrictive enough to denote Buddhism exclusively).
*This is in line with Hick's own thinking. Taken simply and literally, the word dharma has no clear ontological or metaphysical valence: it merely indicates that existence has a nature. A word like sunyata, by contrast, reveals what that nature is. The same goes for pratitya-samutpada and buddha-dhatu, both of which say more about the nature of existence than does the neutral term dharma.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
A student walked up to me after I had dismissed today's beginner-level class.
"One of my friends asked me about this class," she said.
"Oh?" I said.
"He asked me who is my speaking teacher."
"Hm," I said.
"I said 'Kevin is my teacher.' He said, 'Big Kevin?'"
I had a sinking feeling. My student continued:
"I said, 'No—cute Kevin!'"
I smiled hollowly. The damage had already been done.
"'Big Kevin,'" I repeated, grinning and nodding absently in defeat.
"Don't worry," said my student in a reassuring tone: "My friend is big, too."
Monday, November 25, 2013
Woke up from a very strange dream. In it, my cousin stabbed me in the neck with some sort of hypodermic needle, and he nicked my neck-innards in such a way that, if I moved my head around too much, I'd end up paralyzing myself. I was then compelled or impelled to drive to a different city, all while keeping my head as stable as possible.
It was a relief to wake up from that dream.
I noted earlier (thanks to Dr. V) that JFK shares his death day with both CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley. I just saw this Huxley quote at Dictionary.com:
Give me Catholicism every time. Father Cheeryble with his thurible; Father Chatterjee with his liturgy. What fun they have with all their charades and conundrums! If it weren't for the Christianity they insist on mixing in with it, I'd be converted tomorrow.
—Aldous Huxley (apparently a lover of pomp and ritual, but not of religious content)
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Except for a couple school-sanctioned makeup classes, I will be done teaching all my classes this coming week. This coming week, then, will be devoted to reviewing for the final exam, and after that, it's up to the students to remember everything they've been taught. They've got a major listening test coming up at the beginning of December, followed by my final exam, which they'll be doing in groups the week after the listening test. So after this week, it's the mop-up: for my Wednesday and Thursday classes, we've got two makeup days, then it's all downhill: the kids take the listening test and the final, I grade everything, then punch in the grades... and it's two months of gloriously paid vacation for this fat boy. I won't know what to do with myself. But I'm sure I'll figure something out.