I got new contact lenses last night. I had worn my previous pair of three-month lenses for six months, so naturally, they had started to hurt because of the accumulated protein deposits. An eyewear shop is right up the street from where I work, so I lumbered up to it and asked the tiny, brace-faced lady inside to fit me with new lenses.
"Do you remember your previous prescription?" she asked.
"Minus 4.5 for each eye," I said.
The lady plucked out the lenses, explained they were six-month wearables, and that a year's supply would cost W70,000, which is what I've always paid for lenses in Korea since 2005: contact lenses seem to be one of the few items that are immune to inflation. After tucking in some gift items and ringing up my purchase, the lady said we were done. No eye exam, nothing. I was out of the store in under ten minutes.
My brother David, who isn't a fan of how Koreans do things, grumbled via text that a yearly eye exam is a good idea. My own feeling is: if there's nothing wrong with your eyes (you'd know right away, wouldn't you?), and if your visual acuity hasn't changed over the past year, why not just march into an eyewear store, request the same prescription-strength lenses, and walk out? Simple and efficient. In the US, at the supposedly cheap Costco, I'd pay $90 for an unnecessarily lengthy eye exam and another $160 for the lenses. I'd then have to wait three business days for the lenses to be shipped to the store because the store never has my prescription in stock. This is one area in which Korea kicks America's ass, and I feel the States could learn from the Korean way of doing things. If I do ever have an eye problem, I'll go see an eye doctor and pay under $15 for the visit and the battery of exams.
Friday, September 30, 2016
I got new contact lenses last night. I had worn my previous pair of three-month lenses for six months, so naturally, they had started to hurt because of the accumulated protein deposits. An eyewear shop is right up the street from where I work, so I lumbered up to it and asked the tiny, brace-faced lady inside to fit me with new lenses.
My buddy Mike is a proud graduate of Longwood University. Back in his day, the university was still called Longwood College, and if I remember correctly, there had been talk of renaming it Farmville University, given its location in the rustically denominated Farmville, Virginia. I imagine that a committee got together and concluded that the initials "F.U." would not have been good for marketing, but that the name "Longwood" connoted immense sexual potency, which would be awesome for marketing. So after what was likely a nice cash windfall (yay, alumni?), the college became a university, and it will now gain a measure of cachet as the site for the October 4 vice-presidential debate this election cycle. Meanwhile, Trump and Hillary, like two 400-pound sumo wrestlers who moonlight as basement DNC-file hackers, will slam bellies again on October 9 and October 19, at Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri) and the University of Nevada, respectively.
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Skeletal pundit Styxhexenhammer666 talks at length about the nature of online polls, how reliable they are, and other matters here.
Quote from the beginning (transcribed):
All right, YouTube, it's time for more "perception versus reality" and a little bit more political analysis regarding debates. I've now sparred with about a dozen different people telling me, indeed, "The online polls were rigged!"—usually by 4chan or on Reddit or something like that. I'd like to point out that this only leaves a few possibilities as to how this could happen.
If Clinton won the debate, you'd think that people within any organic movement would reflect that in online polling. You'd expect, if energy and fervor for Trump and Clinton are both roughly equivalent, the aggregated polls overall—all of which are scientific, by the way, so I'm assuming you're going to trust them if you're trusting the CNN snap poll—show a dead-heat race, with Clinton leading by maybe a point: essentially a tied game. If that's the case, and if you would expect energy and thus, potentially, turnout to be the same on both sides, what you would most likely see is that, if there's rigging of the polls through 4chan by Trump fans, there would also be rigging of the online polls by Clinton fans on sites that they use: Tumblr, most of Reddit, as opposed to a handful of subreddits there, and a million other, sort of, avenues—through CTR, certainly; there is organized paid posting that goes on. Why would they not get involved? Wouldn't they have the technological literacy to do so?
It's a thirty-minute video, but Styx makes his main points within the first few minutes. I did find myself wondering whether saying "the polls are rigged" or "the polls are garbage" is an implicit admission that there is indeed a significant grassroots online groundswell happening for Trump (the non-legacy-media reality I've referred to in previous posts), even if it's in the form of poll-cheaters. There must be thousands of these poll-cheaters out there, which is quite impressive. Styx takes the issue further and asks why a counter-groundswell isn't arising from the Clintonistas, who are theoretically capable of the same sort of cyber-warfare. It's a fair question to consider. All of this fits the thesis that looking only at legacy-media data is unhelpful in understanding the reality of the situation.
I'm trying to be scientific about this by being willing to change my stance based on what I see. If a new hypothesis better fits the facts on the ground than does an older hypothesis, it's probably time to cast that old hypothesis aside, however unpleasant a task that might be. I'm still not on board the Trump train, but I'm now convinced, at the very least, that there are parties who can somehow see the US political situation better than I can, and whose analyses and predictions are more on the mark than those of the people I'd been relying on before (mostly mainstream media, in my case).
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
According to various sources, the ginkgo tree symbolizes many things: longevity, endurance, peace, hope, vitality, love, and duality. The tree has different meanings in different cultures; it's biologically unique (a so-called "living fossil") and respected for its special properties, but do you know what I like best about the ginkgo tree?
There aren't any on my walking path.
Female ginkgo trees, right around this time of year, start dropping their swollen, crabapple-sized berries on the ground in the thousands and millions. The sidewalks around my office building are littered with them these days. According to local lore, there's a perfect time during which to harvest the fruits in order to make ginkgo products, usually related more to the stones inside the flesh (a.k.a. ginkgo nuts) than to the nasty-smelling—and apparently toxic—flesh itself.
I don't care. A Canadian colleague of mine back at Daegu Catholic used to call these awful little odor bombs "shitberries," but there are those who find the odor more reminiscent of cheese than of dung. Have it your way; whether they remind you of a lactating teat or of a quivering asshole, we can all agree that ginkgo berries stink like homeless lepers.
And not a single ginkgo tree befouls my nightly walk, Cthulhu be praised.
My numismatist friend Nathan Bauman might find this news of interest. I'm a layman, and I think this is utterly fascinating.
For the first time Japanese archaeologists have unearthed ancient Roman coins at the ruins of an old castle.
The discovery of 10 bronze and copper coins — the oldest dating from about 300-400 AD — in southern Okinawa caught researchers by surprise.
It was the first time Roman Empire coins have been discovered in Japan, thousands of kilometres from where they were likely minted.
"At first I thought they were one-cent coins dropped by US soldiers," archaeologist Hiroki Miyagi said.
"But after washing them in water I realised they were much older. I was really shocked."
Continuing in the vein of previous posts that mention Scott Adams, who claims to be an expert in the art of persuasion (and who thus believes Trump will ride a landslide into the White House): I recently watched a YouTube vid on how scammers do their thing. It was both enlightening and disgusting, mainly because the trick used is so easy and obvious.
Imagine you want to persuade people to invest large sums of money in you. To obtain their money, you devise a scheme that will make you look like a stock-market guru. Here's how you do it: start with 10000 potential victims. Tell half of them you're sure the market will be going up in the short term; tell the other half the opposite. Once the market twitches, stop focusing on the half that received the wrong prediction. For the remaining 5000 victims, tell half that the market will go up, and half that the market will go down. Repeat twice more. You'll now have 625 potential investors who have seen you correctly predict the market four times in a row: you're a god! How easy will it be, then, to get their money?
"Bah," you say, because like many of my commenters, you're only interested in being contrary. "That won't work: the jilted people will talk with the true believers and tell them you've been wrong four times in a row!" Oho, you think so? On what do you base this assumption? That I was stupid enough to call 10000 people who all work on the same city block, or who all have interconnected LinkedIn profiles? Silly monkey.
It's a good scam. Maybe I should try it.
Media Matters, a site that leans waaaay left, flatly declares online polls to be "garbage" and cites the more professionally conducted CNN poll, which broke for Hillary, as a better example of polling. Trouble is, CNN was honest enough to reveal that its sample of 521 registered voters, who were polled by phone, skewed heavily Democrat. Can't say that that makes CNN's effort any more legitimate than that of the snap polls.
Video commentary here. Be sure to read the comments.
Scott Adams (whose blog you should be reading) offers his hour-long debate postmortem. TL;DW: he still gives it to Trump in a landslide, like our resident King Baeksu. Maybe I'm in denial, but I'm still not seeing a landslide. I am, however, creeping slowly over to the less-negative camp when it comes to evaluating Trump's prospects. My rate of creep seems about the same as the rate of change of the numbers at 538, where Trump's probability of election has gone from single digits to 40-something percent.
UPDATE: Michael Moore, no friend to righties, calls the debate (and the election) for Trump. Scott Adams, in the above-linked video commentary, says that Moore, who works in film, probably reads people the same way Adams does, i.e., through the lens of the art of persuasion, a lens that provides a very different picture from the one offered through conventional debate and political analysis. Read Adams if you aren't already doing so.
Quora, ah, Quora, my love. You always come through for me.
"How to Win or Cheat Any Online Voting Contest"
"How to 'Hack' Online Polls"
"Preventing Spam Votes in Online Polls"
Never let it be said that I don't listen to my commenters. These links all make for good, interesting reading, and they do put online polls in perspective.
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
This is unbelievable to me, but here are the poll numbers that Trump and Hillary are tweeting, post-debate:
Breitbart (leans right): 76-24, Trump (yawn—no surprise)
Variety (leans left): 55-45, Trump (major surprise)
NJ.com (Jersey; leans...?): 57-39, Trump (not a major poll)
The Hill (leans...?): 59-36, Trump (major poll for pols)
Drudge (leans right): 80-20, Trump (I consider this very unreliable given heavy bias)
Time (leans left): 59-41, Trump (I'm flabbergasted)
CNBC (leans left): 61-39, Trump (this was most shocking of all)
Before we move on to what Hillary Clinton tweeted, let me say that I automatically discount the polls hosted by the rightie sites. Of course they're going to skew Trumpward. Duh. That means nothing. What horrifies and fascinates me, though, are the polls from unabashedly leftie sites like Time, Variety, and for God's sakes—CNBC.
In some of his videos, Styxhexenhammer666 makes the point that there are two parallel realities: there's the legacy-media reality, which is where most of the population probably gets its information; then there's the online reality, which has grown and metastasized, right under everyone's noses, into a formidable beast that now produces statistically significant psephological results. People only paying attention to the legacy data being gathered by folks like Nate Silver are completely missing the groundswell of online activity, most of which favors Trump at this point. Therefore, it's more likely that it's the online people who are madly clicking these legacy-media polls, which means that people focused on legacy media are, for the first time, seeing the concrete results of this ever-burgeoning online reality. Like a scenario from a fantasy novel, one universe is slowly, steadily, spilling into another.
Onward to Hillary's tweets.
CNN (leans left): 62-27, Hillary (no surprise)
...and that's it. That's the only poll that Hillary quoted. Amazing.
Could my perception of the debate—admittedly gained through the filter of both leftie and rightie commentary—really be that skewed? My post-debate impression, garnered in part from sober commentators on the right, some of whom openly support Trump, was that Hillary was more articulate, more substantive, and more coherent than her opponent. This was not only a testament to her debate prep, but also to Trump's failure to attack Hillary's more obvious weaknesses. Rightie talking heads like Stephen Green claim this is because Trump lacked the factual knowledge to actually attack Hillary on the facts... yet the above polls—poll after poll—seem to suggest that none of this mattered to great swaths of the American populace: instead, impression was everything.
Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has been calling Trump a grandmaster-level troll for some time. Some of the commentators that Hairy Chasms visitor King Baeksu has pointed to have been talking about Trump's mastery of "psy-ops." Scott Adams of Dilbert fame half-jokingly refers to Trump as a "wizard," a master manipulator of mass perception. I'm left to wonder what, exactly, it is I'm witnessing. Is Trump really that good a manipulator of people's impressions? Can he really lose a debate and still seemingly win it, if by "winning" we mean "poll better than his opponent"? What sort of creature is this?
I've felt this way before. In fact, I felt this way all during the GOP primary debates. Trump would tout the polls; I'd wave them off. Trump ended up the GOP front-runner, then he became the GOP nominee for president. He's even received an open, explicit endorsement from Ted Cruz—the man Trump had branded as "Lyin' Ted." All I can say is that I'm in a state of disbelief. Can this really be happening?
If the map doesn't match the terrain, then a sane person, a scientific person, knows he must redraw the map. I'm not saying that I now plan to endorse Trump, but I am saying that I'm going to have to be less bearish about his electoral prospects.
Breitbart: "Who Won the First Presidential Debate?"
Variety: "Who Won the First Clinton-Trump Debate? Vote Now!"
NJ.com: "Who won the presidential debate (9/26/16)? How did Clinton, Trump do in the first debate?"
The Hill: "Who Won the Debate?"
Drudge: "WHO WON THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE?" (shouty all-caps)
Time: "Who Won the First Clinton-Trump Debate?"
CNBC: "Clinton or Trump: Who Do You Think Won the First Presidential Debate?"
CNN: "Regardless of which candidate you happen to support, who do you think did the best job in the debate – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?"
Note: unlike the polls Trump cited, the CNN poll was apparently administered differently. It wasn't an insta-click online poll; instead, it was a telephone-interview poll of 521 registered voters who all watched the debate. (LINK) The online polls have votes numbering from the hundreds of thousands to the millions.
Note 2: CNN (see link below) says its survey sample of 521 people skewed significantly Democrat. I appreciate CNN's honesty.
UPDATE: The Daily Mail surveys a bunch of online snap polls.
John Lee, writing at his blog The Korean Foreigner, offers a post-debate economics lesson. Go read. The essence of his post: "...neither person knew what the hell they were talking about." Economics is John's bread and butter, whereas I'm at best a tyro. Like me, however, John leans toward a capitalist viewpoint, which I consider an affirmation of my own stance.
Based on my online reading of various sources, the presidential debate
1. was more lackluster than would've been expected for the fight of the century.
2. featured several missed opportunities for Trump to hammer Hillary on security issues.
3. featured a stronger Trump during the first 30-45 minutes, after which he fizzled.
4. showcased a healthier-than-anticipated Hillary (was she drugged up?).
5. was largely an opportunity for the candidates to lay out their talking points.
As I predicted, the Drudge poll shows Trump having won the debate, 92-8. This is, of course, a heavily skewed data set given that the poll-clickers are almost all partisan conservatives expressing their hardened support for Trump. Also, these clickers began clicking long before the debate was over, indicating that they were blindly voting for Trump no matter what.
At the National Review: "We Got the Debate We Deserved Tonight." It's a short piece, and fair, and a decent summation of how I felt about the debate after having followed the running commentary online.
You'll recall that Mitt Romney whomped a woefully unprepared and off-balance Barack Obama during their first of three debates, then Obama came back swinging in the second and cruised through the third. The sudden and violent change in momentum, from the first to the second debate, completely took the wind out of Romney's sails, and if that Romney documentary is to be believed, Romney's sudden deflation confirmed voters' suspicions that he hadn't really wanted to run for president to begin with. Based on what I've read, I'd give tonight's debate, ever so slightly, to Hillary, who cue-carded her way through the exchange and did indeed show off her superior command of facts (although she will, of course, be fact-checked to death online, as will Trump). The Donald, however, might be viewing this debate merely as a reconnoiter, so it's entirely possible he'll be pulling an Obama and coming out swinging in the second and third debates.
Hillary, for her part, probably came through the experience thinking, "That wasn't so bad." Word is that she prepped quite thoroughly whereas The Donald had unwisely chosen to wing it. The more I thought about the debate, the more I felt it was like the basic conflict shown in Rodney Dangerfield's 1980s-era comedy "Back to School," which is the story of an uncouth businessman who has made a living in the real world, but who now finds himself up against the snooty academic establishment as he tries to legitimize himself by obtaining a long-missing college degree. If you think of Trump as Dangerfield's character, getting no respect from either the media or establishment Republicans, and if you think of Hillary as representing the snooty academics (especially that tall, gawky British professor of business who keeps awkwardly hitting on Sally Kellerman's sultry English teacher), it all makes a bizarre kind of sense. Not that I'd extend the movie analogy so far as to say Trump, like Dangerfield, is the heroic protagonist, but the class* conflict strikes me as perfectly analogous. This election cycle, we're basically living out a 1980s comedy. Of note: Dangerfield's character gets his degree, but only after he actually buckles down at the eleventh hour and does the real work of studying and prepping for his exams. There's a lesson in here somewhere.
Right now, though, on my Twitter feed, people are jokingly talking about how we need to prepare for Trump's inevitable "Twitter ragefest," as one Twit is calling it.
I'm more interested in the lengthier postmortems that will be appearing online within the next few hours. The above-linked National Review piece is merely the first drop in the coming rainstorm. And just think: we've got two more debates to go. Joy.
*I anticipate some objections to my use of "class" here. The snooty British professor and Dangerfield's character quite possibly both belong to the upper class. That said, I believe the movie makes clear that the British prof looks down on Dangerfield's scruffy, untutored mannerisms and outlook; he sees in Dangerfield a man who doesn't deserve his prominence.
UPDATE: Yahoo News is calling the debate "fiery." Hmmm.
UPDATE 2: the leftie Huffington Post, just as naturally as Drudge, is claiming either that Hillary crushed The Donald (so says the site's front page with its screaming "ORANGE CRUSH" headline, or that Hillary "won by not losing," according to the more sober subtitle of this article. Take your pick.
UPDATE 3: Malcolm Pollack writes sarcastically: "What a pleasure to watch two such inspiring candidates cross hands in thoughtful debate! Can’t wait to see how the next few years are going to go." Like me, he scores the debate for Hillary... or more precisely, to "the team of Lester Holt and Hillary Clinton."
UPDATE 4: Huh. Trump's prestige on the Drudge poll is slipping. As of right now, three hours after the debate began, it's 82-18, Trump. It's still skewed, but the downturn is quite remarkable. Nate Silver's site, meanwhile, is now giving Trump 45% odds to win the election. That's quite the up-tick.
UPDATE 5: Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit thinks the debate was a draw.
UPDATE 6: Drudge poll now has Trump down to 80-20. Again, this is still massively skewed toward Trump, but the slope of the downward trend is what's interesting.
Monday, September 26, 2016
What follows are some off-the-cuff predictions about Monday's presidential debate. All of these predictions are safe no-brainers, so if you find yourself going "Duh" after reading each one, well... I can't blame you.
1. Donald Trump has promised to be "respectful" toward Hillary during the debate, but given how thin-skinned he is, I expect the gloves to come off fairly early. This will be exacerbated by the fact that Trump has, according to sources, done little to prep for the upcoming debate. He will cover up lack of knowledge with aggressive bluster.
2. Hillary Clinton will prove to have a better command of facts and figures.
3. That said, partisans on both sides of the aisle will engage in real-time fact-checking of both candidates' claims; plenty of articles and video commentary, the next day, will be devoted to debunking those claims and tallying up which candidate told more whoppers.
4. Hillary will score higher in terms of articulateness (she's a lawyer by training, after all); the Donald will score higher in terms of bluster. Which style of delivery proves more charismatic will be up in the air, by which I really mean utterly in the eye of the beholder.
5. Drudge will slap up his usual shock poll asking, as he did during the GOP primaries, who you think the debate's winner was; given Drudge's overwhelmingly rightie audience, the poll will skew heavily toward Trump.
6. Trump will declare victory on Twitter, no matter the outcome.
7. Trump will tweet complaints about Lester Holt, and maybe a barb or three about fellow billionaire and Trump "troll" Mark Cuban.
8. Trump won't be the only one complaining about Lester Holt's moderation. Dems will likely complain, too, if leftie complaints about Jimmy Fallon and Matt Lauer are any indication.
Now for some riskier predictions:
1. Hillary will have some sort of episode during the debate: coughing, neurological fit, whatever. Trump will have to hold back and be gallant, not snide, during these moments (if, indeed, there ends up being more than one such moment). He'll definitely have to avoid looking too pleased. Others are predicting that Hillary will be just fine during those painful 90 minutes; she'll have been pumped full of whatever chemicals are needed to keep her awake, alert, and feisty for the length of the debate.
2. Trump will receive a bigger post-debate boost in the polls than Hillary will. I'm not completely convinced this will happen, but it's what I'm leaning instinctively toward right now. My reasons for this are several. First, Hillary may be more articulate than Trump, and she may have more book smarts than he does, but Trump knows very well how to get under an opponent's skin with tactics that are patently immature. Look at what Trump did to Jeb Bush, which was so painful to watch that I was physically uncomfortable. Jeb, who is already cursed with the Bush family's thin lips, became even more thin-lipped as Trump needled, hectored, and mocked him; and as Jeb became visibly angrier, it was obvious that Trump had become the emotional puppet master. Everyone watching the Trump-Jeb exchange knew instinctively who owned whom. Hillary, as we all know, does terribly when she's caught in unscripted situations. I expect this trait to work against her whenever Trump is given a chance to extemporize. Not that Trump will necessarily say things of substance, but he has a killer instinct when it comes to gauging an opponent's emotional state. The question, of course, is whether Trump will end up looking as though he's beating up on a woman. That issue, in turn, will drag in the whole feminism discussion, which is why, as I said at the beginning of this paragraph, I'm not completely convinced Trump might benefit from his usual tactics. If Trump over-hectors Hillary instead of allowing her to trip over herself on her own, he can end up looking like the bad guy. Then again, the hardened support for both Hillary and Trump won't budge, no matter how the debate turns out, so really, it's going to be up to the undecideds, the middle-of-the-roaders, to assess the debate's aftermath and to nudge the polls one way or another.
3. If Trump doesn't put Gennifer Flowers in the front row of this debate (and it appears he won't), he's likely to do so in the second and third debates, along with Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, et al. It'll be tasteless and tacky, the essence of reality TV, but it'll be consistently Trumpian, especially if it turns out that Mark Cuban's presence does somehow rattle Trump during the first debate.
I expect the first debate to set the tone for the next two. This promises to be one of the most-watched presidential debates ever, but it could very well turn out to be a snoozer. Whoever seems to be the winner probably won't have to worry too much until the third and final debate; as when you're listening to a musical performance, it's how the performance ends that has the greatest impact on people's impressions of the whole. End the concert on a false, blatting note, and the entire performance will be ruined. If either candidate stumbles badly in the final debate, that's going to have repercussions right up to November. So while the first debate is important for setting tone, it's the third debate that's really key. (And that debate is going to be moderated by a right-leaning journalist: Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday.)
Some people are arguing that debates, given that they reveal little about potential leaders, are a poor predictor of electoral success and a poor predictor of leadership ability. As this promises to be one of the most style-heavy, substance-free debates in history, I'm inclined to agree. But who knows? Maybe some actual, substantive points will be made by Hil and Don. I look forward to ingesting an avalanche of post-debate commentary in less than 24 hours.
Along with rereading GRR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, I'm making my way a second time through HBO's "Game of Thrones" TV series. A second viewing reinforces the fact that the HBO show diverged from the books from the first episode onward, and this is most visible in terms of character interactions: on the TV show, there are conversations between certain characters that never take place in the books, and the inclusion of these "non-canonical" exchanges actually gives the show a unique charm: the conversations flesh out the characters in ways that keep them consistent with their on-the-page counterparts, while also taking the characters in somewhat different directions.
Some exchanges of note, off the top of my head:
1. King Robert and Cersei, Season 1—the moment when they talk over the irony of how their marriage, terrible though it may be, is what's holding the Seven Kingdoms together. I particularly liked this interplay because it allowed the actors to cover a wide range of emotions; the exchange ends frigidly, with Cersei claiming to feel nothing at all.
2. Varys and Littlefinger, Season 1—neither Varys the Spider, Master of Whisperers, nor Petyr Baelish, Master of Coin, is a point-of-view character in the books, but the HBO show puts them together for some interesting private conversations. These are two of the most influential and politically savvy men in the entire series; watching them banter and spar in a manner both playful and prickly is supremely entertaining.
3. Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister, Season 2—this encounter never happens in the books, but in the HBO show, Arya finds herself taken to the cursed castle of Harrenhal, where she suddenly finds herself the cupbearer of none other than Tywin Lannister, who is eventually the co-author of the infamous Red Wedding that takes place in the third novel and in Season 3 of the TV production. Tywin's affection for Arya—he has no idea that his cupbearer is one of the last living Starks—is genuine, but also bittersweet to the extent that he has been far less tender with his own children: Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion. Lord Tywin has a nose for aptitude and ability; he quickly sees through Arya's attempt to disguise herself as a boy, and later discovers she is extremely well-educated, perceptive, and quick-witted. Letting down his guard to an extent not seen elsewhere in the show, Tywin confides plenty to Arya in terms of family life and war—bitter wisdom acquired over the course of a hard existence. This non-canonical exchange is, by far, the most interesting of the TV-only dialogues I've seen. It's too bad that Arya and Tywin's association is so brief. Arya, who soaks up information like a sponge, could have learned much from the old man.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
I went on a book-shopping spree at the behest of my boss this past Friday. The reason for the spree was to help me come up with ideas for the third level of our grammar/vocabulary book series; the boss had said he wanted the third level to be a radical departure from how we had handled the previous two levels. So—ideas! "Go to Gangnam Gyobo Bookstore, spend a few hours there, and buy whatever books you think might be helpful," said the boss. This mission was, as you can imagine, an introverted bookworm's dream, so I left the office around lunchtime and headed over to Gangnam Gyobo. I used to hang around this bookstore back when I was teaching at the nearby English Channel Language Institute back around 2004; not much had changed when I saw it again for the first time in twelve years.
Of course, bookstores being as mentally aphrodisiacal as they are, there was no way I could restrain myself from also buying some books that I wanted. I finally settled on buying two books on Korean grammar—one a textbook, the other a workbook. A survey of the textbook's table of contents led me to believe the book wouldn't take me much beyond the basics, but given the many holes in my knowledge of Korean, a solid foundation in the basics struck me as a good idea. The book follows a standard structuralist approach, i.e., it goes from simple grammatical constructions and concepts to more complex ones. The workbook matches the chapters in the textbook point for point, so I can reinforce what I'm learning (or relearning) very quickly. It'll be good for me to slog my way through the textbook; I might even encounter material that I'll consider blog-worthy as I march forth into greater knowledge.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
An article by a man who actually lived through socialism's effects.
Communists opposed both profit and competition. They saw profit-making as useless and immoral. In their view, capitalists did not work in the conventional sense. The real work of building the bridges and plowing the fields was done by the workers. The capitalists simply pocketed the company’s profits once the workers’ wages have been paid out. Put differently, communist believed that the capitalist class exploited the working class – and that was incompatible with the communist goal of a classless and egalitarian society.
But capitalists are neither useless nor immoral. For example, capitalists often invest in new technologies. Companies that have revolutionized our lives, like Apple and Microsoft, received their initial funding from private investors. Because their own money is on the line, capitalists tend to be much better at spotting good investment opportunities than government bureaucrats. That is why capitalist economies, not communist ones, are the leaders in technological innovation and progress.
Moreover, by investing in new technologies and by creating new companies, capitalists provide consumers with a mind-boggling variety of goods and services, create employment for billions of people, and contribute trillions of dollars in tax revenue. Of course, all investment involves at least some level of risk. Capitalists reap huge profits only when they invest wisely. When they make bad investments, capitalists often face financial ruin.
Unfortunately, communists did not share the above views and banned private investment, private property, risk-taking and profit-making. All large privately held enterprises, like shoe factories and steel mills, were nationalized. A vast majority of small privately held enterprises, like convenience stores and family farms, were also taken over by the state. The expropriated owners seldom received any compensation. Everyone now became a worker and everyone worked for the state.
I am sometimes asked why, if communism was so inefficient, it had survived as long as it did. Part of the reason rests in the brute force with which the communists kept themselves in power. Part of it rests in the emergence of smugglers, who made the economy run more smoothly. When, for example, a communist shoe factory ran out of glue, the factory manager called his contact in the “shadow” or “underground” economy. The latter would then obtain the glue by smuggling it out of the glue factory or from abroad. Smuggling was illegal, of course, but it was preferable to dealing with the government bureaucracy—which could take years. So, in a sense, communism’s longevity can be ascribed to the emergence of a quasi-market in goods a favors (or services).
Look at Venezuela. Look at North Korea, with its emergence of a quasi-market. Look at any country that insists on centralizing its economy, and on state management of major affairs, business or otherwise. Do these places look healthy to you? If not, then why, why do you continue to insist that communism and socialism are good things?
Friday, September 23, 2016
I heard there's a certain debate coming up in a few days—the first of three.* I won't be watching it, partly because I'm not invested in either candidate, and partly because it hurts to listen to either candidate speak. There are all sorts of claims being made as to which candidate will mop the floor with which. One fought his way improbably to the top of a large field of contenders; the other has had an easy time, thus far, unless we include the recent Commander-in-Chief Forum with Matt Lauer. One prefers to say whatever pops into his head, even if it's self-contradictory; the other is extremely well practiced when it comes to lawyerly obfuscation, even when that involves self-contradiction.
But while I'm not interested in watching the upcoming debate, I'll be very interested in reading and watching the ensuing commentary. And as always, I'll be watching the polls, whether we're talking RCP or Nate Silver.
*Three presidential debates, one vice-presidential debate.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
It all began while I was sitting cross-legged on my bed this past Sunday. I was in a leg-scratching mood, so I randomly scratched at my right foot's pinky toe and found a nasty flap of callused skin. Naturally, I began to pick at it... and pick at it...
By the time I finished picking, I had used nail clippers and other instruments to remove every last trace of the offending callus, and my pinky toe was blissfully smooth. Satisfied, I thought nothing more of the matter until Monday.
On Monday, I noticed that my right shoe seemed tighter than usual: the shoe felt as though it were squeezing my pinky toe against its neighboring toe. As the day wore on, the pain worsened, especially during my periodic walks with my coworker, and my mind began riffling through pages of diagnostic possibilities until I finally realized that it all came back to that little self-pedicure session I'd had on Sunday.
Conclusion: the shoe hadn't suddenly shrunk. Instead, my toe's skin had been picked at and abraded to the point where it was gossamer-thin, so the pinky toe had been rubbing against the shoe and sock all day long. By the time I stripped my sock off on Monday evening, I saw the toe's outward-facing side was all red—not bloody, exactly, but very, very raw. On Tuesday morning, I showered, dried, and wrapped my toe in a bandage in the hopes of minimizing friction and reducing pain. I can report that friction was minimized.
So I'm off from creekside walking this week while my toe heals. Am contemplating buying sandals... assuming I can find any in my size in this Lilliputian country. But it's no use resenting Korea for its smallness; I brought this upon myself through my own stupidity.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
A blockquote from over at Matt's fine blog provides us with this beauty:
Widely assumed to be a “gay disease,” even by some of the country’s most influential doctors, AIDS patients are often disowned by family, thrown out of hospitals, and refused vital care.
Did you spot the problem? It is
a. a punctuation error.
b. a dangling modifier.
c. a tense error.
d. a participial error.
Highlight the area between the brackets below to reveal the answer.
[The correct answer is B: a dangling modifier. The sentence begins with the modifier "Widely assumed to be a 'gay disease,'" so the subject of the main clause ought to be "AIDS," but instead, the subject is the noun phrase "AIDS patients." As written, the sentence is saying that AIDS patients are widely assumed to be a gay disease. Very awkward, that.]
Bizarre to use shiitake mushrooms, I know, but I had no choice: my local grocery was out of all other mushrooms.
The homemade Italian-style pork sausage turned out brilliantly. One thing I've come to learn, now that I've made this sort of sausage (without skin) several times, is that fennel seeds, while key to evoking the Italianness of Italian sausage, can be used sparingly to produce this effect. For three pounds of ground pork, I used a bit more than a half-teaspoon of fennel seeds, and that turned out to be plenty. Good to remember: those seeds are potent.
If the sausage lacks anything, though, it's the sort of fattiness I expect from the store-bought version. The next time I make more, I'm going to experiment a bit and add a spicy oil; my local grocery sells several types of those, including one that purports to be hellishly hot. I'm not actually looking to make hellishly spicy sausage, but that might be interesting to try some day.
If you're on a Windows machine and you type two hyphens to represent a single em dash, here's a pro tip: the ALT-key code for em dashes is [ALT-0151], i.e., hold down the "ALT" key while typing the sequence "0151" on your numeric keypad. On Macs, typing special characters is a lot easier; instead of cumbersome ALT-key codes, Mac users simply hold "shift + option," or just "option," and perform only one or two commonsense keystrokes beyond that. On a Mac, the em dash is made by hitting "shift + option + hyphen"—all of which can be hit at the same time instead of typing a sequence of numbers. This is why Macs rule.
Monday, September 19, 2016
Jeff Hodges has lately been engaged in a lengthy act of citing citations—metacitation, if you will—in which he posts about the fact that other researchers have cited his work in their works. It must be nice to know you're being cited by other academics.
Alas for Dr. Hodges, his real first name is Horace, which he dislikes, and people keep misspelling "Jeffery" as "Jeffrey."
And just today: here.
In the building where I work, there's a large grocery store in the basement level—larger than the grocery in my apartment building. I often head down to this grocery to find something to supplement my lunch, and because I go down there so frequently, all the lady cashiers know me by sight (not that I, a hulking, doughy foreigner, am all that hard to miss). One lady has been in the habit of overdoing her greeting and service: whenever I appear at her register, she becomes exaggeratedly chirpy and cutesy—not in a flirtatious way, but in a more patronizing way, as if I were a retarded child whose every utterance in Korean is seen as a major accomplishment. She repeats everything I say, the way a mother might repeat her baby's first comprehensible words and phrases. If I say, "Please give me a ten-liter plastic bag," she responds, "Oh, a ten-liter plastic bag!"
The other day, she probably went too far with the high-voiced chirpiness. I know this because the cashiers on either side of her started cheerfully ribbing her: "Hey! Why're you acting that way with him? You're not usually like that!" She tried to make excuses for her own behavior: "Oh, well, he's a foreigner, and he speaks Korean so well..."* My own impression was that she put on the exaggerated show because my presence was actually freaking her out, and she didn't know how she was supposed to interact with me.
When I swung by the grocery this morning for some victuals, Mrs. Smiley was the only person "womaning" a cash register, so I lumbered up to her, expecting more of the usual cutesy treatment. But she surprised me: today, she was professional and businesslike—not an iota of cute to be found. I think the ribbing she'd received from her "sisters" had gotten to her, and she now has a better idea of how to interact with me. It's funny to see that this happened, but also a bit sad: in East Asia, where difference isn't valued as highly as conformity, there's a proverb: "the nail that stands out gets hammered down." While it's true that I prefer that the cashiers simply treat me as they would any other customer, I also feel a bit sorry for Mrs. Smiley, who has been brought back into line.
*I don't actually speak Korean "so well," but it seems ingrained in Korean culture to coo over foreigners who manage to put together a few words in Korean. Any utterance at all is seen as passing over the threshold of linguistic expectations. I've heard various explanations for why this is so: Koreans believe that their language is too difficult for non-Koreans to learn (a fact routinely contradicted by the increasing number of Korean-fluent foreigners on TV); there's a sort of ambient sadae-jueui (사대주의—roughly, a kind of reflexive obsequiousness) that impels Koreans to feel obliged to speak in English around foreigners; etc.
ADDENDUM: let's talk a bit more about the implications of sadae-jueui. First, I should note that I find the concept offensive, but if Twitter is anything to judge by, the concept pops up, not just among expats who live in Korea, but also among Koreans who are fluent in English and who have experience living abroad and/or interacting with foreigners. I gather it's a real thing, but as an explanation for Korean Behavior X or Y, it makes me squirm.
I also think that, if there are indeed any traces of sadae-jueui in modern Korean society, those traces are disappearing. The other side of the story I told above is that most of the cashiers treat me the way they treat normal people. Mrs. Smiley was the only one acting differently. I'd like to think that sadae-jueui is a real problem in North Korea, where kowtowing is a matter of survival: you can't afford to sass back at the local authorities (although I have seen video of this happening), for whom insufficient submissiveness can mean punishment not only for you, but for your whole family.
I also think the idea of South Korean sadae-jueui is contradicted by how Koreans on the street generally act in crowded situations. They honestly don't give a shit whether there are foreigners present when it comes time to push onto a bus or into a subway; there's a pervasive, equal-opportunity rudeness that is, in a sense, a sign of egalitarianism: I don't care who you are—you're in my way. I've also never sensed any over-obsequiousness from taxi drivers, bus drivers, restaurant workers, bank tellers, coworkers at the office, fellow teachers at the uni, or anywhere else, really. So I think that the explanation for Koreans' strange politeness when it comes to their linguistic expectations has nothing to do with sadae-jueui.
I do think that Koreans have low expectations when it comes to foreigners' linguistic performance, and part of this may be because of foreigners themselves, especially our military guys, quite a few of whom aren't in country long enough to gain a real grasp of the language before being rotated out. At the same time, I confess to being frustrated that Koreans aren't reacting more visibly to the ever-mounting evidence that many foreigners these days actually do attain a better-than-basic level of competence in Korean. The time for low expectations has passed and, as I've written before regarding assimilationist attitudes, Koreans have every right to expect that foreigners should speak some level of Korean after having been in country for several years, just as we Americans expect expats in the States to be able to speak English if they've been in America for more than a few years.
Over at ROK Drop, the following headline:
"Chinese Man Accused of Stabbing Korean Woman Praying at a Church in Jeju"
Headlines often leave out connectors like relative pronouns, relying on participles to do the semantic heavy-lifting. Above, we see two participles: "accused" and "praying." Implied are the verb "is"* (before "accused") and the relative-pronoun phrase "who was" (before "praying").
But without those phrases, another possible reading of the above headline is:
Chinese Man, Accused of Stabbing Korean Woman, is Praying at a Church in Jeju
I love English.
*Or "has been," for that matter.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
I made my homemade pork sausage about two hours ago, but had forgotten that the sausage would need time—about twelve hours—for its flavors to marry before I could use it for anything. So I've containerized the sausage and have stuck it in the fridge, where it will meditate on the meaning of existence until I tear it into little, porky chunks and throw it into tomato sauce, along with a large batch of sliced mushrooms, tomorrow.
So there went my plans to sit down to a nice bowl of pork-sausage spaghetti this evening. Not to worry: I still had leftover fettuccine to tide me over, so I gobbled that instead. This coming week, I'll eat up the spaghetti, then start behaving myself again.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
I'll very likely be making spaghetti with homemade sausage tomorrow. The day I bought ground pork for the sausage, I noticed something strange: one package of ground pork was smaller, but more expensive, than a seemingly identical package sitting right next to it. I asked my butcher (yes, I now think of the guy as "my butcher") what the price difference was all about. "Oh," he said, "the more expensive one has less fat."
This startled me, as I had always been under the impression that Koreans, like most of the rest of the world that isn't America, associated fat with quality. In Europe, this is definitely true: higher-fat meats are considered to be of higher quality, and are therefore more expensive. I had thought Korea functioned the same way, but according to the butcher, the reason for the greater expense is that there's more labor involved in trimming away the fat.
That seemed plausible. I scratched my head, nodded, and walked away, taking the butcher's explanation at face value. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I bought myself a package of each kind of ground pork, still unable to see the difference between the two meats. Then I looked more closely at the price tags and saw that, unlike in the States, no fat percentage was listed. In the States, when you buy ground beef, you'll normally see a fraction that represents the respective percentages of meat and fat: an 80/20 ratio is normally considered ideal for hamburgers. At the local Food Lion in Front Royal, Virginia, a "log" of 70/30 ground beef would be cheaper, per pound, than a package of 80/20. Fattier—and some might argue tastier. (See this chart to understand US pricing. Scroll down to the "Ground Beef and Trim" section and note the prices for beef varying from 73% meat to 93% meat.)
Wavering between asking the guy about ratios and just heading to the register, I paused for a second, then I shrugged and headed over to the register. A mystery to resolve another day, perhaps. Meanwhile, it seems a myth has been busted, and I've been wrong this entire time about meat prices in Korea. I'm now curious to see what other Korean butchers say.
Friday, September 16, 2016
I decided not to head out to Incheon. Seemed silly to go all that way just to eat a few mandu, however hwadeok-y they might be. Instead, I'm at my place, cooking up a very nice fettuccine Alfredo—the classic version with Parmigiano, not my usual faux-Fredo with bleu or Gorgonzola. (Truth be told, I like my faux-Fredo better than the classic version, but today, all I've got is Parm, and I have no desire to head out to Costco to buy Gorgonzola.)
So I'll eat. I'll reread some more of the fifth novel of A Song of Ice and Fire. I'll take a walk tonight. And that, good gentles, will be my Friday. What are your Friday plans?
Thursday, September 15, 2016
The Chuseok national holiday is normally three days long, with Chuseok itself, the night of the harvest moon, being the middle day. That day is today, so... Happy Chuseok! We were fortunate, this year, that the harvest moon fell on a Thursday, thus ensuring a five-day holiday break. I'm at home, puttering around, doing nothing much. I feasted on sliders last night, partly in honor of my brother David's birthday. Tonight, it'll be American-style Chinese food: shrimp and veggies on rice. Tomorrow, I'll journey out to Chinatown in Incheon and munch on hwadeok mandu. Saturday, I'll probably do an Amurrican-style breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Sunday, I may do a classic fettuccine Alfredo. On Monday, I'll be back to the grind, and back to behaving myself. A happy harvest to one and all!
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Wow—my little brother David turns 40 this year. He already has more gray hair than I do. (In fact, both of my brothers look grayer, for whatever reason.)
David's the last brother to stick around in our hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. Sean has moved to DC; I'm here in Seoul. Only David remains to hold the fort and represent our family in northern Virginia. He lives in a nice, big, suburban house, living a suburban life—mowing his lawn, pulling out weeds, knocking down wasp nests, watching fugitive deer cross through his fenceless back yard, taking his dog out to parks, and just generally chillin'.
David used to have a tenant who had been renting out the downstairs, but that ended several months back when the tenant's dog died. This worked out well for David, who had found the tenant rather unsavory (I did, too, when I met him). These days, David has the house to himself, but I think he likes the solitude.
Sometime next year, when I'm flush with cash, I want to visit the States and Europe during a two-week jaunt—a week in the US, then a week divided between France and Switzerland. I hope to catch up with both my little brothers then. I miss them. That's the one major problem with living in Korea: I can't see my oldest buddies, and I can't see my bros.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Much culinary misbehavior planned for the upcoming Chuseok* holiday, one of two major family-oriented national holidays in Korea, the other being Seollal, i.e., the lunar new year. Chuseok is the time of the harvest-moon festival; some folks roughly translate this as "Korean Thanksgiving," which makes other expats cringe, but it's a decent enough way of expressing the local celebration of agricultural plenty. Thus far, I have these meals in mind:
1. chicken satay with peanut sauce
2. hwadeok mandu over in Incheon's Chinatown during one of my vacation days**
4. spaghetti with shrooms and homemade pork sausage
4a. some sort of Alfredo/bleu-Fredo
5. Amurrican-style breakfast with bacon, eggs, and pancakes
6. shrimp/prawns bobo (see this video)
6a. if not bobo, then American-style Chinese cashew shrimp
*Pronunciation note: the "eo" in romanized Korean words is pronounced somewhere between an "aw" and an "uh" sound, so "Chuseok" sounds a lot like it's somewhere between "chew-suck" and "chew-sawk." The name "Seoul" is the same: break it up into "Seo" and "ul" for a more accurate, Korean-sounding pronunciation: "suh-ool" or "saw-ool."
**I'll be bringing along some dipping sauce this time. Last time around, the mandu were fantastic in terms of meatiness and texture, but they were also bland as hell. "Needs sauce," is what I thought. I'll be packing some along when I head out west.
Hillary Clinton, who has been dogged by questions about her health (and, by extension, questions about her fitness to serve in the nation's highest office for four to eight years), suffered a collapse, of sorts, as she exited a 9/11 Ground Zero ceremony early because of what some journos are calling "a medical episode." Some online news outlets are using the euphemism "wobble" to describe what happened to Clinton as she tried to step into a waiting vehicle in her motorcade, but if you watch the video, what you actually see is that Clinton's knees are locked at the beginning (probably to prevent her from falling); she teeters, then when she tries to step forward, her legs buckle, and she loses all power to keep herself upright. She is, after that, essentially manhandled into the vehicle while her entourage does its best to form a tight cordon that will prevent curious folks from videoing her collapse.
All sorts of hypotheses are flying around as to what ails Mrs. Clinton, and it seems, at long last, that questions about her health can no longer be dismissed as the ravings of marginal conspiracy theorists. One of her doctors has been quoted as claiming Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia, which brought up more questions as to why she was allowed to have that staged on-the-street moment with the child. Conservative talking heads have been openly wondering whether Clinton is hiding Parkinson's disease; a recent article on how she balks at drinking water has caused some to insist that Parkinson's is likely: she could be experiencing "aspirational pneumonia," which is associated with Parkinson's and other conditions.
Personally, I do suspect something neurological, although I'd say the jury's very much out regarding whether it's definitively Parkinson's. My own reason for suspecting something neurological, though, comes from experience with my mother's brain cancer. As Mom's cancer progressed, it became more and more difficult to take her on walks in our local park. In the early stages, Mom walked along fairly strongly, needing help mainly with balance but not with strength. As the months went on, however, Mom's legs became weak, and there were a couple moments during which her legs would simply buckle, and we'd be there to catch her and heave upward to prevent her from hitting the ground or scraping her knees. Even for a woman as light as she was, Mom was surprisingly heavy when it was time to lift her back to her feet. Watching Clinton being manhandled into the black van reminded me of the times we manhandled Mom back into a wheelchair.
So I watched the video, and as much as I personally dislike Hillary Clinton, I felt sympathy for her the moment her knees buckled. Because I've been there. There are limits to my Schadenfreude. This doesn't change my opinion of Clinton, but if she is indeed contending with some progressively deteriorating neurological condition, I also can't ignore the fact that she's just a woman suffering the natural ravages of mortality. There will always be plenty of reasons to rip Hillary apart, but for me, this collapsing episode isn't one of them.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Twitter and my ass are both alive with quake activity rippling up and down the Korean peninsula. Not two minutes ago, I felt a slight vibration and experienced the very gentle shaking of my office building. The Korean peninsula sits just outside of some major fault lines as well as the Ring of Fire that girds most of the Pacific, so major quake activity is fairly rare here, unlike in Japan, which suffers more than a hundred earthquakes a year (thus making most Japanese as blasé as Californians when it comes to quakes).
The Sino-Korean term jijin (지진, 地震) means "earthquake." It comes from two characters: ji (地), which means "ground" or "earth," and jin, (震), which means "shake" or "vibrate."
September is a crowded month for birthdays. September 10 is my goddaughter Rachael's birthday; September 12 is my buddy Steve doCarmo's birthday; September 14 is my little brother David's birthday.
So today, the 12th, is Steve's birthday. Here is the man himself:
Steve's a good fellow. I've known him since the eighth grade. He's out there making a name for himself as a college prof out in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the same place where the movie "Signs" was set. Steve teaches English, and when he's not writing scholarly journal articles, he's also a singer-songwriter-guitarist, and a novelist to boot. I'm happy and honored to count him as one of my very best friends.
Sunday, September 11, 2016
The little-known Tear of Grief Memorial or Teardrop Memorial, more formally titled "To the Struggle Against World Terrorism," is a 2006 gift from the Russian people to the United States to commemorate American grief in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The memorial, created by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli, stands in Bayonne, New Jersey, and is aligned to provide a view of the Statue of Liberty across the water.
When pictures of this monument started popping up online, along with an explanation of its provenance, doubters openly wondered whether the Russians really did give such a gift to America. Turns out they did.
It's been fifteen years since that fateful day when nearly 3000 people died. What have we learned? How are we applying that learning? And has that made a difference?
First seen by me on YouTube, the Swineapple (pork-stuffed, bacon-wrapped pineapple) has been re-created by my inspired buddy Mike to fête his eldest daughter's (and my goddaughter's) birthday. She's just starting her sophomore year in college.
Happy Birthday, Rachael! Eat hearty!
Saturday, September 10, 2016
I finally screwed up my courage last night and did my creekside staircases, both forward and back. I didn't do all 28; I ended up doing only 27 staircases partly because, given the way I walk home, I have to break off the original path, and the new path doesn't have the same number of staircases.*
In terms of vertical displacement, doing 27 staircases is roughly the equivalent of tromping up my building's tall staircase, from B1 to the 26th floor, three times. The creekside walk is a bit easier than the building walk, though, because the outdoor staircases are spaced apart—most about 100-200 meters apart, a couple as far as 600 meters apart. The breathers between staircases make the up-tromping easier, but in the end, by the time I've done my 25th staircase, I'm pretty damn tired.
Fortunately, doubling the number of outdoor staircases wasn't as horrific as I'd thought it would be. It was strenuous: I could definitely feel the effort in my legs. But it wasn't the hellish agony I'd been anticipating.
I may have hit upon an exercise routine that'll suit me, even as we move into fall. Going 14 staircases out and back, instead of 32 staircases out, means my walks now take much less time and distance. This in turn means less strain on my knees and soles (the soles get the worst of it). By switching to 27 or so staircases, I sweat as much as I would on a 36K-step megawalk, but since intensity is more important than number of steps, this suits me just time. Now, at least, I can always get back to my place at a reasonable hour.
If I have to choose between going three times up my building's staircase and doing 27 staircases outdoors, the choice is easy: outdoors all the way, baby. For as long as the weather is clement, I'll work out à la belle étoile, as the French say.
*What I mean is that, when I'm initially walking west, I do all the staircases on the north side of the creek; when I turn around after Staircase #14, I stay on the north side until I get back to Staircase #3, after which I have to cross over to the creek's south side if I want to walk my preferred way home (behind some apartments, where there's a minimum of people). Crossing over costs me a staircase; to add a 28th staircase to my path, I'd have to double back somewhere, and at that point, late in the walk, I'm too tired to think of doubling back.
Milo Yiannopoulos versus CNBC anchors re: the "alt-right":
Christopher Hitchens on putting off confrontation with North Korea:
A lot of lefties dismiss Yiannopoulos as a vile, racist troll. Listen to his defense in that video, though, and the most you can say about him is that he's an asshole, and he knows it, and he doesn't give a damn. Listen, too, as the CNBC anchors try to box him into their preconceived straw-man image of who he is and what he represents, and watch as he outfoxes them at every step, including the one time the anchors think they've caught Yiannopoulos in a contradiction.
The Hitchens video will be more rewarding for people who know little to nothing about the North Korea situation; most of what Hitchens says is common sense and common knowledge to old hands. His conclusion, that something's got to give if we keep delaying significant action against North Korea, is trivially true. That said, it's always good to spend a few minutes with the articulate Hitch, however unhealthy he may look in that video.
I'm off to the doc for my now-monthly check-up. He's normally open on Saturdays until 1PM; I'm hoping he's open today, even though this is the Saturday before Chuseok. If not... I'll try again on Monday in the hopes that he's not taking an early vacation.
More news later.
UPDATE: blood pressure is the same (borderline high, but not enough to alarm); blood sugar levels made the doc smile in satisfaction (significantly lower since last month); urine-sample results, as always, remain a mystery. I never hear how the urine applies to my health (I assume it's to measure urine-glucose levels); it could be that the doc is asking for my urine just to fuck with me.
Today, I felt guilty because the doc went on at length about his storied career, starting thirty-five years ago, back when he was a much younger man with big dreams. I caught enough to know that his tale spanned several continents, involved unscrupulous politicians and administrators, ended in some sort of failure that led him to be where he is now instead of where he'd hoped to be, and chronicled the deterioration of his English skills... but because I understood only thirty percent of what he was saying, his story was essentially lost on me.
I got my month's worth of meds and left. The front-desk ladies chided me for showing up too late: the doc's new Saturday hours end at noon, not at 1PM. I'll be on the alert in October.
Friday, September 09, 2016
I got paid my end-of-contract severance, and I assume I'm going to be paid my salary as per usual next week (the new salary isn't supposed to kick in until October, a contingency that I anticipated in my budget because I always assume Murphy's Law is operative), but I still haven't signed a new contract. This company... it baffles me, and yet it doesn't.
From an article advocating the use of paper ballots in the upcoming presidential election:
It's 2016 and the county is facing one of the most contentious and in some ways historical elections in our history.
I think the word the author is looking for is historic (i.e., significant), not historical (i.e., relating to history). I'd also go Old School and make the phrase "and in some ways historic" a parenthetical expression by surrounding it with commas or em dashes. But that's just how I roll. Oh, and I'd put another comma after "2016": normally, we separate two independent clauses with either a comma-conjunction locution or a semicolon. Two other problems: "county" should almost certainly be "country," and there's something almost like a pronoun-shift error when we move from the third-person singular "the country is facing" to the first-person plural "in our history." Bad form, that. My reworked version of the sentence:
It's 2016, and the country is facing one of the most contentious—and in some ways historic—elections in its history.
See? Much better.
But this gives me the chance to rant a bit about the state of journalism these days. There's been plenty of commentary about journalistic bias, so I won't go there, but I do want to say that the quality of the English I see in most online articles these days is severely lacking. Are there no editors? Are there no proofreaders? How does so much garbage end up getting published, and why? Actually, I think I know the how and the why: it's due to the increasing demands of an ever-accelerating news cycle. Still, it's a shame to watch a once-respected, once-respectable medium wither and die. User-created commentary (blogs, etc.) is rising to fill the quality vacuum that "legacy" media are leaving behind, although the variation in quality among bloggers is probably more extreme than it is among mainstream-media outlets. Private users won't totally fill that vacuum, though, because most user-created output isn't journalism so much as it's commentary on journalism. Until private users shrug off the "meta" aspect of what they're doing by getting out there and performing their own investigations and research, traditional journalism won't be supplanted.
In a just universe, custodians of language would be considered important and would be paid well to maintain rhetorical quality. We don't live in such a universe.
Thursday, September 08, 2016
Elisson writes a thoughtful and touching piece that evokes the mystery of the transmigration of the soul. Go over and read the story of little Isla and her grandmother. Since Elisson's piece evokes Buddhism via Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," I thought I'd add a bit of commentary to explore two interesting issues that appear in Elisson's piece: the question of transmigration and "Higher Purpose," and the concept of reincarnation.
In the Indian conception, existence is a wheel called samsara, a term and concept common to most Indian religious traditions. Being trapped on the samsaric wheel is not desirable; one seeks release from the wheel, which most strains of Hinduism would call moksha, or liberation. Buddhism's concept of release from the wheel is nirvana, a sort of blissful extinction. Either way, the wheel represents the unsatisfactory, painful, dynamic-and-thus-impermanent nature of reality. So I'm not sure that an adherent of Indian religion would say we're born over and over for some higher purpose, as if we were here to try to do something right in this life, in this world; it's more that, as with Heidegger's Geworfenheit ("thrownness") we're thrust into this vale of tears and must find a way out—a way to get off the wheel.*
Elisson mentions reincarnation and transmigration, which are both appropriate ways of thinking in a Hindu mode. However, for Buddhists, transmigration involves rebirth, not reincarnation. The distinction here is a bit technical and pedantic, so please bear with me. Reincarnation, literally "enfleshing again," involves the transmigration of the atman (roughly, the Hindu term for a monadic soul) from body to body. This is a fairly simple and straightforward idea. The atman is clothed in one body, then it's clothed in another, like someone trying on robe after robe. The atman, being essence, never changes.
Early Buddhists, however, critiqued the idea of an atman that somehow remains the same, impervious to karma (the law of action and the cause-consequence momentum of action).** For Buddhists, it was important to find a middle way between nihilism, on one hand, and eternalism on the other. The Hindu view of the atman as a permanent, monadic, indestructible core-of-self/being was the eternalist view; the utter negation of that view, a kind of nihilism that simply says "There is no soul," represented the other, equally undesirable, extreme. It's not exactly right to say that Buddhism preaches an absolute doctrine of no-self (anatman); it's more proper to say that, in Buddhism, the self exists, but it is particulate, dynamic, impermanent, and empty of any fundamental reality. Buddhist metaphysics posits elements of self called skandhas ("aggregates"); the self is a particulate thing, not a monad.
So to understand the difference between Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist rebirth, I have an image for you. Imagine the Hindu atman as a single large rubber ball. I roll that ball across the surface of a long table; this motion represents the unchanging atman's passage through reality. The atman, being unitary, changes not at all, and as our eyes track it through space and time, we can imagine it being clothed in a body—body after body, in fact. Now let's imagine that I've got a bunch of tiny marbles in my hand. Very gently, I roll the marbles carefully across the table such that they all move together smoothly, like a flock of sheep. This aggregate of marbles is closer to the Buddhist notion of the self moving through space and time. There's nothing holding the marbles together in formation except for momentum, and that's what karma is: the momentum of action. If the self is a coherent thing, it is only coherent because of karma. To use terms from modal logic, then: there is no necessary reason for the aggregates to cohere; unlike the permanent, indestructible atman, the Buddhist self is contingent, fragile, and absolutely subject to circumstance. And that's the difference between Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist rebirth: for Hindus, a monad is re-enfleshed; for Buddhists, no necessary being passes from body to body, so it's more apropos to speak simply of something—some thing—being born again: rebirth.
Ultimately, Elisson's meditation, which emphasizes human connection, strikes me as being more about karma than about rebirth. Buddhists often say that people are subtly connected by karma, with the ripples and echoes that our lives create through space and time. If two people meet, it's because their karmas have brought them to that meeting. Perhaps that's the connection that brought little Isla to her grandmother's memorial brick.
*The movie "Groundhog Day" reflects something of this dynamic: Bill Murray's character can't escape the cycle until he (1) realizes the nature of existence and (2) does the spiritual work necessary to escape the loop—but without thought for the fruits of his actions (cf. the Bhagavad Gita, in which God, Krsna, tells the warrior Arjuna to act without concern for the fruits of his actions). The dynamic here is a bit difficult to articulate, but let me try. It's not that Bill Murray's purpose is to become a better person, as if God had deemed it so; it's more that the nature of the cosmos—the cosmos that this movie describes, anyway—is such that Bill Murray can't escape his looped predicament without becoming a better person. Further: if you've seen the movie, you know that by the time Bill Murray escapes the loop, he has become loving and unselfish, and he's no longer concerned about the fact that he's stuck in a vicious cosmic circle. This is the paradox of praxis in Eastern thought, not just in Indian thinking but also in East Asian thinking: to achieve a goal, you have to let go of that goal and just be in the moment—a notion that realizes its pinnacle in Zen Buddhism. Bill Murray finally reaches a state of only-this, of no-attainment, and at that point, he's an enlightened being who is no longer trapped by the strictures of samsara and karma.
**It made no logical sense to Buddhists to say that the atman is unaffected by karma. In Asian thinking, it's relationships that come first, not objects. This is utterly weird from the Western point of view: for Westerners, Object A and Object B have to exist before we can talk about A and B's relationship to each other. In the Western mind, objects are logically prior to relationships. In the East, it's relationships that make objects what they are.
One of my Asian-religion profs illustrated it this way: he placed several pennies into two neat rows on a table and asked us to observe how the pennies related to each other, all in their ranks. He then moved one penny to a different, random part of the table. "In Asian reckoning," he said, "what that penny is has now changed, and because its relationship with those other pennies has changed, what those pennies are has also changed."
I don't blame you if your brain is screaming in disagreement. You might be thinking, "No—the pennies are still just pennies! What they are hasn't changed at all!" But maybe a more practical example might be helpful. Imagine a wooden table just sitting in a forest. What is that table? To a wandering rabbit, that table might be shelter from the rain. To a wandering bear, that table might be an obstacle getting in the way of prey. To a wandering craftsman, that table might be the project he'd misplaced in a fit of drunken revelry the night before. What the table is is determined by its relationship with something else. In Korean, the syllable bok means "happiness" or "good fortune." In Turkish, the syllable bok means "shit."
So to early Buddhists, the atman couldn't possibly be impervious to karma. That was nonsense: as long as the atman was within a swirling matrix of circumstance, it was part of an ever-changing theater of interrelationships, woven into the karmic-samsaric dynamic.
I follow Dr. Steven Pinker on Twitter, and he just tweeted a link to an article that shills for an upcoming book titled Against Democracy. The article—and, I assume, the book—argues for replacing democracy as traditionally conceived with something called epistocracy, from the Greek episteme, meaning "knowledge." The idea harks back to at least Jefferson: voters should be knowledgeable; educated voting masses are better than uneducated ones. But Jason Brennan, the author of both Against Democracy and Pinker's linked article, alters the argument somewhat, saying that either (1) only knowledgeable citizens should be allowed to vote, or (2) knowledgeable citizens' votes should outweigh others'.
This is, I think, a baby step toward the ideal that Robert Heinlein expressed in his heavily political sci-fi novel Starship Troopers. In that book, Heinlein's vision of the future showcases a humanity in which only people who have gone through "federal service" (usually the military) have the right to become citizens, and only citizens may vote. Everyone else, in this scenario, is a non-voting "civilian," i.e., a subject with no political voice. Heinlein's concept is somewhat similar to Brennan's concept in that people who have acquired, through voluntary service, a visceral sort of knowledge about how civilizations work have the wisdom to vote well. Brennan isn't asking people to join the army, though; he's simply saying that people who understand things like civics and history should have more of a voice in electoral processes than the uneducated. Everyone will still have the right to vote, but educated voters' votes will carry more weight. That, or uneducated citizens won't have the right to vote at all.
Here's how Brennan puts it:
Democracies contain an essential flaw. By spreading power out widely, they remove any incentive for individual voters to use their power wisely. In a major election or referendum, individual voters have no greater chance of making a difference than they do of winning Powerball. They have no incentive to be well informed. They might as well indulge their worst prejudices. Democracy is the rule of the people, but entices people to be their worst.
What if there were an alternative? In my forthcoming book Against Democracy, I describe a new system of government called epistocracy. Epistocracy is meant to do what democracy does well, but guard against democracy’s downsides.
In a democracy, every citizen automatically receives an equal basic right to vote and run for office. Most modern democracies are republican democracies, containing checks and balances, with judicial review, constitutional constraints, multicameral legislatures, contestatory forums, bureaucratic autonomy, political parties and the like, all intended to slow down politics, prevent majoritarianism and protect minority interests.
Epistocracies retain such structures. The essential difference is that in an epistocracy, the right to vote is apportioned, to some degree, according to knowledge. An epistocracy might grant everyone the right to vote, but weigh some votes more than others, or more might exclude citizens from voting unless they can pass a basic test of political competence.
Democracy is the official religion of the West. Now is as good a time as any to question the faith.
I argue that political participation is not valuable for most people: it does most of us little good, and participating in politics tends to make us mean and dumb.
I argue that citizens don’t have any basic right to vote or run for office. The right to vote is not like other liberal rights. A right of free speech gives a citizen power over herself; the right to vote gives her power over others.
Democracy, I argue, is not an end in itself. It has the kind of value a hammer has. It’s just a useful instrument for producing just and efficient policies. If we can find a better hammer, we should use it. Indeed, epistocracy may be a better hammer. Perhaps a liberal republican epistocracy might outperform liberal republican democracy. It’s time to experiment and find out.
Should we give epistocracy a chance? Realistically, I don't see this ever happening. The move to epistocracy would be instantly politicized: people would cry racism, or classism, elitism, or some other -ism. Any "basic test of political competence" would be raked over the coals to a much greater degree than SAT questions are, in people's lust to suss out cultural bias. I simply can't foresee anything approaching epistocracy ever being realized. Your thoughts?
Wednesday, September 07, 2016
Tonight, during my walk, I saw my first-ever praying mantis in Korea. Alas, when I took the photo, the lighting was poor, and the little bastard had elected to hide in the shadowy part of a staircase's step. The original photos were red-tinged by my camera; I drained out all the color, which allows for a slightly better, though still tantalizing, glimpse of the little critter. Enjoy the three pics that follow.
Believe it... or not.
Utterly random thought: what if Trump's October surprise for Hillary is video of Putin and Xi waving around hard copies of her basement-server emails on TV, then reading out the juiciest bits? And what if Hillary's October surprise for Trump is that she has a severe medical crisis and gets replaced by Uncle Joe Biden?
The upshot is that despite the turmoil of the last several months, it is now eminently possible that Britain will show a higher rate of growth in the post-Brexit third quarter than the Eurozone. Few if any would have predicted such an outcome.
The British economy sails on as if nothing has happened, but the European one continues to stagnate. It is as if the Brexit shock has been more powerfully felt in Europe than in Britain. Both France and Italy showed no growth at all in the second quarter, and now even the data from Germany is starting to look poor.
That the Eurozone economy is still struggling after everything that has been thrown at it almost beggars belief. In terms of stimulus, it is hard to know how much more of a following wind the euro area could have had. It’s been positively gale force. Austerity has been effectively ended, interest rates have been cut below zero, the economy has been flooded with newly printed money, the euro was devalued and to cap it all, there has been the monumental boost to disposable incomes provided by the low oil price.
Yet still the European economy is struggling to raise itself from its sick bed. The danger is that the depression gripping large parts of Europe has gone on for so long now that they have lost the capacity to mend, a phenomenon known as hysteresis.
All this suggests that the problem with the European economy is not so much the European Union as such as its experiment in monetary union. Europe is stuck in an economic funk of its own making, where politically it can neither move forward with the sort of institutions and policies that might in the long run make the single currency work, nor backwards to the restoration of flexible exchange rates and sovereign monetary policy.
...What’s clear is that we are fast approaching some kind of tipping point which Brexit is very much a part of; the legitimacy of the entire European project is being questioned as never before, with every possibility that the EU will have changed fundamentally by the time the Article 50 negotiations on Britain’s exit conclude.
This is unsurprising to me: the UK's economy is one of the steadiest, stablest economies in the world. The British pound versus the US dollar has one of the least-variable exchange rates around: in my lifetime, the fluctuation has been mostly in the narrow band from about $1.30 to $1.70 per pound. I'm not a fan of bailouts, so the news about throwing good Continental money after bad isn't surprising, either. US-automaker bailouts have been deemed successful (Ford, which wisely spent within its means, didn't need a bailout), but that's partly because they took place in the context of a generally robust national economy. Europe, meanwhile, is sick all over; even the recognized financial powerhouses on the Continent are flagging.
I've been pro-Brexit since I first found out about the Brexit, and I've quietly believed that, in the long term, a Brexit and the hoped-for Brexit-ish domino effect throughout Europe will be healthy for both European economics and European politics. Europe's intentions, in creating the EU and eurozone (and Schengen and all the rest) are undeniably noble: I'm happy to see so many disparate peoples trying to transcend their bloody, war-torn past. But as I've written before—and the above-quoted article downplays this—I don't think Europe is actually ready for such radical integration. History runs deep; no amount of idealism can, at least for now, compensate for that fact. Better to recognize that reality post haste, and separate while separation is possible, than to move forward delusionally, subscribing to a dangerously papered-over version of political and economic reality.
Of course, Europe had an ulterior motive for creating a political and economic bloc: it wanted to be a global competitor with the US. I smell France's machinations in this: since at least de Gaulle, France has held to the notion of a contrepoids (counterweight) to US power and influence, and I've long believed that such thinking is unworthy of an ostensible ally. We in the West have enough enemies as it is; why would France feel the need to counterbalance—to thwart the interests of—a nation that shares its values? (The answer could be as simple as: the French heart is always reliably contrarian.)
If Europe loses its eurozone and is ripped apart by a Frexit, an Italexit, a Spexit, a Netherlexit, a Deutschausstieg, and so on, I won't lose any sleep. Europe, the geographical entity, won't be going anywhere, and neither will its vibrant countries and cultures. What will change, though, is that, post-dissolution, post-eurozone, there will be a greater sense of local/national identity, along with a much healthier, economically competitive relationship among countries that will be back to using their own native currencies. If a warm-weather, siesta-loving, wine-sipping, joie-de-vivre culture like Spain or Greece refuses to pull its weight, it will no longer drag down the collective. Let Spain and Greece fail on their own! The UK, in pulling away from the Continent, is already seeing this effect, and I think it was right to steer the course it's steered. To be sure, when the actual Brexit happens (Britain has only voted for it thus far), there will be troubled times ahead. But ultimately, the Brexit will show itself to have been the right move.