Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Nicest People in the World

That's America. We are so nice, even in war. If you want your mind blown, go check out What's in a Number? on the This American Life website. The show (in three acts, as Ira Glass is wont to say) is about civilian casualties in Iraq. The first part of the show is about the making of the study in The Lancet that claimed 100,000 Iraqis dead since the beginning of the Iraq war. This story in itself is fascinating but it then takes a maniacal twist-turn when they talk to a Human Rights Watch figure who a) was integral in the precision bomb targeting of Saddam Hussein and his inner circle's bunkers and palaces and then quit his job at the Pentagon and b) went to Iraq with Human Rights Watch to survey the collateral damage of his own handiwork. He justifies his double life by saying that in both jobs he is "after the bad guys". He describes checking out bunkers that he'd looked at on satellite maps millions of times and seeing a hole bored through four floors by bunker busters to explode in the fourth floor down. That he had sent there from the Pentagon.
In the second act the story shifts to something many Americans have likely wondered about. Ryan Gist was placed in charge of an Iraqi town in which a mistake caused twelve people (some of them terrorists who had taken the town hostage). The broadcast features both an interview with Gist and actual audio from a meeting between Gist and the town bigwigs in the aftermath of the fuckup. Gist, like the Pentagon/Human Rights Watch guy, are full of good intentions. They, like all the planners of the war and all the soldiers on the ground, tried desperately to avoid civilian casualties.
But still, a lot of innocent people died. The gist of the program is that most of the civilians were killed by bombing, even though this was the most precision-bomb-intensive war of all time, a so-called "humane war". So even though everyone is doing their best to be nice and only kill the bad guys, they're still nicking a shit-load of the innocent bystanders in the process.

Flesh Eating Bacteria? Get it straight, it's FEB

According to this article South Korea is going to suspend U.S. beef imports again after one bone fragment was found in one shipment from the United Staes. American beef has been banned from South Korea for 3 years after a mad cow scare. The thing about bone fragments is this: the Korean government says its zero tolerance rule about bones is to protect Korean people from mad cow, but I postulate the true reason is that a vast majority of the meat consumed in Korea is on the bone. Ribs are huge in Korean cooking, and I think by restricting meat with bones, they considerably narrow the market for American beef somewhat unfairly. To boot, they used to insist that meat on the bone be considered offal for import purposes, even though it clearly isn't consumed as offal in expensive restaurants nationwide.
And the really galling thing is that at the same time as all of this is happening Korea is in the nascent stages of an avian influenza outbreak that they are ridiculously underplaying. And they've even changed the name of the disease, from joryu dokgam (literally "avian influenza") to "AI". By the way, the Korean word for influenza, dokgam, breaks down to dok (poisonous or very strong) and gam (cold). AI translates to "No sweat, keep eating domestic chicken!" In 2003 during the last outbreak, many chicken farmers went bankrupt. This time the media are doing everything in their power to make sure that doesn't happen, from changing the name of the disease to constantly stressing that the virus is destroyed at 70 degrees celsius (thus even chickens with the disease are safe to eat), while the agent of mad cow disease cannot be destroyed. They've even all gone so far as to print and reprint this picture and many like it of officials in the neighborhood of the two confirmed outbreaks eating samgyetang (chicken soup with ginseng). Eat up, stupids!

Double-dog Racism

I was just listening to an interview with Michael Shermer, noted skeptic and scholar, about the Michael Richards tailspin. Shermer explained that everyone harbors some racist feelings inside them that are inhibited by society and can be released by alcohol (as in the case of Mel Gibson) or rage (as in Richards' case.) Shermer goes on to reference an ongoing project by Harvard to determine people's "implicit assumptions" about various groups of people. I encourage you to try it for yourself, because knowing what's coming may bias you, but it basically involves sorting pictures of people from different races and different categories of things at the same time. For example, the first test I did was the black/white, good/bad test, in which you sort white and black people's pictures and words with good or bad meanings. It said I moderately associate whites with good traits. Shermer said that this is true of two thirds of whites and half of blacks. That is a truly depressing statistic, that despite our best efforts these associations lurk within us.
Then, since I am married to a Korean and have lived in Korea for four years, I decided to take the Asian/white, American/foreign association test. I'll give you the punchline first. The test says that I slightly associate Asian faces with Americanness, and White faces with foreignness.

What's . . . what?!?

Heres how the test works. You have to sort pictures of white and Asian faces with pictures of American and European monuments. So in fact, I associate Asian faces with American national monuments like the St. Louis Arch and The Statue of Liberty, while I associate The Eiffel Tower, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, and The Tower of London with white faces.

This is highly reminiscent of the famous maze navigating drosophila melanogaster test run years back. Scientist dumps a bunch of Drosophila in a 3d maze, takes the first ones that come out and breeds them. Through the generations he gets the time way down. He's finally created a race of super-smart flies without the use of a teleporter machine and Jeff Goldblum. He sticks the fastest of the fast in a maze alone and it doesn't come out for an eternity. He puts a hundred more flies in the maze and he pops right out. What he had created was not a race of super-smart flies, it was a race of super-antisocial flies who would flee when confined with too many other flies in a maze.
By the way, the only time I ever see or think about The Washington Monument, The White House, Mount Rushmore and The Empire State Building are when they appear in the English books I teach to my (mostly) America-obsessed students, who happen to have Asian faces.

Friday, November 24, 2006

For Michael Richards

Oh Michael. I feel for you. I wouldn't be the first person to tell you that I was deeply shocked by the things you said. I find it almost impossible to imagine those words coming from the mouth of a person who harbors no racist thoughts. Your interview on The Late Show showed you to be very much out of touch. Afro-Americans, Michael?
You're the same age as my father. I can't imagine the ridiculously out-of-touch things he may say if he were a comedian in this careful world. I imagine you were trying to blow people's minds with your insightful and ironic ranting. We've all seen you as Kramer. You put everything into your performances. That desire to be loved by everyone must burn hot inside. You seem well educated, which means that you'll never be able to explain your thoughts in a soundbyte.
I believe you think you're telling the truth when you say you're not racist. Remember Pryzbylewski from the Wire after he shot that black cop. How do you know if that's inside of you? I'm sort of Calvinist on the whole issue. If you go your whole life racist to the core and conceal it so well that you don't even know it, then you are de facto not racist. Because there's probably a murderous part of everyone, but everyone who's never committed murder is, naturally, not a murderer.
When I saw you in the Letterman interview I felt for you. Not for the you I saw on Youtube, but the man you are the rest of your life. I'm fascinated by the wakes of PR nightmares. Public perception is so final. Hey, that's racist old Kramer, case closed. You were rambling and you clearly didn't know what to say. I could imaine myself in your shoes, seeing everything spinning well out of my control. Turning yourself over to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton must certainly be a last resort. It's so Faustian. When you have to give yourself up to powerbrokers like them you're playing a dangerous game. Jackson used this debacle to get into the news his proposed legislation prohibiting that word (I won't even use the first letter) and making its use a hate crime. Imagine, now you're in his pocket. This man wants to make a word a crime and you'd better do what he says or you're done for good.
But really, Michael, the most shocking thing to me is how self-absorbed you are. I imagine that you've spent more than a little of your sitcom money on therapy, the way you kept talking about your rage and what's inside you. And then Letterman throws you a nice softball question like "What's the next step?" and what do you say? You've got some self-work to do, or something like that? You are lost in your own world Michael, you didn't even apologize to anyone who wasn't in the room with you, like your 'rage' was the only problem. And a social problem at that! Ridiculous.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Could the pursuit of more no longer be the pursuit of happiness?

For real though. It's been a pretty simple equation for as long as life has existed. More = Better. Most = Best. It has a certain . . . how to say, symmetry to it, n'est-ce pas? By the way, that's French for ness-pah. Anyway, I'd like to suggestthat we may be reaching the point where this little truism no longer works. The first thing that comes to mind is science fiction. Like in the deep future in Orson Scott Card books, where they have interstellar travel but some people choose to live on (or are born on) planets with pre-modern technology levels. Instantaneous interplanetary communication co-exists with horse and buggies, etc. Another good example is that old saw that crops up in sci-fi movies all the time and probably comes from Blade Runner: The futuristic city in which there are rickety old food carts and old guys making wonton soup or udon or whatever flavor of low-tech Asian cuisine current events suggests we'll all be eating in the future.
But how do we get there? Marketing. Marketing is, for some reason, a more palatable idea in the U.S. than the more general, more accurate social engineering. Someone will have to market for inefficiency. Take the small business versus big business conundrum that is in the process of turning our whole country into a personality-less consumer wasteland. Some coalition of small businessmen will have to scrape together the money to put out ads to claim value for the non-Walmart, not so low-price, not so one-stop-shopping small business experience. That's the only way to convince the country at large that it is gaining something by shopping at privately owned stores, for example personal service, regional flair, a prosperous middle class, etc. Unfortunately, the question remains, where are a bunch of shit-heel small businessmen going to get the money, let alone the skill and will to put together such a massive cooperative effort, if they can't even figure out how to cut their prices.
Here in Korea, people are a little bit behind the U.S. in the More doesn't equal Better department. For example, in the U.S. we love to shop at warehouse stores and by Army-sized drums of everything that keeps or can be frozen, but in Korea, where fresh food is a higher priority than in the U.S., people apply the same "bulk shopping saves me money" philosophy to things that don't keep and ought not be frozen, like fruit. My mother in law bougt me a box of 70 persimmons (you'd like them if you tried them) and threw in an equal sized crate of clementines. And twelve huge bunches of grapes. On the same day. Also, my wife doesn't eat clementines. So I ate almost nothing but fruit for the last two weeks. It was interesting, because typically fruit is a lxative, but clementines have some kind of weird binding power, so my body has been somewhat conflicted, so to speak.
Anyway, I am convinced that some day, some brilliant economist will come up with the field of optimal prosperology. As I imagine it, the field would be fiocused on finding the exact amount of something that provides the owner with the maximum amount of pleasure. For example, I believe that I never appreciated fruit as much in America, where it is cheap, than I do in Korea, where it is fairly expensive. Therefore, I get more pleasure out of an apple when I pay more money than when it's free. When I lived in Japan I once had a gift apple that cost $10. It's a Japanese cultural thing: the apple is bought to be given as a gift, so the price is high. When you receive the gift apple, you get the value of an excellent grade-A apple and the knowledge that the person who gave you the apple values you that much. That may have been the best apple I ever had.
But I couldn't eat $10 apples every day. So I would hire an optimal prosperitologist to determine what price-per-apple would gve me the maximum amount of satisfaction-per-dollar.
On the flip side, a price too high can set up an unacheivable expectation of pleasure. When I left New York, a pack of cigarettes was $5, a single cigarette therefore cost 25 cents. I argue that a single cigarette cannot possibly provide 25 cents' worth of pleasure. When I came to Korea a pack of cigarettes cost $1, and a single cigarette was thus 5 cents. I would say that a person spending 25 cents to smoke is more likely to enjoy that cgarette an appropriate amount. The 5 cent cigarette smoker has a high likelihood of siucking the whole thing up without savoring the flavor for a moment.
Thus I posit that everything has a maximally satisfying price, that this price will one day be determinable, and that we will be able to use these estimates to create the most sensible public policy and obliquely planned economy possible.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I'm better at spending my money than spending my time

Which is why I sell all I can. I only bring it up because today I sold my weekends. Actually, I sold the heart out of my Saturdays and Sundays. I'll be doing two hours in a row on those days, and there's a 2-hour round trip commute involved, so a good fat 4 hour-plus gash down the middle of each day. It wasn't an easy decision, but unfortunately, I am not in a position to refuse any offers for private English lessons. To my chagrin, my time is worth less to me than it is to quite a few Korean students of English. I am hard pressed to think of a period of time that I would not sell. I have left family gatherings to teach private lessons. I endure a lot of commuting and chronic pharyngitis due to my never-ending talking. I'm not complaining, I'm genuinely dazzled by the economics of it all. I can't afford my own time.
But it's not exactly that I can't afford it. I can't get as much value out of it by myself as I can by trading it for money. Like an American soy bean farmer at harvest time, I look at my schedule book and think "What am I gonna do with all of this?" The farmer says to himself "Let's see, my old buddy Chang usually takes about 15 kilos off of me, and my wife usually sticks a few cups of soybeans in her Far East of the Border Chinese Chili that always comes in dead last at the chili cook-off. The rest I can sell." What would an American farmer do with soy beans? Make baked beans with them? Make tofu? Well, what would I do with my time? Write a song that I can't even sing with my constantly swollen throat? Catch up on The Wire. Well, I'm all caught up.
Actually, part of the attraction of the private lesson is that the per hour rate seems so high when you don't factor in travel time. It's like renting a room in your apartment. It's just one room that you rent out, but the rest of the house becomes a public space. So reading in the living room is okay, but no more reading Herb Cohen in your underwear in the living room. Same thing for me. I can do anything I want during my commute, as long as it fits on my lap and tolerates a bumpy bus ride or lurchy subway ride (i.e. reading and writing and listening to mp3s. So it's still my time, but not really.
I hope some day to be able to afford to buy back some of my time. In fact it's been my goal for a while. I can imagine what it's like being a prostitute. The lure of easy money makes it seem almost impossible to turn down any offer. It's quite disturbing, in fact, to know your value. I assume a day will come when my time will become more valuable to me than its cash equivalent. I only hope that it realizes its value as time for doing something fulfilling. It would be a shame if the only thing that stopped me from selling away my time was the value that it held as time for sleep.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Kirstie Alley's epic battle with the bulge

Is it ridiculous that this poor woman's entire life revolves around her weight and body and body image? An ounce of prevention, a snifter of discipline at some point in her childhood and she would have to have developed an actual identity for herself. Imagine if you or I were defined by our lifelong battles with nose picking and finger biting, respectively. Just imagine it. There'd be nothing left of us.
So Ms. Alley gained alot of weight after Cheers, then did a TV show called "Fat Actress" which neither you nor I ever saw and then she vowed to show up on the Oprah show in a bikini, which she did. And it's good that she did, for her. I doubt she has anything to offer anyone else out there, whether they be fat or a fat actress.
Perhaps because I work with kids every day, my answer to everything is "get 'em while they're young". Now, I don't think it would have made any sense to teach diet and exercise extra-explicitly to the child Kirstie, but what could have been beneficial down the road is a little will power and discipline. That framework is something that is definitely difficult to pick up later in life, but once it's learned it can be applied to anything. As long as you learn to put your nose to the grindstone, focus on your weaknesses instead of your strengths etc. at some point, you're head and shoulders above the hoopleheads

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Enter My World

I'd like to take this opportunity to invite you, The Reader, to fill your iPod with me, the disembodied typing fingers and voice of Colin Brody. Download my all-new collection of songs for a moribund, decadent world, Hunts Whales Loves The Candy Atoms. Laugh at the death of the last town elder. Thrill at the adventurs of sentient, whistful fighter jets. Pretend you don't resent the fact that the very relentless process of evolution that created your glorious brain forever shackles your lofty goal of pure thought to the wretched wheel of love. Giggle at the groans. Groan at the giggles. Do it all and more with me as your host. And then tell me I wasted your train ride to work. You could have been listening to The New England Skeptical Society podcast instead. Oh well, next time.

But on the off chance that you like what you hear, take your shaking ass and bopping head down to the home of The Candy Atoms.