Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Down a rabbit hole...

So I'm thinking I'd start my new blog translating a Korean comic book, get some good study done and improve my Korean, cherry-pick some choice inaccuracies and mine them for laughs. I wish it were that simple. It turns out an entire chapter of this book is essentially a reiteration of the classic anti-Semitic story about the wicked Jews controlling every bad thing that ever happened through finance and then essentially getting caught up in their own game by the holocaust. Now the blog is on hold (while the translation project goes on) while I explore my rights, so I don't get sued when I make this horrendous historical distortion public. I'm right to worry. Korea has a long history of the old 'Lock up Al Capone on tax evasion charges' technique, and I certainly don't seen to be sued for copyright infringement or anything like that.
But it's coming. It makes me sick when I think of all the innocent kids whose parents buy these books because they think they're educational, and they end up reading things like this (direct quote from the book):
We Koreans, who are hard-working and diligent and are sad to come in second, can amass great victories in America with our competitive spirit. But in the end each and every time we hit a barrier, and that barrier is the Jews. We Koreans, who don't know how to lose to any other race, can never surpass the wall of Jews in American society. This is not only true of Koreans: Every other race and ethnicity has this in common.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Brights

What have you heard about the brights? According to their website
  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
  • A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview
You may be a bright and not even know it. The brights movement is an effort to put a positive spin on atheism (or at least agnosticism), rationalism and science. The movement faces an uphill battle. These things are, unfortunately, not nearly as positively viewed or consistently connected as many people (myself included) would like. There are many who believe in science and reason but their rational world-view and critical faculties aren't applied to their religion. This means scientists who tie themselves in knots trying to explain why science and religion are in fact compatible. The other major stumbling block for the movement is the name. It's supposed to be light, fun, and positive but instead it comes off as somehow more self-congratulatory than Mensa. Who would have the gall to tell someone "I'm a bright."? Another problem facing the would-be leaders of the brights movement is that the people who fit the above description of brights actually constitute a few very distinct groups. There are scientific minds who are interested in finding truth through evidence, there are angry atheist former believers with a chip on their shoulders about God and their childhood, and there are debunkers who orient themselves against flimflammers, con-artists and true believers. These three groups have different constituencies, different attitudes towards the world, and different goals, but they all share the space in this broad tent, at times comfortably, at times less so.
The one thing they all have in common, and also the greatest threat to the brights movement and any similar movement likely to appear, is that they are the kinds of people who don't cotton to joining big groups. They are individualists who have formed their personalities being smart enough to see through the lies that everyone else believes. They are the absolute worst possible people to try to assemble into any kind of cohesive group. And that is the greatest challenge to taking the skeptical/rationalist/naturalist movement to the inevitable next level of organization that all putative movements tend unswervingly toward.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Look at this joker

You'd think he never saw snow before. Or maybe he's afraid it'll be the last time.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

My New Project

I've begun an ambitious new project. I have taken it upon myself to read the popular (in Korea) educational comic book series Monnara Iunnara (Far Country, Neighbor Country), starting with the volume dealing with the American people, and blog about it, sharing the most interesting, accurate, inaccurate, biased and dead-on parts with you. I am keeping an open mind, neither expecting it to be too biased and ridiculous nor too accurate. The illustrations are lively and funny, and the book seems to deal with America's somewhat bumpy history in a well-intentioned manner, but I'll have to read to know for sure. You can check out the new blog here.

Man the Jury-rigged

or man the jerry-rigged. When I chose the title of this post I had no idea how interesting the jury/jerry rigged thing would be, but in determining which one was correct I came across this fascinating article at World-Wide Words. The jury-jerry complex has got WW2-era Germans, tall sailing ships, biblical references and medieval Liverpudlian building practices all wrapped up in it, and is certainly worth a look.
Anyway, the actual point of the post is this abstract of a research project about human decision making. The project is based on the well-known fact that human decision making is not perfectly rational. Specifically, people are more averse to risk involving loss than risk involving gain. Typically the chance and scale of gain must be much higher than the corresponding chance and scale of loss, all of which is not, strictly speaking, rational. The really interesting thing about this project is that they both affected a change in the degree of subjects' loss aversion as well as predicting levels of loss aversion by observing the brain.
It immediately reminded me of the excellent Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, by Max Bazerman, in which Bazerman lays out the various ways in which human behavior defy rationality and represent a liability to personal and organizational success. Certainly worth a look, although at $50, if you don't have to buy the book I'm sure you could find the information, perhaps a touch less eloquently stated, for free somewhere on the web.
Not having done the reserarch that I'm about to do, there are two obvious possible reasons for this lack of rationality in humans (and presumably other animals) that immediately spring to mind. One, the risk in many cases (death or loss of reproductive opportunity) is so high that few possible gains warrant it. If a contest was run in which contestants had a 50-50 chance of dying or winning $10,000,000, how many people would enter? How about for $100,000,000? That's a toughy. The other possibility that springs to mind, the one that sent me off searching for jerry-rigged and finding jury-rigged, is that the limitations inherent in our senses and our thought processes present limits to rational thought, because we are just as good as we have to be in order to survive and defeat our similarly adequate rivals, and nothing more. Anything above and beyond that baseline capability is a windfall. Although I suspect the first one is true, and that in biological organisms pure rationality is a bad strategy, the second one is both more intellectually satisfying and more interesting, and I'm quite sure would cause the former situation to some extent.

Friday, January 26, 2007

MLK, Pimps and Hos

Here's a dumb fella. And here's a bad thing, A racial stereotype party. I knew this would eventually leak into the media. I went to a 'Pimps and Hos' party in my BU days in an unsuccessful search for alcohol and oblivion. I was shocked and disgusted at the time, and I wondered aloud how so many students in ostensibly liberal Boston could go in for this kind of thing. It was unclear to me whether or not the costumed partygoers were innocent morons or mere racists airing their usually well-concealed darker sides. What they clearly weren't were deep thinkers about the whole concept. I wonder a little bit about the titling of the party in the article as an MLK party. Doesn't the whole thing speak to the parallel devolution that has taken place in America since MLK died? The degenerate white college students parodying degenerate black stereotypes, it's all very oniony (layers within layers, so to speak).

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Scientists have invented the molecular wheel. It is on now, nanotechnologically speaking. According to the article, this is one of many breakthroughs that will lead to the development of nanogears, which means a whole world of pre-industrial technology on a nanoscale. I'm talking nanocuckooclocks, nanoastrolabes, and nanopepper-mills. Get ready to never be the same again.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How do you say unspeak in Korean?

Do yourself a favor and read this review cum summary of Stephen Poole's new book Unspeak. Poole's idea is basically that politically charged terms often contain hidden presumptions. The canonical example seems to be pro-life and pro-choice, each term implying something abominable about it's opponent.
I scoured the Korean language for examples of unspeak. Korean government agencies and media outlets tend to use a lot of euphemism (for instance, in the current avian influeanza outbreaks). Outright unspeak is a little more difficult to come across. and so far the best one I've come up with is 'chamdarae' (참다래) which is a recently created term for kiwifruit grown domestically. Imported kiwifruit are still called kiwi (키위). The unspeakableness comes from the fact that 'chamdarae' means 'real kiwi' ('cham' meaning real and 'darae' being some kind of disused earlier term for the kiwi tree unknown to most non-experts). So if the domestically grown kiwis are 'real kiwi', that contrasts with a imported kiwis which must be 'gajjadarae' (fake kiwi).
The Slate article links to a list of reader submissions, many of which I think miss the meaning of the word unspeak. For example a lot of Slate readers seem to think that the term 'troop surge' qualifies. I fail to see a hidden supposition. The term surge was used specifically to refer to a temporary, sudden increase in troops. This could be accurate or not (i.e. the increase in troop numbers may persist) but it would continue to lack an internal presupposition. Another couple that readers submitted were 'heritage' and 'mass casualty event'. I think these would best be described as euphemisms. They don't seem to fear much of a buried presupposition. This brings me back to the original paint roller concept behind the blog. People, especially sloppy-minded folks these days, don't seem to have what it takes to keep a half-way rigid definition of a word in their head. I can see this book being a big hit and the term unspeak entering the lexicon and becoming another synonym for newspeak, political correctness and euphemism. Anything that people consider politically motivated speech eventually gets slapped with one of these labels, and now we have one more arrow in our quivers. Yay.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Egg Everything Bagels and the Grand Prix Pizza

When I was a kid my parents used to get a dozen bagels and everyone except me used to go straight for the egg everything bagels, but something about them turned me off. I finally realized why I hated egg everything bagels while reading this post on the Boonville Blog. The egg everything bagel is a failure of the bagel imagination. Eating egg everything is saying that the sheer number of different things stuck onto the bagel is more important than the taste or quality of any individual ingredient. The egg everything is the bagel for the truly tasteless. It's the bagel that whatever the closest bagel shop is to that window where they film The Today Show is probably serves to the tourists from Jewless states when they wander in looking for mayonnaise sandwiches. The concept of just sticking everything in the bagel shop thoughtlessly onto one bagel really speaks to the failure that some people have to appreciate the delicate balance of flavors that one finds in an onion bagel or a raisin bagel.
It reminds me of the first time I ever made kimchi chigae (or kimchi stew, pronounced chee-gay). Typically consisting of kimchi, water, pork of canned tuna, a pinch of beef bullion, and some sliced onions, my first kimchi chigae also included dumplings, carrots, tomatoes, a fried egg, ramen noodles and oregano. It was declared by my Korean friends to be unworthy of the name kimchi chigae. Of course now having developed my palate a bit, I can understand why my lame attempt at fusion was derided by all. I was unable to appreciate the simplicity of the soup in it's original form. The same was true of seolleongtang (pronounced as if you're seeing off a Chinese friend, "So long, Tong"), which looks like milky water and is made by boiling cow bones for days and days and putting a few scraps of beef and diced leeks in it before serving. Until I developed a taste for it, it tasted like steam and hot water with left-over pot roast floating in it. Now that I get it, I'm big into it.

So thinking about the egg everything bagel brings to mind the latest innovation in the koreanization of the pizza. Mr. Pizza (slogan: "Only for woman") has recently introduced the Grand Prix pizza, which I valiantly ate with my wife last weekend. One half of the pizza has boiled skin-on potato slices, sour cream, bacon, nacho chips, and something I couldn't quite put my finger on. The other half of the pizza had green peppers, olives, shrimp, ham, Domino's style sausage chunks, corn niblets and other assorted things. The crust is a sweet pastry somehow grafted around the rest of the pizza. The whole pizza comes with hot sauce, parmesan cheese powder, garlic diping sauce and a little tub of blueberry jelly for use with the crusts. Miyoung and I found that we couldn't even consider eating the crusts at the same sitting as the rest of the pizza, and let them sit a few hours before tackling them separately. The experience was similar to eating a crustless pizza befouled with cake and later eating sweet crullers with bits of sausage and black olives stuck to them. The whole experience brought to mind the question "Who would possibly prefer this inelegant, complicated eating experience to the pure pleasure of a New York pizza with a single topping, let's say, mushroom?" The only plausible answer, it would seem to me, is people who don't have the developed sense necessary to appreciate the details of a nice, simple mushroom pizza.

I'm sure that things like avocado roll and
volcano roll disgusted the Japanese the first time they saw them. "Dear gods, look how these barbarians have perverted our beautiful traditional food!" is, I'm sure, a close approximation of what they thought or said. In the end, I suppose this kind of culture perverting is the inevitable outcome of spotty cross-cultural transmission. Is there a single counter-example, in which something was imported from abroad and developed into a deeper, more exacting incarnation?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Are you inundated with this?

The Burj Al Arab is all over Korean TV all the time, particularly in commercials. It's advertising shorthand for "the good part of globalization." The operative question is 'Why now?' The building was completed in 1999, not, as best as I can tell, by a Korean construction company, and yet it figures prominently in an ad campaign by Doosan Heavy Construction. There's a lot of advertising shorthand floating around in Korea, because Korean media types are, by-and-large, extremely lazy. Other elements currently being incestuosly passed around the Korean airwaves:
  • The main characters of commercials staring off into the distance in front of a rising sun, in a vague approximation of a soviet propaganda poster (seen in commercials for gingivitis medicine, fried chicken, and two movie trailers).
  • People pulling plants out of the ground only to discover something unexpected (e.g. a pig, a bottle of vegetable juice) in place of the roots. This one is particularly glaring in that the actress in two of the (unrelated) commercials is the same.
  • Koreans presenting the products or the fruits of the products to their foreign friends, who react favorably to them, typically in stumbling, phonetically memorized Korean (seen in a commercial for a Foreman grill rip-off, a refrigerator, and hot chocolate).
  • In commercials for energy drinks or anything 'healthy', the first action undertaken by the young, tie-wearing male office worker main character after consuming the product will inevitably be to call a foreigner and have a business phone call in halting, phonetically memorized English ("Oh, Michael, how ah you? Berry good, dengs!")
  • Recently someone used one of the songs on Keren Ann's great album Not Going Anywhere in a commercial, and other lazy commercial makers took the easy way out by borrowing the CD from the first valiant innovator and using half the other songs on the album in their commercials. Some try to excuse this as some kind of deliberate trend-making effort, but the fact is that in the circles they run, the average Korean is about as likely to hear something new as the average American is to hear a really good raga. That leaves little choice for these slowpokes other than to just keep sucking that same teat until it's so dry and chapped that someone's got to call their cousin in L.A. and say "Give me something new but not too new."

What I'm getting at here is that, just as people speak of the banality of evil, there is a definite correlation between laziness, artistically, ethically, intellectually, and otherwise, and shittiness.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dinosaurs ran hot and cold

Check out this article about a theory of dinosaur metabolism that you may not have heard before. It claims that dinosaurs were essentially cold-blooded but that they could rev up their metabolic rates and become warm-blooded when they needed to act fast. Basically dinosaurs could have have their cake (i.e. catch their prey) and eat it too (i.e. consume its energy at a lower metabolic rate over a long period of time). The theory chalks up the extiinction of the dinosaurs to climate change stating that this kind of system, while very efficient, is untenable in a cooler world, and that global cooling killed the dinosaurs.
I really admire the elegance of this theory. It reminds me of Steven Pinker's book Words and Rules, in the way that it synthesizes both sides of a debate into complementary elements.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Citizens or human capital?

If you are a notable American citizen of Korean descent (like Hines Ward or Michelle Wie) you can expect to be feted like a returning hero should you wish to visit South Korea. If you are a South Korean citizen who's been abducted by North Korea, spent the last three decades there in captivity and then escaped thanks to the efforts of your wife, who never gave up and spent all the money she'd saved working as a cleaning lady to get you out of North Korea, you can expect to be treated as a nuisance by your own government. Because you represent zero opportunity for anyone in power to profit.
Nice, South Korean government, you lazy selfish pieces of trash.