Saturday, March 31, 2012

Paradise Regained . . . in Nicaragua?

Shoshannah and Shannon
Two Happy People

I received the above photo yesterday morning from my sister-in-law Shoshannah, with the following, appended note:
I've attached one [photo] from our Nicaragua vacation . . . . [W]e don't have palm trees in NY [State] . . . . 
Good to know that despite global warming, New York State hasn't heated up that much! Seeing Shan's photo reminds me of how much better he's aging than I am. Well, he may still be handsome, but I'm still ugly -- and will be till the day I die! Whereas, Shan won't always be handsome . . .

I'm also reminded that I never mentioned Shan's novel, City of Shadows (London: Athena Press, 2010). I read it about one year ago and enjoyed it. The characters were well-drawn and memorable. Dialogue was generally excellent. The plot was a bit complex -- though interesting -- so I need to re-read the book. I did notice some typos, which I called attention to. Shan intends to correct those in the second edition, and I had been waiting on that before writing about his novel, which is an academic mystery story involving a couple of nefarious organizations -- or three, actually, if one includes academia itself. I won't post any plot-spoilers, so I'll stop now about the novel.

Speaking (or writing) of writing, I need to get back to some editing work, rather a lot of it . . .

Labels: , ,

Friday, March 30, 2012

Editing Frivolity . . .

Editorial Stress

I've been quite busy grading, correcting, and editing recently, and I can usually handle all sorts of texts, but I occasionally reach my limit, as with a text that offers such wordy statements as the following:
During the National Self-Improving Model Workers' Contest, spanning for the period from January 29 of 1998 to 30th of the same month, the DPRK ended the arduous march and proclaimed a socialist strong and prosperous nation as a new goal to be achieved.

I sighed aloud and wrote a note to the one responsible, whether author or translator:
Here is a teachable moment. Look at this clause: "spanning for the period from January 29 of 1998 to 30th of the same month." See how verbose this is? You need only write, "January 29-30, 1998."

Later in the same text, I encountered this tautological gem:
However the word 'nation' was substituted with 'nation'.

I sighed even more loudly and wrote:
The word "nation" was substituted for (or "by"? Not "with"!) the word "nation"? This is either an extremely subtle point, or someone (author? translator?) is being very careless.

Most of the first half of this text was even worse, impossible to understand. Much of the introduction was presented in the past perfect tense, apparently to express the subjunctive mood, e.g., 'This paper had intended to show . . . .' It had intended? So . . . did it, or did it not? In fact, does it, or does it not? Needless to say, I gave up trying to edit such a text and advised those who'd requested my editing help to first pre-edit before passing a text along to me.

I have my professional pride . . .


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Some Sturdy Students' Semester Studies Overseas Sans Homesickness

Budapest, Hungary

A couple of days ago, I blogged on homesickness, which I've never suffered abroad, but there may be ever more cases of this 'illness' as unprecedented numbers of students spend a semester or more abroad . . . or maybe there won't be an epidemic, given contemporary youths' apparent flexibility, which reminds me of my own experience in other lands:
When Sid Mathur first arrived in Budapest for a study abroad program in 2009, he was shocked by the empty streets, which called to mind old stereotypes he had of Eastern and Central Europe.

"It was crazy, because we were walking and it was empty, like dead," he said, remembering his first Sunday afternoon wandering the Hungarian capital. "I was like, 'Where am I, what did I do?'"

Within a few days, however, Mr. Mathur and his newfound friends discovered a "thrilling nightlife" and the perks of living in the spacious apartments offered to students enrolled in his course, a Budapest Semester in Mathematics.

"What I loved about Budapest at first was the art and bar scene, but of course also academics," he said, over a local beer at a new bar. "The math grabbed me. It was great, it really was."

Mr. Mathur, 25, is no stranger to travel. A native of India, he grew up in the Philippines and spent three years at college in Ohio before arriving in the European city.

While in Budapest, he enjoyed meeting people from all over Europe. "I made friends with a lot of Germans who are very out of their element here -- maybe not as much as I am, but almost."

Mr. Mathur's experience reminds me of my own in Germany. I never got as far east as Hungary, but German cities were also rather dead on Sunday afternoons. That lack of activity, however, made Sundays a good time for biking through nature on the wonderfully well-maintained German bike paths, so I never felt homesick. My life was lived at a higher standard than at home -- why feel homesick? There was even art and alcohol as well, as in Mr. Mathur's account. One merely needed to seek life out, which is not always lived in the street. Homesickness doesn't seem to afflict the adventuresome types such as myself, Mr. Mathur, and others described by Palko Karasz in the article "New cultures and languages challenge beyond the classroom" (International Herald Tribune, March 28, 2012, page 10; update: also now in NYT), as long as one keeps busy with interesting new experiences in the new culture:
"If you want to interact with locals in a foreign environment, you need to be very open to cultural differences," said Mr. [David] Ottlik[, a Hungarian native]. "With all the new things to discover [in Paris], I didn't have time for homesickness."

And with all the foreign students flocking to Korean universities these days, this city that I've made my home, Seoul, is destined to grow ever more cosmopolitan, for "South Korea [is one of the] . . . 'emerging market' destinations according to Chiao-Ling Chien of Unesco's Institutes of Statistics, which carries out studies on foreign students," or so reports Christopher F. Schuetze in "Smart Shoppers in Global Market" (NYT, March 27, 2012). This transformation, which seems to be occurring in cities across the world, promises to make living abroad both more complex and more familiar, thereby occasioning fewer instances of homesickness in expats.

But there might arise cases of native-born homesicknesses for a less complicated, more isolated past, future shock as nostomania . . .

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the Irony of Being Fundamentally Misunderstood . . .

Mark Leyner
August 2006
Photo by David Shankbone

I've always hated being misunderstood, which happens rather too often since I don't express myself well orally, and that explains -- to a great extent -- my daily blogging, for I have the possibility of making myself clear . . . although I sometimes like to play around with ambiguity, thereby defeating my aim of being fully understood, unless my readers happen to realize that I'm being ambiguous, in which case, I've been understood.

I was reading in the NYT yesterday about a misunderstanding between two reputable writers, David Foster Wallace and Mark Leyner, reported on by Adam Sternbergh in "Mark Leyner, World-Champion Satirist, Returns to Reclaim His Crown" (March 21, 2012). Apparently, they were frenemies:
David Foster Wallace, in a long essay published in 1993 titled "E Unibus Pluram" about TV, fiction and irony, launched a weirdly sustained attack on Leyner, dismissing his work as "both amazing and forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow."

Just for the sake of referentiality, here's a cut from Wallace's essay on Leyner's putative irony, for that will prove to be an issue of dispute:
Leyner's ironic [1990] cyberpunk novel [My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist] exemplifies a third kind of literary response to our problem. For of course young U.S. writers can "resolve" the problem of being trapped in the televisual aura the same way French poststructuralists "resolve" their being enmeshed in the logos. We can solve the problem by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic.

Sternbergh read the essay at the time and was bothered by it, for he liked both writers. Wallace is long gone, dead by his own hand, so he can no longer be asked any questions about that essay, so Sternbergh turned to Leyner:
When I asked Leyner about it, 20 years after the fact, he claimed he wasn't confident he’d ever read the essay in full. Though as we talked, it became clear he was more than familiar with its arguments. He and Wallace were friendly, if not exactly friends -- they shared an editor and, at least one time, cigarettes . . . . Leyner has only one strong objection to the essay. "I never thought of what I did as ironic," he says. "And I think that's a fundamental mistake in David's take on my work. I always thought of my work as being animated by a spirit of unhinged generosity. And transparency. Neither of which can be defined as irony." He does sound slightly pained when he admits this. Not upset by the perceived attack, per se. But rather saddened that this unhinged generosity, as he puts it, could have been so seriously misunderstood.

I find this interesting because I know how difficult irony can sometimes be to spot. Since the ironic means its opposite by undermining what it literally says, then if it's finely well-expressed, it can hide in plain sight. Conversely, or perversely, sincerity can be mistaken for irony because -- thinks the ironic mind -- what seems sincere might be irony lurking in disguise. Perhaps that's what happened in Wallace's 'critiqual' reading of irony in Leyner.

Ironic, no?


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kaye Blegvad's Master and Margarita Series

But they do inflame . . .
Kaye Blegvad

A few short days ago, in blogging on homesickness -- or my lack thereof -- I borrowed an illustration from the New York Times drawn by Ms. Kaye Blegvad. Because I am always careful to give credit, but also because I use these occasions as learning experiences, I not only linked to Ms. Blegvad's website, I took the opportunity to look around there, and I discovered there a shared interest in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, one of my favorite works of literature. As Ms. Blegvad writes:
Damn, what a book.

A couple of drawings inspired by it.

Followed by an image of the cat called "Behemoth" and the woman known as "Margarita." These are found on her blog entry for October 13, 2011, which can be visited by clicking on "writes" above (or here below). Three other images from the novel can be seen by clicking on Manuscripts Don't Burn, a famous line from the novel.

In a few weeks, I'll be blogging on a 'manuscript' -- not really handwritten, of course -- that I've been working on that is preoccupied with Bulgakov's novel, Milton's epic poem, and Goethe's drama, for I draw connections among these three as well as with a few other 'daemonic' texts, though I swear to remain firmly aligned with the better angels of our nature.

Meanwhile, click over to Ms. Blegvad's site and browse around . . .

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, March 26, 2012

Long Islamist Winter?

Islamists' Allah?

Signs of Islamist winter for Syria this spring? Excerpts from an interview with Syrian cleric Sheikh Muhammad Badi' Moussa (Al-Hekma TV, March 14, 2012), as translated by Memri "Special Dispatch No. 4599" (March 23, 2012):
Interviewer: "Is it permissible to kill 'Alawites['] . . . women and their children[?] . . .

Muhammad Badi' Moussa: "Yes, my brother. We have issued a communiqué to the 'Alawites, in which we gave them a strong warning, which may be the last . . . . Our brothers in the Free Syrian Army asked several sheikhs and scholars for a fatwa on whether they are allowed to kill ['Alawite] women and children . . . . All the scholars said: . . . They must be warned first.

I guess this answers a question that I've long had as to whether Islamic law allows for the intentional killing of innocent civilians, such as children of fathers who are an enemy. That answer is "Yes." Guilt is contagious, apparently, so I now fail to see how Islamic law forbids terrorist attacks, based on this sheikh's remarks.

And the Islamists, once in power, can rule for a long time, as Egyptian author Sayyid Al-Qimni warns in an excerpt from an interview aired on Al-Arabiya TV (February 23, 2012) and translated by Memri as "Special Dispatch No. 4603" (March 25, 2012)
Sayyid Al-Qimni: "[The Islamists] . . . say to the people: 'We will rule you according to Islam. Test us . . . .'"

Interviewer: "So why don't you try it?"

Sayyid Al-Qimni: "We have tried . . . [Islamism] for 1,400 years. Has this people lost its memory, or what?"

Interviewer: "You mean from the advent of Islamic prophecy?"

Sayyid Al-Qimni: "Haven't . . . [Islamists] been ruling us in the name of Islam for 1,400 years, since they conquered our countries? They rule us in the name of Islam. We have tried them already."

Surely 1,400 years is long enough to reach a conclusion, and Al-Qimni does:
"The moment we bring religion into . . . [politics], we start never-ending civil strife."

Amen to that, brother.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Novelist Carter Kaplan and the Artist Terrance Lindall . . .

I received the same two photos over the past couple of days from both the writer Carter Kaplan and the quasi-surrealist artist Terrance Lindall as the pair of friends engage in sedate if risky domesticated hijinks upon the rooftop of the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center. Note that Carter -- to the left -- is crouched beside his lunch, only inches from the roof's edge, and I get edgy just looking at that. Far safer -- if being atop a roof drinking beer is 'safe' -- sits Terrance, offering just a glimmer of a smile, possibly to offset Carter's roguish grin (better seen in the second photo):

Terrance, in his email, writes:
Yesterday . . . Carter Kaplan [and I] had lunch on the roof of the WAH Center. Carter sent these pictures . . .

And here's the second photo, presenting Terrance as he lifts his beer to the greater glory of God and Milton and friendship:

After which, Terrance offers these words from Carter as warning against trying this at home . . . but you have to read between the lines:
Great walk home -- crossing the bridge was a "stratospheric" experience, then in Manhattan ducked into a mazy patch of streets and stopped to watch a film crew set up while an actor argued with somebody on his cell phone, then up to 14th where it was my very good fortune to run into an "Occupy" protest -- cops, speakers, organizers, "comedians," cardboard signs, noise, a topless woman, more cops -- then a few blocks away I enjoyed a session of "magazine browse bonanza" at Barnes and Noble before the train ride home. Not used to drinking beer for lunch, I felt absolutely "decadent" as I cruised aimlessly through the lower East side. Square Boy Scout me, I might as well have been on mushrooms. Next time I want to try it on Scotch -- heroically push the Manhattan buzz envelope even further. Thanks, Carter

Well, as I'm mostly Scotch-Irish, maybe I can provide the scotch for Carter next time they meet, if I'm there, unless Terrance puts scotch to that offer . . . which I likely can't follow through on anyway since I'm literally halfway around the world. But no matter, for Terrance is actually arguing against the experience of altered states in quoting Carter, even those due to the effects of weak alcohol. We have to focus on Carter's "Square Boy Scout" line, which in fact describes Terrance to a "T" -- a "T" has two right angles, making "Terrance" all right! He therefore can't approve of things that are all wrong. One simply needs the right hermeneutic to construe his real message in channeling Carter: "Just say no!" Or is that "Just say 'No!'"? The hermeneutic should stop here. No fair construing the message as "Just say 'Know!'" That gets us into the Satanic serpent's territory, but far be it from Terrance, or even Carter, to enter there, where angels fear to tread . . .

By the way, what beer are Terrance and Carter drinking? Maybe if I click on the photos . . .

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Table Talk: Homesickness?

Susan J. Matt, a professor of history at Weber State University (Ogden, Utah), but writing an op-ed for the NYT (March 21, 2012), tells of how "The New Globalist Is Homesick":
In nearly a decade's research into the emotions and experiences of immigrants and migrants, I've discovered that many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed.

This might not seem especially surprising, for everyone has experienced homesickness, but a statistic provided by Professor Matt did catch my eye, namely, that "20 to 40 percent of all immigrants to the United States ultimately return to their native lands"! Migrants returning doesn't surprise me, but immigrants? Surprising. Even more surprising was the shift in attitudes about admitting to homesickness:
In the 19th century, Americans . . . admitted that mobility was emotionally taxing . . . . Stories of the devastating effects of homesickness were common . . . . Today, explicit discussions of homesickness are rare, for the emotion is typically regarded as an embarrassing impediment to individual progress and prosperity.

Think about that. Those tough men and women of the 19th century gave voice to their emotions. I'd always imagined them stoical, but we contemporary folk seem more closed-mouth about our feelings than they were . . . with respect to homesickness, anyway.

I'm also silent about feeling homesick, but that's because I don't feel any homesickness at all, despite my many years abroad -- indeed, probably because of them. I'm used to being away from home. My only adult case of homesickness occurred during my first year at Baylor University, way back in 1975 to 1976, when I was still adjusting to life in the 'big' city of Waco, Texas and powerfully missing the Arkansas Ozarks.

In Korea, by contrast, I feel no homesickness at all. Neither voluble nor stoical about any putative homesickness, I am perfectly satisfied, even happy here.

There must be something wrong with me . . .

Labels: , , ,

Friday, March 23, 2012

Muslim Brotherhood's Plans for the West?

I've long been aware of the investigative journalist Steven Emerson, who has looked into radical Islamism in the West since the early 1990s, especially in the United States. He founded an archive in 1995 on Islamist groups, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which has among its files a widely known Islamist memo by the Muslim radical Mohamed Akram on pdf file, "An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Brotherhood in North America" (May 19, 1991). This is a fifteen-page Arabic document followed by an eighteen-page English translation in which Akram sets forth his detailed plan for Islam in America. One section is labeled Understanding the Role of the Muslim Brother in America, by which he means the role of the "Muslim Brotherhood," -- though Akram seems not to distinguish clearly between Muslim Brother and ordinary Muslim -- and in which he states the following:
The process of settlement [in America] is a "Civilization-Jihadist Process" with all the word means. The Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and "sabotaging" its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God's religion is made victorious over all other religions. Without this level of understanding, we are not up to this challenge and have not prepared ourselves for Jihad yet. It is a Muslim's destiny to perform Jihad and work wherever he is and wherever he lands until the final hour comes, and there is no escape from that destiny except for those who chose to slack. But, would the slackers and the Mujahedeen be equal.

This is written for a broadly conceived jihad -- "with all the word means," Akram tells us, and since the word means "struggle," then he intends to see it applied to all of its traditional uses, from inner spiritual struggle to active proselytizing to outright battle. This is to be the American front in the Islamist attack on Western Civilization, and that memo was written nearly twenty-one years ago as an explanation of a long-term plan dating from 1987, so this Islamist goal is at least twenty-five years old. Read the entire memo to see just how ambitious this "Brotherhood" is.

The Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, will be familiar to those who have been keeping up with the Arab Spring as the weather has changed with the seasons to an Islamist Winter. The Brotherhood's members were the winners in the recent Egyptian election, and the group has a very professional website that shows their pleasant face under the name of the Freedom and Justice Party, but the terms "freedom" and "justice" have Islamic meanings delimited by sharia, Islamic law, which the FJP fully intends to implement, a legal system in which Muslim women have fewer rights than Muslim men, Christians and Jews have fewer rights than Muslims, and infidels have no rights as all, not even to mention the hudud laws stipulating beheading, stoning, amputation, and flogging for crimes against Allah.

That's what Islamist individuals like Mohamed Akram want for the US as well as for the broader West . . .

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Uncle Cran: Ozark Urbarmacher?

In the above photo taken by my wife of our daughter driving an all-terrain vehicle on Uncle Cran's Ozark farm a couple of summers ago, you see how green and lovely the land appears in this peaceful pastoral scene, but a lot of hard labor is required to arrive at this image of cultivation, and Uncle Cran is about to describe his early spring cultivation efforts in response to Cousin Bill's "Weekly Ramblings" report on his own 'cultivation' efforts at his Kansas homestead:
Today we got our exercise in, walking . . . three plus miles for Cheryl, two plus for me and the dog (I did less as I had a yard to mow . . . the dog had no excuse). Rainy weather is in the forecast this way . . . for the next several days. I'm ahead of the game…got the lawn mowed. That's it for today. Enjoy your week.

Such were Cousin Bill's modest words on his 'cultivating' activities, as reported on Uncle Cran's e-list, to which Uncle Cran responded with his own account of cultivation in the Ozarks:

Sorry to wait so long in reading your WR's.

I know you have been working awfully hard in your huge lawn, feeding various critters, and walking your dog. Here on the farm I have been doing a few minor chores myself.

For instance, I spent 21 days during late January to early March digging hundreds of rocks out of my hay field with a rock rake and a pick and hauling them off with the front end loader bucket on my tractor. I loaded them all by hand, and they made two small piles, each one about 8 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet high. They ranged in size from my fist to some more than 100 pounds.

Also during this time I walked over every foot of the field with a hand-held limb cutter and cut off the stems of the bushes I had been brush hogging with the tractor. The limb cutter was to cut the stems at ground level so I could run my hay mowing machine later this spring.

Then I used my 6-foot-wide rock rake to scrape up all the bushes and stems and dump them in several large piles.

After this I took my trailor and hauled 5 tons (10,000 pounds) of fertilizer to the farm, [where I] loaded it onto my fertilizer/seed spreader with a scoop shovel. The spreader holds about 400 pounds each load. Then I spent about 8 hours spreading the fertilizer over my pasture and hay fields, pulling the spreader with my tractor.

Then I took some electric line poles that the electric company replaced with new ones, and dug 5 holes about 8 inches in diameter, and 3 feet deep. I cut the poles into 8 feet lengths, and used the tractor to set them into the ground. I cut 3 lengths of the poles into 9 feet lengths and set them at an angle to brace the upright posts. Then I re-stretched the 5 five strands of barbed wire back into place.

In my spare time, I used the weed eater to clear out some tall grass in my yard, dug several hundred thistle plants out of my fields with the pick, and dug a patch of prickly pear cactus out of my field. Later I dug a few of the cactus spines out of my hands and fingers.

I won't mention the various projects Gay wanted done, plus all the assorted chores, such as cattle feed and hay, and some minor jobs for neighbors.

But of course, none of this compares with your duties. I am almost ashamed to tell you what I've been doing.

Other than that, I have been using my leisure time to read some good books.

Have a good week,


There appears to be a streak of competitiveness in Uncle Cran, and I have to admit that he does seem to have worked quite hard. He is obviously what the Germans call an Urbarmacher, one who makes the land arable, i.e., suitable for agriculture. I encountered this word recently as used by the Catholic theologian Raimon Panikkar in a German text that my wife and I are translating into English. In looking further into the term's meaning, I discovered that the Western Marxist Walter Benjamin had portrayed himself in a similar manner to describe his own culture-critical efforts:
But every ground must at some point have been turned over by reason, must have been cleared of the undergrowth of delusion and myth. This is to be accomplished here for the terrain of the nineteenth century.

This passage occurs on page 935 of The Arcades Project (translated by H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Belknap Press and Harvard University Press, 1999). For stating himself this way, Benjamin was criticized by Rolf J. Goebel in A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin (Camden House, 2009):
Faced with the "Urwald," [i.e., the primeval forest,] Benjamin sees himself in the role of an "urbar Macher" (bearer of reason, who "makes [the ground] arable"), "clearing the undergrowth of delusion and myth. Thus, he is the "cultivator" who transforms the wilderness into a place of "culture" (see the Latin colo = I cultivate, and its derivations cult, culture). This comes to be exactly the role that according to history the "civilized" Europeans have accomplished for the "savages" they colonized. In a strange manner, Benjamin falls back into the typical missionary attitude of the colonizers, who usually are the object of his critique. (page 229)

This might seem a bit harsh on poor Mr. Benjamin -- and by extension on Uncle Cran -- for Mr. Benjamin perhaps thought that he was implicitly, though never quite expressly, setting himself at odds here with the manner of Martin Heidegger, that German philosopher who eulogized the primeval forest wilderness and pursued a mythicizing mystification of nature that clothed his fascist tendencies with a shroud of essentialized legitimacy. But we see from Mr. Goebel extensive evidence of many words and terms -- in German, English, and Latin -- that this was not the case. Mr. Benjamin was instead adopting the role of missionizing colonizer!

Neither Walter Benjamin nor Uncle Cran can therefore be known as cultivators of reason and fields but rather as European-style missionary colonizers, whereas Cousin Bill is just a simple lawnmower man . . .

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Trouble with Europe, the Future of Korea?

Rachel Donadio

Well . . . the trouble with Italy, anyway (and Korea's future?). Rachel Donadio, in "Stuck in Recession, Italy Takes on Labor Laws That Divide the Generations" (NYT, March 19, 2012), describes a problem that plagues Italy (and likely other European countries), a welfare state that advantages the old, disadvantages the young, stifles the economy, and is no longer paying for itself:
[A] generational divide . . . is crippling the Italian labor market. While older workers came of age with guaranteed jobs and ironclad contracts granting generous pensions and full benefits, younger Italians . . . are now paying the price. They are lucky to find temporary work, which offers few benefits or stability . . . . [U]nions, business groups and countless governments have invested in the status quo to protect their constituents, at the expense of economic growth. Without . . . changes, . . . Italy is headed toward an economic and social implosion, with a rise in under-the-table work and a looming pension crunch . . . . Italy's employment rate and productivity have been stunted by high labor costs . . . [. L]owering the cost of firing workers and increasing protections for shorter-term contracts would encourage companies to hire, stimulating growth . . . . "We have to get away from a dual labor market where some are overly protected, while others totally lack protection and benefits when unemployed," the prime minister [Mario Monti] said shortly after taking office . . . . [adding] that "equity and growth" would be the watchwords . . . and that he aimed to increase employment . . . . The most delicate topic . . . is the infamous Article 18 of the Italian labor statute of the 1970s . . . . It states that workers cannot be fired without just cause and, if fired, can sue their companies to be reinstated . . . [and] generally win . . . . While such cases are pending in the . . . slow legal system, companies . . . [must] keep fired workers on the payroll . . . at the expense of a company's solvency.

Italy -- and Europe -- has to solve this very pressing problem, and the solution will mean fewer benefits for those whom the welfare state has long protected. The irony for me is that just as Europe's welfare system is falling apart in some countries, South Korea's government is beginning to move toward a welfare system without seeming to give this enormous change much thought. For instance, Seoul's current Leftist mayor, Park Won-soon (of the Democratic United Party), pushed for free meals provided to all elementary school students in Seoul -- all of them! -- because the mayor and others on the Left didn't want only impoverished students to receive free meals, for that would 'shame' them in the eyes of their peers. One sees where this sort of 'thinking' would logically lead: welfare for everybody so that nobody is ashamed to be on the dole! The Korean Left's ideological sentimentality overrides reason.

And Korea's government spending is already increasing so precipitously that Lee Eun-joo, in "Piling debt could haunt economic growth" (JoongAng Daily, March 20, 2012), notes the money spent on public works, public housing, and the like, and adds up the cost:
According to data compiled by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Bank of Korea, Korea's public sector's debt, including debt held by central and provisional governments as well as state-run companies, reached 789.4 trillion won ($703 billion) as of the end of the third quarter last year, up 9.2 percent from the previous year. This is double the government's budget of 325.4 trillion won for 2012.

In the same issue of the JoongAng Daily, Yu Jung-jae editorializes about "The real consequences of welfare," noting that both Left and Right share blame for thoughtless welfare policies. Why would the Korean Right join in? Yu reminds us that much social welfare legislation began in Germany under the right-wing Bismarck as a means of exerting control over society since a state that offered pensions held more power over its citizens. That perhaps was true of a Prussian-inspired authoritarian state like Germany's in the late 19th century, but in a democratic state, the political parties support social welfare because it's popular and gets politicians votes, and that dynamic goes on year after year until the entire system begins to implode, as in Greece or Italy, as well as other European countries.

The good news is that some Koreans see the looming problems, and I hope that their more sensible warnings receive a hearing. Korea has a strong economy and a population with a work ethic. I'd hate to see that ruined by thoughtless welfare policies that only serve to land Korea in European-style problems.

Not that I would oppose a reasonable social welfare program for those in need, but the definition of 'neediness' seems rather elastic . . .

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cusqueña: Five Bottles for 10,000 Won at Home plus


At home, and only after exercise, I drink a beer or two for refreshment, and to save money, my wife had been buying cheap Korean beer -- though only the best, Max -- but I recently grew tired of that and made a deal to imbibe water after exercise weekdays and enjoy a better beer on weekends, so this past Friday, she brought home five bottles of a Peruvian lager called Cusqueña, which she'd gotten on sale at Home plus for only 10,000 won!

The brew isn't a great beer, but at 2,000 won per bottle, it's a good deal -- so long as the sale lasts.

It tastes a lot better than Max, if not quite good -- a bit too malty, not enough hops, and only an ephemeral head -- but it has a beautiful website as well as a touch of artistry in the bottle's design, with a stonemasony texture intended to represent the Incan use of stone for building, and it pours to a honey-colored, somewhat amber appearance, also sort of nice. Its Ratebeer weighted rating, however, is only 2.02, rather below average, and compared to non-Korean beers, I have to agree.

If only it were a Shoggoth's Old Peculiar . . .

Labels: ,

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Only Genus with Shared Bodily Rhythm?

I'm reading the magnum opus of my old Berkeley advisor, Robert Bellah, and finding it fascinating, but I do wonder about one bit of information that I've just read:
Rhythm, which is already evident in the simple reciprocal mimetic games that parents play with very young children, is the basis of group rituals that can mimetically define group identity and the roles of individuals within the group. Ours is the only genus with the capacity for "keeping together in time," and this biological capacity has been essential for the full development of mimetic culture. (Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 2011, pages 127-128)

By "mimetic culture," Bellah refers to the ability to mimic others behaviorally, which is necessary for passing culture down from generation to generation in species that lack language. Shared bodily rhythmic activity builds upon this ability, and this shared ability is important as a skill for a mimetic culture to 'create' society as a whole through rituals enacted together, according to Bellah, which requires not just imitative skillls but also "keeping together in time." Only our genus, "homo," has the capacity for this requirement of "keeping together in time," Bellah writes, but I wonder if this is entirely accurate. We know that whales sing to each other across great distances. Might they have this capacity for "keeping together in time" (a phrase borrowed from William H. McNeill, Keeping Together in Time). Susan Milius tells us in "Male Humpback Whales Sing Duets," Science News (October 23, 2009), that whales can sing together:
Danielle Cholewiak, a researcher for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary based in Scituate, Massachusetts . . . . undertook . . . song analysis [of humpback whales] while at Cornell University, which has a renowned flock of birdsong researchers. She adapted measurements used in bird studies to analyze the humpbacks' songs. For example, the whales repeat a phrase of notes several times in one block, or "theme," before moving on to another, and Cholewiak looked at how often the whales switched among these themes . . . . In . . . sound recordings, she found 14 cases in which a male sang alone for at least 45 minutes and then continued for another 45 minutes after another male started singing. Cholewiak noticed two changes in song when humpbacks sang together . . . . [T]he first singers switched more often among various musical themes when a second singer hung around. Also, the first males adjusted their songs so that the pair was more likely to sing the same theme simultaneously.

Bellah was speaking primarily of "keeping together in time" in terms of bodily movement as rhythm, but singing together and moving together rhythmically are surely connected, and I wonder if whales might display bodily rhythm together as well. I wonder if dolphins can also do so. They can mimic very well, and we know from captive dolphin performances that they can be taught to perform sychronous movements. Can any of these performances be considered "keeping together in time"? One could object that this is training, not coordination, but dolphins engage in coordinated movement in the wild. Do they ever engage in "keeping together in time" in the wild? McNeill, in his book Keeping Together in Time, states that dolphins' "coordination of movement" does "not involve the maintenance of a regular beat." Is this never the case? I don't know if dolphins 'sing' like whales, but the whales' ability to sing together raises the possibility that cetaceans might share the capacity for "keeping together in time."

Does any reader know the answer to these questions?

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sam Harris on Islam(ism?)

My friend Kevin Kim recently quoted some provocative passages from the philosopher Sam Harris on "Islam and the Future of Liberalism," so I visited Mr. Harris's site and read the entire post, from which I draw the following bold words on Muslim 'extremism':
[W]e know that intolerance within the Muslim world extends far beyond the membership of "extremist" groups. Recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate, yet again, that ordinary Afghans grow far more incensed when a copy of the Qur'an gets defaced than when their own children are accidentally killed by our bombs -- or intentionally murdered. I doubt there is a more ominous skewing of priorities to be found in this world . . . . There must be at least 300 million Muslims spread over a hundred countries who think that a person should be put to death for [drawing cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad] . . . . This is based on every poll assessing Muslim opinion I have seen over the past ten years . . . . Should Ayaan Hirsi Ali be killed for her apostasy [from Islam]? Millions of Muslim women would applaud her murder (to say nothing of Muslim men) . . . . There are . . . many nefarious people, [apologists] in both Europe and the U.S., who are eager to keep well-intentioned liberals confused . . . , equating any criticism of Islam with racism or "Islamophobia." The fact that . . . [there are] critics of Islam [who are Islamophobic] . . . does not make these apologists [for Islam] any less cynical or sinister . . . . In every case it is essential to ask, "What would these people [defended by apologists] do if they had the power to do anything they wanted?"

To help answer that question, Mr. Harris cites a statement in Article 8 in the Charter of Hamas, the democratically elected Islamist party that governs Gaza:
"Allah is its target [i.e., goal], the Prophet [i.e., Mohammad] is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah [i.e., martyrdom] is the loftiest of its wishes."

In case this isn't enough to establish Hamas as "a death cult of aspiring martyrs," Mr. Harris then quotes from the same Hamas Charter a well-known hadith -- a tradition about Muhammad -- accepted by Muslims as the Islamic prophet's authentic words:
"The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla [O Slave of Allah], there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews." (related by al-Bukhari and Muslim [two respected early compilers of traditions about Muhammad]).

Based on this evidence from Hamas's own Charter, Mr. Harris concludes:
"It is only rational . . . for Israel [and Jews generally] to [infer that they are] . . . confronted by a cult of religious sociopaths."
From my attention to the statements of Muslim leaders over the past 33 years, ever since the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, when I first focused on Islam and read the Qur'an, I have to reluctantly agree -- there are very many Islamist sociopaths in the world, the problem appears to be growing worse, and not only Jews need be concerned, but all non-Muslims as well as any Muslims who don't conform to Islamist views. You know things are truly bad when experts over the years offer such palliatives as, 'Things aren't quite so bad as they seem.' That's only half-way true -- they're worse.

What then must we do? Offer critique, at the very least. Keep in mind, as Mr. Harris insists, that "[t]he moral high ground here is clear, and we are standing on it" when we defend free speech, freedom of conscience, equal rights, and human rights generally. We need not apologize for our position on such rights, though we do need to be more articulate in defense of these classical liberal traditions.

Lest there be any doubt, we must also understand that our words in defense of human rights will often be met with extreme hostility, even violence, so we must be neither surprised nor intimidated, but continue to speak our minds.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sam Tanenhaus and Others on Death of a Salesman

Photo from October 28, 2009

I can't say that I ever much cared for Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, though I've seen it two or three times . . . inadvertently. But I was interested in something that Sam Tanenhaus -- writing in "A Nation of Willy Lomans" for Newsweek (March 19, 2012) -- said about it in response to Mike Nichols's current revival of the play:
What [many critics] . . . missed [but Nichols hasn't] was that Miller's play isn't ideological at all. There is not a whiff in it of anti-capitalist "critique." Its subject, at once deeper and less abstract, is the American myth of self-invention or reinvention, the dreams and delusions it fosters in us, which lead us away from our true selves.

I thought that Tanenhaus's remark about Miller's play not being anti-capitalist was rather neatly to the point. I never got that message from it. The damn thing was depressing, but to see it as anti-capitalist seemed to me more like eisegesis than exegesis. I was also interested in Tanenhaus's view that the play is really about the 'American' myth of self-invention or reinvention. I guess I can see that, sort of, but I don't think that I quite agree. Still, let's see where this point leads. Willy Loman tries, without success, to invent himself as a salesman. Tanenhaus cites a remark by Nichols as evidence:
"Willy has chosen to follow the craft that is not a craft, and he has a craft," Nichols says. "The sad thing about it is, as his sons know, there are things he's very good at -- carpentry, building, putting in a ceiling in his house. But he doesn't have any respect for that. What he thinks is important is to be able to sell, to convince, to charm, and it's one of the things that's wrong with us now. If you go into any office and ask people, 'What exactly is it that you do?' they either say, 'I record the numbers, and then I put them in another book,' or they say, 'I have ideas. I have ideas for commercials, promotion.' We basically are promoting our product."

This remark by Nichols, if viewed through the refractive power of the right interpretive lens, could have supported the point made by Tanenhaus, but it seems more to indicate our identification with what we do in our work than with who we are. Nichols draws a somewhat different point, however, that we're "promoting out product" (though his examples aren't typical products). Loman, however, wasn't interested in a product. He wanted to have the reputation of being a great salesman, and though selling involves promoting a product, the product itself doesn't interest Loman (as Tanenhaus notes later with respect to the fact that we never find out "what's inside the heavy sample cases Willy lugs into the house"). Granted, this may amount to the same thing -- Loman's product is himself (as Tanenhaus also later notes) -- so maybe the quote from Nichols could support Tanenhaus's point that Loman exemplifies "the American myth of self-invention or reinvention." I just wish Tanenhaus had drawn out the implications more clearly.

But I nevertheless wonder if Loman's wish to have the reputation of being a great salesman is a matter of 'invention' (whether 'self-' or 're-') or more the optimistic American belief that the future is open for you to be what you want to be. That might be an illusion, if life in America is more closed than usually believed, but is it about invention, whether self-invention or reinvention? It seems to me to have more to do with the belief that one has more than just a single talent to pursue. Loman's personal tragedy is that he couldn't bring himself to see that he had talents for things other than salesmanship. In short, that while he had tried all his life to 'invent' himself as a salesman, he couldn't see that he needed to 'reinvent' himself through following his true talents, though that was what he truly ought to have done.

Incidentally, although I've just referred to Loman as a tragic figure, the man can also be seen as a hero who sacrificed himself for his family by ensuring that his life insurance policy was up to date before he suffered his fatal automobile 'accident' -- the death of a salesman alluded to in the play's title. That word "death" tells us what we should be asking about when we talk about the play, namely, what kind of death is this, tragic or heroic?

Labels: , ,

Friday, March 16, 2012

Irony of The Iron Lady?

The Iron Lady

I finally went to see Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. I had been wanting to see the film, but it had slipped off my radar screen due to my being occupied with various things recently, including the numerous duties associated with the semester's onset, and I only was reminded of it when my wife asked if I wanted to see it with her. I did.

Streep does her usual flawless best, of course, and the film brought back memories of those times because I lived through them myself, so I enjoyed the scenes, but I found the movie lacking. As I told Sun-Ae when we were leaving the cinema, unless one already knows the story of Thatcher's years in office, the movie will be incomprehensible. She agreed and said that one professor here in Korea -- an older female professor of political science, if I recall -- had made much the same criticism.

The story suffers the identical ailment as Thatcher herself, namely, a fragmented memory of her life. The irony -- unintended, I presume -- is that we viewers succumb to this same condition. Seeing this film can make one forget why Thatcher was great.

I got the film's main point, of course, that Thatcher's life was a Shakespearean tragedy after the manner of King Lear, with Thatcher ending her career incapable of listening to anyone else, and there's some truth to that view, but her larger career did not end with that political defeat at the hands of her fellow Conservatives. She not only stepped down from power with grace in her final speech to Parliament, she also gave a rousing speech at the first Conservative Party meeting after that and received a standing ovation from the rank-and-file members. Moreover, she regained her confidence quickly after her fall from power and went on to a post-political career giving political speeches, for which she was much sought after around the world throughout the nineties and into the new millenium, until a series of strokes in 2002 cut that short and led to her decline.

Every life ends in decline, unless prematurely shortened, but I can say that the movie, despite its limitations, managed to convey hints of her earlier greatness even in its depiction of her in failing health. There's a touching scene near the end where she's being examined by her doctor. He asks her how she feels -- perfectly normal for a doctor to inquire about -- and she goes on a rant about how everybody these days wants to know each other's feelings:
"Don't ask me what I'm feeling," she gripes, "ask me what I'm thinking!"

"What are you thinking?" the doctor asks.

Appearing initially at a loss, she nevertheless steels herself and manages to draw upon a memory apt for the moment, "I'm thinking about something my father used to tell me. 'Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny!'"
There was irony in that, too, but intentional irony for the film in this case, and I suppose there's some truth to this irony, for Thatcher's strength of character proved to be her weakness as well: self-reliant, she came to rely on no one but herself and thus came to lose the support of her closest political associates. That was her political destiny

But as I've already pointed out, her life didn't end with that defeat, nor did her political influence.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Poetry Break: "Every Tub Sitteth"

Old Wash Tub

My Reverend Uncle Cran recently blessed those of us on his e-list with one of his arcane anecdotes about Ozark Wisdom, and what he wrote struck me with such motivational force that it literally inspired me to compose a poem. Here's the arcane anecdote:
My mother-in-law, Ruby Fore, told us that years ago at County Line Baptist Church, the minister asked the members to quote a favorite Bible verse. When it came to one member's turn, he (or was it she?) said the following:
"Every tub sits on its own bottom."

How true that is! This powerful statement says it all.

This person said it was in the Bible somewhere, but didn't know which book. I don't know either, but possibly it was the Book of Parables?
I recognized the verse, of course, but felt compelled to point out to Reverend Uncle Cran that what had been quoted was merely partial, and I produced the entire verse for all of us on the e-list to read carefully and store away like the Virgin Mary in our hearts, though I have since made a few small alterations legitimated by my poetic license:
Every Tub Sitteth

Every tub sitteth on its own bottom, and
every bottom sitteth wheresoever it listeth, but
the wise know better than
to set their bottoms
in the outhouse to the church
without a first glance up,
for lo,
it is used but once a week and
is oft a haven for wasps --
betimes stripéd,
betimes dull red --
and they shall burn thee with liquid fire
lest thou shalt forget again soon
to glance first up
if thou be no fool!

This is from The Book of Improbables 1.424, right after The Book of Hyperboles, which can be found among the so-called Extra-Apocrypha, a collection of books so utterly rejected by the early church that nobody has ever heard of them.

I hope that every reader is now enlightened . . . or at least lightened.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Red Hat" and its "Culture of Discussion"

Jim Whitehurst
President of Red Hat
Photo by Librado Romero
The New York Times

I read some great advice yesterday, relayed to me in the New York Times via Adam Bryant from the "president and chief executive of Red Hat" (provider of Linux and other open-source technology), Jim Whitehurst, who learned it God knows where, so I don't know the originator, but the advice is:
[F]or any business there are three levels of leadership. One is getting somebody to do what you want them to do. The second is getting people to think what you want them to think; then you don't have to tell them what to do because they will figure it out . . . . [The third and] best is getting people to believe what you want them to believe, and if people really fundamentally believe what you want them to believe, they will walk through walls. They will do anything.

How to accomplish this, of course, is the hard part. Perhaps the other advice from Mr. Whitehurst -- given in Mr. Bryant's interview, "The Memo List: Where Everyone Has an Opinion" (March 10, 2012) -- can offer insight. Here's a possibility:
Our employees have always expected this: tell me why we're doing what we're doing, and allow me at least a voice in the decision process. Now a voice doesn't mean decision rights. It doesn't mean you have any say in the answer. But at least you have a vehicle for an opinion to be heard.

This discussion procedure will likely get employees as far as doing what you want them to do, and perhaps as far as thinking what you want them to think, but maybe not as far as believing what you want them to believe. But it's still a good idea to have an internal forum for discussion of issues, and Red Hat does this through its Memo List, which Mr. Whitehurst explains:
We have about 4,000 employees, but on average you'll see a couple hundred posts a day . . . . Memo List is about the business. And I go through it every single day. I would say probably three-quarters of the people are on it every day, either reading or posting.

Such an online, internal forum might not be applicable to every organization, but some compromise will always need to be found between hierarchical decision-making and democratic discussion, especially these days, as Mr. Whitehurst explains:
[W]e're on the bleeding edge of what so many companies are going to face because of this whole millennial generation coming up. It just does not like this idea of hierarchy.

There you have it. The world is changing as technology flattens out various processes. People expect to express themselves and be lisitened to. Organizations must adapt . . . or fail.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Risky 'Robotic' Market Algorithms?

Rossum's Universal Robots (1921)
Karel Čapek, Playwright
Three Robots in a Scene from R.U.R.

I read an alarming column by Mark Buchanan that riffs off Ray Kurzweil's concept of the "singularity" -- the point at which technology surpasses us in intelligence -- which might be sooner than we generally believe. The column, titled "The Reign of Robots May Be Closer Than You Think" (Bloomberg, March 7, 2012), warns of the danger lurking in our increasing tendency to automate processes that had formerly been subject to human judgment. Why a danger? Buchanan points to evidence of a shift toward automaticity in market trading and explains its risky implication:
[F]inance is flirting with a similar transition [through a singularity of its own], as ever-faster computing and communications technology takes high-frequency trading into a regime of speed where human beings can no longer keep up.

Indeed, Buchanan thinks that "we may have already arrived," and offers some disturbing evidence:
In a recent study, physicist Neil Johnson and colleagues found more than 18,000 instances over the past five years where markets, in about a second and a half or less, either ticked up or down at least 10 times in a row, making prices rise or fall in that span by more than 0.8 percent. Many of these mini-crashes and mini-booms took place in well under a tenth of a second, effectively instantaneous from a human perspective . . . . [and] have been happening roughly 10 times per day . . . . The same study looked at the incidents on different timescales, both above one second and below, and found a striking difference. Over periods of one second or longer, the distribution of events by size has the familiar "fat tailed" distribution -- the norm for markets, . . . which reflects their pronounced susceptibility to large price changes . . . . [F]or events that last less than one second, . . . the distribution is "fatter than fat" and shows an even greater than normal tendency for Black Swan-type upheavals . . . . [But what's] so special about one second? . . . . [T]he researchers point out . . . that one second . . . [is] around the speed limit for fast human decision making . . . . [A]re the markets at this timescale showing the signs of an emerging all-machine phase of trading over which human decisions have little influence or control?

Buchanan would answer yes, markets are showing signs of machine control. Why is this happening? We first have to understand a distinction between uncrowded and crowded markets:
Mathematical studies . . . show that one of the most fundamental factors influencing . . . basic [market] dynamics is how "crowded" the market is . . . . If the participants in a market use a wide and diverse range of trading strategies, then the market is uncrowded . . . . A healthy diversity of participants earns profits in different ways -- thinking and acting on different timescales, taking different views on the future and so on . . . . Real markets . . . look a lot like this uncrowded phase, with highly irregular market fluctuations and fat tails . . . . [I]f a market becomes overcrowded -- that is, if many traders chase few opportunities and use very similar strategies to do so -- then the continuity of the market tends to break down. In this regime, the market becomes prone to . . . sudden moves up or down much like those now observed in the sub-one-second trading regime.

So, the market is crowded, according to Buchanan. What, specifically, is driving this shift toward a crowded, rapid market?
[The use of] high frequency algorithms [that] . . . compete on speed and have to act extremely quickly . . . . [Such algorithms] must be relatively simple, and can't waste time analyzing too much information about the past. Given these constraints on the range of possible strategies, and given the number of traders operating within them, overcrowding is quite likely -- as are the . . . troubled market dynamics arising from it.

Not only is the market crowded, it's overcrowded! Now comes the scary part:
[W]e . . . should actually expect to see increasingly frequent Black Swan events in microscopic timescales. They may well be the natural consequence of machine trading . . . uncoupled from the strong influence of conscious human decision making . . . . [A]s Johnson and colleagues put it, [we're moving] "from a mixed phase of humans and machines, in which humans have time to assess information and act, to an ultrafast all-machine phase in which machines dictate price changes."

Concerning such a shift to machine control, Buchanan concludes:
We're crossing a boundary into a trading twilight zone, and doing so without much thought or awareness of the potential dangers

I think of the differences between the physical laws that describe the behavior of macroscopic and microscopic particles -- except that the quantum realm doesn't destabilize the macroscopic realm, whereas such destabilization seems the very real danger in markets as the algorithms begin to drive not only the sub-second market processes, but by implication the supra-second ones as well!

Do these automatic processes offer an intimation of what is to come? Will we enter a truly post-human world in which robots -- as in Karel Čapek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots -- vanquish humanity?

Stay tuned.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 12, 2012

"If space and time, as sages say . . ."

Literature Across the Spatiotemporal Continuum?
Illustration by O.O.P.S.

In a recent NYT review of Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men, "Convergences" (March 8, 2012), Douglas Coupland tells us that the book belongs to a new literary genre that reflects our current reality, or in his words:
[W]e appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once -- a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist. I can't believe I just wrote that last sentence, but it's true; there is something psychically sparse about the present era, and artists of all stripes are responding with fresh strategies.

A sort of twilight zone of the gods, one might say. Or I might, anyway. But what's that new genre Coupland mentioned?
This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let's call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader's mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present. Imagine traveling back to Victorian England -- only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb. With Translit we get our very delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we'll get off the ride intact, in our bold new perpetual every-era/no-era. Translit's precursors are, say, "Winesburg, Ohio" and "Orlando," and the genre's 21st-­century tent poles are Michael Cunningham's novel "The Hours" and David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas." To these books we can add Hari Kunzru's gorgeous and wise "Gods Without Men."

Having read Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, I see what Coupland means by this and why he calls the writing translit. Mitchell's novel spans several centuries and tells various interrelated stories of characters who seem to be related across space and time, at times as if they share the same soul transmigrating over time and place. One can also consider Mitchell's tendency to link his various novels in minor but notable ways, as when a character from one novel appears briefly in another, giving one a sense of familiarity across novels, as though some sort of community were being established to bring all characters into communion despite their conflicts with one another. Is that a feature of translit? Can the genre include characters from one novel appearing unexpectedly in another, especially if that other novel is by a different writer? Intertextuality gone wild? Perhaps I should ask Coupland his opinion?

And what's this O.O.P.S. illustration thing?

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Yielding to Crystal Bridges Art Museum . . .

Yield (2011)

Last January 8th (2012), I posted an entry on the new art museum that opened in Northwestern Arkansas, Crystal Bridges, which lies nestled in a valley of the Ozarks and offers a "re-imagining of the broader story of American art that is especially impressive," according to Kelly Klaasmeyer, whose words I didn't cite in that previous entry because I hadn't read them yet since they were only recently published, on March 5 (2012). Those words of praise come as the concluding sentence of an early paragraph in Klaasmeyer's article, "Crystal Bridges, Part II: American Stories" (Glasstire, March 5th, 2012):
I assumed I'd like Crystal Bridges, but I wasn't prepared to be so impressed or to feel so enthusiastic about it. With all the hype about Wal-Mart as the source of founder Alice Walton's wealth, I think some people initially expected some sort of "red state" patriotic museum of American art. And with its location in the Arkansas Ozarks, I think they also feared a certain conservative agenda might run through the collection. (It had crossed my mind as well.) That is far from the case, however. The museum's setting is gorgeous and it's acquired some impressive works, but it is Crystal Bridges' re-imagining of the broader story of American art that is especially impressive.

A political agenda, whether rightwing or left, would inevitably have distorted that story, so the avoidance of either danger is a good omen, and I'm delighted to hear that the museum is so fine. Interestingly, though, Klaasmeyer had initially disliked "Roxy Paine's stainless steel tree, Yield, [which] is out front, bending against an imaginary wind," or more precisely, she "hadn't been that taken with it in photos," but when she saw it "in person [she realized that] its stark, shimmering drama works surprisingly well against the surrounding woods." Perhaps she saw the wrong photos initially, for I liked it immediately upon seeing the photo above, supplied by Klaasmeyer herself (I assume).

The writer has a series of articles on the museum, though only the first two have been published as of now (March 10, 2012). Part I can be read online here: "Crystal Bridges: Don Bacigalupi, Art, Arkansas, Populism and Wal Mart." Klaasmeyer is rather hard on Arkansas culture and politics, so be forewarned, but since she's native, I reckon it's allowable. She also subjects Wal-Mart to harsh criticism, in case anyone is interested in knowing that point before reading her articles. She makes some indisputable points, I have to admit, even though I'm not hostile to Wal-Mart.

Anyway, for those intrigued by the concept of a great art museum situated in the Arkansas Ozarks, Klaasmeyer supplies some excellent photographs enabling one to see the realization of that concept.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A One-Time Ehwa Voice Column, A One-Time Name Change!

Horace J. Hodges
In Black and White!

Every two weeks, I do proofreading for the Ewha Voice, and the semester's first issue came out this week, but it also included a column that I was asked at the last minute to write because the professor who had promised the column this time hadn't come through with one. I dashed one off in half an hour and sent it, which I suppose means that I was 29 minutes late, but it made the paper anyway. Unfortunately, even though I'd signed the article with my full name, that was shortened to the one you see above (with the photo) and below (with the column). When I saw the result, I sent a gentle suggestion:
Dear Ewha Voice,

I just today read my Professor Column article. The title was well chosen, so thanks to the one responsible.

I see that I ought to have proofread my own article more carefully, however, for I misspelled "rest" as "reast"! I was tired and in a hurry, but that's no excuse, I realize.

Incidentally, I never go by the name "Horace J. Hodges" in print. I use either "Horace Jeffery Hodges" or "H. Jeffery Hodges" for that. The latter can be seen on the same page as the Professor Column, where I am listed as one of the proofreaders: "H. Jeffery Hodges."

My advice is that one always ask about preferences on names.

Best Regards,

Jeffery Hodges
Here's the column, though with "reast" corrected to "rest," and it's generally not one of my best compositions, so be forewarned:
Professor's Column

Having a healthy mind in a healthy body

Horace J. Hodges

I have been asked to offer my thoughts in this first edition of the Ewha Voice for the academic year 2012. Many issues could be addressed -- from the political rise of Kim Jong-un to the political demise of Lee Myung-bak -- but I am no expert on many of these. Let me therefore offer remarks upon what I do have some expertise: riding -- I mean writing!

Well, either one will do, and both are important. A healthy mind in a healthy body! I have a bike of my own and enjoy riding up the Jungnang Stream whenever I have a free Saturday. I usually ride about ten or fifteen kilometers upstream, halting along the way at a pathside tent for beer to quench my thirst and food to nourish my body. I emphatically recommend this for exercise and pleasure. Downstream offers even greater possibilities, but upstream guarantees more scenery.

With riding out of the way, let me talk about writing. There's no better way to integrate your learning that to write down your thoughts about what you've learned each day. Try keeping a daily journal in which you reflect on the day's events -- or on anything that strikes your fancy! I maintain a daily blog, which I've titled Gypsy Scholar, and I write on all sorts of topics. Seven years of daily blogging has profoundly improved my writing, and I've also learned a great deal about any number of things. You can, too, merely by daily writing.

Aside from riding and writing, there is the need to take your studies seriously. While American and Korean university experiences cannot be closely compared, I imagine there are some things in common. The shock of the new, for instance, in the case of first-year students. I recall being shocked by 'new' grades -- scores far lower than any I'd earned in high school! Or so my first midterms revealed. I brought those grades up by the time of my finals, and so will you first-year students. Older students have likely reached some sort of compromise between study effort and acceptable grades.

Most important of all is to take some time to relax. You've all experienced Korean high school's "study hell" and know the toll that such a constant grind can take on your health. Study in Korean universities is less hellish, as you older students will know, but Korean students have a tendency to procrastinate and then try to cram everything into their brains the day before a test. My advice is that all of you, no matter what your university year, spread your study out over the semester so that you don't harm your health before midterms and finals by lack of sleep. After several first-semester experiences of studying all night, I learned this lesson very well.

But do you really need my advice? You know to eat balanced, healthy meals for your bodies -- which I'll refrain from belaboring -- and the importance of regular sleeping patterns for sufficient rest, daily exercise for relieving stress and staying in shape, and sensible study habits for decent grades. You know all this, so I'll just say "Welcome!" to the first-semester students and "Welcome back!" to all others.

At least, I can hope with this 'kindly' article to make a positive impression on Ewha students so that they won't be nervous and intimidated by my naturally stern-looking face.

But if they start calling me "Horace" . . .

Labels: ,

Friday, March 09, 2012

For Funny Furry Feline Fondue Friendship?

Fondue You

Before I lived in Switzerland, I thought that I'd eaten fondue, but a long winter in Fribourg taught me otherwise, for I not only ate true fondue, I learned the rules of fondue propriety, one of which threatened punishment on the poor devil who dipped too awkwardly into the melted cheese and lost the cube of bread from the prongs of the typical, long-handled fork. There's an old proverb relevant in this context:
"He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon."

I assume that's meant to provide a head start for escape if something goes wrong. Well, a really long fork would be useful if you sup fondue with the Swiss-French. They threatened me, if I should lose the bread, with an ancient punishment first recorded in the historically entirely accurate Asterix and Obelix comics -- weighing the malefactor down with stones and tossing the poor devil into Lake Geneva . . . though I didn't really believe they'd go that far. Probably just toss me into the Sarine River that splits Fribourg into its Swiss-French and Swiss-German parts!

But fondue etiquette seems to have gotten more civilized since my day among the Swiss-French, for I have a diplomatic friend stationed in Europe -- whom I've previously mentioned -- and she took a trip to Geneva, where she enjoyed a dinner of authentic Swiss fondue, but reported nothing about the dark, watery depths of the nearby lake, though I can't believe she never lost a chunk of bread!

Apparently, the fondue was so tasty that it inspired her to organize a fondue party back in the dark and rainy, northern European city where she carries out her diplomatic endeavors, so she invited twelve friends who brought friends who brought children -- a bit like a flash mob -- and the fun began as the cheese melted into fondue and adults began to get awkward from drink:
"We enforced the Swiss tradition of requiring anyone whose fork loses a bit of food in the pot to kiss the person closest by."

That was not the threatening tradition that I encountered! My friend even found the experience so pleasing and conducive to good will that she considered how it might be the secret to world peace:
"So, I've been thinking. Perhaps a world fondue party is what we need. Wait . . . sharp pointed objects and flame . . . maybe not such a good idea. But kissing your neighbour anytime something is dropped might be good."

That pacific suggestion had such a certain charm, I considered dropping my guard . . . till I looked around myself at three-thirty in the morning here in Seoul as I was reading that email (on a brief break from blogging) and saw that my nearest neighbor was a neutered tomcat stationed beside me licking its various body parts.

Ugh, no thanks, 'neighbor'. I'd rather get loaded down with stones and tossed into Lake Geneva . . .

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 08, 2012

There was a boy who had a dog . . .

. . . and dingo was its name-o.

And maybe the first dog a boy ever had, if an article by James Gorman and Christine Kenneally has correctly passed along the recent scientific findings, for in "Australia's Changing View of the Dingo" (New York Times, March 5, 2012), they write:
Dingoes are generally classified as a subspecies of wolf, Canis lupus dingo, although in the past they have been classified as a subspecies of dog and as a separate species. Physically, they resemble a generic, medium-size dog, about 40 pounds, usually tan-colored, with pricked ears and a bushy tail.

They do not have some of the physical signs of domestication found in many dog breeds, like barking as adults. They breed once a year, like wolves, and when undisturbed they have a stable pack structure topped by one male-female pair, the only ones in the pack that reproduce.

Bradley Smith, a research associate in public health at Flinders University in Adelaide who has studied dingoes, said by e-mail that experimental tests put dingoes closer to wolves in the kind of intelligence they display. "Both dingoes and wolves, being highly effective predators, are great at problem solving, working well in groups, and independent problem solving," he said.

But they also understand humans in a way that wolves do not. They get it when a person points at something, while wolves are clueless or supremely uninterested. Dingoes are not as good as dogs, however, at following a human's gaze.

Dingoes, Dr. Smith wrote, "seem to be a prime example of one of the first types of 'dogs'. Not domestic dogs as we know them now, but some form of early dog that made it easier for the human-canid relationship to develop. You could almost say dingoes are frozen in time -- as they have made a very good home in Australia and have been isolated for many thousands of years."

Maybe the first dog a boy ever had, sure, but the dog might instead have had the boy if dingos are as predacious as implied, for the article also tells of attacks on humans.

The point about mating is interesting because I didn't know this fact about wolves either, but I see from checking the fact that reality is a bit more complex and that cases exist in which wolves other than the top couple also mate, possibly when conditions are favorable for growth of the pack, for example, abundant food supply. I infer the same would be true for the dingo pack.

As for wolf intelligence, I'd need to read more on that to see if wolves are better "at problem solving, working well in groups, and independent problem solving," which seems implied by Smith's statement. Dogs seem pretty good at these things, too, even though they are domesticated. In fact, humans expect a lot of brainwork by domesticated dogs, including the ability to 'read' human intentions. Granted, wolves' brains are slightly larger than dogs' brains, but brain size alone is inconclusive of higher intelligence since brain organization matters a great deal.

One question remaining for me is that if the dingos weren't domesticated, why are they better at 'reading' humans' intentions than wolves? I recall learning that dogs might have developed through some species of wolves hanging around human camps in prehistoric times, univited guests who found an advantage in staying close even while remaining 'wild'. They would need to avoid close contact to escape being eaten, so I suspect that only those wolves that could perceive the danger when humans pointed would tend to survive and pass on their genes. That ability to understand pointing would prove useful when humans did begin to domesticate the wolves and turn them into dogs.

This is, of course, sheer speculation on my part, and another possibility is that as wolves were being domesticated, some might have mated with still wild wolves lingering around human camps and thereby passed along the ability to read human intentions . . . except that the typical mating pattern of wolf packs would seem to make this unlikely.

As admitted, sheer speculation, but if any knowledgeable readers care to share what they know . . .