Saturday, February 21, 2009


I've been enjoying an all-guys Saturday at my buddy Mike's house, a good part of which has been spent tickle-torturing and thumb-wrestling his 4-year-old son. The ladies are out this weekend, you see, so Mike invited me down south for two nights (I arrived here Friday night) for some estrogen-free madness.

More later, folks.


Friday, February 20, 2009

the mystery of freedom

WARNING: Major spoilers appear in this post.

My buddy Charles wrote an excellent post titled "On Limitations" that deals at least in part with a theme I've encountered through my many re-readings of Stephen R. Donaldson's fantasy novels-- especially his First, Second, and Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The theme is the mystery of freedom, and in order to understand where Donaldson is coming from and how he meditates on this issue, I need to provide you an overview of Donaldson's narrative world.

The protagonist of the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is the eponymous Thomas Covenant, a man from "our" world who, around the age of 30, had a successful career as a writer before he contracted leprosy through unknown means. Covenant's wife Joan left him, along with their infant son Roger, and Covenant himself became a pariah in the small American town in which he lived.

In the First Chronicles, Covenant journeys to an alternate Earth-- specifically, to a realm known simply as the Land-- four separate times, in each case by being rendered unconscious through some means or other. In the first book, Covenant apparently faints in front of a car. In the second book, Covenant's journey occurs when he trips inside his house and hits his head. In the third book of the trilogy, Covenant is summoned to the Land twice-- first after hitting his head on a rock, then a second time after succumbing to rattlesnake venom. In the Second Chronicles, Covenant is stabbed in the chest in "our" world; his impending death facilitates his passage to the alternate Earth. A companion from our world joins him: Linden Avery, a doctor who has only recently moved into Covenant's small town, and who is not afraid of Covenant's leprosy. Linden is the primary protagonist in the Second Chronicles; most of the narrative occurs from her point of view. Her translation into the Land occurs during the same incident in which Covenant is stabbed: Linden is struck with a rock by the same group assaulting Covenant. In the Final Chronicles, only Linden journeys to the Land-- in this case, by being shot in the chest while trying to rescue her adopted son.

The passage between worlds evokes CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. As happens in Narnia, time in Donaldson's Land moves faster than it does in our world: a single day in our world equals a year in the Land. Some sort of metaphysical boundary-- the "wind between the worlds," as it's known in the Second Chronicles-- separates our world from the universe in which the Land resides. The alternate world is also nestled within a different metaphysical structure: something we never see, but which is known as the Arch of Time. How this works or what such a situation looks like is never clearly explained. Perhaps it can't be.

The beings of the alternate Earth vary in their beliefs as to whether there exists a Creator. Many of them do know of a being called the Despiser, who is something like a satanic presence. The Despiser, true to his title, hates the cosmos in which he is trapped, and speaks of his "Enemy," who we can assume is the Creator. The relationship between the Despiser and the Creator is never entirely clarified; the Despiser is sometimes referred to as the son or brother of the Creator, who was cast into the alternate universe by the Creator when the latter discovered that the Despiser, perhaps working alongside the Creator, had been sowing banes into the Earth-- concentrated malice in the form of stones or other objects. The alternate Earth also contains lesser evil beings that are independent of the Despiser, whose motives are often twisted in the service of Despite; they willfully or inadvertently aid the Despiser in achieving the ruin of the Land, and perhaps eventually the entire Earth.

The Despiser's ultimate goal is to escape from this time-bound prison, perhaps simply to regain his primordial freedom, but just as likely to wreak vengeance against his father or brother: the Creator, his Enemy. Every action this malefic figure takes is designed to weaken the fabric of the Law of Time, which is the law of sequence, cause, and effect-- the very substance of the Arch of Time in which the Earth resides. The First and Second Chronicles are the story of the Despiser's failed attempts to shatter the Arch; in both cases he is thwarted by the Land's at-first-unwilling champion, Thomas Covenant, who loses his life in the Second Chronicles, but manages a post-mortem defeat of Lord Foul.

Despite his status as a cosmic being that doesn't belong to the universe in which he has been trapped, Lord Foul the Despiser is constrained by the Law of Time, a fact that frustrates him, driving him to the limits of sanity. This constraint means the Despiser is unable to transcend Time in order to know the future exactly, which is why Covenant (and, later, Linden Avery) is able to foil his plots twice. Foul is able to predict certain outcomes through a type of middle knowledge (knowledge of consequent counterfactuals based on actual initial conditions), but Time itself prevents Foul from absolute knowledge of whether his plans will unfold exactly as he wishes.

Foul is also, strangely, preserved from destruction by the very same Law of Time that constrains his actions. Covenant's first battle with the Despiser ends with Covenant withholding the final blow. "You can't kill Despite," Covenant says. Because the capacity for Despite is inscribed in all the beings of the Earth, and because Foul is trapped on this Earth along with all these beings, Foul's essence will be forever nourished by them. Also, if Foul is as eternal as the Creator, then his eternality in a time-bound universe can only be expressed by his endless persistence in time. This is different from the "eternity" espoused by CS Lewis, who sees true eternity as transtemporal, something free of the shackles of sequence and causation (something like this idea motivates Hindus and Buddhists to free themselves from karma and samsara, the painful churning of existence and causation). Foul's struggles might, however, be interpreted as a striving toward this Lewisian eternity.

The Creator, whom we meet three times in the first two trilogies, is powerful enough to create this alternate Earth and the Arch of Time in which it resides, but after casting the Despiser into that world (note the parallel, here, with the traditional Christian notion that Satan has been given dominion over our world) and then sealing the Earth within the Arch of Time, the Creator can no longer combat the Despiser without putting his hand through the Arch, thereby unmaking his creation.

This is the bind in which the Creator finds himself. He wants to help all the innocent beings in his creation, but cannot do so directly. He selects Thomas Covenant to be the champion from our world who must enter the Land and eventually battle the Despiser. But because of a doctrine called the necessity of freedom, the Creator is unable to persuade Covenant to do the Creator's bidding, lest Covenant become a mere tool of the Creator, thereby also unmaking the Arch of Time and destroying all of creation. Covenant, plunged into this alternate Earth in an extreme example of Heideggerian Geworfenheit, must figure everything out on his own, and make his own choices.

The First Chronicles relate Covenant's internal struggle with the reality of the Land. For him to accept the Land's reality is to risk insanity; in our own world, Covenant has had to learn the strict disciplines necessary for a leper's survival. A leper cannot risk even minor bumps and bruises: unable to feel them, and with a compromised immune system, a leper would quickly succumb to infection and, in Covenant's case, the renewed virulence of his leprosy. In the Land, however, Covenant is quickly healed of his leprosy, and he also discovers that his white gold wedding ring-- which he has insisted on wearing even after his wife has divorced him-- is regarded as a periapt of cosmic might: the wild magic that paradoxically defies Law and supports the Arch of Time.

The Earth's very existence is a combination of Law and Earthpower, concepts analogous to dharma/Tao and ki, respectively. Donaldson isn't clear on whether all beings have Earthpower or are Earthpower, though a certain set of beings, the Elohim, are clearly described as Earthpower incarnate.

Much as the Matrix trilogy did later on, Donaldson sets up the chessboard by associating goodness with freedom, and evil with inevitability. Power, in Donaldson's universe, symbolizes the exercise of freedom. Lord Foul rarely exercises power, preferring instead to formulate plans that require the direct or indirect service of his minions, plans meant to lead his victims along the strait path to destruction. Despite his lack of omniscience, the Despiser displays a supreme confidence in his vision of the future.

A prominent theme in Donaldson's narrative is that great power often entails a reduction of freedom. The Creator himself* is constrained by the rules of the universe he has created, which is why he is forced to send a champion in his stead. Thomas Covenant initially refuses the responsibility that comes with the power of his white gold ring, and eventually realizes (as does Linden Avery after him) that the power he wields has limitations-- limitations inherent in the nature of white gold, but also inherent in Covenant's own nature. All power-- and therefore all freedom-- requires a form through which it can be articulated. Power is never simply power; by analogy, freedom is never simply freedom. All freedom therefore must be expressed within parameters and constraints; all power must have limits even to qualify as power.

In the Second Chronicles, the Despiser seems to have grasped this point. He attempts to stymie Covenant by poisoning him with a venom that increases Covenant's might. Knowing how powerful he is becoming, and knowing that the increase in his potency is not accompanied by the facility to wield it precisely, Covenant is forced to withhold his power in almost every instance where it is needed: only wild magic, which is unconstrained by Law, can shatter the Arch of Time from within the Creator's creation.

The Despiser is hoping for one of three possible outcomes: (1) that Covenant will shatter the Arch of Time through the exercise of his venom-tainted white ring, (2) that Covenant will be rendered absolutely powerless by his absolute power, or (3) that Covenant, having realized the futility of his situation, will willingly hand his ring over to the Despiser. Covenant's solution to this problem is ingenious: he freely gives the Despiser his ring and allows that demonic entity to kill him with wild magic, but when the Despiser aims that same magic at the Arch of Time, Covenant's spirit is there, protecting the Arch and absorbing the blow. Because Covenant's own nature is wild magic-- heralded as the keystone of the Arch of Time-- his spirit cannot be undone by Lord Foul's attack. Quite the contrary, his revenant is strengthened by each attack. The Despiser, maddened by the failure of his plan to shatter the Arch, and being a cosmic entity incapable of surrender, flings wild magic against Covenant again and again, expending his own energy until he flickers and fades out: a second defeat.**

In his Liminality essay, my friend Charles writes the following apropos of the coexistence of freedom and constraints in language:

This will come as no surprise to long-time readers, but I happen to love language. I like working with it, as if it were a malleable metal to be worked into intricate shapes. Sometimes these shapes aren’t always as beautiful as I would like them to be, but I still enjoy working with them. Although I do not write as much poetry as I used to, I particularly enjoy the confined and compressed nature of the art form. I have never been a fan of free verse. I have always preferred poetry with set rhyme and meter. For one, it appeals to the analytical side of my brain (if that makes any sense). More importantly, though, it feels great when I am able to express myself poetically within the confines of a certain meter and rhyme scheme. Poetry that really works within those confines has always seemed to have more power.

And I suppose that’s what it comes down to for me. I find the idea that humanity can overcome its limitations through sheer grit and willpower to be somewhat boring, to be honest—far more fascinating is the idea that humanity’s brilliance lies in those limitations themselves, not in overcoming them. Sure, language may not be perfect, but when a writer crafts a gem of a sentence using that imperfect language, how glorious the result! Think of the music of Mozart or Bach—made by imperfect men using imperfect instruments, and enjoyed by people with imperfect ears.

This is, I think, the mystery and paradox of freedom: freedom entails its own restriction. You cannot have true freedom without also having constraints. You cannot exercise power without channeling that power in a specific way. An artist can do an infinity of things with a mallet, but such a blunt instrument can perform almost none of the things a chisel can do-- or a brush. Each tool contains its own infinity of possibilities, but the nature of each tool limits what can be done with it. Freedom is what happens in and through non-freedom, just as perfection can be found only in the midst of imperfection. These things are not-two.

A long time ago, I described myself as a "closet compatibilist." I think that's still largely true. If we insist on dichotomizing freedom and determinism, then in terms of human ethics, I fall on the side of freedom. But because I also acknowledge the not-two-ness of freedom and its constraints, I admit that freedom must articulate itself in specific ways: the Formless is seen only through forms-- power is articulated as specific powers; language is articulated as specific languages; art is realized as discrete arts; life manifests itself as different living things. As the Heart Sutra says: Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

Stephen R. Donaldson's meditation on the nature of freedom isn't academic; he does it through the vehicle of narrative, and it's obviously a question he takes very seriously. I do, too, which is why I thought of Donaldson's work while reading Charles's essay.

*In our world, the Creator meets Thomas Covenant in the form of an ancient beggar who appears, from Donaldson's description of him, to be a Hindu monk (the author spent his childhood in India with his father, a medical doctor), though this is never explicitly stated. Donaldson devotes very little narrative time to the Creator; much of what we learn about this being comes through speculations by the people whom Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery meet in the Land and elsewhere, and also through hints given by Lord Foul himself at the very end of the Second Chronicles. At the end of the First Chronicles, Covenant has a conversation with the Creator, which gives us some insight into the deity's character.

**Covenant's defeat of the Despiser in the First Chronicles is more through brute force: his wild magic, once he evokes it, simply overpowers the Despiser's own ancient lore. The battle itself isn't interesting on that score: the First Chronicles is more about Covenant's attempt to reconcile his Unbelief in the Land (because his acceptance of the Land would violate his leper's instinct for survival, leading to insanity and death) and the love he eventually feels for the Land. The final battle is therefore compelling not because of what happens externally, but because of what happens to Covenant internally: he summons the might of his ring because he finally discovers the crux of his personal paradox-- Covenant concludes that his love of the Land is not contingent on its reality. With that resolution in place, Covenant gives himself fully to his passion for the Land, which in turn allows him to summon enough power to defeat the Despiser in magical combat.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

ecclesiology in action

My ecclesiology course at Catholic U. was an eye-opener; it was strange to realize, early in the semester, that I had never really asked myself a basic question: "What does 'church' mean?" The course was taught by the always-excellent Father Joseph Komonchak, a man who can crack open a Latin text and sight-read it into full-speed spoken English, translating as he talks (he's also pretty fluent in French, and I'm fairly sure he's got at least some Italian background, given his time at the Gregorianum).

My paper for Fr. Komonchak's class was on Presbyterian polity, which is similar to Catholic polity in some ways, and very different in others. Anglican polity is apparently a complex matter, which brings me to this interesting blog post over at Get Religion. It reads in part:

When discussing the Anglican wars, one of GetReligion’s mantras is that reporters must struggle — even in short stories — to place these events in the context of church structures at the local, regional-diocesan, national and global levels.

That’s the bad news.

The problem for reporters is that things are going to get even more complex in the very near future. The structures are all changing and are, frankly, becoming even more confusing and harder for outsiders to understand (and cover in mainstream media).

Why is that? It helps to note that the U.S. Episcopal hierarchy tends to be very liberal when it comes to traditions about doctrine, but almost fundamentalist when it comes to traditions about power and ecclesiastical structure. Meanwhile, the people running the emerging conservative structures are very strict about ancient doctrines, but many of them lean to more open, congregational, even megachurch approaches to church life.

Give the post a read. And if you feel moved to give your own definition of "church" in the comments here, I look forward to reading your insights. (Personally, I have more trouble defining "church" than I do defining "religion."


sleep eludes me

I had only about 4 hours' sleep last night, and woke up this morning with a nasty headache. I took some aspirin, and now I'm probably going to nap for a bit. Sorry about yesterday's post, if it made you go "Huh?", but I truly was swamped with work and thought I'd turn the situation into a fun little story about me getting my head crushed and then finding out that Heaven needs proofreaders. Death isn't the final respite.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The last thing I could remember was the accident. There I was, flat on my back, with the asphalt vibrating beneath my skull as the 18-wheeler roared toward me. I remember the monstrous pressure of the truck's tire rolling over my face, followed by the sense that something had both shattered and exploded-- all of it happening too fast for me even to form a proper emotion. I could feel my consciousness spreading, splattering all over the road, chunks and smears of it liberated by the tire. Everything went white... then black.

I woke to find myself in a bright realm with no walls, a gently whirling mixture of azure and alabaster all around me. A breeze, as warm as breath and as sustaining as truth, blew past or through me like an exhalation of sheer purity and uncomplicated care. There were shades, but no shadows. I was floating-- that, or resting on a material so soft and evanescent that it might have been living cotton candy. I twisted my body; the surface, if that's what it was, yielded beneath me, allowing me to orient myself vertically. The light seemed to come from everywhere at once, and despite the strange sensation that I may or may not have been waist-deep in some sort of diaphanous substance, I found that my reorientation provided me no clue as to which way was up. But this did not discomfit me: whatever calm had stolen over me had left me content, not disoriented. I was nestled in the comforting palm of an alien-yet-familiar sky.

The shapes around me might have been clouds. Like clouds, they were open to interpretation: a horse here, an old man's face there, a copse over yonder. I cast about me, descrying shapes, imposing patterns on formlessness. I felt no pressure, no hurry: if time flowed in this realm, it flowed in a manner completely unknown to me. I felt buoyed and comforted, as if this realm where more than a mere place: every part of it felt alive, suffused with meaning, and I too was alive to enjoy it.

But after a second or a century of contemplation, I spied a solid shape winging toward me. It reminded me of a bird, and as the shape neared me, I saw that it was a mighty eagle. Its approach caused me no fear; I stared at it in awe and fascination, and with an upwelling warmth in the breast that might have been love. The eagle was many things-- this I could see at a glance-- but above all it was supremely good.

The bird of prey slowed. A tentacle of whiteness snaked across my line of vision like a branch conjured out of nothing, and the eagle settled onto it as if that wispy tendril were as firm as ironwood. The bird eyed me sternly, then it spoke.

"Your work is not done," the eagle said, as if it were pronouncing a sentence. Its voice was both grave and gentle, but hinted at immense power. With one cry, this creature could shatter a mountain.

I blinked. Thought seemed suddenly difficult: I had settled into this realm so comfortably that my mind had contented itself with passivity. I hadn't bothered to ask myself why I was here, or what was to happen next. The eagle had stirred these questions within me, but my sluggish mind could not give them voice.

The eagle seemed to understand my confusion.

"O Kevin," it said, "You were indeed killed in that horrible accident, but your presence in this realm is not condign. There is work for you to do."

I blinked repeatedly, striving to comprehend the import of the eagle's words.

"Come," the eagle said, and took off. Purely by instinct, with no idea how I was capable of this, I took off and followed the eagle. Our path was a strange one; to my merely human mind, it was both simple and complex. We seemed to follow a series of loops and spirals, rushing this way and that, describing some impossible, writhing shape in the holy sky. At the same time, we seemed to be flying as straight as an arrow toward our goal, whatever that goal was. My mind was unable to make sense of the journey.

When we stopped, I found myself standing in what appeared to be the bottom of a vast, living cylinder. A sound that might have been music, or singing, or something else entirely, filled my ears; its general tone was that of gladness and praise. Far above, if "above" was indeed the word, shone an immense light, but the light did not burn: it illumined the cylinder, whose walls moved and danced in rough bands or rings, clearly alive. It was almost as if each ring were composed of imponderable masses of creatures, perhaps creatures like the eagle, dancing in stately rounds. Some rings rotated slowly; others rotated more quickly, each ring the expression of the natures of the creatures that composed it.

Something like confetti began to fall or drift toward me from one of the rings. Before I had time to ask the eagle what it was, a familiar rectangular shape appeared in my hands: my laptop. Dumbfounded, I said nothing as the confetti fell toward me in happy little fragments. The fragments rearranged themselves, coalescing into twelve sheets of paper that continued to fall or fly toward me and my laptop. Quite without my willing it to be so, my arms stretched forth, holding the laptop before me. All twelve sheets of heavenly paper flew smoothly into the machine without a single impact, like ghosts passing through a wall.

"Open your laptop," the eagle commanded. I did so, and saw that the twelve documents had resolved themselves into MS Word email attachments on my screen. I looked at the eagle uncomprehendingly.

"Open the files," ordered the eagle.

I did so... and was confronted with something I knew well: documents in varying states of English, some good, some mediocre, some terrible, all authored by Korean translators versed in business and legal English.

"Proofread these twelve documents, and your entry into the glorious realm is assured. But, be warned: here in the Great Presence, time does have meaning. You have only six hours to proofread all twelve documents, some of which are unwontedly long. Good luck." The eagle gravely turned its head toward the awesome light, gave a great cry, frayed, and disappeared.

A swirl of cloud approached me, helpfully solidifying into a desk and a chair. I flopped the laptop onto the desk, sat in the chair, looked at the computer's clock, and desperately began proofreading.


a possible defense of "Everything is holy"?

Dr. Vallicella's post on contrast arguments may-- or may not-- provide ammunition for a defense of the claim "everything is holy." I need to read his post more carefully before saying more. A quick excerpt:

The idea behind contrast arguments is plausible: if a term applies to everything, or everything in a specified domain, then there is a 'failure of contrast' that drains the term of all meaning. But I will argue that contrast arguments are not probative.


Everything is self-identical and nothing is self-diverse. And this is necessarily so. Hence necessarily there is nothing to which 'self-identical' does not apply. This fact, however, does not render 'self-identical' meaningless. Since it is true that everything is self-identical, it follow[s] that it is meaningful.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"passed" is prologue

Our renovated house has passed its final county inspection. We... are... DONE.


why I'm for spanking

This lying piece of garbage exemplifies one of the reasons why I stopped teaching high schoolers. While I never had to deal with this specific problem back when I was a French teacher (in 1992, cell phones weren't nearly as small or as ubiquitous as they are today), I was daily confronted with similar problems, all of which involved students who lied with perfectly straight faces.

That's why I often envy PE teachers: it's hard to bullshit your way through a 600-yard run. Whatever story you're concocting usually has to involve a doctor's note, and that's easier for a teacher to verify than some of the intricate fantasies woven by students in non-PE classes.

Teaching your kids discipline early in life keeps them from messing up in major ways later on. I don't think all kids respond the same way to all forms of discipline, so please don't lump me in with the "beat 'em with a stick" crowd. But parents do teachers a favor when they actually take the time to parent. Ideally, school shouldn't be a surrogate day care center, and teachers shouldn't be saddled with the burden of coping with their students' psychological baggage. It's too bad that reality rarely matches the ideal.


what day is it?

Starting sometime yesterday, the BK office sent me a blizzard of work to do; I ended up pulling an all-nighter, which left me insensate by morning. While I'm happy to receive so much work (given how little my net pay is, after taxes and bank transfer fees, I need all the work I can get), yesterday's barrage was positively debilitating.

Ah, proofreading. It's worse when you're dealing with a long document written in poor English. Sometimes it's hard to know which cuts of the scalpel will salvage the bloody mess in front of you, which stitches can be tightened without pulling another part of the wound asunder. A correction in one spot of the paragraph might end up changing the intended meaning of the entire paragraph. If that happens, is it possible to preserve the change you've made while also making some new changes elsewhere? Or will you, in so doing, wreck the conceptual structure and be forced to start anew with the original bloody mess?

None of the little linguistic disasters proved impossible to surmount last night and this morning. Two of the seven documents I proofed were, truth be told, excellently written. But the remaining five documents were fairly mangled when they rolled into the ER; even the shorter docs were slow going. I hope the end result is pleasing to the powers that be; it's my understanding that BK does a re-review, after the proofreader has done his work, before finalizing any given article.

Here's hoping they don't dump such a load on me tonight. My contact kept apologizing, in her emails, for the workload, but it was apparently an emergency, hence the inundation.

BK has been mailing me copies of their magazine. I flipped through the January edition and recognized dozens of articles that I'd proofed. February is going to be pretty much an all-Kevin show at this rate. We'll see.

I'm about to eat a late lunch. The Verizon cable/DVR box is on the fritz for some reason; the power won't go on. As a result, I'm yanking out a Korean DVD to watch: "Lady Vengeance," which I've never seen before. I hope your day's going well; mine's been something of a daze, and I'm not sure I like feeling so out-of-rhythm.


taxes, taxes, taxes

In Oregon, they're seriously contemplating a 1900% hike on beer tax.

In Australia, which has had enough problems with those massive fires, they're planning on taxing every flush of the toilet.

Break out the Fremen stillsuits.


Monday, February 16, 2009

ha ha! wrong again!

So it turns out that Janis Gold is not the mole, which means I'm wrong yet again. Instead, the most obvious candidate for mole turned out actually to be the mole! I had dismissed him early on simply because he looked like a shady, unlikeable character from the very beginning. "Surely the '24' scripters wouldn't go with someone so obvious, would they?" thought I. Ha ha-- a thousand kicks to the groin for my naivete!

Is it my imagination, or is "24" underperforming this season? While it's still gripping TV, it doesn't seem quite as gripping as in times past. On the bright side, if I keep making predictions that turn out wrong, this means two things: (1) the writers are still good enough to keep me guessing, and (2) good ol' Bill Buchanan has a chance to get through the day alive.

I was happy to see that the battle for Agent Walker's soul continues. At this point, her internal struggle is probably the best subplot in the show: she represents the American people at large, and their struggle in dealing with the ethics of counterterrorism.


feel them bad boys twitch!

This YouTube vid gives new meaning to the expression "playing with yourself." Be sure to read the interview.

(Don't worry: this is safe for work, but it might still leave you unsettled.)


what do you know about Hwaseong City?

I'm proofing an article about Hwaseong City (Hwaseong, literally "firestar," is the Sino-Korean designation for Mars). According to this article, Hwaseong was rated as the city that underwent the most expansion in the space of a decade. I've never heard of it, but if you've been there, feel free to write a comment describing the place, and whether it'd be worth a visit when I'm back in Korea.


bring back Neanderthals!

An interesting preemptive argument, contra bioethics ombudsmen, in favor of bringing back Neanderthals, Jurassic Park-style:

If we discovered a small band of Neanderthals hidden somewhere, we’d do everything to keep them alive, just as we try to keep alive so many other endangered populations of humans and animals — including man-biting mosquitoes and man-eating polar bears. We’ve also spent lots of money reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished. Shouldn’t [we] be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?

I'd be all in favor of bringing back ancient life forms for scientific study, but the above argument isn't the best way to persuade people. By the logic implied in that paragraph, we should feel permitted to bring anything and everything back from the dead. Is that really what's being argued, here? Are we prepared for the consequences?

UPDATE: Follow the link and read some of the interesting comments.


le mépris machinal

Agent Smith (enfleshed in Bane), "The Matrix Revolutions":

Still don't recognize me? I admit it is difficult to even think encased in this rotting piece of meat. The stink of it filling every breath, a suffocating cloud you can't escape. Disgusting. How pathetically fragile it is. Nothing this weak is meant to survive.

Yes. That's it, Mr. Anderson. Look past the flesh. Look through the soft gelatin of these dull cow eyes and see your enemy!

John/Cavil on the base ship, "No Exit" episode of BSG:

In all your travels, have you ever seen a star supernova? Well, I have. I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the universe: other stars, other planets, and eventually other life. A supernova-- creation itself. I was there; I wanted to see it and be part of the moment.

And do you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull! With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air.

I don't want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can't even express these things properly because I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me.

I'm a machine, and I could know much more. I could experience so much more. But I'm trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way.

Oh, how the machines hate us. Cavil introduces an interesting wrinkle, though: some machines also hate themselves.


your sae ong ji ma links

Right here, in case you've never heard this very popular Asian story, which probably originates in China.


I guess Sean Penn is happy

Hugo Chavez no longer has to worry about term limits.


Sunday, February 15, 2009


People who stereotype Asians as stoic really need to see this hilarious video, which has become an instant YouTube hit. The vid depicts a woman's highly theatrical tantrum after she misses a flight.

How we express anger and frustration is largely culturally determined. Western and Asian notions of "dignity" can be, at times, almost shockingly alien to each other. A Kiwi buddy of mine, while living in Seoul, refused to engage in the Korean practice of running desperately across the street before the crosswalk signal turned red. His reasoning: "I'd rather keep my dignity." This makes perfect sense from a Western standpoint, wherein dignity might be associated with a measured, deliberate pace when walking (truth be told, the upper echelons of Korean Confucian hierarchy would probably agree with this idea; I have a hard time imagining a high-powered Korean CEO sprinting desperately across the street). But most Koreans don't worry about how they look when crossing the street; that behavior is somehow unrelated to whatever concept of dignity is in operation.

The above-linked video shows the woman rolling around on the floor-- behavior that we in the West would immediately associate with children. I think most Koreans would also giggle at this sort of behavior, but in my experience living in Seoul-- a city that attracts all types-- it's conceivable that some Seoulite will be seen doing much the same thing, or something similarly undignified from a Western standpoint.

Koreans have their own varied but largely overlapping standards for dignified behavior; they've also got their own laundry list of Western behaviors they consider undignified. Westerners will, for example, throw tantrums while in line for something at a Korean establishment-- a bank, say, or a subway station, or the Seoul Immigration Office. Koreans often turn away in embarrassment or openly stare at such behavior. The shame is worse, from the Korean perspective, if the Westerner acts this way toward a superior in the company. Misuse of the Korean language-- not knowing which grammatical endings are required in polite company, for example-- can be a source of embarrassment. Little things that Westerners do, such as drinking directly from a bottle or can while in a group, can be viewed as the sign of someone with no sense of sanitation. Kentucky Fried Chicken isn't advertised as "finger-licking good" in Korea because finger-licking isn't supposed to occur at table (or anywhere else, really): that's why God made napkins.

A good book about the ways in which we offend each other is an oldie-but-goodie by hagwon king Min Byeong Cheol (Min Byung Chul) titled Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans. I don't know whether this tiny book is still in print, but it's a very good, very quick, and often funny look at cultural differences between Koreans and Americans. Much that Koreans find ugly will be found ugly in Japan and China and other Asian countries as well; much that Americans find ugly will be found ugly by other Westerners.

I've seen some truly embarrassing public behavior while living in Seoul, and not all of those people were drunk. I'm tempted to say that such behavior occurs in Korea with greater frequency than it does in the US, but the truth is that I don't know that for sure. As an American suburbanite, I have little basis for comparison: big cities like Seoul (and we shouldn't forget that Seoul, with its 12 million people, is huge) play host to all sorts of people, including a lot of crazies. Here in northern Virginia, we don't see as many crazies thanks to the much lower population density, but a quick trip up the road to the seedier parts of DC (and even some of the more whitewashed parts, too!) will reveal that we have our own home-grown stock of nutjobs and generally undignified folks. I've seen plenty of undignified behavior in Paris and Rome as well-- some of it from rude public servants.

While I'm not a fan of cultural relativism, I do think that complex issues, such as the wide topic of cultural differences, deserve to be approached with a measure of caution and care. The behavior of that woman in the airport might be unseemly, but in America we've got people who sue McDonald's for millions of dollars after they spill hot coffee on themselves. Which tantrum is worse?


SR Donaldson's Fatal Revenant

I've been consumed by Stephen R. Donaldson's Fatal Revenant, the second book in a tetralogy called The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I'm a big fan of the First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (mostly the First Chronicles), which subvert the Tolkien template and inject heavy doses of Hinduism and CS Lewis-style cosmology into the mix.

What distinguishes the Final Chronicles from the first two is that this one involves time travel. Donaldson seems to play fast and loose with this; he goes with the idea that history has a certain flow and momentum to it, allowing it to rebound from any damage inadvertently caused by time travelers; this resilience comes courtesy of the Law of Time, the fundamental law of sequence and causality. As long as the Law of Time isn't violated too deeply, history will remain intact. One powerful character in Fatal Revenant devotes his efforts to "cleaning up" history in the wake of activities by the protagonist, Linden Avery, who is transported 10,000 years backward against her will.

The history described in these novels is too complex to get into, so I won't even try that in this post. If you're a fan of the earlier chronicles, you'll probably enjoy the first two books of the Final Chronicles-- the only two out so far. Donaldson's story includes all the familiar Donaldsonian themes and tropes: women under pressure, beings with no eyes (or none that function), cosmic-scale machinations, self-sacrifice, madness (plenty of mad characters in Fatal Revenant), meditations on the nature of freedom and service, love of the land and of the wider Earth in general, and so on. Readers might find Linden Avery's inability to summon the power of the white gold to be a head-scratcher, given her mastery of it in the previous trilogy; Donaldson provides a thorough explanation for Linden's current incapacity, but it never quite rings true.

Give the books a read if you're interested. And even if you're a newbie to Donaldson's world, you can start the Final Chronicles without having read the previous two: Donaldson provides a lengthy "What Has Gone Before" intro in both of the new books, just as he did with all his previous novels-- except, obviously, the very first one.