Friday, October 31, 2008

Review of Personal Development for Smart People by Steve Pavlina

I first heard of Steve Pavlina when a friend referred me to his blog during his polyphasic sleep experiment. For over 150 days, Steve abandoned sleeping nights, and instead took six, twenty minute naps a day. I was immediately intrigued. And the more of his writing I read, the more I liked the message.

There are hundreds of articles on his website, all about how to grow as a person. His approach is an intriguing mix of hippie, mainstream American, and strait-up crazy person, and from my perspective, the best of each. His thinking and writing is decidedly left-brained, and he doesn’t shy away from financial or career growth issues. At the same time he eats a 100% raw-vegan diet and talks with dead people.

From no other author have I found such accessible, intelligent, practicable personal development advice, and rarely such a warm and inviting tone. So when Steve announced he was publishing a book and would offer free advance copies to bloggers who would review it, I immediatly wanted to participate. That was the original impetus to start and grow this blog, and this review is the result.

The aims of the book - Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth - are ambitious on at least two counts:

  1. To be sufficiently different from and superior to the hundreds of articles on his website to satisfy his massive readership (he claims two million visitors a month).

  2. To lay out the fundamental principles of personal development.

The book is highly structured, and will probably work better for "thinkers" than for "feelers" on the MTBI T/F spectrum, which may be what Steve alludes to with his tag line “Personal Development for Smart People.”

The book is divided in two parts. The first is the seven fundamental principles of personal growth. Truth, love and power are the three primary principles. From those are derived oneness (truth + love), courage (love + power), and authority (power + truth). And the seventh is intelligence, which is defined as alignment with truth, love and power, and is the "highest form of human expression." Here’s a graphical representation:

I’m not convinced that these principles represent any sort of underlying order to personal growth, mostly because I'm unconvinced there is any such order. The three primary principles seem right to me, but the secondary ones feel forced. I’m not sure, for example, that courage is a combination of love and power. In the section on how to build courage, one of the suggestions is to educate yourself, which I agree is a great way to overcome timidity, but seems to come from the primary principle of truth, not love or power. I can also think of no compelling reason why personal growth should rest on such a neat foundation.

As a tool though, a way of thinking about and planning growth and handling life’s problems, I think this scaffolding will be valuable. Perhaps it is the neatest possible representation of an inherantly complex, chaotic pursuit.

Each of the seven principles is broken down into its key components. Truth, for example, breaks down to perception, prediction, accuracy, acceptance, and self-awareness. Each component is explained and described, and sometimes a how-to improve this component is given. On prediction, for example, he says, we grow from exposure to new patterns: when our expectations are met it reinforces our beliefs; when they are not, it forces us to build new ideas about how the world works. Thus we should seek stability and routine only as a launching pad for exploring new areas. In order to side-step denial we can bring the process into the conscious part of the mind by making conscious predictions and comparing our expectations to how reality turns out to operate. He also says that emotions are predictions: when we have negative expectations we feel bad and when we have positive expectations, we feel good. That’s just one component of one of the seven fundamental principles. I wanted to detail it to illustrate the depths the book reaches.

For each principle, he also lays out some common blocks to alignment with the principle. For truth, for example: media conditioning, social conditioning, false beliefs, emotional interference, addictions, immaturity, and secondary gain. And each block is described and explained with similar detail. As I read these, many of the obstacles to growth that I face, some of which I've been struggling for years to elucidate, become immediately clear.

Finally, for each principle, he provides several techniques for coming into better alignment. For truth, he suggests a quantitative self-evaluation in various aspects of life (the process is described in detail), journaling on a regular basis, and forgoing all media, at least for a trial period of time.

In the intelligence chapter, there are extensive quizzes and evaluative material to determine where and how you can best serve your personal growth.

The second part of the book details six primary areas of life: habits, career, money, health, relationships, and spirituality. Suggestions are offered for how to improve congruency in each area with each of the seven principles. If that sounds overwhelming, it reads as detailed and useful.

For example, in the section on habits and oneness, there is a discussion of how our habits influence others and how we might be role models to the world with them, and also how we can use habits to develop congruency with the principle of oneness, like going for long walks in nature, smiling at strangers on the street, or offering hugs instead of handshakes.

I thought there was more value in the first part of the book, and it was more fun to read than the second. When I return to the book to do the exercises suggested — which I will begin this weekend — I plan to spend more time in the first section. On the other hand, if I ever feel in need of help in a certain area of life, the organization of the second section would be of great value.

In sum, this is an excellent book and one that I will use for years to come. I fully recommend it to everyone, and especially those who prefer a rational/logical approach to complex issues (which can be hard to find in the “self help” section of a bookstore). I’m not sure that it succeeds in its most ambitious task, but it is still immensely valuable, even to someone who has read almost all of Steve Pavlina’s website.

9/10 stars.


One time a few years ago, my sister and I were doing the six hour drive from our parents' house in Denver to our college town, Durango. On this beautiful drive over and through the Colorado Rocky Mountains, you make one turn and stop at one stop sign, other than that, it's just keep driving southwest.

We had been driving for hours, listening to music and chatting it up as we always did about the meaning of life, or our lives or something, when our conversation slowly came to a natural stop, the album we were listening to ended, and we drove up to the single stop sign on the drive. Did a higher power intend those three things to happen at once? Was it just a coincidence, and I remember that time because it was anomalous? Did our subconsciouses notice that the song and car were slowing, causing us to slow and close our conversation?

I like when timings coincide. When after minutes of silence, two people suddenly start talking at the same time. When you can't make dinner without an onion you don't have, and then your partner comes home after stopping at the store for bread and got onions, just because they were on sale.

This seems like one of those times. Yesterday, after two months of begging for it, Melanie and I moved to Dogye, the town in which we teach. The day before that, after two and a half months of pleading for it, a Dell technician brought me a new, fully functional hard drive. And today, winter arrived in earnest in the Taebaek Mountains. So I today I have a new season, with a new home and a new computer system.

The impetus for me to start building this blog was an offer for an advance copy of a book on the condition that I review it, a review which I will post in a few hours. After that, I plan to change the focus and rhythm of this blog, and start putting more effort into two other websites I'm building. Next Wednesday, after the election, I'm starting a media fast, to free my mind from the information inundation I've been forcing upon it, and free-up a couple of hours a day, to put into yoga, guitar, and the above mentioned website building.

So things are changing, lots of things at once. And it feels great. More on the move, the book, and my various websites to come...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wait... No... Not Quite Moving Day Yet

It seems I blogged a bit too soon when I said that today was moving day.

My mistake was a common one for westerners in Korea. I assumed that plans in Korea are similar to commitments as we make them at home. That, of course, is silly. Decisions in Korea seem to be made hours, if not minutes, before important actions. Discussions and negotiations seem to be replaced by directives from above. Logic and responsibility are thrown out the window. And loud, raucous discussion is needed to sort anything that is even a hair's width outside of standard operating procedure.

Two hours before the moving was scheduled to begin we were informed that the school staff that we had been told would be helping us "with our burdens" was saying it wasn't their responsibility. That and because of the size of the refrigerator and the absence of an elevator in our new building, we would need to rent a large truck that could move the refrigerator through the large windows that are on the side of all Korean apartments. And that to operate the truck, we would need to hire two movers. So the cost will actually be 250,000 won ($173).

Following our insistance that the payment wasn't our responsibility, there was a tremendous amount of discussion, some with us, a lot without us, and finally we were told that we'd actually be moving tomorrow morning. That #4 will come to our apartment at 9:00 and that the question of cost will be settled later.

Will there be new surprises in the 18 hours before we move? It would be quite out of the mold if there weren't...

Moving Day

After two months of expressing our desire to move closer to our school - to our school's administration, to the Samcheok County Education Office, to the Gangwondo EPIK Office, and finally to the head of education in Gangwondo - it's time to move from our old apartment in the 60,000 person seaside town of Samcheok to our new apartment in the 4,000 person mountain town of Dogye.

Last week we saw the apartment, which is roughly half the size and twice as old as the one we live in now. But instead of leaving at 7:40 to take an expensive, nauseating bus ride to get to school, we'll leave at 8:45 and walk down the street, and no amount of space can make up for that.

They keep telling us that the roads are going to be icy and they hope we won't hurt ourselves, and that the boiler has to stay on all the time or it will freeze and explode, and that if we are uncomfortable, they can't help us move again. Apparently, we are yet to convince them that we understand and made our decision conscoiusly. I don't think we've told them that we have both lived through Colorado winters in towns over 8,000 feet; maybe that would've helped. But after another round of what-you-might-not-like, and us agreeing to pay 70,000 won (US$48) for the move (they originally said we'd have to pay 600,000!), they expressed their satisfaction with us at their school, and we all left happy.

Monday we were told that Wednesday was moving day (I had assumed Sunday, so Wednesday is just fine with me), and yesterday we were taken to HomePlus, the local department store, to outfit our new kitchen (no more Teflon and aluminum cookware - yeah!).

Last night we frantically packed all our belongings back into the two suitcases each we brought them here in, plus a couple boxes for what we've already accumulated here. After our classes this morning (and a Dell technician coming to replace my hard drive -- busy day of many transitions), we figure the biggest men at the school will come help us get all our stuff and all the furniture 40km up the mountains to Dogye. How that will happen in a "big rental car" is so far unclear, but we just have to keep trusting and hoping that everything will work out. Speaking of which...

In our meeting on Monday, they asked if were going home for winter break (our contracts stipulate a three week vacation, which was the primary factor in choosing these positions). When I said we wanted to meet my family somewhere, they responded that right now is not a good time for booking travel (with the won's weakness there isn't a good time), but that they would tell us the dates soon, once they decided if "English Camp" would be one or three weeks. Yesterday they said it was to be one week. Which might mean that the other five weeks of vacation time are ours to be in a more hospitable place. It's too early to say for sure yet, but if true, that would more than make up for the trouble we've had so far.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Attacks in Syria, Pakistan

Yesterday the U.S. killed eight people in Syria, just across the border from Iraq. Late last week, using an unpiloted plane, the U.S. killed at least eight children in Pakistan. And again yesterday, in another attack using an unpiloted plane, the U.S. killed ten people in Pakistan, at least in this one it was a militant training camp.

Eight days before the election, and the U.S. has committed what are generally considered acts of war against Pakistan and Syria. The attack in Syria was a first, and we don't know how they might respond. The attacks in Pakistan continue a sharply increasing trend, which has intensified since last week when the Pakistani Parliment unanimously passed a resolution calling on the government to "defend its sovereignty and expel foreign fighters from the region."

First of all, what are they doing attacking a school!? I don't care if it was Al Qaeda Middle School, they were children. How can people claim with a strait face that the U.S. is the primary force for good in the world? They targeted a school.

Secondly, right in lead up to the election, we're pissing off two countries that are most dangerous (Pakistan has nukes, Syria is supposedly armed by Iran), most volatile, and both of which have land disputes with critical allies of ours (Syria with Israel over the Golan Heights, Pakistan with India over Kashmir). A flare up of either of those, directly with the United States, or with our allies would be great for McCain in the election.

So why wouldn't we think that the Republicans controlling the executive are politically motivated in these actions? They've proven the moral laxness to do just about anything for political reasons time and again. Why not killing brown-skinned children?

Hopefully Syria and Pakistan, who like the rest of the world (save Al Qaeda) have an Obama presidency in the best interests, see through the tactics and restrain themselves.

Yesterday (the 28th) Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi Government Spokesman, reminded the U.S. that the Iraqi constitution disallows Iraqi land being used as a launching area for attacks on neighboring countries.

It's a tired point by now, but bares repeating: U.S. leaders talk about democracy promotion, but ignore the will of people when it doesn't serve us, as here with Iraq's constitution and a couple years ago with Hamas in Palestine.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Apartment Sutation Update

When we got to Gangwon-do, we were placed in an apartment in Samcheok, about 40km from our school in Dogye. Samcheok has a population of over 50k (whereas I would guess Dogye is between 5k - 10k) and feels much more cosmopolitan, and less poor, than Dogye. It's a nice apartment, and I'm sure the administration had our best interests in mind when they chose it, but leaving at 7:40 every morning for a 4,000won bus ride to get to school at 9 just isn't what we had in mind.

So we asked the school what they could do. They said nothing. There are no apartments in Dogye, and besides it's: cold in the winter, no locks on the doors, heating is with oil and is expensive, there's too much poverty, and no cultural activities like Homeplus (the k-mart of Korea). We insisted it was where we wanted to be and after they came back to us and said that it was impossible, we started going up the chain of command asking what could be done. When we had gotten to the Director of Education for the province, we were told, at 4:55 on a Friday afternoon, that there were two places in Dogye that we could see next week. That was last Friday.

On Monday, we were taken to see one apartment that was about half the size of the one we're currently living in, and older, but fine. But it was the apartment of a mother of a student who had no plans to move. So what was available? We asked, through Kim Sun (a 24 year old female teacher who is supposed to be our translator and advocate in dealing with the bureaucracy that is numbers 1, 2, 3 & 4 at the school, all 50+ men in suits) and were repeatedly brushed off with answers like, if you say you like it, we'll contract an apartment.

We were also taken to see a "house" for which the front door entered into the bathroom. Walking strait from the front door, you entered an 8' by 10' room with a light bulb dangling from the ceiling, continuing strait you walk into the third room, 8' by 8' with crooked floors and mold growing through the wallpaper. No kitchen to be seen. So we said no to the house.

Then yesterday, on my way out of a class I was told by four different teachers to go to the teachers' room. When I got there a group of six people were talking about us (this happens a lot, we hear our names, but aren't looked at our attempted to communicate with), and eventually we got a "let's go." So we drove (up a hill that couldn't have been less than 10% and might have been pushing 15%) to an apartment that was also small, but fine. Nicer than the one we had seen the other day, with amazing views. Dogye is high up in the Taebaek Mountain Range, and we're going to be living high up in Dogye.

The apartment is surrounded by wild mountains, has massive windows and sunflowers painted on the wall by the entrance. It's small, but it's clean and feels good. And it's heated by gas, which will avert $400/month heating costs in the winter. And there's a lock on the door. ;)

So we left the apartment feeling great and were dropped off at school, at which point two admin went with the realtor, we could only assume to sign papers. Then in my next class, with Kim Sun, I was told that we could move anytime we wanted next week, and we will have to pay the moving costs. How much? About 600,000 won (~$450). At this I became visibly upset, the first time that's happened so far. I think I probably spoke too fast and hurt Kim Sun's head, but by that afternoon we were told that it had been taken care of and we wouldn't have to pay. You can't blame them for trying. Wait, yes, you can, and I do.

So we're almost done with this drama. The next task will be explaining that we can't possibly take all this furniture to that little apartment. The huge TV that's currently in a closet here can't come with us... I hope they have somewhere to take it. I had thought of asking for a travel reimbursement for the two months we did this crazy commute, but at this point I think I'll just settle for it being done.

Today is pay day #2. Both of our paychecks had errors last month... we'll see if that's been taken care of now, or if we'll have to beat our heads against the bureaucracy for that too. Either way, the won is trading at 1,400 to the dollar, fully a third less than when we decided to come here, and it's time for me to make a transfer to dollars. Yikes.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Voting from South Korea

A couple of days ago, I sent in my absentee ballot - which I think ought to be renamed... can you think of one positive or even neutral phrase with the word absentee in it? All day after I mailed it, I had a Paul Simon line running through my head: "I registered to vote today, felt like fool."

It was expensive to vote from Korea. 16,500 won (US$11.60 today, because the won has been getting beaten on for a while now) for each of two mailings, but at least they could be split with Melanie and mailed together.

The Boulder County Clerks Office was on it. They answered our questions by email, helped with foreign addressing, and we can check if our votes have been counted online.

The whole transaction took a little over a month, with us shelling out for 3 - 4 day mailings each time. Because of an earliest date for requesting ballots, it's unclear whether we could have used surface mail. But at least we have a reliable public postal system here. In less developed countries, folks have to pay up for a private courier each time, which would get very expensive. I stumbled upon a suggestion to use the army's mailing system for all official election correspondence - seems like a good idea to me.

To the actual voting. I think my subconscious was calling me a fool because I voted strait down the party line. I like to think of myself as a critical thinking, independent, well-informed citizen. And in this, my most important civic duty, I could have just copied off the Boulder County Dem's cheat sheet.

I'm not at all embarrassed to have voted for Barrack Obama. I was a little bit with Kerry in '04, and I stand by my Nader vote (in Colorado) in 2000. As Noam Chomsky notes, despite the cliche, voting for the lesser of two evils is in fact voting for less evil, and the decision to do that should be balanced against the potential benefits of voting for a third-party candidate.

I am a little embarrassed to have voted for Mark Udall for the Senate. He's a Democrat that has been representing my congressional district for almost a decade. The Colorado 2nd is one of the most liberal districts in the country, and I would have liked to have seen more fierce advocacy on the environmental front and the stand-up-to-President-Bush front. But, I'd love to see the Democrats achieve a filibuster-proof majority (60-40) and push some real legislation through. I think there is some real chance for reform in the coming terms. And I'm not sure the legislative branch is the place for third party support - it seems a third party executive would be much more powerful.

On the amendments, I struggle with affirmative action and so was tempted to vote yes on amendment 46. I think it's the wrong way to right historical and contemporary racism. But it doesn't need to be banned in the constitution. And what really got me is this argument: we all know that many jobs are gotten by networking - who you know, rather than what you know. That tact doesn't work for someone with poor parents, who is striving to enter a new societal stratification. Affirmative action works to counter-act the old-(white)-boys club that clearly still dominates the sphere of power in the United States.

I wanted to vote for amendment 50, not so much on any ideology, but that I still play a bit of poker, and poker with $5 bet limits is a little like fat-free ice cream. But I find deplorable the political maneuvering that led to the increased revenues from increased betting limits going to community colleges (they should be funded, massively, but strait-away, not through this obvious political scheme). Highway 6, a two lane road up one of the most beautiful canyons I've even seen has become an accident magnet, and the new highway built to connect I-70 to the casino towns is a scar a top otherwise pristine mountains, save the new suburban-style subdivisions built there in the middle of nowhere. And as much as I'd like to be able to play real poker an 45 minutes from Boulder, it's just not worth having Atlantic City 45 minutes from my home.

Finally, my favorite amendment, 53 - criminal liability of executives for the actions of corporations - was withdrawn in order to get a group of influential business-owners to oppose an anti-union amendment elsewhere on the ballot. I nevertheless shaded in the yes box and quietly dreamed of a day when business will have no more power, no more wiggle room, and no less culpability than do us sentient beings.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why Obama Supporters Can't Afford to Rest

It's weird being abroad in the lead up to the election. I'm still connected to the US media, but only the media sources I deliberately choose. When you're in the US, you see headlines as you walk down the street, watch CNN as you wait for your teller at the bank and you hear people talking.

I get the sense that the feeling at home is that Obama has the election all but wrapped up. And with good reason - Obama has an real and steady lead, McCain's unfavorables are high and rising (and Palin's are worse) and Obama raised more money in the last month than McCain has had to spend in the entire campaign.

Nevertheless, I think the sentiment is dangerous. So when MoveOn sent out an email yesterday asking anyone with a blog to spell out some reasons why Obama supporters shouldn't be resting easy, I thought, yes I'd be happy to be your tool.

So here are six reasons why it's time to quiet the "it's in the bag" talk and get back to work:

1. The polls could be off. Many pundits are discounting the idea that voters may be disinclined to tell pollsters they're against Obama for fear of being perceived as racist. We've never had a national referendum on a black man before. No one knows what effect race may have on election day, but it absolutely could still be a factor.

2. Electioneering. Remember Ohio in 2004? Remember 2000? Wonder why Republicans are talking so much about ACORN? Voter suppression efforts have begun already, and the new requirement for a state-issued ID will make them much more effective than in the past. Note: 1/5 black people in the US don't have a state issued ID.

3. Obama's demographic. Lots of factors affect who shows up on election day and who stays home. Much of Obama's base is young and/or poor first time voters - folks that could easily stay home on election day under the impression that the contest was in the bag.

4. October surprise. For the last month or two, I've felt like the Bush Administration (I originally wrote "we" - ha!) has been trying to pick a fight with Pakistan or Venezuela/Bolivia. Anything like that, a terrorist attack, good news from Iraq or the bin Laden front would give McCain a huge bump.

5. Things change in the final weeks. Al Gore was seven points down just days before the 2000 election and went on to win the popular vote, in 1980 Regan was eight points down in late October. Almost all of the presidential contests in the last forty years have tightened in the final days. This one will too.

6. Margin matters. Political capital is earned in margins of victories. If Obama is at 353 today, getting to 380 means he could do more to get the country on the right track once in office. His efforts also help Democrats running for Congress, which I think has something to do with implementation of policy too.

So keep doing what you're doing. Spread the word that it's not over until, as my father taught me, the fat lady sings. And for the love of your country - vote!

Tomorrow, I'll discuss my experience voting from 6,000 miles away...

Monday, October 20, 2008

What Should Be & What Is

"The preoccupation with what should be is estimable only when the respect for what is has been exhausted."

Suppose we substitute "concern" or some other more benign word for "preoccupation," what do you think of the idea?

I read it this afternoon and it has since proven to be a tough thought to shake. I'll explain the context in which it came up and some of my thoughts on it soon. But I'm interested to hear what anyone who is reading this might think about it...

Election Prediction

Popular vote: 50% Obama, 48% McCain.

I hope I'm off on this. I hope momentum keeps building for Obama and he ends up with 350+ electors. But I think it will tighten. We'll see if before November 4th they can find bin Laden or goad Pakistan into a war. And we'll see just how badly they can suppress poor and black voters.

Anyway, this is my prediction. I'm happy to accept wagers.....

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Review of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I picked up this book - about an attempt to summit Mt. Everest gone horribly wrong - while in the middle of two non-fiction books. I wanted a story to read before bed one night and figured I'd read a bit and then put it down until some more convenient time. But Krakauer's writing has tremendous gravity - I find it very difficult to put down. After three days of reading before bed, on the bus and between classes, I had finished it. For those three days, I felt like I was part of an Everest expedition.

I should have seen it coming. I remember when I was given Into the Wild, Krakauer's story of recent Emory Univeresity graduate Chris McCandless running away from society and into the Alaskan wilderness. I read that with a similar voraciousness, and then read it again, and then again.

I think the draw is largely in the subject matter - I identified strongly with McCandless in my college years, and I find it easy now to identify with Krakauer and the tourist-come-climbers in Into Thin Air. Even more alluring though is Krakauer's writing style.

Krakauer writes in a very compelling manner. His ability to put the reader in situations far from anything we've experienced is second-to-none. While reading, I felt a part of the climb, as though I were on the mountain struggling to breathe the thin air while ascending the Lhotse Face against gale-force winds.

The story started as an assignment from Outside magazine to cover the commercial expeditions that guide clients up Everest in increasing numbers each year. It is a controversial subject, and one that landed square in the lime light after the tragedy described in Into Thin Air.

Krakauer travels to Everest with Adventure Consultants, the pre-eminent high alpine guiding company (and at $65,000 by far the most expensive). The group is led by Rob Hall, among the world's most accomplished climbers and guides. At the time they began, there were over a dozen groups on the mountain, ranging from outfits as tight as Rob's to a team shooting an IMAX movie to a solo Swede who had traveled from Stockholm to Everest entirely under his own power (on a bike to Kathmandu, then walking) to groups at best marginally qualified. Many mused early on that the lack of high alpine experience among climbers could cause trouble high on the mountain.

Krakauer does a marvelous job of describing the process of climbing Everest. The reader feels what it might be like to cross the massive crevasses of a glacier's fall out on lashed-together aluminum ladders in mountaineering boots and crampons; how it might feel to breathe air with just a third the oxygen we are used to; and what it's like to enter into a situation in which you know your life is on the line under a hired leader with other clients whose abilities you don't necessarily trust.

The bulk of the book takes place on "summit day," May 10, 1996, when 34 climbers, guides and Sherpas departed from 26,000 feet just after midnight to try to reach the top of the world. Krakauer aims for an objective journalist's reporting of the facts and analysis of the causes of the tragedy, and he does an admirable job for someone so deeply involved in the events.

In the end the book pulls off a rather amazing feat: it represents an objective journalistic account of an event, and at the same time an emotive, evocative narrative of one man's experience of an incredible situation.

If you have any interest in mountaineering and Everest, the limits of human potential, or group dynamics in high intensity situations, I would unhesitatingly recommend this book. It is also just a fine read.

10/10 stars.

Friday, October 17, 2008

What if... ?

I got an email from my uncle this morning that does a nice job providing a fresh perspective on the qualifications and character history of the Obamas and the McCains. Maybe you know someone who needs to see this?

I think the double standard arises less, though not negligibly, out of racism, as the message portends. I think it grows more out of the treatment the two parties receive from the press, the way the two party's political operatives do their jobs (as I wrote about a couple days ago), and the sorts of people who, generally, support each party. For evidence of that, just look at the perception of the military service of Senator Kerry and President Bush in the 2004 campaign.

Anyway, here's the message. I'm curious, what do you all think -- is it racism or is it political affiliation-ism?


What if the Obamas had paraded five children across the stage, including a three month old infant and an unwed, pregnant teenage daughter?

What if John McCain was a former president of the Harvard Law Review?

What if Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class?

What if McCain had only married once, and Obama was a divorcee?

What if Obama was the candidate who left his first wife after a severe disfiguring car accident?

What if Obama had met his second wife in a bar and had a long affair while he was still married?

What if Michelle Obama was the wife who not only became addicted to pain killers but also acquired them illegally through her charitable organization?

What if Cindy McCain graduated from Harvard?

What if Obama had been a member of the Keating Five? (The Keating Five were five United States Senators accused of corruption in 1989, igniting a major political scandal as part of the larger Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s.)

What if McCain was a charismatic, eloquent speaker?

What if Obama couldn't read from a teleprompter?

What if Obama was the one who had military experience that included discipline problems and a record of crashing seven planes?

What if Obama was the one who was known to display publicly, on many occasions, a serious anger management problem?

What if Michelle Obama's family had made their money from beer distribution?

What if the Obamas had adopted a white child?

You could easily add to this list. If these questions reflected reality, do you really believe the election numbers would be as close as they are?

This is what racism does. It covers up, rationalizes and minimizes positive qualities in one candidate and emphasizes negative qualities in another when there is a color difference.

Educational Background:

Barack Obama:
Columbia University - B.A. Political Science with a Specialization in International Relations.
Harvard - Juris Doctor (J.D.) Magna Cu m Laude

Joseph Biden:
University of Delaware - B.A. in History and B.A. in Political Science.
Syracuse University College of Law - Juris Doctor (J.D.)


John McCain:
United States Naval Acade my - Class rank: 894 of 899

Sarah Palin:

Hawaii Pacific University - 1 semester
North Idaho College - 2 semesters - general study
University of Idaho - 2 semesters - journalism
Matanuska-Susitna College - 1 semester
University of Idaho - 3 semesters - B.A. in Journalism

Education isn't everything, but this is about the two highest offices in the land as well as our standing in the world. You make the call.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Brain-Machine Interface"

Scientists in the US have announced a technology that connects the brain to muscles via an electronic gadget. In temporarily paralyzed monkeys, the gadget enabled contraction of arm muscles. The hope is that eventually a similar device would allow para- and quadri-plegic patients to use the limbs they had lost control of. Of course, that sort of treatment is a long-way off, and even further off is signal transmission in the other direction - from the limb to the brain, which is tremendously more complicated. But it's exciting news, isn't it?

The thing with biotechnology is, all progress that is exciting, and especially progress that points to treatment for conditions formerly deemed untreatable, also takes us closer to a hybridization of humanity and technology that most of us find repulsive on an intuitive level.

For example, suppose we had the technology to eliminate a disease such as sudden infant death syndrome (which is basically what the name suggests... apparently healthy babies, usually in their first year, suddenly die), or any other disease you'd hate to bare a child with. One way that might work is to examine the genetics present in several of the mother's eggs, choose one that is free of the gene responsible for the disease, then fertilize and implant that egg. If that technology were developed, we could effectively eliminate any hereditary condition in a generation. Putting aside the question of value in "disease" (have you hung out with a child with Down Syndrome recently?), the same technology opens the door to selecting for any other trait parents might want or not want. In China, where parents are allowed to have only one child, there are currently 1.11 boys born for every girl, probably as the result of selective abortion. It gets pretty freaky pretty fast from there.

Similarly with this technology... in this proof-of-concept study, the monkey's brain was connected to the electronics, which was connected to their arm. What would prevent researchers from connecting one monkey's brain to another monkey's arm? What if we went strait from a computer to the arm? As the technology gets to the point of providing feedback to the brain (which would probably be necessary for any sort of fine motor movement), well, you can use your imagination.

Such is the paradox of technology. The further we develop, seemingly always with the best intentions (ok, sometimes just with the intention of profit), the further we remove ourselves from our humanity.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rachel Maddow and the difference between FOXNews and MSNBC

What's the difference between Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann as opposed to Sean Hanity and Brit Hume? Rachel Maddow nails it in this interview with former Bush speechwriter, David Frum.

Frum comes on Maddow's show to say that the attacks coming from the McCain camp are hurting the country, and by the way, your show, Rachel, is doing the same thing. In the ensuing discourse it becomes clear, to those who weren't sure of it already, that Rachel Maddow is a heavyweight. She stays calm, holds her ground, stays on topic and embarrasses Frum (look for his downcast eyes - he knows he's beat).

But this discussion highlights a bigger, maybe the predominant, trend in today's national politics, especially since 2000. Democrats attack Republicans on issues of policy, experience and competence. Republicans, needing a response, and unwilling as always to defend themselves (After Katrina: "We're not going to play a blame game;" in the financial crisis: "When the house is on fire, you don't want to talk about how it was set."), have to find a way to counter-attack. Since, for the most part, they can't attack on policy matters, both because they've been doing such a crappy job and because the Democrats have been in opposition, they have to resort to personal attacks.

There are legitimate different approaches to policy between the Dem's and the GOP (the role of military force, the allotment of power to federal, state and local governments, etc.), and we see some discussion of them between the campaigns (albeit more from the Obama camp). When personal attacks are made, the Democrats, and Olbermann and Maddow, point to personal shortcomings that are relevant to the capacity to lead (involvement in political scandals, temper, competence), where Republicans and their supporters in the media seem to be simply grasping for any mud they can find (Clinton's voice makes men's balls shrivel, Obama is a terrorist), because it's all they can do right now.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

School Meetings & Loving Kindness

The administration at our school decided yesterday that we ought to be present for weekly meetings. I think these sorts of meetings, all the teachers and most of the admin, 4:30 - 5:00 on Monday afternoons, are quite common in Korean public schools, and if memory serves, I think it was stipulated in our Gangwon-do EPIK contracts that we must attend staff meetings. We had been excused from them for the last few weeks though, presumably on the grounds that we couldn't understand anything that was said during them, but I think the actual cause was a lack of chairs in the teachers' room, since the onus for reintroducing us seemed to be the delivery of two new chairs to the teachers' room.

So what do you do in a 30 minute meeting when you can't understand anything that's said? Probably much the same things you do in a 30 minute meeting when you can understand everything that's said.

I studied Korean fashion a bit. The three administrators sitting in front of us (#'s 1, 2 and 3, naturally) were wearing ties that were, respectively, pink with a red-white-green candy cane pattern, peach with a thick plaid pattern that could put my 1990's flannel shirts to shame, and purple with what seemed to be liberally applied glitter all over it.

After the fashion inquiry, I noticed there were exactly the same number of teachers wearing glasses and not wearing glasses, I memorized the days the week from the agenda (il, wul, hwa, su, mog, geum, to), and then did some loving-kindness meditation. This is something I learned in Vipassana courses as metta meditation, and had fallen out of the habit of doing since I last left Korea, but having come back to it, I just have to share it with you... it is almost magically powerful.

I simply look at a person and think some variant of 'we are of the same source, I feel deep love and compassion for you and wish for blessings in your life.' At the same time, I try to energetically open my heart to the person, which may sound pretty woowoo, but I suspect if you try it, you'll see that it's not so strange or difficult. When I do this, I notice a number of things, first I do feel a deep love for and connection with the individual I'm focused on, secondly I feel a deep peace and happiness come over me (The first time I did this was on a subway in Korea 2.5 years ago. I remember thinking that I had somehow cheated the emotional circuitry in my brain, because it couldn't possibly be that easy to be so deeply happy). Finally, I also notice that the body language of those surrounding me frequently opens toward me, probably as a result of changes in my body language, though I'm not yet ready to rule out a direct-mental communication that tips people off to my loving intentions. And if that sounds a lot woowoo, well sure, fine. But take fifteen seconds during your next meeting and try this, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Trials of Living Abroad

Life in rural Korea, in Samcheok, Gangwon-do, is hard. It's often frustratingly hard in surprising ways, and at the same time, it's often pleasantly easy in surprising places as well.

When I'm feeling frustrated by the difficulties, I often think of two groups in similar, but strikingly different situations. One are immigrants to the United States, especially Latinos, who come in as an economic underclass facing massive discrimination. In contrast, we are flown here, given apartments, paid well, and put in professional positions of respect. On top of that, our native culture is highly regarded, if not worshiped, by Koreans. I can't imagine struggling with everything we do here, and adding to that discrimination, economic hardship, and, for some, the constant anxiety of being perpetually vulnerable to arrest.

The other situation I frequently contrast against my own is those that lived in Korea, or any alien culture, ten, twenty or a hundred years ago. Today, I read the same media as I did at home in the morning and watch the same Daily Show at night. I can talk to my parents, or even video conference, at the push of a button with Skype. There are myriad websites, in English, to guide me, both literally and figuratively, through this strange land. I can get Chickpeas in Seoul and Turkish food in Busan. I could probably even order food from home if it got to that point.

Don't get me wrong, I do miss Triscuts, and it is still a massive pain in the ass to do something as simple as taking a bus (we tried and failed to get to a certain valley for a hike on Saturday... we got instructions from a reasonably-competent-at-English tourist kiosk, but when we got off the first bus at Donghae hyoga sa guri, the second bus to Mureung just wasn't there. What went wrong? How could we possibly know that?). There is precious little to normalize one's self to here, and it is deeply exhausting to be immersed in a foreign culture and foreign language for over 8 hours a day. I've noticed that lately I'm getting self-conscious about being hairy, something Koreans are conspicuously not.

But the things that really hurt are the goings-on at home that I'll have to miss for being so far away. I few weeks ago, I was backing up pictures and came across some videos my family had made last Christmas when we did an Iron Chef style cooking contest. I can eat double Triscuts in 2010 to make up for this year (and I will), but you only get so many Christmases, and it's mildly heart breaking to realize just what you're missing.

Yesterday, I got a pre-invitation to the wedding of one of my best friends from high school, and my first close male friend to be getting married. It's on a Friday next July, and all other obstacles aside, since I don't have any flexible vacation time, it's logistically impossible for me to get there. I once snuck out of a meditation retreat two days early to go to this guy's college graduation party, and now I'm going to miss the biggest celebration in his life. There are so many things from home I can download or mail order, but the people that are dear to me keep living their lives, and I miss a little bit of them every day I'm away.

I suppose the obvious retort to that is that I make new friends and gain new experiences here that I would otherwise miss, and that's true, and I think on balance, it's a good deal for me. But it's hard to know that friends' once-in-a-lifetime celebrations and those family gatherings that are the cornerstone of what makes living life so precious are being missed.


ps. That was a lot of sentimentalism. If you missed it, I posted some Korean drumming from The 2008 Seoul Drumming Festival, but it never showed up at the top of the blog. It's here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

3 Pictures, No Theme

If Korea's economy is slowing (and it is), no one seems to have told the shoppers this E-Mart, a large department store, in Donghae.

"King of the Beetles." Certainly the weirdest video game I've seen to date.

Dinner. In my waxing omnivorism, this was the first time I've bought a fish from a store and prepared it myself in Korea. At the store, I pointed to a healthy looking fish, and (thankfully) a nice young man took it behind the counter and de-headed and de-gutted it for me. I was surprised to learn that the fish was priced by the fish, as opposed to by the weight. And at 2,400won (currently about $1.85) it was quite the deal. I think I'll be doing this more often. We made ssambap - lettuce wraps filled with rice, fish, vegetables and a fermented soybean and chili paste. I gotta say, for my first time frying fish, I think I did darn fine job of it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Martial Law and Posse Comitatus

The Army recently announced that the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team - which has spent 3 of the last 5 years on active duty in Iraq, including participating in the Battle of Fallujah - will be stationed on U.S. soil "as an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters... They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control" (Army Times, 9/30/08).

Add to that the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007, which gives the President the ability to deploy troops domestically, basically whenever he determines they're needed to maintain order (note: that act expired this year, but Still-President Bush issued a signing order declaring he was not bound by its repeal).

Add to that the economic crisis ("manmade emergency?") and the upcoming election, and it starts to look like the stage is set for martial law. I've long had suspicions about the succession of President Bush. I have a deep fear that come hell or high water, the cabal that has been running the country for eight years is going to find a way to continue running it.

Speaking of martial law, check out the comments of Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), on the recent bailout bill: "The only way they can pass this bill is by creating and sustaining a panic atmosphere. That atmosphere is not justified. Many of us were told in private conversations that if we voted against this bill on Monday that the sky would fall, the market would drop two or three thousand points the first day, another couple of thousand the second day, and a few members were even told that there would be martial law in America if we voted no."

US Congresspeople were threatened with martial law. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 is dead. And taxpayer money continues to be given to the largest corporations in the country. Will there come a time when we apply the label fascist to the United States Government?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Dirty Things Koreans Say

My three favorite utterances thus far...

"I will ride you after work."
- My ever-so-sweet, 24 year old co-teacher, Kim Sun, trying to offer a ride home.

(to Melanie) - "Does Michael do good things to you?"
- Tom Cruise (a teacher so-named for his handsomeness and cool, detached demeanor), I hope asking about my kindness and not in the spirit of Springsteen's "does he do to you the things that I do?"

"I want to do the piano."
- A rambunctious 6th grade boy expressing the trials of puberty.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I've taken a pay cut of 25%

The numbers on the left of the graph show how many won are needed to "buy" a US Dollar.

It just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. Our salaries have become worth fully a quarter less since we signed our contracts at the end of July.

When the exchange rate was bouncing around near 1,100 a few weeks ago, I wasn't really worried. I figure there's some volatility in these things, but they tend to be cyclic, and there must be psychological ties to the 1,000-to-1 exchange (there certainly are for those of us who live here, many of whom quote prices in dollars; eg. a 3,500 won bus fare is spoken of as $3.50 (though it's now more like $2.50)). But now, this is starting to freak me out. The ROI from a year in Korea is a lot less with the exchange rate at 1,350:1 than at 900:1 (where it was last time I traded won for dollars). I still think I'm right about the psychological ties to 1,000-to-1, I think it will return to that neighborhood... the questions is, will I be here long enough to see that return, and if not, how long can I wait before "cashing out" my won?

I just saw that the Dow lost 500 points yesterday and is now below 9,500. And unemployment in the U.S. is over 6%. I still have a job, and I haven't lost any value in savings. To those who have lost jobs or are nearing retirement and wondering if it will be possible, I'm sorry. There's always a job teaching English in South Korea waiting for you.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Seoul Drum Festival Videos

As promised, here are some videos from the 2008 Seoul Drumming Festival.

Hae Gum (Korean traditional stringed instrument) and drums. (1:10)

Drumming with multiple drumsticks and elegant dancers. (1:18)

What goes together better than fire and drums? (2:50)

And the finale. Dae Han Min Gook means South Korea... that's what the crowd is chanting. (0:52)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Seoul Trip

Judging by what we lugged back, our trip to Seoul was a great success. We came home with a kilo of oatmeal and four of chickpeas, along with enough tahini to make hummus of all of it. We got lentils and spices galore and coconut milk and baking soda. We got guitars, each; paper lamps, each; and some nice artwork for our apartment's barren walls. Pictures of the booty later, for now here are a few from the trip, which was great fun in itself. Six of us went together, and we quickly found over a dozen others that had come from Gangwon-do, land of nature and quiet, to Seoul, the promised land of foreign food and nightlife, for the three-day weekend.

Our home for the weekend - the Golden Pond Hostel in Haehwa, Seoul - a nice clean place with internet and English-speaking staff. Not far from the action (Itaewon, Dongdaemun, Insadong) but on a subway line that made for a lot of transferring between trains.

Just down the street from our hostel, David poses in front of what must be a big draw for this movie theater. As an aside, Korea is so short on land that everything tends to be built vertically. Next to Gandolff is a box office, above that concession stands and six theaters stacked on top of themselves. After you buy your tickets in a Korean theater, you get on a (usually very crowded) elevator to get to your show.

Melanie lost in a sea of guitars at the Nagwon Arcade. There must have been over a thousand guitars in this shopping center, along with hundreds of pianos, woodwinds, and strings. How do you choose a guitar when there are a thousand at two dozen shops to choose from?

Many of the venders were just reselling goods made in China or Indonesia (I picked up a Korean-made acoustic electric, a "Mass," that I'm very happy with), but some, like this guy working on a flute, made studios of their little shops.

Breakfast! Itaewon - the foreigner district - was like heaven for all of us. We started off with an Indian buffet that had me moaning through the meal. This is Saturday's breakfast at the "Flying Pan" (pretty clever - Asians can't differentially pronounce R & L, so frying sounds like flying), which was soon followed with some Middle Eastern fare. After six weeks of kimchi, it's hard to explain how good this all tasted, though I suppose the smiles on our faces are something of a give-away.

This is in the subway. The superiority of Korean technology, and the integration and availability of it, never fails to amaze me. This woman is watching TV on a portable television, and she's doing it in the subway! What's most amazing about this to me though, is that the TV uses an old-school antenna, like the ones we had on our black and white TVs before cable was ubiquitous. Who would've guessed that that would be whats needed to watch TV on a moving train 80 feet under the earth?

My favorite shop in all of Korea.

When the others decided to go to the fashion district for some shopping Saturday night, Melanie and I broke off and headed for Seoul Forest and the 2008 Seoul Drum Festival. We got there a little late, but were impressed both by the festival, and by Seoul Forest - a nice, big park in a city that doesn't have a lot of them. Videos to come later.

I don't think this means what he thinks it means! I know articles are tough when your first language doesn't use them, but if you're printing thousands of copies of something to sell, don't you think you'd find someone to proof read it? Then again, for Koreans, all that seems to matter is that it has what appears to be English on it.

Finally, here's a 20-second video taken just off the main street in Insadong, the traditional-arts district in Seoul.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Random Pictures

Today is "Sky Opening Day" in Korea, which celebrates the founding of the Korean World and something about a bear eating mugwart and mating with a God. When I asked my 5th grade students what it was, they got right to the point: "red day!" The date is colored red on calendars to indicate that official business, including schools, are closed.

So Melanie and I and some friends are off to Seoul for the long weekend for guitars and Indian food and enough chickpeas and tahini to last through the winter. So I won't be posting a few days and thought I'd leave you with a few pictures. In no particular order, nor with any sense of cohesion...

A home just across the river from the very rural school I teach at on Tuesdays. Looks like an orange tree, doesn't it? But...

A close-up of the fruit on the tree in the previous picture. To the first person that can identify this mystery fruit, I'll send you a prize package of kimchi chocolate.

Say what you will about Korea, they get sustainability here. Selective logging -- keep the forests, reduce the fire danger, create jobs for loggers and get the timber. Down side? Lower profits for logging companies. Another upside? There will still be forests in 50 years, so there might still be logging companies in 50 years.

Korean kids at play at one of our school's several playgrounds.

Spectacular cairns marking a trailhead.

This hive was at least as big as a basketball, and the wasp-like creatures as big as my thumbs. Thankfully not too aggressive though.

And the thing that keeps me sane here -- a lovely girlfriend that makes amazing Mexican food.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Goal Reached

I just got word that I'm getting a free copy of Steve Pavlina's new book. When I started this blog a month ago, my first goal was to get to "a non-embarrassing level of readership" within a month, so that I could take part in Steve's offer of a free copy of the book in exchange for a review on the blog. I'd like genuinely thank all of you who have been reading and helped me reach my goal.

It has been empowering to watch readership and Google rankings for this blog grow. This blog now ranks on the first page of Google's results for many searches that include gangwon-do. As we've been (still) negotiating for an apartment closer to our school, I've felt quite confident knowing that I have this as leverage -- whichever way it turns out, every prospective teacher that does a modicum of research on the program will read about my experience. With a platform like this, I suddenly feel like the esteemed food critic sitting down at a fine restaurant while the kitchen staff goes into overdrive to get his dish just right.

More than that, I've had a long-term goal of building a stream of passive income through websites. This site isn't that, but it's reassuring to know that my writing does well over this medium, and that people will choose to visit a site that I've written. It makes that dream feel more attainable.

So it's worth repeating: thank you for reading.

I'm excited to read and review the book. I love Steve Pavlina's blog for personal development advice and inspiration. If you're not familiar with it, it's definitely worth having a look. And, no that plug was not a part of the book deal. ;^>

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Won Continues to Decline

Today the won has crossed the 1200 to 1 barrier. Our salaries have declined in value nearly 20% since we arrived in Korea one month ago, and even more since we decided to come here. This graph shows how many won it takes to buy a US dollar, over the period that we've been in Korea.

Every time there is bad news from the US markets, the won drops further. On the rare occasion that there is good news, it climbs back up a bit. Whatever happens in the US, I think the won will rebound. The fundamentals of the South Korean economy are sound. If, as John McCain says, American workers are the most productive in the world, Koreans are the hardest working. The average Korean works almost 2,400 hours a year, a full third more than the average American. A comparison of the time children spend studying is even more lopsided.

America is geopolitcally blessed, and South Korea is in a tough spot - no significant natural resources and cut off from Eurasia by North Korea - but the work ethic here will never fail to drive the economy. South Korea is perhaps the only country in the 20th century to have moved from the third-world to first, certainly the only one outside of Europe. If you doubt the resilience of the Korean economy, just look at what happened after the financial crisis and subsequent IMF-imposed disaster of 1997. South Korea will be fine, stronger than ever soon. The question is, will I stay here long enough for the exchange rate to move back in my favor?