- I didn’t know until this week, but both Corey Haim and Gary Coleman died this year. Which means little to me, except that when I was searching for other things, these two cases came up in Google again and again.
- Zenkimchi on the internationalization of Korean food, and how the guys claiming to spearhead it are going wrong… all a case of not knowing their market, and having things backwards. My rule about Korean restaurants isn’t quite the opposite of his title — the best Korean restaurants aren’t always the cheapest, though he’s right that the worst are usually the most expensive — but I find when it comes to Korean restaurants, the ones that look the least fancy usually have a much higher chance of serving decent food. (But, in the town where I discovered this, I also found that most of the local people seemed to be dazzled by how fancy a restaurant looked, as opposed to how good the food was. I was constantly taken to crappy restaurants with big plush couch-style seating and mood lighting. A friend of mine finally snapped and made his students go to the little tiny crappy-looking diner around the corner from our apartment building, which had 닭도리탕 that was to die for. To die for.)
- Teen pregnancy and teen abortion fell faster in Canada than places like the US and Sweden between 1996-2006.
- So there’s a book of essays out about Judy Blume. Not sure why I found it interesting — I think because of the response adults had to how her books helped them cope with being a young person.
- “The Myth of the Teen Brain” (PDF) — an article by Robert Epstein that is full of interesting stuff, including the disturbing fact that teenagers (in the US) are subject to ten times as many behavioral restrictions as normal adults, and twice as many as actuive-duty Marines or prison inmates; the history of the myth that teens are just somehow kinda crazy; the surprising fact that Western-styled schooling and media seem to be linked with the rise of Western-styled delinquency in societies which, absent of those things, had no such thing as “troubled teens”; and some studies that show, actually, they’re just as competent as adults at lots and lots of things. (My theory is, if you took adults and forced them to go to a middle-/high-school like environment, they’d go crazy too.) And here’s a Q&A with Epstein, which touches on the forces that are preventing us from questioning our received notions of teenhood — for example, drug companies. After all: “More money is now being spent on psychoactive drugs for teens than on all other prescription medications combined, including antibiotics and acne medications.”
- Not sure if I posted this before, but this fake South Korean Government website is pretty funny. Miss Jiwaku was a bit discomfited by it — understandably, given some of the stuff there — but I pointed out I’ve heard some of these exact Konglish phrases, like “chocolate man” (to describe black people) used in real life, by regular people (not, I’m trying to say, the Korean equivalent to Rush Limbaugh) and that some of the attitudes being lampooned are enshrined as far up as national laws (such as the idea of AIDS being a “foreign” disease — not anymore, folks!). By the way, the site design is also modeled on Korean web design: non-clickable JPG images featuring weirdly manic people. I have to say, regrettably, that the most recently-added page isn’t as good. (It feels like a personal rant, barely reworked for the site.) Skip “Make Money” and check out some of the other pages.
Last semester, I think it was, one of my students asked me what I thought about “나영이 사건” as an article topic for the campus English magazine for which students write articles in my journalistic writing course. If you haven’t heard about it — and you probably don’t live in Korea if you haven’t heard about it — “The Nayeong Incident” was a case in which a 57-year-old man raped a 9-year-old girl in a church. Brian in Jeollanamdo has the basics and some links, and all I can add to that is that there were a lot of variation in explanations floating around at the time. For example, one student said that 12 years is the maximum penalty for sexual assault in Korea (and that 5 years is more usual prison time); another said he “only got 12 years because he said he was drunk” whereas elsewhere the story reported was that he appealed on the grounds that he was drunk at the time.
(EDIT: If you’re easily disturbed, as one reader was, then you might consider giving this next paragraph a pass, as it discusses some graphic details of the case.)
(As a commented on Brian’s page notes: if he was sober enough to use a plunger to extract his semen from the child’s anus and vagina, he was sober enough to think through his actions and, say, decide not to rape and brutalize a child. Not that being drunk would be any kind of excuse, but wiping the kid down, trying to remove his DNA and fingerprints all indicate that he was sober enough to think in the long term in relation to his own life; his inability or refusal to consider her life is not the result of drinking, as much as him being a fucking monster. In other words, it’s an idiotic plea.)
But I’m not posting about this to sensationalize the news. This is a horrible event, and I feel for the child, whose intestines were wrecked and who now likely is in a horrible physical state, and will be for the rest of her life — even if she did recover mentally and emotionally.
That is horrible, but I’m posting about this because I think the reaction we see among people is interesting. For example, in my journalistic writing class, I asked students what they thought would be an appropriate punishment. They didn’t quite follow, so I asked them, “You think 12 years isn’t enough?”
They agreed, so I asked, “How about 15 years?”
Someone else said, “Twenty.”
“But won’t another person say, ‘Twenty years is not enough for such a crime?’”
They agreed, and one student said, “Life. He should be in prison for life.”
Then I asked, “What is the purpose of prison? Is it to prevent him repeating the crime, or to make him suffer? Is it revenge, or protection of other people?”
They were divided about that, so I asked the Russian student in class to talk about gulags a little bit. She did, and we went back to talking about prison and agreed that whether or not it is effective, the idea underlying prison — the model — is rehabilitation. Actually, we all pretty much agreed that the model is ineffective. You can’t detain a criminal with other criminals if you want to rehabilitate him. It makes no sense.
Then I asked, “So then, what should we do with him? I mean, what should Korean society do with this man?”
“Kill him!” said the student who’d brought it up, who’d been angry about it for a long time apparently from what she told me later.
“Ah, revenge,” I said. “He hurts her, her family kills him. What comes next?” After a pause of silence, I said, “His family kills her family. Her family’s relatives and friends kill his family. His family’s relatives and friends kill her family’s relatives and friends. And on we go. I don’t want to live in a world where that’s how we handle this sort of thing. We did that for thousands and thousands of years. That was how we lived pretty much as far back as there were humans. We didn’t just kill people for hurting people in our own group, we killed them just in case they might try it. See a stranger, think about killing him. After all, you never know whether he’s thinking of killing you first, right? Do you want to live in a world like that, to go back to that?”
“No,” they agreed. “That’s terrible,” said one student. And they talked about vendettas and violence and vigilantism and how none of that was particularly appealing to them. We even talked about Sympathy for Lady Vengeance a little, as it’s a pertinent film. (The lead character helps families of children like the nine-year-old girl to hunt down, brutally torture, and execute the pedophile who killed their own children. And the film’s logic and storytelling is such that by the end of the movie, most viewers are likely to great sympathy for her, and on some discomfiting level to find themselves approving of what she’s done.)
“But prison doesn’t work, right? Prison is supposed to fix him, right? And it won’t?”
They agreed that for a petty criminal, or even someone who committed murder as a crime of passion, prison could be rehabilitative. It’s possible. But they agreed that for someone like this guy, there’s a more fundamental brokenness, a malfunction. The man cannot be fixed. We can’t use the system as we understand it to deal with someone like him.
“So what should we do with him?” was the question I left them with. Then, I noted that we’d been talking philosophy for twenty minutes. But, I told them, “We’re not wasting our time. This is how good articles get written: everything starts with a question. My question here was, ‘If 12 years is not enough, what is? What should we do with someone like this?’ The question doesn’t assume that the status quo is the only or the right way. It asks a bigger question, and looks at the world for an answer.”
Looking at the world is the most important part, I think, once you have that facility for asking questions. Looking at the world, we can see a lot of interesting things.
We can see, for example, that the fact we’re horrified about this means we’ve come a long way. According to Steven Pinker, violence is at an all-time, global low. That’s right: with all the violent media in the world, with all that violent ideation that people engage in after seeing Hollywood films and a bouquet of CSI spinoffs and whole music stores filled with rap dedicated to the narrative of killing cops and everything else one might choose to find objectionable, we’re now less violent than we’ve been in all of human history.
Seriously. Listen to the man. But make sure you have time — it’s a longish video, even if it is worth every second, like so many videos at TED:
Just as Pinker points out, we disapprove of violence much more than people ever did in history, too. The public used to gather for hangings, disembowelments, drawing-and-quarterings, and gladiatorial combat. Any of those things would turn most of our stomachs now, but they were prim(at)e forms of entertainment in yesteryear!
The point here isn’t that things are perfect now. It’s that, as we continue to solve the problem of violence, we are beginning to find that the easier-to-solve cases are dried up. Most psychologically normal people are becoming increasingly less likely to engage in violent crime.
Which introduces a dual problem: there are still those people who are psychologically abnormal, who are likelier to engage in violence regardless of prevailing social attitudes and rules. It seems apparent some people will, like the child-rapist described above, continue to be monsters. For those people, no amount of socializing, shame, or other indirect methods will root out their propensity for violence. (And as my classmate from Clarion West and friend, Guy Immega has pointed out, the likelier it becomes that it’s a fundamental facet of their nature that explains why such individuals are the way they are, with the possibility looming up ahead of us that psychopathy might have some fundamentally genetic basis.)
But then there’s the other half of the conundrum, one played with in films like Kick-Ass and Sympathy for Lady Vengenance, which is that the rest of us, the “normals” (let’s simplify it, though really there are probably a spectrum of categories to talk about which we’d count as normal), for whom socialization and rules work. They’re much less violent than in the past, with the net effect that when we do arrive at the time and place where we know who’s a psychopath, an irremediable pedophile, or whatever, and can’t be fixed, we will be even less able to use violence against those individuals.
This isn’t an argument for eugenics. It’s not an argument for arming society in the hopes of the resultant “politeness” wiping out the psychopaths and monsters. It’s just the observation of an ironic dovetailing effect. The less violent society becomes, the more the naturally violent people stand out… and the less able we seem likely to be to deal with them in a way that will effectively insulate the “normal” majority from their violence.
Which is an interesting dilemma for SF. An interesting problem. Guy is already mining out that area, though, and I have other regions to tend to. But it does seem like one reason the next 30 years should be pretty interesting. As we start figuring out just how many things are genetic, we will start realizing some pretty uncomfortable things about ourselves, about civilization, about societies and how they work.
Darwin’s shockwave trembles on through the world, you see.
Having decided to defer my review of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days until I’ve read his other book in the same world/setting, River of Gods, I have decided to skip ahead and review the next book I read, a nonfiction piece by Steven Johnson.
This book was a loaner from my friend Charles, who recommended it highly to me. If I remember right, he picked it up at The Strand, which is one of the most wonderful bookstores I’ve ever visited… so much so that I even got a T-shirt when I was there. Maybe that doesn’t interest readers, but I find myself ever so slightly interested in how books come into people’s hands, and so on. Anyway, on to the book.
If you’ve read Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum – Die Geschichte eines Mörders, or as we in the English-speaking world know it, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, then the description of London of a premodern metropolis that Johnson offers in the first few chapters will not strike you as wholly alien. In short, it was a filthy mess, a horror, and the place stank to high heaven, in a way few of us can imagine or understand.
However, Johnson goes far beyond the stink, delving into how the economics of the city and how its poorest citizens lived (some of them, indeed, earning their livings in the very filth as scavengers, picking rags from the dead, gathering “pure” (animal and human feces) to sell to tanners, and so on. He delves into the water supply,with vivid descriptions of exactly how foul it was for many of the citizens of London. Extremely vivid descriptions, including phrases like “skimming the filth off the top.” Which, when combined with the simple facts of cholera, such as that it simply could not become epidemic until such time as people began to consume one anothers’ feces on a regular basis, is enough to make one glad of not having been around to see the Victorian world.
(I must note that this section of the book is harrowing in itself, but much more harrowing when staying in a poor suburb of a major city in a developing country. As I read the discussion of the water supply, I could not help but shudder, as I was bathing daily in water that could not be safely used even to brush one’s teeth.)
But the book is, for all this, not there for the mere thrill of an extreme gross-out. In Das Parfum it is necessary to set the stage for an utterly vampiric monster of scent, but in The Ghost Map, there is a deeper reason for the descriptions. All of this is necessary stage-setting for a discussion of cholera, the disease which festers at the heart of Johnson’s story. For the book is, most fundamentally, about an astoundingly deadly outbreak of cholera in a specific neighborhood of London, and about two men who sought to move beyond the pseudoscientific theories of the day to uncover and explain the real causes of that particular outbreak and its unusual severity. The two men in question are an unlikely pair: the first (and a very prominent) anaesthesiologist named Dr. John Snow, and the Reverend Henry Whitehead, a churchman who was the local preacher in the area struck.
The book tells the story of each of these men, to some degree, just as it tells the story of London at the time, and the story of cholera — but also, the story of how human beings began to figure out what epidemics were and how they worked. Though Snow and Whitehead’s evidence and conclusions were ignored by the medical and scientific establishment of their day, it took not long at all before their findings had not only been vindicated, but also served as part of the impetus for what Johnson calls “one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the nineteenth century: a system of sewer lines that would carry both waste and surface water to the east, away from Central London” (207).
A discussion of Steven Pinker in the comments for my last post brought up a memory from grad school, and I thought I’d post it here.
I was sitting in the little coffee shop/diner place across from the Second Cup on du Parc, up in the McGill Ghetto in Montreal. It was basically my favorite place for a light meal, and I always had a samosa and a calzone — usually chicken, sometimes beef or veg. This time, I’d met up with my friend Chiraz and we were having coffee and talking. Somehow, I got onto the subject of the book I’d just read, which I think was The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic, or maybe something by Steven Pinker.
(Pinker drifts into my mind because it was the same week I saw him give a lecture at McGill. Those were the days, man. I saw physics students tearing down Roger Penrose’s most “highly speculative” theories about the role of microtubules and quantum processes in the brain — and he did seem a little off his rocker during his presentation — and attended all kinds of other lectures there as well. My school brought in good poets and novelists, but McGill was the place to see good or interesting science lectures. Steven Pinker’s was quite riveting.)
Anyway, there I was, explain to Chiraz some obscure function that the hippocampus served (I think in some area of sensory — olfactory? — processing, but it’s been a decade or more), when some med student at the next table stopped me in mid-conversation to correct me and tell me I was wrong. I told him that no, I wasn’t, and told him to look it up. He happened to be studying neurology, but that didn’t cow me. I’d just read it a day or two before and remembered it clearly. So he looked it up in the very book he was studying from, and lo and behold, I was right. He gave me a look of shock that only deepened when he asked whether I was in med school and I laughed.
“Uh no. I’m a Creative Writing major. But I do write science fiction, if that makes you feel any better. Some of us SF writers actually read about science sometimes.”
(Hmmm, would that more of us did so, and more often.)
The title of this post is a throwaway comment Bruce Sterling made in his lecture, “The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole” (mp3, video with terrible audio), in the course of mentioning that most scientists who are able to do the scary stuff that frightens Bill Joy are unlikely to be willing to take up residence in the caves of Afghanistan or up in North Korea just to get the freedom to research things that have been banned by everyone else.
It reminded me of a funny thing an ex-student in Beijing told me — this blog is blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Not sure exactly which post, though there are probably a few. But it is a compliment, really.
Busy writing my paper, so here’s some other quality content for ya:
- Tony Smith, of the excellent podcast Starship Sofa, has put together an anthology of stories from the first 100 episodes of the podcast. The anthology includes stories by people like Michael Moorcock, Peter Watts, Michael Bishop, Ruth Nestvold, Jeffrey Ford, Alastair Reynolds, Elizabeth Bear… and me! You can buy the anthology in a number of POD (print on demand) formats, and/or download a free PDF, and/or view it online for free and donate if you feel thus moved. I got a kick out of all that retro art in it, and I just feel badly posting about it so late! (And discussion here by the folks who put it together!)
- Zombieland trailer. I’m kinda tired of the hyperpopularity of the zombie these days, but this film looks fun just the same.
- Paul Jessup with some good advice for newbie writers (via a twitter from Shawn Scarber).
- Darwin blogging The Voyage of the Beagle. (via Ken MacLeod)
- More Americans believe in UFOs than oppose the kind of health care reforms sought by the Democrats. No, really. As Chris Harris notes, “[i]t speaks volumes about the status of the health care debate among the public when it is more mainstream to believe aliens are flying around in spaceships than to oppose the public option.” Indeed.
- Gogo Star (a Korean indie group):
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- 로빈이 토끼란 사실을 알고 있었나 (Did You Know That [a] Robin is [a] Rabbit?):
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