Thursday, December 16, 2010

Private Moments

Midnight, pitch-black and unfairly cold. Snow falling softly on the bridge. Standing there, an elderly couple clutches something - papers? a bouquet? - in their four hands. Click. Hiss. A flame. The two stand, entranced. The fire roars and falls. briefly illuminating the two. Poof. As one, they let the flames go. Darkness again.

I turn and walk away. They didn't see me...they didn't see anything but their loss. I don't look back. This moment was never mine.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Foreign Lands Roundup

I mean, I've only missed like two weeks now. Meh. It's been a pretty busy two weeks for me. And it's been a pretty busy two weeks for the international community, so let's talk about the thing that's been on everyone's mind: WIKILEAKS!

::cue dramatic music::

I have, as you were probably desperately hoping, Some Thoughts on this whole Wikileaks business.First, though, some background: As we've been aware for some time, a while back, Pfc Bradley Manning managed to obtain and then release confidential information that included details about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as a series of about 250,000 diplomatic cables from members of the US Foreign Service. The contents of the cables varies, but most are fairly frank assessments of personalities and situations abroad (which make them of particular interest to me).

Here's one of the most fun things about these cables: as of yet, none of them have been particularly revelatory. Anyone with half a brain could have deduced from afar the "batman and robin relationship" between Putin and Medvedev, or the fact that Silvio Berlusconi is generally disgusting. That China would welcome a unified Korean peninsula and that many arab states are concerned about Iran came as a mild surprise (if only to have those things confirmed), but really are more damaging to those states' abilities to contain the Iranian and North Korean regimes (which were tenuous at best to begin with).

Many people are understandably upset about this. They (including the heads of state and foreign secretaries of many nations such as the US) have come out and condemned Julian Assange and his Shadowy Organization, S.P.E.C.T.R.E Wikileaks as giving aid and comfort to America's enemies or whatever. On the polar opposite end of the spectrum, many are heralding Assange as a freedom fighter, persevering for the cause of truth and transparency in government.

Both of these reactions are pretty much bullshit. Wikileaks will cause serious problems for US diplomats abroad, yes, though the extent to which lives are greatly endangered is unclear. What's most problematic is the leaks (and the subsequent hurrahs for freedom of information) fails to understand a key facet of diplomacy: tact. Here's the thing. Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Ahmedinejad, Putin and EVERY OTHER WORLD LEADER are not complete idiots. You don't run a country by being a total moron who doesn't have some idea of how you're perceived by the outside world. Berlusconi not only knows he's seen as a manwhore, he REVELS in it. Same goes for most of the other leaders - they really do know just what we think of them. But the thing about diplomacy is, if you go around telling everybody exactly what you think about them, you're not going to get anywhere.

But I guess that's why some people are Anonymous. Real Connections with Real People are just too impossible for the tactless.

Just as they're not some torpedo in the side of US foreign policy, neither are the leaks some great victory of free speech and transparency. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves: what is gained by the release of these cables? The answer is: absolutely nothing, other than a re-confirmation that the United States Government is very much run by the people. Diplomats: they're just like us! What do we lose? Well ultimately it's a little harder in the short term for the diplomats to do what they need  to really it's kind of a wash. It seems to me that Mr. Assange and his organization decided to release a bunch of cables that are mostly needling annoyances in the side of the US, because they...I dunno? They just like doing things to be obnoxious? Which, really, is the worst, stupidest reason to do anything. "I'm bored. OH I KNOW WHAT I CAN DO! I'll be obnoxious!" It's basically tantamount to revealing the end of a Nicholas Sparks NovelMovie starring Rachel McMoore-Hathaway and Some Hot Dude With Abs - any idiot with half a brain could have seen it coming, but if you were looking forward to enjoying the movie (which I guess some people do?), it's kind of annoying to know what's coming before the opening credits rule.

So here's the deal, Assange: find us some information of real consequence that's been hidden from us and then we can talk about you as a free speech champion. But until then, you're just a high school philosopher, bothering everyone with his pseudo-intellectual crusades. BYE.

And now some other things that happened last week:

Laurent Gbagbo, who did not win. Despite what he'll tell you.
  • In the Ivory Coast, a once lovely and stable country in West Africa (like back in the 90s), there was an election between the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. Voting fell mostly along the division lines of the civil war (which ended a few years back), to the surprise of absolutely no one. What was shocking, to the Gbagbo camp at least, was the end result: it seemed that Ouattara had won the runoff vote by about 9 points. "Not so!" claimed the Constitutional Council, who can apparently do these things. The Constitutional Council then decided that Gbagbo would get to serve as president some more, for funsies or whatever. Now everyone is all upset, and the African Union doesn't recognize Gbagbo as president, and no one really does and now people are like "umm dude you should probs leave or whatever, k? great." and Gbagbo is all like "STFU haters!" Now the US, the EU, and the UN are like "dude you are illegit!" And it's all messed up. Poor Ivory Coast...great job, French Colonialism! [France24]

I can't believe they let Camilla ride in this.
  • The British students are revolting! I mean, have you ever eaten with them?? HA HA I AM JUST KIDDING BRITISH STUDENTS ARE OFTEN VERY PLEASANT HUMANS (well, insofar as college students can be pleasant humans). No but seriously, the Parliament decided last week to raise tuition fees for British university students (doing so in a way that would be met with cries of SOCIALST NAZI ISLAMOFACISTS from the current GOP in the US). The students, who had likely been planning on paying a significantly smaller amount of money for university, got rull upset and decided the best person on whom to take this would would be the powerless figurehead Prince Charles and his skanky companion, Camilla. Or more specifically, on their car. Prince Charles seemed nervous, but then he always seems nervous. Camilla continued to emit stank lines from her person. So...10 points to Ravenclaw? [BBC News]

Lisbeth Salander did not do this. Because she is fictional. Probably.
  • Sweden has been feeling left out lately, guys! With their continued low rankings on the governmental corruption lists, high standards of living, relative unharm in the recent global economic crisis, and complete lack of terrorism, Sweden lately has been feeling like a wallflower at a junior high dance. But not anymore! Why, just this weekend, Sweden managed to get their efficient, stylish, DIY hands on some of that sweet sweet terrorisms the western countries just love love love so much. Finally! Sweden was rocked as two blasts hit Stockholm (that's the capital of Sweden, nerds) and were apparently unconnected to Lisbeth Salander. But hooray! Now Sweden can have their very own Terrorisms Histeria! Congrats, guys! [Reuters]

Boo Korean Education System!

Following on the heels of a particularly good weekend has come a particularly shitty Monday. I suppose it's all my fault, I said (TWICE) on Sunday that I would be basically coasting this week, since I'd only be doing review worksheets in my classes. Reviewing is important! Especially in language learning, and ESPECIALLY when Teacher is burnt out at the end of the semester.

In doing the review worksheet, however, I learned an important thing about the students: most of them are morons.

That's not fair. Most of them have just been COMPLETELY failed by the Korean education system. There was a section on present continuous (or progressive) verbs, like "I am playing", and instead of filling in "am playing" in the blank, all any (and I mean each and every single one of the students) of them could come up with was "I playing". I realized that I needed to do a quick review explanation of the present continuous so the kids could do the worksheet without me going absolutely effing nuts, so I set it up. We went over the first question and then we conjugated the present continuous for "to be playing". It was all set up in such a way that at the very least, the smarter students would be able to make the leap from "I am playing" to "We are swimming".


This time, it was "I am playing" (because it was written on the board) and "We swimming". I realized, after some reflection, that this is largely because they way they are taught this verb construction in the textbook omits the function of the auxiliary "to be" verb, focusing only on the -ing verb. All they are learning is "swimming", not "am swimming". Indeed, at no point in the elementary school curriculum are they ever even formally taught the verb "to be", they are just supposed to somehow pick it up from the rest of the lessons.

I suppose there is some merit to this - it allows that particular function of language to develop organically or whatever, but that just doesn't happen in this country. The reason? Simply put, the Korean education system doesn't value problem solving or critical thinking; rather, it prizes an ability to memorize facts by rote as the most important part of a person's education.

The result? Children cannot pick up the pattern from "I am playing" and apply it to "We are swimming". Put in larger terms, the adults in this country have a serious problem-solving deficit. Unless they have been specifically told one way to solve a problem, it is a complete mystery to many adults here. Take, for instance, traffic problems. In narrow streets, the buses tend to assume they have the right of way. So naturally, instead of reversing to manoeuvre around a car that has been parked unfortunately far out into the street. the bus driver will lay on his horn to indicate that the driver of said car needs to come out and move the car.

Writ larger, this is a country where there is only one solution to any given problem. It is immaterial how inefficient that solution might be, or how much better a solution you might come up with is, that is the one solution they learned and therefore that is the only solution that could possibly be implemented to solve the problem.


NB: I realize that this is a pretty big generalization of an entire country. And I really don't generally look upon places as a monolithic whole. But I think anyone who has been in South Korea for a while can tell you about this phenomenon, and the fact is, it starts early. Until a greater effort is made to teach children problem solving and critical thinking skills, innovation and creative solutions will not be found in this country, at least not on any wide scale.

/Rant over