[the palaverist]

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


It has been pointed out by my reader that I haven't posted much lately. For this I apologize. I just haven't been feeling it lately. I'll post more again, I'm sure, but over the last couple of weeks, my mind has been elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest brain-suck, outside of a concerted binge of Korean language study, was the preparation for our Funky President Potluck, a joint party with our upstairs neighbors, which went over like an assassinated Garfield last Saturday night.

The theme of the party was naughty depictions of presidents, and we took this to an extreme of nerdy craftiness. Jenny got the idea of cutting out the heads of presidents and pasting them on dirty pictures, and this grew into an extended effort of finding appropriate matches and cutting and pasting, then putting each naughty pic behind a legit portrait of said president. Some were fairly obscene — Clinton got a bukkake, Reagan got turned into a Mapplethorpe self-portrait (warning: very graphic!) — but for the most part they were a lesser order of naughty, like Pierce as a member of KISS or Nixon as Mao or Bush Sr. as the soldier pulling Saddam out of the hole in the ground. But there were 43 of these bastards (Cleveland counted as two different presidents because of his non-contiguous terms), and it took a while.

We also put up red-white-and-blue bunting and showed video of Nixon looking sweaty and grim, with the sound off, and played lots of James Brown and lots of president-themed songs I found on the Internet. And then there was the preparation of president-themed foods, which included beef (McKinley), chili (Bush Jr.), ketchup and cottage cheese (Nixon), peanut soup (Carter) and Kenyan beef casserole (the McKleinfelds' optimistic homage to Barack Obama). There was also 잡채 (japchae), a Korean concoction of bean-thread noodles, vegetables and ample sesame oil, soy sauce and sugar. (A caricature of Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was quickly printed and affixed.) Lem showed up with a bottle of Pernod, which is not related to any president, and Paul the Muppeteer arrived without any food or drink at all, but having just spent the last week memorizing the names and dates of all the presidents, just for the heck of it. (He works for Sesame Street and has actually been to Mr. Hooper's store, which I find just astonishingly cool.) Tom from the Steve Harrison campaign came by and told me a story I hadn't heard, which was that when Bill Clinton recorded my phone script, he was doing so from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas at two in the morning.

The party was a great success, with the upstairs apartment (designated Camp David) serving as a quiet space for people to retreat to when they wanted more intimate conversation, while our own apartment provided the main space where the food and drinks were served. It was nice to have a party big enough to fragment into sections, because that way you can drift in and out of conversations and groups over the course of the night. Our apartment isn't well set up for that, with its long living/dining room, but our two apartments work nicely.

This will not be the last joint party at the Court Street Castle. If nothing else, we're thinking of a reprise of this weekend's party with a dictator party next year.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

[lost in translation]

Now and again, various diplomats ask me about English idioms or snippets of text that they don't understand.

Today I got a doozy: the following quotation from the Reverend Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenius:
If you sincerely desire a truly, well-rounded education, you must study the extremists, the obscure and "nutty". You need the balance! Your poor brain is already being impregnated with middle-of-the-road crap, twenty-four hours a day… no matter what… Network TV, newspapers, radio, magazines at the supermarket…even if you never watch, read, listen, or leave your house, even if you are deaf and blind, the telepathic pressure alone, of the uncountable normals surrounding you will insure that you are automatically well-grounded in consensus reality.
What particularly through my diplomatic colleague was the sentence "You need the balance," because balance with what?

I did my best to explain that the Reverend Ivan Stang is not in fact one of those inspirational Christian pastors with whom Koreans are so often enamored, but I'm not sure I managed to convey the extent to which Stang is a figure of counterculture and satire — elements of our culture that most Koreans have difficulty grasping anyway.

I followed that up by suggesting that the balance was between the mainstream point of view, which we will learn automatically, and the views of the extremists, which it takes effort to study. I think I got this idea across.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to ask where the diplomat had stumbled across an inspirational quotation from Stang, of all people. But know that the Spirit of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, Jr., has entered the United Nations!

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[talking back]

The New York Times today published a letter by my fellow speechwriter here at the Korean Mission, Allen Ellenzweig, in which he responds to John Yoo's editorial from earlier in the week.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

[who is a korean?]

In an interesting and laudable development, South Korea has decided to start teaching units in its elementary schools about mixed-race Koreans and overseas adoptees.
"Children in multi-cultural families get disadvantages and unfair treatment due to their accent, physical appearance and culture upbringing. We need to teach children that discrimination against or contempt of biracial people or overseas adoptees is wrong and that we can get along with children from an international marriage," said Kwon Ki-won, head supervisor of the ministry’s curriculum policy division.
As the article points out, the number of biracial students in Korea is still incredibly small — well under 10,000 — but this will be a growing issue as Koreans continue to move abroad while maintaining links with home, and as interracial marriages continue to increase. I don't think Korea will ever be an immigrant society like America, nor should it be, but the Koreans will have to come to an understanding of what it means to be Korean that is not wholly centered on race and native understanding of the language. This is a step in the right direction.

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And there they are, the guys who decided a deal was better than an ongoing nuclear standoff.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

[whaddaya know?]

So the early report is that a deal has been reached with North Korea: energy aid in exchange for steps toward disarmament.

It's very preliminary still, and this whole thing could collapse over a North Korean demand for more energy than the other five powers are willing to give, or, more likely, over shifting North Korean positions on what disarmament steps they will take and when.

It will be interesting to see, as the details emerge, where exactly this leaves the Bush administration in terms of its North Korea policy. Did the hard line work? Were the Bushies right all along to toss the Agreed Framework over North Korea's dabbling with uranium? Were they right to insist on talking only through the six-party framework rather than one on one?

The last question is the easiest to answer: No. The North Koreans have proved far more willing to compromise since Chris Hill, our lead negotiator, started talking one-on-one with the North Koreans (albeit in a format that the Bush administration, never sticklers for reality, continue to insist doesn't qualify as one on one). As for the rest of it, let's keep in mind that we're now asking North Korea to roll back its plutonium-bomb developments, which wouldn't exist if not for the collapse of the Agreed Framework.

There is no indication that the central problem of a poor, hostile, dictatorial, aggressively criminal North Korea has been solved. Still, if we're all stepping back from the brink of nuclear war, that's good.

For more on North Korea, check out Richard Bernstein in the New York Review, who notes that back in the early Clinton years, conventional wisdom had it that the communist regime in North Korea would wither and collapse like so many others had in Central and Eastern Europe. At this point, I think a more realistic model is that of China and Vietnam, where the Communist Party has maintained control while transforming into something new and pro-capitalist. And the road to such a transformation is through engagement, not isolation.

The Kim dynasty seems unlikely to collapse through internal decay, though one never knows. And even if it did, that would hardly be the end of our troubles: a headless state full of fanatical militants with no food is not a pretty prospect for any of its neighbors. Only engagement has any chance of creating a North Korea that can join with South Korea to become a prosperous, peaceful Korea.

Update: It turns out that South Korea's lead negotiator is Chun Yung-woo, with whom I had the pleasure of working closely on a number of occasions when he was Deputy Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. In my experience, he was extremely intelligent, incisive, charismatic and tough-minded — ideal for his current role, really. Should an accord be signed, I will have to send him a note of congratulations.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

[bong joon-ho festival]

Looks like there's a mini-festival of Korean director Bong Joon-ho's films coming to the IFC Center later this month.

The only Bong film I've seen is the brilliant Barking Dogs Never Bite, a richly textured dark comedy that captures contemporary Korean life better than anything else I've seen or read.

From what I hear, though, his subsequent films, Memories of Murder and The Host, are supposed to be great as well. The Korea Society has more information on the films.

Check it out if you have the chance!

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

[sex in space?]

Probably none so far, says Slate's Explainer. Which seems like sort of a shame, really. Yet another reason to encourage more private-sector space exploration. ("May I explore your private sectors, Comrade Cosmonaut?")

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

[sudden thought on security council reform]

Okay, so they're at it again, arguing in circles about Security Council reform. The big countries — Germany, Japan, Brazil, and to a lesser extent Nigeria, India and South Africa — want permanent seats for themselves. The middle powers — Italy, Pakistan, South Korea, Argentina — want some formula that will give them more opportunities to sit on the Council. The poorer and smaller states want to make sure their views are represented and that their sovereignty isn't trampled every time a little genocide breaks out in their territory.

Various formulas have been proposed and rejected, but how about this: just give each regional group one new seat, in perpetuity, to do whatever they want with. They can choose their own rotation systems, term lengths, voting rules, etc. Presumably you'd need to build in some way for the existing permanent members to veto any potential SC member they really disliked and to kick out any uncooperative members after a set period, but other than that, it'd be up to the regional groups.

Does this devolve the problem enough that it could work, politically and functionally? I don't know, but at least it's an idea I don't think I've already heard.

Update: It appears my idea is not far off the Uniting for Consensus proposal put forward in 2005, although that proposal kept the terms at two years while making them renewable, and one could haggle over the specific allotment of seats per regional group. This proposal went nowhere, stymied by supporters of the so-called G4, consisting of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil, who want permanent seats.


[how to find your way around nyc]

This is totally exciting: a GypsyMaps is a new website that overlays Google Maps with the NYC subway system and allows you to search for directions.

Until now, HopStop has been my go-to site for subway and bus directions, and it's more robust that GypsyMaps in a couple of ways. The biggest difference is that HopStop includes bus lines, although GypsyMaps claims to be adding that soon. Another nice HopStop feature is that you can opt out of particular route segments and see what new options it comes up with.

The problem with HopStop, though, is those little, inscrutable maps for the beginning and end of your trip, which is when you really need the most help figuring out which way to go. With GypsyMaps, you can zoom right in, GoogleMaps stylie, and take a closer look.

GypsyMaps is still working out the kinks, but it could give HopStop a serious run for its money.


Friday, February 02, 2007

[the terrible power of blinkies]

So have you heard about the bizarre panic over a guerrilla marketing campaign for Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force (ATHF)? Looks like they hired a couple of guys to scatter around Boston blinkies depicting one of the Mooninites flipping the bird, and this led to a major bomb scare.

After the two artists were arraigned, they gave a hilarious press conference at which, on national television, they insisted on talking about hairstyles from the seventies.

I do recognize that these ads were genuinely scary to a lot of people and that the city of Boston spent a lot of money making sure they weren't bombs (Ted Turner has promised to cover the expense). How do we know that terrorists won't use some goofy design as cover for their deadly devices?

On the other hand, this incident points out the absurdity of living in constant fear of terrorist attacks that happen only rarely, and typically in ways that are meant to elude detection until it's too late. While Boston's finest spent the day cleaning up glorified Lite-Brites that were intended to sell a TV show, how many containers came through our ports without any oversight at all? How many illegal guns crossed state lines?

And more importantly, how many terrorist attacks have actually been thwarted by people reporting the glaringly obvious? I know that if I see something, I'm supposed to say something, but is that helping? The only case I can think of is that of Richard Reed, who tried to light his foot on fire in an airplane full of people.

In the meantime, this is probably a good moment for my friends who make blinkies and throwies to lay low. Of course, knowing these particular folks, they're probably already working out schemes to send New York into utter panic over little flashing doohickeys.

And it should be noted that the Boston response is not the only one possible. In Seattle, the incident failed to cause panic. From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"To us, they're so obviously not suspicious," said King County sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart. "They're not suspicious devices or packages. We don't consider them dangerous."

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Previous Posts

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]
[drop the red lantern]
[how not to apply for a job]
[pop is the new alternative]
[what does it all mean?]
[national fears]
[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]
[our pakistan moment?]
[how to fail like an olympian]
[cold winters]


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