Washington D.C.

I just realized that I have less than a week until I will be dropped off at Georgetown for classes/my internship and I have no big plans except to visit the Smithsonian, the Portrait Gallery, The Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle, see the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights at the National Archives, go to the Library of Congress and go to fantastic ethnic restaurants people recommended. I have deviated from my over-planning tendencies. To restore that, I looked through a few things on the Brightest Young Things, a D.C. culture blog, and 100 free things to do in D.C. and decided I’ll just plan when I get there.

Of the many things I didn’t plan for, I did not plan to get addicted to Science Fiction this summer. I point my finger at my favorite economist Paul Krugman in his Wired interview. He says he’s particularly into futuristic utopian as well as dystopian novels because it helps you think outside the box, think of possibilities with less constraints. He applies his theory in an economics paper called “The Theory of Interstellar Trade” back in 1978 as an assistant professor, in which he wrote about actual trade illustrating it through sci-fi:

The joke was, since time of shipment is a big factor — even, actually, in real international trade — and time of shipment would be much longer in interstellar trade, how much time do you spend on shipment, considering we’ve got the theory of relativity, which says that it depends on the observer? So, you know, playing with that. And because I was blowing off steam, I actually did the economics right, so as I said in the introduction, this was a serious treatment of a ridiculous subject, which is the opposite of what we usually do in economics.

It ended up saying that it actually doesn’t matter how much time elapses on the spaceship, it’s the time that elapses in the frame of reference of the people doing the investing that matters, which is of course obvious if you think about it for a second, but I was able to have some fun, and among other things put in a diagram of Minkowski spacetime, which has an imaginary time axis … which was a blank page, because, after all, it’s just imaginary. So I was having some fun.

With this paper, fusing Sci-fi, International trade, AND the theory of relativity he was secretly knighted as the emperor of Nerdom, where I reside. I am so in love.

Revised reading list (Sci-fi only):

  • The Ender’s Game
  • Dune, Frank Herbert
  • Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan
  • Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series

Keeping up with Krugman and economics:

I read The New York Times, The Financial Times — the Financial Times has a blog, FT Alphaville, which is just for market stuff, but the next stop is a blog called Economist’s View, which is Mark Thoma at the University of Oregon. It’s a personal blog, but he actually gathers material and produces what really amounts to a daily economics magazine, with links to much of the stuff that’s going on out there in the discussion. Brad DeLong at Berkeley has a more personal blog. He was there first; he was an inspiration to me to start doing it, and he’s still a really interesting guy. I read a bunch of others in rotation, but I think basically I start each morning with those, and then I actually usually read a couple of more political blogs: Ezra Klein at the Washington Post, Greg Sargent, also at the Washington Post, on more politics, The Washington Monthly. And at that point it’s time to prepare the next class, so I move on from the blogosphere and start putting my lecture notes together.


Summer reading list.

As of 7/14/12

Read so far:

  • The Man Without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin, Masha Gassen
  • Reborn, Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, Susan Sontag
  • Leading Teams, J. Richard Hackman
  • Love’s Body, Norman O. Brown
  • Law in America: A Short History, Lawrence Friedman
  • Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Rachel Maddow
  • Phenomenology of spirit, Hegel
  • Ender’s Game (Ender, Book 1), Orson Scott Card
  • Common Sense Economics, James G. Gwartney et al.
  • The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek


  • Our Divided Political Heart, E.J. Dionne
  • The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Bleak House, Dickens
  • On Suicide, Durkeim
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot and a guide for the poem by Nacy K. Gish
  • In America, Susan Sontag
  • A failure of capitalism : the crisis of ’08 and the descent into depression, Richard Posner

To read:

  • Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith
  • The Portable Atheist , Christopher Hitchens
  • Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman (re-read)
  • Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag
  • The bottom billion : why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it, Paul Collier
  • The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
  • Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles, Rushir Sharma
  • The Nine

Recommendations for fiction, and non-fiction (i.e. East Asian and Middle Eastern politics  and the economy, sociology and anthropology) are welcome with open arms!

A Few Thoughts on the Culture of Translated Books.

Where would we be without translators like Susan Sontag? I think translating is one of the most difficult professions with a lot of responsibility that only a true academia and culturaist can get right.

Kyung-sook Shin’s Please look after mom is a landmark in Korean literature in the global society. More specifically, it is a bridge between often overlooked Korean culture and Western culture. It is particularly a good bridge compared to other Korean and Asian-American novels out there because it is simply a good book, capturing what we would all feel in our hearts if our mothers were lost. In her eloquent prose with layering of voices of the concerned family members deliberates the deepest feeling we have toward family, despite our distant modern relation these days.

Please look after mom front cover image

Shin's "Please look after mom" English version

I have a lot to say about this book for its content and for what it represents. As one of the better translated books in Korean, thanks to very readable translation by Chi-Young Kim, the foreign readers are not alienated as translated books often feel, gathering millions of readers around the globe from Norway to the United States. It has even risen to top 10 books sold on Amazon. But since it is so approachable, I first wondered, were there any deliberate distortions in the translation (e.g. calling kimchi “fermented-traditional-cabbage”) alleviating the cultural gap? Surprising, there was not. I was able to confirm the authenticity from my own mother’s experience with this book, which I found most interesting. As the first generation immigrant, the culture she described was so familiar and close even in the English version. The direct translations of the food that is presented in the book (there are plenty of these as the Mothers’ domain is the kitchen—thus, a lot of Shins memories link her mother to the food she is having) for example, the traditional side dish is not translated to the Western equivalent, but written as ‘panchan’, which is really a hybrid between a side dish and a main dish which a regular Korean meal consists. The audacity perhaps fueled by cultural pride allows this kind of in-your-face translation we might not have seen a decade ago is what I love about this book. It would be very suitable to write about my own mother’s input here. My mother, as a late learner of the English language is a great lover of books. She is quite a bibliophile (I get it from her,) reading everything from English classics (she loves Dickens) to more modern art history fiction (the Judgement of Paris). She often regrets that her fellow Koreans are not reading as much these days. This lack of culture of reading goes beyond this generation, down to the young Koreans—a phenomenon often blamed on the fierce competition for time between reading and for Hagwon. Her feedback of reading this book was that she felt like she was reading in Korean when she really wasn’t. I think this says a lot about language learning. Culture should always be a part of language learning.

In an interview by Shin, she was asked to talk about the different kinds of response she received in different country about her book. She replied that she was quite surprised at the kinds of interpretations that existed out there, in the different cities and countries. Compare that to my mother’s feedback “I don’t think people (meaning you and me) who haven’t lived through the post-Korean war era in Korea would understand the message Shin is delivering.” Well, of course we wouldn’t. This is why this book is quiet necessary in the world. To at least touch the people who haven’t lived through the hunger stricken, security deprived time and place in the world through the universal connection that is feeling, the feeling for our loved ones.

But we would in the postmodernist view by Barthes (see Death of the Author). It reminded me of the time I was studying Theresa Cha’s Dictee. There was a picture on the front of what I think was a tablet with scribbles of Korean, which I could read, but what I had to translate for my classmates, for I was the only person who could read Korean there. I thought that moment in the seminar, all twelve students sitting around the table talking about a work that made absolutely no sense, (even to me) trying to make sense of it. And because it was not logically coherent (read—coherent in the same way), it was even more full of meaning. Suddenly I realized deconstructionism even without reading about it.

Theresa Cha's Dictee

Theresa Cha's Dictee

Even the students who were unsure where Korea was on the map were able to say something about the book. They weren’t just glib English majors, but they were able to reminisce about something form their past, or something they read because the text evoked the subtle feelings. I never felt more understood and included than during that hour of the seminar where no one was talking about anything in common but completely different things that meant something for them, but from the same source—the text.

Cultural anthropology suggests that race and ethnicity are a man made ways of identification, and not inherent. Eating pizza doesn’t make you more Italian. Most people blame cultural boundaries for their reason for not interacting with people different from them in cultural practices, belief and religion. But if a text such as Dictee could bring people together, doesn’t that just mean that we’re not trying hard enough to find common ground? That we’re trying to be too different from each other? Maybe this artificial group making is for our survival since we’re social animals.