Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Moby-Dick or, the Whale by Herman Melville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Call me a dick – but this is great! This is one beast of a book. It’s all consuming when reding it so I read it in sporadic bursts. There is nothing quite like it and it feels like you are making history just by reading it. It’s a fantastic experience as well as being a book to ponder over. It does take some time to get through so I recommend reading the clusters of chapters. There are several ‘digressions’ which are illuminating but take us away from the main story arc.

The characterisation is amazing and the details are obviously copious – Melville spent four years on whaling vessels. It’s biblical in many places with references and style. One of the early chapters is actually a sermon. There is a sense of inevitable dread which intensifies towards the climax. I felt like I was constantly being sucked into the hunt.

I used a map in places just to chart the progress. The language is niche and reflects the time, character and in some cases, the status of the characters. After a few chapters it gets easier to read though. Reading modern works seems kind of shallow and unrewarding after this beast. I recommend it to anyone who lives on planet Earth.

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I have researched more information about the Sosu Seowon than any other post I have written (or not written). My reasons are not really from any deep desire to uncover the mysteries of Confucianism, nor are they based on extra enthusiasm for this subject. The reason I have read so much is partly because I don’t understand it, but mostly because of a constantly nagging suspicion about Korea, if I was in any way scientific I would even call it a theory. I don’t want to use inverted commas for theory, so I will call it my idea.

Entrance to the Shrine

My idea is that despite Korea’s futuristic aesthetics, fast internet connections, huge shiny skyscrapers and an entire generation plugged into their smart phones, I believe that you can find something timeless underneath. The neon flashing modernity that lights up the huge construction projects of modern Korea easily distracts you from several truths. These truths, rules of behaviour, and manifestations of culture reach back deep into history, a history which goes back way beyond most nation states of the early 21st Century. It’s true, many civilizations stretch back even further than Korea, many have never been conquered, colonized or generally abused by the other cultures jostling around it. However, I believe that Korea has managed to preserve many of its “intangible cultural assets” through persistence, resistance and centuries of isolation. The longer I stay in Korea the more echoes of neolithic life I find, perhaps neolithic is an exaggeration but there are many historical precedents to be found which account for the modern behaviour we see today. One aspect in which I have found a constant thread is the dedication to study.


One of the most notable features of Korea is the dedication to studying and the breadth of the various spheres of education. Korea has the highest tertiary gross enrollment ratio of any country in the world (UNESCO 2010). There is a strong deference to teachers or leader figures whether it be the hastily prepared power point presentation for the boss, or the middle school students hunched over their books in after school academies. The word Seonsaengnim is used for people of higher status but roughly translates as Master. You might argue that the deference is not being subject to the person of higher status but rather the undeniable truth that education is the most powerful tool to get ahead in this most competitive of countries. This deeply entrenched philosophy of working hard and studying harder is not some modern concept, it’s not playing catch up with the West because of the hard times in the first half of the last Century. The philosophy, or even religion, of hard work and diligent studying is something you can see throughout the history of Korea, especially during the last dynasty – the Joseon Dynasty.

New Cherry Blossom

Buddhism found a natural home in Korea, especially during the Shilla Dynasty. The various tribes and clans of the peninsula always found a neat way to co-opt their local shamanistic beliefs into their branch of Buddhism. I have even seen discrete shrines to mountain gods tucked behind some temples. Despite the Buddhist influence, by the time the Joseon dynasty kicked off they were getting tired of the old ways. Buddhism was associated with the debauchery and excess of the elite, the elite who were often propped up by the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in China. In many cases the Kings had Mongol wives and many of the rulers were part Mongol or at least put in place by the Mongols. The Joseon Dynasty started to shed the centuries of superstition and metaphysics of Buddhism and to a lesser extent Taoism. What came in its place was a Korean version of Neo-Confucianism. One of the great advantages of the previous Goryeo Dynasty was the access officials had to Chinese culture and in particular literature. These ideas filtered into Korea through the various scholars (still venerated to this day) and became the corner-stone of the new Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism and the temples of Buddhism were increasingly marginalised – which is why if you visit Korea you will find many temples way out of the cities and perched halfway up high mountains. Many of the original temples were converted into use as private educational institutions – seowons.



When I first read about seowons (서원) they reminded me of the endless Hagwons you see in modern Korea. These days most of the school students study maths, science, and of course English in these private academies. In the past they would have studied the Chinese classics which were essential to pass the state exams to enter government service. The modern equivalent is perhaps the dreaded entrance exam which permits entry into the exclusive Universities – once you have a degree from the better Universities you are more or less guaranteed a position in one of Korea’s top firms. The name of a top University is seen as being more important than experience, potential or personality. There are many more parallels between modern Korea and the original use of seowons, but the underlying theme is that to get on in a Neo-Confucian society you need to study. Social mobility came and went with various monarchs but rich or poor you would have to study to get anywhere near the top. The seowons served this purpose, and the Sosu Seowon was the first.

The Scholars

This private Neo-Confucian academy was founded by the magistrate of Punggi County Ju Sebung (주세붕/周世鵬 1495–1554), during the reignof King Jungjong. It’s located near Suksusa Temple, in Sunheung-myeon, about 30 minutes from Yeongju. Aside from being the first of its kind, it is also unique for many other reasons. It was the only seowon that survived from the Seowon Abolishment  Act in 1871. Ju Se-bung was criticized for founding a school because of other more pressing matters of the time – especially famine and drought.  Being a scholar himself he was able to use reason and wisdom to defend his actions

“Education is the cardinal virtue of man, and ought to be promoted above all else.”

Other seowons enjoyed a fruitful period but Sosu Seowon was the first thus it became one of the richest. Sosu Seowon also enjoyed more attention because it enshrined An Hyang (1243 -1306). An Hyang is a name you see many times in the history books; he was a Confucian scholar who brought Neo-Confucianism to Korea from China in the 13th century.The academy gained even more prestige when Toegye  (another big name in the list or Confucian greats) became magistrate of the county. He asked King Myeongjong to grant the academy a royal charter and the King responded with a hand signed “Sosu Seowon”, and a supply of books. Many seowons and temples before them had a mixed relationship with the Monarchy, similar to some of the more powerful monastic orders in Europe. In this case the annals of the king specify that the local magistrate cannot interfere in the affairs of the academy, nor disturb the Confucian scholars. Sosu Seowon as an institution and as a physical place, was free from interference from the monarchy. Its location, even in our times, underlines this fact.



The institute is spread over the hills and the various complexes would have accommodated about 4,000 scholars. There is also a shrine for  An Hyang, An Bo, An Chuk and Ju Se-bung, where a memorial services take place on the first day of the third and ninth months of the lunar calendar every year. The study facilities have been placed in the east and the shrine placed in the west. Outside the entrance to  Sosu Seowon is the Okgyesu stream of the Nakdong River. This stream comes down from the impressive Mt. Sobaek. Although I made my quest to reach this place I would definitely recommend stopping by on the end of a Sobaek hike.


I took a very local bus from Yeongju but the easiest and quickest way to get there is by taking a train to Punggi and then taking the bus I mentioned up the valley. At the time of writing the road was being widened so I expect it will be a much easier journey in the future. The train i from Cheongyangni  (Seoul’s eastern terminus) is exceptional. You can pass through some mountain scenery and the pleasant town of Danyang on the way. If you plan on sticking around there is an Azalea festival and some other Temples scattered around Mt. Sobaek.


Korail Timetable

Punggi Korail Timetable

You can take bus number 27 from Punggi Station – check it’s not going to Yeongju. For the bus times coming back check in the tourist office at the Sosu Carpark (their timetable is different from the one at the bus stop.

Extra links:

Britain and the USA can be “two nations divided by a common language” George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde

Having lived in Korea for over 2 years I have picked up a lot of Korean. I used to take lessons, which helped, but now I rely on the world being my classroom. One of the stranger aspects of living here is the use of my native tongue – English. Something I didn’t  consider deeply before I came, was that I may have to teach, or communicate using ‘American English’. Being the only ‘British English’ speaker in my workplace, I often find myself either questioning or abandoning British expressions or vocabulary. This is not related to a lack of patriotism, it is simply to aid communication.

אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט

a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy”  Max Weinreich


My experience of language is that it is often a contentious issue; people cling to the familiar because they fear losing their identity, or they see a confrontation between their own usage and other forms. Language is about communication, so I’m usually pragmatic when it comes to dropping or adding expressions and vocabulary. However, I am rather pedantic when it comes to verbal accuracy, for example, I prefer saying thrice instead of three times.

After trying to explain words and phrases to people, repeatedly, I decided to write this post as a logic test for conflicting expressions. This list clarifies many examples where I think Americans, British, and other native speakers compete to use, their words to describe things. Having been born in Britain I have consumed television from the USA, Australia, and obviously the UK. I have also visited these countries and worked with Americans and Canadians. Something else to note is that most of the Koreans I have been in contact with have learnt American English; they have provided an objective critique of Britishisms or Americanisms which make no sense or more sense.

Football v Soccer

There is only one winner, football. The word soccer derives from association football as there are many varieties of football. I believe it stems from the British Public School abbreviations – Like turning Rugby into Rugger. Football has gone way beyond the shores of Britain, and its introduction to Europe and South America has turned the word into an international word like okay or taxi. The poor countries whose majority sports are not football often use the word soccer. My advice to people is that if you travel to the USA or Australia then you might use the word soccer to avoid confusion, otherwise use football. Global usage makes a mockery of the word soccer. We have FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football). The global brands and organizations all use the word football, even in the locations where the word ‘soccer’ is used. If you are Korean then take a look at the listings of the K League. Five teams have Football Club in their names, zero have soccer.

Trousers v Pants

Many People assume that ‘pants’ is an Americanism for trousers. In my experience, many people in North West England, Scotland, and Ireland use pants to mean the long things worn over your underwear. In Southern England pants generally refers to underwear. I once got into an argument in a pub in Italy about this issue. There was a man from Liverpool and a girl from Australia who both used pants to mean non underwear. I’ll let logic have the last word. If ‘pants’ refers only to underwear then why do we have the word underpants but not overpants? Pants is also British slang for ‘not very good’.


Can you pass me a pickle?

Which type?

My fondness for pickles prevents me from accepting this word to mean Pickled Gherkins (the type you find on McDonalds Burgers) I can only presume that in America they don’t pickle anything else but gherkins. This word is also used for gherkins in the UK too. I prefer to use gherkin because that’s what it is. In my pickle related nightmare, when I go to the pickle aisle in the supermarket, I see before me 20 metres of gherkins. When I awake from this disturbing briny dream, I become aware that thankfully, there are also pickled onions, Branston pickle, red cabbage, sauerkraut, piccalilli, cucumber, dill, mussels, mango chutney, and even eggs if you go in an old pub. I think I’m fighting a losing battle on the pickle front but I will continue to use the word gherkin just to help the other forgotten pickles, sitting on their dusty shelves in the storage area of the supermarket. In the meantime, the phalanxes of the gherkin super race stand in formation at the front of the pickle shelves, waiting for their pickle fascists to buy them all.

Fall v autumn

Apparently, fall predates autumn. People used fall in the British Isles before autumn came into use and the emigrants to North America continued using it. I have no real logical argument for this debate. I use the word fall in the classroom to avoid confusion. For this ‘word off’ I make a plea to all North Americans, I think Aussies and Kiwis use autumn. Please, please try to use autumn instead of fall. Fall is a commonly used verb, but autumn is specific to the season; it also makes an easy adjective – autumnal. I believe the word just sounds nicer and as soon as I hear it I feel the colours of the leaves and the cool winds. When I hear fall, I think of an old man dying. Poetically it sounds more beautiful:

The wind rustled through her autumnal, auburn hair. This paints an image of a Venus like woman whose hair is graceful and flowing.

The wind rustled through her fallish/fall like hair. This paints the image of an alopecia victim.

Elevator v Lift

I switch my allegiance to the other side of the Atlantic. As a noun, lift already means to give someone transport, whereas elevator is unique to doing its job. I also prefer technical words to come from Latin, in this case ‘elevatore’ the verb for raise. Interestingly French and Italian don’t use ‘elevator’ or ‘elevatore’; they use ascenseur and ascensore. I believe this would give us the much improved word ‘ascender’.

Prawn v Shrimp

Everybody is wrong, but North Americans are more wrong. In America everything seems to be called a shrimp even when it’s a prawn – these are two different organisms. In the UK and commonwealth shrimp usually refers to the very small prawns, shrimp being a synonym for small. However, I have discovered that not all shrimp are small. The difference is a tiny biological matter – the shrimp’s tail segments don’t overlap in the same way. The second segment overlaps above the first and third segments. The problem with this debate is the difference in seafood worldwide. Despite the differences, I know a prawn when I see one, and I live near Morecambe Bay which is famous for shrimp, so I will use the word prawn for prawns and shrimp for shrimp.

Pavement v Sidewalk

I still use the British version – pavement. I just like the word. I remember an interview with the Indie band ‘Pavement’ who were from the US, when asked why they were called pavement instead of sidewalk; they said that they got the name from a list of the most beautiful words in the English language. I also like the suffix –ment which can make verbs into nouns: embankment, shipment, allotment….etc

Zebra Crossing v Cross walk

I like zebra crossing because it’s more poetic. It may cause confusion in very specific circumstances in Kenya or South Africa. If there is an actual zebra crossing the road then cross walk may be easier.

Queue v Line

Queue is a clear winner here because it gives us the option to make different shades of meaning. I don’t make a line unless I am in an identity parade or perhaps on the school playground. Queue implies that there is something to be gained at the end, like admission or a postage stamp. I just wish the word queue had a better spelling.

I think I’ll leave it there for now. I may add more as they arise. The point of this exercise, which may be futile, is to refrain from patriotism when it comes to English. The language has gone international so I want to try to use the best and most logical (or poetic) words on offer. I often feel lucky to be able to choose between different words, but I do feel irritated when my own words are cast aside in favour of less accurate or less descriptive offerings.

If you are learning English as a second language my advice is simply to learn both and choose. However, you may have to choose between the following options:

American words in the UK: you will be understood but looked down upon.

British/Commonwealth words in North America: you may not be understood, or you may cause offence, especially in the case of fanny, fag, tramp, and pissed.

Due to harvest delays, poor time management, and a series of other unfortunate events I found myself in Kaikoura with no money. When I say no money, I mean no access to a little used credit card back and around 20 dollars which was already needed to pay for accommodation. This left me in a back to front situation in which I needed money to pay for things I had already taken. After much searching, a lady who ran the local Subway sandwich shop offered me the most hours, she also contacted the owner of the hostel where I was trying to stay and arranged some kind of advance. After a couple of weeks I realised that it would take far too long to save any money so I took a cleaning job in a hostel which paid for my accommodation. With the two jobs varying in length I generally worked between 55 and 75 hours a week. The 75 hour weeks were exceptional and a combination holiday peak season and sacrificing  1 day off to have a two-day weekend every fortnight. It was a little soul-destroying to have so little time and I was envious to the extreme of tourists and locals alike who seemed to amble round leisurely whilst I was on my work mission.
Dusky Lodge, Kaikoura
As a feat which I never wanted to repeat I decided to document the mundane events which made up my life at that point. I tried to justify my low wage and low status jobs by what I could learn from being in that situation. I also tried to maximise the small periods of time I had between the hostel and the sandwich shop. Below is the e-mail I sent recounting what made up an average day. It was written shortly after the busy holiday season which is why it’s in present perfect tense.
I have been working in Subway for 35 hours a week and I also have a job in Dusky Lodge hostel over the road from Subway. The hostel job is in exchange for accommodation. I have two days off per week from Subway and one day off a week from Dusky Lodge. After a lot of diplomacy, discussion, and charm (a new skill I have been trying to develop) I have managed to get two full days off both jobs every other week. Two full days meant I was able to visit a hot spa in the mountains called Hanmer Springs. I have very little time to read or do anything interesting so I have decided to write about an average day. This has the unique point of being the only time in my travels where i have had such a fixed routine. Before this I have never stayed anywhere more than 7 nights on the trot.
View from the decking
I usually wake up about 6ish with various bizarre dreams, I then doze up until 8ish. After a few stretches (I’m not into that whole ‘scene’ but it has become necessary’) I make my way upstairs to the kitchen to have breakfast. At the moment I am on Weet-Bix, but usually I have porridge with a little honey. Sometimes I also have some Nutella on whole meal bread, it depends what mood I’m in and how my colon is behaving. I always have a cup of tea though, there are two cups I favour; one is a large green cup with an orange rim the other is also green with pictures of butterflies. For some reason when I drink green tea I usually use one of the transparent cups. The only other person to use the green cup is a German guy, he is also called Michael so I decided it was ok. I take my tea on the deck area which overlooks the pool and in the far distance the seaward Kaikoura range of mountains ,  is still snow-capped despite recent high temperatures. It usually takes me about 10 mins to go through the tea process, after which I make my way  to the Living room/reception area to await instructions on the morning’s tasks. The briefing begins about 9:15 but I am usually there about 9ish just to sit. I prefer to sit without the tv but sometimes it’s on. I usually make a couple of jokes at this stage, not really jokes with punch lines but just little comments to keep me entertained. For example, when there are Germans there I sometimes say ‘Ich bin ein ………….’  using whichever swear word I learnt. Backpacking is the best way to extend a global vocabulary of offensive comments in varying tongues. I have also made a point of saying good morning to everybody in their native tongue, thus far I have had to learn Chinese, Hebrew, German and Japanese (I already knew the Japanese).
The supervisors, of which there are two, give us our instructions. Roughly speaking there are three main divisions; Kitchens, Bathrooms and Beds. I think I prefer beds, when there are not too many, it’s kind of relaxing and I have a rare talent for folding the corners in the perfect way and generally making things look sharp. I give myself a speed challenge for making beds to prevent boredom. I don’t return immediately after completing task because then they will know how much time it takes me and will just give me more tasks. The top floor of the Lodge is basically a hotel so the standards are high, I even have to roll the towels in the correct place and make sure the coffee and tea is stocked up. On a good day I can finish at 11:15 but usually work continues until noon.
If I finish at a reasonable hour I do a few lengths in the pool, the chlorine kills off all the filth
and I have a spa after this then a shower. Unbelievably for a modest hostel there is a sauna, hot tub, and a nice pool area, it has been the main reason I have stayed so long. After finishing we reconvene at the pool table near reception to fold laundry together. Sometimes a new coachload of people arrives on a tour and I make small bets with some Finnish guys about which country they come from. I’ve been getting good at this game. The Sherlock style skills are mostly based on the brands of clothing, especially shoes and backpacks. Americans wear more Northface, British are more likely to wear Reebok Classics etc. I have  lunch at about 12.30. Most of the time I have my special rice dish but sometimes I walk into the town and get some fish. If you go on kitchen duty you can also get free food from people who have left, dates are written on all food items so a quick check at reception means you know if someone has checked out. I do share my spoils though in what I call the ‘binner’s banquet’. I don’t feel bad about this, it’s better than wasting food. If I stay at the hostel i usually have enough time to watch a film. On occasions where there is either a substandard film or a film I have seen often I simply go for a kip or just sit in the
At 14:45 I get changed for work then walk all of 5 mins to Subway. I first clock in on the computer then have a mini chat to whoever is there. At 15:00 there are not many sandwiches to be made so it’s usually just preparation, I like preparing food…it’s simple and repetitive. I seem to be the only one who doesn’t mind chopping onions, I think it’s because I understand the beneficial effects to the sinuses, this is a result of having suffered from rhinitis in the past. The rest of the day is a mixture of making sandwiches and cleaning. I do have a half hour break which I try to coincide with the bakery tray. Let me elaborate…
The bakery next to the hostel has a reciprocal arrangement with my hostel: they use the pool/sauna and we get the leftover cakes and sandwiches. I can usually secure a couple of cakes if I get back at 17:15.
After serving customers I have to clean toilets/mop floors/ clean the coffee machine then do whatever else is left undone. I usually leave the shop at about 22:30 to 23:15 depending on how busy it has been. When I return to the hostel I talk to whoever has stayed awake. Most people who do the cleaning go to bed early, but it seems I form a natural bond with whoever stays up. Last week I befriended two Japanese  who were nice enough to make me a Japanese curry. This week it seems to be only Tsabasa, (also from Japan) and I Ching  from Taiwan. Tsabasa is a quiet guy whose command of English involves repeating the last three words of my previous sentence, whether interrogative or imperative. Sometimes it feels like I’m talking to a cave. He is unremarkable apart from two small facts, he drinks more tea than I do, and he watches more films than I do. Although, I think the latter statistic would be different if I worked less. I ching is a nice Taiwanese girl, there were two other Taiwanese who were a bit homely and miserable, they left me a with a sour image every time I see the ‘made in Taiwan’ sign. On the other hand I Ching (who calls herself Iris) is very sweet and talks to people freely. Most Chinese speakers give themselves an English name as people either struggle to pronounce it, or they cannot remember. I am already on her good side as I refuse to call her by her English name, this is a sometimes confusing because nobody else knows who I am talking about.
I usually get to bed about midnight, I have customized my bunk so that each side of the bed is draped with sheets to give a Bedouin effect. In a hostel environment your bed becomes your room, because I have access to the laundry I took lots of green sheets and put them all round my bed. I also have my cd player hanging above my head so that when I eventually fall asleep the ear phones fall out in the manner of a dog pulling loose from its leash. My watch is tied around my cd case and I also have a bottle water wedged between the bed post and the mattress. The dorm I am in is below the hostel proper and next to the laundry room. There are 10 beds in total which are shared with whoever is cleaning at the time. The cleaners dorm is different from the others in that there is a tv/stereo and bathroom. The tv’s picture is crap and the stereo doesn’t work. It’s quite a nice place to live because it’s separate from the main hostel and it opens out near the pool. Except for an obcessive compulsive German girl who spends three hours folding clothes everyone is considerate and doesn’t make much noise in the evening.
                                       Due to the easy-going and trustful nature of the Kiwis in this part of the world I was able to save enough money to travel the whole of South Island. Although it was tough I look back fondly at this experience. It was rewarding to have no money and dig myself out by my own efforts.