Karl Stratos

Karl Stratos [cv]

Assistant Professor, Rutgers CS
Research interests: natural language processing, machine learning
Email: karlstratos@gmail.com
Office: CBIM #7
(My legal name used to be Jang Sun Lee.)

I am interested in modeling knowledge and abstraction to make AI more helpful and understandable.

Bulletin board


I am an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at Rutgers University. I completed a PhD in computer science from Columbia University in 2016. During PhD, I was advised by Michael Collins and also worked closely with Daniel Hsu. After PhD, I was a senior research scientist at Bloomberg LP (2016-2017), an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University (2017), and a research assistant professor at Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago (2017-2019).

(I have legally changed my name to Karl Stratos as of May 20, 2022.)

A Note to a Prospective Student

First off, thanks for considering working with me. I apologize in advance if I'm not responsive. I lack the mental bandwidth to give the rightful attention to all that comes to me. Don't let my flaw discourage you.

Getting in touch

I've concluded that a litmus test for checking if we're a good team is for you to (1) first take my NLP course, (2) then do a project with me one-on-one, ideally in the summer when you can focus on research. The first step ensures you have the necessary knowledge, and the second ensures our standards and expectations are aligned (and also we get along with each other). If you're already at Rutgers, I strongly encourage doing this process instead of skipping a step: even though it takes more time, this will be more effective for both of us in a long run.

I understand that it's not always possible to do the process, especially if you're not at Rutgers. I don't mean to appear aloof! Please feel free to email me to ask anything about doing research. It'd be helpful if you explicitly tell me your relevant background in NLP and machine learning. If you're interested in applying to the PhD program, please specify NLP as the primary area of your interest and me as the faculty you're interested in working with.

Technical qualifications

I'm interested in unsupervised and lightly supervised (e.g., semi-supervised, transfer, multi-task) learning for NLP, with applications to knowledge-intensive tasks (e.g., entity linking). Doing research in this area involves identifying an interesting question, mathematically formalizing a problem, working out a solution, and then fitting suitable models on data to empirically solve the problem. It requires certain technical qualifications such as

  • Mathematical maturity.
  • A solid understanding of foundations of deep learning (e.g., gradient descent, backpropagation, variational objectives, noise contrastive estimation).
  • Superb coding skills. This doesn't mean knowing the syntax of PyTorch. It means general resourcefulness required to build a nontrivial system, like the ability to
    1. Abstract and decompose a large project into tiny pieces, and then solve each piece individually.
    2. Guarantee the correctness of an implementation by unit testing and constant vigilance.
    3. Use someone else's code by making minimal changes as necessary.
    4. Design well-thought-out experiments and methodically optimize key hyperparameters to maximize performance.
    5. Resolve any tedious technical issues (e.g., compilation errors) by mindfully reading system messages and searching the web.
You are not expected to have all of them from the beginning, but you are expected to work hard toward acquiring them. We will not be a good fit if we don't share an intrinsic motivation to grow in mathematical maturity, the knowledge of machine learning, and coding skills.

Thoughts on PhD

Now that we're done with the dry section above, I'll share some of my thoughts on PhD in a fireside chat form.

"PhD is a special time"

These were the very words that my own PhD advisor told me when I began my PhD. As I get older, I realize how true they are. Never before did, and never again will you have such a thick slice of time (5-6 years) you can dedicate to personal growth as a researcher under the aegis of your advisor who gives guidance when you need it and shields you from financial and administrative responsibilities. I went through metamorphosis in my time as a PhD student because of the sage mentorship provided to me by my mentors. I wish I can give it to you as well.

PhD can be a terrible time

In my class year, more than a half of the PhD students dropped out. Some went to industry and told me that they had been unhappy in the PhD program but were now much happier. Why? It's because there are so many traps that can trip you up in making your PhD a success. It's imperative that you make your PhD a success, not because it'll make you important but because you won't enjoy being a PhD student otherwise. What exactly is "success" here? To be blunt, it's all about publications. The two most important factors that define the success of your PhD are:

  1. Quality of your publications: you must be happy with your own work because it's substantial, fundamental, and original.
  2. Volume of your publications: you must publish regularly, otherwise you'll lack recognition for your hard work and lose motivation.
Among many relevant qualities, I'd like to highlight the following three as most important in being a successful PhD student: (1) self-motivation, (2) perseverance, and (3) focus.

1. Be self-motivated

Imagine two PhD students: John and Mary. John masterfully executes great projects given to him by his advisor, but rarely makes an effort to formulate problems and solutions on his own. Mary is less skilled than John, but she constantly brainstorms about what problems are interesting for what reasons and thinks deeply about technical solutions; she even brings these problems to her advisor and take ownership of her projects. In a short run, John's works may be better in quality and quantity because they're his advisor's ideas. But in a long run, it's Mary who will emerge as a successful researcher.

You must want to know the answer to your problem. You must want to publish works of great quality. What does it have to do with research? Everything! If you're not self-motivated, you will be a passive learner, and a passive learner is not a researcher. Advisors often encounter students who do exactly what they're told to do and nothing more. It's unlikely that they will continue research in a long run.

2. Persevere

I've seen brilliant students drop out of PhD because their first paper submissions are rejected. I've seen many projects that get abandoned half-done because initial experiments don't pan out. Doing research means most of your time is spent in limbo without tangible rewards. It also means you'll face opposition from people.

Stand your ground. Don't easily give up. Great papers are rejected all the time because the reviewing system is flawed. It will never be easy to take rejections, but they will come anyway so learn how to handle them. Expect the world to give you back less than a half of your effort, so be ready to put in a double amount of work if necessary. When your project doesn't go as well as you envisioned, (1) talk to people, (2) think hard about what's preventing progress and how to break through it, and (3) just try things. But also have the wisdom to recognize dead ends. You need indomitable perseverence and thoughtful flexibility at the same time.

3. Focus

Unfortunately, even when you're self-motivated and persistent, all your efforts can go down the drain if you lack focus. You must focus your energy like a laser beam. If you don't, you will be busy achieving nothing.

Many mistakenly believe that working on diverse projects is a mark of productivity. But it's not necessarily true. In fact, the only way to achieve true growth as a researcher is to single-mindedly drive a substantial project from beginning to completion. This is because your problem never reveals its true face until you get to the bottom of it. And you cannot get to the bottom of a problem without madly focusing on it for a very long time.

It's not about you

Please spend ten minutes to read Kevin Gimpel's advice on being a happier PhD student. I assure you it's ten minutes of your life well spent. I'll echo many of the same points, but a particularly important one is making your research not about yourself. In his words,

As long as you dwell inordinately on your brilliance and reputation, you will never be happy. Self-focus brings stress and kills the ability to enjoy the beauty of the discoveries you are making. Humility produces a receptivity to the wonder and richness of reality.

As soon as you make anything about yourself, you'll constantly fear disappointing others (about you), disappointing yourself (about you), and more generally failing anything (because it's about you). This is a miserable way to live. Forget yourself and "focus on the phenomena". You'll be struck with a realization that you can in fact enjoy your work because you can.

Don't self-promote

The world judges you based on how you compare with your peers in terms of visible achievements. Thus there is a toxic, and unscientific, culture of self-promotion: you have to somehow convince people that you're better than that person, while that person has to convince people that he's better than you.

Contrary to popular belief, I'd advise not to play this game. If you do this, you'll live in constant anxiety, either fearing losing the edge you have over others or feeling like a failure. The truth is, as mentioned in Kevin's advice: you're not the best, and you probably have a bug. Acknowledging this will free you from the unreasonable burden of having to outperform everyone and let you focus on actually improving your character, skills, and the quality of your work. And that's what this is all about. Let the quality of your papers promote you, not your tweets.

But you're brave

The vast majority of people in the world are not researchers. They do work that's given to them. In contrast, you're a researcher whose job is to identify work that's worth your time and doing it for the first time in human history. What does this mean?

It means you're brave. It means you have courage. Doing research means living with the fear of the unknown while feeling you're never good enough. As Nathan Schneider points out, in research

You have to first confront your ignorance on some question, then establish that the ignorance is universal. And you have to be willing to risk exploring new ideas that may go nowhere or may be ignored.

This is no easy work. Only a special kind of people can do it. Like you.

Serious means action

You show how serious you are by your action, not your talk. An action doesn't mean reading papers or debating ideas. It means really doing the painful part of work, such as banging your own head for days to identify a precise formalization of your problem instead of avoiding the pain by distracting yourself with other easier tasks and waiting for me or others to do this for you, or writing code that actually replicates baseline results.

Until you take an action, you're not really serious, and neither am I.

High-level understanding, without the details, is worthless

I'm often surprised by students who are convinced that they understand a method because they have a rough idea of how it works. This stage of understanding is so immature that they don't even have the capacity to understand their lack of understanding. The only way to understand a method is to know all the details. Not most of them, but all. You understand either everything or nothing.

And the only way to understand all the details is to create the method yourself. As Richard Feynman famously said, "What I cannot create I do not understand". You don't understand a mathematical theorem unless you can derive it from the premise. You don't understand an algorithm unless you can implement it correctly. Make it a habit to generate results instead of consuming them. Writing technical notes is enormously helpful (tips). Stop hypothesizing how you might improve a paper based on high-level understanding. You will never deepen your understanding that way. Start by replicating reported results.

Communicate frequently and honestly

Few things are as frustrating to advisors as radio silence. I've seen many students who abrubtly stop communicating, presumably because they're stuck in their project and/or they're not quite enjoying it. Please know that even if you do this you can always come back for help if you need it. But I'll consider an unannounced absence of communication longer than two weeks as a sign that you're not serious about the project, so I'll delegate it to other students.

Be honest about what you don't know. Communicate your thoughts often. This way, you will help me and also yourself.

View PhD as a formal business contract

This is an advice I wish I could give to myself during PhD. When the relation between an advisor and an advisee is formally established, it's like a formal business contract. The advisor's job is to provide critical guidance in research and career and also ensure that the student is protected from financial and administrative distractions. The student's job is to focus on producing research output, namely publications, in close collaboration with the advisor.

In PhD, you will have freedom to spend your time however you want. If you want to spend most of your time watching mindless TV shows and less than 10% on research, you can. But having the business contract model in mind is helpful in dispelling such use of time, since PhD is not supposed to be a waste of your time. It's supposed to be an intense, life-changing experience.

Here are some concrete applications of taking this view. First, prioritize producing research results above all else. Taking courses, TA-ing, and reading papers are all important and valuable activities to the extent that they help you in research. You must desperately resist the temptation to spend time doing these activities at the expense of your research output. Second, have a committed work schedule. For instance, when you're really onto something, have the passion to spend all your waking hours to drive the progress; but even when you're stuck, have the grits to work for 8 hours a day anyway. Having serious work discipline and being accountable will make you not only more productive but also more fulfilled (since you've "done your work") and therefore happier.

Be well

Get your life together. You can't do research if your life is falling apart because of serious health issues (physical or mental), addiction, or relational problems. I'm not saying that your life has to be perfect to do research: that will never happen (mine certainly isn't). But you have to optimize your well-being if you want to be effective in anything. Surround yourself with friends and family and love them. Have a routine—impose on yourself inviolable rules to find order in this chaos of life. Eat healthy and exercise regularly. Go to bed early, get at least eight hours of sleep, and wake up at the same time everyday. Each morning when you wake up, don't fill your mind with junk and worries by checking email or reading news. Instead, have an alone time and restore your perspective of life by meditating on good and truthful thoughts. Break the tyranny of this world by faith in God. When you need it, don't be afraid or ashamed of seeking professional help. Do what's necessary to be well while doing research.

PhD students

Former student collaborators

Meaning in Life

As I thought about what makes life meaningful, I found myself going in circles. This happens because defining what "meaning means" causes an infinite recursion. It is a uniquely elusive subject. Nonetheless, it is helpful to think about what are necessary conditions for meaning. I will discuss three: justice, a pure heart, and other people.


Life seems meaningless when there is no justice. Why?

When there is no justice, a conscious action has no effect on the outcome. Thus any intent is futile.

There is no justice in the world. We have been indignant about "slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves" for thousands of years (Ecclesiastes 10:7). How much we are socially desired (a very large part of what makes life enjoyable) is almost completely determined by biological factors about the appearance. Success, measured in prestige and wealth (another large part of what makes life enjoyable), is also strongly determined by the family we are born into. Exceptions are rare, and ultimately limited.

As a way of coping with this reality, we emphasize "micro"-justice. We try to structure the society so that hard work leads to success and laziness to failure; crimes are punished and accomplishments praised. But what enabled hard work and accomplishments in the first place? What caused laziness and crimes? Micro-justice is better than nothing, but it barely makes a dent in addressing the fundamental injustices of the world.

Worse, micro-justice is biased. It may even create other injustices. Affirmative action (aka. "positive discrimination") is one example. It is widely implemented at a national level to promote ethnic and gender diversity, greatly influencing the admissions process for prestigious institutions and employers. We must acknowledge that the diversity it encourages is of a specific kind (e.g., only visual traits, as opposed to diversity in personalities, social classes, or religious beliefs), and orthogonal to merits. We must also acknowledge that the area in which the diversity is enforced is selective. Gender diversity is clearly promoted in high-salary fields like computer science, but not so in less lucrative sectors such as skilled labor in which over 80% of the workforce is male. Finally, we must acknowledge that the policy forces life-altering injustices on the non-beneficiaries. It is no secret that elite colleges in the US have used quotas to discriminate against applicants of certain ethnic (prominently Asian) backgrounds. This is at best crude racial stereotyping (i.e., assuming that there is no valuable contribution to diversity within an entire group of people), with profound ramifications on individual lives. Yet, as a society we choose to immediately forget about such critical loopholes in the admissions system and blindly associate merit-based and lifelong prestige with these schools. In turn, the schools' high expectations and support make it more likely for their alumni to actually succeed. Given the situation, it is only rational to do anything to gain admission (example).

Another characteristic of micro-justice is that it is easily fooled. One example close to my heart is the prosperity of bullies. I went to elementary and middle school in developing Korea (1995-2003) where many teachers were inept and had no regards for the well-being of students. In particular, there was little to no intervention to prevent bullying, and I saw a number of extreme cases first hand. Thus I know for a fact that bullies enjoy inflicting pain on the defenseless, solely because it entertains them and makes them feel powerful, and will do so with sickening deliberation and ingenuity. I am talking about years of covert bondage, with creative torment and permanent (psychological and physical) scars, forced on a kid against his will. I cannot think of an evil that is more serious than this. Even the human enslavement in the Atlantic slave trade, which is without a doubt one of the worst crimes of humanity, was driven by greed, not by the sheer malice and enjoyment of tormenting the weak. It is difficult to describe the extent of despair this causes in the victims, some driven to suicide. Even then, there was often no real consequence to the bullies. In fact, many of the media celebrities in Korea are later identified to have been predators in their school years, which is not surprising since bullies often assert power based on (contemptibly insignificant) physical characteristics. There is now at least more awareness about the issue (e.g., the commercial success of the TV series The Glory). But it seems inevitable that there are and will be bullies who not only get away with what they have done, but thrive, even celebrated by the masses. And they will gloat over their victims with no remorse, or forget them entirely.

Since there is no justice, and micro-justice cannot make up for it, life is meaningless unless there is some entity outside the observed universe (i.e., God) that can and will bring justice, in a way that is unknown (and perhaps unknowable) to us. This clearly needs to happen after death if at all, since we know it does not happen in life. It is up to one to believe or not believe in God, but either seems to take a similar amount of faith.

Belief in the absence of God is often based on the honest observation that the universe does not need God to operate the way it does. But either the universe has a beginning, or it always exists (including the possibility of endless cycles of expansion and collapse). In the former case (A), an external being has caused the universe. In the latter case (B), the universe has always been there. I have no reason to believe that Case A is any less likely than Case B. One can appeal to the principle of Occam's razor to argue that since there is no empirical need for God, Case B is more likely than Case A. But we must acknowledge that Occam's razor is our assumption. It is effective somewhat redundantly within the boundary of our limited knowledge. For instance, before special relativity generalized Newton's law of gravitation, nothing was amiss. But special relativity, while being far more complicated than Newton's law, was "truer". Even if there is God, why should we expect that God cares about justice? But then, why is it more likely that God does not? In the absence of other evidence, all these possibilities require a leap of faith. However, believing in the absence of a just God makes life meaningless, while believing in the presence of a just God gives hope.

One interesting alternative for justice is the belief in reincarnation and the law of karma, that is a person is reborn (in the same world) with fortune determined by positive actions in the previous life. This belief may not even require God (e.g., in Buddhism, it is simply a process to achieve Nirvana). My main problem is that I have absolutely no awareness of my past life, which makes it impossible to justify my present life with it even if it exists.

More thoughts on justice

Justice assumes a reference point of right and wrong. Otherwise, there is no wrong to be righted. Is such a reference point relative? That is, can one define his or her own definition of right and wrong? Despite the cultural pressure to accept relativism, I am strongly against it. How can anyone condemn Hitler for believing in the extermination of the Jews? Why is bullying wrong? Why is self-sacrifice more commendable than selfishness? Nothing is meaningful if the definition of right and wrong is personalized.

Even if there is an absolute frame for justice and it benefits me, I also need to assume that I am entitled to it. Why should I have justice? Why should it not be that I am constantly wronged? It is not clear at all that my very demand for justice is justified unless I am entitled to demand it. This entitlement is an external factor, since I cannot entitle myself.

Most of us pine for justice, but it also includes facing judgment ourselves. Thus we must address our own penalties. This is why most religions require hard work to live righteously to minimize the punishment and maximize the reward, except Christianity which believes in the gospel of salvation by faith (which then leads to righteous living).

I have given biological factors about the appearance (i.e., the body) as an instance of injustice, because I assume that the body, which determines your social treatment, is not the real you. One may challenge this assumption, since the body does affect one's inner self (e.g., the production of the male vs female hormones). I used to think that since an infant does not even realize she has a body, the body cannot be the self. But she may not even have a self at this point, so it is not a valid argument. In the end, my conviction that the body is not the self is based on my ability to think counterfactually. In a thought experiment assuming a technology to transfer my consciousness to different bodies, I can change any variable and see if "I remain". I do not need to have an Asian male appearance to be who I am, which is why I find racial and sexual prejudice so offensive and ignorant. I will remain who I am while having the appearance of a Scandinavian girl with blue eyes and blond hair, or a Middle Eastern man with physical deformities. I can continue this thought experiment to eliminate irrelevant variables, and whatever remains is the real me. What seem to remain are my beliefs, my desire, and my personality.

I understand that not everyone shares my need for individual identity. For example, many immigrants in the US voluntarily ground their identity on their nationality. This is the case especially with first generation immigrants who either recently moved or are on the older side, because they miss the culture they grew up in. I do not wish to categorically criticize group identity. It can be a wonderful thing to preserve and celebrate diverse cultures, to have loving families rooted in shared cultural backgrounds, to find comfort in fellowships with kinsmen. I am happy to contribute by bringing in my knowledge of the Korean culture. However, being of Korean descent (or being Asian, or being male) is not my primary identity. I often find it suffocating to be forced to take on that identity regardless of my will. I jokingly say that Hawaii is the only place in the US where it takes no effort to be myself, because there having an Asian appearance does not prompt people to ask me where I am from (and if I plan to go back) so that I am free to express myself as is. While group identity has its place, I firmly believe that individual identity should always take precedence over group identity. One should also keep in mind the effect of "exposure bias". Group identity is always more visible and vocal than individual identity (e.g., via festivals and parades), thus potentially misleading people to incorrectly conclude that the former is necessarily the majority. For instance, a minority of Asian martial artists has promoted a strong association between Asians and martial arts, which now affects the vast majority of Asians who are not martial artists.

Meaning requires an active presence of justice, rather than a mere absence of injustice. A world devoid of evil will have no injustice, but it will also have no justice at work. This is why I cannot relate to the common Christian depiction of heaven in which "nothing bad ever happens". Either Christianity is false (i.e., either there is no heaven or bad things happen in heaven), or the promise that "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore" (Revelations 21:4) is something still meaningful but I cannot understand its meaning.

In all this discussion about justice, I have no intention to be self-righteous. My sense of justice is obviously skewed by my own experiences. There are many (probably unsolvable) conundrums in discussing justice. For a starter, there are people born with mental illness that prevents them to even have a clear sense of oneself. Justice seems to require a notion of the self, so what does it mean for these people to have justice? Can it be that they do not need justice since they have no mental faculty to be aware of it? My best answer is that we should rely on our power to think counterfactually. In some alternative universe, could they have been their "right selves"? Could I have been in their shoes? Thus we should do to others as we would have them do to us (Luke 6:31). Another conundrum is how to deal with people who cannot help themselves but be evil. Say a person is simply hardwired to be a near-Satanic bully. In order for there to be justice, there has to be judgment on him, and there is no way he will "repent" since it is his nature to be a bully. But if redemption is not possible, why has he even come to being? I do not know what is justice for that person. All I can do is stay away from him if I can, otherwise overpower him.

Pure heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. -Matthew 5:8

Life feels meaningless if everything is done with an ulterior motive. Why?

At some point in the pursuit of meaning, there has to be a point at which it is no longer possible to justify its meaning based on something else. This is what "meaning means". Without finding that point, we will do everything with some ulterior motive. Then no matter how hard we pursue meaning, we will never arrive.

Having a "pure heart" is a loaded expression for finding such a point of intrinsic meaning. Put simply: it means to love something unconditionally. The importance of having unconditional love cannot be overstated. I would go so far as to define the purpose of life as having unconditional love.

A pure heart is necessary for meaning, but "being pure" is one of the most neglected, underappreciated, and ridiculed character traits in today's society. This is because success (in the worldly sense) does not require a pure heart. In fact, success often requires an impure heart. I meet loads of ambitious, career-driven people who are relentless in exploiting everything in their possession to advance themselves. This usually includes various forms of dehumanizing behavior, such as befriending someone only because she has the power to help achieve a goal without the slightest interest in the person herself. Society rewards this kind of strategic behavior. As a result, having a pure heart is often the last thing on their mind.

A central challenge is finding what to love unconditionally. First, is any option fair? That is, can anything be an object of unconditional love to make life meaningful? The answer seems to be a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. Intuitively, we are repulsed by the "pure love" that a bully may have for bullying, or a narcissist for herself. We may try to resolve this conflict by arguing that it is not really a pure heart, but I think it can be. Another argument is that such cases hurt others, but it has no relevance to the fact that love gives meaning. Perhaps this conflict is only resolved by the test of time. That is, any form of pure heart can give meaning for a time, but a "bad" choice of what to love is fleeting in its power to do so, and can possibly bring the devastation of realizing that what has been pursued is false or even hurtful to the pursuer. For instance, this will be the case if justice is served and the bully must face the consequences of his evil. It follows that the ultimate object of unconditional love must be something eternal. In this sense, Jesus is at least consistent when he defines loving God and people as the greatest commandment (Mark 12:30-31), assuming eternal life.

I do believe it is better to have any love than none at any given moment. Raving success with no love for anything is totally meaningless. But a "loser" who loves something wholeheartedly needs nothing else. I would rather be a poorly regarded geek with consuming interests than a bigwig who has lost the ability to love anything intrinsically.

Other People

In all of us, there is such a strong desire to be recognized and understood by others. Without it, life will be meaningless no matter what.

Suppose you are the only conscious entity who owns the universe. You love taking care of it with all your heart. There is also justice, in the sense that the better you take care of it the more beautiful it becomes, and your neglection results in its demise. Even though you love something and there is justice, you will surely find your life meaningless, because there is no one else who cares.

That humans are social animals is an understatement. I am sometimes struck speechless by the seemingly limitless priority of my social needs. Even though I am a classical introvert, I am the happiest when I am interacting with and being acknowledged by people that I respect. When I am by myself, I am sometimes overwhelmed with the kind of despair fleshed out by Philip Pullman in The Subtle Knife:

She felt a nausea of the soul, a hideous and sickening despair, a melancholy weariness so profound that she was going to die of it. Her last conscious thought was disgust at life; her senses had lied to her. The world was not made of energy and delight but of foulness, betrayal, and lassitude. Living was hateful, and death was no better, and from end to end of the universe this was the first and last and only truth.
Then, I am suddenly and fully restored by a brief moment of somebody merely noting my presence. This experience tells me that I am meaningful only because others are aware of me. It also tells me that complete selflessness will be meaningless, that I want and need attention.

All our differences aside, we need each other.

Defiance Against Meaninglessness

The need for meaning comes from our self-awareness—our cognitive power to be aware of the self. When I am aware of myself, "it" demands meaning. I cannot explain why it demands meaning, because I did not create myself. To an extent, it is a desire to be compensated for life's suffering ("Oh, shucks, it would be such a waste for my pain to be so pointless"). But it cannot be just that, since I can easily imagine a world without suffering and meaning. We can consider creationist (we are designed for meaning) or evolutionist (wanting meaning leads to a better chance of survival, e.g., by implementing a better justice system) views. But one way or another, we must deal with the reality of our need for meaning.

There are a few common approaches to dealing with meaninglessness. One is avoidance. It is a fair approach and can be very effective (unless it relies on mindless distractions, which can be harmful in various ways). I especially like the version that emphasizes "being in the moment" and "enjoying the small things", which is a wise principle to live by regardless of one's approach to meaning in life. However, it requires relinquishing my need for justice.

Another approach is absurdism, which advocates accepting the meaninglessness of the universe heads-on without losing the ability to live in it. It is a logical conclusion under the premise that what we can know is all there is to know. My problem is that I do not know how to live without meaning. I do not care how happy Sisyphus is. Utter despair is my only honest response to a life without meaning.

A final approach is religion, or some form of metaphysical faith. There is no difference between delusion and faith, in the sense that both require believing in something without a proof. That said, a large part of why I continue to believe in God is my empirical experience that results from having faith (e.g., consolation from "conversations" with God when I am in distress), and also the positive and permanent changes I see in people's lives (e.g., healing from past trauma, overcoming self-centeredness) that seem impossible by other means. I do not endorse negative changes that can also come from having faith (e.g., terrorist attacks, deceptive evangelization) which I view as failures on the human side. We should also recall that faith is not an option, since believing in a meaningless universe also requires faith, albeit with the substantial benefit of not needing additional narratives beyond the observed universe.


I've been taking "real" drum lessons for a couple years now. I say real in the sense that I'm being taught on the fundamentals of drums by a professional instructor with 50 years of experience, rather than impulsively chasing after a fleeting desire to play some pop music. Disclaimer: I'm not good. I spend pitifully little time on it (~20 minutes a day) to even be called proficient anytime soon. But I've had enough exposure to be able to at least describe the many fascinating aspects of drumming.

I'm not a musical person. As for playing instruments, I tried piano as a kid but found myself asking what's the point of playing the same piece over and over again. As for listening to music, I don't even have favorite bands or a list of classical pieces. I do firmly believe in the supreme communicative power of music: it's the only medium certain information can be transmitted. It's often the most crucial component in storytelling (e.g., Anastasia, Nier). But it should be evident that classifying me as a musician is a laughable mistake.

That said, I've always been attracted to drums. I've always pursued activities that require delicate hand skills like writing and drawing. Drums require complex maneuvering of the sticks. The hand is one of the most incredible engineering marvels in the human body, and these activities push the limit of what it can do. I also love the simplicity, in a similar way that I prefer abstract paintings over realisitc ones. Drums strip auditory signals down to the bare bones, leaving only the underlying pulse.

The five dimensions of drums

"Doing one thing with one limb and another with a different limb" (drumming as described by non-drummers) is only one of the five dimensions of drums:

  1. Tempo: Anyone can hit drums. What makes drummers drummers is that they can keep the tempo—consistently. Moreover, every note must be hit within a hair-width "pocket" around where it should come. Realize that this is challenging
    • Regardless of how slow the music is
    • Regardless of how simple the pattern is
    • Even if you're just using one hand
    Placing each note into the pocket is key to sounding good, but it is also one of the hardest things in all of drumming.
  2. Technique: Proper techniques are required to handle a nontrivial tempo (e.g., it's physically impossible to play fast otherwise). Two particularly important techniques are rebounds and pivoting on the thumb (see the picture above).
    • Rebounds: Consider dribbling a basketball. You throw the ball down, but you catch the ball when it bounces back (i.e., you don't lift up the ball yourself). Likewise, you rebound in drums by "throwing" the stick down and catching it when it bounces back.
    • Pivoting on the thumb: A fulcrum refers to the location where the stick pivots. Without training, you primarily use the elbow (or worse, the shoulder) as the fulcrum which involves large movements. With training, you can use the wrist which is far more efficient. With substantial training, you can use the thumb as the fulcrum (exposition by Tommy Igoe).
    A technique is deceptively simple to explain, but excruciatingly difficult to pull off. For 2 years, I explicitly practiced pivoting on the thumb; for 2 years, I couldn't pull it off even once.
  3. Limb coordination for patterns: This is what most people think of "playing drums"—the ability to play different patterns under different limbs. The difficulty grows exponentially in the number of limbs involved, with larger constants for the feet. Curriculum training is often effective (e.g., you practice each limb separately, then in groups of two, until you can play all together).
  4. Limb coordination for volumes: You need to be able to control the volume of each limb indendently of one another. You will sound terrible if you hit the fast hi-hat cymbol as forcefully as you hit the occasional crash. This is different from limb coordination for patterns, which can be done without regards to volumes.
  5. Reading and transcribing: You need to know how to read notes and understand how they are intended to be played if you want to benefit from existing resources, Conversely, if you want to play along some music, you need to learn how to listen carefully and transcribe the notes.

Feeling: the sixth dimension

Unfortunately, you can master all five dimensions and still sound terrible (more accurately, robotic) if you don't have the capacity to feel what you are playing. The concept of feeling is elusive, but it is the difference between making your body play vs playing yourself.

A more logical take on this phenomenon is as follows. "Feeling the groove" is the only way to execute the otherwise intractable combination of rhythms and intensities that "sounds good". Hypothetically, a person with unbounded physical abilities and mental processing powers should be able to plan such notes ahead and pull off playing them without feeling. But in practice, it's completely impossible. The only solution is to tap into your highly developed musical insticts by feeling the groove. Great musicians talk of the "trance" they fall into when they are in the moment being one with music. It is a world that's unseen by most people.

For instance, feeling is crucial to limb coordination. In graphical model terminology, feeling is the root node and the limbs are its child nodes (i.e., the limbs are conditionally independent given the feel), because feeling should generate a latent, silent, reliable pulse on which all the limbs depend. If there is no feeling, the limbs must depend on each other (e.g., snare on every third hi-hat) and/or some external time keeper. Playing "naturally" then becomes impossible.

Another example of feeling is the "length" of a note. In drums, a note is a hit. There is no length. However, feeling the length actually results in very different sounding notes! This is likely because the body automatically adjusts subtle details that are not consciously controllable to reflect this feel ("daaah-da-daaah-da" instead of "da, da da, da").

Feeling requires a certain degree of emotional investment. This is why I personally have a hard time with this hidden dimension, as I'm trained to suppress my feelings in all other contexts.

More surprises

Playing drums, or any instrument, is not art. It's athletics and a trade. In my drum instructor's own words, it's like being a "professional plumber". The similarities between training to be a drummer and training to be an athlete are striking:

  • It's not about doing something new. You do the same drill over and over again. You can spend a whole year just practicing the following three patterns (rudiments) in correct form on a practice pad with a metronome:
    • (Single strokes) RLRLRLRL
    • (Double strokes) RRLLRRLL
    • (Paradiddles) RLRRLRLL
    (R denotes the right hand, L the left). Surprisingly, it's not boring. It's difficult to play these rudiments correctly even at a slow tempo.
  • There is no end. You're never done. You will never have "perfect rebounds" or "perfect pivoting on the thumb". All you can hope for is pulling it off in a better form more reliably by practice. You are to forever reduce the bias and variance of your performance, so that when the moment comes for you to perform, the chance of screwing up is 0.1% instead of 15%. But it will remain nonzero no matter how good you get.
  • Once your muscles know what to do, it becomes largely a mental battle. What eventually blocks you from playing better is more neurological than physiological. This happens mostly in the form of strain. E.g., there no reason to strain your neck when you're pivoting on the thumb, but you do. The harder the challenge is, the more relaxed you need to be. Trying too hard is the surest way to fail. You have to relax, be outside yourself, and watch yourself perform stoically ("let the music flow through you").

My instructor loves to say: you either do or do not perform—there is no "trying". The paradox is that it frees you, since there's no point in trying, which in turns allows you to relax and thereby perform better. What if you do not perform? It just means you have some work to do first. Do that, and don't try.

Drumming is full of such paradoxes. Another one is the fact that your grip has to be loose enough to let the stick rebound and flow freely; and it also has to be strong enough to impose enough control. Achieving this balance at a fast tempo requires the pinnacle of athletic abilities the human hand is capable of.

Drumming makes me realize how asymmetric our bodies are. I'm very (very) strongly right-handed. My left hand is likely less than 50% as capable as my right hand. I'd be immediately a much more competent drummer if my left hand were as good as my right hand, but that's not the reality. I just need to explicitly optimize the non-dominant hand. But it will never be as good as the dominant hand.

My practice pad: guess which hand is worse


Talking about drums will not make me better as a drummer (though it gives me a better mental organization of the subject). There's not much to "know about" drums. What's needed is practice, as is the case with any sport (e.g., there's not much to "know about" heavy lifting; you just need to do it).

I won't be a professional drummer in a million lifetimes. I'm also glad that I'm not—I rather enjoy NLP and ML too much to consider other specialties. But playing drums gives me a peek into the orthogonal world of musicians. It's a world made of athletic values and uncompromising trademanship. Researchers can learn from their values, for instance:

  • Do good research, or do not. There's no trying.
  • You have to learn to relax, and just do what you have to do to make progress. Let research flow through you. Being too strained (e.g., about deadlines and other pressures of life) will make you less productive.
  • The consistency of practice is key. You have to "practice" research every day. In the end, it's a matter of how much time you actually spent practicing research.
  • Talking about how to do research will not make you a better researcher, any more than talking about drums will make me a more proficient drummer. Only doing research will make you a better researcher.

Racial and Sexual Prejudice

A middle-aged black man with clear signs of mental illness walked into my subway car in downtown Chicago. After talking to himself for a while, he noticed me and started laughing. He repeated the same sentence that amused him so for the next 20 minutes of my awkward ride: "You're going to Chinatown!".

What was interesting to me is that this person, who was impaired in mental faculties, was still capable of making 'judgment in advance' (the meaning of praejudicium, the Latin root of "prejudice") based on race. This tells me two facts about racial prejudice. First, it is easy: even a mentally impaired person can do it. Second, it is so deeply rooted in our culture that in this case it endures when other pieces of our mind are gone.

As an Asian man living in the Western society, I have experienced racial prejudice in a number of instances. Often the signal is subtle, as in one time at a Starbucks in Berlin where the cashier was excessively hospitable to a Caucasian tourist right before me and then put on a stone cold expression as I stepped next and remained minimally accommodating. Sometimes it is more in-your-face: one time at a Tim Hortons in Rochester NY, an inebriated white woman came to my table and shouted "You look all the same!" with her male companions.

One cannot discuss racial prejudice without gender, since the interaction between race and gender is extremely strong. A powerful example is online dating: a digital medium that allows one to reveal his/her taste toward groups of people from a distance (thus, presumably, with true honesty). Consider the following tables in a famous study by OkCupid based on the messaging data of a million users:

The row sends a message to the column. The cell shows how likely the column will respond. Clear patterns emerge: 1. men are unlikely to respond to black women, 2. women are likely to respond to white men (in fact: Asian, white, and Hispanic women respond only to white men), 3. black women are likely to respond no matter what racial background the sender has, while 4. white men are unlikely to respond no matter what racial background the sender has. On the other hand, black men do not seem to suffer the level of exclusive bias that black women do. While the population of online dating is certainly biased (e.g., a person with stronger racial prejudice might be more likely to use online dating), I find the study valuable because it is a concrete, data-driven confirmation of what I observe in the society.

The power of association

Where does prejudice come from? The society produces prejudice using the same force that underlies advertising: a repeated, deliberate association with something positive or negative to re-wire our brain. It is well known that human brains are very quick at learning new associations. Consider a neuron that fires when you see a family member but does not fire when you see the Eiffel tower. Once you see a picture of her with the Eiffel tower, it fires when you see the Eiffel tower alone (Ison et al., 2015). A crucial point, however, is that these associations do not have to be "real" at all. There is no intrinsic connection between the family member and the Eiffel tower that warrants the association (she may not even have been in France, after all), but the brain does not care upon receiving the joint input. The association cannot be undone.

With this in mind, it is not hard to realize that virtually everything in our culture systematically reinforces certain sentiments toward certain groups of people. Almost without exception, Hollywood movies feature physically attractive white men as main protagonists with great virtues such as strength and character. So we learn to associate them with 'Captain America' and 'the sexy and rich vigilante'.

On the other hand, Asian men are often portrayed as unattractive, if harmless, side characters. In Men in Black 3, a movie about a special task force that deals with aliens, a Chinese restaurant that serves unpalatable food like the blobfish below turns out to be a den of nasty aliens disguised as (Asian) humans. I am not Chinese, but I was angry after watching the movie. I have learned to associate a Chinese/Asian person with a blobfish.

I once saw an argument that there is no unfairness because white men are not culturally spared from negative associations either, using Homer Simpson in The Simpsons as an example. The argument goes: Homer is a stereotypical middle class American man characterized as fat, lazy, and dim, so the fact that, for instance, Apu is a stereotypical Indian man living in the states who is comically characterized should not be offensive. This argument is shallow for at least two reasons. First, Homer is flawed but also has redeeming virtues: for one, he is portrayed as a loving dad and husband. The character flaws of Homer seem to carry a degree of warmth and are accepted more easily. This flattering caricature is not the case with the nasty Chinese-looking alien in Men in Black 3. Second, the default image of a white man seems to be much more strongly associated with unarguably attractive and successful cultural icons such as Iron Man and Steve Jobs than with Homer Simpson. For these reasons, as much as I love The Simpsons, it should not be used as a leverage.

Now, if it is indeed the case that the privileged reinforces racial/sexual associations advantageous to themselves, either consciously or unconsciously, then it seems reasonable to intervene. One widely adopted approach is try to establish new associations that counter the established ones. This underlies many of today's liberal movements, for instance the recent feminist movement in films that feature overwhelmingly powerful female protagonists who demand, and obtain, crushing victory over their male counterparts.

There is temptation (and social pressure) to simply say that such liberal movements are on the side of justice; that the fact that they should always be promoted is beyond questioning. But nothing is beyond questioning, and the real issues are far too complex to close with such simple conclusions.

The paradox of countering prejudice with prejudice

Recall the fundamental problem with associations: they may not have anything to do with ground truth, since the brain blindly creates an association upon receiving a joint input. If we think that this aspect itself is problematic and dangerous, then why is it acceptable to counter existing associations by creating some other associations? Fighting prejudice by creating different prejudice does not solve the problem of prejudice. It does promote divisiveness.

An implicit justification is that the deliberately constructed "new norm" (i.e., prejudice), if carefully designed, is a beneficial self-fulfilling prophecy in a long run: it will eventually make itself reality by creating a new generation that are born into it. A girl growing up watching Captain Marvel would find it much less atypical to aspire for a dominating, career-driven female figure. The relentless national advocacy of women in STEM subjects will, eventually, lead to increased female participation and balance the gender inequality in these subjects. I believe in independence and diversity. I completely support freedom to aspire for one's own goals (unless evil) regardless of sex and a balanced gender ratio in technical fields. But the worthiness of goals does not automatically make any means unquestionable.

A new norm is always promoted by a vociferous group with very specific interests, and it seems only natural to apply the same standard against existing prejudice to make sure that it does not become the "new previliged". For instance, prioritizing female participation in STEM fields can imply sacrificing male participants. With explicit instructions by NSF to train female students in national grant programs, professors in computer science today are strongly incentivized to admit a female applicant over a male applicant if they are equally qualified. While this is certainly effective, and might even be necessary, as part of a larger effort to achieve gender equality in these fields, can we say this is fair? A Chinese or Indian male student who has similar aspirations, qualification, and work ethic may be denied of lifetime opportunities to pursue his goals — because of his race, nationality, and gender. The tension between diversity and meritocracy is unavoidable in any admission process, and I do not have a miraculous solution, but the answer seems to be a clear no from the perspective of the student.

I recently watched a live-action adaptation of Aladdin, my favorite classic Disney animation. The movie alters the source material so that Princess Jasmine decides not only to marry the person she chooses but also to become the ruler of Agrabah. She makes her ambition clear from the beginning. She bursts into a new song about not yielding to her oppressive environment, very much like Elsa in Frozen. In contrast, Aladdin remains more or less his same insecure but sincere self. The movie ends with Aladdin giving up his final magical wish — a chance to live the life he has dreamed of — in order to free his friend Genie: while Jasmine ascending on the throne. I could not help but feel a jarring cacophony in the intended message. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious or bold. But true greatness comes from selfless service, not a pursuit of power and ambitions. The latter is often not a sign of strength or wisdom, but of immaturity.

Concluding thoughts

I hate racial and sexual prejudice because race or gender makes absolutely no difference in what makes us human. That is: everyone is on average equally capable of compassion, intellect, imagination, and other capabilities that define us as human regardless of her/his race or gender. If anyone refutes this self-evident fact, I will oppose that person with all my strength. Note that this is very different from claiming that we are exactly the same. It would be foolish to deny that women are capable of nurturing a baby while men are incapable, or that the typical nose height is different across races. Overcoming prejudice does not mean insisting that everyone is the same; it means treating everyone as an equally valuable human being, while accepting and celebrating differences that are not part of what makes us valuable as humans.

We must remember that none of us chose our ethnicities, looks, or genders. And they will be taken away.

Unfortunately, everyone old enough knows that prejudice is one of the most powerful forces that shape the world. Race is often a final determinant in complicated situations. In the 2016 election, white women voted for Trump despite the controversial sexual misconduct allegations, in contrast with other female racial groups who voted against Trump (source). In online dating, being black female puts one in a hopeless position while being white puts one at a decisive advantage. The systematic "half-true" associations that create such prejudice should be intervened. Countering them by promoting a carefully designed new norm may be effective and necessary but, ultimately, it is also a prejudice itself that is advocated only by and for a vocal group with specific interests and should not be an exception to the usual scrutiny to be applied to prejudice.

Of course, the only true solution to prejudice is to simply annihilate it—prejudice against women, prejudice against men, prejudice against black people, prejudice against Asian people, prejudice against white people—and judge everyone truly based on the immanent reality alone. But given how deeply rooted racial and sexual prejudice is everywhere in the world (it is often much worse outside the United States), I do not see how this can be achieved anytime soon. But we can keep reaching for it.

Racial and sexual prejudice is an artificially created concept. Little children who are not yet exposed to the bias-inducing associations ingrained into the fabrics of the society are oblivious to the very concept. It is tragic that they must grow up and acquire this concept, whether they want to or not. I do not know how this can ever be truly uprooted in this world. But I will personally continue to strive to overcome race, nationality, gender, religion, and other aspects that are irrelevant to our value and potential as humans and treat everyone as a dignified person based solely on his or her character.


It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.
-Ecclesiastes 7:2

I don't think I had really believed that death was possible until my dad passed away in August 2018. It turns out that there is a great deal of difference between the vague awareness of death and the acute certainty of it before and after losing someone close.

This is because experiencing the true impact of death is fundamentally a rare event. The impact comes from irrevocably losing connection to someone who, in good ways and bad, has been part of your life as long as you can remember. I find the violent shift in the universe in which the connection you took for granted is suddenly cut off extremely foreign and unnatural.

Again, I cannot overemphasize how strange I find the fact that upon death, a person is literally removed from this world forever. There is absolutely no trace of the person's cognition left to be found. There will never again be any form of communication with the person. It is as if the person never existed to begin with.

Pain and loss of dignity

A character in Game of Thrones remarks that "if the gods wanted people to have dignity they would not have made them fart when they died". We can only comfortably philosophize about death when we are far away from it. The only subject in a dying man's mind is the immediate pain. Indeed, blessed are the few who die naturally and obliviously in sleep due to old age, for they bypass much of this painful process.

Death (by illness) is, among other things, inherently a messy and shameful affair. It involves being hospitalized, wearing adult diapers and pooping/pissing on bed, relying on others to clean up your own mess, and in the final stage losing your memory and cognition while still alive. Given that this is a process that everyone must go through, the social obsession with physical attraction and cheap beauty through petty means like expensive brands seems beyond ludicrous.

My dad lost sight due to an irresponsible practice of a hospital in 2011. For the next 7-8 years, I only had to observe him to learn how terrifying life could be. Blind and immobile (he had lost his leg in a bus accident as a kid), he lost the joy and pride of practicing as a surgeon, was forgotten by his friends and acquaintances, continuously degraded in overall health, and the whole time burned with bitterness of how this could be. There was no hope to begin with of ever seeing better days again in this world. The only reason he kept on living was his faith in God and his unconditional and desparate hope for salvation.

He died a long and painful death, his last weeks not able to breathe properly, not able to lie down, and forgotten who he was. Despite everything, I am glad that it is over for him. I truly believe that no one could withstand such misery for much longer without completely losing one's mind. Eight years of darkness is enough.

For us living

Death is fair. Upon death, the personal status has zero meaning: intelligent or ignorant, powerful or weak, pretty or ugly, male or female, black or white or Asian, rich or poor, young or old. The sharpest mind becomes a babbling idiot. The beauty becomes disgusting to look upon.

Considering the reality of death, how do we make sense of life? Plenty of wise people flat out admit that life is meaningless and live it, pursuing whatever they think is important at the moment. As for me, I cannot live life knowing that it is meaningless, thus I choose to have faith in God and his goodness and the life after. Regardless of whether one has a religion or not, I firmly believe the following to be indisputable: it is impossible for life to be meaningful if the life in this world is all there is, since we all must die painfully and without dignity, and the last evidence of our existence must be erased.

There is plenty of efforts to defend the reality of afterlife (e.g., an account by a neurosurgeon who suffered brain death and recovered). I sometimes entertain myself that God is a (C++) programmer and we in this world are pointers. A pointer is merely an address; it "points" to the memory location of the actual object it represents. In particular, the life and death of the pointer variable itself has no implication to the persistent existence of the object.

Persona 5

The themes of Persona 5 strongly resonate with me.

Persona 5 is a giant game that takes 100 hours to complete. It's a mash of simulation and turn-based RPG in which you're a high schooler in Tokyo during the day and the leader of a group of vigilantes called the Phantom Thieves after school. The Phantom Thieves infiltrate the mind of an evildoer which is cognitively manifested as a physical place called a "palace". They reform the person by stealing the "treasure" which represents the person's distorted desire.

Without a doubt, the music is what makes the game truly exceptional. A game is a unique medium in which your own experience (in contrast with movies that you simply watch) is reinforced by multiple visual and auditory sensations. I find that music is often the most important senstation. I can only guess that we humans are wired so that music can communicate feelings that no other sensation can.

I can go on and on about the many excellent features of the game that make it one of the best games I've played. But to me, it's, above all, a game about our deep longing for justice and connection with one another.

Rotten adults

A predominant theme of the game is a society ruled by rotten adults that take advantage of the powerless for their selfish gains. The depicted society is the one in Japan, but no matter where you are it's clearly not difficult to relate to the presence of oppression by the privileged (though I can believe that it's more palpable in a society like Japan or Korea).

Every member of the Phantom Thieves is a victim of the society in some way. The protagonist is accused of assault where in truth he was saving a woman from being harassed by a powerful politician who is held in high esteem by the masses. The first two members are brutally abused by a high school volleyball coach (the asshole Kamoshida) who is admired as an ideal instructor by the school. Persona 5 is a story of these victimized young people fighting against injustice, against all odds.

When the Phantom Thieves steal the treasure in a person's palace (after exhausting battles), the person has a "change of heart" that opens his eyes to his crimes and he cannot stop begging for justice himself. It's savagely satisfying to watch the evil collapse this way.


Through the 100 hours of play, you develop a deeper understanding of each of your teammates. Each has his/her own share of hurts. It's remarkably rewarding to help them overcome their fears and stand up together.

A genius device that enhances this connection is texting. In the game, you get text messages from your teammates all the time on a wide range of topics such as plans for the next palace infiltration, requests for help in their own personal agenda, dates, or just hanging out. This makes you almost expect texts from your teammates outside the game. It's a good example of incorporating contemporary culture to further break down the boundary between the reality and the virtual reality.

I deeply empathized with these characters. One memorable character is Yusuke, a talented young artist who is exploited by his mentor who plagiarises his works. Even after he escapes the bondage, he continues to struggle with the question of why he pursues art. He agonizes over the tension between his own selfish desire for acclaim and recognition and his pure longing to create true beauty. As a researcher and an artist, I can relate to this struggle all too easily. He answered many of my own questions about what I'm seeking. Like him, I also seek "true beauty", be it in the form of the mathematical principles in research or certain inexpressible feelings that I experience and want to express.

Infinite longing

A masterpiece like Persona 5 provides a precious moment of profound realization.

My infinite longing for something hinted by the experience.

I don't know what it is, but I could feel it in the deep connection and unwavering trust between the members of the Phantom Thieves. I could feel it in working together and holding onto hope against all despair. I could feel it in the collective yearning for the ultimate triumph of justice over the wrong of this world. I long to have it someday.

The sad reality is that we live most of our lives having forgotten these feelings. We forget because we're constantly inundated with the troubles of the world. Many end up so insensitive to such feelings that anything that's not physically and financially tangible is a child's play that is to be passed as one grows older.

A feline companion in the game called Mona keeps urging "Don't forget this feeling" throughout the journey. I already know that the feeling will fade away, but I'll never forget it. It's a glimpse of what the world should be, what life is meant to be. As a member of the Phantom Thieves, I intend to keep the spirit of a rebel even if that means being foolish in the eyes of rotten adults and fighting against the whole world.

Mindful Gaming

No one likes/dislikes games

When I talk to someone who doesn't play games, I often hear variants of "They're a waste of time" or "I just don't like them". When I talk to someone who plays games, I hear "I'm a gamer" or even "I want to make games". Thus it may seem that there's a clear dichotomy between gamers and non-gamers.

But I feel that this is a very misleading representation of what games really are, and that many of these people are rather mistaken in making such statements. What they really mean is that they've developed certain bias on the meaning of the word "games" based on particular realizations of games.

Games themselves are just an empty vehicle for arbitrary simulation. They don't offer anything to like or dislike. To make the statement "Games are a waste of time" true, everything in this world must be a waste of time; otherwise a game can simulate an experience that's not a waste of time. Likewise, to make the statement "I love (all) games" true, one must love everything that can be experienced in the world, which is clearly false.

I can't help but roll my eyes as games are often collectively evaluated, demonized (e.g., they promote violence) or praised (e.g., they are educational). Stereotyping is always wrong but perhaps more so in this case, because games are quite possibly the most general object that exists; they can offer literally any experience in their most general form.

Mindful gaming

I certainly don't like all games myself. One class of games that I'm usually unable to enjoy are those that narrowly focus on some technical aspect of an experience. In such games, the goal is to master control techniques to perform a specific task very well. They include platformers, shooters, fighting games, strategy games, puzzle games, sport games, and open-world exploration games.

I don't like such games because I don't care about mastering game-specific control techniques for its own sake. Gaming becomes mindless as soon as I lose a sense of purpose. Do I know why I'm doing what I'm doing, or am I just binging on sensory stimulation? Does it build up to some meaningful resolution? If the answer is no, then I stop playing. I find the hollow feeling in the aftermath of mindless gaming so horribly unpleasant that I avoid it at all cost.

A game that excites me is one that makes me effortlessly mindful. It has a nontrivial, convincing story to tell, and I must be accutely aware of my actions and choices to live it. For this to happen, the game usually needs a certain amount of seriousness. It needs to believe itself to be "real" rather than a figment of imagination; otherwise I'd feel like an idiot trying to forcefully immerse myself in it. When succesful, this type of games makes the journey purpose-driven rather than techinique-driven and justifies the painstaking effort I must put in to push forward – although, as in real life, it's the journey that matters in retrospect.

The genre of role-playing games (RPGs) is a natural fit to my taste. In fact, I'm prepared to defend RPGs as the genre that most accurately represents the true spirit of games; you play a meaningful role in a virtual world. Furthermore, RPGs can incoprate any level of technicality to reinforce the core experience. This is why best RPGs are often accompanied by exceptional technical aspects such as the "shooter" aspect in Mass Effect, the "strategy" aspect in Dragon Age Origins, and the "survival horror" aspect in The Last of Us.

The Last of Us (2013)

That said, I don't mean to make little of technically driven games. Many critically acclaimed games are in this category and even for me there are occassions to enjoy playing them. A well-made fighting game such as Street Fighters can involve surprising depth and subtlety in its technical details, and the sense of achievement in mastering them is by no means false or shallow.


No one likes or dislikes games; everyone likes or dislikes certain realizations of games based on personal preference.

As for me, almost the only type of games that I seek is one that makes me want to be mindful because I'm convinced that the experience it has to offer will build me up in some fundamental ways. But it's a different story for each person.

The Compulsory Military Service in Korea

Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
-Albert Einstein

In this page, I am going to touch on a hypersensitive subject: the compulsory military service currently enforced on all Korean males. It is radically different from other mandatory services such as the one in Israel.

A private quarter in the Korean army

A disclaimer before I start: I have no intention to undermine or make little of the sacrificial service that many conscripted men are offering to the country. Their service is in fact invaluable. What I write below is a critique of the system and makes no statements about engaged persons and their contributions.

What it is

It is a conscription that applies only to males, aged between 18 and 35. The length of the service is approximately two years, though the exact amount depends on the division (army, navy, air force). There is essentially no pay: one receives around $100-150 monthly stipends. Alternative options are out of reach for most people. A conscientious objector is not accepted: if one refuses to engage in military activities without a proper permission, he goes to jail. A medical condition, depending on its severity (e.g., not having index fingers), can exempt a person from the service or allow civil service instead. There is also a very small set of merit-based options. For instance, an athlete who wins medals in the Olympic Games is exempt. A select group of people with MS or PhD degrees in engineering are sometimes allowed to work for industrial or governmental institutes for three years, though even this option is scheduled to be revoked in a few years.

The main purpose of the conscription is national defense, which is needed since South Korea is still in a state of war with North Korea (the current absence of war is technically an armistice).

A military march in North Korea

So far, I have given a description that is typical of any military conscription. The Korean conscription, however, has evolved to serve a rather different purpose in the society.

What it really is

It is a force, which cannot be denied by individuals, that chisels the Korean society into one that accepts any level of violence, cruelty, and injustice in the name of national interest. It annihilates the very foundation of scientific, creative, and independent minds in the country.

For two years in the service, a Korean male is isolated in a primitive environment that would appall someone used to the Western idea of human dignity and rights. The draftee lives in a cramped quarter called Nae Moo Ban with as many as 30 people. In this quarter, a form of absolute hierarchy based on army ranks (i.e., how long they have been in the army) is systematically imposed. Other than daily military drills, most of the draftee's time is spent living in this quarter. And this place can be a torturing cell, for two years, for someone who does not "fit in".

An unlimited degree of collective violence

I will provide a few specific examples of violence that can happen to anyone who is enforced into the service, where the violence has little to do with the actual purposes of the military (i.e., national defense). But before I do so, we must ask: why does all this senseless cruelty emerge?

A quarter is an isolated environment that tolerates any level of cruelty

There are multiple answers to this question. Ostracizing weak members is an effective way to promote the bonding of a group. The psychology goes along the line of:

Thank goodness I am not the one being harassed...
I must participate in harassing with others for my safety.

But perhaps more importantly, violence and cruelty are entertaining. In this isolated environment, draftees (especially in the later phase of the service) have too much free time with nothing to do. With unconditional power over others, they naturally seek entertainment by exploiting this power.

The following is a list of specific cases of violence in the army. The goal is to make the concepts more concrete and tangible to the reader.

  • An acquaintance of mine was forced to eat chicken blood shaped into a heart by a higher-ranking cook (personal communication).
  • Cases of this kind of "food torture" are prevalent. This article reports such cases in the navy. One person was forced to eat 20-30 bags of frozen food, whence the person had to repeatedly vomit and eat again, and be beaten for vomitting. Another person was forced to eat cockroaches.
  • There are many other forms of violence performed in a quarter. This book gives an account of several, including a person who was tied to a tank and tortured by higher-ranking officers.
  • Acts of cruelty are performed covertly, since "accidents" are not officially condoned. An acquantance told me that one effective strategy for harassing is to use staplers: punching holes on the legs is hard to catch because the injury is hidden under leg hair (personal communication).
  • More than 65% of draftees report that they have experienced some form of extreme violence/cruelty by superiors (source). In reality, however, almost everyone is victimized.
  • Many draftees who have been subject to this group violence either suffer from permanent mental trauma or commit suicide. The cases of suicide are all too common news. In one famous incident, a victim killed 5 others and was arrested before commiting suicide.
  • Many victims also often perform the same acts of violence to their inferiors (partly because they do not wish to appear as weak superiors), thus perpetuating the cycle.

I am frequently shocked by encountering perfectly good people who nostalgically reminesce their acts of cruelty on inferiors in their times in the service. I do not think that they are monsters. But I do think that all of us are capable of any evil given the right circumstance. The army system in Korea provides the right circumstance.

This is the reason, not the two-year length of the service or the physical hardship of the actual military drills, that makes many people desperately seek ways to dodge the conscription. They sometimes decide on extreme measures, for instance removing their own index fingers or toes. A friend of mine was allowed to do civil service for being underweight, but to achieve this he malnourished himself for months to the point of danger to his health.

The victims of the army violence and their families are often helpless. The government is criticized for providing at best lukewarm response to these incidents. In many cases, the people responsible for heinous acts of evil go on to living normal lives after the service, as if nothing of signficance happened. They go on to shape modern Korea.

What it does to the society

The violence and cruelty illustrated above is enforced on every Korean male. This has the effect of morphing the mentality of the entire population into one cultivated in the army quarter. A bright and curious college student becomes fearful of "stepping over the line" with professors, all the obscene sexualization practiced in the army distorts the image of females (source).

It is also an enormous loss of talent at a national scale. Most men are drafted in their early age of around 20. At this critical point in life when they have the most potential for learning and deep thinking, they are subjugated to a regularizing experience that can involve extreme levels of violence and cruelty. In particular, the demand for unconditional obedience to superiors destroys potentially great minds in science in which independent thinking is crucial.

Females are completely exempt from the military service

An elephant in the room is that Korean females have absolutely no obligation in this matter. It is clearly unfair and creates all kinds of conflicts between genders. Men naturally think that they have more rights than women with such sacrifice imposed on them. Women, on the other hand, resent the culture of gender bias created by the conscription, but they nonetheless want no part in the responsibility (which is rational).

What to do

Today in Korea, there are many aspects of the society that people are intensely angry about (including myself). They hate the hierarchical social structure in which conformity weighs heavier than reason. They hate the demand for unconditional and utter sacrifice of time and personal life at work. They hate the society's emphasis on short-term successes (e.g., a celebrity restaurateur, well-selling smartphones) over long-term investments that lead to fundamental advances (e.g., consistent and sustaining support for basic science). This anger is summarized in the phrase "Hell Chosun" that deplores the current state of the country ("Chosun" is the name of the last Korean dynasty). South Korea consistently has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries (source).

"Hell Chosun": a pejorative expression for the current state of Korea

At the heart of all these surface problems lies the compulsary military service. The service intills fear in people's minds: fear of superiors, fear of being different, fear of stepping over the line, and fear of pain. I simply cannot endorse the systematic, extreme violence and cruelty that routinely destroy and deform innocent lives in the mandatory military service, especially because they are not necessary for the actual goal of the conscription: national security.

The upshot is that there is an opportunity to dramatically resolve many social ailments by fixing this problem. Like in other countries, the current compulsory service needs to be switched to voluntary service that is well paid. The negative connotation associated with people not having been in the army, male or female, needs to diminish, and the positive connotation associated with professional soldiers as those who defend the safety of citizens needs to be bolstered. Reunification of South and North Koreas can put an end to this problem, but even before this happens there need to be measures to stop the unacceptable harm perpetrated by the system.

Mass Effect Trilogy

Every one of us wants to be the hero of our time.

Mass Effect Trilogy is a sequence of three Mass Effect games that form an epic, almost mythical, rise of a human hero in the face of a galactic annihilation. I can safely say there has not been a game that touched me this deeply since my innocent childhood. At the end of the trilogy, I was ravaged by the sense of resolution it offered. I was obsessed for days, thinking about what had happened during my experience and about my companions. Despite the fact that I am now writing about the game, please note that it is impossible for me to convey in mere words the full extent of the beauty I experienced. Consider playing! (buy)

I will first give an overview of the game plot. Then I will be more technical and attempt to explain why the game succeeds. Then I will conclude with a general impression of the game. I will avoid focusing on minor details about game mechanics (which in my opinion are just means to an end), but clutch to the big picture. There are spoilers, but they are essential to illustrating why the game is so mighty.

Plot overview: what it means to become a hero

(This plot is based on the game decisions made by me. There are many other possible plots depending on how the decisions are made.)

The year is late 2100s. The human race has been empowered with faster-than-light travel and discovered that they are only one of many advanced species in the galaxy, a newbie. In this time, you play as Commander Shepard, whose appearance, gender, and background can be customized to your liking.

In Mass Effect 1, you begin as a regular soldier investigating some sinister activities of a Spectre (analogous to a Jedi in Star Wars) in the galactic council. Then you make a fatal discovery: the galaxy is trapped in an endless cycle of extinction. Every 50,000 years, an ancient machine race, called the Reapers, invade the galaxy and wipe out all advanced organic civilization. They leave behind only the scattered ruins of technology, destroying all evidence of their own existence [from Official Plot Summary]. This Spectre is a pawn of the Reapers. Through your investigation, you build your crew, face a Reaper personally, and become the first human Spectre in history. In a stunningly orchestrated climax, you destroy the Spectre and save the galaxy from the seemingly invincible Reaper, becoming a hero known throughout the universe.

In Mass Effect 2, you begin by dying in an unknown attack, thrown into the void. Cerberus, a human association ruthless in advancing human interest at the expense of other galactic species, decides to bring back Shepard from death for his/her symbolic value through the use of advanced medical technology and unlimited resources. Through this "Lazarus" Project, you are resurrected, and work for the head of Cerberus (called the Illusive Man) to organize a team to stop the Reapers' another threat and prepare for their impending invasion.

In Mass Effect 3, the period of the current cycle is over, and the Reapers descend on the galaxy like crows on corpses. Despite Shepard's previous warnings, the galactic community is ill-prepared to face such an invasion, and many homeworlds (including Earth) are decimated. Shepard manages to form an alliance between major species by breaking down their old grudges. Together, they work on a weapon called the Crucible whose design was passed down from the previously annihilated races as the only tool to destroy the Reapers. Shepard goes back to Earth to put a final showdown against the Reapers. Unfortunately, the alliance is still unable to stop the Reapers. Many of your dear companions die and all hope seems lost. At that moment, you risk your life to make a breakthrough and finish the Crucible. But then you learn inside the Crucible that in fact you must either destory most of the galaxy along with the Reapers, or sacrifice yourself to become a synthetic program that controls the Reapers. You choose the latter, and the galaxy is freed from the Reapers and has a future at last. The name Shepard becomes a legend.

Aspects about Mass Effect that make it soar

Enormous scale

Each game takes around 30 hours to complete, with a moderate dose of self-initiated exploration (some take as long as 80 hours). The total number of hours for the trilogy adds up to almost 100 hours.

There are certain types of emotion that arise only from a long journey. Were you touched at the end of the seventh installment of Harry Potter or the third Lord of the Rings movie? During the 100 hours of play in Mass Effect, you surf the galaxy in your personal ship Normandy, meet countless characters and get to know them (across the three games). This is enough time to evoke the feeling of being glad to see an old friend.

As a specific example, you recruit an alien character in Mass Effect 1. He is somewhat irksome and rebellious, but you eventually grow to like and even respect him for his other qualities. By the end of the first game, you feel like he is a genuinely great pal. Now, in Mass Effect 2, he is nowhere to be seen, off to take care of his own business. Only 20-30 hours of additional play into the game will you encounter him again. The gladness of seeing each other's face is mutual.

Nearing the end of trilogy, you will have spent so many hours, having experienced even emotions that only come attached to the waning of age. This galactic community that you have grown so attached to is counting on you to stop the invaders. The sense of duty, honor, and resolution that you feel about saving the galaxy is a result of the sheer scale of the game.

Open-ended relationship with companions

In Mass Effect, you can have romance with your crew members. The developer Bioware is famous for a dialogue system that allows you to communicate with the game characters, however limited. At any point of play, you can choose to hang out in your ship, visiting your crew members in their own cabins. In this private space, you can have conversations that touch on intensely personal issues of your members (which can initiate side missions).

Let me provide a specific example. One of the galactic species is called the Asari. They have bright blue skin, and are one of the most advanced civilizations in the universe. In Mass Effect 1, you recruite an Asari named Liara T'Soni. When I first saw her, I had no particular feelings, mildly repulsed by her exotic appearance.

But as I progressed through the game and got to know her better, I learned to appreciate the strange mixture of qualities in her. Fiercely intelligent in mind but pure in heart, beautiful and terrible at the same time, remarkably capable yet humble. In the real world, it is probably very hard to find someone in which these qualities coexist.

Eventually, I developed genuine liking of her. Strangely, I have rarely if not never felt the feeling of having a crush on someone in real life. The sensation of happiness and the beating of the heart upon just thinking about the character came to me as both bizarre and pleasant. I really think it is a cool outcome. Think about it; a virtual character has taught me what it (kind of) feels like to be in love.

At the end of Mass Effect 3, in the final stance against the Reapers, Liara is killed in a combat. But the situation is too urgent to mourn for her. When my time has come to sacrifice myself to save the galaxy, at the moment I initiate a procedure to turn myself into an immortal but dead program, the memory of Liara flashes on the screen (presumably, the game stores which characters you have romance with and show them at this point). There is no way I can describe how I felt at that moment, on seeing Liara's face one last time.

Tight restraints for maximal impact

For most of the game play, special sound and visual effects are very reserved. There are cutscenes and background music, but these are mostly for a storytelling purpose. It is clear that the developers concentrated on improving the game experience itself without relying on easy "cheats" of flashy visuals and grandiose music.

To me, Mass Effect put the Japanese anime and games in stark contrast. J. products tend to be too enthusiastic to impose appropriate restraints that are crucial to achieve truly powerful experiences. Wild moves will be displayed too often, dramatic music will be played too frequently, etc.

On the other hand, Mass Effect is strictly regularized. It focuses on the core experience at all times (not the immediate entertainment specific to that given moment). Consequently, the story alone is immensely enjoyable. When you add additional components on top of this already powerful base, its emotional impact shines forth blindingly.

For instance, in Mass Effect 3, there is a certain signature piano piece --- a deep, poignant, sorrowful yet resolute score. This piece is only played at the most critical moments. (In my play, I think I encountered this piece only twice, one in the beginning and one in the ending.) In the ending, when my Shepard chose to give up her life and grabbed those controllers to begin disintegrating her body, this music began trickling down the screen, touching the very bottom of my inner being. This kind of narrative power only comes from careful reservation. As C. S. Lewis said,

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Mass Effect certainly listened to this wisdom.


Playing Mass Effect Trilogy has taught me

  • How good it feels to rise to become the hero of our time
  • What it is like to sacrifice myself to save the world
  • What it is like to have a crush on someone
In the aftermath of finishing the trilogy, I would daydream about the memories created in this world. And, strangely, this made me happy and contented. It is as if I already lived out a fulfilling life to reflect on --- a life worth living. Actually quite liberating.

Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Ocarina). It would be a waste of my breath to pay any further tribute to this acclaimed game. Shamefully, I never played any Zelda in earnest prior to this one on my 3DS; I only heard of its legend (until my ears ached). Now I have beaten it. I saw its ending in the last hour of 2011. It was a fitting finale to the personally tempestuous year, since the journey was (to my surprise) very long, generally hard, at times tedious, sometimes downright testing my patience, but eventually fulfilling—instead of being purely awesome and pleasant as one might expect from an acknowledged masterpiece.

I love the feeling of "THE END" after a truly weary journey, and I don't get it quite often enough, so I will try to savor it by writing my impression of Ocarina before the feeling fades away. But I do believe there is an important lesson from my time in the world of Ocarina, and I believe this lesson might be worth sharing.

A hard adventure writes itself

One thing that really struck me about Ocarina was that there is little storytelling, at least in words. This is problematic for a person like me, who views a game as a medium to tell stories, and deplores some modern (mostly shooting) games that lack worlds of their own and simply supply ephemeral sensory stimulation. The storyline of Ocarina is a classic "There and Back Again". A boy named Link (though I named him Karl) starts out from a peaceful world (called Hyrule), but must save the day when an evil man (called Ganon) breaks it, and the boy triumphs in the end. Since there is neither voice acting nor lots of script (as in games like Dragon Age: Origins), only the most important parts of the story are briefly scribed in words, in conversations.

Later I learned that the story actually manifests itself through the experience of playing the game. Your adventure in Hyrule will, before you know, itself be a story. In a more direct storytelling medium such as a novel, movie, or some other game, you will read about (or watch) the story of a hero who ventures to an ice cavern, solves tricky puzzles and traps, and slays a monster. There is no such story explicitly prepared for you in Ocarina. It is implicit when you do it, even though you might not realize when you're doing it.

The journey is not an easy one. I'm not saying the game is difficult; hardly anyone will be unable to beat this game. It simply takes an abundance of patience to tip-toe through deadly traps, and be punished for failures. It's a trace of an old game. An old game doesn't shy away from pummeling the players for their mistakes. How many times did I utter slow groans ("#@%*&#$!") when I had to start over from the beginning of a dungeon for losing to a boss. And I think I lost to that damn drum-playing bastard (Bongo Bongo) at least 4 times...

And it's not just one or two hardships. You have to go through fire and earth, water and ice, desert and shadow, the inside of a behemoth, deep forest and wide field, and even time itself. In each of these stages, fresh tribulations and frustration await. In each stage, a boss or two lurk to give you a fight of a lifetime.

In the center of the earth I knocked a fire dragon out of its senses.

In the midst of mirage I defeated my dark self.

Finally, I faced the power-crazed "King of Evil" Ganon himself.

By the end of my adventure, I knew the land of Hyrule forward and backward, (forcefully) having ridden from one end to the other on my horse Epona several times. I felt an urge to just quit the game when the merciless restarts got on my nerves, but I kept on.

It wasn't just blood and sweat through and through, though. Light is all the more brilliant against darkness, and darkness is only profound in the presence of light. I'm sure that everyone who played Ocarina was moved in the Fountain of Great Fairies, where, after exhausting battles and mazes, a startlingly beautiful music envelops the luminicent wall of clear water drops. In the Fountain, as I walked deliberately and slowly to the center, breathing the peaceful atmosphere and looking around the waterfalls illuminated by torchlights, I felt a level of immersion that would be absolutely impossible had I not spilled blood and sweat on my part in this world.

This is probably the heart of the lesson I learned. Things are very difficult to be meaningful without some pain. I love movies; I watch all kinds of movies, from the popular to esoteric. I love books; what better place to wield imagination? But this sense of membership and connection is simply infeasible in such media, where you're told what's going on. You have to live it. And it ain't come easy. It's not an easy and exciting ride like a movie, which keeps things rolling without efforts on your part. Even reading a book (which by many is considered a nontrivial intellectual exercise) doesn't provide pain and frustration necessary to build the momentum. Only a game can provide such sensation.

Am I saying all games should be bloody stressful? No, some of the worst games I've played just make things hard for the player for no good reason. And I don't think the experience alone can justify the quality of a game anyway (by that reasoning, a crappy MMORPG game is a good game if it happens to provide a good experience). A memorable game must have a believable and beautiful world, and the frustration of game play, though it hurts when it hits, if well-designed, can dramatically enhance storytelling in a way movies or books can never hope to.

As a person in the field of Natural Language Processing, it is astonishing that this non-linguistic storytelling convinced me to deeply care about yet another "There and Back Again" story of a boy, written by playing.

This was written at the bottom of Hell, not too long ago, in absolute misery and despair. It is now a thing of the past, but it remains here to remind myself that I should always be grateful at each moment.

Hard Times

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.
-Robert Frost

"How are you?"

As of now (April 2011), the most challenging question for me is "How are you?" This is because it requires the questioner to understand the extraordinarily complicated context of my situation. I can simply say "Fine, and you?" and thereby give out no information. In order to provide a more truthful answer, I'll have to hold the questioner for a long account which is certainly outside the intention of the casual greeting. So I write it out here in hope that it will serve as a fuller answer which I cannot adequately deliver in person.

Instead of "Fine, thank you"...

On the surface, I'm a young man who hopes to continue learning in graduate school. I'm not the brightest student (as constantly reminded in my career so far), but I have enough mental faculty, a strong will, and superfluous endurance to push my way through. People hence rationally conclude that I'm well on my way to further achievement.

Yet my young age not withstanding, I've already been battered by life too much to take a naturally carefree attitude. My parents, while I love them for what they are, proved to be a very negative influence on me. My mother is a dark, resentful, yet boastful person who even directly threatened me with a thought of suicide, and my father is a well-meaning but greedy individual whose treatment of people other than family or friends horrified me. In fact, part of my motivation to study abroad was to liberate myself from risking the continuation of their traits, so I may be independent of them in every sense. Throughout my study in the States, I had to walk a delicate line to survive on my own, escaping from the bogus school and host family in Idaho, alienating other Koreans in my persistence to learn, and cajoling my reluctant father to financially support my study by winning scholarships. Several times I nearly died, and there were triumphs and defeats.

There was a quiet hope that all these struggles would lead to some good ending. Having rushed through college in three years, my graduation in this coming May seemed like one.

Instead, on a clear Saturday in January, a pickup truck sped through the red light and rammed my car in full speed. My car was severed in half. It is a miracle that I wasn't killed, because the front part was severed right up to the front of my face, which was saved by the airbag. Furthermore, the pickup driver later lied that it was I who had driven in red (presumably judging by my Asian look that she had a good chance of beating me, a hopefully inarticulate foreigner), so I had to suppress my anger and fight against her insurance company with cool logic. I won, thankfully.

But something happened within a week that made me wish to be run over by a truck everyday, if by doing so I could avoid it.

My father suddenly lost sight completely. He had found out last year that he was a victim of what's called Evans Syndrome. A victim suffers decrease in red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, or any combination of them. Platelets were the main problem for my father. It appears a low platelet level caused internal bleeding nearby the eyes and brought the blindness. At first, a surgery was supposedly all he needed to recover vision. But ironically, it could not be performed unless there were enough platelets in the body, so my father had to (well!) just "blindly" wait. Now the story is rather deterministic; the situation got worse in the waiting to the point of no possible recovery. After three months of futile struggle, enormous suffering, and fear, nothing has come out, and he is now out of hospital and coping himself with the prospect of life as a blind (all the while having to take care of platelets lest he should die). Unlike in the States, the environment in Korea is hostile and merciless to the handicapped because the society has no room for them. In his effort to accept going from being treated a doctor to being treated a legless blind (my father also doesn't have one leg), he is having a hell of a time as I write this page.

Among other implications, one is that there is no more income to our family. That's why I'm very much hoping to find full aid in grad school next year, wherever I end up going.

Invincible happiness

Bread of Tears

Of course, I was devastated by my father's misfortune more than anything else. It is said that one shouldn't talk about life with someone who hasn't eaten bread wet with tears. I can also say it takes wiping the body with tears in shower and wishing not to be alive several times in a day to even partially appreciate the extent of pain life is capable of. I can still feel the shattering of my heart when I was told (very graphically by my resentful mother) that my father was wasted like a madman in his despair.

But, having had my heart broken daily for three months at this point, I'm slowly regaining the positive sense of life. How? I don't know. Partly it's the blessing of time that erodes any emotion eventually. However, there's more to it. I've come to realize that I'm able to "feel happy" right now if I'm determined to do so. This ability is in my reach at all time. Maybe I'm genuinely unlucky (the pickup truck, like a random dart, was doomed to hit any car in the traffic, but it had to be me; Evans Syndrome is an extremely rare disease, but it had to be in my father). That is, discounting Murphy's Law, probabilistically speaking there are bound to be some who are more unlucky than others, and I may be one of them. As an illustration, it is very rare that you get both ones when you throw two dice, but it's expected to happen in 36 throws.

Nevertheless, as long as my mind doesn't reside in misfortune, as long as I choose to smile, there can be a tempest of fire swirling around me and I can still feel I'm having a good, relaxing time. I'll simply do everything I can with the best effort I've got, and watch the outcome as if I'm watching a movie or playing a game. I've again found that happiness (and unhappiness, for that matter) is always in me. I only need to find it. In this way, my happiness is truly invincible, and I'm truly glad I have it now.

"And you?"

Games: the Other Worlds

Seen from a different time, a different view,
the world becomes a misty dream and sets me free...
... A sight for which no eyes are sufficient,
a touch for which no fingertips are adequate.

-Lyrics of a song in Ragnarok

Computer-generated virtual realities (i.e., games) initiated my academic drive and have fundamentally shaped who I am.
Maria Kates To war Game play
Maria Kates in Arcturus Divine worlds of Sacrifice Max Payne – a noir

I have to start off with a disclaimer: I am not a so-called "video game junky", whose conventional image is a hairy, unfit boy-man sitting in front of a screen all day long holding a controller pad, the mouth half-open. I view it tragic that the term game has come to carry a pejorative tone, which is the reason I avoid using it when I broach this subject to people. (Still, as soon as they realize what I'm talking about, they look at me with disbelief and some disappointment.) And justifiably so – many, if not most, games are nothing but mindless entertainment whose main purpose is to provide the player with a comfortable setting in which they do some repetitive work, so that they have the illusion of fulfillment. This puts me in a difficult position. I can't identify myself as a typical "gamer", but I still regard games to be of utmost importance.

What I see in games is the dissolution of boundaries between different worlds.

Think about it. We only live once (I think), in this particular world called Earth at this particular time of the 21st century. As a student of history, I know this world has an extremely convoluted story (and a pretty screwed up one at that) to offer, ranging from the French Revolution to modern daily politics. But I often feel so trapped here. Trapped by gravity, by my origins and physical appearance, by the fact that I can't use Force like a Jedi in the Star Wars series, and by the configuration of the world that is utterly unfair (some born healthy, smart, wealthy; others born maimed, retarded, poor), which we can do nothing about but quietly submit to.

However, there can be many other worlds to which we have access through imagination. One life is not enough. This lies at the heart of all imaginative endeavors of human civilization, such as novels, plays, songs, and paintings. I believe that game is the ultimate stage of the endeavor. Besides the fact that every other form of endeavor is a subset of this (we can associate the story part of a game with novels/plays, the sound part with songs/music, the graphics part with art/paintings, and so forth---reaching the conclusion that games are in fact culture-complete!), I have personally witnessed the potential through various games: they were more impressive, whimsical, poignant, beautiful, sorrowful, or even evil than our real world could ever be. For illustration, I will introduce three games. But keep in mind that I can't hope to convey all my points by this summary. No matter how much I praise them, you won't understand until you play through them: by the definition of the medium.

Arcturus: The Curse and Loss of Divinity


Published in 2000 by Gravity and Sonnori, this role-playing game of epic scale marks the apogee of Korean package games. (Unfortunately, the prevalence of illegal online downloads have virtually decimated the market, and now almost all Korean games are merely copies of isomorphic MMOs.) It is probably my all-time favorite.

It traces the development and metamorphosis of some of the most unforgettable characters that I know of. The main characters, Sizz Flair (in the banner above) and Maria Kates are childhood friends in the quiet town of Ragnie, although most of the time Sizz is simply used by Maria. The former is an extremely introvert boy who is often confused as a girl due to his look, while the latter is extremely extrovert girl who is often misunderstood as a boy due to her personality. This sort of gender-mixing came as a big culture shock to me. It's interesting how outrageously anti-Christian the world is (especially considering the fact that the game was made in Korea). Not unlike the time of Galileo, the church brutally suppresses its opponents; in fact, Sizz's mother was tortured to death by a priest who wanted to take Sizz under his command.

Two Sizzes
Metamorphosis of Sizz
Comical events in a grim world

The story begins when Maria succeeds in persuading Sizz to leave Ragnie for city life. Their escapade from home is ensued by encounters with people of different goals, leading to paths that they initially didn't foresee. In the middle of the game the world is torn apart. Through unbelievable turmoils and incredible sadness of the world, everything becomes upside-down; Sizz is now a cruel, callous man and Maria is a shy, reserved girl. We have a number of other truly interesting characters besides Sizz and Maria who have their own complicated stories. They all strive to find meanings and happiness in a world crumpled with hilarity, cruelty, pain and joy.

One may say that this is a typical story template, but my memory of the world of Arcturus is so unlike that of any other. It is an enormous world of ridiculous complexity, enriched by deep relations that develop among characters (and between them and the player) through 60 hours of play, presented with amiable graphics, humor, seriousness, and beautiful music. I find it so heartbreakingly attractive that I'm quite willing to devote my life to the creation of such worlds.



This is a completely different line of work. Sacrifice is what I would call a game simply too ahead of its time.

You are a lost wizard hoping to regain the track of life. The world is governed by five gods (one is a goddess) – of life, earth, air, fire, and death. You have to choose one and contribute to his or her godly plan by fighting or sometimes assisting other gods. The game mechanics was a breakthrough; it combined the real-time strategy playing with that of the third-person shooter, presented in an awe-inspiring world of mountains and sky that resounded with gloriously orchastrated music. The design of creatures was simply outstanding. Look at the headless creature in the above banner, or the troll below. I'm still not sure how these out-of-place, fantastical renderings could create such a coherent world: kudos to the designers.

My alias Stratos is the god of the air in this game.

A troll under the goddess of life
Stratos, the god of the air

He is a kind of mediating god in the middle, but with his own mind. Broadly, the gods are divided into two groups: life and earth versus fire and death. Stratos chooses to take no side, but operates on his own will to fulfill his own purposes. I guess I was attracted to his independence and, most important, his hilarious appearance.

It's sad that this revolutionary game design has not been pushed further. People are too busy playing mindless repetitions of good-looking video games. My hope is that someday, Sacrifice will regain its rightful position in game history.

Max Payne

Here's my first impression of New York City
Graphic novel pages of the tragedy of Max Payne.

Published in 2001 by Remedy, Max Payne is probably well-known for its effective presentation of New York City as a dark, drug-ridden place for noir drama. The main character, Max Payne, is characterized by such grief, pain, and determination that we cannot help but empathize with him throughout the play. After his wife is murdered by junkies addicted to a new kind of drug, Max, previously an NYPD, withdraws from the police and starts his own search for the source of the drug. In the journey, he meets several intriguing figures (such as the Russian mob boss, Vladimir, shown in a graphic novel slide on the right), fights his way through practically all gangs of NYC, and attains his revenge. His story is a tempest of anger, confusion, betrayal, and hypnosis. The comic-style narration of story also blends well into the hostile world depicted in the game, resulting in a powerful experience.

What makes good games?

Now I have written a lot, but honestly it's rather pointless to tell about my experience of playing these games, because a game's journey is meaningful only to the traveler alone. But there is a common thread that accompanies every exceptional game in my memory: zero tolerance for mediocrity. Every aspect of the game must be flawless. A truly strong game nails down everything – story, art, music, ambience, interface, performance optimization, etc. The reason is simple: a game is more than a sum of its elements. All elements work together to create a synergic effect, and therefore if one element is missing the synergy breaks.

I expect much more from games in the coming years. And, ultimately, they will take their place as perhaps the most significant heritage of human civilization, and I'm eager to participate in their ascent.


Religion has come to be such a sensitive topic that it can pull interpersonal relations to both extremes – people can become polarized or united so strongly because of religion that it is often dangerous and full of human follies (history is an ample source of such examples, starting from the Crusades to the modern Israel-Palestine conflict). In fact, I have unintentionally alienated an intelligent and honest individual whom I liked a lot (purely because of the fact that I did not refrain from manifesting my religious views), so I know the risk of broaching this subject. Hence here's my disclaimer: I don't want to antagonize anyone based on relgious issues, so please keep in mind that I'm not trying to evangelize.

I'm talking about it because this becomes, at some point in life, an unavoidable question to answer. We all know that one's life is limited by something like 29,200 days (80 years). That is short, even beside the fact that most of it gets wasted in sleeping, fooling around, and not doing anything much. Compare this brevity with eternity; don't just glance at them, but chew over the difference slowly. Then it will begin to dawn that, if there is really some "eternal" routine (whether it's Heaven/Hell, incarnation, or something else) extant outside the domain of our petty days, it will dwarf the significance of this temporary world so much that it is only rational to worry about things beyond this life.

Despite the overzealous Christian dynamics in the Korean society, I was not a Christian when I was in it. In truth, I disliked Christians, because to me they were self-content two-faced jackals who believed in such an unfair, absurdly distorted justice that dictated only a few lucky ones (including them, of course) would be saved (eternally) and all the others would be damned (eternally). It is only when I came to the states and faced desperation in Idaho, where I was mired in the fear of getting stuck there for good and losing all I aspired for, did I choose to believe in Christian God.

Or, no, looking back, I think it was the supernatural, all-transcending notion of God rather than 'Christianity' per se. In darkness, I realized to the marrow how utterly vulnerable I was, and groped for a rope of hope.

After I managed to pull myself out of the Idaho nightmare, I began to learn about the Christian doctrines and study the Bible. As is the case for most Christians, there were phases I was fervent to silliness and chilled to a heathen. In the process, I think I obtained what Christians would call the "growth in faith" by gospel, meaning acquirement of knowledge of salvation through Jesus Christ and of the Biblical events in general. However, the core of my religious stance remains 'unacceptably open' to different kinds of religion for most 'normal' Christians.

Why am I Christian?

Why do I believe in God? I can give several reasons for this. For example, I believe that God personally saved me in Idaho when I was in desperate need; and for that alone I owe absolute loyalty to God, modulo the fact that I might have been deluding myself.

But I'm nonetheless strongly against religion for religion's sake. I'm cynically convinced that one just cannot be constantly 'fired up' with Holy Spirit; that's simply not the way it works. One can pump up evangelical feelings through worship and praise, but such effects, I fear, are ultimately fleeting. The most stable source of my faith lies in rather grim facts: that we have not much choice anyway but to believe in God and his salvation, and that the world seems to impose many physical limitations to illustrate our inability to understand God (sort of Calvinistic here).

Why do we have no choice but to believe in God? I will argue that if one doesn't believe in the 'life beyond' that God's (or any religious) salvation promises, his life has no meaning. Unless one is willing to live life that has no significance whatsoever, this argument should at least be vexing. I need only two assumptions. First, we can measure the amount of meaning of life. For instance, if one phase of your life was particularly meaningful, we can say it has meaning of 500, whereas if you wasted away some phase of your life, we may say it has meaning of 30. Second, the meaning of one's life in the world is in inverse relation with time. This is because even if one thing is extraordinarily meaningful, if too much time is spent on it, it's not "worth it"; even if it carries a lasting effect of meaningfulness, it will, in the fluidity of time, eventually wear away.

The key point is that a person can have only a finite amount of meaning in his time, because it is only finitely long. Let P be any person. The total amount of meaning of P's life will be fixed as some measurable constant C by hypothesis. The amount of meaning will decrease as time with which it's associated grows. Let n denote the number of units of time (say, years) associated with C. If we account for the eternity of time (without a presence of something beyond), we can compute the meaning of P's life in its entirety, expressed by k(C/n) for some constant k, by taking limit on n:

		meaning of P's life = lim_{n->inf} (k(C/n)) = 0.

I am also propelled to accept the presence of some divine being because I observe so many limitations imposed in this world. For one, we cannot exceed the speed of light. Why not? Well, that's because we get to rewind time if we can travel faster than light, and it appears to me that this is exactly the sort of cap that God would put on to prevent 'malfunctioning' of the universe. People talk of the possibility of spatiotemporal disruptions like warmholes that will allow time reversal, but we don't know much about them yet. And what about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? This bummer states that we can never know certain pairs of physical properties to high precision simultaneously; one must give up one to gain the other. What the heck is that for, other than illustrating our undeniable limitations in comprehending the universe? Furthermore, scientists now speculate that the universe is full of "dark matter" (more than anything else), which we don't have a clue about. Who knows what's there? This might physically be the place for souls, spirits, and all sorts of 'supernatural' things people talk about. Last, our inability to visualize spaces beyond three-dimensional feels suffocating, because there can be arbitrarily high dimensions.

Nonetheless, I must acknowledge that this doesn't give any definitive ground for religion. Stephen Hawking, who understands these physical laws (and their implications) much more deeply and fundamentally than I do, more or less denies the need of God.

My problems with Christianity

I'm not an "exemplary" Christian in that I let myself mercilessly attack the doctrines of Christianity, and dare to generalize the meaning of God (as opposed to the super-strict specifications of salvation in Christianity).

Near the end of The Chronicles of Narnia, a fiction by the great Christian scholar C.S. Lewis, I was shocked by Lewis' seemingly heathen generosity on non-Christians. It's all allegorical, but essentially the message says that even if one doesn't specifically believe in the Christian God, if he has the right sense of God and finds his salvation through some other means, he will be saved.

I was stunned. At the time, I was all about the most pristine doctorines of Christianity. C.S. Lewis, the great Christian, making this kind of unacceptable remark? Can one then believe in, say, Allah and nonetheless go to the Christian heaven?

Most Christians (or those I'm aware of) usually gloss over this black spot of Lewis, saying that he doesn't actually mean it but is trying to 'loosen' the strictness of salvation in a different way. It's been several years since I read it, and I'm coming to realize at least slightly why on heaven Lewis incorporated this portion into Narnia.

Christianity in this world can be awefully wrong. It's sometimes downright evil. One doesn't have to look back to the time of Galileo to locate the obviously wrong deeds of church. A Christian community is very heirarchical, so people often pay unconditional respect and obedience not only to God, but also to their 'superiors' like the elders and pastors. (This is especially the case in Korea—an amazingly heirarchical society itself, where pastors frequently wield power equal to that of politicians.) This means when I say something against church, it is highly likely that most Christians will 'stay loyal' to their pastors and churches no matter what. So a clear and honest communication is nearly always difficult.

Here are some of my (relatively minor) questions about Christianity. How do we accept the Bible exactly as it is, and what does it even mean to accept it as it is? It is clear that the Bible is, to some extent, spoiled by human editing. For example, consider Jesus' remark in Matthew 19:24, "It is eaiser for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." This doesn't make any sense, because why would you use a 'camel' to put through the eye of a needle? Most likely what happened was that it was mistranslated. In Aramaic the words for "camel" and "rope" are spelled the same. The phrase should then read "it is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Source: wikipedia).

With this sort of human flaws in the Bible, how can we hold the view that the Bible should be taken literally? I've actually seen a person who is waiting for the destruction of a country in Middle East which was predicted in the Old Testament but hasn't happened yet. That's just nonsense. And don't even talk about refuting evolution as violation of God's words. I get greatly annoyed whenever I hear people, totally ignorant of the contents of and reasons for the theory of evolution, categorically attempt to deny the whole thing. What is it, some kind of Galileo Trial II? This was exactly the attitude of the Catholic Church at the time. I'm not an expert myself, but I've observed enough about the world to acknowledge that evolution is a very convincing, powerful theory. And I believe it can be perfectly compatible with God's methods of creation. Who are we to judge it wasn't an instrument of God? Blindly invoking Christian doctorines does not necessarily justify the the invoker. Note how many times Hitler, in his 1921 speech ranting against the Jews, invokes the fact that he is Christian (link).

Aside all these small questions, here is my biggest difficulty with Christianity. It is inherently unfair. Some people never get to even know about Christianity and thereby "miss" their chance of salvation. I can already foresee here the response of admirable missionaries who would argue that it is therefore the crucial duty of Christians to spread the gospel as much as they can. Well, I can see that, but this simply cannot be the final solution, because no matter how much we evangelize, there will be people who will not have access to this salvation. They will, according to the Bible, be eternally damned in Hell after their death.

Even the notion of eternal punishment sounds extremely unfair to me. Put simply, no matter how utterly unsavable one is, he doesn't seem to deserve endless damnation. (Always keep in mind that when we talk about Hell, we're not imagining some moderately painful place with fire and smoke. This is, in theory, an indescribably painful place. And you're stuck there for eternity once in it.)

I'm the kind of person who feels sorry for Judas Iscariot. Sure, he betrayed Jesus. But Jesus knew this fact beforehand! In essence, Judas was nothing but a puppet who took the role of traitor, of whom Jesus remarks "It would have been better for him if he had not been born" (Matthew 26:24). All right, but what about Judas? Why was he born, played this role, and went straight to Hell? What for? I'm agonized over this question, because you and I could equally well have been put into those shoes. What would be your response then?


I know that I'm annoying some people with my attitude. Quite understandably, they would demand, "So what are you? Identify yourself!" My short answer is that I'm Christian; I've come with God too far to quit now. It is simply that I have so many things I dislike about what I see in Christianity in this world. It's unfair, it's riddled with human errors, and it sometimes makes no sense.

But, as my friend told me, truth doesn't have to be fair, although I very, very much wish it were. This may have been the motive for Lewis for concluding Narnia with such a mysterious message.

As for the human follies, let them be! God will judge us all, not humans.

When it makes no sense, I remind myself of the limitations of our comprehension as described above.

In short, my religeous development is not complete yet. I hope God is still leading me toward...

Modern Korea

There are quite a few things for me to say about this country, hence this page.

Modern Korea is an amazing place. Seoul was thoroughly devastated in the early 1950s in the wake of the Korean War, as glimpsed in the first picture below. The second picture shows how Seoul looks at this point. If you think about it, jumping from one of the poorest countries to one of the richest (GDP ranking 15th, 2010 August) in sixty years is not a natural phenomenon. People in Korea literally worked to death in order to climb out of poverty. For instance, when they were building factories for the Pohang Steel Company (POSCO - now one of the largest steel companies on earth), construction workers vowed that they would "bury themselves at the spot" unless they finish the task several times faster than what was "possible" (fortunately, they made it). Korea has exited the status of a developing country long ago, and today is one of the leaders in the electoronics (Samsung, LG) and car industry (Hyundai, Kia, Samsung), with cultural products ('dramas', movies, music, food) that are becoming ever more popular. It has successfully held the Olympics (1988), World Cup (2002), and G-20 Summit (2010).

Seoul in 1950
Seoul in 1950
Seoul now
Seoul now

It should be clear that I very much admire these feats. However, to get beyond superficial understanding of modern Korea, one must face the dark as well as the bright sides, to the ultimate purpose of overcoming them.

The group mentality

In schools in the United States, one can easily find a group of Korean students moving about themselves, talking among themselves, and gossiping within themselves. Even in Korea, the boundary between 'our team' and 'your team' is as clear as the DMZ.

At the very top level of abstraction, one finds that Korean people are simply extreme. Since Christianity (which happens to support a strict distinction between good and evil) was introduced in Korea, churches have overwhelmed all corners of the society, including village communities, social activities, and even politics. South Korea is one of the most fervent followers of capitalism, whereas North Korea is one of the few remaining countries still sticking to communism. Korean immigrants have a reputation for working their ass off and managing to become rich and prosperous. The congressmen in Korea are famous for their fist-fighting in the National Assembly.

A map of Korea
Peripheral geography of Korea

The reason for such extreme-ness is complicated. First, one might consider the geographic position of the Korean peninsula; it is surrounded by countries whose size is much larger. Historically, the dynasties in Korea have defended themselves from those in China, and imparted cultural influences oversea to Japan. While doing so, it had to keep an extreme stance towards its neighbors, because otherwise it would have been swept by other cultures and lost its identity. One can even say it's a miracle that this small peninsula has succeeded in not only developing its own culture, but played a major role in balancing the forces of East Asia for millenia.

The biggest reason for the extreme-ness (though this geographic analysis is still relevant), however, is that there is simply no room in the society to afford not to be extreme.

A society with no room

It is not hard to see why everything in Korea is so 'urgent'. The nation has raced breathlessly to develop itself economically (often by sacrificing human rights and the low tiers of the social hierarchy). It is still divided in two halves, each of which is spending a lot of energy to stay alert of a potential conflict. Finally, it is a small land (more so because it's divided) with a lot of population, which is concentrated in even smaller areas.

Consequently, this feeling of 'no room' is pervasive in the society, which you can experience immediately in the streets, subways, and department stores. Every service is ever so quick, everyone is rushing to wherever he is heading, and the only thing a person can care to defend is himself and his family. All middle school students are competing fiercely for high school, all high school students are competing fiercely for college, all college students are competing fiercely for jobs, but few of them know why they do what they do.

Open discrimination

The worst side effect of this lack of room is that discrimination is prevalent. A crucial medium for this phenomenon is the mandatory army service. In Korea, every "able-bodied" male has to serve in the army for a little less than two years, no matter whether they are conscious objectors or pracitioners of nonviolence. The point of the army, however, is as much of establishing an absolute heirarchy in the society as of defending against North Korea. In the army, rather than going through a well-provided, efficient military training for battles, people learn to obey their superiors unconditionally and to order about their inferiors, without a slightest concern for human dignitiy or personal privacy.

North Korea
A military march in North Korea

The discrimination, then, permeates naturally to each segment of the society - in companies, in homes, and in schools. As long as women don't serve in the army, they will never gain an equal status with men. From elementary school, students learn to categorically obey their teachers, who have the right to exert (possibly severe) physical punishment. Even though English is promoted (too much) as part of the cosmopolitan efforts, people still feel very foreign to those who are not from Korea. This is very good for white-skinned, English-speaking people (believe me, if you're one, and you're in a crowded place in Seoul, they will try to take a picture with you), and very bad for everyone else. For instance, many from South Asia do much of '3D' works in Korea, and they are looked down by those who themselves don't have anything to offer to the society.

What to do

It takes time for a society to become truly advanced, because some aspects of a wealthy society (creativity, generosity, curiosity) cannot be obtained without a little 'laziness'. Korea has managed to develop itself incredibly fast economically, and now it's time for it to develop itself in other ways. In fact, this is already happening. As there is more wealth, people are starting to look at 'optional' areas such as the world peace, environment, and academic advancement. But there are several obstacles to overcome.

First of all, unification of the two Koreas is indispensible. There are some people who think South and North Korea are two quite separate countries, so let me be clear. There is only one Korea. Just as Germany was considered (more or less) one country when it was split in East and West, Korea should be regarded one country that is waiting to be reunited. There are many political forces involved to prevent this re-unification, but it must be done for Korea to go anywhere beyond the present state. Then the energy and money spent on defense can be redirected to more productive causes; the army conscription, which as seen is a major reason for many ailments of the society, can be reduced or even removed; and the relatives and families who are split across the peninsula can be united again. Rather than trying to prevent this from happening for national interests, other countries must support and collaborate with Korea to make it happen for humanitarian and, in a long run, economic reasons.

Given more time, we will observe that Korea will slowly morph into a truly advanced nation which is solid not just in economic and military power, but in humanitarian and cosmopolitan efforts.

My view

I try to transcend nationality whenever I can (my use of the non-Korean pseudonym Karl Stratos may be interpreted as part of this endeavor), but I have come to realize that it is unwise to escape from one's nationality. No matter where I go, I will always be treated as a Korean (even if I shift my citizenship). This raises the issue of destiny and so forth, but the bottom line is that whether I like it or not, I have to live as a Korean. And if I have to, it follows that I will benefit more if I enjoy living as a Korean. Although I will personally strive to overcome nationality and treat every person as a dignified human based solely on his or her character, I have come to accept the invitation from Korea. May Korea prosper, along with all other countries on this planet.

A temple in mountain mist
The Umunsa Temple in mountain mist

© 2010–2024 Karl Stratos