The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

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"Honoured Sir,
'I am sorry, and very sorry indeed, to inform you, dear Sir, that this country does not agree with us at all and without a very sudden change, I do not think there will be one of us left at the end of 12 month. Neither can the people be brought to any rule or regulation, they are so very obstinate in their tempers. It was really a very great pity ever we came to this country after the death of Mr Smeathman; for we are settled upon the very worst part. There is not a thing put into the ground, will grow more than a foot out of it . . . quite a plague seems to reign here among us. I have been dangerously ill myself but it pleased the Almighty to restore me to health again and the first opportunity I have I shall embark for the West Indies.'" -- From a former slave, freed in Britain, in Sierra Leone in 1788

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Quote of the Day: "Even when you don’t see me smile, in fact I am smiling." - Saddam Hussein

Monday, August 29, 2005

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Quote of the Day: : "I really loved that 'Gladiator.' I really like the way you say, 'Your wife moaned like a whore as they ravaged her again and again and again'." -- Johnny Cash talking to Joaquin Phoenix.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

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Where the aid money goes: "Of 3 million pounds donated to Malawi projects by Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), nearly 600,000 pounds was spent on hotels for U.S. consultants over four years and a further 126,000 pounds went on meals."

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"There is an auld axiom beloved of burnt-out English teachers, glamour-impoverished fantasists and a million other drudges seeking to transcend their lives of quiet desperation: everyone has a novel inside them. This slogan has been appropriated as an article of faith by the amateur writing community, whilst its corollary - as a novelist, you have six-and-a-half billion potential rivals - remains the gravest of heresies. Like a blind man in a room of ill-positioned rakes, any group indulging in such wilful myopia is doomed to a series of unpleasant collisions with reality." -- Tim Clare, in The Guardian.

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Joyce said the weapons that allowed an Irish writer to write were "silence, exile and cunning."

He should have mentioned seagulls, raincoats and umbrellas, which is what gets Al Jabarro through his time in a permanent abroad:

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

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It's great and sad to watch Cockburn and Hitchens fight. It just goes to show how friendship in the world of hyper-punditry is a time to stockpile damaging and embarrassing facts in preparation for the eventual falling out. Best punches from each corner:

Cockburn: There's no useful debate to be had with Hitchens. The man's been shipwrecked by reality, but on his fantasy Titanic Commodore Hitchens still paces the bridge, swearing against all the evidence that his ship's on course. He urged a war which has plunged a country, Iraq, ever deeper into death and ruin. How long will he go on saying the attack was worth it and that America should stay the course. On "staying the course" the people of Iraq gave their view in the elections, which they hoped would spell swift American departure. Of course Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty tyrant who brought misery and death to the Iraqi people. What will it take beyond the present 100,000 dead Iraqis for Hitchens and those like him to concede that between Saddam or invasion and American occupation, the former, indubitably horrible, was the preferable option? 500,000 dead, a million, two million?

Hitchens: In a way, Cockburn has the courage of his convictions (as well as, see above, the cowardice of them). I dare say he is annoyed to find "Cindy" crumbling under the first tough question she was asked. And he is welcome to describe me as a "sack of shit", as well as to smear excrement all over the walls of his nursery. But the above remain the facts.

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How a Thai can kick ass in English scrabble.

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I didn't expect this fairly innocent Google search to be such a gold mine. I laughed, I cried, I was educated, I wasted time!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

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He wasn't looking for America, so of course he didn't find it. Humbert Humbert's ride across America.

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Monday, August 22, 2005

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Hamburgers join snowflakes and episodes of 'Extras' as things where no two are ever alike: "In Mississippi and Tennessee, he finds soy-meal-enhanced ''slug burgers'' and flour-and-water-cut ''dough burgers.'' (Fear not, Edge writes, ''the marriage of beef and extender need not be untenable.'') In south-central Connecticut, he finds hamburgers that are steamed. (When cheese is melted on a ''steamer,'' a makeshift metal box that fits on the stove, it takes on ''that Play-Doh-warmed-in-the-microwave mouth feel.'') In Texas, he finds refried beans and sometimes Fritos and Cheez Whiz adorning a bean burger. (Edge prefers this name to the too-literal ''tostada burger,'' explaining that ''localized fanaticism is predicated upon peculiar local knowledge. And the term 'bean burger' is cryptic enough to inspire a tight fraternity of devotees.'')"

Sunday, August 21, 2005

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To play God's advocate, here are some reasons why it's wrong to diss Movies that call Mad Scientists mad, as The American Prospect does.

There are lots of sane scientists in Hollywood movies, especially if engineers count as scientists. If Amity had listened to Richard Dreyfuss's ichthyological expertise in "Jaws," no one would have been dentally mangled for the sake of tourist bucks. In "Jurrasic Park" the insane scientist is matched by two sane scientists -- three sane scientists, if the hippy-dippy, "nature will find a way," pseudo-chaos-theory of Jeff Goldblum qualifies as science (try falsifying the statement "nature finds a way").
Similarly, if the greedy developers hadn't re-wired Paul Newman's wonderful edifice, we'd remember The Towering Inferno as The Towering (although my argument is slightly undercut Fire Chief Steve McQueen's awesome mini-speech (look up ":[sighs] Architects."). Indeed, any disaster movie from the 70s worth its salt should have a scientist pleading with small-minded little Hitlers to stop whatever it is that they're doing before a disaster occurs and then has a disaster occur when they go on regardless. What kind of an idiot wouldn't listen to the following kind of advice?

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, "biblical"?
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath-of-God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes...
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria.


Hollywood doesn't hate mad scientists because they're scientists. Hollywood hates mad scientists because mad scientists are mad. We should remember that before Frankenstein, which The American Prospect sets up as Hollywood's archetypal vision of the destruction wrought by the unbridled pursuit of knowledge, there is Faust and that before Faust there is Ulysses in Dante's Inferno. Both those earlier figures, both proto-modern-men committed two crimes, which is obscured by eternal damnation's ability to punish all crimes at once.

The first crime is the Bellerephon crime. This is where Zeus finds it unbearably arrogant that mortal has the gall to scale Mount Olympus and cripples Bellerephon accordingly. Ulysses perishes in a whirlpool to please "an Other," which always makes me bitterly hope that that makes Him happy. I think most of us find it neurotic of the Gods and God to act this way, and this is the crime The American Prospect refers to when it's saying

I'm fed up with the insinuation (for it's never an argument, always an insinuation) that there's a taboo against the pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge and that certain technological achievements -- especially those with the potential to affect life itself -- are inherently "unnatural." Or as Victor Frankenstein puts it in Shelley's novel, "Learn … by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."

But Hollywood movies don't care too much about that. They generally find mad scientists guilty of the other Faust-Ulysses crime, which, to take a subtly different lesson from Greek mythology, I can call the Deadalus crime. While we focus on Icarus's tragically youthful play for the sun in this story, it's also worth identifying Deadalus's flawed assumption that all problems are resolved in technology. He should have paid as much attention to teaching Icarus obedience as he paid to fashioning wings for Icarus.

A mad scientist is mad because he believes that the power of technology includes the power to resolve competing virtues. As anyone who's read Isaiah Berlin knows, this is bad news.

A mad scientist pursues whatever virtue his research will achieve AT THE EXPENSE OF EVERY OTHER VIRTUE THERE IS. Faust pays an absurdly high price for some knowledge and the chance to live beyond the plague-reduced life expectancy of the Elizabethan era***. At least he was bargaining his own soul. Ulysses sacrificed the love of his wife, his children, the men who served him, all for death in a whirlpool.

Similarly, to use the American Prospect's example, Anakin becomes Darth Vader because he doesn't recognise that the good of saving Padme is outweighed by the bad things he will have to do to achieve it. Science doesn't make him kill the younglings and destroy the republic. His inability to balance his ethical demands and realize that two abstract virtues are irreconcilable (equality and freedom being the classic examples), is what leads to the withering of Anakin's moral sense. The "small-minded fools" that Mad Scientists hate have small minds because they see the virtues of science as being no more or less than virtues. Mad Scientists think science reconciles the contradiction between doing what's best for the world and performing experiments on your son (as in "Peeping Tom" or ... er ... "Hulk"), just as Lenin might argue that the sending vast amounts of people to a Gulag leads to more of the right kind of freedom, for society as a whole. It doesn't. It's a lesson that the mayor of Amity, who thinks tourism is the only good Amity should pursue, could learn as well.

Not that Hollywood's particularly wise. Nor that I'd ever say Hollywood isn't too preachy. But I think we can comfortably side with Hollywood against the Mad Scientists and tell The American Prospect that being preachy is a small crime compared to poisoning Gotham with schizophrenia in order to reverse the damage that urban decay does to the general sense of morality.

*** The plague part is Christopher Ricks's explanation for what otherwise seems like an absurdly stupid bargain -- even for an allegorical figure -- the infinity of hell makes anything the devil cares to give you in exchange into a relative bag of peanuts .

Thursday, August 18, 2005

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Here's a fascinating tidbit from The New Yorker: "And how could one prove the opposite: that a given statement is hopelessly unclear, and hence bullshit? One proposed test is to add a 'not' to the statement and see if that makes any difference to its plausibility. If it doesn't, that statement is bullshit. As it happens, Heidegger once came very close to doing this himself. In the fourth edition of his treatise What Is Metaphysics? (1943), he asserted, "Being can indeed be without beings." In the fifth edition (1949), this sentence became 'Being never is without beings.'"

Christopher Hitchens once similarly cited a study that used different editions of an Isiah Berlin that showed Berlin changing, say, "From Airstotle to Hume..." to "From Archimedes to Spinoza" as if all that mattered was the first marker of the range began with the impressively initial initial of A. Philosophers, beware revisions of your work!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

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"Someone like me ought not to bring children into the world," he wrote. Which raises the quesiton what was Thomas Mann like?

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As always, the Guardian shows that it's default argument against anything is to call it "sweeping and snobbish" (or elitist), as in those who think not reading much is a bad thing: "It's fine for anyone to confess that they really can't stick shopping; one can even seem quite smug about it. Not so if you aren't keen on books. Reading must be about the only pastime that is pretty much universally seen as 'good' and virtuous - so to say openly that you don't like books puts you beyond the pale. For someone to say they don't care for reading labels them as some kind of thickie pariah, fair game for any insult. To decide any such thing on the basis of one single trait seems both sweeping and snobbish."

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What would you rather have, one strong bomb going off in one place or 100 weak bombs going off across your country at the same time? At least one of the 100 bombs to go off in Bangladesh seems improbably cute:

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Somehow the New York Times manages not to go off the deep end into ponderous proclamations over the ontological state of the comic and instead gives an incredibly handy guide to comics on the web. How'd the Times manage to cope with such insights as "The problem with Narbonics is that the plentiful words almost crowd out the pictures, and reading them on the screen is a lot more eye work than reading them on a page. What's more, you can't catch up on previous entries without subscribing to something called 'Modern Tales.'" As a special MacLamity service to MacLamity's ones of readers, here are the links the NY Times provides for now, but will soon snatch away from the peniless and demand to be paid for:

tcj.com/232/r_cuckoo.html
tcj.com/234/r_cuckoo2.html
tcj.com/235/e_mccloud.html
coconino.fr
onlinecomics.net
comicwindows.com
webcomicsnation.com
http://www.ccawards.com/2005_ceremony.htm

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

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POETRY REVIEWS ARE NOT HELPING POETRY, PART I: "(They sound like the sort of Yeats poem Berryman would have written to impress R. P. Blackmur.) "Sorry NYT, could you explain what sound would that be?

And then there's "By winnowing the formal and rhetorical possibilities down so far, Merwin was asking his poems to be vehicles for wisdom or nothing at all. To be sure, you felt as though if you coughed in their presence, a trapdoor would open under your feet and plunge you into the dungeon. But how many works of art compel such total solemnity?"

Monday, August 15, 2005

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One would really like to know what Brian Eno added to the Wikipedia entry about himself. (" Je l'utilise et j'ai moi-même complété le chapitre "Brian Eno" Le Monde has him say). Blaming public interest in this sentence "Public interest in Eno fuelled a rivalry between him and Roxy's leader, Bryan Ferry"? Attributing remarks about himself to himself in this sentence "His skill at using "The Studio as a Compositional Tool" (the title of an essay by Eno) led in part to his career as a producer."? Or this tidbit about the kind of project that's really only interesting to the people involved in it "He collaborated on the development of the Koan algorithmic music generator."?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

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"The sheer number of Indian civil servants who appear to be working on novels might be one reason why the Indian bureaucracy still churns so slowly," and yet, the crazy hype started by Arundhatai Roy, the moment when it seemed that the colonies were re-writing the entire English canon seems to have passed.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

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"Creating taboos gives us the powerful possibility of breaking them. But this heightened and sophisticated pleasure was perhaps less available in the Middle Ages, when a woman was unblushingly named Bele Wydecunte and both London and Oxford had streets called Gropecunt Lane. " (Telegraph)

Sunday, August 07, 2005

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Winning the lottery in Limerick is less like "Waking Ned" than I'd have expected, and more like, well, The Lottery:

Even now, visitors are warned off entering Island Field, the bleak estate, known as 'the parish', just north of the city centre. For those that do enter, it is the crows that they first notice. Scores of the scavengers pick at the detritrus that clogs the streets. Such areas remain the stronghold of Limerick's criminal gangs, whose membership may run into hundreds.
Barely a week ago, 22 Patrick Street was a modest family bungalow. Now it is the target for thousands of hawkers, financiers and charities from across the world. Neighbours claim financial advisers have attempted to bribe them with free holidays in return for an introduction to the millionaire.
Limerick priest Father Joe Young warned Dolores last week that she had 'no future' with her winnings and urged her to give every penny to charity. Her response so far has been to disappear along with her family and her huge windfall.

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Quote of the Day:

Q. How about the Beats [in terms of authors you like]? Someone like Jack Kerouac, for instance, who died a few years ago?
A. Jack Kerouac died! Did he?
Q. Yes.
A. O ... Gosh, they do die off, don't they?

-- P.G. Wodehouse (in 1971)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

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People who don't understand cricket will never understand why what I'm linking to produces more excitement in me than what any other sport can produce. But there it is. There is no better way to say how days can punctuate a sport than this article.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

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Is Twenty20 cricket a betrayal of cricket's quiet dignified past or a revival of its flashy, wild and "underleg bowling action" pre-history?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

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Good to know that African writers feel this problem as well:

I sensed that they did not want to hear about growing up in town and getting a western-type education. The mundane climax was my switch from law to writing. Any American writer could have told them this.

I felt as if I had been invited under false pretences. I should have been born in a poverty-stricken village, brutally circumcised with a blunt, unsanitised knife with other five-year-old girls, then, a few years later, kidnapped by child soldiers, becoming a sex slave of a rebel commander before escaping dramatically and trekking through the dry bush for miles and months until I was rescued by foreign aid workers, 'rehabilitated' and adopted by a gracious American family. I would end up triumphant and grateful in the US and living to tell my story; which is, of course, a story worth telling.

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A poem written by a 6-year-old in China, tagged to her parents' bed in the Hilton, where they live, 900 miles west of Shanghai:

Amarica is my place!
I love Amarica.
It was fun.
It was so fun.
I miss it.
I miss my fridge.
I love Amarica.
Amarica was my place and it still is my place.

Cf. the predominant device used here with Eliot and Nabokov making fun of Eliot.

Monday, August 01, 2005

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"Is always" isn't forever:
"You move into a darker place as you get older," [Neil Simon] tells me. "You have a different perception. My mindset is not funny any more. I can still do it, somewhat, in writing, but it's darker. It's not even the death thing - I know I'm closer to the end than the middle. It's just a fact that I can't get out of bed without pain any more.
Simon has said in the past that pain is always funny so I wonder if he finds this chapter of his life amusing. He pauses for some time before replying: 'I don't think there's anything funny here.' "

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In case you haven't read it here's Sappho's latest poem. Why are so few of Sappho's poems actually about Lesbians getting it on? (Also, why is there no actual bondage in "Of Human Bondage?") If I wanted to read about the horrible and lonely oldness of growing old I'd read Philip Larkin, who at least had the grace to write about plenty of real vile Sapphism, as opposed to Sapphic Sapphism, which is just sappy.

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Margaret Drabble demonstrates a weird ambivalence to mulitculuralism in this week's TLS. She has the same, sad desperation to do the right thing that I remember the one or two male Gender Studies majors I met in Stanford having. They entirely agreed that men were evil, but equally had a tough time proving that conviction, since they were men. Drabble's essay is on the Post-Colonial equiavalent of never being able to deactivate the male gaze in class. Her attempt to write a poroper work of world literature, one which would combine today's west with 18th century Korea's literature (fascinatingly taking as her model "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"'s combination of 19th century mores and medieval British culture), backfired horribly among the world-literature people who'd inspired her in the first place:
Novelists are always nervous when they hand over the product of three years of solitary labour to a new reader, and I was apprehensive about what I had done, but I had not expected either the tone or the content of the response I received from my first reader in New York. I had tried to behave correctly, but I had not been correct enough. My attitude towards the original classic Korean text was, according to the view from American academe, full of “egregious error”. American academe, appearing to speak on behalf of and in defence of Korea, declared that The Red Queen was full of crimes, the least of which was a reference to Korea in the eighteenth century as a frozen land and, by implication, a “hermit kingdom”. This latter phrase has been used by Koreans and Westerners for centuries, referring to the Chosun dynasty’s undisputed policy of isolationism, but it is, I was told, no longer correct. We are now to believe that the Koreans never were and are not now hermits. They welcome cultural interchange and debate. Nevertheless, the phrase “hermit kingdom” was not to be used, and the publication of my novel could not be approved. The position seemed to me to be paradoxical. (When I commented recently on the fact that the much praised exhibition entitled Encounters: The meeting of Asia and Europe 1500–1800, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004, contained only one Korean artefact amid a profusion of images from China, Japan and India, I was informed by the curators that this was because there were so few encounters. However, it is incorrect to refer to the “hermit kingdom”.)

My novel, I was told, would probably be greeted with ridicule in the United States, because “educated readers” in the US are aware of issues of multiculturalism, and indeed many universities include a one-year course in non-Western civilization in their degree requirement. Had I never heard of Edward Said? (His ideas are embedded throughout my text, and his name appears towards the end, but I don’t think my would-be censor got that far.) Was
I not familiar with the debate over Madame Butterfly? I had Orientalized the Crown Princess – or had I perhaps Westernized her? Objections came from both sides. It was not clear to me whether I had made her too feeble or too strong-minded, but whatever I had done, it was not condoned. I had also, in an attempt at even-handedness, Orientalized the Romanovs, whose barbaric home life comes in for criticism from my time-and-space-travelling narrator. (My comments on the American twentieth-century habit of executing minors and the criminally insane, a practice condemned within the last months by the US Supreme Court, went unnoticed.) My interpretation of Lady Hong, or the Lady Hyegyong, was inadmissible. It was not even clear which of her names I was allowed to use.

This Korean author, whose words had moved and inspired me, died in 1815. She was disadvantaged in life, and she was being censored, it seemed to me, in death. These objections came not from her own country of Korea, but from the standpoint of contemporary American political correctness, which claimed the right to halt my publication. Was it not the practice in England, I was asked, to submit one’s work to peer review? Was this practice uncommon in fiction-writing?

I had clearly caused great offence; I was, in turn, offended. I readily admit to unintended factual errors, some of which could have been removed by a more tactful response. It was a mistake to describe the floors of the Korean central-heating system (the famous ondol flooring) as wooden: they are made of stone covered in varnished paper. It was a mistake to refer to Koreans being obliged to compose the infamous Chinese “eight-legged essays”. It was not a mistake to suggest that the Crown Princess might have seen some Western works of art brought to China by the Jesuits, though it was improbable that she had. (I needed to suppose that she had, because I needed to invoke the question of artistic perspective, a concept introduced into Korea at this period.) I was probably right in guessing that she had not heard of her contemporary Voltaire, but wrong to suppose that she could have read Freud or The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, or known about immune-deficiency disorders or stem-cell research.
The weirdness to the ambivalence is in Drabble's quiet need to still please these people. While she does such a good job of mocking her critics, she is still keen to say that she has had a minor conversion on the question of "cultural appropriation." It seems a bit too grovelly to be a genuine second thought. But she does manage to stick the knife in to them, through this comparison of the defender's of Korea's culture from Western misconceptions in American academe, and the people who make up Koran culture itself:
Magpies are thieves, and in Britain they bring bad luck. In Korea they traditionally bring good luck, or so I was assured. But Korean Americans have adopted the bad luck line, and in my view they therefore misinterpret their own texts. This is confusing.

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Angus new precisely what to do with the Tofu platter.