The First Family… of North Korea (SW)

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North Korea: where tourists don’t go and where colors may not exist. In the past few weeks, there’s been speculation on the country’s nuclear technology, Kim Jong-un’s rather opaque agenda, the significance of the upcoming celebration of Kil Il-sung’s birthday on Monday. Political finagling aside, what’s the first family of North Korea really like?

The paparazzi never seem to make it out to North Korea (though we’re alerted every time a celebrity gets bangs), so with the help of Wikipedia, let’s see what we can dig up!

Kim Il-sung: The Eternal President of the Republic (Incumbent)

Kim Jong-suk: First wife, a former guerrilla fighter, who reportedly saved Kim Il-sung’s life. They were married shortly thereafter.

  • Official cause of death: hardships endured as a guerilla fighter
    • Unofficial official cause of death: childbirth
    • Alternate proposed causes of death: tuberculosis, or she may have been shot and bled to death
    • Please note: her death has been omitted from her official biography. Sensible…
  • Had three children with Kim Il-sung:
    • Kim Jong-il (son): Future Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea
    • Kim Man-il (son): died of a swimming accident as a toddler, Kim Jong-il may have been involved.
    • Kim Kyong-hui (daughter): owner of the first hamburger franchise in Pyong-yang, but seeing how it’s North Korea, hamburger has been loosely translated to ”minced meat and bread”

Kim Sung-ae: second wife. Had three children with Kim Il-sung: Kim Yong-il, Kim Kyong-il, and Kim Pyong-il, but tried to block Kim Jong-il’s ascent to power. This arm of the family has fallen out of favor.

On to the next generation:

Kim Jong-il: former Supreme Leader of North Korea, Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (Incumbent). He was born in the Soviet Union, and was given the Russian name Yuri Irsenovich Kim, nicknamed Yuri (we should all call him that). Had three mistresses and one official wife. In chronological order:

  • Song Hye-rim: Mistress #1
    • Had a son: Kim Jong-nam. Through the late 1990s, Kim Jong-nam was expected to be his father’s successor. However, an incident involving a fake Dominican passport and a Chinese alias (Pang Xiong, which means “fat bear”) while on a jaunt to visit Disneyland in Japan may have closed that door. Well, that or liberal ideas acquired abroad. Rumor has it he’s currently living in Macau amidst lots of bling.
      • Why a Dominican passport!?
  • Kim Young-sook: Official Wife, daughter of a military official, hand-picked by Kim Il-Sun himself
    • Had one daughter: Kim Sul-song, reportedly the most favored child
  • Ko Young-hee: Mistress #2, former dancer
    • Had three children:
    • Kim Jong-chul (son): declared too effeminate to rule, but supposedly has a great relationship with his younger brother
    • Kim Jung-un (son): current Supreme Leader of North Korea, bears a strong resemblance to Kim Il-song
    • Kim Yo-Jong (daughter)
  • Kim Ok: Mistress #3, former pianist

Let’s talk about de-extinction (JJ)

Yes, it is giving birth through its mouth. Yep.

Recently, scientists working on the Lazarus Project succeeded in creating live embryos from the DNA of an extinct species of frog. What’s more, they feel sure that they are only a few tries away from making eggs and hatching the frog itself, thereby de-extinctifying the species. This is so cool that the English language does not have real words to describe it yet.

This news has created a distinct hullabaloo on the internets about the possibility, promise, and potential-to-give-us-dinosaurs-as-pets that is “de-extinction.” And of course everyone is excited: Some extinct animals have the same status in our minds as mythical beasts. Being told that we are a few generations away from hanging out with wooly mammoths is like being told that unicorns have just been hiding for the last few centuries. It’s awe-inspiring.

It also feels, instinctively, right. Humans can’t seem to stop wiping increasing numbers of species off the face of the earth, but now, with de-extinction on the horizon, we might be able to right our wrongs! Might “de-extinction” even be an ethical imperative? Is it not our duty to bring back what we ourselves snuffed out?

Absolutely not.

Look, I get it. We are all so guilt-ridden when it comes to the environment, and even the word, “de-extinction,” implies erasure of past wrongs. It is appealing to think that science, that thing that humans are best at, might give us a do-over with nature, that thing that we pretty much suck at more than any other species. What a relief a second chance would be.

Unfortunately, this is a siren song. One simple scientific process, no matter how astounding, could never give us a second chance. Assuming that we are able to de-extinctify enough fertile frogs to form a viable population, where would they live? In the forests where they once roamed, which are now logged wastelands or private resorts? Or perhaps in different but similar forests, where they might drive to extinction the frogs or snakes or salamanders that currently fill the same niche? How exciting to have a herd of mammoths roaming free, but how devastating to the animals, plants and human communities that have evolved to replace them in the last few hundred years.

Something that conservationists often overlook is that “nature” is a moving target. John Muir helped instill in us the concept of a perfect time when nature was pure and unspoiled by man, and the belief that any changes since then are offensive artificialities. If we could only put everything back in its place and erase the cruel footprint of mankind!

The thing is, we can’t, and the argument for why we should is pretty shaky. During our time on Earth, some species have gone extinct; some have developed new adaptations. New species have emerged. The climate everywhere has changed; the very chemistry of the air and soil is different. Mammoths and gastric birthing frogs and dodo birds simply don’t belong here anymore. Evolution has kept on chugging since they bowed out, and the ecosystems that still exist have adjusted to their absence. What exists now is just as beautiful and inspiring as what existed then, but it is different, and we have to accept that.

I’m not saying that there is nothing good about the possibility of de-extinction – for one thing, the amount of knowledge that we could gain from studying a live extinct animal is staggering. I merely fear what might be done with our new-found power. De-extinction offers an easy-to-understand, superficial way to make us feel better about ourselves, and that offer may be too appealing for us to resist.

Income, Education, and the Tendency to be Shady (SW)

When Paul Piff’s research first came out in 2012, it seemed to reinforce the opinion that swindling executives were at the root of society’s indigestion. Through seven different experiments that included 1053 individuals, Piff showed that higher class individuals (as measured by income, education, and occupational prestige) were much more likely to behave in ethically dishonest ways (1).

Higher-class individuals were more likely to:

  • Cheat in a rigged game of chance (unbeknownst to them, how embarrassing…)
  • Take candy from children (albeit hypothetical ones)
  • Condone unethical behavior, such as keeping change for a twenty after paying with a $10 bill
  • Cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk (thereby breaking the law, according to vehicle code section 21950a)
  • Cut off other vehicles at a four-way stop (again, breaking the law, sections 21451, 21453, and 21800a&b)

It made no difference whether individuals had made their own success or were born into privilege.

Personal aside: I’m thankful that CA police chose not to give “failure to yield” tickets when I was in high school, otherwise I would likely be biking to work. In Dallas. Which is just asking to be smooshed by a bus or wayward train. 

They did, however, make our parents sign warnings for jaywalking in the eighth grade.


But this past week I had the opportunity to hear Paul Piff speak on the subject, and there seems to be another way to look at this, and it isn’t that income equality is doomed because of the hooligans inhabiting corner offices.

Investigators found that a simple 46-second video reminding individuals of the needs of others (imagine a St. Jude’s or Feeding America commercial here) was able to eliminate the class difference in behavior (3). Similarly, just asking higher class individuals to relate to the less fortunate resulted in equally ethical behavior across both groups.

So behavior is modifiable! There is hope! And successful people are just as ethical as everyone else, they just need a gentle reminder sometimes.

In other news, Prius hybrids were just as likely as BMWs to violate crosswalk laws. 

This Week I’m… (EC)


Craigslist Joe. I think I saw a trailer or clip about this movie several months ago on Reddit. It’s been hanging out in my Netflix queue for a while and I finally felt in the mood for it last night.  I found it to be a pretty touching and thought-provoking movie. I cried but sometimes commercials move me to tears, so this is not saying much. I’d give it four out of five stars.

The general gist of the movie is that the filmmaker embarks on a journey to live off of Craigslist for a month. He travels from LA to NY and back, all with resources and contacts solely made from Craigslist. And it’s not just a wacky stunt. He’s exploring what community looks like in a world where we’re infinitely more connected (and in some ways isolated) by the ever-proliferating technology and social media. It’s a topic that is even more meaningful to me now, as I begin a blog project with far-flung authors, only some of whom I know in person.

I wish the movie explored or at least addressed the fact that people may be more moved to help or involve themselves when publicity (aka a camera) is involved. It’s unclear how much this affects the decisions/offers/generosity provided by the people Joe meets.

Playing (on repeat):

Kishi Bashi, 151a.  I’m keeping this on loop in preparation for seeing him in concert this evening. I have a thing for any artist that can incorporate strings into something that rocks. I find this album both soothing and uplifting. Here’s my favorite track, Manchester:



Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia. I totally picked this up because the trailer for the movie reminded me of books I read in middle school. Sure, it makes Twilight look like literary fiction, but it is totally satisfying my urge to read something sappily romantic and involving the supernatural. As Mindy Kaling (who apparently got it from Quentin Tarantino) says, there are no guilty pleasures, just pleasures.

Oh My Pickle (SW)

Columbus carried pickles across the Atlantic to prevent scurvy, while Captain Cook went with sauerkraut (1). Cleopatra credits her great beauty to pickles, and Aristotle says they’re good for your health (2). Clearly, pickling things has been with us for a while, which makes sense—whether on purpose or as a natural progression of things left sitting in a pot, fermentation happens.

And anything can be fermented! The Chinese bury eggs, the Scots buried butter, the Inuit bury slabs of whale and seagull (3), not to mention bread, cheese, yogurt, plus a whole slew of exceedingly tasty semi-adult beverages!

What’s more? Anyone can do it, and it’s surprisingly hard to make someone sick (and this is coming from a borderline hypochondriac during the tail-end of flu season). Why, you ask? The bugs that typically make us sick, from Strep to Staph and Enterobacteriaceae, have evolved to make it in the real world. A pickle jar is not the real world.

First, after the initial fermentation phase, pickling is an anaerobic process. Farewell to most of your Staph and Strep. Second, the fermentation process produces lactic acid, and the pH of most pickling liquid is <4.6, giving Lactobacillus and other benign lactic acid forming bacteria a huge survival advantage to outcompete the anaerobic pathogens left floating (analogous to me–the E. coli–trying to live in upstate Vermont for a winter, sans jacket and housing).

After all, a low pH is the primary defensive mechanism between the big bad world and your GI tract, and pretty much your stomach’s only irreplaceable function (there’s enough redundancy in the remaining 25 feet of bowel that digestion will be just fine, and if you’re hungry enough you’ll learn to eat smaller meals). This is why you stop taking your proton pump inhibitors when traveling to Egypt to swim in the Nile; the infectious dose for cholera is usually over 100 million organisms (aka a lot of river water), but just 10 thousand will suffice for those without stomach acid (maybe just the water that rushed up your nose when you fell in) (4).  What’s good when you have an ulcer isn’t good when there’s cholera floating around.

But I digress.

What I mean to say is that pickling is simple, hard to bungle, with yummy results. The simplest of pickling brines is 3 T. salt per gallon of water. Adding dill or mustard seed just makes you fancy.

We should all give it a go.

Please note: according to the experts, there is a highly subjective line between fermented and rotten. In Sudan, dodery is made by fermenting a pounded mixture of the cartilaginous material found in ball and socket joints, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it (5). Sticking with veggies usually preempts misadventures like this.

No Birds! No Bees! (LG)

There’s nothing like living in Texas to inspire great fear of abstinence-only sex education and great anger toward its proponents. I understand that essentially no one on the face of this planet wants to think about their immediate relatives and sex in the same sentence. Despite certain evidence to the contrary,* I still operate under the belief that my parents have never ever ever had sex, and that I am a miracle and/or test tube baby.** The fact is, though, that letting kids grow up without basic information on where babies come from is a kind of awful way of showing them that we like them.

I arrived at college with a pretty solid understanding of how things worked thanks to a video that my mom checked out from the library when I was in fifth grade.  I don’t remember much about it except that she gave me a bowl of apples with caramel sauce (an edible “I’m sorry” in advance), promised me that my sisters would stay out of the room, and then left me alone to be terrified by the speed and enthusiasm with which the cartoon figures were growing hair in their nether regions.  I have since recovered.

A Texas native college friend, however, wasn’t so lucky.  She got to college with absolutely no idea of the mechanics of sex, and while she got the basics of how pregnancy happened in an A+B=C kind of way, birth control methods were completely foreign to her.  We sat her down, had a belated birds-and-bees conversation and all was well, but I remember being insulted on her behalf that the great state of Texas had failed her on so great a level.

Thing is, Texas isn’t alone.  It turns out that a lot of states don’t require sex ed at all. While the Lone Star State’s legal emphasis on teaching abstinence until marriage*** is pretty awful in my opinion, it has good company: a number of states have a no-required-sex-ed-but-if-sex-ed-then-abstinence policy, and a good chunk of those don’t even have to include info on HIV/AIDS or STIs in their lesson plans.  Surprisingly kickass states sex ed-wise include Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and pretty much the whole northeast.  There are more, but I got tired of copying from the list.

The word limit is here looming, and while I have a lot left to say, I’ll leave it here with these two facts: first, a research project at the University of Washington (Seattle) recently found that teens who got some type of comprehensive sex ed were 60 percent less likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant.  Sixty percent. And second, Mississippi, a state with no sex ed at all required and an abstinence-only standard when it is taught, continues to have the highest teen birth rate per state in the entire US (55 births per 1000 girls). Seriously, people, it’s science.

Most effective way to reduce abortion rates, state legislators? Teach everyone how to avoid getting pregnant until they actually want a baby.  Just a thought.

*One example being, you know, my sisters.
**All evidence points to the former.
***But only for straight kids!