Thursday, August 14, 2014

Will North American car culture be remembered as a relic of the late twentieth century?

A Danish tourist to Ottawa wrote a letter to the Ottawa Citizen lamenting Canada's car culture, which in many ways served as her last impression of Canada more than its sights, culture and natural beauty through its representatives in parking garages, strip malls and drive-thrus. The country seems built on the principle that people were secondary to cars, with a few exceptions here and there.

What they probably noticed is that Canada is almost always meant to be experienced through the car. Car culture is maybe the worst thing about Canada. It's a country built around cars, with exceptions like the parts of Toronto that are within a few kilometres of subway stations. It's dehumanizing, hideous, unhealthy, and bad for the environment. When I visit my parents in Brampton, I notice that just about the only people who walk in Brampton, not counting children or people exercising themselves or their dogs, are poor. The only reason this sticks out is that no one walks in Brampton. Many malls and big box centres are only meant to be driven into. To walk there means to walk through a series of parking lots at your own risk.

Even where it's possible to not walk, there is just about no occasion or situation in Canada where you feel weird for driving, the way hapless tourists and the conspicuously wealthy might feel when driving a car through the alleys of Seoul's Myeongdong on a busy evening, roughly as hopeless as driving a car through the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day.

Even in the rare situation where something happens that makes it hard or impossible to drive, such as road closures due to events, festivals or construction, there is no shortage of angry drivers incredulous at the fact that something could impede the automobile, so used are they to its dominance and so dependent are they on it for getting around.

People defended Canadian car culture by pointing to its weather, size, low population density and the distance between its cities, not realizing that the reason people do things like drive 90 minutes from an exurb to downtown Toronto is that we think it's normal to drive that much, and we enable it. People left comments like "I drive from Barrie to Toronto every day, there's no way I could cycle that" or "Walking is not an option with our winters", but the point is not to walk everywhere, it's to walk somewhere or to take the bus somewhere, instead of driving everywhere. Even if people want to drive everywhere, we don't need to organize our cities around driving.

Canada doesn't have the population density of Europe or East Asia so it won't have the same sort of public transportation system in these places (buses in Seoul don't have schedules because they just come every 7-10 minutes, they just tell you when the next one will arrive), but that doesn't mean Canada doesn't have to try, or that Canada has to build cities around the automobile.

The concept of a city built around the automobile is rooted in the urban planning of the second half of the twentieth century. I'm hopeful, though, that the urban planning of the twenty-first century might be able to reverse this trend. Car ownership for young people in both Canada America is down. Fewer people want to own cars and live in the suburbs. More want to have access to a car instead of owning a car, as the popularity of Zipcars and now Uber shows. They want to live somewhere interesting, not a neighbourhood or a city that's designed for you to stay in your house, get in and out of a strip mall as quickly as possible, and then get away from that neighbourhood or city as fast as possible on a highway.

This is due in part to changes in culture (you can talk to someone online or with a smartphone instead of, say, 20-30 years ago, having to go to their house) and in part due to cheapness necessitated by the economy, a cheapness that could be as habit-forming for my generation as it was for the generation that grew up during the Great Depression.

I don't doubt that subdivisions and big box centres continue to be built or that people in my age cohort continue to want those things, but they want them less than they have in the past. Maybe, by the time we reach middle-age, we will be able to look back on the depressing era of the subdivision, the suburb and the car-oriented city as one of those bad ideas of the twentieth century that tried to replace something natural and organic with something artificial and man-made, a list that would include things like artificial turf, watching TV on a schedule (it's entertainment, not TV, that's natural), plastic bags, and the forty-hour work week.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Watching A Most Wanted Man at the Seoul Cinema

I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman's last movie, A Most Wanted Man, at the Seoul Cinema on Friday night. I thought I had been to the Seoul Cinema (서울극장) before, but I realized that I hadn't, mostly because there are about a half dozen other theatres within a mile of it. The Seoul Cinema, located at Jongno-3-ga station, was built in 1964 as the Century Theatre and changed to its present name in 1978. When I got there, I couldn't believe that I'd never been there before, but I realized that I'd been confusing it with the older Daehan Cinema at Chungmuro, which was built in 1955. Admittedly, the two do look somewhat similar in that they look jarringly dissimilar from the major cinema chains.

If you broadly look at A Most Wanted Man as a spy movie set in Germany, you'll remember that the Jason Bourne franchise is also a spy movie set in Germany, at least in part, and you'll realize that A Most Wanted Man manages to be much better without a fraction of the action and the information overload. If anything, this movie thrives in the absence of information, loud noises and action. In retrospect, the perpetual panic and long-winded stories of the Bourne franchise now seem like a bad story told by someone who's obviously lying.

For its minimalism and ability to create importance through quiet and the absence of information rather than overwhelming information, A Most Wanted Man fits Seoul Cinema as well as the Bourne supremacy fits any chain theatre with its massive lobbies, crowds, trailers with loud explosions on perpetual loop (there was a time around last summer or fall that theatres in Korea played this 20-second beer commercial featuring Psy and the tune from Garden of Eden every minute or so), shiny interior and staff with machine-like efficiency.

The Seoul Cinema has none of it. The entrance is in an alley off of the main street, with small crowds even on a Friday night, a concessions stand that takes forever to deal with customers, gives you something other than what you ordered and has popcorn servings that probably haven't changed since 1978, this last fact being probably a good thing for everyone involved. There didn't seem to be anyone checking tickets in the basement theatre I went to, which wasn't all that well laid-out or marked. I almost stumbled on a step in the theatre, which has no lighting at the doors.

A Most Wanted Man ends somewhat abruptly and in silence. There's no Matt Damon on a Greek beach, no predictable, almost-expected plot twist that serves as a sort-of-happy-ending, no bridge to a sequel. The movie ends suddenly like a football game in overtime that's won by the visiting team, and the home crowd processes the loss while walking out. This is perhaps where the Seoul Cinema best suits this movie.

Most movie theatres in Korea have a very predictable location. If you can think of a mid-sized Korean city, there's a good chance that there's a train and/or subway station bearing its name. There's also a good chance that there's a movie theatre between six or nine floors above that station, with a department store or mall in between. This is true, for example, of Suwon, Uijeongbu, Bucheon, and Guri, as well as (Dong) Incheon, Daegu, as well as major train stations in Seoul with the exception of Seoul Station, such as Yongsan, Youngdeungpo and Cheongnyangni.

The Seoul Cinema, by contrast, is right on the street. There's no long corridor to take you back to the lobby and no shopping mall or department escalators. You walk out the way you came, go up the stairs and you're on the street within a minute. Within another minute, before I could really process what I had just seen, I was at Jongno-3-ga station.

Both the cinema and the movie are not without their weaknesses. First, A Most Wanted Man relies on the spy movie cliche of oblique references to both a previous job and an incident that happened there with the name of the city, such as "I thought they'd have fired you after what happened in Ouagadougou" or "you didn't forgive him for Bydgoszcz, did you?". I concede that actual spies might well talk this way, but somehow I doubt it.

Second, everyone in the movie, with a few exceptions, is somehow either an American or a German who sounds like one. The English ability of Europeans is superb, but at the very least, the tremendous privilege of the English language makes it reasonably credible, i.e. not ridiculous, for Germans, to speak not a single word of their own language, Turks to speak a few, and Arabs to speak lots, since speaking Arabic is how you convey that something or someone is suspicious.

Finally, Hoffman's job in this movie is an extra-legal position just a step above the murky, made-up world of Treadstone or CTU. It's not enough to be a normal spy, you have to be a spy among spies, apparently, otherwise the movie apparently falls apart.

As for the Seoul Cinema, its problems are mostly problems of service and design, the latter probably due to the fact that they simply don't get enough people in there for the confusing, counter-intuitive layout and lack of signage to be an issue. The interior is a little bit run down, to be honest, though I found the seats, at least where I sat, to have an impressive amount of leg room. On the whole, the experience is more human and less mechanistic than it is at chains, but it comes at the cost of comfort, convenience, as well as money. The selection of movies and times, as well as the discounts, rewards and free tickets at Lotte and CGV make it hard to turn them down.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Arrest of Canadian couple on meaningless charges in China is a test for Stephen Harper

Canadians Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt were arrested in Dandong, China earlier this week on charges of espionage, specifically "stealing state secrets about China’s military and national defence research". Dandong is on the other side of the Yalu River from North Korea and the Garratts have been fairly open about both their faith and about their desire to both help North Koreans, so it's reasonable to assume that they're guilty of something after 30 years in China, though it's hard to see how coffee shop owners in what is a Chinese backwater could be guilty of anything else.

The Garratts look destined for the Chinese legal system. About the only nice thing you can say about the Chinese legal system is that it's quick, astonishingly quick even. You could maybe also tack on the charge of punishments being severe, though that probably only applies as vengeance in the case of a powerful person convicted of a crime. Although the Garratts are officially detained, detention can last for up to 37 days before a formal arrest is made and to be detained sounds the same as being arrested in a free country. To be charged is to be convicted, with only 825 of the 1.16 million people charged last year being acquitted in a Chinese courtroom, a conviction rate of 99.93%.

Trials, even for important people facing serious charges, last a day or two, are conducted in secrecy and don't offer things like a chance to view the evidence against you, to recant confessions obtained under duress, or for the accused to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses.

Espionage is one of many vague charges that exist in China as political weapons for the Communist Party. The analysis in the National Post article I linked above is fairly accurate. China is, as cliche as it sounds, bolstering its own state at the expense of outsiders. The Garratt's out-of-nowhere arrest is comparable for the equally sudden, arbitrary investigation into Microsoft over anti-trust practices that was recently begun in China. Also around the same time was the announcement that Ilham Tohti, an Uyghur professor who was a modest critic of the Chinese state, was being charged with separatism, one of many anti-state crimes punishable by death in China.

I raise Tohti's case not because it's related to the Chinese state targeting foreigners, but because it shows the sort of charges that exist and are regularly laid in China, without much of a basis, because the state has no one to respond to. China is remarkably good, unlike other countries that open their mouth and create controversy, at simply not answering questions, or providing amazingly empty non-answers that sound like answers. It is amazingly opaque.

My brother once asked me if China has ever explained why websites such as YouTube and Twitter are blocked. I replied that to my knowledge it hasn't, but I remembered an exchange between a foreign reporter and a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson in 2009 where the spokesperson was directly asked, twice, whether YouTube was blocked in China and responded with an astonishing blizzard of legalese, referencing six US federal laws but being unable to answer this simple question.

In other such instances, the spokesperson has referred the reporter to the "relevant authorities" (this bureaucratism is so popular that it spawned a Twitter account parodying the Chinese government, which was met with the highest praise, a sharp denunciation from the People's Daily), who of course would never deign to answer phone calls from a foreign reporter, thus accomplishing the twin functions of allowing the foreign ministry to seem as though it answered the question of the foreign reporter while absolutely refusing to answer the question in any way whatsoever. That China loves the word 'relevant' and uses it at every chance is clear. Look at the statement released by the Chinese embassy on the initial accusations of spying.

 As a number of reports have noted, to be an openly Christian foreigner in Dandong, a city that directly borders North Korea, is to be watched. China watches everything and anything that could be remotely considered suspicious. Activists and dissidents are, of course, routinely watched and either prevented from traveling somewhere or sometimes forced to travel somewhere on what is roughly the equivalent of giving a Washington activist a free trip to Hawaii in advance of a session of Congress opening up. Even run-of-the-mill Jehovah's Witnesses are watched in Beijing.

The opaque, authoritarian attributes of the state, combined with its increasing boldness in resisting international norms and international pressure means that China can consider bizarre actions like arresting a pair of probable missionaries on grave charges of espionage, when the more probable outcome for proselytism is deportation, as a direct response to being publicly embarrassed by the Canadian government for hacking into the computers of the National Research Council, the latest in a long string of such accusations by foreign organizations.

The sad news for the Garratts is that there's no guarantee China will back down from the serious charges in this case. A somewhat analogous case is that of Stern Hu, an executive from Australian mining company Rio Tinto. After Rio Tinto rejected a bid by a Chinese firm to double its stake in the company, Hu and a few other Chinese employees of the company were charged with bribery and corporate espionage. Hu, an Australian citizen, received ten years in prison after a closed trial. China previously executed a mentally ill British man for drug smuggling in 2009.

Being a foreigner is no protection from being given a full tour of the Chinese legal and penal system and, as the National Post mentions, power (and being a Westerner is a sort of power in China) is no protection whatsoever when an example needs to be made. If anything, it's a liability, as evidenced by the recent arrest of former Politburo member and security cheaf Zhou Yongkang, as well as the life sentence given to the highly-popular politician Bo Xilai. In a country as corrupt as China (Beijing is probably ten times as poor as Washington but probably has more Audi A6's), the public trial and humiliation of powerful figures serves to create at least the impression of impartial justice.

Finally, this is red meat for Conservatives. The Conservative government over the past decade has made it a point to delineate Canadian, Western values as a distinct group of ideas that are worth defending against those who apparently don't believe in either those values or the sort of things that they represent. The Conservative government has given a more prominent role to the monarchy. It is a strong supporter of Israel. It strongly supported Ukraine against Russia. It's not that I necessarily disagree with these things, but in many ways, the Harper government has a traditionalist world view that embraces religion, democracy, free markets and makes a distinction between those who don't embrace these things.

It was no surprise that Harper took a long time to visit China, received a public rebuke from premier Wen Jiabao for not having visited sooner, and served one right back at Wen for not visiting himself. This is a great chance for Harper, who has wanted a strong military and taken a strong stance against things he didn't like, to try and somehow get the Garratts home. What's more likely to succeed, though, is a softer, or at least quieter approach that allows the Chinese government room to reduce the charges without embarrassment. The likely outcome here is a prison sentence of some length, but a show of strength by the Canadian government will need to be met by one by the Chinese government, which is likely what produced the initial charges.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Reflecting on Nicholas Nassim Taleb's Antifragile and applying it to living, running and medicine

I enjoyed Taleb's Black Swan, about which I wrote here. I learned more from Antifragile, which was more technical and diverse in its scope, though I found much more to disagree with than I did while reading The Black Swan. Antifragility is defined by Taleb as the direct opposite of fragile, which is something that breaks down under stress. Given that the exact opposite of something is not its absence, Taleb distinguishes between fragility, robustness and antifragility. Fragility means to break down under stress, robustness is to remain unchanged by stress, and antfragility, therefore, is to thrive under stress.

Anyone who has experienced both sleeping for 12 hours and then wanting to do nothing, as well as working out in the morning before work and having a tremendous amount of energy all day, will understand that humans are antifragile. We thrive under stress, which is, of course, not the stress of pressure, anxiety or discomfort, the "stressed out" stress, but the sort of stress where we do something, such as use our muscles, go eight hours without food or endure less than optimal temperatures for a few hours.

Taleb applies antifragility and fragility to countless situations throughout the book. The book, which is reasonably well-organized, is so laden with so many different kinds of examples that it can seem, in a way, to be a 400-page book that simply gives one or two examples of things that are antifragile or fragile on every single page. Many of the lessons are instructive, such as the idea that large, centralized polities are fragile while smaller, decentralized ones are antifragile. Still, after reading this post or even the book, if you don't immediately get how all these things are connected to the idea that some things are improved by stress while others are destroyed by it, you've noticed the fact that this book is very far-reaching.

He points out Switzerland as a country that is a great example of being antifragile, minimizing risk by decentralizing power towards its cantons. A good example of the opposite is the area that today makes up Lebanon and Syria, which for centuries had been left in a state of messy uncertainty, which suited the area just fine. European attempts to turn the region into two centralized modern states has ruined the long-standing prosperity of the region.

Problems with the book, though, are the fact that although Taleb has two master's degrees and a PhD and is an academic, he constantly and repeatedly takes potshots at economists and academics throughout the book. Instead, he frequently points to intuitive, less intellectual ways of solving problems. There is value in this. Running is a classic example of a something where results have improved marginally, especially in the West (where it can be argued that it has instead gone backwards), even as academics have rushed to study the most minute aspects of the sport. Athletes backed by years of science are routinely demolished by novices.

Taleb probably takes it too far. An instructive example is that of a game theory expert who tried teaching a Middle Eastern vendor how to bargain, to which the vendor reportedly replied "we have done this for generations", what makes you think you can improve on this? The expert was embarrassed by the response and gave up. I don't know what that is supposed to prove. Taleb repeatedly extols the wisdom of the ancients, but often, is the case here, appears to be doing so to mock his peers.

In doing so, Taleb writes a very feel-good book, often making it a feel-good book for himself where he gets to describe how wealthy, cultured, smart and privileged he is. At one point, Taleb informs the reader that he is writing using a "seasoned fountain pen" and immediately declares that "I do not fuss over the state of my pens. Many of them are old enough to cross decades...Nor do I obsess over small variations in paper. I prefer to use Clairefontaine paper." I enjoy Taleb's work, but that was a remarkably pompous sentence for someone who makes a living out of demolishing pompous thinking.

In the last quarter or so of the book, Taleb outlines his beliefs on food and health, declaring that he doesn't drink anything that hasn't existed for a thousand years and has not therefore passed the test of time (what if Coca Cola makes it another 900 years?), nor does he eat fruits that didn't exist in his ancestral homeland. These heuristics make a point, but they also help to create a pretentious image. Someone who doesn't eat a particular food for reasons such as these gets to feel superior to others, just as someone who doesn't own a TV or use Facebook will not be shy about letting you know (I am guilty of the former).

Still, there is a great deal to learn in this book and apply in many domains. First, the idea of redundancy, common in nature, perhaps the most common example of this is the fact that we have two kidneys but can live with one, is a great way to live. However, Taleb writes, "human design tends to be spare and inversely redundant", having savings is redundancy but having debt is fragility. Redundancy is not just defensive or "wussy", but can have tremendous benefits. If you view an increase in fitness as "the additional capacity to withstand an extra stressor" at some point in the future, fitness is basically redundancy or insurance.

Second, the applications of antifragility to running are obvious, though Taleb's views on fitness are to lift as much as possible in a short amount of time and mix in long, slow walks. That stress and rest leads to fitness is commonly understood in running, but if life is seen as an analogy for running, the concept becomes clearer. Taleb makes it clear that stress, such as being scared senseless, needs to be followed by an appropriate period of rest, such as relaxing while listening to soothing music. The constant mid-level stress experienced by someone with a boring job requiring long hours and a long commute are not conducive to antifragility, but it leads to fragility. Similarly, running hard all the time without rest, be it running hard in easy runs or running too many races, isn't going to lead to optimal outcomes.

The final application, which Taleb touches on constantly, is to medicine. Taleb cites research showing that all the medical advances of the post-war era have had less of an impact than a decline in smoking. Going to the doctor is about as useful as punting in football, it seems. Between diseases acquired from being at a hospital, malpractice and needless procedures undertaken because no one feels important or helpful by telling someone to do nothing, medicine is incredibly harmful.

The heuristic Taleb proposes for medicine is that medical intervention should only be resorted to when the benefit is large and exceeds the potential harm. While I can agree with Taleb about the potential harm done by simply being in a hospital and receiving unnecessary treatment, his argument for viewing medicine in economic terms ("decision making based on payoffs, not knowledge"), combined with his endless disdain for economics and economists, makes medical decision-making based on payoffs a choice I wouldn't want to make.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What's it like being a hagwon student?

I recently went through the process of acquiring a Korean driver's license. I learned how to drive in Canada but after missing my initial road test for scheduling reasons, I never bothered re-scheduling. Years later, to facilitate renting a car for hiking trips and out-of-town races, I decided to get a license. The process for getting a Korean license is well-documented even in English, so I won't get into it. Most Westerners who get one already knew how to drive, so they never took lessons from a driving school, which I did. I can't speak authoritatively about driving in Korea, but I learned a fair bit about how the hagwon industry works from the two weeks I spent as a hagwon student.

The hagwon industry in Korea exists to produce results, which is what students-slash-consumers want. It's not that people are ignorant of the fact that studying English at a hagwon does not make them competent at English as it's used outside of academic or test-based situations, they just don't care. Studying English to be able to appreciate literature and engage in idiomatic conversation requires time and money that they don't have. Their goal is something else, whether it's admission to a university, employment, promotion or personal satisfaction on other lines.

I can't speak for all driving hagwons, though people I spoke to told me that mine was hardly atypical, but I was taught how to become a licensed driver, not how to drive, and there is a difference, as I learned. Like English hagwons or weight loss clinics that promise a great deal in a short amount of time, Korean driving hagwons are similar. Never mind an American who already knows how to drive and just needs to get a license, someone who has never driven and knows nothing about cars can become licensed to drive a car, bus or even a truck in less than 24 hours.

Most of the schools I found online allow students to complete the safety education, written and skills test (starting a car, turning the wipers on and off, and so on) in one day and then immediately begin the mandatory six hours of road instruction. The six hours can be split into four hours on one day and two hours on the next, with the road test taken at the hagwon immediately after finishing practice. You could, in theory, show up one afternoon knowing nothing and have a license in your hand before noon the next day.

All practice is done on one of four possible driving courses that could show up on the exam. Even public test centres give out maps of the four possible test centres. In my case, I simply drove the courses over and over in three two-hour sessions, and I don't think this is at all atypical. Information that I thought was pointless was important because it was something that needed to be remembered and performed in the exact same way on the test. For example, I didn't learn to parallel park, I learned to parallel park in the exact same spot where the test would happen by counting alternating yellow-and-black blocks on the curb. Needless to say, I park very slowly anywhere else, but I parked with complete confidence in the hagwon.

Instructors told students to memorize the courses because all they would hear would be instructions from a GPS, telling them to turn right, left or make a U-turn in 300, 200, and 100 metres. There was no need to memorize the courses, at least not actively, because I remember every single one of them more than a month later, having driven each one about five times. They were also quite simple, with three courses consisting of nothing more than a couple of U-turns that made a loop, and the fourth one having no U-turns but a loop made by three immediate right turns.

In the end, I passed, despite a few mistakes. I was happy to have paid 300,000 won and gotten my license nine days after first showing up at the hagwon, which is the point. Hagwons take skills, such as English, driving, or computer programming and teach them in ways that are easy to remember and produce measurable results, such as jobs or test scores. The customer generally wins by getting what they want in a short amount of time for a relatively cheap price. The schools are in second place, struggling to balance the customers' demands of speed, efficacy and cheapness while having no shortage of competing schools. The teachers have it hardest, because they are tasked with taking people of vastly different abilities and making sure that they succeed in the promised amount of time (six hours of practice on the roads, in this case).

That hagwons teach to the test and cut corners was something I knew, but seeing it from the perspective of a student, I understand why. Like any other business in a competitive industry, they sell a product and are highly specialized in how they do it. Seeing how it got me what I wanted, I was happy with the result, though I'm cognizant of the deficiencies in my ability and I'm also cognizant of the fact that these weaknesses are result of my own choices. The only way to create positive change in the system would be to change the incentives people have for attending hagwons. In this case, a harder, less predictable test would produce more teaching instead of test practice, but it would harm consumers, particularly those who struggle to pay for lessons in the first place (be they driving or math), and impact the ability of the weakest in society to achieve their goals.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Rip van Winkle experience in Toronto

While I said in my last post that nothing ever seems to change in Toronto, some things have changed, while I've forgotten how to do many others. The result, I joked, is that I feel like Rip Van Winkle, unable to recognize the city and the society where I'm from, in part due to decays in my own memory. I just don't remember how so many things in Canada work any more. This is not a post, though, about reverse culture shock, about feeling out of place in Canada because I've spent so much time in Korea. What made my experience embarrassing for me was that while I felt completely at home, I just didn't know where I'd put anything.

Parenthetically, f you're curious as to what things about Canada or Western culture do seem unfamiliar and unusual to me, they are:

- the casual approach to dressing, particularly for work, as well as talking and interacting with strangers, particularly customers
- strangers talking to me, something I used to do myself and enjoyed a great deal, now makes me feel uncomfortable, though I'd noticed this on the US army base in Seoul
- words you can say and topics you can discuss on TV, The Big Bang Theory is an example of a show that could not be aired on any of the three big networks in Korea

The first thing that made me realize just how long I'd been gone from Canada was the 505 streetcar in Toronto. I was going to a friend's house at Dundas and Pape and got on the Dundas streetcar at Dundas station. When the streetcar made a left turn onto Broadview, I realized that the 505 had never gone to Dundas and Pape, and tried in vain to remember the streetcar that did go east on Dundas past Broadview.

More pathetic than this were shopping trips. I went to a grocery store, a chain whose name I can't remember ever since they renamed Dominion, A&P and even Price Chopper, and went to weigh and price some fruit I'd bought. When I didn't see it, I asked an employee where the scale was. He politely told me that they didn't exist anymore, something I should have known since they don't exist in Korea either, at least not where I shop.

Still more pathetic were my regular trips to Tim Hortons. I struggled to buy a dozen donuts and always handed over my card to the cashier who handed it back to me, where I swiped it instead of inserting it into the machine. I always double-counted my change warily, forgetting that the penny had been eliminated. I forgot the names of donuts and couldn't remember how to order a bagel. I couldn't remember the names of GO train stations and forgot how to get to the airport on my way out of the country.

What embarrassed me about the whole thing was the impression it gave off. If I'd spoken with an accent, I'd have had more latitude, and if I'd acted more uncertain when buying donuts, I could have passed for an American. In the absence of neither, and being in a suburban area, I thought I came across as someone recently released from prison.

A long time ago, when I was new to Canada from Pakistan, someone once told me that if I didn't speak Urdu, eat Pakistani food and generally act more Pakistani than I was, that I wouldn't be Pakistani and I wouldn't be Canadian. "You'll be nothing," he told me. Of course, I ended up becoming more or less Canadian, to the point that people were surprised to learn after just five years in Canada that not only was I not born in Canada, I had only lived there for five years.

I became more or less Canadian and I still consider myself Canadian, but I'm also cognizant of the fact that 2014 marked my 28th birthday and sixth year in Korea, which means that I can be described alternatively as a Canadian or someone who lived in Canada for 14 years, just half my life. I don't know how Canadian others would consider me, something I felt acutely aware of when I went to get a police background check. The only valid Canadian identification I have left are my passport, my certificate of citizenship (something I wouldn't have if I had been born in Canada) with a 9-year-old picture and my social insurance number.

I would never say that I'm "richer for the experience" or that I've done something others can only dream of, partly because it's insulting to others in a general sense and partly because a great deal of Canadians wouldn't be drawn to living in Toronto, never mind Seoul and Lahore. I am glad to have seen this much of the world and to be sort-of-but-not-entirely comfortable in three distinct cultures, countries and languages. I also know that the same qualities that let me fit into life in Canada and then Korea will allow me to fit into life in Canada again, though I'll probably always retain a blind spot created by my time outside of the country, as well as the things I've never done for cultural reasons (to this day, I've never been to a wedding that wasn't a Pakistani or Korean-style wedding).

Friday, August 01, 2014

Toronto the Unchanging

I had already started writing this post before reading this piece by Chris Selley, focused on the Union-Pearson rail link, on why it is that nothing ever seems to get done in Toronto, but I enjoyed Selley's piece more than you'll enjoy this post. Selley also makes my post somewhat timely.

When I was in Toronto a couple of weeks ago for the first time in a year, I was struck by the fact that so many things from those days in high school existed in the exact same way they had, more than a decade later. Islington station had the exact same shops, as did the Union Station concourse, the Yonge Street strip had pretty much the exact same shops and restaurants, the streets east of Yonge looked more or less the same. I could visit most of the restaurants I enjoyed in university, which looked exactly the same. I even recognized some of the homeless people I used to see while running around U of T.

It's not that I expect Toronto to reinvent itself as a city in the six years since I stopped living there, but I get the feeling, as much now as I did then, that Toronto is on the cusp of a great renewal that could start and finish at any given moment. Toronto is a really a city built during and for the post-war era, with a planning, infrastructure and public transit system better suited to a city of about a million people centred on Bloor Street instead of a city of 2.5 million centred on Eglinton (if not further north).

Toronto was worn out by the time I discovered it as a high school student in 2002, just before starting this blog, with ancient buses plying potholed streets, a haunting waterfront riddled with such chill-inducing structures as the Hearn generating station, the Canada Malting silos, and the mercury-polluted site of Tent City, ancient public housing projects at Regent Park and a perennial budget crisis. The perpetual financial crisis may continue, while progress has been made in several other areas, the waterfront being maybe the most notable and visible example.

That Toronto doesn't change isn't exactly a bad thing, nor is it necessarily notable that restaurants have existed in the same place for a decade or two. Unless, of course, you live in Seoul, where I remember being jarred out of my broken-escalator-in-a-subway-station-will-be-fixed-in-six-months doldrums by a pharmacy that became a functioning Dunkin' Donuts in the span of just over a week. Every neighbourhood where I've lived in Seoul has been transformed during my time year with the exception of one, which was basically carved out of nothingness (actually, I have no idea what existed there before, probably a much poorer neighbourhood) about a decade ago.

I also have no idea how long it should necessarily take before you don't recognize a neighbourhood. The answer is probably not five or six years, unless you live in Korea, China or some fast-changing, trend-driven neighbourhood. I suppose a maturing market that isn't rapidly developing wouldn't have as much change as one that is rapidly growing, Beijing and Shanghai being great examples of this, with apocryphal stories of businesses or even piles of dirt being transformed into other businesses in the span of a day. The sort of stability that Toronto has, where you don't have to wonder from year to year whether a given restaurant is still in business, is something of a blessing.

Something of a curse, though, is what Selley describes. You simply can't get anything done in Toronto because people can't be bothered. Construction, of which there is no shortage, is impossible to get started on anything and once it begins, it's painfully slow. Waterfront renewal, to the extent that you can more or less call it complete, took an incredibly long time. Maybe it's the result of a population that wants a dozen different things without any inconvenience whatsoever (I used to work on a street in suburban Seoul that consisted of about a kilometre of metal sheeting for 3-4 years while a subway line was built underneath), but projects that would have been discussed, resolved and then completed in Seoul are still under discussion in Toronto.

A classic example might be the issue of transfers. Toronto still uses paper transfers and it would be a minor miracle to expand Presto to the whole city within five years. Seoul used to be an order of magnitude worse than Toronto, with no transfers between buses or the subway system as recently as the turn of the century. The mayor and future president Lee Myung-bak essentially strong-armed the private companies that operated public bus service (can you imagine that in Toronto?) into adopting an electronic fare card system, something that may have well won him the presidency, along with his demolition of a central highway to uncover the ancient, historic stream underneath. What Lee accomplished, for better or for worse, in five years as mayor, would either take a generation or two in Toronto, if it wasn't impossible to begin with.

What that points to is just simply low expectations. Seoul is a city of tremendous scale, one that's much greater than that of Toronto. I always explain it to Canadians as all of Canada living in the Greater Toronto Area. If Seoul could give up a highway in the heart of the city to be replaced with a quaint little stream, Toronto can endure giving up the Gardiner or the present Union Station renovations, as inefficient and chaotic as they may be. Toronto doesn't, however, because expectations are too low. Decades, not years, of apathy and neglect, of the impossibility of improvement due to financial and political impotence have led Torontonians to just make sure that at least the city works for the basics, never mind the great things.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting fed up with food (in a good way), security theatre and particulates in Beijing

I just got back from Beijing from the fourth time, though two of those trips have been 24-hour layovers. I don't claim to know much about China, but having spent a little bit of time there in 2009, 2011, 2013 and now 2014 allows me to see superficial changes in the city over my time in Asia. Visiting Beijing for the first time after 2008 is a bit like starting to watch baseball in the mid-90s, you get to assume that a 70-home-run season is normal and that someone leading the league with 47 home runs implies that everyone collectively sucked.

The food is great, though I presume that it was great before as well. Beijing is one of the two cities (the other is Paris) in the world I've been where I became conscious of the fact that I could only eat three, maybe four meals a day. There are many terrible restaurants in Beijing, the sort that are $100 per person and are featured prominently in tourist maps, a lot of which presume that every person who finds themselves in Beijing is a Western executive looking for the most obnoxious and pretentious meal possible. There is no shortage of such places in Seoul as well, places that take Korean dishes, triple the price and make the decor and atmosphere as uncomfortable and uninviting as possible.

I had dinner and lunch in Beijing at great restaurants, but having run and showered by 6:20 in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, I gave up and went to my hotel's buffet for breakfast, reasoning that part of experiencing China and Beijing was to eat at a hotel buffet. You don't want to come to China and eat only at McDonald's, but you also don't want to go out of your way to do things that no one else would do, such as going to the Chinese opera, which I presume is more popular with tourists than with Chinese people (if I'm wrong, replace 'Chinese' and 'opera' with 'Korean' and 'pansori'). 

The food at the buffet was decent, and my model of over-authentic overcompensation was vindicated by Chinese people who went for toast, bacon and sausages while I went for cabbage and porridge. The food was good, but some of the vegetables and one of the drinks almost caused me to vomit. There's no shortage of bad food either in China, but I ate very well, even at a tourist trap such as Wangfujing.

Beijing installed metal detectors at subway stations prior to the 2008 Olympics to scan bags for explosives and weapons and I don't remember there being metal detectors for me to walk through, supplemented by disinterested guards with handheld metal detectors, and this article agrees with me. I've also seen the progression of security at Tiananmen Square, where I ran 800 metres to see the flag-raising ceremony at dawn. There was a big crowd of several thousand people there, but it seemed to be in the tens of thousands by the way we all came to a stop hundreds of metres from the square.

The crowd was already slowed by the barricades that divide the sidewalks, bike lanes and streets in this area in complex ways, and then funneled by one of the barricades into three metal detectors. If you can imagine the door of an elevator jammed with people functioning as a metal detector, you'll understand what this metal detector was like. This was required to be in the vicinity of Tiananmen, the gate with the famous picture of Mao Zedong. To enter the square itself required another, similarly crowded metal detector. The crowding is worst for people with bags, as 99% of the people in this area are Chinese tourists who all carry some sort of bag with them and have to take it off, put it on a belt and then retrieve it.

Like restrictions on liquids being carried onto planes, the trouble with security theatre, things done for show to make people feel safe, is that it's never undone. Metal detectors in the Beijing subway were expanded, not removed. The police presence has increased. I was once surprised enough by a group of soldiers marching down the street to take a picture of it, but yesterday I saw a jeep of soldiers with machine guns. The barricades in the area have increased. My impression yesterday, because I didn't spend time walking in Tiananmen Square, is that visitors are now restricted more to the sides of the square with much of its heart restricted, though I might well be wrong on this, and I hope I am.

I used to say that air quality wasn't really that bad in Beijing, but I haven't seen something resembling the sky in my last three trips to China, with PM 2.5 air quality readings ranging from 200-800 (anything over 100 is unhealthy, Toronto is usually around 30). I run and have no trouble breathing walking around, but I feel filthy and don't like touching anything. I can't see anything more than a kilometre away. I don't blame China for this in particular, no more than I blame myself or anyone else who owns Chinese-made products, drives a car or uses electricity, but China has this problem, and it's a fact. It adds a disgusting, depressing backdrop to any visit, and I would debate going back again.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Summarizing a 2011 Hankyoreh series on Muslims in Korea

Various sources claim that there are tens of thousands of ethnic Korean Muslims in Korea. Wikipedia puts it at just under 30,000, while the Korea Muslim Federation puts it at 35,000. The way I try to understand these numbers in my head is that this means if you meet 1,500 Koreans, you could expect one to be Muslim, higher than what I've seen in my six years here, though just because you don't see something doesn't mean it's there (if you never go south of the Han River, you wouldn't know how much money was in this city). Googling for more precise numbers, especially numbers in Korean, led me to a four-part series of articles from the Hankyoreh on Islam in Korea. Like much of the best journalism done in Korea, it never made its way into English (at least not that I can see on Google).

Part 1: "난 한국인 무슬림이다" ("I'm a Korean Muslim")
Part 2: '코슬림' 알리 "내 나라 코리아야" ('Koslim' Ali: "Korea is my country")
Part 3: 젊은 영혼들 ‘샤하다’와 접속하다 (Young souls take the shahada)
Part 4: 이슬람 예배당 바로 위 교회 예배당 (The church above the mosque)

Part 1 begins with the story of Yoon Aliyah, a 36-year-old who converted to Islam in New York in the summer of 2001 after being moved by the faith of a Moroccan friend. Although she described being stared at for wearing a hijab and long sleeves and a long skirt even in the summer, she also described comparable experiences in New York. Eight years after returning to Korea, Yoon was married with two kids and said that all of her friends were Muslim, most of them Korean.

However, she married a Turkish man, now a naturalized Korean citizen, who ran an online community aimed at introducing Islam to Koreans. When becoming a Korean citizen, her husband chose the last name Jang for its history. During the reign of King Cheungnyeol of the Goryeo dynasty near the end of the 13th century, a Yuan dynasty official sent to Korea stayed, took a Korean name (Jang) and started a clan, the Deoksu Jangs, that today has 20,000 descendants.

Two other couples are profiled in part 1. The first, a pair of newlyweds, is Muhammad Asim, a 36-year-old Pakistani, and Shin Miseon, a 29-year-old Korean. Asim, a Korean citizen, trades carpets. What makes their marriage unusual is that Asim is already married and Shin is his second wife. Asim's first wife, also a Korean, lives in Pakistan, where she went to ensure that their four children were sent for a Muslim education. What this means for Shin, however, is that she legally isn't marired, which is just as well for her father, who refers to his son-in-law as "that Pakistani son of a bitch".

Though Shin admits that there is some jealousy in marrying a man who is already married, she claims that she sees Asim's first wife, who will eventually return to Korea as, "family", new family that she has gained. Although Shin and Asim don't have kids, they might well have kids by now, three years later, a reality that, as the Hankyoreh puts it, "test the boundaries of Korean law, culture and society."

The second couple is Jang Dong-hyeon, 35, and his Indonesian wife, 31-year-old Ariana Tari (due to the fact that the names are only written in Korean and I'm not familiar with Indonesian names, I can only guess at their Romanization). Jang and Tari met at the auto parts factory where Jang works and Tari was a trainee. Although Tari didn't speak much Korean and Jang spoke no Indonesian, Jang says that they found a way to make it work. Jang initially gave up eating pork for the woman he loved, but would eventually convert to Islam and now even fasts during Ramadan.

Given that part 1 focuses on Muslim couples in Korea, part 2 of the series is about Muslim children who have grown up in Korea. There were roughly 143,000 foreigners married to Koreans living in Korea as of March 2011, and of those, about 4,000 were from Muslim countries, numbers that have surely grown in the last three years. As of 2009, the number of children born in such families was 4,000, with most of them being too young to attend school. The children of these 4,000 households will naturally be more significant than the generation before them, in part because unlike at least one of their parents, they will have known no other home.

The children profiled in part 2 are Pakistanis born to Pakistani parents who have lived in Korea for eight years. Ali, 16, came to Korea with his younger brother and sister (their sister, 12, is not featured or named in the article). Ali considers Korea to be home, not Pakistan, and says that he plans to live here in the future. His brother, Mohas, 14, speaks Korean just like a Korean, the Hankyoreh says, while Ali, who speaks it well, speaks it as a foreign language.

The brothers, however, struggle mightily at school, both socially and academically, being two years behind their peers even after eight years in Korea. Part of this is due to the fact that they started school late, but part of this is the fact that unlike in a Korean household, there is no one to help them with their homework. Their mother apparently speaks no Korean beyond "do you have any potatoes?" Their father, who works long hours, struggles to pass the elementary school-level Korean proficiency requirement on the citizenship test. Not aiding matters is the fact that there is not a single book in their house except for copies of the Quran.

Mohas, who wants to do his homework, can never manage to do it. The impression given by the Hankyoreh is that his parents care mostly about him reading the Quran and aren't too perturbed by him not doing his homework. For Ali, and presumably also for Mohas, their struggles are compounded by race and religion. His fellow students consider him dirty and make a point to avoid even brushing against him. They bully him and tell him to go back to his country, particularly painful to boys who consider Korea to be their home.

Also featured in part 2 is Jiyoung, the three-year-old daughter of Jang and Tari from part 1. They recited the azan, the call to prayer, in her ear at birth, taught her to tell the teachers at her daycare that she doesn't eat pork, to recognize when it is time for one of their five daily prayers. Jang, Tari and their daughter also don't eat any other meat that isn't certififed halal, any brands of ramen except for one, as well as Choco pies, the latter two because they contain small amounts of pork and gelatin.

Finally, the article looks at Zina (젠나), the older daughter of Yoon Aliyah and Jang Hussein. Sending five-year-old Zina to a Korean school worries Yoon, who says doing so would be "like throwing away Zina's soul", adding that "Koreans don't respect those who are different. For now, Zina attends a hagwon run by the Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon. Of the 50 kids Zina's age, most are the children of Muslim families residing in Seoul for the short or medium-term. However, seven were born to Korean parents and for four of those seven, both of their parents are Muslim.

"These days, there are a lot more young Korean Muslims," says Yoon. These young Koreans practice Islam in ways that are very different from the way its traditionally practiced in Asia and the Middle East, as well as immigrant communities in Europe and North America. In doing so, they are 'Koreanizing' Islam, adapting it in ways that fits the Korean context, particularly their specific context, which is of individuals practicing a religion in comparative isolation. The way that they practice is, in many ways, similar to the way that Koreans take up other activities, which is through on and offline groups, both geared towards Koreans by Koreans.

One way to understanding this is to understand that three of the four Korean Muslims profiled in part 3 did not use their real names. Most of them do not live openly as Muslims, meaning that they have told only some people about their identity, and do not necessarily act in ways that would identify themselves as Muslims in public. To do so openly as referred to as 'coming out' by the Hankyoreh.

Jo Younghee, a 24-year-old university student, converted to Islam because she wanted an alternative to living in a highly-competitive society such as Korea. "There's more to life than just getting a good job." Her experience is typical for Park Dongshin, a 26-year-old who started with an online community for Koreans interested in Islam and now runs an office near the Itaewon mosque that does the same thing. "Most [of those who convert] are university students," he says.

Similar to how Jo was introduced to Islam by a German she met while volunteering in Japan, Moon Heeseob, 23, learned about Islam online from a Malaysian. After studying Islam online, Moon converted. Moon's story is similar to that of Lee Seungmi, a 15-year-old high school student, who began by making an Indonesian friend online. From there, she joined an online community for Korean Muslims and then, with two Korean Muslims who live in America looking on as witnesses, she converted to Islam. Jo also converted in front of other witnesses that she met online, although the article isn't clear on whether this happened online or offline.

Islam, for Jo, is free and personal. "It's a flexible religion," she explained. "There are no commandments saying that if you don't follow it, you're going to be punished. There are no leaders that force you to obey. Everyone can follow it with the level of devotion that suits their circumstances."

The others profiled in this story appear to feel similarly about Islam, which is markedly different from the more traditional Muslims profiled in the first two parts, ones with a greater connection to those born as Muslims. Those in the first two parts have their lives revolve around their faith, but not so for the young Koreans in part 3.

Jo only prays four times a day because she can't get up in the morning. Moon only observes Ramadan, the month of daily fasting from pre-dawn to sunset, for a week. Lee doesn't eat pork, but will eat non-halal beef or chicken. Although Jo wears the hijab regularly and has endured some abuse for it, Lee The Koreanized Islam practiced by Jo, Moon and Lee is more of a belief system undertaken by individuals instead of an organized religion practiced as part of a physical community.

Part 4 covers the predictable backlash faced generally by unknown cultures, ways of life and ways of dressing. It covers the generally positive relationship between different religious groups at KAIST, as well as the existence of anti-Islamic sentiment, which exists mostly online and is vastly disproportional to the number of Muslims in this country and the sort of power they have (most are transient migrant workers or students, interviewees with roots and families here are by far the exception).

As is generally the case in Korea when it comes to racial issues, the official and institutional treatment of Korea is good, but there is a minority of small voices that speak very loudly, and often incoherently, about how Korea will became a Muslim country by 2020 or 2030 if present trends are left unchecked. The Hankyoreh, in soliciting feedback on the series, noted that it received insults, slurs, as well as threats alongside both positive and critical feedback on the stories.

All of this is to say that while I enjoyed reading about the lives of both Korean Muslims as well as immigrant Muslims in Korea, I remain thoroughly unconvinced as to the existence of tens of thousands of Korean Muslims. While Park reports 40 conventions in the last 4 months and many of the online communities (Naver or Daum cafes) have more than a thousand members each, it seems hard to believe that the number of Korean Muslims is several times greater than that of the number of Muslims living in families where one parent comes from another country. There are 4,000 foreigners from predominantly Muslim countries married to Koreans and they have 4,000 children, implying a population of 12,000. This would seem to be the vast majority of Korean Muslims, not the minority, but I remain open to being corrected.

Monday, June 09, 2014

What does it mean to finish a 26:44 10k in 1:57?

In 2011, not long after losing a 10k on the track for the first time in his life, Kenenisa Bekele ran a 26:43 at Brussels. He ran the last two laps in 1:57-1:58, closing in roughly 60-61 and then 57 for the last lap. Kenyan Michael Rotich was not far behind as Bekele barely held him off. You can probably credit him with the same splits. Galen Rupp was unable to keep up, but ran the last two laps in around 2:03, with splits of roughly 61 and 62. Bekele's 26:43 remains the fastest time of this decade and the 21st-fastest performance of all-time.

Galen Rupp, though, came close to topping that performance with a 26:44 last Friday night in Eugene, Oregon. Having set out to run faster than his national record of 26:48, he slowed in the ninth kilometre, and it looked as though he would finish in just under 27 minutes. Improbably, though, after having let the pace slow to 65-second laps, Rupp ran the second-last lap in 59 seconds and then came back to run the last lap in 58 seconds. If this Rupp had been in the 2011 race at Brussels, he would have been either right behind Bekele. He might even have been able to beat Bekele.

A 1:57 800 for a 10k is not unheard of, especially in a championship race. Bekele ran the last 800 of his first Olympic gold medal in around 1:54, splitting 61/53 in a 27:05 race. He ran 27:08 at Helsinki, closing in 63/54 and then 1:58 at Osaka (63/55) in another 27:05 race. I can't find his splits for Beijing, but in his last major global title, Bekele ran 26:46, closing in 63 and 58 seconds for the last two laps, destroying a highly competitive field in the process (Rupp was almost a minute back in that race). But, in a race where he was pushed to the absolute limit of his abilities, his 26:17 world record, Bekele ran the last 800 of his world record 26:17 in just 2:00, split as 63/57.

Clearly, Rupp wasn't pushed to the absolute brink of his abilities. While it's probably impossible for him or anyone to push themselves so hard in the first 24 laps that the last lap is simply an average of the first 24, a 1:57 finish is remarkable. At the very least, we can agree that Rupp can run under 26:40. What is remarkable, though, is that Rupp has closed his PB faster than Bekele, and probably most of the others ahead of him on the all-time performance list for the 10,000 metres. What's even more remarkable is that Rupp, while always a talented distance runner who, along with his coach, was willing to forego success at a younger age for bigger goals in the long-term, was never really known for his speed.

As late as 2012, his 26th birthday, Rupp could barely break 4 minutes for the mile. His best performance at either the mile or the 1500 was a 3:39 1500 in 2009 or a 3:57 in 2010, performances that are roughly equivalent. Then, all of a sudden, Rupp ran a 3:34 in May of 2012. He won a silver medal at the London Olympics, which was not a surprise for someone who had ran 26:48 the previous year, but what was surprising was the fact that he ran the last lap in about 54 seconds. Rupp then went on to run a 3:50 indoor mile the following winter, while his training partner, who had his own mid-career breakthrough in 2012 from an also-ran in championship finals to a sudden world-beater, ran a 3:28 in the summer.

There are any number of explanations for these performances, such as focused training, sprints, weights, thyroid medication, excellent coaching, excellent tactics, late-blooming talent, and so on. We don't know for sure whether Rupp and Farah are doping, and we probably never will. On the other hand, they're a bit like Barry Bonds, who hit a career-best 49 home runs at the age of 35 after having never hit more than 46 in a single season (which he did at the age of 28), and then hit 73 the following year at the age of 36. Bonds never failed a drug test and we'll never know for sure whether he used drugs. However, no one considers Bonds' records to be legitimate.

I can only hope that track fans in America and around the world, who were so quick to accuse Taoufik Makhloufi of doping after coming out of "nowhere" to win an Olympic gold medal against an underwhelming field, are more skeptic of all athletes who suddenly achieve mid-career breakthroughs that are akin to Seinfeld's magic loogie that changes direction in mid-air. As one commenter on this interview with Vern Gambetta, former conditioning coach with the Nike Oregon Project says of his conversation with a doctor highly involved in an Olympic sport, "the only surprise for him is never the discovery of doping, nor the relative rarity or frequency of its occurrence, but always the level of public shock."