Saturday, October 31, 2009

Your five mile marker's in a Brooklyn basement

If you're at all interested in running, you should watch the New York Marathon here on Sunday. It was originally a great race, but then the runners started to get worn out before the race even started. Two of the fastest men, Martin Lel and Patrick Makau, balked at the thought of running the race, as did five of the women. That still leaves a very good collection of runners, but it could have been much better.

Odds make this much more fun, so let's see what they are, courtesy of Oddschecker.

Jaouad Gharib - 5/2
James Kwambai - 9/2
Patrick Makau - 5/1
Ryan Hall - 5/1
Marilson Gomes dos Santos - 6/1
Robert Cheruiyot - 9/1

The rest of the guys won't win. The temptation is to go for Gharib or Kwambai, since they've run a 2:05 and a 2:04 this year. Gharib is very reliable, but almost never wins, except of course for the consecutive world championships he won. I won't pick Kwambai just because the guy with the fastest PB never wins, it's just too simple.

Patrick Makau debuted with a 2:06 in his first marathon this year, and I'd bet on him if he's running, which he's not according to a Kenyan newspaper.

Robert Cheruiyot at the bottom ran well enough to finish 5th at the World Championships, but I see no compelling reason for him to win.

That leaves Ryan Hall, who is white and has blonde hair, and Marilson Gomes dos Santos, who has only won two of the last three New York Marathons, but nobody thinks he's all that good.

If Makau isn't running, then Kwambai (second at Boston in '07, second at Berlin in '08, second at Rotterdam in '09) will finally win something.

On the women's side, we have the following odds:

Paula Radcliffe - 1/3
Salina Kosgei - 9/2
Yuri Kano - 9/1
Ludmila Petrova - 9/1

Radcliffe, unless she's sick or is running at the Olympics, always wins. Kosgei won Boston this year, so she's the better payoff. Kano will only be a factor if the pace is slow and something weird happens. Petrova is 41 years old, though she was second last year.

Speaking of gambling, here's an interesting article about how this Sunday's football games ruined Las Vegas.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sunday, greasy Sunday

Over the course of about 11 hours yesterday, I saw all or parts of twelve football games, thanks to NFL Sunday Ticket. This was my first time partaking in the awesome power of television, and I was disappointed. Before I'd had time to adjust my eyes to the unholy glow of the screen, pretty much everyone was off to a two or three-touchdown lead. With the exception of the Steelers-Vikings, Bills-Panthers and Cowboys-Falcons, all of the 11 games on in the afternoon were routs at one point or another. There were seven games on at 1 pm yesterday, but they were all blowouts except for the Steelers-Vikings, until the 49ers made a game of it in Houston.

I was disappointed with the results, but not so disappointed as to not watch just as compulsively next weekend. This is, after all, my just reward for watching football games last year in the most uncomfortable part of the night (Mondays, 2-5 am), on my laptop, in my choice of either Chinese or Danish.

Watching so many football games at once is an overwhelming responsibility. At one point, I just gave up and started watching the Bills-Panthers, until my brother pointed out that to do this would defeat the purpose of the all-games service. Still, if nothing else, it was a instructive exercise in why they only show one or two (sometimes three) NFL games at a time: the rest are really too bad. Who, aside from Bills fans (and even this is debatable), wants to watch the Bills and Panthers play? Or, how about next week's Epic Fail Bowl, the Lions hosting the Rams? I really want someone to look it up and let me know if two worse teams (these two are 1-5 and 0-6) have ever met. It's not just that they combine for a 1-11 record, it's also that the Lions have lost 22 of their 23 games, and the Rams have lost 24 of their last 26. So, we're going to see two teams on a combined 3-46 run.

Of course, there were lots of good plays too. There was a Lamar Woodley fumble recovery and touchdown where the ball sat on the ground for a seeming eternity, and then Woodley ran downfield for what seemed like an eternity, with none of the Vikings able or willing to bring him down. On the ensuing kickoff, the Vikings returned it for a touchdown, thanks to Steelers kicker Jeff Reed, who forced the returner toward the sideline where there were no tacklers, instead of the middle of the field, where there were many tacklers. There were also Eli Manning's fantastic deep passes, which somehow always seem to find their targets in the most improbable of settings.

There was also this freakish run by Reggie Bush in the most entertaining game of the week. The Saints were down 24-3, but came back to win 46-34 over the Dolphins. Proving that the NFL is run by some of the strangest men around, possibly androids, this game came to an end when the Dolphins drove to the Saints goal line and spiked the ball with a second to go. The ensuing play was irrelevant and would have ended the game. Still, the officials conferred for a few minutes. They finally ruled that on the spike, one of the Dolphins receivers "was not in a set position". This necessitated either a 10-second run-off or the loss of a timeout. Since the Dolphins had neither, the game was over PHP exception

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I hope you find this as funny as I did.

Friday, October 23, 2009

You can take the boy out of school, but you can't take the school out of the boy

After coming up with schools for blacks only last year, the Toronto District School Board is now considering the idea of schools and classrooms for boys only. The problem is reasonably obvious, even egregious: by most indicators, boys fare far worse than girls at school. The director of the TDSB argues, as others do, that this is the result of a feminization of schools. Boys and girls learn differently from each other, which is probably a reasonable enough argument, and proponents of boys-only schools believe that public schools are heavily tilted in favour of girls.

There is scant evidence of this tilt presented in newspaper articles on the topic, and I don't recall much of it. Sure, an inordinate amount of time in my middle school was devoted to expressing a variety of complex ideas through poorly-acted skits, but I attribute this more to the softness of the curriculum, though I'm told that it has only gotten harder since we so unjustly crammed five years of high school into four (for some reason, nobody complains about that anymore).

If the classroom is not an unnaturally feminine domain for boys, then it's worth considering, as you see here and there, that males are simply ill-suited to the sort of docile, sedentary lifestyle required for success in both education and employment these days. To this end, the incipient boys' classrooms would allow for more mobility, perhaps, and periodic bouts of using classroom implements as athletic equipment. Unless you believe that women are simply more intelligent than men, this is probably not the answer either.

But the answer is not far from here, I think. In high school, it was far more acceptable for boys to be complete buffoons than it was for girls. Perhaps this reflects the fact that males tend to take more risks, are more likely than females to be both spectacular successes and spectacular failures, though my impression is that we accept idiocy and failure more from boys than we do from girls. We accept that boys will be rowdy and difficult to control and we tend to excuse their failures. Like any other group of people that has low expectations placed on them, they underachieve.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Kindergarten Adeel

Teaching is not something I ever thought I would enjoy. In fact, I didn't really think anything about teaching until I started doing it. The guides to teaching overseas discuss just about everything, up to and including bedsheets and deodorant, but no one really discusses teaching itself. That's partly because people don't go overseas to teach so much as they go overseas to teach. So, on my first day, when someone handed me a math textbook, a sheaf of lesson plans and a sample craft, I was in for somewhat of a rude awakening.

I never really thought much about whether I liked teaching or not. The discussions were always about whether I liked Korea or not. It was after about 9 or 10 months teaching that I realized I actually enjoyed it. Teaching, after all, combines those three things I really love: talking, ideas that are only worth knowing in and of themselves, and the attempt to impart those ideas to the others.

Different things motivate different teachers. Many of my Korean coworkers were guided first and foremost by a genuine (and I stress this term) love of their students, to the point that my foreign coworkers often explained that hugging and kissing children that often would get us fired or arrested. I found my students hilarious sometimes and adorable other times, but always very interesting for their attempts to get a jump start in class: writing the date in their notebooks before I wrote it on the board, memorizing the words to Jingle Bells, writing short essays on a variety of innocent topics, and so on.

What motivates me as a teacher is what alienated so many of my friends in university. I have a burning passion to make sure that 6-year-olds understand that a bicycle is self-powered, a sailboat is wind-powered and a car is powered by fuel. I have a burning passion to ensure that 8-year-olds understand the various terms having to do with honeybees. I also have a burning passion to ensure that you know what a syllogism is, why Homer's Iliad is important and why Plato thought that the entire world is made up of triangles. It's a strange attribute, I concede, and I don't know how well it would be received teaching in Canada, but in Korea it's as popular as a relentless high school football coach in Texas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

That was fixed, right?

A game with four interceptions, four fumbles and fifteen penalties is probably going to give you whiplash. Consider the following sequence, where the Bears had first-and-goal at the Falcons' 1. A first down pass was incomplete, on second down the Bears fumbled and recovered, on third down they fumbled and lost it. The Falcons then drove all the way to the Bears 31 just to give it back on an interception.

Late in the game, the Bears were down 21-14. They drove to the Falcons 24, where quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked on second down. That made it third down and 17. The Falcons gave up a first down on a pass interference penalty, but it was no problem. The Bears threw an incomplete pass, then they incurred a five-yard penalty. On second and 15, they were penalized for holding. On third and 25, they made a stunning 24-yard completion over the middle, to the Falcons 5. On 4th and 1, 14th-year left tackle Orlando Pace inexplicably dove into the ground. The false start penalty made it fourth and 6, which the Bears didn't convert, losing the game.

This is why I don't watch NFC games. Then again, in the AFC, the Browns gave up over 500 yards of offense and the Titans gave up 59 points and over 600 yards. The Jets threw six interceptions as a team and somehow still managed to lose with only a couple of minutes left in overtime. They were, of course, playing the Bills, who did their best to lose this game, but the Jets simply were not to be denied. The Jets were so bad that the Bills' backup quarterback went 10-25, and he was the best quarterback on the day. The Jets' Mark Sanchez was 10-29 for 119 yards and five interceptions. The Bills couldn't give this one away, so they improved to 2-4, but the fans have already put up a billboard asking for Dick Jauron to be fired.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Third time's the charm

There's a good reason that with all those places in the world, I've already been to Detroit three times. This third time was really impressive for some reason, partly because the bar for repulsion was set a lot lower after my time in China. Many people would object to a 10th-floor hotel room in a building where none of the six elevators were functioning, and the stairways had peeling paint, graffiti and large metal barrels for garbage cans. The rooms had no phones but they did have answering machines, the bathroom doors couldn't lock but they did get stuck.

Others would be repulsed by a city where everything was closed and/or foreclosed, and the only people you saw were the indigent. Still others would think that Lucy & Ethel's Diner at the corner of Bagley and Cass was lacking in both service and the character of its patrons, though the more discriminating traveler would realize that the characteristic character of the patrons was character. Such a traveler would also appreciate the stately hotel already discussed, themany disused skyscrapers of vintage Art Deco construction, as well as the delis, diners and the serene beauty of Campus Martius.

There are many things that Detroit has going for it over much of rural China. Detroit's roads are paved, wide and in good condition, with many red lights and so on. The people in Detroit are poor and the unemployment rate is 30%, but they are frequently able to change their clothes. Toilets tend to flush and have seats, with complimentary toilet paper. Food options are varied and the risk of Hepatitis is low. The lights are dim and the taxi drivers are scam artists in both places, but generally speaking, the quality of life is far higher in Detroit than in much of China.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


This new book argues that the best athletes in human history are long since dead. Australian aboriginals, Peter McAllister argues, could easily beat Usain Bolt's 9.58 world record for 100 metres, and not just one of them, but many. Aboriginal men were also photographed thrashing the world record for the long jump just a century ago in an initiation ritual. The bit about Neanderthal women beating Arnold Schwarzenegger at arm wrestling I can believe, because Neanderthals were big and strong, which we are not.

McAllister has an interesting image of the past, one that I would call ridiculous if he presumably didn't have a degree in this sort of thing and I had only a second-year class on Greek history to my name. He says that Athenian "oarsmen" were far superior to modern oarsmen, to the extent that you'll find any oarsmen today, which may be true, though you'll also find that the Athenians of yore were malnourished, tiny and were happy to live to be 40 years old.

Finding superior rowers or sprinters in these populations is surprising. If a lifetime of general physical labour combined with sub-standard nutrition was enough to whip ordinary people into sub-10 shape for 100 metres, elite athletes would go live on farms or whatever it was that the vaunted Aborigines were doing, instead of dedicating themselves to constant training over periods of years.

There are still, presumably, small groups of people that live as they did before the Industrial Revolution, which McAllister blames for our current weakness. Clearly, if the Amish or the fine people of Papua New Guinea ever made it to the Olympics, they would run the medal table. World records in athletics go back into the 1800s, and the world record for the mile in the 1850s was a whopping 4:28, which would turn heads today if you are a teenage girl. Now, it's entirely possible that this ancient world record reflects European bias, since the very people who kept records probably also set them as well, ignoring Aborigines who were probably running them in 2:45 or so, a minute faster than the modern world record of 3:43.

Still, what makes McAllister's arguments implausible is that they're built on speculative evidence. His idea that Aborigines are faster than Usain Bolt comes from analyzing 20,000-year-old footprints. The article attributes to McAllister the idea that "modern men are genetically much the same. If they really wanted to, they could emulate these feats with some lifelong gruelling effort." Modern humans already are putting in the effort: we call it professional sports. Money, fame and a lifetime of training can't persuade high jumpers to clear 2.50 metres, but McAllister holds that living a life of inconvenience but no special training would get hordes of us to clear that height.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

And why exactly is a thrust enhancer not sold at a different kind of store?

This year, I've read a lot of books that were not required by school, neither one I attended nor the one for which I worked, though I no doubt read many books to my students. I don't count, however, any children's book with the exception of Where the Wild Things Are, which was written and illustrated well enough to elicit my wonder as much as that of the kids, possibly more.

Today I read the last three quarters of Stephen McDougall's Born to Run, a melodramatic description of ultrarunning that was still good enough to make running 100 miles sound interesting. Perhaps the only way to make running 100 miles sound interesting is through melodrama, though anyone with any experience around running would have gotten tired of reading for the umpteenth time about how some slob decided to give running a try and ran 20 miles one morning, another 20 after lunch and then 15 again in the evening. Still, there were many stories worth reading, particularly of the harsh trails and tough runners in Mexico's Copper Canyon.

One of the best parts of the book was when McDougall took aim at running shoe companies, which are somewhat like American health insurance companies in that they enjoy a market in the billions of dollars by selling a product without any conceivable benefit. In case you have never bought a pair of running shoes at what would be called a "reputable" running store, the process goes something like this:

Someone making around ten dollars an hour who, if you're lucky, has some training as a chiropractor or yoga instructor, will watch you run and then inform you in language used by only those who make money off of people's feet, that you need to spend money to save your feet from impending doom. If you're luckier still, you might get to run on a treadmill hooked up to a video camera, or possibly on a video camera hooked up to a treadmill.

Apparently, the only way to run these days is for most people to place roughly 300-400 grams of rubber, under their feet and replace them at an alarming frequency. Since most people don't know much about running and the people who sell shoes are at best aspiring yoga instructors who know about eighteen different ways to make a banana smoothie, nobody ever really thinks to ask whether running shoes with dual-density medial posts, midfoot thrust enhancers or computer chips have ever been proven to prevent an injury.

The answer, of course, is that they haven't. This is pseudo-scientific nonsense of the same kind well-meaning grandparents who don't run direct at those who run. I've been told to run with a few dollars worth of pennies in my pockets for resistance, do cocaine before races for the stimulation, not run in the rain because I'll slip and fall, cover my mouth when running in the winter so my lungs don't freeze, and to drink something like a litre of water for every hour I run, lest I turn up dead like some Death Valley hikers: choked to death trying to get moisture from dirt.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Buffalo Bill also killed

Buffalo, with a few exceptions (Kohat, Pakistan; Detroit, Michigan; possibly Pyongyang, North Korea), is one of the saddest places I've ever been to. There are no jobs, the teams suck, the stadium has the amenities of a Roman coliseum, and the people are unmitigated hicks. On the whole, the city peaked somewhere around 1900, when it was the 8th-largest city in America and President William McKinley was assassinated there. I observe America through Buffalo, since the American TV channels I get are all Buffalo affiliates. On Sunday nights, there is a half-hour show dedicated to the day's football game.

Dedicating 30 minutes to a 60-minute football game, not to mention its snowbound, windy location on the other side of the Great Lakes, are the two saving graces of Buffalo. They would be the case normally, if not for the exposition of incompetence they've been putting on at Ralph Wilson Stadium dating back to the time that they pulled Doug Flutie and put in Rob Johnson because the latter was tall, good-looking and young.

Yesterday, unless you somehow contrived to spend all afternoon viewing the Bills constantly one-up the Browns in trying to lose the game, the Bills lost 6-3 thanks to a fumbled punt late in the fourth quarter. The story of the day is that Browns' quarterback Derek Anderson went 2-17 for 23 yards and one interception and Buffalo still found a way to lose. The people of Buffalo may look stupid and they probably are, but they know a lot about footall. The loud, merciless boos that greeted witless, hapless coach Dick Jauron as he left the field are evidence to this.

Elsewhere in the league, you could have also seen the Broncos beat the Patriots, which is the single most significant development at Mile High Stadium since John Elway ran out the clock with one last deep pass in winning the 1998 AFC championship game. Personally I'm still convinced that the 2-2 Chargers will find a way to win the division over the 5-0 Broncos, but I'm probably in the minority here.

The Colts, Vikings and Giants are also 5-0, all three beating up on NCAA Division I-AA-type teams in the Titans, Giants and Rams. The pushover play of the week probably came from the Vikings' Kevin Wiliams, part of their Great Wall of Williams, who scared Rams quarterback Kyle Boller so much that Boller just dropped the ball. This led to a touchdown. Don't look now, but the Rams have lost 15 straight games going back to last season, with only a fraction of the attention that the Lions got for their 19. If they go 0-16 this year, they will tie the record of 26 straight losses.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Seoul fighting! (against Toronto)

The Woodbine casino is a large neon blight on a grassy field in Toronto. I was running by there tonight when a throwback-jersey-like baby blue Korean Air jet, complete with Pepsi logo, flew by very close. I spent the rest of the run thinking of the pros and cons of Toronto as compared to Seoul.

1. No cell phone service in the subway. Advantage Toronto
2. Compared to the chaos of Seoul, Toronto has a quaint, small-town charm. Seoul has the madness of the world's second-biggest city, not to mention its contrasts of endless high-rises and green mountains, a city built entirely in the last 30 years and palaces going back centuries. Draw
3. Street names. Advantage Toronto
4. Being able to yell out requests at waiters that are ten feet away. Advantage Seoul
5. Jamaican patties and brewed coffee. Advantage Toronto
6. The ubiquity of free instant coffee. Advantage Seoul
7. IBK takes about 7 minutes to give you a new bank card, the Royal Bank of Canada takes 7 days. Advantage Seoul
8. Galbi restaurants with a proletarian, not a ridiculously pretentious yuppie atmosphere. Advantage Seoul
9. People say goodbye on the phone in Toronto, but nobody says yeoboseyo. Draw
10. Bagels cost less than three dollars each. Advantage Toronto
11. More than six Chinese dishes, which don't come smothered in black bean sauce. Advantage Toronto
12. No fat people, and an endless supply of good-looking people in places like Gangnam. Advantage Seoul
13. Streetcars. Advantage Toronto
14. Triangular kimbap and strawberry milk. Advantage Seoul
15. No office workers shiny suits in Toronto, but also no Dunkin' Donuts employees in bright orange vests and berets. Draw

Friday, October 09, 2009

Like eating pulao with chopsticks

You can probably use chopsticks to eat pulao, a gamely, unpredictable rice dish with a lethal, highly unstable array of peppers, cloves, almonds and plum pits lurking under the surface. It's better to be sure of yourself and use a spoon or, better yet, your hands, as I did in India. You don't want to be going about this business halfway. Pulao is, of course, the national dish of Afghanistan and like everything in Central Asia, is a word in about a dozen different languages, including Urdu or Pakistani, as an American I met once called it. It's unpredictable, unsavoury nature is fitting of Afghanistan, not to mention the conditions under which it's served, at least for me.

I don't eat pulao. I hate pulao. But, I don't choose to eat pulao, pulao is forced on me by circumstances, namely dreary dinners and drearier weddings that differ only marginally from funerals. Similarly, the West didn't want to be in Afghanistan, but it found itself there an astonishing eight years ago. After eight years, there is some talk of there being an outcome to this war thanks to Stanley McChrystal, who seems to be in charge of whatever it is that you call the presence of Western soldiers in Afghanistan. After seven years, it seemed to anyone who could see beyond the short-term there, that Western soldiers could easily be in Afghanistan for generations, presiding over a series of nonsensical elections and trying to cobble people that really don't like each other into a country.

McChrystal is in favour of a large increase in the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan, to the tune of 40,000. You should be sure of yourself, he argues, when eating pulao. Barack Obama is then put in the unenviable position of choosing between the two bad options of escalating a war where success has eluded us for eight years, and of abandoning Afghanistan. Whatever he does, there will be no shortage of people complaining, not to mention that it will have a bad outcome. It is highly improbable that there is any way in which military or foreign power can produce anything resembling a stable Afghanistan. At the same time, withdrawal or continued half measures would make things even worse. I'm very glad it's a decision I don't have to make, much like I'm glad pulao is something I don't have to eat.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Weak four

This is the second time in four games this season that the Broncos have won a game on an improbable, incredible touchdown pass at the end of a game. Three weeks ago, with less than 30 seconds left, Brandon Stokley caught a tipped pass and ran with it for an 87-yard touchdown. This week, with about two minutes left in a tie game, Brandon Marshall leapt and caught a 20-yard pass at the 30. Then he ran around the cornerback like he was standing still, made it across the field to the 20 where three Cowboys surrounded him, and finally hopped on an imaginary segway to cut back to the outside again, leaving the tacklers standing still. It's almost as though those men aren't paid to tackle people like Marshall.

Almost as bizarre was the Cowboys' play-calling on the subsequent drive. With a little under two minutes left, the Cowboys did make it all the way to the Broncos' 2 and called the exact same play twice, two slants at whoever Champ Bailey was covering. The problem is that Bailey is pretty good, and both passes were incomplete.

The result is now that the Broncos are somehow 4-0, which I'm sure will result in a vast realignment of the AFC playoff picture (yes, really) in the oversaturated market of football pundits at, ESPN, CNNSI and elsewhere. Anyone who thinks this means anything should remember that Kyle Orton is not an exceptional quarterback and that last year, the Broncos were 8-5 and the Chargers 5-8 at one point, but the Chargers won the division.

Let's also talk about this San Diego Chargers football team. I watched last night's football game against Ben Roethlisberger and a Pittsburgh Steelers football team that was hungry and determined to win last night's football game against the San Diego Chargers football team, and I have to tell you, Norv Turner and this San Diego Chargers football team will not make the playoffs playing the kind of football that they did against Ben Roethlisberger and his Pittsburgh Steelers football team.

In last night's football game, the Pittsburgh Steelers football team put up nearly 500 yards on the San Diego Chargers football team. On the other hand, the Steelers almost blew a 28-0 lead, narrowly escaping with a 38-28 win against the San Diego Chargers football team. As is usual for the San Diego Chargers football team, they have managed to put themselves in a bad situation very quickly. One thing is clear, however, and that is that we are talking about football.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The world is flat, but not his voice

Of the many books I read while traveling, the one that made the biggest impression was Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, which was especially poignant to read in Shanghai, as he explained how the people there would soon be reaching across the world and taking your job, your livelihood, your house and even your wife from you. Technology has flattened the world as a playing field, Friedman said, and as a result it is far, far more competitive than it was a generation ago.

There are countless examples of this phenomenon, but I'd like to share the one above. Baimurat Allaberiyev, better known as "Tajik Jimmy", is the Susan Boyle of Central Asia. He's an ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan working in Russia, which is enough in itself, but wait--he can sing Bollywood songs as well as anyone. That, and I read about him in Vienna. He's good enough to fool my family, who thought I was listening to Indian music in and of itself.

The high point, I'm sure you agree, is when he sings the female part.

Parenthetically, if the country hadn't been ravaged by civil war and people there made more than a few hundred dollars a year, you would probably see "Visit Tajikistan" posters around your city. I met many people in Central Asia who had been to Tajikistan; in fact, it seemed that no one who went to Central Asia skipped Tajikistan. The country is obscure: when I search Google about it, Google asks if I didn't mean Pakistan instead. Still, it's very, very beautiful. I strongly recommend it. Visas are available on arrival at the Dushanbe Airport, with flights from Turkey and Latvia. Alternatively, why not travel in style via minivan from Kyrgyzstan for $15?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Down and out in Malton

This is Korean girl group Sonyeo Shidae advertising for instant noodles. If you're wondering whether all Koreans are like this, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

So I am unemployed. I came back to Canada really just to look for another job in Korea, which takes about two months, give or take. When I am not answering 2 am phone calls that turn out to be job interviews, I expect to be reading (a high priority is to finish Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), running and taking in the fall weather at coffee shops and jjigae dispensaries throughout downtown Toronto.

Two months of idleness seem really strange, but I did this for some seventeen consecutive years under the wonderful institution of summer vacation. It's a nice anecdote to life in Korea, where I answered 2 am emails from my mother while eating instant noodles of the sort advertised above, not reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and taking in lovely Korean weather of all sorts at jjigae dispensaries and coffee shops.

Looking for a job in Korea, I look at Korea from the outside, and it seems really, really funny, as the video shows. You have to understand that Koreans are easily the cutest people on this earth. Koreans who live overseas are just normal people, but Koreans in Korea are the kind whose cheeks you want to pinch and take them home wrapped in a blanket. It begins with their English, which is slow, deliberate and always punctuated by slight but comical mistakes such as "I went to churchy" or "I stayed at home and took some rest", or their inability to pronounce the letters V (boo-ee) and Z (jee). It continues with Korean miniatures, including dogs, babies, the elderly, cutlery and so on.

It's punctuated by seeing a well-dressed woman in her 30s take a phone out of her purse on the subway. The phone has a large stuffed animal attached to it. She will take some pictures of herself with the phone (there's a word for taking pictures of yourself in Korean) to make sure that she looks okay. It's also punctuated by the cafe down the street from my old apartment, which has a 7-foot-tall teddy bear on a motorcycle, or sometimes sitting at a table reading the newspaper.

If you still don't feel the same emotions in your heart that you might feel from this website, consider what I saw at the Palace of Versailles two weeks ago. The old royal courtyard was completely empty on this cold afternoon except for a Korean tour group huddled together in the centre. With perms, hiking gear and nothing but neat haircuts and clothing, they might as well have had the Taegukki stamped on their foreheads. There they stood, seemingly helpless, as the guide explained that the bathrooms were to the left, the chapel to the right, the gardens straight ahead, and so on. I thought that if the guide had abandoned them there, they probably would not have left that spot without intervention from the Korean military.

Or, there was the old Ottoman palace in Istanbul, where I ended up with some Koreans in a crowded room. A woman explained the exhibitions to the others with great enthusiasm, but not satisfied, she grabbed a small boy, who I think was German. She pointed to a model of the Kaaba and then to a wall-sized picture of the Kaaba in front of us and explained, in English, "see, this, big saee-JUH!" The others marveled at her English.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


The People's Republic of China turns sixty years old today. To mark the occasion, the poorly-dressed men that run the place closed the airport for three hours, shut down parts of the subway for about 16 hours, banned pigeons, people and balloons from central Beijing, and even told people to close their windows and stay away from their balconies.

And that doesn't even include Xinjiang province, where there was no Internet or international phone calls in the entire province a month ago (and presumably none still), nor does it include an entire generation of people that have never heard of YouTube and who tell me that only Westerners use Facebook. There are actually more Indonesians than Chinese on Facebook, which officially doesn't exist in China.

Anyway, I'm sure they threw a wonderful parade with large numbers of people in funny clothes doing artistic or acrobatic things for which they practiced relentlessly under duress, and lots of little soldiers marching in lockstep who didn't blink. Then the poorly-dressed men who run the show there (seriously, Jiang Zemin can surely afford better glasses) probably gave a horrendous speech, given the lacklustre tradition of oratory in China.

I used to be a real Sinophile in love with the idea of an ascendant China where previously poor people could now get online, go to IKEA and otherwise live comfortably without fear of being starved to death, as was previously the case under their murderous, moronic leadership. Then I went there. I fell even more in love with the 500 million city dwellers who enjoy a rough approximation of the sort of lives we live in the West, a stunning accomplishment in a very short time. I also fell in love with the 800 million people who live in the country in Third World conditions, whose situation is an appalling reminder that we won't see Mao on the US dollar bill just yet.

I also came to hate the dictatorship whose birthday is being celebrated today. It's not exactly the 60th anniversary of Chinese independence, after all, but the 60th anniversary of Mao Zedong going to the Tiananmen and declaring that China was now a People's China. In the last thirty years, the country has achieved a lot, but it only achieved a lot because of how backwards it was. Lauding the Communist Party for the progress of the last thirty years is like rewarding a drunk driver for driving into your car and then calling 911. Perhaps a democracy would not have worked in China, and much of this progress was only possible with a centralized government doing what was necessary, but that doesn't excuse the way in which millions upon millions of people have suffered.

What hurt me so deeply traveling across China, particularly in places like Sichuan province, was to meet smart, educated people who, through the luck of being born where they were, made about a tenth of what I made, and considered themselves fortunate. I admire how hard they work and the tenacity with which they shrug off the tragedies of the past, just like I admire the determination of peddlers in Tiananmen Square to sell you a pair of Olympic souvenir socks or toys. Those people are what make China such a wonderful place, the place to visit if you were only going to visit one country in the world, but they make me intensely angry at the government which humbles and cripples them.

The poorly-dressed men who control China employ millions of ham-handed minions who employ tactics like obstructing foreign TV cameras with umbrellas, embarrassing their country in front of the entire world. They try, however, to act sophisticated. They might have learned English and they might have had the Olympics, but the Chinese government is like a petty, vindictive child drunk on its own power, hardly anything to respect or celebrate. Please don't be impressed by any of this.

Peace, order and customs tariffs

I always wondered what Canada would seem like in comparison to the rest of the world. When I came back at Christmas after five months away, I remember being struck by how clean both Pearson Airport and Toronto were. I also don't remember the streets of downtown Toronto being as neat and orderly before I left as they were last winter.

My first impression of Canada was that we do speak with accents. I was usually able to tell apart American tourists when I worked in retail, but I never realized how different we sounded until I boarded an Air Transat flight on Monday and concluded that everybody was Canadian. The other first impression was that whereas East Asian countries are preoccupied with the germs you bring in, Europe with your immigration status, Americans with the fact that my contact lens solution could blow up the VFW building in Biloxi, Canadians are obsessed with taxing any liquor or cigarettes you might have.

At any rate, my impressions of this country are that it's big, cold and clean. And quiet, really quiet. Nobody drives down the street with a truck blaring "컴퓨터...냉장고...고장너..." ad nauseam. In fact, it's silent, or at least it seems silent after a year in the Seoul area and a week across the street from St. Pancras station in London. Those were my impressions before I left as well, but they are at the forefront of my thoughts now. Every single room in this house is bigger than my apartment in Korea, and sometimes I get lost in the space. Even the suburbs of Malton and Rexdale seem a lot nicer because of the space and the stillness.

Canada is also really cold. Ten degrees at the end of September is nothing remarkable, but when I went to Hong Kong in July, my perceptions of temperatures changed after just a week there. Seoul was at something like 27 degrees when we returned at midnight, but I found it cold, and nothing has ever really been warm enough since, except the mid-afternoons in Istanbul, where it was 32 or 34 degrees. The memories I have of running on six inches of squeaky, hard-packed snow in -20 weather are about as foreign as the time it got up to 50 degrees when I was in Pakistan.