Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in review

Overall, this was probably the most eventful year of my life. This was also the most eventful decade of my life (and will likely remain this way), since I finished middle school, high school and university, but that's a boring topic. Here are some of the things I did this year:

- I visited 15 countries, including Kyrgyzstan
- I ran a bad marathon
- I bought a $3 Nike gymbag and a $10 latte
- I became a discriminating purchaser of the various instant coffee packets of East Asia, as well as Korean strawberry milk
- I read Crime and Punishment
- I celebrated my birthday alone in Tokyo
- I wrapped up the 7th year of this blog, established in March 2003
- I ate yak meat, a $4 donut, fried octopus, steak twice a day for a week, 10-cent shishkebabs and copious amounts of raw beef and fish
- I learned to exist in progressively smaller places, such that I can both turn on the water in my bathroom as well as open the front door without moving from this chair

More jimjil-bang for your jimjil-buck

I woke up two days ago in a jimjilbang, a Korean sauna. This was much better than the last time I slept in one. For starters, instead of paunchy middle-aged men drinking beer at oh-dark-thirty, I woke up to see the sun rising over Haeundae Beach and the Pacific Ocean. It wasn't all sunshine and kim chi though. I slept on a pillow the size and the feel of a DVD case, on large towels (beach towels?) that doubled as both a bed sheet and a blanket.

For about $7, the price was right, though I should specify that it was essentially like sleeping in the tiled lobby of a very clean office building. It's hardly unusual. There are sleeping rooms, vast labyrinths where humans lie dormant like unwanted products in a warehouse, but those tend to be unused. Rather, the common area of the spa is used by families, babies and all, for sleeping.

And thus concludes my week of influenza-inspired-internment-in-Ilsan. I visited many of Korea's most famous landmarks while accompanying Koreans as sort of a cross between their skilled monkey and the white-guy-adjusting-to-kimonos-and-the-Orient personified by Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai or Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet (fun fact: I am not white).

A nice part about leaving the Seoul area is that you get to see the sort of old-tymee things that a lot of Koreans try to hide. This is the world of Mugunghwa-class trains, which are the cheapest class of trains in Korea, stopping at virtually every station on a line (ie every 10 minutes) and consisting mostly of impossibly old people precariously standing in the aisle. It's also the world of spartan restaurants, women carrying loads on their head, unruly fish markets and your friends taking a thousand pictures in a 24-hour trip.

This also concludes my nearly five-month-long period of unemployment. It was a good run while it lasted, but it wasn't nearly the fantastic world of leisurely study and twice-daily runs that I imagined. Instead, it was a period of waking up in the early afternoon, running at dusk and watching old clips of the Daily Show online when football or Law and Order were not on. What still surprises me is that I get more done on busy days than idle days. On Monday, when I had to catch an 8:30 train to Busan and therefore left the house at 6:45, I woke up at 5 to run, ate breakfast and then read 100 pages of War and Peace before lunch.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Soup can scald, peanuts can choke, reclining seats can concuss...

This might get me arrested, but I'll say this anyway: one of my life goals is to create a bomb using only materials from the area of an airport that comes after the part where you dump your toothpaste and your water and your shaving cream. A better, more committed satirist could go all the way and actually blow up a plane, but that probably defeats the point. I'd settle for a garbage can and a reduced sentence for the next time I visit the US.

New airport security rules will restrict passengers to one carry-on item, which can not be accessed as the plane lands. They will also be restricted to their seats for the last half hour of the flight. Unless not obeying these rules is punishable by death of the immediate sort (ie shoot anyone that gets out of their seat), as Christopher Hitchens says, they likely won't have much on the sort of person that's willing to die.

The current state is that airline security involves checking for explosives in your shoes, as well as in the ordinary liquids you carry around. The next step, maybe, is to require all passengers to answer a questionnaire about whether they intend to commit acts of terrorism. Most customs agencies require passengers to declare any drugs, guns or explosives they are carrying with them, and I've been on flights that asked you to willingly declare a vague list of symptoms that could describe the swine flu. Do you ever get a

These procedures are completely a ruse, of course, inconveniences that give people the impression of safety. The reality, as Hitchens says, is that you're not safe. Someone could kick down your door right now and kill you and your family. They could also kill you at work, while shopping, while driving around, and so on. In fact, it's entirely possible that your spouse or loved one could kill you. A shark could eat you at the beach, you could suddenly drop dead like Brittany Murphy. A softball could strike you in the chest or, maybe, your toilet seat could kill you.

The reality is more and more, at least if you read breathless reports about new airport security, that international terrorism is a low-level conflict fought exclusively over airplanes. Terrorists want to blow up airplanes and the fine folks you ask you to remove your shoes at the airport want to stop them. God help us if someone gets a new idea, like blowing themselves up at a disco or pizzeria. Then we'd all have to take off our shoes before going to order a pizza, hand over any water bottles, makeup or lotions in our possession, bring a passport, not be able to get up from our seats for the last five minutes that a pizza is baking...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Korean Kristmas

Considering that I never do anything for Christmas except watch the TBS movie marathon (what I've done for Christmas in the years since TBS became Peach Tree is a mystery), this Christmas was great. It was certainly better than last year's Christmas. Even though last year's Christmas Day was 40 hours long, it also involved four countries, a Northwest Airlines plane (if you flew Northwest from Tokyo to Minneapolis like I did, you'd feel the same way as this guy) and an eight-hour nap in the Minneapolis airport.

This year I went to the city of Gyeongju with two friends and the friend of one of those friends. For the millennium before this one and the last one (ie 0-1000 AD), Gyeongju was the capital of one of the states in Korea and then all of Korea. As a result, it has a vast cultural and historical heritage that you've never heard of, but every Korean knows intimately. What made yesterday so interesting wasn't really the old pottery or the photos with a carboard cutout of a character in a popular drama, or even the food, but the way in which the scene shifted dramatically and comically every few hours.

The day began with breakfast and then a trip to a bakery famous for selling handmade bread stuffed with red bean (it tastes more or less like a miniature cinnamon roll). An army of bakers dressed in hand works by hand behind you, and you're able to choose from such varied options as a case of 20, 40 or 60. A trip to Hwangnam Bread in Gyeongju is therefore highly recommended. You can even send a box to your co-workers, mother-in-law or to others to whom you owe filial piety.

From there we went to a few tombs and then a museum dedicated to the history of Gyeongju which, like every other ancient culture, apparently consisted of broken pottery and poorly-constructed weapons that would wither against a modern army, or even a Los Angeles street gang. It's not surprising, then, that the Silla dynasty that ruled in Gyeongju was conquered by the Goryeo dynasty about a thousand years ago.

So far the trip was as mundane as could be, but then we took a long detour to find a beef restaurant, since the area apparently specializes in beef. We went back on the highway, past a yellow van parked on the side of the road that was not-so-discreetly selling adult novelties (we tend to sell berries in Canada), and ended up in a parking lot where a man with white gloves opened the door for me. The meal of both grilled and raw beef that was cut into delicious marbly cubes cost $40, even though they didn't even have to cook it. There was no shortage of competition either, we were in a vast complex of restaurants that sold nothing but Korean beef.

After this, we were up in the chilly mountains to look at one of Korea's most revered Buddhist temples and then a massive statue of Buddha that's encased behind glass. In one of those quirks of Korean society, everyone at both places made it a point to drink water from a spring in communal plastic pans. While you try to count how many lips had touched that handful of pans on a busy day for tourists, you should also consider that most people consider Korean tap water to be filthy. I was also able to add Iran and Iraq to the list of places to where my ethnicity has been traced. Here is a map showing those places.

I fell asleep promptly after leaving the temple, and when I woke up, it was dark. Really dark. It was so dark that I knew we had to be by the ocean, the only place in Korea where there are no lights, at least relatively speaking. It was very, very cold by this point. We had driven about 50 km in the opposite direction in search of a meal of raw fish. We found a dazzlingly lit street of hwae restaurants where fisherwomen argued for our business. The winner was a lovely woman wearing no jacket but about a half-dozen sweaters, and her Mark Wahlberg-lookalike of a husband, brother or co-worker (granted, it's possible to be 2 or even 3 of those). After some haggling, we paid $120 for 2 kg of raw fish with some strange creatures from the depths of the ocean thrown in. We ate in a tiny, overheated restaurant the size of a large SUV.

On the drive home, I fell asleep again. When I woke up, we were at a vast, empty highway rest stop. It was 11 now and there was thick, wet snow falling. I thought at first that it was some grape market, but that was just a grape-themed batting cage. There were three high school girls who chose this time to practice their swing. We went inside for some coffee and I was asked to consider breaking into the apartment of a friend who is out of town, since I live on the far side of Seoul. I said no, and made it home close to 2 am.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mean time

The mean time after arrival in Korea of being stopped by a Korean for English practice is, in this sample size of one, about 16 hours. I arrived in Dae Han Min Guk (slogan: "It is a kind of traditional Korean Min Guk") Monday night at around 10. Tuesday afternoon at around 2, I'd found myself lost on a run and was walking through a park trying to get my bearings.

From about 50 feet away, a woman yelled at me and asked if I spoke English. When I nodded, she rushed forward with a stroller and a small child in hot pursuit. Hopeful of some southern hospitality, I racked my brains to come up with a good description of my apartment, since no one can help you get home if you can't even tell them that you live above a seafood restaurant and next to a chain convenience store.

"Do you know what mean time means?"
"Uh, mean time? Well, uh, mean also means average, so I guess you could be trying to--wait, where did you hear this?"
"I heard it on the radio and I wanted to know what it meant."
"Oh, um, I guess it's like a way of saying average time, like how long on average it takes you to do something."

Later that night, someone pointed out to me that the woman probably meant "meantime". Oh well, it's my second language also.

Really, though, life in Korea is about a lot more than being treated as a circus animal by friendly strangers, about 40% of whom have never spoken to a foreigner. It's about people, and having people everywhere. My experience in China taught me that in a country of 1 billion people, anything that can be crowded will be crowded. If Canada was built around surviving the winter, Korea was built for the rush hour.

Its massive subway platforms, fed by vast corridors and sprawling mezzanines, as well as roads that are 20 lanes wide in some places, might seem like evidence of the self-importance of some architect if you encounter it in the afternoon or the weekend. It also seems strange that someone would camp out selling vegetables in the corridor, until you consider that there were 2 billion trips taken on the Seoul subway last year, roughly equal to London and Paris combined.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Death by irrelevance, or this week's enjoyable/aggravating travel note

A hero dies but once, the aphorism goes, but cowards and travelers at Tokyo's Narita International Airport will die a thousand times. This was my second layover at Narita, but the first time I was overwhelmed with the terrible exchange rate. I don't know how exactly Narita finagled its way into becoming an East Asian air hub, but I'd like to find out.

Let's start with money. Money is important. If you landed at Narita without any cash, or enough cash, you have a problem. There is, apparently, only one ATM in the entire airport. If you were in Terminal 2 (affectionately known as the Satellite, to be contrasted with the Main Building, or Terminal 1) like I was, you have no recourse but to wait for a shuttle bus to Terminal 1, where you can avail yourself of an ATM. You might try and use your credit card at stores or restaurants in the airport, but you'll have at best mixed success, given that virtually no Japanese stores accept credit cards.

Maybe you'll go the way of Benjamin Christopher Rock, an American who missed a flight to Los Angeles last afternoon. I know this because he was paged at 30-second intervals for the better part of an hour. I'm not sure what happened to him. Maybe he was unable to pay for an $18 meal of rice and tempura and was detained by airport security. Another possibility is that he was flummoxed at having to wait for about 45 minutes to get a boarding pass for his connecting flight. My guess is that he wandered the airport looking for an ATM and, finding clusters of machines selling travel insurance every 100 metres like a mirage, hurled himself under the wheels of the infrequent shuttle bus between terminals.

Narita's strongest defence against its immense inconvenience is its people. They hum, dance, hop, jump and jog on the spot while they talk to you. They will talk to you with a comical fanaticism that is bewildering because you could never muster up that much interest in yourself, but they do. This, maybe, reflects a trend in Japan over the last two decades, where many redundant jobs have been preserved. There are mail openers and parking lot attendants who do nothing but bow, a bit like the Japan Airlines employee who was arbitrarily positioned halfway down a kilometre-long corridor to bow at travelers.

I'm typing this from Korea, but I wrote this in Japan by hand and I really spent all day in Japan. On my surprisingly civil (fun fact: Air Canada now proudly advertises that they will sell you snacks on North American flights) Air Canada flight from Toronto to Tokyo, I was inadvertently seated in the section for fans of the road team, mainly Japanese university students who study in Canada. Most of them had assimilated quite well, with baggy gray track pants and Uggs, but there was one lone holdout who brought her raccoon-sized teddy bear on the plane and shared her meagre space with it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The levy engineers are the real heroes

It's a good thing that I won't watch much of the Saints-Cowboys game tonight. It's a great game on paper, with the as-good-as-their-record-indicates 13-0 New Orleans Saints taking on the worse-than-their-record Dallas Cowboys at 8-5. The problem, as the NFL just Tweeted, is that the "3 hr. pregame @ 5pm includes NO native Marshall Faulk giving Mariucci tour of French Qtr." Not since the Super Bowl in 2002 featured Marshall Faulk reading from the Declaration of Independence has the NFL spun such a comedic storyline masquerading as a serious one with the use of Marshall Faulk.

The problem with anything related to the Saints these days, is that you have to hear about what a great story it is for New Orleans, whose die-hard fans never gave up, and for the city that's still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, but is still a turgid shithole that serves both as America's portal to the Third World and an international hub of murder.

In fact, Wright Thompson at ESPN wrote this opportunistic, 6,000-word novella telling us how New Orleans is supposedly the soul of America. America, or at least American media outlets, today loves New Orleans with the same intensity with which it abandoned New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. ESPN even named the Saints' return to New Orleans after the hurricane as one of the greatest football moments of this decade because it was just so inspiring to see professional athletes from other places playing in a city that everybody cared about so much that they let it turn into a post-apocalyptic freak show.

For that reason alone, I have to hope that New Orleans loses today and loses promptly in the playoffs. The themes of resilience, hope and tradition that Wright mentions could work for just about anything, and I don't want to have to hear about New Orleans' resilient spirit again. Let's take Indiana and it's long-suffering fans, perennially stymied in the playoffs and hit hard by the recession, who came together and cheered for their beloved Colts. Or, how about the Patriots, representing an entire region hit hard by both the recession and winter storms, where the seeds of American freedom were planted, without a Super Bowl for a number of years, overcoming adversity to make the playoffs and win a championship?

We certainly can't forget New York and 9/11, Chicago and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Pittsburgh and Three Mile Island, the Raiders and 49ers and the Loma Prieta Earthquake, or even the Chiefs and the Bleeding Kansas period of 1854. And the real heroes, of course, are the troops, who are stationed in places like Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia with ample time to watch football or talk to Terry Bradshaw, where they form the last line of defense between myself and other angry Muslims.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dumb things I do when traveling

I started writing this sometime in September, but never quite finished

I should make a list of all the stupid, embarrassing moments that have occurred on this trip. This is inspired partly by lurching towards the thoroughly uninteresting ramblings of Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, partly by the fact that these have occurred more frequently of late. They're more embarrassing than stupid, since they've resulted in a fair number of free things. So far, I've obtained a handful of free streetcar rides in Hungary and a free trip to St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna.

You see, public transit in Budapest works on the honour system. The first time I got on a streetcar there, I couldn't find anywhere to pay by cash. So, as is sometimes the case in China, I expected someone to come to me and ask for money. At the end of the ride that hadn't happened, so I quickly snuck off the streetcar and pretended that hadn't happened. Then I learned about the tickets you buy and how to punch them, except that the punching machines aren't easy to use and not easy to find on a packed streetcar. I probably rode for free four times, plus a free bus ride when the driver didn't have any tickets to sell me.

Here in Vienna, I wandered into St. Stephen's Cathedral from the exit, took some pictures, sat around, gazed at the beautiful interior and then wandered all the way back to the ticket-checking booth, and then practically ran out as fast as I could.

Here are some other mistakes, written just now:

I wandered Yushu, China, quite literally all of it, while searching for an Internet cafe. I asked pretty much everyone I saw where it was, getting a different answer each time.

While in Yushu I paid $12 to stay in a hotel with no shower and flies in the bathroom. Altitude sickness kept me from checking out to the $4-per-night English-speaking hostel with showers and friendly travelers. I guess it was an authentic experience.

In London, I mistook a shapely but stationary woman in a bright red sari for a mailbox.

In Munich, I ended up at a subway station. The ticket machine wouldn't take my credit card, or my 20-euro bill. I rode for free, sorry Munich. This is where the TTC's ticket sellers could have helped.

I got left holding the bag for two people's dinner in Kyrgyzstan. The bill came to about 100 Kyrgyz som. Fortunately, that's about $2.50.

In Belgium, my uncle drove me to the train station. I considered trying out my French (un billet si vous plait). I let him handle things though. The price for what had been a 16-euro trip was 33 euros this time. I found out later that I'd bought two tickets.

I blew 15 pounds by buying the wrong ticket at Buckingham Palace. Instead of touring the palace, I bought a ticket to see the artwork of the palace.

I ate a lot of Chinese food in Budapest. I think I had maybe one meal that was neither Turkish nor Chinese. I also took a $50 taxi ride to the train station one morning.

I think I also made some mistakes in Kingston, Ontario earlier this month that offended the locals, but I'm not too sure what they were.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

For those about to ROK, we salute you

When I saw the trailer for Up in the Air, I realized that I was addicted to travel. I don't have a lot in common with George Clooney or the anthrophobic character he plays, but as I watched the trailer, an large portion of which was set in an airport, I remembered the intense rush I get from traveling. As I write this post, I received confirmation for a flight to Seoul via Tokyo this Sunday, which excites me as much as the act of being on an airplane literally sickens me.

An airport and its airplanes are rabbit holes. You enter a shiny, spotless steel and glass structure that looks interesting if you get a nice vantage point from a half kilometre away, endure some tedium and then emerge hours later, ideally, in a completely different place. Toronto becomes Seoul, Seoul becomes Shanghai, London becomes Toronto, Bishkek becomes Istanbul although Bishkek is more poured concrete than shiny metal.

This addiction really began last summer, when I started teaching and began the first job I ever had that paid more than $10 per hour. I bought an overpriced plane ticet to Hong Kong and took a short flight there, getting in and out of both airports easily thanks to no onerous visa requirements or the still-more-onerous checked baggage. Parenthetically, Seoul and Hong Kong supposedly have the two best airports in the world, along with Singapore.

I did this enough times that the ability to change the language, culture, ethnicity and nationality of your surroundings, virtually impossible coming from a multicultural metropolis where the only options are to cross an ocean or to go to Mexico, became addictive. I count the number of passport pages I have left, the number of countries I've visited, the large cities I've visited, the landmarks I've seen and the different ripoffs I've experienced. I would have a lot more in savings if I didn't have this addiction, but then, what else would I do with the savings?

Decade of the century

It crept up on me, but not it's true that the decade is about to end (please, take the business about the last millennium ending in 2000 but the previous decade ending in 1999 elsewhere). When we look back on this decade, we can remember the year 2000 as the stump of that bizarre period of human affairs when Bill Clinton was president, Internet companies were started on the premise of selling you things with 100% rebates, and boy bands set all sorts of records for album sales.

At the end of the '90s, you could look back confidently at the start of the decade and have no reason to be ashamed. The Soviet Union had dissolved, the Cold War had ended and while I'm sure there were trends in 1990 that had lost favour by 1999, it's safe to say that a wall separates us from all that was bizarre, unholy and idiotic at the start of this decade. The Internet boom became a bust, we all started listening to white people mumble over acoustic guitars instead of white people combining rap and rock, the Internet matured into something with a purpose, and even 2001 can be divided into the first eight months and the last four.

It's obviously not the case that the world changed more in this decade than in any other, not even close, although technology yielded more fruits this decade than the previous, which yielded unpolished technologies like dial-up Internet. Rather, this decade really seems to have been two decades for the way in which we might, with as much shame as surprise, realize that the best-selling album of the decade was No Strings Attached.

Let's look at this decade a little bit closer. I still don't understand what Y2K was ever going to do to us, but news reports on December 31, 1999 indicated that the year 2000 had arrived in the western Pacific without significant casualties. There was Limp Bizkit, the Backstreet Boys, Stockwell Day and AOL. There was the Millennium Dome, the 2000 US election, and an obsession in 2001 over a remote threat from vicious, lawless...sharks.

Then we had all these bad ideas, not included there is the brilliant idea that CyberRebate.com had: sell something at ten times its normal price but offer a 100% rebate. The profit comes not from doing something with the money between the time you get it and you return it, but from hoping that 5% of customers forget to send in their rebates.

No wonder we've tried our hardest, as the Internet has become more sensible, to forget things like that, or the dancing baby, ever happened.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Overheard in Toronto

Monday

"I went over to my parents house...and you really just had to cut it in half...I've had this problem for over ten years, I've tried filing it...oh, looks like we're almost here."

Things I heard while drifting in and out of sleep heading west on the Bloor line in the evening rush hour.

Tuesday

"Attention folks, there's a young man here who needs change for a five-dollar bill. Can anyone help him out?"

Announcement over the PA system on a Dundas streetcar at Bay Street.

Wednesday

"Kyle? Are you on the bus?"

A woman yelling from the back of a packed 96 Wilson bus at her son, who was sitting near the front. The boy then slapped his gloves together over and over, splashing everyone around him with dirty snow.

Thursday

"If Ben Roethlisberger wants to win this game, right now he needs to move the football."

Expert analysis late in the Steelers-Browns football game.

Friday

"So they had the wedding...but we couldn't come...it was all very funny...but they're talking now, don't worry."

Timothy's at Bay and Queen

Saturday, December 12, 2009

As natural a sign of winter as steam from a black football player's head

Toronto is a cold city. It's -8 right now and the stiff winds give us a wind chill closer to -20. On winter days, Toronto is divided into hot and cold. There are heated buildings, cars and people, and there is the cold, empty space between them. A common site downtown on these cold winter days is the sleeping bag. At a busy intersection, a homeless man will decide to draw attention to himself by taking a nap right there. Today I saw this at the northeast corner of Bay and Queen, in front of Old City Hall.

Even if it's not loud around you, the mid-day crowds, the swirling winds, the gonging streetcars and the perception of panic as you get around this man will create a phantom din in your head. Only after you get away from this do you realize that it's actually pretty quiet.

It's a shame, of course, that in a city as wealthy as Toronto with a winter so cold, somebody has to be outside all day. The homeless man in a sleeping bag, seemingly oblivious to the rush around him, is trying to make a statement about his plight. The statement is as much a spectacle as a Pamela Anderson photo-op.

There are lots of places to lie around downtown, most of them are not busy intersections. The man in question wasn't even panhandling, he just wanted others to notice the fact that he exists, to stare and see if he was still alive, and to highlight the gap between himself and the wealth at the intersection, which is where City Hall, Osgoode Hall, the financial district and the Eaton Centre all meet.

In that, he succeeded. I couldn't tell if he was awake or not, or if the woman standing about six feet away talking on a cell phone was talking about him. But of all the people that walked by, a significant number stopped to gawk, at least briefly. Surrounding him was food from all the eateries nearby: the Starbucks that is kitty corner from Old City Hall, the Timothy's that's across, and the cafe and hot dog trucks at Nathan Phillips Square.

The horror induced by seeing someone sprawled out in a sleeping bag on a day so cold at an intersection so busy was artificial, of course. He could have just easily, and more comfortably, curled up in a quiet corner somewhere. The spectacle he produced was false, but hopefully enough people noticed that the fundamentals of his situation couldn't change, even if he could go away.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I also want my driveway to only be visible to my friends

Facebook recently changed its privacy settings. I was never all that interested in privacy settings, which give me about a dozen different ways to control who can see what university I went to and that I'm a fan of Stevie Wonder. A lot of people do care, however. To them it's a matter of principle: they should be able to control who knows that among their interests are "good times with friends" and that they graduated from West Central High School in 1994. Other people have simply no interest in sharing that much information about themselves, so they tend not to use Facebook.

This reaction from what is otherwise a parenting blog is breathtaking. Facebook's update makes all profile pictures visible, as well as who your friends are. The author, who for some reason chose to use a picture of his child on his profile picture, is convinced that this a concession to pedophiles.

He writes "if you have a cute picture of your son or daughter as your profile pic, every pedophile and creep can now see it, whether you like it or not." This is true, admittedly, if what pedophiles and creeps do for fun is type in the names of people at random to see if there's a picture of a child that comes up. Maybe they do and then this is a problem, but public profile pictures are also a way of making sure that you're adding the right person. The same goes for a friends list which, if it shows a large number of people in Waco, Texas, can let you know that you haven't found your picture-less friend in Dubai.

People who don't want this ease of friends are people that don't want to be found. There's something comical about Facebook friendship. Back when you could find ten random people from any network, I made a social experiment of making friends with people in Toronto, Kansas. All of them accepted my requests. I've also accepted friend requests from friends of people that are barely friends who must really find me interesting. That's one absurd extreme of it.

At the other extreme are people like Chad Skelton, who want "a safe, private place where you can share your photos, videos and inner-most thoughts with just your friends and family and not the rest of the world". I don't know that sharing your innermost thoughts was ever the point of Facebook, but I don't understand why the level of paranoia that some people have about Facebook and the Internet as a whole usually doesn't extend to the rest of the world.

For example, if Facebook took a picture of you everyday and shared it with all your friends or maybe your network, it would be an outrage. People would scream that Facebook is "sharing information about your age, race, gender, appearance and physical characteristics" (because synonyms add gravity) with unknown third parties. But this is exactly what you do when you leave the house. Strangers, some of them even foreigners or criminals, have access to this sensitive information. Everyone living within a kilometre radius of your house knows how nice it is, what kind of car you drive, whether you celebrate Christmas with decorations, and so on. These people tend to have memories. Co-workers from ten years ago and classmates from middle school also know a great deal about you.

Going about your daily life in, presumably, a community and likely a city is not something anyone thinks about. Of course, you wouldn't invite those strangers into your home to listen to a personal conversation, but the issue in Skelton's posts and in the dozens of paranoid comments that follow is access to things like profile pictures, friends lists and other mundane information. This information could conceivably be used for malicious purposes, but then, so could all the information you unwittingly release to others simply by existing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

And on the 43rd day, he rested

There is an excellent article on LetsRun today about the repeatability of your training. In other words, do you train in a way that lets you repeat that training the next year or for the next several years? Much of the article is written for runners far above my level, which isn't surprising considering that the author ran a 2:23 marathon in his day.

Still, training from year to year has been something I've been thinking about this week. This Monday was the first day I didn't run in six weeks, thanks to a vicious combination of Frasier reruns, travel on the 401 and football on TV. Those six weeks of training are the first 6 of 21 weeks I have to train for the Seoul International Marathon in March, not to be confused with the un-international Seoul Marathon in November.

It has been steady but unspectacular training, which is probably how it should be. I dimly recall the last two times I spent a winter training for a marathon. It all started really well, with lots of enthusiasm, but with about two months left to go, week after week of having to be outside in bad weather made me hate running. It probably did make a small difference in the end that I was really running out of gas by race day. This time, therefore, I wisely decided to leave the truly punishing weeks for the very end.

Also on my mind is the fact that I was really out of shape six weeks ago. I ran a 1:32 half marathon six weeks ago, which is a problem because I want to run around a 2:50 in three months and change. I'm sure I've made lots of progress since then, but I question whether repeating the same training from years past is going to take me from a 1:32 half to about 1:20 shape for a half. I presume that the answer is probably yes, but having never really made a comeback of any sort, it's really just a presumption.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Narcissism at the Sonagi Consortium

Following on this post about the loony tendencies of many members of immigrant communities is a post at The Sonagi Consortium about the same topic. The politics of diasporic communities are almost as asinine as those of student communities. Leaving aside the common thread where criticism, especially by an outsider, is largely forbidden, you have the pet issues, the nationalism with its hyphens and the strange phenomenon where immigrants cling to an image of a country that has since changed vastly.

For example, my family left Pakistan in 1994. Until recently, we still thought everything there costs what it did then, and that there had been no development in technology or culture. The introduction of Western fast food restaurants as well as technology, namely cell phone service that's better and cheaper than what we have here in Canada, were too much for us to comprehend.

Hyphenated nationalities are an abomination. Legally speaking, I am a Pakistani-Canadian in the sense that I am (to the best of my knowledge) a citizen of both countries. But I only describe myself as Pakistani as shorthand for "born in Pakistan". Having avoided the sweaty, side-parted hair and fully buttoned-up shirts that are part and parcel of life in Pakistan, not to mention loving Canada, it would be both lying and tremendously ungrateful for me to say something along the lines of "I'm really Pakistani, there's no such thing as being Canadian anyway."

Many first and second-generation immigrants do think like that, identifying more with the place where they or their parents were born. Those people, frankly, should be sent back to the countries with which they really identify, or at the very least stripped of their Canadian citizenship. There's nothing more obnoxious than someone who was either born here or has spent most of their life here, but then derides the very country that lets them live a comfortable middle-class existence in favour of some paradise like Pakistan, China or Sri Lanka.

In defense of Twitter

This article writes out the well-known reasons why you shouldn't broadcast your life online, well-known to anyone under 50 with more than a room temperature IQ. Nothing in that article caught my attention, except for when Timson writes about "a look-at-me society in which people no longer think twice before tweeting about the panini they had for lunch". Gregg Easterbrook wrote that Facebook and Twitter receive an inordinate amount of attention from journalists because they're easy to understand for middle-aged writers.

Whenever someone sits down to write down a zeitgeist piece, usually some well-meaning older fellow overwhelmed by technology who wants to write about "just how crazy it all is", with something about the "craziness" of Christmas shopping thrown in for good measure, they'll make reference to Twitter. A subway ad here for a college show a picture of a girl and says something like "the future will be written by her (or at least Tweeted)". About five years ago, CNN discovered the Internet along with the rest of the mainstream news media, and blogging was how overwhelmed writers pejoratively described technology they didn't understand. Then Facebook and YouTube played those roles, and now it's Twitter.

There's a difference between not liking something for a variety of reasons, justified or otherwise, and fundamentally not understanding how something works. Most of my friends fall into the former camp, and, sadly, a lot of older people fall into the latter camp. I was in the former camp a few months ago when I started using Squeaker and Woofer, but then I had to concede that I liked Twitter.

Depending on your interests, you can go to Twitter and see concise but fairly on-topic and reasonably interesting conversations about that topic. In my case, it's discussions about football, as well as good prices for flights from Toronto, K-pop stars and elite runners. For other topics that you don't normally follow but are, for some reason, interested in at a particular moment, you can search to find real-time results. So, if you're watching a football game and want to know what people are thinking, you can search for that. If you're a hypochondriac or work in healthcare and therefore care about H1N1, you can find a few dozen Tweets from the last three minutes on that topic.

By comparison, my Facebook feed right now is showing me that one person joined a six degrees of separation group, another shared a link from Perez Hilton, and others are sharing asinine inside jokes and talking about the weather. As Facebook moves more and more away from being able to connect you with strangers by removing networks, Twitter is better able to fill in the gap created by the intellectual shortcomings of your friends list. Granted, Facebook has more users that play Farmville than France has people or Twitter has users, but that really says more about Facebook than it does about Twitter.

Admittedly, Twitter works better as a news source than it does as a conversation. I don't like adding genuine human beings because even if they spend a little bit of time being human, you're treated to links to grainy, cell phone pictures of bright lights and some guy's rimmed glasses. It's also not entirely obvious how to use the website, accounting for a lot of middle-aged misunderstandings, but the more passionate your interests, the more you'll enjoy Twitter.

Monday, December 07, 2009

A revolution is not a dinner party, and a dinner party shouldn't be a revolution

The Demons That Haunt the Pakistanis

Being a diplomat, Ms. Lodhi speaks in a low key. But not Dr. Mubbashar, whose brand of patriotism may sound paranoid to an American, but is shared by many Pakistanis. He asserted that the American security company formerly known as Blackwater, a favorite target of criticism for ultranationalists, rented a house next to his, and that its employees had been trying to lure his servants with sweets, alcohol and “McDonald’s food every Sunday.”

Conspiracy theories are pervasive in Pakistan, and Ms. Alvi offered an explanation. They are a projection, she said — a defense mechanism that protects one’s psyche from something too difficult to accept. “It’s not me, it’s you,” she said. “It’s a denial of personal responsibility, which goes a long way to cripple our growth.”


Anybody who has ever been to a Pakistani dinner party will know how the conversation is. If religion and politics are the two subjects to avoid in Western conversation, they're the only two safe topics in a Pakistani conversation (fun fact: the official language of Pakistan is not Pakistani, but Urdu). Pakistanis, largely because they're from Pakistan, attach an inordinate significance to the country.

At least one of my relatives has long been convinced that recent developments in American foreign policy, namely war in Afghanistan, closer ties with India and a rise in tensions with Iran, are really part of a larger, overarching plan to surround and then subjugate Pakistan. After all, Pakistan is the height of civilization, with its cricket teams, 180 million people and kind-hearted people (to be contrasted with rude Indians). Add in its status as the only Muslim country with an atomic bomb, the two things that Christian, militarized America apparently fears most, and it's obvious why American strategists have long been scheming to ensnare this basket case on the Indus.

Really, though, I've heard it all over the years: the Russians swept Saddam Hussein away in the spring of 2003, the Jews perpetrated 9/11 to give Muslims a bad name, the Indians orchestrated a series of attacks in their country to give Muslims a bad name, that Danish newspaper published those cartoons to give Muslims a bad name, that Indian guy looked at me cross-eyed to give Muslims a bad name...

Lately, though, what I hear from Pakistanis I know and what I read online seems to be a little more reasonable. The constant spectacles of Pakistani-on-Pakistani violence has moved many people, if not the McDonald's-fearing psychiatrist, to accept a plainer view of facts. I haven't really hard anyone insist that the never-ending series of bombings and low-level civil war euphemized as a counter-insurgency is really a plot by Mossad agents to make Muslims look bad.

That India, long in lockstep with Pakistani misery, seems to be moving on from the 1947 partition suggests that maybe the way Pakistanis operate is really not normal. Maybe they've held on to these paranoid lunacies about Jews, Americans, Indians and kafirs for far too long. Recently the Pakistani government, like a lazy, absent-minded parent that finally decided to do something about its teenage delinquent of a son.

Whatever the outcome, it's a safe bet that life in Pakistan won't improve any time soon, as this survey points out. Only 20% of Pakistanis between 18-29 have permanent, full-time jobs, in part because 25% of them are illiterate. Perhaps reflecting an obsession of a diaspora with their homeland, only about 10% were "very interested" in politics. Troubling for the future of Pakistan, an artificial construct of Muslims in what was northwestern India, is that only about 15% identify as Pakistani.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Overheard in Toronto

Friday was really the last day of a week where I heard people in this city say some strange things.

Monday

"And I get one dollar a day and--wait, it's not one dollar a day because then I'd get a dollar on Saturday and Sunday too--oh, I printed out what I want for Christmas..."

Little girl talking to her Filipino nanny on the 512 streetcar.

Tuesday

"It's two bills and I know you don't got that. ...he met my mom and she was like, "who this?"

Students at what is probably a remedial high school chatting on the subway.

Wednesday

"[unintelligible]"

Elderly man walking down the streets of Malton, not exactly Toronto's poshest neighbourhood, casually conversing on a bluetooth.

Thursday

"Fuck you homo!"
"Show us your tits!"
"Let's fucking kill him!"

These were some of the more printable remarks I heard Thursday night at the SkyDome.

Friday

"Many women think that if their child urinates on them, they can't pray because their clothes are dirty, but this is a misconception."

This was at a local mosque. The gentleman who said this also suggested not too long ago that instead of giving out candy on Halloween, we should take the opportunity to introduce trick-or-treaters (median age: 8) to Islam and explain (or claim) that we took the money that could be spent on candy and gave it to charity instead.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The lesser-known heroes of a football game

I went to my third football game last night. It's kind of sad that the best place I ever went to see a football game was Ford Field in Detroit. Judging that the last two places I've been to were Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo and then the SkyDome in Toronto, I think the line of best fit is pointing to a fourth game in the parking lot of an abandoned Biway somewhere. Ford Field itself is actually a fantastic stadium, it just happens to house a great team, though you can't say that for Ralph Wilson.

Going to an NFL game at the SkyDome (listen, if you want me to promote your business on this blog, send me an email) is a lot like going to a Jays game at the SkyDome. The same over-cheerful but under-informed announcer tells us about the play that just happened, as well as shockingly embarrassing promotions, where you can answer a question like "how many nipples do you have?" for the chance to win a Quiznos prize pack. To the best of my knowledge, a Quiznos prize pack is really just a sandwich, but I could be wrong. Maybe there's an XL promotional t-shirt involved as well.

The crowd at a sporting event at the SkyDome is sort of a catch-22 for whoever organized the game. Toronto might have a reputation for being a staid, Protestant city that sits on its hands, but years of bad performances at the Dome have left us inured to sports and seeking new thrills. New thrills chiefly come in the form of drunken brawls. The problem, then, is that if nobody comes to the games, it looks bad on TV. If people do come to the games, then your problem is that all those idiots showed up at your game.

An NFL game is always good, even if you sat with a fantastic view of the goal line, the worst place to sit at a Bills game, like I did. The players are as fast as they are massive, and when the game is stripped of breathless commentators talking about their Thursday night meeting with the nickel back that just came into the game, you're better able to focus on the subtleties of the game. A deep ball is much more exciting when you can see it develop without having to wait for the camera, and doubly exciting when, as was the case last night, an obvious touchdown bounces off the hands of a receiver and then nearly bounces off his helmet before landing incomplete.

Anyway, here are some of the people and occupations you never really hear about or see when you watch the game on TV. I'd like to phrase these descriptions as responses to the question "so what do you do?"

"I'm a cable girl. I follow cameramen around and I hold excess cable that belongs to the camera. My responsibilities include winding and unwinding cable, laying cable down in a safe manner, and moving at the same speed and in the same direction as the cameraman."

"I'm an apprentice. I work with the cable girl to hold excess cable that maybe she can't hold. I also follow her for a season or two to see how she does the job before I'll be allowed to follow a cameraman around and hold his cable."

"I'm a driver. I drive the modified cherry picker-like contraption on which a camera is mounted. After large gains and changes in possession, I accelerate down the sideline to ensure that the camera is where it needs to be."

"I stand by the sideline and hold a shield." Why? Do you do anything? "It's not entirely clear. Maybe the idea is to see if players are hitting hard enough."

"I'm a fat guy that jogs laps around the field alongside the emergency golf cart to stay in shape."

"I'm a stadium security guard. My job is to stand with my back to football games and protect heavily padded, helmet-wearing, highly-trained 300-pound men from other, sedentary, drunk, fat middle-aged men. For merely existing, the boors in section 134D, row 6 yell death threats at me."

"I'm the kicker. I constantly practice kicking a football into a net so that if my team gets into field goal range, television networks will have an image of my menacing 5'10", 175-pound frame practicing kicks. It builds drama."

"I'm the long snapper. When not hurling a football ten yards between my legs, I practice this endlessly."

"I'm the punter. I catch snaps and then practice dropping the ball toward the ground, but not kicking it."

Thursday, December 03, 2009

What's next, an airport named after Bre-X?

The stretch of Jarvis between Bloor and Charles streets has been renamed Ted Rogers Way in honour of the chairman of Rogers, who died a year ago. For years, the threatening extortion notices otherwise known as bills have been coming from 1 Mount Pleasant Road, but it is Jarvis Street, named after the great city father Samuel Jarvis and made famous by its meth addicts, streetwalkers and ever-shifting fifth lane, that suffers.

There are so many jokes to be made about this. I'm going to try this one: everyone in the country, as well as all visitors to Canada in the last six months, will be billed retroactively for a toll to be imposed on this road in six months. The only way out is to opt out of this billing. When you call to opt out or to protest at this travesty after the fact, you're going to have to get through that casual douchebag who tries to make the experience of dealing with Rogers slightly better than being gang-raped at noon in the Sahara.

"Hey, I'm going to try and help you out. So, just tell me what it is that you're calling about. For example, if it's billing, say billing."

"Billing."

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that. Let's try again."

"Billing."

"Did you say wireless phones? If this is correct..."

The experience of dealing with a sleazy company is instructive and worth bearing in mind the next time someone, such as opponents of healthcare reform in the United States, rhetorically asks if you want to trust healthcare to the government, as though private insurance. No one has ever been thrilled to wait at a government office, but no one ever got off the phone from dealing with a phone company, large retailer, credit card company or anything of the sort feeling that its for-profit orientation delivered a fantastic, friendly outcome.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The most exciting play in sports



The most exciting play in sports, in my opinion, is the do-or-die touchdown. If you score a touchdown, you win and if you don't, you lose. Field goals don't count because they're contrived situations, much like penalties in soccer or hockey. Tie games don't count because the stakes are far lower. I suppose a two-point conversion when down by one is similar, but that has been seen about a half dozen times in fifteen years.

Sunday had two games like that, the one above and this one. What makes the NFL worth watching is that bad teams have made a resurgence. There have been some upsets of late, even if Thursday had three games on national television with scores of 34-12, 24-7 and 26-6. Vince Young's Titans were a 4-6 team beating a 7-3 team, and Redman's Falcons had to eke out a victory over a 1-9 team.

That doesn't even count the 20-17 overtime game between the Steelers and Ravens, where disaster was narrowly averted. The Ravens were driving for a field goal late in the fourth quarter when Joe Flacco sacked with about 20 seconds to go. Flacco fumbled and the ball was recovered. It was fourth down and the Ravens were out of timeouts. In the insanity, they somehow managed to get the kicker on the field and attempt a 56-yard field goal, which came up just short.

That was good, Al Michaels pointed out in a rare case of my being impressed by a football commentator, because Flacco's fumble went forward and that's where the ball was spotted. The kick in reality should've been a 60-yard attempt, and if the field goal had been good, the NFL would have been embarrassed.

All this doesn't even mention the surreal horror felt by the Saskatchewan Roughriders for losing the Grey Cup thanks to one of the epic blunders in sports history. The Alouettes' field goal was a do-or-die play since they were down 27-25. You can relive the agony below if you'd like. I think this was the CFL's way of punishing me for ignoring it the last five years. I was going to watch the game and then fell asleep, woke up to see that it was 17-3 at halftime and tuned in just in time to see the victorious Alouettes being interviewed.

The Roughriders have refused to talk about the mistake they made, so it's unclear really whose fault it is, though special teams coach Kavis Reed certainly feels responsible even if he isn't. His failure was Scott Norwood, Bill Buckner and Chris Webber all rolled into one. If you've ever failed at anything in your life, you shouldn't be making fun of Reed.

Theatre of the absurd

Tonight was a two-act performance of the surreal, two things you don't see too often. The Saints drubbed the Patriots 38-17, and I saw a North Korean movie. Read here about cinema so unabashedly instructive that it makes Bollywood look subtle and artistic by comparison.