Friday, December 24, 2010

Koreans are people too

Some of the things I see written about Korea stun me for the outrage they would cause if Koreans said it about Westerners or non-Koreans. Granted, I'm one who frequently criticizes Korea, particularly Korean government, but I would like to think that I've kept my criticisms qualified by degrees or as reflective of parts of Korean society.

I came up with the idea for this post about a month ago, when I read this post on a message board, which positions Westerners as rational and Koreans as inherently irrational because:

"remember we Westerners want to talk in facts and such (our tv shows are full of info and history), but alot of the "facts" they know are from their books and such"

The writer goes on to say, "(dont get me started on the emptyness of the local tv programming)". Anyone who has ever seen Western TV, especially the most popular programs, would never claim that it is "full of info and history", except for some staunchly racist boor who can't conceive of reason and intelligence existing apart from, our outside of, the West.

At the end of the post, he uses the word "locals". There is perhaps no more pejorative term for Koreans used online than "locals", even more pejorative than "K-girl", "K-teacher", "Kimmi". Local implies an unfathomable gap between the writer and Koreans, the sort imagined by European explorers. It's really a step or two above something further dehumanizing like "natives" or "savages", as in "I spent a lot of time with the locals, who were quite adamant about the healing powers of some fermented cabbage they referred to as 'kim chi'".

A discussion I once saw about the Korean tendency to have the window open a crack even during cold weather turned into a discussion about Korean manners, which concluded with someone saying something to "the only manners Koreans have..." I'm sure the person wouldn't make such a statement about Korean-Americans or blacks, no matter how much time she had spent around people from those backgrounds and how much frustration she had received at their hands.

Based on the Internet and discounting venues like YouTube or newspaper articles, the only one who seems to be openly racist or xenophobic on legitimate Internet fora is us. We go on and on about how Korean women are not attractive, intelligent or bearable as companions, we talk about the pervasive irrationality of the education system ("what exactly do they learn all day anyway?"). It's undeniable that Korea has a problem with being nativist and xenophobic, but we don't act that much better, if better at all, when discussing Korea.

We have a vast belief in the superiority of Western values, to the extent that we conflate Western values with the West. This is why we ask for Western doctors because Korean doctors aren't logical, though with a life expectancy higher than America's, Korea is probably doing something right. In believing in our supreme, invincible superiority while paying lip service to the value of other cultures, we become the caricatures we mock, The kind of person who says "yes, I believe that all people are equal, as long as none of them are black and all of them are Korean."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Week 5 of Seoul International Marathon training

This was an all-round crappy week, but not without its positives, namely that I ran for almost two hours and 30 minutes on Sunday, probably the longest run I'll do before this marathon.

I ran a 12 km race at Buramsan in northeastern Seoul, though anyone who could read a map could see that it was 14k. The course was simple: 5.3 km going north up the mountain (500 m elevation), and descending a quick, steep 350 m to a pass before going back the way you came.

I thought it would take about 90 minutes and we would only go to the top once. It took 47 minutes to get to the top and another 20 minutes to manage the steep mile down to the turnaround point. That was pretty much all the energy I had on this day, so between not being very good at at hiking, not carrying any food, and not being in great shape, I was left far behind by people I'm much faster than on the roads.

I sputtered down in 2:24. My reaction at finishing, as captured by a high-powered lens is shown below. This was definitely the hardest race I have ever run in my life. Even if I was good at this, it was the equivalent of a 20-25 km race with a tough, icy trail. The winds at the top (it's named Turtle Rock for a reason) were torturous when already tired, hungry and also somewhat confused about the way down.












The rest of the week was also a wash, mostly due to staying up too late and not running in the morning.

december 13 - december 19

monday - 4k
tuesday - off
wednesday - 6 x 800 at art school, -12
thursday - off
friday - off
saturday - 4k
sunday - buramsan 12k in 2:24, 5.3k to the top in 47, turnaround in 1:08, very tough

29k

Friday, December 17, 2010

Two minutes to go, you're down by 7 marks, who do you want at that desk?

This week I finished about 100 report cards, writing a short paragraph about each student. Often I ended up noting that the student's marks were not an accurate reflection of their ability. For whatever reason, some students consistently underperform on tests, but would be judged as being better at English by any measure except for testing.

Judging students to be better on the basis of a semester's worth of classes, though, is like judging a team or a player to be better after a season's worth of practices and regular season games. The English Premier League just does this, as my Patriots-loving brother noted after a particularly grievous upset loss. The lore of sports, particularly football, where teams can not play more than 20 meaningful games in one year, is built around the idea of "making plays".

"Making plays" is an empty, just-about meaningless statement that is no more informative than Nike's "just do it", or the fabled track coach's advice to "run fast, turn left". Football does reward those who perform well in the post-season. Whether it's a fluke or otherwise, you are good because you perform well in designated high-pressure situations. Consider the 10-6 Giants who upset the 16-0 Patriots: the Giants' miraculous playoff run isn't held against them, rather, it's Exhibit A in their greatness.

The analogy between football and school isn't quite the same, though. Where it breaks down is that football teams have a season that is consists of competing towards an obvious goal. You could argue that the goal of school is to have the best marks possible since that's the only tangible outcome, but school was never an agreed-upon competition in the same way.

As well, students aren't teams. Teams are easy to compare, but players are not. Even in cases where an individual is statistically superior to another (passing yards, grades, whathaveyou), there are other factors at work: the quality of his teammates, the way his team plays, and even the climate in which he plays his games. Clearly, with players, the agreed-upon goal that lets us arbitrate between teams breaks down, because there are still debates about the greatest quarterback ever.

Morever, some of the quarterbacks who won the most Super Bowls generally aren't considered to be the absolute greatest ever (Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw), and quarterbacks with the greatest individual statistics aren't always considered the greatest (Vinny Testaverde, Jim Kelly and Drew Bledsoe all rank highly in passing yards).

So, if individual football players, typically quarterbacks, can't be judged by neither individual statistics nor by designated high-stakes events such as Super Bowls, how can we judge them? We use heuristics, much as we judge students and our peers by a mix of daily performance as well as high-stakes performance. We discount Testaverde as a great quarterback despite his individual statistics and discount Aikman as one of the absolute greatest despite being somebody who did very well on tests. Obviously, we have our reasons.

The heuristic sometimes used is the hypothetical "your team is down by a touchdown with 2 minutes to go, who do you want in the huddle?" question seen on message boards or polls. The idea is to strip players on great teams of their supporting cast, and to judge players who accumulated great statistics without great skills in a high-pressure situation. This would be akin to judging students by simply cornering one in the hallway at random and asking them math problems. This is neither a test, nor a meaningless class, but some sort of "real knowledge". Another example would be a peer in high school or university that we felt wasn't that smart, despite high grades, based on a semester's worth of interactions.

This is not a bad way of doing things, though it's not without its ambiguity. Peyton Manning, John Elway, Joe Montana, and Tom Brady could easily be trusted to overcome a touchdown deficit with 2 minutes left, as could second-tier quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair or Jim Kelly. Similarly, much as tests supposedly only prove that someone is good at tests, someone who is smart when you talk to them is, therefore, only good at seeming smart in conversation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Week 4 of Seoul International Marathon training

I missed a couple of days this week due to being sick, but that was probably a good thing since the rest of my runs were longer.

december 6 - december 12

monday - 5k
tuesday - off
wednesday - off
thursday - am 3k, pm 7k tempo on namsan loop with backpack
friday - 6k, raining
saturday - 10k
sunday - 17k

49k

It's that time of year again

There are two traditions in my life every December. First, the San Diego Chargers will overcome a slow start to mount a strong playoff run. Second, I will blog about it. Last year, the Chargers overcome a 2-3 start against the 6-0 Broncos. The year before that, it was a 4-8 start that turned into a playoff win in the first round. In 2007, a 5-5 start led to the AFC Championship game.

Today, I was excited to see two good games, the Chiefs-Chargers game that was very important to the AFC West, and the Patriots-Bears game that let the NFL sell something to the Chicago market. This year, the Chargers started 3-5 and, not including their 21-0 fourth quarter lead, are 6-6 behind the 8-4 Chiefs. When I saw that Matt Cassel wouldn't play, I sensed that this would also be a cakewalk. Lo and behold, both games are routs, by a combined score of 57-7.

The result will be a narrow 1-game lead for the Chiefs. Head-to-head games are a tie, both teams will be 2-3 in division games, and even 5-4 in conference games, after this game. It's definitely easy to see the Chargers edging into the playoffs, even as a wild card, though the 9-3 Jets and 8-4 Ravens are a distance ahead. The logjam of similarly-situated wild card teams is also impressive. The Dolphins, Colts and even the Raiders, along with the Chargers, trail the Ravens and Jets for two wild card spots.

In the NFC the logjam behind the Giants and Saints really only has the Packers and Buccaneers, but the Rams and Seahawks are in a grim 6-6 battle for first place in the NFC West, which could even be won by the 3-9 Cardinals. The Cardinals are on their way to a win, while the Rams and Seahawks are both losing. Clearly, the Chargers have set the bar very low.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell, Chinese style (part 2 of what is sure to be an ongoing series)

After this earlier case of China enabling and defending North Korean acts of war against South Korea, we have another case. None of this is news, of course, but the following peak into China-South Korea relations is an interesting window into the new, intransigent, passive-aggressive China.

Foreign Policy magazine reports on a Washington post article about a meeting between Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and South Korean president Lee Myung-bak. Dai is often described as China's top diplomat, though his position merely makes him a high-ranking cabinet member without a portfolio per se.

As an aside, China's secretive, brutal government is murky in many ways, but especially for its organization. Dai is a State Counilor because he is on the State Council, China's cabinet, but also a Central People's Government, which is apparently synonymous. Hu Jintao is China's president, but there are also the posts of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, premier, Chairman of the Central Military Council (Kim Jong-il holds a post with a similar name), and Chairman of the National People's Congress.

There is also the position of Paramount Leader (held by Hu), which you can hold without being president, premier or any of that fun stuff. In fact, Deng Xiaopeng ran the country for 15 years without a truly lofty title except for Paramount Leader. In short, outcomes in Chinese politics are arrived at in the same bizarre, non-adversarial way as NCAA football championships.

At any rate, this is how the Post reported on the meeting, with the truly egregious parts bolded:

China's attitude to the problems on the Korean Peninsula was on display Nov. 27 when its top diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, visited South Korea for talks. China, according to South Korean officials, notified South Korea 15 minutes before Dai's departure that he was headed for Seoul and that he wanted to land at a South Korean air force base that is normally reserved for heads of state. China also informed South Korea that it wanted President Lee Myung-bak's schedule cleared for an immediate meeting with Dai. The South did not agree and Dai met Lee the next day.

During that meeting, Dai essentially gave Lee "a history lesson on the relations between Beijing and Seoul" and did not mention the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong, said a South Korean official. "He just told us to calm down," the official said. Then at the end of the meeting, as the two were readying to shake hands, Dai, off the cuff, told Lee that China wanted to call an emergency meeting of the six-party talks, grouping the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and North Korea, to help lower the heat on the peninsula. Lee told Dai that - given North Korea's actions, a meeting would be tantamount to rewarding North Korean bad behavior. But Dai ignored Lee's rejection and when Dai returned to Beijing, China's chief North Korean negotiator, Wu Dawei, announced what it framed as a bold Chinese initiative: more talks.


Yesterday the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo. In response, China took the following measures:

- Beijing police warned restaurants and bars to be on the guard for celebrations from large groups of people (six or more), after some people wrote on the Internet that they would observe Liu's absence from the ceremony by making reservations for six people and leave one chair empty.

- Security forces abducted human rights activists

- A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman referred to the Nobel peace prize committee as "clowns"

- made up a new peace prize, the Confucius Peace Prize, which it awarded to the former president of Taiwan, who had no idea that he'd won

- the websites and television signals of foreign news organizations like the BBC or CNN were blocked

China is very popular in the developed world for its "don't ask, don't tell" approach to foreign relations. We know this best in its support of North Korea, but it increasingly finds allies with dictatorships around the world, such as in Africa, because it's willing to do business with questionable governments without tying business to some social good as well. This country boasts a vast network of international support one day and the next day says it exerts no influence over a basket case like North Korea (China supplies it with cash and fuel to stay afloat).

I get questions

From the moment I thought about teaching as a career, I imagined a classroom full of students riveted by my every word, not just my explanations of World War I, but also my off-topic explanations of the Greek origins of certain words, or the difference between 'e.g.' and 'i.e.'. In reality, of course, it's nothing like that, not in the least because I teach motivated students that couldn't understand my inanities even if they really, really wanted to.

I've by large settled for defining abstract English nouns in Korean and trying to make them relevant by giving concrete examples, only to realize the gap between tourist plaques and the typical socio-historical knowledge of a 12-year-old.

At any rate, with about 20-25 kids disinterested in yet another class in their long day, this time in English, my dream isn't realized as often as I would like. On the other hand, when I volunteer with a small group of three kids on Wednesdays, I find that I command much better attention, even though these students speak English in words here and there rather than sentences.

This week, after I finished teaching the past tenses of irregular verbs including read/read, one 11-year-old looked up from her book and asked, "who invented English anyway? Americans?" I explained the relationship between the 'Eng' in English and England, as well as Britain's settler colonies around the world, which obviously is not something that many Koreans (or English speakers) give much thought to.

We spent the next 20-30 minutes looking at middle school final exams (one student had a stack of them), while I marveled at some of the math that's done in grade 8 here. As an aside, while I used to think that these kids were far better-behaved than the students I'm paid to teach, I think it probably points to the fact that I'm too uptight in class. Some of the things I said which stunned these kids:

  • Many Americans can't speak English, or rather, don't speak it fluently. I estimated that 15% of Americans, or about 50 million people, don't speak English at a native level due to immigration. The relationship between America and English was tautological to them. "Wow! Fifty million people are Americans but can't speak English! Amazing!"

  • "I heard that in America, if teachers hit students, they go to jail."
    "No way! Really?"
    "Yeah! You have to go to the police office."

    Corporal punishment is also not very popular here.

  • If you speak English in America, it's not a one-way ticket to a cushy life the way it is here. In fact, there's a premium for Americans to learn foreign languages...like Korean.

  • English is an absurdly hard language to learn. French, which seems to be characterized as a series of gargling noises (not all that far off the mark), is probably easier.

  • In Canada, I finished high school at 3 pm and was free to go home. In middle school, there were no final exams. Come to think of it, in middle school we put a premium on expressing complex historical ideas through drama. This would explain, later on, why students were unable to write a paragraph: the time to learn how to write had been spent avoid writing in favour of skits.
  • Monday, December 06, 2010

    Week 3 of Seoul International Marathon training

    I ran a half marathon this weekend, partly because I haven't run one in over a year, partly because I wanted to see how my endurance compares with speed. I ran a 39:31 10k last month, which is good for about a 1:28 or so, but I'd have been happy with a 1:30.

    This race started at 2 pm on a cold afternoon, but I was so lazy and unconcerned that I got to the start line (mercifully in front of the subway exit) just to see the race take off. Thanks to the wonders of chip timing (there's probably a picture of me holding my gloves in my mouth as I cross the line), I calmly started 2 minutes late and got to pass most of the field.

    Like I often do in half marathons, including my fastest, I ran the third quarter way too fast, and ran out of steam near the end. Not having much strength, the last 2-3k were a real struggle and I finished in 1:32. The 5k splits were 21:46, 21:19, 20:50 and the last 6k in about 28 minutes.

    Other than that, I ran every day this week, but no more than 20 minutes.

    november 29 - december 5

    monday - 3k
    tuesday - 4k
    wednesday - 3k
    thursday - 3k
    friday - 3k
    saturday - kookmin gungang half marathon in 1:32:10
    sunday - 4k

    42k

    Beggars can't be choosers

    I've had a hard time watching football this year. My work schedule and the time difference means that it's really only practical to watch mid-afternoon games back home, and even those tend to finish just as I have to get to class. One of the ironies of watching online is that you can choose the games you want, but with limited time, I tend to choose the closest, most exciting game going on, which tends to give me more or less randomly chosen teams.

    The last few weeks I've seen three Colts games in a row, which is always a welcome sight, if only because watching the same team for three weeks helps me make some sense of the season, as opposed to no sense at all. So, as I watch the Colts and Cowboys, I know that one team has underperformed this year by a little, and the other by a lot.

    The Cowboys have been good at, first, getting blown out this season, but are now good at coming up just short. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead while I watched a reasonably important Chargers-Raiders game. With the Chargers still lethargic, I came back to this 27-14 just in time to see a Colts touchdown, a long Cowboy kickoff return negated by a penalty, and then a third-down sack and a fourth-down punt blocked for a touchdown. Just like that, it's 28-27.

    Of course, if I know one thing about this game, it's that these two teams excel at finding a way to lose. Someone on one of these two football teams, Jim, is going to find a way, is going to find a way to make that play. And we know that on these football teams, somebody is going to make that play which gives their team a chance to lose this football game and make a disappointing season--you know, we talked this year a lot about how both of these football teams had a lot of playoff hopes--that much worse for these two football teams.

    Slightly creepy quote of the day, from Troy Aikman: "Leonard Davis is the biggest human being I've ever seen and I find myself absolutely mesmerized looking at him."

    Vacuous quote of the day, also from Aikman: "I think this guy's a player."

    He goes on to say: "In the last three years, he has averaged four yards a carry." Note that this makes him an average player.

    Sunday, December 05, 2010

    A room with a view

    At Kyung Hee University near where I live is the 평화의전당 (Peace Hall?), a shining structure on top of a hill. I noticed it almost immediately when I first got to this neighbourhood. Now, don't let the title fool you, it's not that I can see this from my house. Far from it, I can't see anything from my basement apartment.

    From my classroom on the top of another hill, the Hall of Peace is visible clearly. As is obvious to see, it's a replica of Notre Dame in Paris, albeit shinier, slicker and a frequent venue for concerts. Seeing it day after day after day, I finally decided, based on the subliminal prompting, to go out and read Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    After a month of waiting to give up on The Karmazov Brothers, I started reading the story, bit by bit. I remember seeing the Disney movie on TV one afternoon about 15 years ago, which forms my impression of the area and the building moreso than actually being there just last year.

    Having had a long fascination with the people supposedly living in the subway tunnels of New York, and then old, abandoned urban spaces like Lower Bay station in Toronto, I really enjoy Hugo's belaboured description of the derelicts of medieval Paris, particularly a late-night scene at the curiously-named Court of Miracles, a square of vagabonds posing as disabled beggars. The lengthy, detailed treatment of the layout of medieval Paris as seen from the towers of the cathedral would otherwise have been tedious but here was amusing, as was the praise of Gothic architecture in favour of Renaissance architecture.

    Hugo writes from the perspective of a narrator in 1831 describing the events of 1483. Seeing contemporary accounts of those in the distant past condemning the slightly-more-distant past is as enlightening as it is amusing for the (hopefully) brief moment of superiority the advantage of time gives us. Greek philosophers often made it a point to condemn poets, such as Homer, for representing the uncritical conventional point of view of the establishment.

    They went on, of course, to concoct fantastic, elaborate tales of their own that were seemingly pulled out of nothing, with almost nothing in support. Consider Plato's Timaeus, simultaneously a work of immense genius and confusion, where he both considers the origins of the universe and argues that the world is made of triangles.

    On the other hand, the judgments of the distant past against the slightly-more-distant past are often spot on. The Greek intellectual tradition serves us well to this day, as does Gothic architecture, which Hugo was certainly not baseless in defending from unwelcome intrusions by progressive-minded Renaissance architects. Consider this abomination where modernism is appended to antiquity like a pigeon sewn to a rat.

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    더 작은 세상 만들기

    I've always been enamoured of this man for shrinking borders. I was amazed at how the village of Chomrong, the last permanent settlement on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek at 2300 or so metres, was in some ways the nexus of the world. On my way up towards Annapurna base camp, I met an American who worked north of Seoul. On my way down, I met two medical students who live in the same neighbourhood as the American.

    Now, we didn't meet just anywhere, but at this particular corner of the world, a Time-magazine featured lodge in a mountain village of Nepal accessible, at best, only by a long day's walk from a provincial city.

    These two guys had been volunteering in Nepal for about a month, so when we met up this week, we went to a Nepali restaurant. I was stunned to see that one of them, at least, could have a decent conversation in Nepali. He explained that Nepali was reasonably easy to learn because of its subject-order-verb grammar ("I you love"), unlike the subject-verb-object order of English ("I love you"). Until I heard a Korean pronounce the "th" in "theek thak", I didn't really have an idea of what it was to speak a truly foreign language. An American speaking Spanish or a Pole speaking Russian isn't quite at the same level as an Arab speaking Chinese or a German speaking Punjabi (I've heard of the latter).

    We often make fun of Koreans for being not as cosmopolitan as Westerners who grew up with a supposedly wider perspective, though one not so wide as to understand that not everyone grew up in the same multicultural environment as us. In many cases, however, at least with respect to languages, I think Koreans would outclass us those of us who don't speak a foreign language for reasons of ancestry (ie I speak Urdu because I was born in Pakistan).

    For further evidence, the next night I was at a pizza restaurant near my house, which has long been searching (explicitly) for a Chinese female to work there. At the table next to mine were three people from Spain, Korea and China. These students switched between Spanish, Korean and Chinese depending on the topic and the combinatino of speakers. Unlike in a large Western city, where it's by no means hard to find people who speak all three languages speaking in English or some other local language, these three seemed to have genuine barriers of communication that could only be surmounted in this way.

    I sometimes find Korea's internationalism a little more raw and a little more real than what we see in Canada, in the sense that a Pakistani person in Korea will be more Pakistani than a Pakistani in Canada, who usually speaks English and has been Westernized to a far greater degree. No one quite gets Koreanized to that same degree, so the experience sometimes seems a little truer. Of course, that leads us into snobbish, usually Western obsessions about authenticity ("this is nice, but it's not real (insertethnicityhere) food") that are best avoided for reasons of tedium.

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    Week 2 of Seoul International Marathon training

    The second week of training was probably the most uneventful. Unlike the first week, which had the pomp and circumstance of yet another vow to train hard, this was a week where I enjoyed the fact that it was only the second week. I didn't have to run much and I didn't. I only ran the one workout, intervals on Tuesday that realistically should have been at 10k pace (6 x 1k with about 1:15-1:30 jog) that I tried to run at something like tempo with a decent pace on the recovery. Looking at the splits, I didn't really get that done, but the 3:47 at the end was nice.

    Registration starts tomorrow for the Dong-A Ilbo Seoul International Marathon, which takes place on March 20. Sign up even if you don't live anywhere near here, considering that it costs only $20 or $40. Don't miss your chance to run kilometres 2 through 7 along Eulji-ro, which the New York Times calls "a neighborhood reminiscent of New York’s Canal Street 30 years ago".

    Seriously, the chance to start in the heart of the city and then run through Seoul's wide, stunningly empty thoroughfares is a chance you should take every time. This is probably not the most beautiful marathon in Korea, but you run through many of Seoul's busiest, most interesting districts. For that reason, urbanophiles (?) like me should love this marathon.

    november 22 - november 28

    monday - 4k
    tuesday - am 4k, pm 6 x 1k in 4:05 with 250 moderate jog (3:59, 4:09, 4:11, 4:10, 4:16, 3:47)
    wednesday - 4k
    thursday - 4k
    friday - 8k
    saturday - 4k
    sunday - 11k in one hour on mountain trails, clear sky with views past bukhansan

    48k

    About Sunday's run: it might be possible to see North Korea from land here in South Korea. I'll get back to you on that.

    Where in the world is the Blue House?

    I had a strange realization earlier this year: I had no idea where the Blue House was. I'd seen countless maps of Seoul, but the Blue House had never been on one. I assumed it was on Yeouido by the National Assembly for some reason, but in reality it's in the centre of the city behind the old royal palace. A picture to be used by potential spies is here.

    However, Korean maps don't show it. Google shows the White House plainly on its maps, and unsurprisingly there are nice shots of Canada's Parliament as well. By comparison, Naver, Daum and Google maps show the Blue House as a white space on their maps and as a blurry mass of black on their satellites.

    More amusing was a picture I saw of Gyeongbokgung, the palace right in front of the Blue House, used by the Seoul government to promote tourism in the area. This picture was in Gyeongbokgung subway station and had a shot of the palace, which should have had the Blue House in the background. However, in this picture, all we saw were a mass of trees. They'd airbrushed it out. Considering that anyone standing about a mile away can see the Blue House if they know that it's blue, this was a bit too much.

    South Korea has its reasons, namely the 1968 raid on the Blue House that justifies all sorts of security apparatus in the mountains north of Seoul, though with virtually every man around 20 or 21 years of age in the army to fight a dormant enemy, you have to send them somewhere.

    This is also, however, the country with an official YouTube channel that until recently considered YouTube illegal for not complying with its idiotic Internet censorship law. Their solution to the laughable status was to exempt foreign websites from the law. Of course, Korea still remains what I call an Internet leech, freely using websites like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and the like while demanding non-citizens to provide ID to use their own sites.

    At any rate, the Blue House paranoia would all seem justified if the website was similarly tight-lipped. It is, in English. Visitors might be mystified to learn that although you can tour the Blue House, it is virtually impossible to figure out where it is. The closest we come is an admission that the Blue House is somewhere near the "East Parking Lot adjacent the Gyeongbokgung palace", which is where tour start. I'm sure if they could, they would start tours blindfolded at Incheon airport.

    But wait! There's more! If you go to the Korean website, you can hold your mouse over 'Blue House information' (청와대안내), then go to 'directions' (청와대 오시는 길) to find this detailed map of how to get there, complete with driving directions and public transit information.

    So, apparently, South Korea has a lot to fear from foreigners knowing where the Blue House is. And it's true. Except that the foreigners to fear also speak Korean. Who was behind the 1968 raid on the Blue House? North Koreans. Who has tried to assassinate the president three times, a fact mentioned by the current president yesterday? North Korea. Who is the only country to have ever attacked South Korea? North Korea.

    What language do they speak in North Korea? Korean. Naturally, providing a nice Korean-language map of the presidential palace is a fantastic option. Similarly, security in the mountains north of the city is also somewhat comical, considering that anyone with a South Korean ID is waved right through. To get a South Korean ID, it's not hard for North Korean spies to pretend to be North Korean defectors and show up via China. That's even how two assassins got through.

    So, the options are clear for South Korea: restrict sensitive information to the English language to guard against North Korean spies and remote surveillance, or simply get over it and put the presidential residence on the map. Or at least stop giving free tours on the second Saturday of every month.

    Friday, November 26, 2010

    It's like the Hollywood sign, but bigger and crappier

    South Korean TV news right now is focusing on a couple of North Korean shells that have landed in the sea between North and South Korean land on the West Sea, near the site of this week's earlier shelling. They have since accepted the explanation from the Ministry of National Defense, where the minister resigned yesterday for failing to anticipate or defend Tuesday's attack, that this is simply a North Korean exercise.

    Regular programming is back on, but it may return just yet. News coverage showed images such as this one:



    This picture from Yeonpyeong-do, South Korea, looks at North Korea. The sign in the distance says "Long live the revolutionary ideas of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung" (위대한 수령 김일성 동지 혁명사상 만세).

    When South Korean pans across the scene of the shooting and when it zooms in, the slogan erected in massive letters on the hills in North Korea becomes clear. In effect, the viewer is being forced to read the slogan. This sort of free advertising is obviously why the imposing, menacing slogan was put there, though I doubt it convinces more than it intimidates.

    Monday, November 22, 2010

    Promise less, deliver even less

    For the fifth straight year, I find myself training for a spring marathon, and for the third straight year, it will be the Dong-A Ilbo Seoul International Marathon. The Dong-A Marathon is sponsored by the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper and starts by the paper's Gwanghwamun office, but ironically, it's the rival Chosun Ilbo's office tower that you notice at the start line.

    I've run this race twice with liberal over-a-month-long stretches of absolutely no running at all, and gentle training when I was running, but this time I'm hoping that aspiring to run no more than 80k in one week and no faster than 3 hours (as opposed to that desirable 2:50) will keep me from getting bored out of my mind.

    In the last four years, I've concluded that I hate long runs, so this time I will take the advice of the Hansons marathon training plan and limit my long runs to 16 miles. I don't run in miles, so I'll shorten 25.6 miles to 25k and maybe even 24k since 24k workous out to a neat 2 hours for me. The reasoning, of course, is that a 20-mile run probably hurts a 40-mile-a-week runner more than it helps. I'm not a big fan of overselling one boring, finger-numbing run, so I was easily convinced.

    Doing speed early on and then strength work in the marathon-specific phase makes sense too (why blast 800s a few weeks before a marathon?), although the Hansons offer cupcake workouts for someone running 80k a week (4 x 1200?). There's nothing really novel about the plan other than shortening a 30k run to 25k, and a 10-mile tempo on Thursday followed by 7 miles easy on Friday, 10 miles easy on Saturday and 16 on Sunday is plenty of running when you look at where I am right now.

    I ran a 39:31 10k last weekend, which is good enough to look forward to the spring. Here is the first week of training, capitals omitted:

    november 15 - november 21

    tuesday - 4k
    wednesday - 7k
    thursday - 7k hilly tempo
    friday - 4k
    saturday - 9k
    sunday - son ki jung half marathon as an easy long run

    54k

    Friday, November 19, 2010

    Stop the bus!

    I received a flood of input on Twitter today from my sub-140-character post referring to Seoul, somewhat satirically, as a world-class racist city. If they can call it a world design capital, I can call it a world racism capital. The situation is not entirely analogous to a black man hailing a cab in America, at least not to a number of Koreans, who feel awful but empathize with drivers who are apparently afraid of speaking English.

    I don't think anyone has ever had a problem getting somewhere in a taxi because the driver couldn't speak English. The problem would be with a passenger who can't speak English, but generally passengers compensate by giving general directions, saying the name of an obvious landmark and working from there. I'm not even sure why I'm taking the time to defend the idea that a university-educated adult living in a developed country can get home on their own in a taxi, but I am.

    Anyway, I think I have enough responses to create a poll. Everyone who wrote was unfailingly kind, even if defending the current status quo. Apparently, it's reasonable that I can't get a taxi ride even though I speak the language, just because drivers don't speak English (an absurdity if you've ever talked to a driver, I've never had one mention it in their interrogations of me).

    Of about a hundred mentions that I received today, not counting yesterday, many didn't say anything other than to repost what I said, or to offer a simple apology. If you count people that said they were embarrassed or that what happened was ridiculous as feeling that what happened was racism, then about 70% feel that it was racially motivated.

    I'm not sure how those numbers compare with New Yorkers and a black man not catching a cab. The rest insisted that it was purely out of a fear of English and that I should understand. They're nice enough people, but what do I have to do short of a skin transplant?

    Lest we go down the road to Korean exceptionalism, the very definition of racism is to negatively treat someone based on their race. Here we have a case where I can't catch a taxi because of the colour of my skin and everyone agrees that it's so. But apparently it doesn't count as racism because taxi drivers supposedly (no one has ever asked) have an irrational fear of taking money from English-speakers.

    Yes, a significant number of people are excusing racism, and it's obviously about a lot more than taxis. Excusing prejudice due to Korean exceptionalism ("they've never seen a black person before", "parents don't like black people", "drivers don't speak English, so even though you speak Korean, you should get stiffed and not complain") is what keeps black people from getting jobs here, perpetuates the problems of factory workers and allows children and adults to act with astonishing boorishness.

    We spent the last few months hearing about how great Korea is, how it's at the heart of the global economy, a leader in IT, Seoul is the city that the world wants to both see and to be, and so on. It's not asking too much from this city and this country to, in exchange for its own proclamations of its own greatness, expect it to act like something other than a global backwater.

    I always knew I was black

    When I first got here, a lot of kids asked if I was black. Or, more commonly, they told me that I was black, from Africa, and that I looked like Barack Obama. So, I took my blackness to heart, which might explain my difficult hailing cabs of late. I lost about seven cabs tonight to drivers uninterested in picking me up and more interested in picking up Koreans.

    I've never taken taxis anywhere but Korea, but I've generally assumed that if two people hail a cab, the person farther down the street got there first. At least, that's how it often seemed to happen. I'm more than willing to defer to someone who has been waiting before me, even if I didn't see them, though that deference is never returned here, much like no one ever holds the door open.

    So, if the person behind me is more entitled to the cab, that's fine, as long as drivers never pick up the person waiting in front of me. But, today, I was, in order, passed over right and left for Koreans standing in front of and behind me. Naturally, the only difference between us was that they were Korean and I wasn't. A couple of cabs flat out refused to stop for me. The one that I did hail, I had to walk into the middle of traffic to hail, and even he was about to roll down his window to ask me where I was going before I got in and pretended I didn't understand what he was saying (i.e. "What the fuck are you doing? Who walks into traffic like that?").

    For good measure, this repeated itself later this evening with an middle-aged couple and a lazy driver.

    About the only effective way of affecting social change in Korea is to point out that the rest of the richer, whiter world is doing it, so I wrote about it on Twitter:

    "세계 인종차별의 도시 서울입니다. 택시 잡을 때 한국인도 있으면 기사가 저를 무시해요. 저 앞에 있는 한국이을 먼저 보고 먼저 승차했어요. 저 뒤에 있는 한국인은 오랜 기다려 하고 있었어 먼저 승차했어요. 한국인 없으면도 저의 얼굴은 싫어해요."

    ("Seoul: a world-class racist city (a play on Seoul's obsession with being a world-class city for this and that). If there's a Korean around when I catch a cab, drivers ignore me. They take the person in front of me because they saw him first, and they take the person behind me because he's been waiting longer. If there's no Korean, then they just don't like my face.")

    Calling someone's city a hub of racism is pretty controversial, but as much as Koreans love their country, the 20-somethings that use Twitter know that the state of things can often be ridiculous. Saying it in Korean is probably much better than saying it in English, much like a Korean saying it is better than a non-Korean.

    My inbox was flooded with notices of about 30 people following me in 20 minutes, and a flood of retweets made it easily the most popular post I've ever made on Twitter. The next time we fly into a panic about Koreans being rigid, defensive and racist, it's fair to at least remember these replies from people who generally don't speak English, don't talk to anybody who's not Korean and are generally ordinary people that will be running this country in a generation.

    @metalcandy: "Let me apologize instead. I worry that Korea's image suffers because of just a few people. I'm sure you know this, but there are more good people than bad ones."

    @woo0c: "Hi, You're from my wife's country. I saw your tweet about taxi and i am really sorry to see that. But most of the seoulites are very kind, aren't ya?"

    @70retro: "Embarrassing"

    @RapTioNarY: "Oh man..." (in reponse to 70retro)

    @seo_jung_kim: "Wow, that really sucks."

    @bobozzang: "I'm very sorry. That is so embarrassing."

    A lot of people responded to say that this isn't racism, which is right in the sense that drivers don't drive around looking for ways to avoid giving rides to dark-skinned people. But, apparently, if they can choose between a dark-skinned person and a Korean, evidently they'll choose the Korean every time.

    A lot of those who felt this wasn't racism said it was just an unfortunate case of drivers not being able to speak English, but really, isn't that the definition of racism? Leaving aside the obvious fact that you don't actually need to speak any Korean beyond the rough vicinity of your destination (e.g. "Suwon bus terminal" can go in the place of "Gokbanjeong-dong Chuksanmul Yutongsaenteo"), the very definition of racism is judging someone based on how they look.

    It would be absurd in Korea to assume that a non-Korean speaks Korean given how many don't speak any, but it would be equally absurd to assume that a non-Korean adult is incapable of getting himself home in a taxi. While this isn't out-and-out vicious racism, when I'm trying to get somewhere and running late, I don't appreciate having to stand in the cold just because some middle-aged man supposedly thinks I can't say Wangsimni station.

    If this is merely an unfortunate cultural understanding, the remedy presumably would be giant billboards informing people to treat those who look differently with equity. This remedy is, incidentally, identical to the one for racism.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    The Royal Me

    Adeel: Julie, do we say "Tom and Julie are" or "Tom and Julie is"?
    Julie: "Tom and Julie is"
    Tom: Why? There are two people!
    Julie: Yeah, but I'm one person.

    This is what you dream of as a kid

    Everything that you do as a teacher in this country is coming to push or shove right now as 700,000 graduating high school students write their university entrance exams (suneung in Korean, CSAT in English if you want to talk about it but not be understood by anyone). This is no mere test, but something that will determine employment, status, marriage prospects and a general sense of self-worth for this year's graduates.

    This is what I've seen so far:

    - at the closest test centre to my house (one of 1206 in the country), hoardes of students were walking holding colourful bags. These weren't test-takers, but spectators carrying gifts, as well as blankets for the long wait outside. It was 2 degrees at the time and the test is about eight hours long, so it could be a long wait. This video shows the scene outside a high school in Gwangju.

    - the news had nothing else to report this morning. The traffic discussed traffic conditions relating to the test, as in "today is the day of the exam, and this is how the traffic is looking". Many companies and schools (not mine) started later today to allow students to get to the test centres by the 8 am start time.

    - even the weather report was about the suneung. SBS offered a graph showing the temperature over various parts of the test. It would be 2 degrees for the Korean portion at the start, but rise to 12 degrees by the time students hit the English-language portion. Whatever that means.

    - pointing to what you can do in a centralized, homogeneous society with a very small area, all airplanes in the country will be grounded during both listening portions (morning and afternoon, English and Korean).

    - this Wall Street Journal article discusses the various suneung-related sales and promotions. The best one I saw was at Myeongdong's posh Noon Square building, described as a Mecca of fashion by Koreans, but as a Myeongdong of fashion by Saudis. One restaurant promised a free cocktail to anyone who ordered a meal, though it was unclear if the sale targeted everyone or only high school students alone. The legal drinking age in Korea is 19, but students who take the test won't turn 19 until next year.

    To explain the title, Korean kids dream of being soccer players rather than Seoul National University graduates, but then, they probably have nightmares too. Korea may have missed the boat on the cultural excess that accompanies football in America, but this is not a country that does anything halfway. Given the party atmosphere outside of schools, to be followed by drama, this day is roughly like the Super Bowl mixed with American Idol mixed with a weird science fiction movie about our meritocratic, automatic future.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    In defense of farmers in suits

    Two months ago I decided to answer the question "where are you from?" with the non sequitur "I'm from China". I would then explain that although my nationality is Chinese, I'm really Uzbek/Kazakh/Kyrgyz/Uighur. Part of it was to introduce some novelty into a conversation that I've had probably hundreds of times by now, partly just to see how much I can get away with.

    Right after I said that, surprisingly no one ever asked me where I was from again, absolutely stunning considering that sometimes I answer that question 3-4 times in one day. It's not that I stopped putting myself in strange situations, I made a couple of trips out of Seoul, went to a wedding and generally felt comfortable enough to ask all sorts of people all sorts of things.

    Tonight, finally, as the driver explained that he would take one bridge across the Han River instead of the other (these cab rides are like ordering off a menu you can't see or read), he took the chance to ask where I was from, literally just "where person?". For some reason, I responded with the neighbourhood I lived, then caught myself and said Uzbekistan.

    That stopped the conversation cold, but when I said a few more words to direct him, the interview started. He asked what I thought of Korea. I replied, in character, "it's very rich, much richer than my country." He said he didn't like Korea, because Koreans were honest. The grass is often greener on the other side, I replied, but Korea was a great place to live, all things considered.

    I added that I felt Seoul's passive-aggressive mania with the G20 summit indicated a lack of self-confidence, but that it's not a country which needs to be so insecure. It's not the richest country in the world with the widest eyes or the fairest skin, but it's a developed country with a high quality of life.

    Many Westerners on message boards deride Koreans as farmers in suits. This is a country that was built out of nothing, so I wouldn't necessarily take that as an insult, though others would. The not-so-distant agrarian past is, to me, both interesting and something to be proud of. Korea has much to teach the developing world, a role that it is gradually taking on even as others try and sanitize Korea into a globalized "advanced nation".

    In this highly critical, often unwarranted thread about Korea's racism and its psyche (albeit from one of my favourite bloggers), a few comments caught my eye. First, this one about the farmers in suits mentality:

    Koreans went straight from rice paddies to modern cities in a very short amount of time, and it shows in the way they treat themselves and each other. While foreigners may complain about the rude comments Koreans make about them, it often pales in comparison to their provincialism and distrust of anybody outside their immediate circle of friends and relatives.

    My mother would recall with tears in her eyes how badly she was mocked by her co-workers in Seoul for speaking the Gyeongsang-do dialect, yet it never occurred to her or my other relatives that it is just as damaging to make disparaging jokes about people from Jeolla province. I could go on and on.


    With respect to Korean nationalism, someone writes:

    Korea is just not mature enough to accept a fairly mediocre history for people who insist that they are 'older' than others although Europeans, Africans, Indigenous people and everybody else have old or older histories.

    Korea's relatively mediocre history is not something that many Koreans would ever admit. To them, this is the country that invented the world's most scientific alphabet, a movable printing press, bibimbap and, retroactively, has been one of the world's greatest civilizations for thousands of years. Except, of course, that it's not true.

    Nor does it need to be true, because many now-great countries were nothing until they were. Prussia was nothing until Frederick the Great came along, Arabia was nothing until the Prophet Muhammad came along, modern China was nothing without Deng Xiaopeng, and even Britain was nothing until trade allowed it to gain power disproportionate to its size and military.

    But my favourite comment was this one, by someone who was in the Peace Corps in Cheongju from 1971 to 1974. Writing to a Korean-American, he wrote:

    In the winter there was a black pot belly stove in the middle of the room, that never seemed to get warm, let alone hot. The kids were cold all the time..hands red, noses running with a long school day, until 6pm....So damn cold....even the teachers froze.

    We had ondol floors, charcoal to heat the floor but not the room.
    I remember walking to school over the bridge in November, already cold by then, and in the river below, more a stream, I saw the wife of my laundry guy, in the cold water, washing clothes..

    Korea has come a long way since then, thanks to the sacrifices of folks like your parents. Hug them, kiss them and bless them for what they did.


    This is undoubtedly still a country that I call rough around the edges. It's corrupt, laws are often disregarded, women and minorities have a status that ranges from low to nonexistent, and as it Korea prepares to put the icing on the cake of development, it also confronts the issue of demographics, namely that its population will start to decline before the end of this decade. But as a wealthy country, Korea should be mature enough to recognize and even embrace the fact that it was dirt-poor just two generations ago.

    It's disingenuous to talk about the country to outsiders as though it's the greatest thing ever invented. This ad, for example, combines what I love and I hate about this country. Its accomplishments are greater than the status it has (51% of Americans don't know that this is a democracy), but look at the cringe-inducing commercial (fun fact: haughty in Korean is 'dodohan').

    The gist of it is that non-Koreans don't know about Korea, but through developing a "national brand" (their words, not mine), apparently blue-eyed white people will be impressed and shake the hands of square-jawed Korean men (but not women). The moment Korea can stop caring what the rest of the world thinks, out of confidence instead of insularity, will be the moment that it will be a truly "advanced nation", "global hub", "developed nation" or whatever the buzzword of the day is.

    There won't be any family portraits

    "Do you want a live chicken or a dead chicken?"

    One 12-year-old said this to me when I asked her to draw a picture of a chicken to help explain the riddle of the farmer with a chicken, a fox and a bag of corn (changed here to rice).

    Monday, November 08, 2010

    Run a mile in someone else's shoes, or even your own shoes

    One of the most absurd things about marathons is how bad most people's predictions are. Granted, marathons are notoriously hard to predict, so hard to predict that I think the most unpredictable thing is actually a predictable race (ie the favourite wins in the sort of time you expected), but I'm amazed at how people ignore everything they might possibly know about running.

    Let's take predictions for the men's race at today's New York Marathon, which was won by Ethiopian Gebre Gebremariam in 2:08:13, the fifth-fastest time ever at that race. Leading up to the race, this thread wondered if American Dathan Ritzenhein was a lock to run a course-record 2:07 based on his training.

    Over here, readers variously predict a 2:06, 2:08 and 2:09 for Ritz, as well as a 2:09 or 2:10 (one person boldly said 2:07:50) for Canadian Simon Bairu. One especially astute person wrote: "I'll say 2:07-08 range [for Bairu]. Ritz most likely in the 2:08-09 range if the injury, poor training, etc, etc, rumors are true, 2:06-07 if he's 100%."

    New York is, of course, a hilly course with several bridges and the hills they entail, as well as a tough uphill finish in Central Park. More importantly, with no rabbits and lots of competition, it's pointless to do anything but jog for the first 15 miles. Consequently, times are always notoriously slow. Not everyone who tosses out predictions actually watches these races, which is reasonable, but shouldn't the detail of your predictions be reasonably proportional to how much you actually know?

    A ridiculous prediction is fine, especially on the Internet, but why use scant knowledge to offer a supremely detailed guess? If all you know about the race is that it's in New York, why tap some obscure Ethiopian for the win in 2:08:47, and then go on to pinpoint the very street corner on the Bronx where he will distance himself from the pack?

    The other thing we can take away from New York is the hit to Haile Gebrselassie's legacy. The knock on Gebrselassie is that he can only win non-competitive marathons in flat, cool, dry weather (essentially a large treadmill). Dropping out at New York, where the large lead pack is the antithesis of the duos or trios at Berlin or Dubai, will do a lot to boost the case of the naysayers. It is by no means impossible for him to run at the age of 39 in the London Olympics, but it's very difficult to imagine even a fit Gebrselassie winning a tactical marathon, which is the only thing he hasn't done in his 19-year, 3:31 1500 to 2:03 marathon career.

    Edit: I wrote the above right after the race, about an hour before Gebrselassie announced his retirement at this press conference. In retrospect, assuming this announcement is permanent, his career seems about 99.9% perfect, much like Tergat's lacks an Olympic or World Championship medal. I don't think anyone who saw him beaten in the 10,000 at Athens 2004 would have predicted that we would be debating his merits six years later. If he had retired then, he still would have been one of the greatest ever. Now, he's still the greatest ever, but his greatness as a marathoner has the flaw of no wins at a highly competitive race.

    Sunday, November 07, 2010

    Book #12: The Karmazov Brothers

    As countless mountaineering documentaries and books, as well as my trip to the Boston Marathon, have taught me, part of life is struggling for weeks and months towards a goal and then coming up just short. I bought The Karmazov Brothers by Dostoyevsky in March and struggled for eight months to finish it with valour, meekness and at times bewildering indifference. I took this book to about nine different countries and even an overnight hiking trip, but unlike Crime and Punishment, which I read in a matter of a few days, I just couldn't get interested in this book, much less finish it.

    Still, having read 800 of its 974 pages, many of them a few times, I'm going to count this as a book I read, or at least a book about which I can write a few uninformed paragraphs. The first thing I learned about the book is that the name really should be The Karmazov Brothers. Russian renders it as The Brothers Karmazov(Братья Карамазовы, Brat'ya Karamazov), and the phrasing (e.g. The Brothers Crane) survives to this day, but as translator Ignat Avsey writes, we should "no more have dreamt of saying The Brothers Karmazov than they would The Brothers Warner or The Brothers Marx".

    Much of Dostoyevsky's work is about what he's thinking than the story itself. The Karmazov Brothers is not so much a story about a family as it is Dostoyevsky's answer to atheism and nihilism. Religion, specifically the redemption of sinners, is also a prevalent theme in Crime and Punishment, as it is here. People who have done awful things by any measure, particularly Dostoyevsky's, are presented calmly and coolly. They exist, they do what they do, and their placid existence, albeit in the face of coming trials, points to the possibility of redemption for everyone.

    I thought a lot about why I didn't like the book. Much of it was how I read it, in 30 and 40-minute chunks here and there, at home or on the bus. A simpler book would have read itself in that time, but Dostoyevsky takes a lot more attention and a lot more time. Secondly, as much as Dostoyevsky wrote about heavy topics in a powerful, open-minded and self-examining way, I was more interested in contemporary Russia, the people and their mindset than I was in the cosmic struggle that Dostoyevsky wrote about.

    Characters more often than not were mouthpieces for viewpoints than they were people, which elevated the cerebral discourse within the book but, to my addled brain, it took away from the force of the story and the novel. Countless other writers have done this, admittedly, and I have enjoyed it, and I suspect you too might enjoy it. I, too, might have enjoyed The Karmazov Brothers if not for the stodgy anti-intellectualism in my head whenever I opened it.

    Tuesday, November 02, 2010

    Don't judge a cop by his mustache

    "Ay-pee-pee-ell-ahee-she..." the policeman carefully spoke into the phone. "Sir, that says applicant," I helpfully translated. "Ah, that says applicant," he spoke into the phone. Then, he looked into my eyes for a second before speaking: "they'll talk to you in English".

    The voice on the phone was even more clueless than the poor police officer. "Uh, hi, the, uh, police officer would like to know why you need fingerprints." I explained my reasons briefly, as best as I could, thinking of how ancient texts made their way to us: copies of copies of copies made by someone who heard it from someone who first heard it and memorized it.

    The fingerprints were required by the Korean ministry of immigration, who told schools, who told me, who told the volunteer translator (the police had resorted to calling a help line on their own cell phone), who told the police. Clearly, something in there had to go wrong, and yet it didn't.

    Sure, at one point the policeman asked me if I spoke English, and about 30 people gathered around to gawk, with older officers doing what they could to seem less clueless than subordinates. This sometimes meant arguing about things utterly irrelevant to the task at hand, sometimes it meant proving their worldliness with some sophisticated English conversation like, "where are you from?"

    Before I went there, the police emphasized the worst about Korean society: older, male, authoritarian, unhelpful and unconcerned. I was embarrassed but pleased to realize that the police, though not very good at speaking English, were as accommodating and helpful as any other aspect of Korean society.

    Of course, I'm sure that they may let me down yet, but on this day we generally had the run of the place, up to and including washing our hands in their evidence lab, aptly titled CSI. Afterwards, they even served us cocoa (okay, it was green tea) and we shared a mutual bonding moment until someone asked "why the hell are they still here?" So, then they asked us, "uh, why are you still here? Finished?" Before we could answer, they'd shown us the door out.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    Who runs Seoul? Hint: it's not you

    Anyone who has ever run a large road race has seen people lined up near the front who don't belong there, but I'm sure you've never been shoved aside by people out for a Sunday stroll interrupted by a 20,000-person road race. The only way out was to elbow through 20,000 fluorescent-wearing 20-somethings, and that's what they did. This is hardly news, of course.

    Between the bruising here, not to mention the late-afternoon sun, the lingering smoke from the fireworks and the sharp 90-degree turn after about 30 metres, it was a hell of a start. Still, it was a nice chance to run on two major highways as well as two bridges.

    Nike also scored an interesting place for a road race, a concrete square by the water next to some tall buildings, with a highway and subway bridge way above. As ugly as Seoul can be sometimes, the starting area looked pretty good by the water, and looked even better looking across from the south side of the river.

    This was as large of a race as I've ever run, and with only about two lanes of highways and bridges made available to runners, the staggered start was nice. I'm pretty sure that I saw the tail end of the last group 500 metres into the race as I finished. There were no elite athletes, so people with towels tied around their heads in the tradition of the Korean jjimjilbang were right up at the front.

    The fastest marathon run this year by a non-African is Iaroslav Musinschi's 2:08 (faster than Ryan Hall), but in fifth place is South Korea's Ji Youngjun, who ran a 2:09. The last non-African to win Boston was also a Korean, so clearly the talent at the high-end is there. Despite all that, the winner ran 30 minutes, women running 48 minutes were in the top 10, and my time of 40 minutes got me into the top 20.

    All this proves, of course, is the power of about a few hundred dollars in prize money. Any race that offers this would get about a half dozen guys at 30 minutes. With all of Nike's money and their commitment to putting your footprint on your souvenir T-shirt for free, maybe next time they could do this, but I wouldn't be holding my breath.

    Purists might turn up their nose at a race of this sort, but this makes sense only if you're capable of running about 28 minutes as a man or 35 as a woman, in which case you would've had no competition whatsoever. Otherwise, it was great fun, with none of the heart-tugging about charity (why does my run have to be for some sort of cancer or terminal illness?) or other platitudes about having had the courage to start. This was taking 20,000 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who weren't really runners but hopefully in some sort of shape, finding out how hard it is to run a 10k.

    When you get 20,000 people running a race, even in a city the size of Seoul, many people you know just happen to be running the race. Purists will be heartened to know that their 37:59 or 42:11 will seem that much more impressive after hordes of people have tried their hand at it.

    Saturday, October 23, 2010

    Float like a butterfly, sink like me

    I hate teaching classes right after lunch. This happens Wednesdays and Fridays with a fun-loving group of kids that I otherwise like, if not for the fact that I'm in a food coma (rice with a side of spaghetti?) and they're energized from a just-short-enough 20 minutes playing outside, about half of our 40-minute lunch period. This creates obvious match-up problems, with a large, sluggish force against smaller, more mobile units in a confined urban environment.

    I used to be a complete control freak in the classroom, until I gradually relented to the fact that it's possible to learn, even if every single student isn't looking directly at me in complete silence. Since then I've become a proponent of using my students' strength against them, turning their energy around against them to tire themselves out and generally work out the excess energy that they get from lunch. I am, however, unrelenting in my view of the teacher-sovereign as necessarily being a dictator with a monopoly on power.

    This excellent article from the New York Times taught me a lot about teaching. It confirmed what many people had told me about teacher's college, namely that it's long in time but short on the valuable, complex skills that are so crucial to successful teaching. In job interviews, I've often been asked why I want to teach, or why I want to teach in Korea.

    For some people here, the answer is to make enough money to finance weeks-long trips across Southeast Asia to places whose names begin with Kota, and then cornering hapless coworkers and bartenders in South Korea to tell them all about it in excruciating, mind-numbing detail ("first we went to Kota Kinabalu, but it wasn't very good, until we met this crazy giant squid that could talk, and we were all like 'no way', and then Jordan lost his wallet and we were like 'no way! what a couple of crazy waegooks we are!'").

    One of the nice things about teaching here is that intelligent people from various different backgrounds end up teaching, some of them very well and some of them badly, but they all bring different perspectives to the process. Leaving aside the idiots that want to make English fun because the only way to learn a foreign language is to attach to it the same intellectual rigour as playing Xbox at home with hands covered in cookie crumbs, often we can see a pure, distilled version of what it is that we're supposed to accomplish in the classroom.

    Things like giving actual instructions ("put your hands on the desk, please") instead of vague admonishments ("don't do that!") are a start, but what drew me to teaching was the challenge of phrasing everything just right. If you choose your words slightly the wrong way ("hand that in" instead of "give it to me"), you'll have two dozen kids muttering about your incomprehensibility.

    So, when I stagger in after a lunch of carbs with a side of potato and a dessert of spaghetti, I often give instructions in a way that baffles even me. "Open your books to page 67, er, 76, er 36. Now be quiet and don't touch the books I asked you to open. Great--you there, please don't touch the book. Okay, now, everyone close your books please. Close your books. Great, now everyone look here please. How are you today?" As someone on The Simpsons once said, the trouble with first impressions, of course, is that you only get to make one.

    Friday, October 22, 2010

    My disdain for TV, as seen on TV, in lieu of a real entry

    The Simpsons' endless capacity for self-parody lists the following top shows on the fictitious FOX-inside-the-FOX:

    (here's the episode)

    America's Ripest Bananas
    So You Think You Can Judge
    Who Wants to be a Welder?
    Poodle Versus Elephant
    Leg Swap
    Old People Try to Figure Out Computers
    American Idol
    Dancing With Cars of the Stars
    America's Drunkest Nobody
    Let's Make a Veal
    Somali Pirate Apprentice
    Fix Andy Dick
    Bottom Chef
    My Life On Kathy Griffin
    Pimp My Crypt
    Are You Fatter Than a Fifth Grader?
    Grave Robbers of Orange County

    Credit goes here.

    My favourites are Somali Pirate Apprentice, Are You Fatter than a Fifth Grader? (probably not, two of my students lost a lot of weight over the summer), and American Idol.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    Value theory and happiness, as taught to 7-year-olds

    Today my class read a story called "Hang on, Rose!" in which a boy wants to make his sullen dog feel better. He exchanges an apple to another boy for a jump rope, which in turn he trades for ice cream, which in turn he trades for a bone. The bone makes the dog happy, but we examined this story from a couple of different angles.

    First we established the idea of trade and then discussed the good trade, as well as the bad trade. The goodness of a trade, of course, is linked to value theory, a concept by which we judge which things have value and which don't. I offered money as an approach to value theory.

    So, we started by establishing the price of all four items involved. Most students pegged the value of a single apple as between $1 and $6, which was probably not as embarrassing as myself not having an idea of how much anything costs. I figure that the price of a half dozen apples is going to vary, at most, by a dollar or two, and it's not going to affect my decision to buy the apples or not. So, I never look at the price. I do often buy some bananas on the street, and they are between 30-60 cents each, so I figured an apple is the same price.

    Most kids said that the price of jump rope was between $5 and $10, and I was inclined to agree, but then I consulted an adult more in touch than I am, who informed me that their low-quality jump ropes (they serve as often as sashes as jump ropes) are probably on the order of $2. I took the lowball estimate of 80 cents for an ice cream bar in favour of the $5 that someone gave, presumably for a tub. The price of a bone was interesting idea in itself, but I said that it had no monetary value.

    Measuring the trades in monetary terms, I pointed out that the boy had traded a 50-cent apple for a $2 jump rope, and then gradually blown it all on nothing but a bone. Was this a good trade, I asked? No, said most, because of the money. But, the crucial point of the exercise was whether there was another way of assessing the value of a trade.

    Patty pointed out that while a jump rope is long-lasting, an apple would not last very long, so the jump rope offers greater satisfaction. A move away from money towards happiness was what I was going for. Patrick countered with the idea that we could simply take one bite of the apple every year, a thought that puts him on par with the hiking-boots-and-heavy-metal-mural-t-shirt-wearing segment of upper-year philosophy courses.

    As class came to an end, I broached the idea of what the end of trading was: was it financial gain, personal gain or, following the plot of the story, the dog's happiness? By the first measure, the jump rope was best, by the second the ice cream was the best, but keeping with the spirit of the story, the worthless bone was the best. Some students found the idea of pursuing happiness intriguing and probably we all would have liked to pursue it further, but we ran out of time.

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    The largest playing field of them all

    Whenever I go to watch a marathon, I always get a sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach that I'm going to miss whatever it is that I came to see. The problem with watching a marathon, unlike a football game, baseball game or even a cross country meet, is the sheer size of the playing field. The one I went to see yesterday went to about three different corners of Seoul, and I had a hard enough time just getting across a massive highway to get to the waterfront course.

    As I ran the marathon course backwards, I noted the somewhat unsurprising difference between courses in Korea and courses in North America. North American races typically not only shut down streets, but they close them off. This race was going along a waterfront path, which is the equivalent of a two-lane road, but it wasn't even the only ambulatory procession along the Han River.

    As the fitter marathoners hustled east, a slow-moving procession of seniors headed west carrying signs. At first I thought it was a union protest and then, seeing the words for 'sex' and 'girl', I thought it was some sort of save-the-prostitutes-campaign a la William Gladstone, but then I remembered that 성 also means saint, so I concluded this was a march for female saints.

    Anyway, long trains of cyclists (ie 40-50 people) also unnerved eastbound marathoners around 25 km, but this open course wasn't all bad. Many people out for Sunday morning strolls came by the water stations as they were closing down and helped themselves to the water and Gatorade. For a country that prides itself on an often-vexing formalism, this was the sort of heartwarming Korean communalism that gets Westerners to stay another year.

    Yesterday was also the Chicago marathon, which is where my paranoia regarding marathon courses comes from. I remember trying to go from mile 12 to mile 20 of the Chicago marathon, less than 3 miles apart in reality, and emerging after about 75 minutes (it was hot, but not too hot to walk at 25-minute-mile pace) thanks to subway confusion. It really ought not to be so hard.

    In many ways, it's better to watch at home on your computer. Unlike watching on the street, where at best you can get someone to note that "dang, that skinny feller sure can run", you can second and third-guess the pros with the people at LetsRun while counting the number of mistakes on the online feed. Yesterday, for example, NBC's commentators were debating who the third-place finisher was. It was either Feyisa Lilesa or Deriba Merga, except that Merga had not only dropped out about a half hour ago, but he is rather distinctive-looking with a retro mustache, and is also one of the 10 best marathoners in the world. It was like a football commentator not knowing Adrian Peterson from his backup.

    As much as I've enjoyed the sheer 'wow factor' of being able to watch elite runners in person, it's a bit like only being able to see a football game when the ball is between the 15 and 20 yard-line. In a big city, with good planning, you can see the frontrunners of a marathon a handful of times at most, but you will almost certainly miss the excitement. Consider the blow-for-blow finish to yesterday's Chicago Marathon, a dead sprint for the last mile. If you stood at the 25-mile marker, you would have seen an amazing race, but you actually wouldn't know who won...until you called up your friend sitting on his butt following along on LetsRun.

    Friday, October 08, 2010

    This week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us (assuming we work in publishing)

    Students: That is a useful dictionary
    Adeel: So, what's a dictionary?
    Students: It is for searching words. On the Internet!
    Adeel: Good! Can it also be a book?
    Students: Nooooooooo!

    Tuesday, October 05, 2010

    Woman assaults child on Seoul subway, no one cares



    This video above is best summarized by this article:

    The video clip shows the old lady reprimanding the student for sitting cross-legged and the young girl talking back to her. Losing her temper, the old woman grabbed the girl’s hair, pushed her around and threw her on the seat in the car, while other passengers watched the scuffle.

    At the end of the clip, the teen girl shouted into her cell phone, “I hate Korea, dad!” and swore at the old woman. Then she noticed the person recording the scene and said: “Upload it onto YouTube.”

    Eyewitnesses explained other details not included in the video. They said the student sat with her legs crossed, wearing shoes smeared with mud and it had stained the old lady’s clothes.

    She asked the girl to remove her dirty shoes from the seat and the student apologized twice. The old woman continued to scold her with abusive words and the teen girl then refuted and began talking back to the old lady, when the recording of the clip started.


    The two most popular comments on the YouTube video as of right now are, unexpectedly, these two. They both have 13 votes.

    "저 할미 2차선 지하철 마귀할미로 유명하다던데.. 아무것도 하지않은 여자애 다리꼰다고 시비하고, 미안하다고 2번이나 말했는데도 부모 욕하고 거기다가 머리 휘어잡으며 폭력까지한 할미를 우린 존경해야하나? 저 할미는 지금 정신상태가 정상이 아닌것같다.. 아무래도 병원에 가봐야함... 무개념한 10대 교포소녀라고 욕하기전에 저할미가 얼마나 무고한 사람들을 괴롭혀왔는지 알고 떠들었으면 한다.."

    My Korean isn't great, but this one basically says that the old woman is something of a crazy old loon who is "known" (to the extent anyone is "known" on the Seoul subway) for picking fights. The commenter notes that the girl even said sorry twice, but the old bag wasn't having any of it.

    The second one is simply bizarre:

    "생각이있고 나라의 명예에 조금이라도 관심있다면 지우십쇼...."

    "If you have even the slightest interest in this country's honour, please delete this video."

    There are a couple of interesting pieces about how Korea sees itself. First, it's a country that, like the people that make up the country, is obsessed with its image. Newspaper articles are filled with rankings. I've learned more about how Korea ranks in various ways than I ever did about Canada. Whatever survey the OECD puts together is bound to make press in Korea.

    Second, it's a country that sees itself as something of a secret. Korea's faults are one giant national secret until someone blabs them all onto YouTube via a video that's actually incomprehensible to the outside world without an English speaker to provide context. I'm constantly met by Koreans bemused to know that not only do I know the language, but I know the quirks, history, culture and various trivia and tidbit that make up an ancient civilization. It's not a well-kept secret Korea, nor should it be, for good or for worse.

    As for the video itself, it tells you a lot about Korea. Essentially, this is an adult beating up a child in a public place while being recorded. In most of the civilized world, I think (or hope) legal charges would be forthcoming. However, when it's an old woman who has been offended by a young person, Korea's status-obsessed culture means that it doesn't matter.

    All that's necessary to understand the immense power that older people have to treat younger people like garbage (though it certainly goes both ways), is to consider if the person mistreating the girl had been a foreigner. Say, a foreign man. One with dark skin, like myself. Or, one with even darker skin, like, say, a black man. A foreign black man (trust me, the foreign modifier is important) throwing a female middle school student (trust me, the female modifier is important) around like a rag doll in public? With about a hundred witnesses? And someone recording this?

    Would the outcome have been the same? Of course not, and I would be the first person to argue that the guy should be arrested and, preferably, thrown out of the country. But why doesn't the woman get a similar treatment?

    Friday, October 01, 2010

    Perfectly useless or uselessly perfect?

    From the moment I saw my first Bollywood movie with English subtitles, I've always been amused translation. Or, more to the point, just what is the point of translating? Is it to tell you what the original speaker said or is it to say it in your language? This is an obvious issue. For example, the English expression "to make the bed" translates into Korean as using wood to construct a bed, and the equivalent phrase in Urdu is to correct or "clean the bed". I once had someone literally translate "make the bed" for students ("침대를 만들다"), which was not helpful at all, especially since many Koreans don't sleep on beds in the first place.

    At any rate, these are probably well-worn issues in the fields of linguistics, translation, interpretation and maybe even the philosophy of language, none of which are fields with which I'm well-acquainted. So, I can't write several paragraphs on the topic, but I do have an actual problem that I've noticed lately.

    On the Seoul subway, announcements for transfer stations are made in four languages: Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. If you take Seoul station, named after the train station above, it's pronounced Saw-ool in Korean, like the word 'soul' in English, roughly like "show her" (首尔) in Chinese, and saw-ooh-roo in (ソウル) Japanese. When I first got here, all their different languages had their distinct pronunciations. Speakers of English and Japanese could get by, but trying to get to Seoul station with "show her" is probably not very helpful.

    So, the subway announcements were changed. Chinese announcements for Seoul station now have the Korean pronunciation in the middle, though they strangely refer to it as "Seoul station" station (서울역站). Yongsan station is called Yongsan, instead of the Chinese 'longshan'(龙山), the Dongdaemun market is Dongdaemun instead of Dongdamen (东大门), and Gyeongbokgung is spared the other-worldly Jingfugong(景福宮).

    But, because the world revolves around English speakers, we still get to hear everything translated because we can't handle strange pronunciations. If you ever wanted to go to City Hall station, you'd have a tough time asking for directions, because 시청 is pronounced 'she-cheong'. The value in letting everyone know where city hall is probably lower than the value of letting everyone know what the station is called. Chinese and Japanese announcements approximate the 시청 sound.

    There are limits, of course. Koreans often helpfully sanitize things in English because English speakers tend to be mystified by Korean vowel sounds, where an 'o' is always an 'o', no exceptions. Sometimes I'd like to see it carried to its logical conclusion for amusement's sake. We could call Dongdaemun "Great East Gate", Gwanghwamun could be "Enlightenment Gate" and Yongsan could be "Dragon Mountain". My favourite, though, would be Dongguk University station. Its colloquial name (동대입구역) translates literally as "Big East Entrance station".

    Ultimately, though, translation will be an imperfect art for obvious reasons. Translating to make the reader see the same thing that the original reader sees is probably the best way of doing it. It's not necessary to make a reference to heaven or hell if subtitling "get the hell out of here!" What was probably more unusual all along was writing Korean place names (Yongsan, 용산) in Chinese characters (龙山), but then providing the useless Chinese (longshan) or Japanese (tatsusan) pronunciation, which is a long way from the usually correct English pronunciation (Yongsan).

    Tuesday, September 28, 2010

    US to follow Korean lead on creating a policed Internet?

    The United States government is trying to require Internet services to submit to government surveillance. Encrypted communications that can't be tracked by law enforcement, the government argues, makes it easy for criminals to escape the law. You might be swayed by the example of a drug cartel or terrorist cell doing what they do with impunity because the government can't crack their Facebook messages, but is this where we want to go?

    Glenn Greenwald of Salon writes (emphasis is mine) in a fantastically thorough article on the matter:

    "In other words, Internet services could legally exist only insofar as there would be no such thing as truly private communications; all must contain a "back door" to enable government officials to eavesdrop".

    In other words, where this would be going is towards the Korean model. Not only is the Internet here not anonymous, but users are accountable to, and traceable by, the government. Consider this case, where a 17-year-old high school student was arrested for spreading a rumour that escaped convicts were roaming the city raping and killing teenage girls.

    There is some credence to the fact that the Internet is more central in Korean civil society than it in the West, so the power of the Internet is greater than it is elsewhere. However, people spread falsehoods in all forms, why invert the traditional process by not only ignoring the Internet's exceptionalism, but focusing on the Internet as a source of perversion? When politicians claim false North Korean threats, accuse Westerners of spreading AIDS (this seems to be why we're tested so often), should they not be arrested as well for spreading rumours?

    About two years ago, Korea came up with a fantastic way to police the Internet called the real-name law. Using the Internet for anything remotely useful, such as using a blog or message board, commenting on news articles, but also buying a rice cooker, reserving movie tickets or even using free wireless in a coffee shop, now requires entering your name and identification number.

    This was probably not a shocking step for a country that has been a military dictatorship for 40 of its 60 years, and one where everyone is fingerprinted by the police upon reaching adulthood, but it does represent an absurd abuse of power. The entire scam was cooked up when raucous protests about the safety of American beef, driven by online rumours and fear-mongering, threatened to bring down the current government.

    To clamp down on nonsense spread on the Internet, the government required virtually any use of the Internet to be tied to a real name. In theory, this could keep people safer, but it also means that people have been arrested for blogging unpopular opinions that apparently were not safe for reading. Even if people were not being arrested, it's patronizing and insulting to be forced to enter your ID number at all times. Part of being an adult in a democracy is to not have to answer or explain your actions to the state, unlike the current state of affairs.

    Now, it's worth appending a disclaimer to all this. I'm particularly vexed by all this because I'm part of a very small group of people in Korea that are literate but are not citizens. Our identification numbers generally don't work (often I have to input my name backwards, and in capitals), making me a literate adult that has to get friends or coworkers to perform the most asinine tasks for him.

    I often try and explain this to Koreans on Twitter as following: "I wish that you couldn't use Twitter without having a US social security number". Or, "I wish you couldn't use Gmail until you took your passport and mailed it to California, where someone could verify that you are who you say you are". If you don't think that something as mundane as an email account, Twitter or Facebook should be tied to even a credit card, much less an official government ID, you probably wouldn't be too fond of using the Korean Internet.

    The final consequence of Korea's ridiculous laws is that it creates a closed society that barely exists for citizens, much less anyone outside of it. Websites around the world are free to be used by anyone, until you get to Korean websites, which only work with Internet Explorer, a boatload of Active-X controls, security certificates, and about a half-dozen forms of identification (cell phone number, credit card number, passport, ID card).

    There will be a G20 summit in Seoul in November. Ads proclaim that "세계가 대한민국을 주목합니다" ("The world is paying attention to Korea"). And I'm sure they will. I'm sure that a group of people might sit down with a laptop and pick up a dozen wireless networks, which are only available to citizens. I'm sure they'll be thrilled to go past the large quarantine zones at the airport, be greeted by the large sign at immigration informing them that they are "FOREIGNERS", and they'll definitely be thrilled to not understand when groups of teenagers mutter "아 진짜! 흑인 있다!" ("Hey look! It's a black guy!")

    Book #11: The Lexus and the Olive Tree

    Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and The Olive Tree, written 10 years ago, examines the effects of a nascent globalization on the world. None of it is new to someone in the year 2010, but it is useful as a contemporary source of post-cold war American (and global) optimism. If nothing else, it's nice to look back and see how people thought in the year 2000 and the sort of future they envisioned for themselves. I bought the book for its explanation of the IMF crisis of 1997, so crucial to the country where I am now, and a topic about which I know nothing.

    (Fun fact: such was the impact in Korea of the 'Asian flu' or IMF crisis of 1998, that in my neighbourhood, there's a convenience store named 'IMF Mart')

    Among the book's weaker aspects, Friedman's sometimes grating, saccharine writing style aside, are that it reads like a love letter to free-market capitalism, the buzzword that is globalization and "benign american hegemony". Friedman writes a chapter or two explaining why America is the greatest country in the world, why Europe or Japan simply can't compete, and why this won't change for any foreseeable reason in the foreseeable future.

    Ten years later, of course, this looks ridiculous. Friedman acknowledged as much in his subsequent books (The World is Flat), which tend to lean toward ushering in Chinese and Indian supremacism while compiling an anthology of everything that's wrong with America. Friedman is an unrelenting, unabashed optimist and romanticist, albeit a romanticist of free markets and democracy, which he believes will always carry the day.

    If, for some reason, you come across the Lexus and the Olive Tree (I bought it for $7 in a used-book store) and find yourself either not well-versed on how the Internet works or the fact that the Cold War has ended, it's a good read. It's also nice as a kitschy source from the late '90s, but a better guide to the broad issues (but not the carefully-considered nuances) of globalization would be Friedman's subsequent books.

    The World is Flat discusses economic globalization, while Hot, Flat and Crowded argues that renewable energy sources are the key to global economic success in this century. Both are not without their flaws, but they're easy reading about politics and economics. If you don't know much about the topics, you'll learn something. If you know something about them, hopefully you'll be able to come up with better ideas than Friedman.

    I enjoy reading Friedman's books and columns, partly because they're easy-to-read and partly because Friedman can explain complex issues with sometimes cheesy humour and easy-to-follow narratives. Of course, there are flaws and dangers in explaining complex issues with humour and simple narratives. Still, he's close to the mark and his optimism and desire to come up with solutions to problems is something to admire.