Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why I live here

The past few days have neatly summed up why I like to live in South Korea. Korea is intense, in-your-face, and both unashamed and unaware of its free-wheeling, anything-goes nature. Yes, it's a society where even kids adopt the Confucian idea of using honourifics to refer to elders, but that's not going to attract anyone into moving here.

The other day, I went shopping for contact lenses at the Namdaemun market in central Seoul. Namdaemun is popular with tourists, so I was wary of a ripoff. I spent some time concocting an elaborate story which explained that I was a Pakistani student that only spoke a smattering of Chinese, and therefore prevent me from being ripped off. However, when I finally walked into a store, I was in and out so fast that I didn't even notice what had happened. I asked if I needed a prescription to buy contacts, he replied by asking for my "number", which I told him, and then he asked for $20, which I gave to him.

Canada has rep hockey, Kenya wrenches out the front teeth of children, and my school had a vicious game show-like quiz competition that weeds out about two-thirds of the kids in the first two minutes, continues for a punishing 45 minutes. Punitive would be the best word to describe this if you're a Canadian, but if you consider that elementary schoolchildren have a class on morals once a week and that a day of high school is 15 hours, we were quite kind to them.

In exchange, students rewarded us by making us feel like either rock stars or caged baboons, I haven't decided yet. At a ceremony concluding our month-long English camp, they swamped the stage with cell phone cameras, eventually making it impossible for anyone to speak or walk. They asked for cell phone numbers, home phone numbers, and email addresses. Mothers demanded we pose for pictures and one sincere mother pointed her business-like video camera to me and said "may-see-jee".

"Message? I can give you my [email] if you, uh -- oh, God, you're recording this?"

Still, I got a box of cookies out of it and I met this professional comedian, all part of the charm of life in the swankiest half of the Korean peninsula.

Afterwards, I bought dinner for my friends with a crisp 50,000 won-note from the envelope of 50,000-won notes that was my salary. They rewarded me by driving all the way across the province, a distance of 40 km, to take me home, where my now-former coworkers were deep in the midst of a Korean-style work gathering. These are basically contests of endurance that end when everyone falls asleep at a karaoke bar or fried chicken restaurant sometime around dawn. I didn't quite make it to dawn, but about half of us did.

In the end, I went to see the pompous changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Deoksu Palace in central Seoul. Keeping it all real was an old man in the distance, his beard proving that he certainly had not kept up with the times, who shouted incoherently at the guards.

Friday, January 29, 2010

All they know is the yellow line

Right now I'm in Ilsan, a suburb of north of Seoul. North Korea is about 15 km away as the crow flies. The nearest North Korean city is Kaesong, about 40 km away. I can't think of any other place on earth where the gap is so stark between the First and Third World, between taking pictures of yourself for fun and not being allowed to wear blue jeans, between watching TV while you drive and having never heard of Coca Cola.

Every time we have lunch at school, a lot of food gets wasted. Kindergarten students are not too fond of tasteless white rice, so it tends to go to waste. Every time I threw out a half-full dish of rice, I thought about all the people that would kill for that rice. But, of course, this is more or less a new dressing on the cliche from the '80s, now adapted as "drink your beer, there's sober kids in Africa".

The food we waste at school isn't going to go anywhere but the garbage, but the situation in North Korea is the opposite of the Ethiopian famine in the '80s. Toronto is a long way from Addis Ababa, but North Korea is alarmingly close. Activists recently sent 150,000 leaflets bearing information to North Korea via hot air balloon. Surely a few packages of instant noodles and the chocolate pies (moon pies) that sell for $10 on the North Korean black market could also be sent.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The facts on the ground, in the air, and underground

In Toronto so far this year:

- 14 people have died from being hit by cars while walking on the street

- 3 people have died from being killed by other people

- nobody has died from terrorism or plane crashes

- no TTC workers have died on the job from heart attacks, strokes, lead poisoning and so on, but it's our fault for not checking up on them while they nap

So, please be kind and inquire about the health of TTC workers as they sleep while earning the salary you pay for. If someone can make a short video of knocking on the glass at a collector booth because the pseudo-human inside didn't even look at you, much less talk, when you dared to buy tokens, I will send you a set of steak knives.

I would write more, but I'm unable to find words to describe the surreal arrogance and astonishing ability to lie of TTC union chief Bob Kinnear:

"It is very discouraging that the picture taker and, apparently, other customers, made no attempt to determine if there was anything wrong with this TTC employee,” said Bob Kinnear, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union."

Kinnear not only went on to criticize the passengers for laughing as his employee blissfully napped on the job, but he described their behaviour as "disturbing". If for some reason you were even remotely deceived by his slimeball tactics, just try imagining any other scenario. How about a cashier at Tim Hortons napping in front of a line of people? Would a spokesman berate those customers for not inquiring about the health of the cashier?

Grammar time, part two

Today and tomorrow, I am giving tests to each of my 70 or so students. The tests have 25 questions, 24 of which involve choosing in the form of multiple choice or true and false. The last question involves writing a sentence. Writing a sentence is exceptionally hard for Korean students.

Randomly asking a student here to make a sentence using the words "shoe" and "elephant" is to turn the classroom process on its head. To some extent, we pride ourselves on being able to make a sentence like that, but not being entirely sure what the object of a sentence is. I only learned what an object was when I started studying Korean.

As I wrote the test, I remembered Peter Mlodinow's fantastic book The Dunkard's Walk. Mlodinow writes that if 25 students guess randomly on a test of 10 true or false questions, there's an 75 percent chance that one will get 80%. Or, in other words, there's a 5% chance any student scoring 80% by guessing.

At first this gave the impression that over the years, a lot of dull students have walked away with good grades, but then, how many 10-question true-and-false tests did you ever write? The number of questions and the number of choices (two) help to keep the odds low. There are only 1024 possible ways to answer this test. Compare that with a trillion ways to answer a 20-question multiple-choice test with four options on each question. Mine ranks a little low, I guess, with about 2 billion possibilities.

When I first gave tests, I was dismayed by how little tests seemed to prove. If they prove anything, it wasn't what I wanted them to prove. Weak students, the sort that I thought should be punished by tests, often scored extremely well. Smart students that always work hard and should really get perfect somehow found ways to muff up questions. The result is an unsatisfying batch of tests that score somewhere in the middle.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How predictable

The top two seeds in the playoffs are going to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1993. Not only are the Colts and Saints the top two seeds, but they've been the frontrunners, along with the Vikings, the entire season. They faltered at the end, finishing a collective 1-5 in the last three weeks, but they were still at or near the top of everyone's self-important "power rankings".

Good teams doing well is good business, apparently. The second-round playoff games were decided by 31, 31, 17 and 3 (down from 10) points. Still, oddly enough, the TV ratings were the highest they had been in 16 years. It was a 15-percent increase over last year.

It's a great game, at least on paper. The Saints scored over 500 points this year, almost a touchdown per game more than the Colts, who scored 416. Peyton Manning is one of the top three or five quarterbacks in history, while Drew Brees puts up stunning numbers if he doesn't quite figure into many rankings just yet. The Saints started 13-0, the Colts started 14-0.

One team represents a region that has been hit hard in recent years. The Saints' success is also a fantastic opportunity for frighteningly melodramatic journalistic charitython pieces about what the Saints mean to the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, the Gulf region, the Vatican, and the Frankish king Clovis I, who is reputed to have come up with the fleur de lis.

At any rate, the Colts opened as four-point favourites largely because they are an established brand. But the Colts played the Jets, who got this far because they got not one, but two freebies in the regular season, and then beat the Bengals and Chargers to get here. Parenthetically, opportunity is a fantastic thing: you can't throw wins back like home runs, and champions benefit as much from opportunity as they do talent. The Colts did fall behind 17-6 to the Jets. The Saints played the Vikings and got five turnovers, but still needed four quarters and change to win.

Since overly-detailed analysis of a highly unpredictable event makes people look smart, I'm going to make some predictions. Look for this New Orleans Saints football to utilize screens to take advantage of a Larry Coyer Colts defense that likes to pursue, that likes to run fast. Incoherent gurgling sounds from Shannon Sharpe and Dan Marino. The Saints, meanwhile, will go with three or four-receiver sets and burn the Colts up top since they like to bring those safeties up to blitz, especially in that A-gap since left tackle Jermon Bushrod has a nipple ring.

The final score: Colts 30.4, Saints 24.3.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Stop! Grammar time!

Adeel: Table for four.
Girl stares blankly.
Adeel: Uh, four people? Four...
Girl stares blankly.
Girl, speaking carefully in English: I don't work here.

Clerk: Do you want a bag?
Adeel: No.
Clerk: What? How are you going to carry it?
Adeel: With my hands, sir, with my hands.

Elizabeth: Alley ja bess is better than--
Adeel: What?
Elizabeth: Alley ja bess!
Adeel: Huh?
Amy (pointing): Elizabeth...

Adeel: Guys, get out your homework please.
Peter: Time, time! Teacher, time!

My school doesn't recognize the Zack Morris-style timeouts, unfortunately.

Written on the inside cover of a student's grammar textbook: "Grammar time!"

Adeel: Does anybody here have a Super Nintendo?
Class: What?
Adeel: If you don't know what it is, you don't have it.
Matthew: My friend's father--
Michael: Yeah, they used to have these in the old days. Note: that's a literal translation of the Korean 옛날.

Adeel: Okay, tell us about your father.
Student: ...and my father likes my mother, but my mother never says that shes likes my father.

Adeel: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Peter: Nintendo Wii
Matthew: Ah, you mean Nintendo Wii player?
Peter: No, Nintendo Wii

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Racism within races

This New York Times article is a rare look at what the author calls colourism. Colourism isn't quite racism, but it's a preference among blacks, Latinos, East and South Asians for lighter skin. The article starts with a mention of US Senator Harry Reid, who felt that Barack Obama is popular because he is light-skinned. To be light-skinned, it shows, doesn't just mean you look better to some people. Rather, it can make you more money, save your life and have a host of positive effects.

When my older brother was young, he once spent an entire summer playing tennis by himself. He became very good at tennis, to this day, but he also became darker, or at least so I theorize. This lack of foresight on his part may well cost him money down the road, unfortunately, unless he makes it as a professional tennis player.

Sometimes I receive compliments from other Pakistanis for having lighter skin, and a light-skinned cousin receives a lot of compliments. "He's totally white," is what they say, which is somehow a compliment. Left unsaid is that he's apparently uglier than the 80% of whites who are lighter and, therefore, better-looking than he is.

It might be comical to anybody who's white, but I've seen a few websites and one religious matchmaking service that broke down the complexion of their largely South Asian membership into about a half-dozen shades. It's hard to imagine that this question, like the job interview here where an employer hamhandedly asked "where are your parents from?" and then not-so-discreetly made a note of the answer on my resume, is not simply because the questioner really wants to know.

In Korea at least, and perhaps also South Asia, lighter skin is considered more attractive because people with dark skin worked in the fields. Both of these are something to look down in Korea, which is peculiar since two generations ago, virtually everybody here was a dirt-poor farmer. Memories are short, though, so in the summer women and children wear Darth Vader-like visors and carry umbrellas to protect themselves from the evils of the sun.

It's ironic, of course. It's one thing if whites prefer lighter-skinned blacks or Indians, but it's another for minorities, who already know what it's like to be stereotyped and face discrimination, to practice this themselves. The racism against blacks among both South Asian and East Asian communities is simply astonishing. I've heard friends and relatives say things like "he's black, but he was nice" and "even though she's black, she's good-looking". Neither would tolerate "oh, that Chinese guy..." or "that weird terrorist-looking guy", but then, neither seems to think very hard.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Yen holds its own

News reports indicate that the Japanese yen closed down slightly after Monday's trading, but as far as I'm concerned, the yen should hold its head high. My 500-yen coin was 2 for 4 in picking the outcome of this weekend's playoff games, beating my dismal 1-3. CNN's Peter King correctly predicted two of four games this week and this team of experts at ESPN wasn't much better.

Seven of the eight experts at ESPN were 2-2 or worse. ESPN's Accuscore computer was 3-1, as was the mass wisdom of ESPN's SportsNation. If you'd picked home teams in New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minnesota and San Diego, you would have been 3-1. If you did it the week before as well, you'd be 5-3, as good as anyone at ESPN. Instead, if you followed my muddled thought process, you'd land at 2-6. In my defense, I haven't seen any football in a month.

Still, this is a classic case of thinking you know more than you do. From a state of ignorance, it's best to go with the knowledge that home teams win two-thirds of the time. What held me back was looking too simple and picking a heavy favourite to win when signs for an upset may have been there. You look smarter picking one upset than you do correctly picking a bunch of routs.

That's why I'm going to go ahead and make the stupid, simple Super Bowl pick that a 9-year-old could have made in October: Colts vs Saints. Picking like a 9-year-old explains how I would have been 11-0 in the 1997 playoffs if the Giants hadn't blown a 9-point lead with less than two minutes to go, at home no less.

The coin says Colts and Vikings.

I don't feel too bad for not having seen any playoff games. Aside from two of them, plus the one where the Patriots lost, the rest have been boring routs.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

당신만 산불을 방지 할 수 있습니다

I don't usually start races holding a cup of coffee, but today's race was anything but normal. After falling in love with the mountains and always wondering what it would be like to run up the steep hills and then coast down, I decided to sign up for a 14 km mountain race. I paid $15 and received no other information other than to show up today at exit 6 of Suseo station in southeastern Seoul.

After 90 minutes on line 3 (nickname: The Fighting Third), I made my way to exit 6, where there was nobody. But, some kind person had scrawled "marathon" on a piece of paper and put a rock over it. A few more of these led me to a clearing at the base of a mountain where about 40 people, a number of them shirtless men in what looked like spandex swimsuits, were posing for a picture. Someone asked for my name and then nodded knowingly, "ah, Ay-dell, yes, yes". As I took off my sweats, the race started without warning. Someone offered me a tiny cup of coffee, and I took it.

I was actually mortally afraid of this race because hiking on the snow and ice is bad enough, but running is worse. This race had all the drama of a musket battle since you often needed the consent of all your competitors to run. We spent a lot of time bunched together walking up very steep sections. After reaching the first of three or four peaks, I put a lot of distance between everyone around me.

But, it was all undone when I reached a steep, 60-degree descent that lasted about a kilometre. Granted, my running shoes made me woefully underprepared, but nothing explains how about a dozen people loped down as though they were immune to broken bones. Many old people offered me their hands and I staved off Homer's purple death at one point only by using a tree to do a pirouette.

I never saw any of those people again. Most of the rest of the race alternated between flatlands where I flew, honest hills where I enjoyed making my way up and treacherous descents where I held up entire crowds of people that offered advice and English language conversation. The remark of the day goes to one member of a group of 20 that was watching me move like his grandmother: "this is very hard for you". Other groups loudly yelled out that a foreigner was running, and they yelled encouragement.

Near the end, the ground flattened and the downhills weren't so treacherous. Still, I wasn't chancing anything, so I chose to leap off once I got to within 6-7 feet of flat ground. I made excellent time and even caught a few people. When I finished, I saw all the people that had passed me finish a few minutes later. I have no idea where they (or I) came from. According to my cell phone, the whole thing took about 1 hour and 50 minutes. According to the finisher certificate I got at the start, the race was actually 15 km, which disappointed me because I wanted to cross one more odd distance off of my list.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ask a 500-yen coin about football

I've been carrying around a 500-yen coin, worth about $6, for almost a month now. I picked it up on this pleasant occasion. At any rate, since I only predicted one of four games correct last weekend, I'm going to let the coin pick this week.

The coin picks:

New Orleans over Arizona

Baltimore over Indianapolis

Minnesota over Dallas

San Diego over New York

On the off chance that you come to this blog to read what I think, I pick Arizona, Indianapolis, Dallas and San Diego.

On the still-more-improbably chance that you're not interested in football, here's the Daily Show on predictions for 2010.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Year in Preview
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis


I will mail a well-worn, artificially devalued 1-yuan note to anybody that can make it past the first minute of this video. For each minute you watch, I will send you* one more yuan, to a maximum of 9 yuan**.

*Note: you need to send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope first.
** If you watch the entire video, you will make enough money to buy about a dozen kebabs in some places.
Three asterisks: you can make enough money to buy a $10 latte at the Capital Hotel in Beijing by clicking here to watch about an hour of this footage. Note that this is speculative and claims of this sort may or may not be honoured.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google grows a pair

Google is deciding to stand up for itself and the ideas it represents, namely the ability to access information, by threatening to withdraw from China. Google had long been cowed by the Chinese government into obeying Chinese laws by censoring searches, but yesterday it finally decided to end this practice. The company blog says that "we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on". From here, it's possible to search Google China for "offensive" terms like "6-4 incident", the Chinese name for the Tiananmen Square massacre, but in the past it wasn't even possible from Canada.

Google's decision takes courage considering the money at stake, though it's worth noting how it came about. Denial-of-service attacks against Google last month were traced to China, and the ensuing investigation revealed that the Google accounts of Chinese human right activists abroad had been breached. Clearly, this is not only a moral stand for Google, but also a matter of providing basic security to its users.

A possibility noted in this article is that Google could be banned in China, making it impossible for Google to index Chinese-language pages. The Chinese Internet is as vast and as amusing as our own. To be deprived of it would deprive me of one of my sources of entertainment, but of course, it would also reshape the Internet considering that China has the most Internet users in the world.

The Internet is bizarre in China. This is already a country without Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and (significant because I use it) Blogger. I met people my age who spoke fluent English but had never heard of YouTube. Some university students I met insisted that Facebook was really just for "modern" people, not for them. Xinjiang province, about triple the size of France with a population of 20 million, went six months without any Internet access. When access was restored two weeks ago, it was only to the state news agency Xinhua and the state newspaper, People's Daily.

It's heartening that Google is not further aiding this travesty, but it's concerning what the consequences of its insubordination will be. Google is concerned enough to append this to the end of the notice on its blog: "We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked incredibly hard to make the success it is today".

More on my favourite topic de jour

Every time someone even mentions their views on the current hysteria over the contents of the underwear of air travelers, as a Korean newspaper and CNN's Peter King just did, I fly into the same visceral rage that caused this hysteria in the first place. I'm not as articulate as Paul Campos, who published a great essay on this topic in the Wall Street Journal:

Consider that on this very day about 6,700 Americans will die. When confronted with this statistic almost everyone reverts to the mindset of the title character's acquaintances in Tolstoy's great novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," and indulges in the complacent thought that "it is he who is dead and not I."

Consider then that around 1,900 of the Americans who die today will be less than 65, and that indeed about 140 will be children. Approximately 50 Americans will be murdered today, including several women killed by their husbands or boyfriends, and several children who will die from abuse and neglect. Around 85 of us will commit suicide, and another 120 will die in traffic accidents.

No amount of statistical evidence, however, will make any difference to those who give themselves over to almost completely irrational fears. Such people, and there are apparently a lot of them in America right now, are in fact real victims of terrorism. They also make possible the current ascendancy of the politics of cowardice—the cynical exploitation of fear for political gain.

Unfortunately, the politics of cowardice can also make it rational to spend otherwise irrational amounts of resources on further minimizing already minimal risks. Given the current climate of fear, any terrorist incident involving Islamic radicals generates huge social costs, so it may make more economic sense, in the short term, to spend X dollars to avoid 10 deaths caused by terrorism than it does to spend X dollars to avoid 1,000 ordinary homicides. Any long-term acceptance of such trade-offs hands terrorists the only real victory they can ever achieve.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Barbarians at the cakes

Yesterday was a little bit of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina mixed in with Lord of the Flies. My class competed with other classes at the school to see who could do the best job at decorating a cake. Our idea worked out well until I turned my back for a second to talk to a co-worker, in which time the clock we were making became a bear, then a crown, then a birthday cake with a single candle and then, was salvaged, as a work of modern art. I say modern art because the debris and the cream on the cake roughly resembled a crowded, snowcapped metropolis. But it could have just as easily been a sprinkle donut with a chocolate stick in the centre.

As destruction rained down, the chopsticks we were using to decorate were broken and then swept away with the trash. After we received our last-place award, we were allowed to eat the cake, but there was nothing to eat it with. So, I had the task of keeping angry, resentful kids from eating the very cake they had spent the better part of fifteen minutes poking with chunks of pineapple and chocolate. In the end, reinforcements arrived in the form of paper cups sliced in half to form troughs.

Needless to say, when we repeated the contest today for the second set of classes, I came prepared with a plan and an iron fist. After all, the good teacher is really a benevolent dictator. I sucked the fun out of the activity, barking orders over the din and smacking wayward hands that tried to eat the decorative chocolate prematurely. The end result was a second-place finish and a dozen happy kids that tried to shovel cake in my mouth with chopsticks.

Korea, like the other Asian Tigers, is a good example of what a benevolent dictator can do. Korea's development was kicked off by dictator Park Chung-hee in the '60s, similar to Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, Taiwan with Chiang Kai-Shek and Hong Kong under British rule. Korea's Park (also discussed in the previous post) is the one most relevant to teachers, however, because he was killed by one of his own men for being too bossy. As important as results are to the exercise of power, the exercise of power is often just as desirable as the results themselves, an important lesson for out-of-control teacher-sovereigns.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

No, you can't!/안돼!

"안돼!" That's what the man at the convenience store next to my building kept telling me. He was nice and friendly, but when I walked in and held the door open for him as he followed me back inside, he took this as an invitation to critique everything I was doing.

"What're you looking for? There are some hot drinks here."
"Oh, uh, no, I'm okay."
"You know, it's really cold today."
"Yeah, it is cold today."
"It's cold today." Then he pointed to the thin jacket I was wearing, the outermost of about five layers I was wearing.
"Oh, yeah, I'm going hiking today."
"Hiking?! Bukhansan?!"
"Yeah, right."

He looked at the shiny running shoes I was wearing.

"No way! It's too slippery!"

He proceeded to give me a long explanation for why I couldn't possibly climb Bukhansan, the crown jewel of Seoul's 800ers. Real mountaineers have their 8,000-metre peaks, but the closest I've come to that is catching a distant glimpse of Muztagh Ata and Kongur Tagh at around 7,500 metres and doubting whether they were really 4,000 metres above where we were. As far as my conquests go, I'll have to settle for the 800-metre Bukhansan.

After that was done, he asked if I was going to buy any food. I said I wasn't. "Didn't you have breakfast?" I lied and said I did because I was scared of his response if I said no. Then he lectured me some more about the perils of snow and ice before finally asking me just what on earth I was doing in his country anyway. As I walked out the door, he yelled out some more advice about how to handle myself against the forces of nature.

Today was nothing like the first time I went to Bukhansan. That day was a scorching summer holiday, and I climbed right to the rocky, imposing top after using a well-situated rail at about a 75-degree incline to guide myself to the top. Today was a trip up a remote, snowy pass that was used by North Korean commandos in 1968 to try and kill the South Korean president. The pass was closed right after and only reopened last year.

You can actually see North Korea from land on Bukhansan. That's why the Uiryeong pass is accessible only by reservation and entry requires identification. The text message telling me this was in Korean, however, and I read "be sure to bring identification" as "be sure not to be late". So, I arrived with two pieces of ID: my citizenship card and my student card from the University of Toronto.

After some dithering, we finally arrived at the checkpoint where putative North Korean infiltrators trying to head back north by traversing a small mountain that doesn't actually take them home were scrutinized by what looked like hapless high school students. One of them asked me if I had reservations. I said I did, but that they weren't in my name. That was either so comical or so charming that the girl giggled and then ran inside to giggle and point some more. In the ensuing awkward silence, no one even bothered to check my identification.

The pass itself was easily the quietest, cleanest part of Seoul I've ever been to. There were birds that sang and if you didn't talk, you could hear them. The snow was deep and fresh, the well-worn path was only wide enough for one person and the silence was overwhelming. Forty years of exclusive military use did some wonders, though it also got them to leave the front door to their base wide open.

By the way, "no, you can't" was the suggested slogan of John McCain's presidential campaign.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Still at it, after mathematics

Teaching 9-year-olds to write a speech in a foreign language in the seventh-hour of school isn't easy. Somewhere around the 5-hour mark of relentlessly rushing through grammar, conversation and reading classes, you can almost see the life and energy literally being sucked out of them. They're slower to glance at their lanyards to remember their English names, slower to raise their hands and identify the complex predicate of a sentence, and even slower to move overall, like players in NHL '98 who were denied a line change.

For a project that showcases English speaking ability to parents, it was suggested that I teach the kids to sing Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, but I narrowly averted this and managed to get the score settled to a short speech introducing a country. Africa was the country one student chose, ignoring my insistence that it's not a country. Other rejects were Alaska, London, Hoju (Korean for Australia, which had already been chosen) and North Korea. I refused to let anyone talk about South Korea, and the kids grumbled that North Korea was "the same country", so that unhappy boy withdrew his choice.

Eventually we settled on virtually every country that a typical Korean child hears about. There were the two East Asian giants in China and Japan, the two places people like to go to study English in Australia and New Zealand, the two places where their aunts live in Canada and America, the two places where farmers send away for foreign brides in Thailand and Vietnam, and two stylish European countries in France and Italy. The obligatory oddball was Kazakhstan, but that, along with Uzbekistan, is fairly well-known because of Koreans that migrated to pre-Soviet Russia and the subsequent relations that remain between these countries.

What was interesting was how kids describe a country if asked to give a chance. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of a country is where it is located, followed by how wealthy it is. For this class, race came first, followed by food and dress. None had any idea how wealthy any country was. They considered themselves to live in a middle-income country, with places like Thailand and China ahead of them, but Canada and Japan "poor".

In reality, Korea's per capita income adjusted for purchasing power is about $28,000 (presumably US dollars). Roughly a third of the countries in the world are classified as rich by the World Bank, meaning that their per capita income is more than $10,000. To get into this club, you just need to be richer than Iran. China and Thailand are grouped together at around $6,000. Japan and Canada are ahead of Korea at around $35,000. Luxembourg, Norway and Kuwait top the list thanks to oil money. Macau comes in fourth thanks to all the smelly people from Guangzhou who leave their money at its casinos.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Spot the hilarity

This video from yesterday's snowstorm has been making its way around the Korean and now the English-language quarters of the Internet. See if you can spot all the things that are going wrong for this poor fellow:

Monday, January 04, 2010

High 눈

A foot of snow fell over Seoul today, making it the largest snowstorm here since 1937. I stumbled out the door for a quick run before my first day of work, but since this building, like others, leaves the front door open, I saw the snow from the landing on the second floor. Outside, the sun was not quite up and the snow was falling furiously, with about 4-5 inches already on the ground. It didn't quite seem real. The snow here is very dry, so it was like running through a pile of cotton candy.

At about 7:30, nobody was really out except for department store workers using a high-tech snow removal tool wherein a trough-like appendage is attached to a stick, facilitating the carrying of snow, as well as sand or dirt. Those that didn't have these settled for brooms, dustpans, these bundles of sticks I thought only existed in India, or even the flat tops of crates. In a nod to Toronto, the army was called in, the subway was so packed that not only was it impossible to get on a train, but in some cases it was impossible to get into a station.

Running in the snow is fantastic, especially when you get to it before anybody else, especially the plows. It's good to know that you didn't need the footsteps of others, or their shovels or their plows or their modern medicine with its hip replacements or antibiotics to help you put together a solid workout. I think I ran a solid 5k tempo in something like 21 minutes, if there wasn't shin-high fluffy snow to contend with, there was the polished cement underneath it all, which really was not designed to be covered with snow and feels like well-groomed ice.

Needless to say, school was cancelled. The last time I can remember a snowstorm of any significance in Korea, it was Lunar New Year late last January, when maybe 4-5 inches fell in the morning. A man interrupted my solitary run along rice fields to ask me if I was really just looking for a taxi. It took 20 minutes instead of 20 seconds to catch a taxi, which then drove at 20 km/h down a plowed but empty 8-lane road with a dusting. We arrived at school horribly late to find that we were the only ones there. This year, I calmly strolled in 40 minutes early to be told the unsurprising news.

I enjoyed the snow so much that I went out for some mile repeats in the evening. Ilsan, this northern suburb, has a large park with a man-made lake, really a pond (coming from the Great Lakes, a lake has to be the size of a small country), at its centre. Normally its reasonably busy at night, but today it had an eerie calm. The lights were on, the roughly 5-kilomtre path around it was well-plowed, but there were only a handful of people there. About half of them were wisely taking pictures on the frozen, snow-covered pond. The rest were walking around carrying camera equipment that looked like they could broadcast live to TV if they needed, also wisely taking the opportunity to enjoy the calm and the snow.

I do believe I told you so, now it's all out

I'm sure there were a lot of things I got wrong about the NFL this year, and still more things that I'll get wrong, but I'm proud of foreseeing my beloved Broncos' stunning ineptitude from the fall. On October 13 I wrote "I'm still convinced that the 2-2 Chargers will find a way to win the division over the 5-0 Broncos, but I'm probably in the minority here." The next week the Chargers slipped to 2-3 and the Broncos jumped out to a 6-0 lead, but I didn't flinch, though there's no written record. In the end, the Chargers won their last 11 games while the Broncos lost 8 of their last 10.

There was talk of a lot of bad teams this year and maybe there are a lot of bad teams, but 12 of 16 AFC teams won 7 games or more, as did 11 of 16 NFL teams. Most notably of them were the Titans, who overcame an 0-6 start to finish 8-8 even though I wrote some harsh things about them that I can't find right now.

Anyway, statistics aside, we actually, finally have the playoffs to discuss instead of discussing whether playoff-bound teams would play at full effort. In the interest of producing more amusingly bad predictions, I'll predict the outcomes of all 11 games now, and revisit them every week.

Oddly enough, three of the games next week are rematches from this week.

AFC wild card round

Baltimore at New England: New England, the Ravens are not that good of a team

New York at Cincinnati: Cincinnati, the Jets are not that good of a team, though I hope they win for the way Cincinnati didn't even bother playing for the 3rd seed

NFC wild card round

Philadelphia at Dallas: Dallas, the Cowboys are playing very well with two shutouts and a win over the Saints, while the Eagles have slid

Green Bay at Arizona: Green Bay, the Packers have a very strong offense

AFC divisional round

New England at San Diego: San Diego

Cincinnati at Indianapolis: Indianapolis

NFC divisional round

Dallas at Minnesota: Dallas

Green Bay at New Orleans: New Orleans

AFC championship

San Diego at Indianapolis: San Diego

NFC championship

Dallas at New Orleans: New Orleans

Super Bowl

San Diego vs New Orleans: San Diego

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Bill Maher on why we should declare a War on Cars

I've long been an opponent of cars, which kill more people worldwide than terrorism ever will. In America alone, 40,000 people die from car crashes, and the number is over 200,000 in China. When my mother tells me not to run at night, I tell her not to drive at night. Whatever you can think of that's unsafe, short of smoking or an addiction to heroin or crack cocaine, it's likely safer than driving a car.

The answer, of course, is not to ban cars, but maybe some of the pointless hysteria directed at terrorism should be directed at cars. To date, America has spent close to $1 trillion in Iraq. Just imagine how that money could have been spent turning driving a car into an unbearable nuisance. Before getting in your car, it would be swept for electronics of any sort that might cause distraction. You would have to provide evidence that you are not too fatigued, and would continue to provide such proof at designated government checkpoints.

Some sort of automatic trigger would be developed, possibly by American defense contractors, if conversation levels reached a decibel that was deemed too distracting. Many people would be placed on a do-not-drive list, far more than are even remotely necessary.

The logical conclusion, instead, is to recognize that people die all the time. In industrialized countries, about 1% of the population dies every year. Like the blatantly false 1-in-9 statistic used by breast cancer charities, that doesn't mean three people on my Facebook friends list are going to die this year. Most people who die are old. But, a reality is that the processes of living by nature produce deaths.

Leonard Mlodinow, in his book The Drunkard's Walk, describes how the California state lottery ensures not only that one person will win a large sum of money, but that another will die in a car accident due to the sheer number of people who drive to buy tickets. State lotteries, then, probably kill more people in the United States than terrorists.

I don't advocate the abolition of airport security and concerns about terrorism, not to mention random crime, which is extremely rare but a constant fear for many. But, many of the extraneous procedures currently being undertaken at airports are superfluous. Aside from scanning luggage for sharp, obviously dangerous objects and explosives, as well as securing the cockpit door to prevent a hijacking, nothing more needs to be done. Well, seat belts that can't be unlocked would erase the possibility that the person sitting next to you won't strangle you to death, which remains a possibility.