Friday, April 30, 2010

That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean meatball

One day I looked across the lunchroom and spotted an odd scene. A merrily round boy was intensely scooping the yolk of a hard-boiled egg while two of his classmates played with their teacher's hair, apparently picking the lice out of her hair like two devoted baboons serving the matriarch of their colony. It didn't stop any time soon. The boy kept eating and eating, like a cartoon character, and the girls kept delousing until their teacher felt that enough was enough. The boy didn't feel that enough was enough until there was nothing left.

On subsequent days, I've noticed him again. He easily dwarfs the other students both physically and in his devotion to his lunch. When we served cake the other day, he ate and ate and ate until the sleeve of his navy blue blazer was white. Once again, he ate until the not-so-bitter end. Today, I pointed him out to my coworkers and we tried to get some information about him, to no avail. It was as though the soft, mushy cake had replaced the soft, mushy material of his brain.

With respect to interrogating students, one of my students informed me in an eerily calm voice that her mother had been a student of our principal some decades go. When I informed my happy-go-lucky principal of this, he spun into action, running through the English department like a whirlwind intent on tracking down this student with all the determination of a formulaic cop movie.

"Yang Some Thing? Who is this Yang Some Thing? Get me everything you have on this kid. I want birth dates, phone numbers, addresses, associates, whatever you've got. If anyone at this precinct has so much has seen this kid, I want to know."

I can only hope that all this didn't culminate in her door being kicked down by flak jacket-wearing tough guys in the middle of the night.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A modern Maginot line

One of my favourite writers, James Fallows from The Atlantic, takes a look at the full body scanners that governments around the world fell over themselves in buying after the failed underwear bombing at Christmas. The entire argument for full body scanners seemed as asinine as the current preoccupation with liquids.

There are a host of problems with arbitrary measures that reflect our pathological obsession with death by terrorism and our pathological denial with respect to death by less dramatic forms, namely heart attacks and car crashes. But let's focus on these full-body scanners right now, which produced a trite conversation about civil liberties because someone in a different room would see an oddly-coloured three-dimensional image of your body.

Fallows dismisses these "easily-thwarted, Maginot Line-style, tech-heavy" measures as useless "security theatre" thinking. He quotes an Israeli expert who told Canadian MPs that "I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747". Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, which is successfully if not justifiably secure, does not make use of these scanners.

The Maginot line refers to the large concrete fortresses that France constructed along its German border before World War II which Germany circumvented by attacking through Belgium. A Maginot line for fighting terrorism is a line of body scanners and trash cans full of water bottles. "The real answer lies in intelligence and savvy," writes Fallows. By the time that a terrorist has gotten to the airport and the public is relying on airport workers to protect them, it's probably game over.

Of course, much like having a stomach stapling to stave off going from a compact to a mid-sized automobile, the answer lies in prevention, not mad-dash interventions at the very end. Not being paranoid about what is otherwise an infinitesimally small risk is also a good step. If all else fails, you can go read about people who successful dealt with lupus in the back pages of Reader's Digest.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

I hear things

One of the things I like about speaking Korean is that I overhear a lot of things.

Adeel: "Okay, boys and girls, how many oceans are there?"
Grade 5 student: "Hey, psst, what's an ocean?"

Adeel: "Good morning everyone, how are you today?"
Various students, to homeroom teacher: "Is this the English teacher?"

Grade 1 student: "This old man is here again? He was here yesterday too."

Adeel: "How much is it?"
Barber: "It's six dollars."
Next customer: "People all over the world speak Korean..."

Middle school student A: "Oh, look, he's studying Korean!"
Middle school student B: "Yeah, look, it's even in Korean and everything!"
Middle school student C: "A lot of people come here from other countries to teach English, I bet he's one of them."

Grade 2 student to arriving students: "Hey, sit down quickly! This guy is scary!"

Adeel: "What is this a symbol of?"
A: "Hospital!"
F: "What's a hospital?"
A2: "병원!"
F: "Huh?"

Girl: "Hey, what's this?"
Girl: "Come on, be quiet! Come on!"
Girl: "What's this?! What's this?!"

She was talking to the cat perched on her shoulder as she walked around a convenience store.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Afternoon rush hour

My co-teacher was a little slow returning some workbooks this afternoon as the last bell sounded. The result was a bit like withholding lattes from a dozen high-strung commuters who were already running late. "I'm late!" screamed one tiny mass of navy blue uniform and permed hair. "Piano! My piano! I'm late!" screamed another. "I have to go to another school! I'm late!" came still other voices.

A straw poll of those who somehow got left behind, and those who were trying to leave in spite of my questions, revealed that pretty much all of the eleven students in what's already an after-school English class go to private lessons for a variety of topics. I heard swimming, taekwondo and math on this particular afternoon. I'd like to hate it, but I've given this system of soul-grinding over-education my implicit consent just by being here.

About two percent of the Korean economy consists of private after-school lessons (compared with four percent for prostitution, but that's another story). The sixteen-hour days and six-day weeks that high school students put in probably suck, but the same hyper-competition keeps me employed and housed.

Another informal poll revealed that about a third of these grade 1 students (grade 2 in Canada) spend their lunch hour (actually it's 40 minutes) in the library reading, so I shudder to think of what my grade 5 students do in their lunch break. Actually, I found out today that they're preparing for some sort of super-important jump rope competition on their lunch break, both boys and girls.

The results of the private school grinder are guaranteed to be impressive if nothing else. I have students that speak a remarkably different and difficult foreign language with near-fluency at a young age, but I also have students that complain that they're too busy to do my homework or to wait another second for me to give them their workbooks. That also explains why a third of all high school students sleep in class. I'm inclined to believe that students could achieve almost exactly what they achieve (if not more) by spending more time, say, sleeping, but overall the system works as well as any other.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Now and then

The death toll in the earthquake that struck Yushu, China has risen to over 1100.

Here is the main intersection:

Here is how it looked last summer. The post in the centre of the first picture is just to the left of the blue truck.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Book #4: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point is Malcolm Gladwell's first book and it's the least fulfilling of the four that he has written. I read Gladwell's books for the interesting statistics, quirks they offer, the interesting way in which he identifies and examines problems, as well as the fact that they tend to be sold for $10 or less in the major airports of East Asia. Others tend to read them, it seems, in hopes of offering insight into their business practices or whatever reasons compel people to turn to the self-help section of the bookstore. Many English books in Korea are either adaptations of popular movies or related to business or personal success.

The Tipping Point lacks the flash of Blink or Outliers. Instead, it's a surprisingly sober, methodical examination of the key factors that cause phenomena to become intensely popular. Whereas Blink or Outliers would be more entertaining, The Tipping Point was a slower read, more like an interesting sociology textbook than the captivating reads that Gladwell's later books turned out to be. Nevertheless, Gladwell explains the success or prevalence of syphilis, Paul Revere's famous warning that "the British are coming", crime and fashion trends.

What made The Tipping Point somewhat mediocre is that there was nothing terribly illuminating in it save the idea of treating all phenomena of this sort as viral epidemics. The three factors identified as causing a phenomenon to "tip" were almost tautological. A given virus (or message) will tip if there are special carriers who spread it far and wide, if the virus (or message) is sufficiently "sticky" to "infect" enough people, and if the background conditions are favourable for the spread of the epidemic in question.

There is nothing particularly shocking here, though more interesting is Gladwell's explanation of why we tend not to think of epidemics, both literal and figurative, as such. We tend to think of outcomes as directly proportionate to effort. A company that spends a lot of effort marketing will be more successful, we intuit, than an equal competitor that isn't. However, Gladwell argues that epidemics tend to be geometric in their progression, meaning that subtle variations will have huge impacts.

By way of explanation, consider this example from the book: if you could fold a piece of paper 50 times, it would be high enough to reach the sun, about 150 million kilometres away. However, most people would estimate the height of the paper to be as high as a phone book, or maybe a refrigerator. I agreed with the former. Small actions can, in the right circumstances, have disproportionately large impacts. A more important example is this: in neighbourhoods where 5 to 40 percent of adults are high-status professionals, the rates of teen pregnancy and high school dropouts are stable. A decrease from 5 to 3 percent, however, sees those rates double.

If you don't believe the example about the paper, as I didn't, let's work it out:

1) The height of folded paper will double with every fold. One fold will double the height (1^2), two folds will quadruple it (2^2) and three folds will octuple it (2^3).

2) Fifty folds will produce an increase of (2^50), which is an increase of 1.1 pentillion (1.1 * 10 ^ 15).

3) One pentillion is not the same as 150 million km because, well, paper is thin. A typical piece of paper is 0.1 mm thick.

4) We need 10 pieces of paper to have a stack 1 mm thick, 100 to have a stack 1 cm thick, 10,000 to have a stack a metre thick and 10 million to have a stack a kilometre thick.

5) So, dividing 1.1 pentillion by 10 million, or (1.1 * 10 ^ 15) / (10 ^ 7) gives is 1.1 * 10 ^ 8, or about 110 million km.

Thanks to Seadog for fixing the original error (I assumed 10 pages for 1 cm, but it's 100 pieces for 1 cm). You'd still need paper that's about 0.13 mm thick to get to the sun in 50 folds, but let's not quibble over that.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yushu earthquake

This morning, about 400 people were killed by an earthquake in China. I was shocked to read that this earthquake struck in Yushu, Qinghai province. I spent some time in Yushu last summer (blog entries here and here). Two years ago, a major earthquake killed 87,000 people not far from Yushu in northern Sichuan, another place sky-high in the mountains, also due to the Indian subcontinent smashing into Eurasia.

I count myself fortunate, of course, that this didn't happen when I was there. Yushu being as remote as it is, the only way out was a 15-hour bus ride through high mountains on dirt roads to the south or east. My second reaction, however, was one of sadness. I met some fantastic people in Yushu, and to imagine 400 of them dead is heartbreaking, moreso because I've been there.

For all I've heard about China's ascendance, I was surprisingly surprised when I got to Yushu. I remember that nobody spoke English and many people didn't even speak Chinese given that they were Tibetans. I remember that there didn't seem to be a shower or a flush toilet anywhere in the town. I remember reading that there was no way to get money from an ATM, and I remember searching forever to find an Internet connection. I remember paying $12 to get a neat double room that had no shower or bathroom, but a free thermos of hot water and a large colour TV.

You can describe China roughly as sloping down from west to east geographically, but economically it slopes down from east to west. The cities on the east coast, places like Shanghai, Beijing, Dalian, Qingdao and Tianjin are by far the most developed. Places in the far west are so obscure that no one has ever heard of them, places like Qinghai, Xinjiang and, were it not for Brad Pitt and the Beastie Boys, Tibet as well.

It's sad that this is how Qinghai and Yushu, which Lonely Planet described as a remote corner of a remote province, made the news. Maybe one day development and the rest of the world will find them again, but right now, they make about a dollar a day and their children die in poorly-constructed schools. Given the constraints of geography, infrastructure and abilities, the Chinese government's response seems to be better than it would be in other countries, but I don't envy anyone trying to get there by any way other than flying.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I've missed MSN

Riyaad says:
how are things?
Adeel says:
making a test
and checking it twice
gonna find out who's been naughty or nice
Riyaad says:
do you get to hit the kids?
Adeel says:
i get to make them mine their own coal though
they mine the coal
the parents' council gets a share and the rest goes to a shell company of mine based in bangkok
that shell company executes a debt-equity swap
and that's how every ninth cup of coffee is free at this place i go to
Riyaad says:
hopefully it's not made from coal
Adeel says:
most of it isnt
Riyaad says:
also good
going to the jays game with c-dawg tomorrow
Adeel says:
oh no way
i miss baseball
even that cold dome
by the way, i just blogged that exchange
Riyaad says:
my first feature on your blog in ages

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Red Army

It was a beautiful morning at Osaka Castle. The sun was shining over the wide moat and the expansive grounds, and the cherry blossoms were out in full force. But, thanks to its fatal design flaw, namely a bridge over the moat, the castle was invaded by hordes of Chinese on a scale I've never seen before. I've seen Chinese tourists in China, carrying flags like the various battalions of a sneaker-wearing, trinket-buying army aspiring towards commodious living, but that was in China and in Tiananmen Square to boot.

Seeing this many tourists with this much enthusiasm at about 7:30 on a Saturday morning was a little much, but it's to be expected. Cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin have a purchasing power equivalent to central Europe. They have about 50 million people between them.

The three richest provinces are Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong, which have a purchasing power more like that of Mexico, Turkey or Brazil. They have a combined population of about 220 million people. That gives us 270 million people who live in at least second world conditions, a number that will continue to grow. Thomas Friedman writes in Hot, Flat and Crowded that by 115 million Chinese will travel overseas 2020, more than from any other country.

What this means is that we should at least learn to say "ni chi dian shenme?" ("what would you like to eat?") and maybe even follow in the paths of a tour guide I saw at Versailles last year, presumably a French national who was leading a captivated audience around in (what seemed to me) fluent Chinese.

There are two benefits to this increase in the number of Chinese. Chinese traveling abroad will, hopefully, be able to produce a narrative of their country as more than the country of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Google censor and General Tao chicken with fried rice, to go. Conversely, as more and more ordinary people travel abroad, they might come to learn that there is a website called YouTube, a sort of Youku for the laowai.

Chinese, I think, are very conscious of their status in the world, similar to Koreans. Korea, I think, is more considerate of its reputation in the world than it is of actual matters of right and wrong, good or bad. That might seem a tad shallow, but it produces results. Koreans, who often have studied abroad in Canada, America or Australia and visited Japan, know how things are elsewhere and which things are better. A possible outcome of this travel is that China, too, will demand freer Internet, more responsive government and maybe even elections, just like all the other big kids.

Friday, April 09, 2010

These streets will make you feel brand new

If anywhere there is an antipode, the exact opposite to the West, it's here in Japan. Pound for pound, there is probably no place on earth more foreign than here, if you adjust for development. Nowhere else do you find such an insular, complicated culture where cashiers talk like auctioneers while they sell you orange juice, girls walk down the street with hairdos becoming an 18th-century monarch and the language has three distinct writing systems. The culture is vibrant, bizarre and highly complicated, like ours and yet absurdly different at the same time.

Everything in Japan is slightly off, but not in a way that suggests being behind or even being ahead. Rather, Japan seems to exist in a different universe, a glimpse of how life could have been on our planet had a few things been different. The cars drive on the left, the cuisine consists of an intriguing number of raw dishes, the lights are painfully bright, and thin people in tight suits ride bicycles in armies on the street.

What stuns me every time I come here is that from the outside, all the news about Japan is bad. The economy is in a never-ending recession that began 20 years ago, jobs are impossible to get and the country is slowly dying not just due to its stagnant economy but also literally: it's full of old people, with no kids.

On the inside, it seems that none of it can possibly be true. There is no shortage of high-end restaurants and stores. The streets are spotless. Everyone is either well-dressed or has the most outlandish combination of clothes ever seen. Everything is absurdly expensive.

Japan's economy is literally stuck in time. It's economy is slightly smaller than it was 15 years ago. Prices, I'm told, are literally the same as they were 15 years ago. Twenty years ago, Tokyo's real estate bubble meant that the Imperial Palace was worth more than all of California.

When you're in Japan, however, all that fades away. All you can see are the bright lights, the indecipherable signs and advertising. There are pachinko salons everywhere, each with the most garish signage the 22nd century could have produced. As crowds walk by, they trigger the automatic doors so often that it seems the doors are set to automatically close and open. Deafening techno music blares from the pachinko salons, the electronics, clothing and cosmetics stores, as well as the billboards.

You can go and wander the streets for hours, roaming labyrinthine stores selling indecipherable products at prices that would make sense if you had any idea what was being sold. The dance music alternates with pre-recorded, high-pitched enthusiastic exhortations. Sometimes the mystery product is beef jerky, other times it's not cheese but cosmetics. Sometimes what you thought was rice on the diner's vending machine is actually a fried egg. Sometimes you just have no idea.

Oot and aboot Oscar

I had a grade 3 class last year that read a book about a Bolivian boy named Oscar. Given the Korean penchant for mistrusting consonant clusters, Oscar became Oh-sa-kar and then just Osaka. We pronounce Osaka as oh-SA-ka, but the Koreans and maybe also the Japanese seem to stress the first syllable and shorten the second: OH-sa-ka. As a result, it sounds almost like exclaiming "oh, sucker!"

At any rate, here are some pictures I took yesterday.

For those days when you need to buy a Halloween costume, a suit and candy in a rush, you can go to this six-storey behemoth and find what you need out front.

The sentence reads "I was ever a redneck".

What on earth are they trying to say here? I translate the French as "Does it wear outside slowly?" Can anyone help?

The outside of Namba station, also known as the North American Man Boy Love Association (link goes to Daily Show).

A Korean-language magazine on things to do in the Kansai region of Japan that I picked up at my hotel. I find the English "Love Donut" as funny as a literal translation of the Korean: "the donut you want to eat immediately". The main story is about some fancy donut shop.

한민족 한마음

Seeing groups of Koreans overseas is now a bit like seeing members of your family in public: simultaneously embarrassing and amusing, but always endearing. A group of Canadians could be from anywhere and could act in many diferent ways, but Koreans like to conform. After all, on my flight here to Osaka, I think I was the only one that abstained on the Boeing 737 when the flight attendant with the Mickey Mouse ears on a headband played a mass game of rock-scissor-paper.

So, here are the observations of the biggest gathering of koreans I have ever seen, from the immigration line at Kansai International Airport (KIX). Parenthetically, flights from KIX to ASH (Nashua, New Hampshire), ASC (Ascension, Bolivia) and ASK (Yamoussoukro, Cote D'Ivoire) are probably just as rare as the mythical Fukuoka-Sioux City, Iowa route.

  • stately ajuma setting down her darth vader visor to fill out an arrival card

  • flight attendant gently telling a man on the plane that he can't write in Korean because the Japanese can't understand it

  • faux-nerdy girl with dreadlock hat (think Bob Marley) and square glasses with huge, thick frames, and giant hoop earrings

  • a group of men carrying what looked like a large screen TV in a plastic bag from the duty-free

  • another ajumma scooting through a line of a few hundred passengers to go to the bathroom, crying out in pain each time she unceremoniously ducks under a cordon

  • quite possibly the fattest Korean I've ever seen, with manners as good as his expression was dour

  • four girls wearing minidresses, hoodies, and four-inch heels who fixed their makeup in line

  • young men reassuring girlfriends that they were only 100 (then 80, then 50, then 30) feet away

  • a girl wearing a shirt that read "Inevergetlosteveryone tells me wiere to go" (sic)

  • a posh woman wearing the same outfit as the baby she carried on her back

  • last, but certainly not least, an adorable middle-aged tour guide wearing a striped dress shirt with burgundy tie. if you saw her, you would understand the Korean expression 마음에 들다 (ma-eum-ae-deul-da; to enter the heart)

    I've been trained to think of airports as sterile, quasi-military facilities where the slightest deviation from the norm will result in deportation to Syria or parts unknown for enhanced interrogation. Koreans seem to treat them as just another place to have a family picnic. While it's somewhat unbecoming to move in large packs and disregard the order and sanctity of queues, it's certainly becoming to enjoy yourself no matter where you are.
  • Thursday, April 08, 2010

    Bishkek Bop

    The news out of Kyrgyzstan is that protesters have stormed government buildings and offices Bastille-style, declaring that they have taken control of the country. This comes five years after the Tulip Revolution of 2005, in which popular protests ushered out a dictator. The new leader, it seems, is a dictator.

    Whether that's true or not is another matter, but the degree of political engagement in Kyrgyzstan is heartening. It's a country that, like its neighbours, has been dealt a bad hand. The area is mountainous, remote and suffered under communism for almost a century. In the power vacuum that followed communism and the annexation into the Russian empire before it, it's not surprising that all the -stans of Central Asia became dictatorships, most notably Turkmenistan, which ranks with North Korea, Zimbabwe and Eritrea as one of the most reclusive in the world.

    The Kyrgyz, for whatever reason, will produce the sort of democracy that the Greeks feared: untempered mob rule where windows are smashed and officials are lynched. In a desperately poor country where you can find a surprising number of young able-bodied men standing around doing nothing, that's not surprising. Mob-rule democracy, the literal translation of the word, is generally preferable to an oppressive dictatorship, at least until it turns into an Iraqi election, which is a bit like trying to go out for dinner with some people who are vegetarians and others who only eat meat.

    Much was made of the march of democracy in the 90s and in the early part of the last decade as the various coloured revolutions swept across the world. It was fantastic in former Soviet bloc countries and others who had an existing culture of democracy, or were able to adapt well. However, the end is not democracy, but living well. For this purpose, a centralized, far-sighted dictatorship is probably better than an open democracy.

    India is a shining example today of a country that is developing rapidly while also being an open democracy. It is the gold standard for development, no doubt, lacking many of the travesties seen over the Himalayas in China. At the same time, dictatorship or authoritarianism worked well in all of East Asia (Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore) so long as it wasn't communist (North Korea, China until 1979). Let's also consider the fantastic growth in Chile, the UAE, Qatar and even Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf. Even much of the development in Central Asia (Uzbekistan has a subway!), now decaying infrastructure from decades past, is the result of Soviet central planning

    In the end, authoritarianism will always suppress development, particularly at the point where continued development demands the existence of civil society and the possibility of innovation, and exposes the limits of government-directed development. Until that point, going from the Third World to the Second World, can often be accomplished acceptably, if not ideally, by one person who knows what he's doing than a bunch of people who don't.

    Tuesday, April 06, 2010

    Locked inside a bank

    A sequence of small disasters conspired to get me locked inside a bank after hours in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, they were still serving customers, but I was still a long way of home, surrounded by a virtual UN (at least its Asian part) of (fellow?) migrant workers from China, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere.

    I was in the suburb of Ansan southwest of Seoul where there are apparently so many factory workers working so many six-day work weeks that this one branch keeps the hours of a convenience store: open 363 days a year. This is in sharp contrast to the regular hours of 9-4, a shocking anachronism for a country where long hours are common for both workers and customers. You can, for example, order a whole chicken at pretty much any hour of the night.

    When I arrived an hour before closing time at 3 pm on Sunday, I was shocked to see the line spilling out of the bank. I was customer 354 and I was informed that there were 111 customers ahead of me. The closing time of 4 meant simply that no new customers were allowed. Everyone in about a thirty metre vicinity was ushered into the bank, the blinds pulled down and the shades locked. I'm sure later it emerged that some people were rounded up by mistake, but these things happen.

    After about an hour, most people were gone, except for a group of Uzbeks that recognized each other by the passports they brought as identification. Without the passports, you would've identified them as Filipino, Egyptian, Russian and Chinese. It really is a remarkable country. I got in line ahead of them and conducted my business in about 5 minutes after a wait of 1 hour and 45 minutes. The Uzbek woman behind me, wearing what could best be described as a flesh-coloured corduroy jumpsuit, took some time to thumb through my copy of Dostoyevsky's The Karmazov Brothers without asking.

    The bank itself is inside Ansan's Foreign Community Centre, unique for catering not just to foreigners, but undesirable foreigners. These aren't executives, businessmen, English teachers or soldiers. These are factory workers, maids and others who do the jobs that Koreans feel are beneath them. As a result, these people, for their dark skin and strange languages, are beneath Koreans for the most part. At the community centre, however, they are welcomed, trained in skills and languages, provided with legal help and even a library for their children.

    One community centre in one city is hardly indicative of a trend, but Korea's rapid diversification seems to indicate that it might avoid the fate of neighbouring Japan. So far, Korea has seen rapid industrialization (about 100 years after Japan's Meiji Restoration of 1868), intense urbanization, great prosperity and the low birth rate that results from being a rich country with absolutely no space. However, while Japan has chosen to accept a slow decline in its population rather than sully its pure blood with immigration, Korea seems more open-minded.

    Japan's population will decline by as much as a third by 2050, from 127 million to as low as 90 million. Korea faces similar problems with a birth rate that is actually lower than Japan's. To give you an idea of how quickly things have changed, 50 years ago, the typical Korean woman had 6 babies, compared to 2 in culturally and geographically similar Japan.

    However, Korea has accepted if not welcomed immigrants. Almost half the children born in rural areas are racially mixed due to the influx of women imported to marry farmers that Korean women won't marry. Korea is now actually 2% foreign, a shocking statistic if you think about it. Where exactly these one million foreigners live and work is a mystery to me. Acting as though it has an interest in the well-being of these people who live and work in Korea but happen to have the wrong kind of skin is a welcome step for a country where children will refer to black teachers as monkeys.

    Friday, April 02, 2010


    The news came out this week that the current season of 24 will be its last one. I've been watching 24 for seven of its eight years and after four or five seasons, it was easy to see scenes being recycled over and over. For its entire existence, the show has been interesting for what it supposedly says about the limits of counter-terrorism, with both sides plausibly making cases for being represented by the hero of heroes Jack Bauer.

    What makes the show so compelling, especially at the start, was its use of real-time to create what was an absurd day that consisted nothing of action, with no time for sleep, rest, eating or bathroom breaks. That in itself was a commentary on torture, I suppose, along with its countless other depictions of torture, interrogation and the tension between legal process and outcomes. As the show wore on, however, it made more sense to stop pretending that everything was in real time, since it seemed increasingly absurd.

    The wane of the show also exposed the limits of terrorism. Though it ranks very high in the minds of many, it's really not that deadly. Yes, millions of people might die, but conventional war is still far more deadly. After a few seasons where nuclear or biological attacks were threatened by plausible villains of all sorts, there was really nowhere to go with terrorism except to rehash the same threats and the same interrogations, interactions and so on.

    One frightening possibility that the show never addressed and, fortunately, has never occurred in real life, is that of many small-scale attacks that would likely be impossible to stop. Nothing, let's face it, is stopping (or can stop) someone from walking into a mall, subway station, department store or the like and shooting as many people as possible. After this happened in Moscow recently, Slate had a good look at why this frightening phenomenon doesn't occur in America, even though it can.

    24 was certainly not without its flaws, but it had startling bursts of creativity and an ability to protract and complicate plots in ways that became disorienting by the end but were thrilling at the start. Its comical repetitions of faux technobabble, Jack Bauer insisting that some pencil-pushing bureaucrat was going to have to trust him because "right now I'm the only one that can lead you to the nuclear material/virus/terrorists", his calls for a medic, and the Jack Bauer body count, all became endearing by the end.

    The wrinkles are obvious, such as when you consider that Jack Bauer has killed 123 people in eight days, which, if you follow closely, have occurred over a span of about 20 years, making him about 60 years old in the current season. In this case, 24 is really like an aging athlete whose rapidly accelerating decline you try not to notice, for whom retirement would be a blessing that would preserve his legacy.