Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bad cops, bad cops

Those of you with lengthy memories will remember this song from the Simpsons. All of us should remember the madness in Toronto this weekend, where the cops were never there when you needed them and everywhere when you didn't. Countless reports of outrageous incidents came in via Facebook, Twitter, and the constant stream of online news. They could chiefly be divided into two kinds: people behaving badly on Saturday, cops behaving badly on Sunday.

If you don't know, here's a summary: hundreds of people were arrested, countless without justification and others with more than enough. Windows were smashed, businesses were ruined, Toronto's downtown (hospitals, hotels, universities, offices) was shut down, and a medieval-like city wall erected. For a weekend, Toronto was both a city-state and a police state where civil liberties were sharply and shockingly restricted.

What happened in Toronto this weekend was more or less a foregone conclusion due to several factors. These high-profile summits accomplish virtually nothing, although they are by no means a repudiation of face-to-face diplomacy. It's just that these summits are every bit as theatrical as the security around them. It may come as news to you that someone somewhere decided that the heads of the G20 should meet every six months, and so they have: Washington in November 2008, London in April 2009, Pittsburgh in September 2009, Toronto in June 2010 and Seoul in November 2010. Fortunately, someone came to their senses and these meetings will be once a year starting next year.

The very fact that these summits occur is part of the problem, but another part of the problem is that they occur in large cities. It makes sense for summits to take place in the capital cities of member countries: Toronto, Washington, London, Seoul and so on. However, this tends to attract people from the deep left end of the political spectrum who use it as a catch-all protest for whatever is wrong in the world. This is no problem on its own, but combined with the other preconditions, it is.

Having the summit in the presence of protesters in a major city creates the sort of chaos we saw in the Battle of Seattle, which Rage Against the Machine expressed neatly. If we want our cities to be battlegrounds for "progressive", "alternative", and other buzzwords, that's fine, but I don't think we do. It's not that we don't endorse the views, but that it's not the way to go about the process. Moving the summits elsewhere would, some argue, be a bad idea because leaders need to "see" the protesters.

Arguing for a physical immediacy to politicians is a bizarre argument, however. We have no right to demand that the Prime Minster live in Scarborough public housing so that we can see him everyday and harass him with our problems big and small, real and imaginary. Demanding a similar access to the leaders of the world, but only for the duration of a summit but never else, sort of the way we watch swimming and figure skating religiously but only during the Olympics, leads to the police state compromise. We get access, but with a series of walls in between and 15,000 seemingly nutless police officers roaming the streets (comparison: the Canadian Forces have 65,000 members).

The summits and their formulaic, useless joint statements, resolutions and press releases are useless enough in comparison with diplomacy between people that want to see each other. But, if we're going to do this, let's put this in the middle of nowhere like Huntsville or Brampton so that no one gets hurt. If you want to protest, you have the other 362 days of the year to find the leaders of the world and hold up your banners of socialist revolution.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The most people ever on the Internet, as long as they speak English

Mashable reports that the recent US-Algeria soccer game sent levels of Internet traffic to the highest level ever recorded. That seems somewhat surprising, until you realize, of course, that Internet traffic is not like TV ratings, in that it's higher now than it was five years ago. The highest Internet traffic ever was probably two years ago at the start of the World Cup.

That much is safe to say, and it's also safe to say that the traffic levels around the World Cup final will be similar. However, whether the soccer game, coupled with an England-Slovenia soccer game, was an equal to the first day of the World Cup is doubtful.

Consider how these numbers are recorded: they are calculated from traffic at 100 news sites that do business with Akamai. Akamai is described by Wikipedia as "a company that provides a distributed computing platform for global Internet content and application delivery." It is truly a child of the techno-buzzword-laden late '90s, founded in 1998. At any rate, a sampling of these sites shows them to be either American or European.

The Internet, by contrast, is not the pure English-speaking domain that we would like it to be. China has the most users, followed by America, Japan and India. In the top three alone, we have about 600 million people that are neither white nor speak English, fully a third of the Internet population of 1.8 billion. Spikes in traffic on American sites really aren't all that informative as a result, at least if you want to make broad statements about the most Internet users ever.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Privates and civilians

As I walk to work every morning, I negotiate the narrow roads, the wide cars and the cross-flow of our students walking to school and kids walking through our schoolyard to get to the school down the street from mine. I make a sharp distinction between my students, who wear white and navy uniforms in varying degrees of crispness, and those of the public school down the street, who I call civilians.

The civilians look so casual that I don't realize how strange my students look otherwise. I generally don't recognize them I happen to see them not wearing their uniforms, which has happened every now and then. They look burdened and give at least the pretense of being disciplined because they all look the same. The civilians, by contrast, look like they're on a permanent vacation. Sometimes I ask myself, "shouldn't these kids be going to school?" before I catch myself and realize that they are.

So much of my school takes me back to the first school I ever went to, the Nobel Grammar School in Lahore. We (or maybe just me?) not-so-cleverly called it the "no-bell" school. In retrospect, a surprising number of our business was conducted in English, repeated repetitions of repetitions that I didn't understand at all. The order, the regiment and the ceremony all have neat correlations in the South Korean education system.

We wore navy blue uniforms, elastic ties and white shirts that picked up an astonishing amount of dirt on the back of the neck thanks to the fact that it was about 40 degrees outside and we were kids. That helps me understand why my students are perpetually dirty, with sometimes disturbing combinations of dirt, blood and food stains comingling with late afternoon sweat.

The burden on my students is immense. I'm aware of the constant tests: today I handed back last week's tests to my grade 5 students the period after they took their final exam for the semester, which is the day after they took separate, government-mandated standard tests. I'm also aware of the workload, the never-ending private tutoring in a variety of subjects and so on. At least two of my students took an early summer vacation to go study English in America and the Philippines respectively.

One thing that I've only recently come to appreciate is the degree of parental involvement that is required to succeed in some of the more advanced classes. Korea is somewhat lacking in after-school sports, but makes up for it with after-school classes of all sorts. I teach, unsurprisingly, an after-school English class. Success in the class can roughly be correlated with your parents' English ability and their ability to make you memorize words.

As a result, a student that tends to struggle in the class is one whose grandmother is responsible for helping her with her homework. I've heard her protest that she couldn't finish homework because her grandmother doesn't speak English well enough. Other students have explained shortcomings by admitting that their parents (almost invariably their mother) didn't understand the task at hand. One of my favourite answers to a daily writing assignment was a simple 엄마도 몰겠어요 ("mom also doesn't know").

Another burden is the memorizing. High school memorize what would be the equivalent of memorizing as many acts of Hamlet as possible, adults memorize words and their meanings, and my students memorize sentences that show them how to use key words. I personally preferred teaching kids the meaning of the word and letting them use it in a sentence on their own, but then that leads to all sorts of grammatical nightmares.

As much as I would love to instill in my students an Aristotelian disposition for using words in the right way in sentences, it's probably more practical to teach them to memorize correct sentences. If nothing else, the sentences will get stuck in their heads. When making sentences in the future, having a correct structure in mind will pay off. Here is a lengthy but fascinating defense of memorization from a Korean who learned English.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In it, but not of it

In the last two weeks, I've seen 8-10 soccer games, which is about as many as I've seen in the last two decades. Outside of North America, soccer is much easier to appreciate since it's not a niche sport for those who would like to like it. So, I've come to understand soccer, made easier by the NFL-style broadcasting where games come one after another, from 8 pm to 5 am in Korean time.

For a long time I disliked soccer, as many North Americans do, because of its fluid nature and rapid shifts in momentum and speed. These are things I don't understand well, one of the reasons I don't really like to watch hockey. But, after seeing play after play, game after game, replay after replay, I can finally understand how it's put together. I can understand both the way the games work and also the way the tournaments work, but while I understand it, I don't think I can be a soccer fan.

There are certainly soccer fans from Canada and America (to say North Americans don't like soccer is bizarre, considering about 25% of North Americans are soccer-crazed Mexicans) although it's hard to follow the game from there. I won't pretend to be a soccer fan, and while I'll be more inclined now to try and pay attention to soccer highlights in the future instead of zoning or toning out, I can't name or place many or any of its stars.

It's too bad, though, because I wish I was a soccer fan. The phenomenon of soccer is on a scale so wide that it's difficult to comprehend. Here in Seoul, something on the order of hundreds of thousands of people went out last night to watch the Korea-Nigeria game that started at 3:30 am local time, and were trudging home in the broad daylight that breaks out here at 5 am. It would be possible to think that Koreans love soccer most of all, but that's a grotesque overstatement. Koreans would come a distant third to the European and South American powers on the fan index, as passionate as they are about public gatherings, clapping and international sports that prove their worth as a race and as a country.

Like many things on a global scale or involving billions of people, soccer is popular on a scale that's difficult to comprehend. Its popularity relies in part on its popularity and also its simplicity, though only seven teams have ever won it. Being a global sport unlike any of the North American sports, it lacks the neat narrative that we enjoy in North American sports. There is really only one version of most of our sports, with the exception of football, which has three varieties albeit in a clear hierarchical order. Professional soccer is centred in Europe, but that's about it. There are many teams and leagues and players, and is universal enough to be in practice what track and field is symbolically: something that everyone does, even places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and North Korea.

The World Cup, on the other hand, does offers a very neat narrative, one that's almost too neat. Thirty-two teams fight tooth and nail for years to get here and despite the intense, almost absurdly competitive level, only one can win. That's hardly a satisfying outcome for anyone, but those who enjoy the arbitrary, high-pressure environment of three round-robin games and then as many as four single elimination games, it works.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Should US visa holders have their visas revoked for not snitching?

"Remarkably stupid", "about as crafty a policy as using landmines", "unconscionable and frankly laughable propositions", and "the author [has] stooped so low as to suggest we use black mail" are three of the more salient comments made about this article by law professor Eleanor Brown. Brown proposes requiring visa holders in the United States to inform authorities about terrorist attacks. She writes:

"In the event that visa holders are later found to have failed to share critical information which could have prevented a terrorist attack, and which they had reason to know, the penalty should be the withdrawal of visas."

What makes this so nakedly xenophobic, racist and in love with its own boorish tough-mindedness (sort of like this fellow), is that no penalties are proposed for citizens or permanent residents. I'm not sure what laws already exist to punish these sort of people, who presumably would be accessories to whatever crimes have been committed. If there are no such laws, there really ought to be, because then they could apply to gangland murders, corporate fraud and other wholesome American crimes not committed by swarthy foreigners.

Brown makes much of the fact that it is the "global elite" who can easily get US visas, and are well-connected to know the dirty details about others from their country. What might happen, and deservedly should happen considering America's paranoia, is that those people should either go elsewhere or simply stay home.

Increasingly, the bright Chinese and Indian workers and students that power America's immense technological superiority over the rest of the world have reasons to stay home, partly because they can make a decent living at home and partly because visa restrictions in America are so onerous. (I'm writing this on an American website in between watching videos on another American website using American software and an American operating system.)

Sooner or later, America will have to come to terms with the fact that it is impossible to know everything about every single person in the country. The two options are to either hermetically seal off the country in the way of North Korea or Myanmar, or to accept that terrorist attacks are possible, will be attempted and might even happen. That a dozen people might die here and there seems small potatoes in a country where 15,000 people are murdered every year and more than 2 million are in prison.

Here we have yet another case of pageantry, the sort of thing that looks tough and makes a great big show, but really accomplishes nothing. It seems intended more to mollify like-minded individuals than to enhance security, an otherwise empty symbolic gesture that has the potential for disastrous consequences. When people do this sort of thing, typically they have something shallow and mundane in mind, like responding to a billion-dollar deficit at city hall by restricting councilors' personal spending, which amounts to at best a million dollars.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book #6: 빨간 머리 앤 (Anne of Green Gables)

I can't quite figure out why reading Anne of Green Gables (Redheaded Anne in Korean) was so moving. Some of it has to do with teaching kids, which makes the book more relevant, and some of it probably has to do with the book's rural Canadian setting, and still some of it with the fact that it was written in Korean. This was the second book I've ever read in Korean, and the first was about a 10-page picture book about going to the dentist. By comparison, this was a 200-page paperback that I took about two months to finish.

In Korean, the book is written with a giddy, unbridled optimism that is probably more fitting of the young, childish Anne than the now-stuffy early twentieth-century prose of the original English. On the other hand, the Korean, which is written for younger kids, obscures the fact that Anne is growing up (at least for me). In discussing the Korean book, I came to realize that the green gables refer to the roof of the house, not the fields surrounding it as I'd thought for about 15 years.

I'm sure that any number of people who read the book see themselves in Anne, a loquacious, particular and sentimental girl that's easy to love. I was no different in identifying with Anne's loquacious and somewhat eccentric speech, though I certainly didn't see that in myself when I read the book as a kid. Reading the book probably helped out the 11-year-olds I teach, because in lamenting the crushing of children's wonder and sentimentality, I probably became less of a grouchy teacher.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is that kids are curious about something, anything, much as they grumble, "when are we ever going to need to know this?" Later on, with the prospect salaries looming, we tend to focus on utility, less on the sort of things that are nice to know but don't make you any money. Anne's interest in things, particularly the outdoors, for its own sake, her pure joy at trees and lakes, was refreshing.

I also enjoyed the book for its rural, historic setting. It would be an outright lie for me to claim anything resembling familiarity with Canada's countryside, but I've always admired it. Spending this weekend in a quiet speck of Korea's southern coast, I remembered Canada's rustic (if not rusting) north, where the Pepsi logos are old, people discuss fishing, and I generally have no business venturing. The book had belaboured descriptions of nature, which was certainly soothing given that I read most of it on Seoul's subway system.

Finally, reading a book in Korean was very difficult. If you don't understand a word, you can use all the other words you do understand to sort things out, but there were many passages where only having read the book previously made it possible for me to understand what was happening. As well, Korean has some saccharine, child-like qualities that make English seem somewhat brooding and standoffish. Department stores hang banners at the entrace that say "dear customer, we love you!", the subway has posters that say "the customer's smile is our happiness," and plain, earnest speech goes a long way. This makes everything more emotional, children's literature being a particularly good example.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chopping wood at the great pageant

I really like the term security theatre to describe the way in which public officials spare no expense or paranoid delusion when it comes to the issue of security. As though its $1 billion dollar moat-and-alligator approach to carving up downtown wasn't enough, the people in charge of security for the upcoming G20 summit have decided to cut down trees on sidewalks.

According to a National Post article, "The trees could be ripped out of the ground by demonstrators “and then you’ve got a huge bar,” said Constable Wendy Drummond, a spokeswoman for the Integrated Security Unit." It's pointed out by a conservation group that trees don't come down easily, at least not without an ax, at which point you have a bigger problem.

Of course, no one cares and it's futile to complain because it's better to be safe than sorry. The problem is that the process of determining security in groups is the opposite of how it should be. In a committee, typically ideas are proposed and then debated on their merits. In committees that decide security, ideas are proposed and then never debated nor reversed because no one wants to give the hint of being opposed to the catch-all of security. This is why we still have to take off our shoes and give up contact lens solution and bottles of orange juice at the airport.

Well-meaning often defend this sort of idiocy with a platitude along the lines of, "well, I'm glad they're doing something". Why is this wrong? Well, aside from the difference between doing something stupid instead of something useful, uncritical attitudes towards public officials never result in good things. This is how we end up torturing detainees in Afghanistan and Somalia, or sending them to Syria for an all-expenses paid trip.

Much of this security theatre is for the benefit of those involved. ESPN football columnist Gregg Easterbrook often notes the folly of football coaches or low-level politicians appearing with massive security details. Here we have high-level politicians, but the idea is the same. If no expense or paranoid overreaction is spared, then everyone involved feels more important, for the same reason that young boys feel important when they give themselves a club, a name and a treehouse.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Worlds collide!

The game between Korea and Greece Saturday night was a collision of worlds for me. As I watched the long-haired Greeks take to the field led by swift-footed Achilles, son of Peleus against the cherubic Korean team, I considered that a few years ago, I probably would've rooted for Greece. After all, I spent four long years preoccupied with ancient Greece, to the point that it never occurred to me that the Greece of today is not preoccupied with the city states of Athens and Sparta, nor does it care much for philosophy.

I was somewhat torn about who to support, though I didn't have a choice. Koreans of all sorts wore red yesterday, some wearing devil horns to honour the team nicknamed the Red Devils, a kind of peculiar nickname considering that this country has faced an existential threat from a communist country for 60 years as of next Friday (the Korean War began June 25, 1950). City streets, squares and parks all over Seoul and the surrounding area became public cheering areas, a sort of sporting madness that resembles a month of Super Bowl Sunday.

In a lot of ways, Korea is the anti-Greece in my mind. Greece is philosophy, everything that is pure, abstract and free of even the hint of having to live a life. Korea is the present, the place where I came to live a life far from the concerns of philosophy. Every now and then someone, assuming my major to give me some expertise on the topic, asks me whether I "like" this philosopher or that, or if I could explain philosophy to them. By and large, though, philosophy is the answer to a trivial fact about myself that people (mostly Koreans) ask every now and then: what is your major?

It wasn't always like that, of course. I studied Aristotelian ethics conscientiously if not consciously, giving more consideration to the considerations than considering the material in front of me. I turned everything into questions of good and bad, right or wrong, and I was keen on demonstrating how our post-Reformation propensity for dispensing with morality in the public realm to avoid conflict was a mistake. In my head, I suppose I still demonstrate it to myself, but in retrospect I'm not sure why anyone else could possibly even begin to think any of it as remotely interesting.

Instead of morality, I spend a lot of time at work considering the epistemic puzzles conceived by Plato, the differences between opinions and knowledge, between seeming to know something and knowing something. John Searle's Chinese Room puzzle is also at the forefront of my my mind every time I try to read something on my Taiwanese laptop. A lot of teaching involves judging whether someone does or does not know something, not to mention ensuring that someone knows something.

Much of the tension in this game metaphor also comes from the tension between what we thought we'd be and what we end up being. Our generation and the generation before it (though not literally my parents) swear to be true to ourselves and not just do what we're told to do by authority figures. This forms the backbone of so much great and so much terrible music. Greece, then, is what I thought I would be and Korea is what I actually am, though really they're both on the wrong side of conventional employment in Canada. This tension, I suppose, might be represented by the Korea-Argentina game coming up this week, between David-like non-conformity and the Argentine powerhouse of convention.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Toronto: diversity in our poverty

This Globe and Mail highlights the fact that immigrants to Toronto today are less and less likely to catch up to their Canadian-born counterparts. They are destined for careers at packing plants, as taxi drivers, retail workers and the perpetually idle. This is a trend that doesn't get much play outside of the Toronto Star, where the Dickensian sensationalism keeps you from taking it seriously.

Ironically, immigrants have never been better-educated or skilled. This is not a problem of uneducated immigrants coming to take away jobs, but of jobs being taken away from educated immigrants. The next time you order a pizza or take a taxi in Toronto, ask the driver for his credentials. There's a very good chance that they might be better than yours. The wasted potential of adult immigrants in Toronto is a long-standing phenomenon, one we don't need to dwell on here as frustrating and tragic as it is.

The bigger problem is that of neighbourhoods like Flemington Park and elsewhere immigrants get packed into second and third-rate housing. This in itself is not cause for concern, because it's something of a truism that the second generation of immigrants will be better off than the first generation. What's becoming increasingly prevalent is that the second generation is less likely to do so.

The causes for this are vast and complex. Becoming rich in Toronto is largely a matter of going to university and getting the right kind of degree, usually something having to do with computers or money in some way. While large numbers of immigrants, largely East and South Asian, make up the downtown offices and the GO trains that carry them to dull suburban houses, clearly not all immigrants are doing very well.

This would be the part of a Toronto Star article where some well-meaning person identified a myriad ways in which governments at various levels can throw money at this problem, largely in dull, impractical programs that target dark-skinned kids via dull, impractical posters on public transit and in the offices of high school guidance counselors.

The reality is different, however. Yes, it's true that governments of all sorts could do more for immigrant communities, who suffer from the worst of everything. Canada's most diverse neighbourhood is St. Jamestown, a self-enclosed American style housing project so scary that the rumour is that they have their own Pizza Pizza to separate them from the rest of the city. They, too, are on the wrong side of Bloor street from Rosedale. They live in sub-par housing, eat sub-par food, attend third-rate schools and though they live in the midst of the wealth of downtown Toronto, they might as well be in a different country.

The solution, on the other hand, isn't simply to build a new school and make Pizza Pizza deliver to Wellesley and Sherbourne. It's not as though the problem would magically be reversed if a new school were to be built. A large part of the problem is that success today, at least defined in economic terms, is more complicated than it was a generation ago. Success today is far more dependent on having attended university, but educational success requires some form of parental guidance, which immigrant parents are less equipped to provide (note: my immigrant parents were and remain in no way short on guidance, they did their best to prevent my BA in philosophy).

In short, success today is far more complicated and requires more knowledge than it did a generation ago. A generation ago, you could only graduate from high school and end up working for decent wages at a factory. Today, those factories no longer exist and you need a post-graduate diploma in something hyper-specific and increasingly asinine to enter the middle class. The disappearance of jobs of that sort have made success an all-or-nothing proposition, of being a lawyer or something markedly less profitable. In an all-or-nothing proposition, the middle-class kids who have been well-coached for years are likely to win.

The solution, I believe, is in getting away from the ghettos that we've built.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Book #5: The Cleanest Race

Brian Myers has written The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. This is easily the most insightful analysis I have ever read about North Korea for a number of reasons. What sets The Cleanest Race apart from other examinations of North Korea is that it sets apart the fill-in-the-blanks cliche of a "reclusive", "hermetic", or "Stalinist state" and uses Korean-language literature and propaganda to examine the North Korean mindset. Myers' insight is equal parts an illumination of the North Korean mindset and an examination of how the traditional view of North Korea as a communist country makes no sense.

Myers' argument works essentially like this: North Korea is not a communist state, but a racialist state that picks up where imperial Japan left off. North Korea is the successor state to imperial Japan in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, and it uses many of the same techniques used by the Japanese. The Japanese tried to bring Koreans into the fold of the empire by telling them that they were too pure, too innocent to function in a world of vicious mongrel races. The North Koreans jettisoned the Japanese empire from the equation and retained its obsession with racial purity.

Through art, literature and domestic propaganda, Myers shows how it is racial and a child-like moral purity that is the basis for the Kim dynasty cult, not Stalinism. Koreans are child-like in their moral purity and need an absolute leader to guide them. Neither Kim Jong-il nor his father Kim Il-sung are portrayed as god or even a national father, but as loving, maternal figures.

An interesting theme that runs throughout the book is the Korean Central News Agency (website blocked in South Korea!), which is famous for issuing bizarre, blustery threats to South Korea, America and Japan on a daily basis. The KCNA, even in Korean, is targeted at foreigners, not North Koreans. The long apologies to socialism, communism and the like are simply window dressing that don't correspond to news and propaganda for domestic consumption.

If you're at all even remotely interested in North Korea, I strongly recommend buying this book. It's far, far superior to most other documentaries, books, films or newspaper articles on the topic, which simply string together the same cliches with a few anecdotes and inform us about a nuclear threat or sunken submarine.