Saturday, July 31, 2010

Case geomancer

It's hard to believe now, but the people who designed Seoul centuries ago put a lot of thought into it. Old Seoul, centred on the Gyeongbokgung palace which is now next to the presidential Blue House, was in an auspicious location. This was because of the positive fung shui: there were mountains to the north and a river to the south.

Today, the entire process seems kind of stupid. There are 20 million people in the area, which is so crowded that the government now wants to build a new capital somewhere else just to ease up on the crowding. The fung shui also doesn't seem like such a good idea now. The mountains in the north of the city, supposedly its guardians, pose a huge threat. In 1968, North Korean commandos used them to make their way to the Blue House, where they were stopped just short of killing the president.

The location of the city, in the far northwest of what is now South Korea, means that it has been within range of North Korean artillery all this time. Its gleaming international airport is even farther north and west, a few minutes by air from North Korea. Despite all that, I've been drawn to the mysterious, shadowy mountains in the north end of the city for a long time. There are taller, more accessible ones still farther north, but the ones just north of the palace, the Blue House and the old city have a particular appeal for the history, the geography, and architecture that's all rolled into one.

Starting at Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul's answer to Tiananmen Square, you can see Gwanghwamun, the front gate of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace in Seoul. The palace was first built in 1394, the gate in 1395.

Much like Tiananmen Square, the area is crawling with the scrawniest-looking cops and soldiers to be found anywhere in the entire country.

A view south from Gwanghwamun.

Just west of Gwanghwamun are the headquarters of the "Ministry of Public Administration and Security" (행정안전부), a name every bit as imposing as some of China's more nefarious government buildings and agencies. Among other things, the ministry is in charge of assholish displays of force.

This is a better view of Bugaksan behind Gyeongbuk palace and the presidential residence. For about 40 years after the 1968 raid, this mountain was a restricted military area. An ID card suffices to visit, but I thought I needed my passport, so I passed and went to the mountain just to the west.

There's a race every year that goes up Inwangsan and then Bugaksan. Of course, it sticks to the roads. Going up the steep, narrow path to the top is a different kettle of fish. I was running and, not counting time spent staring at the view or taking pictures, ran 8 km in about an hour.

At the pass between the off-limits, barbed-wired Bugaksan and Inwangsan is Changuimun, an ancient gate to Seoul. Tucked away in the mountains, you'd never know it was there. I was more or less lost when I got here, seeing as how I ended up at a security gate prompting soldiers to ask each other, "are you going to talk to him? No, you do it."

Bukhansan seen from Inwangsan.

A view down at the "ancient" fortress walls. Elsewhere on Inwangsan, you can see fortress walls being built.

The rectangular complex in the middle of the picture with grass to its left is Gyeongbok palace, one of five in Seoul.

At the back of Gyeongbukgung is the Blue House, where the president lives. You can see it on the right at the base of the mountain surrounded by a lawn, with a distinctive blue roof.

A view down the way I came, with the Inwangsan skyway highlighted. Namsan is in the distance, along with much of central Seoul.

Finally, a look south across the city.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

And I forget just why I taste, oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile

By most measures, this past weekend wouldn't rate as enjoyable. At its core, I climbed a mountain for 10 hours, slept in one-hour shifts on the cold ground or buses, and then went shopping for a wedding dress. Still, I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't more of the most memorable I've had this year, and in a good way at that.

It all began on Thursday really, when I stayed out until midnight gawking at the wares sold at Dongdaemun market, which meant that I was already exhausted for my run at 5 on Friday morning. I slept in shifts from here on out, an hour after the run and two hours in the afternoon, but I was wide awake by the time I boarded a bus Friday night at 11. We arrived at Seoraksan on the east coast an hour early at 2 am, pretended to sleep for another hour and then took off at 3 am.

Lately I've been trying to make my hikes tougher by trudging out in the torrential rain or, in this case, starting in complete darkness and complete exhaustion. We trudged up a steep ridge for a couple of hours, and then crossed something of a plateau once the sun rose, reaching the peak at around 7:30. There was a shelter there where we could sleep, but it kicked hikers out at 8. So, we slept covered in mud on a cold ground that was cleaner than we were.

The descent was in reasonable weather, and I finished at 1 pm feeling like it was the early evening. Feeling sick, I returned to Seoul immediately, sleeping for something like 18 hours. I woke up at 1 pm the next day to a text message from a friend asking if I wanted to meet him in a Seoul's equivalent of Yorkville, Apgujeong. His exact words translate as sightseeing, which it is if you are not part of the aristocracy.

It turned out that I was a fourth wheel needed to balance out my friend's fiancee and her mom. We used valet parking to dine in the basement of a high-end department store, which is common but maybe not with your future mother-in-law. I'm used to being a fly on the wall, but it got really weird after that. I peeped at another couple's wedding photo shoot, where I felt less awkward than most since I didn't have to bow to a stranger.

Then we went wedding dress shopping. I never thought I would go wedding dress shopping in my life, much less go as an accessory to someone else. But, no one batted an eyelash at the small but prissy shop. I wanted to introduce myself as the couple's lawyer, but had to settle for the title of 친구분 (friend-person). It's a good thing I came since I was the only person other than the bride-to-be that didn't fall asleep.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Drill, baby, drill!

Much is being made about a potential mosque in New York near the site of the former World Trade Center and the erstwhile Freedom Tower, whose name was mercifully changed to One World Trade Centre. Given the obvious fact that the mosque is close to the place where so many people died at the hands of Muslims, I've seen this likened to Germans building a war memorial near a synagogue.

Of course, there is virtually nothing to commemorate the nearly 7 million German soldiers and civilians who died in World War II. There is, however, something to commemorate Soviet soldiers in Germany. Japan, on the other hand, neatly recorded the names of all those who so callously killed and raped in China, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and elsewhere, and now maintains a state-sanctioned memorial to those people.

That's neither here nor there. The mosque project is seen by many Americans as a way to propagate Islam, which it is, of course. Many Muslims like to portray this as simply a mosque, but I won't lie. Our goal is conquest, pure and simple. Muslims will move in by the millions, breed like rabbits until they outnumber and outconvert the whites, and then we will take over America. Thanks to the freedoms which we they enjoy in America thanks to our their founding fathers, they have the right to assembly, worship, as well as worship in assembly.

Much has also been made of the prospect of Islamic law existing parallel to secular law. I for one would like to see Islamic law transcend Christian law. When this is so, the foolish ban on purchasing alcohol on Sundays will be lifted. The purchase of alcohol will be forbidden on Fridays instead, along with the unholy customs of Friday shopping and working on Eid. Christians will beg Christmas off from their employers and explain their curious ritual of eating between dawn and dusk when it is Ramadan.

So, if you're reading this from America, the days are numbered until there is an Islamic emirate in your country. The problem, however, is that United American Emirates doesn't really work since there already is a UAE. Islamic Republic of America also creates problems with an acronym. If you know of a good name for Muslim America, please comment and let me know.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Book #8: The Black Swan

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the eighth book I've read this year. The seventh was a Korean-language translation of Daddy Long-legs that I found quite boring, so I won't write about it. Taleb's Black Swan, on the other hand, was a fantastic treatment of one of my favourite topic, the gap between what we commonly think we know and what we actually know.

The title is a nice treat for anyone who has studied philosophy, particularly ancient or medieval philosophy, where "all swans are white" was something of a tautology until the day they found black swans somewhere. A black swan, according to Taleb, is an outlier. These outliers are unpredictable, rare and have a highly disproportionate. They are, in essence, things that no one seems coming which change everything.

This is easily seen by looking at history. We tend to think of history as having a steady, predictable progression, but the reality is that change is violent, sudden and unpredictable. As I discussed here with respect to the collapse of the Soviet Union and North Korea, significant changes are generally not predictable except in retrospect.

Moreover, many fantastic changes are produced accidentally and suddenly. Consider, for example, the Internet, which wasn't intended to let me download Dr. Dre's music, blog or stream episodes of Frasier. It certainly wasn't predicted by anyone, and its prevalence, at least in the West, was hardly a gradual process. Virtually all significant changes are like this, according to Taleb.

Taleb also takes aim at the perceived flaws of ancient philosophy, particularly Platonism, which divides things into neat categories. However, much of life exists outside of neat categories. When we can't categorize something neatly, we assign it lesser importance, which is a mistake according to Taleb. An amusing example of our tendency to categorize is of people who take the escalator instead of stairs at a gym, only to go and use the stairmaster.

Near the end of the book is this passage about philosophy, one of my favourites from the book:

Every Friday, at four P.M., the paychecks of these philosophers will hit their respective bank accounts. A fixed proportion of their earnings, about 16 percent on average, will go into the stock market...

These people are professionally employed in hte business of questioning what we take for granted; they are trained to argue about the existence of god(s), the definition of truth, the redness of red, the meaning of meaning, the difference between the semantic theories of truth, conceptual and nonconceptual representations...

Yet they believe blindly in the stock market, and in the abilities of their pension plan manager. ...They doubt their own senses, but not for a second do they doubt their automatic purchases in the stock market

As a fond Platonist, I think Taleb attributes a nerdy conventionalism to Plato that wasn't there. Much of what Plato wrote was, after much hand-wringing and Socratic gesturing at the agora, to conclude that we did not actually know the meaning of the words that we use all the time. It's not entirely true that Platonism simply accepts conventional definitions and received wisdom; if he is describing the practices of today's Platonists, then they really aren't Platonists.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Freedom means only hiring Chinese people to work for $3 per hour

When I first decided to come to East Asia, a prescient friend told me to go to China for the freedom. We don't typically associate the PRC with freedom, but he insisted. "You'll get away with so much," he said. "Like what?" I asked. "Just, you'll get away with so much." At the time, I had no idea what he meant. I didn't even know what there was to get away with in China, except maybe the sort of thing I already get away with here, like Googling the June 4 incident.

Now, when I describe living in Korea to Koreans, I tell them that one of the things I like most about living here is that I get away with a lot of things. It's partly because I'm a man, partly because I'm a foreigner, partly because I live in a country that doesn't have the myriad of rules that other developed countries have.

Consider the pizza place down the street that sells pizzas for as little as $4. For a long time, they had had a sign that said they were looking for a female to work there. Recently, it was changed to specify a Chinese female. There probably are reasons that they're looking for a Chinese person, namely the large number of Chinese university students in the area who apparently devour pizzas late at night. In most places this would probably violate laws, and my impression is that this also violates laws in Korea, not that the old men who run the country care particularly.

As a foreigner, I encounter lots of cases where rules don't apply to me, but these are minor and insignificant. I can muddle around and avoid the obvious rules that others have to obey: don't wear your shoes in, don't put more than five people in a taxi, buy a ticket when entering a park or museum, treat older acquaintances and strangers of all sorts with obsequience, and so on.

Where we can get away with things is that, unlike in Japan, Canada or elsewhere, social niceties aren't quiet there. I was just in a coffee shop next to several groups of people speaking at the top of their lungs. On my way home, I passed piles of garbage of all sorts from all kinds of people. In between those piles was garbage randomly tossed aside. There was no point crossing the street on a green light since cars run red lights, and it's not just cars. I've seen buses and police cars do the same thing.

Here, you can walk where you want, spit where you want, through your garbage where you want. You can hire who you want, depending on their hometown, appearance, gender and race if you're talking about foreigners (hint: be white). You can drive as fast as you want as drunk as you want (less so now) in as many lanes as you want. You can park your car wherever you want. If you're a child, you can play soccer in the parking lot as buses come and go. If you teach, you can yell at students, beat them, and generally punish them however you'd like.

Freedom has been turned into an empty buzzword in the last ten years, a guaranteed plus word that no one would be opposed to, but also one that no longer really understands anymore. If you're big on it, you could define it positively, ie the freedom to do something. If you're not so big on it, you could define it negatively, as Hobbes did. Cats, after all, are freer than we are. I have to go to work in the morning, but the stray cat I sometimes see under my air conditioner doesn't. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle, much like Korean freedom, which noxious as it is sometimes, is enjoyable and amusing even when I pretend otherwise.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I hear things, continued

These are just some of the things that I've overheard lately in Korean:

Woman: Who's his wife? Where is she?
Translator: Uh, she would like to know, where is your wife?

Adeel (in English): Guys, you meant "zoo", not Jew. Jew means 유대인.
Student 1: What's a Jew?
Student 2: Yeah, what's a Jew?
Older, wiser student 3: Some people that lived a long time ago.

Student: Wow! Athens is big! So, when Greece lost to Korea in the World Cup, were all those people really sad?
Co-teacher: Actually, it's really only our country where people watch soccer games by the hundreds of thousands at City Hall. Everywhere else, they just watch in small groups with friends, or at home.
Student: What about America? They must love soccer there.

Old man, as heard talking to shirtless runner, pointing to his chest: Beautiful!
Old man, talking to shirtless runner, in actuality: Put on a shirt!

Girl: Ah, if only I loved in a rich country!

Locksmith: So, where's he from?
Landlord stares blankly.
Adeel: I'm from Canada.
Locksmith: So, where's he from?
Adeel: I'm from Canada.
Locksmith: Oh, I'm so sorry! I thought you were from India.

Middle-aged woman 1: Which station is Konkuk University?
Middle-aged woman 2, as Tukseom is announced as the next station: It's the next one, I think.
Middle-aged woman 2: Oh, no, it's two more. No! Wait! It's this one! No! It's not!
Middle-aged woman 1: It's my first time on this line.
Middle-aged woman 2: Me too!

Adeel: Can I have a chocolate ice cream please?
Man: Sure.
Adeel: How much is it?
Man: Three dollars.
Adeel: Here you are.
Man, to customers: Wow! Look at this guy!
Customer: You speak Korean really well!

Middle-aged man, walking into a Burger King at 7 am: Can I have a Whopper?
Clerk, pointing to a large sign on the counter: No, sir, sorry, we are serving the breakfast menu right now.
Middle-aged man, carefully reading the breakfast menu: So you don't have a whopper?
Clerk: No, sir...

Monday, July 12, 2010

North Korea and the black swan

I met some real-live North Koreans on Friday. These are the most normal North Koreans I've seen, the others being a wealthy, plump woman in Hong Kong that presumably lived in Japan and delicate waitresses exhibiting all the style of the 1970s at a restaurant in Beijing. They are now, of course, South Koreans after having defected from North Korea about 5-8 years ago. It's probably a tribute to media conditioning that I was struck at how human they were.

At one point someone asked a question about the worldwide impression of North Koreans as crazed, bee-like conformists that worship their leader with a religious intensity. "They're no more intense in their devotion than South Korean Christians," replied one defector, a former computer science professor in North Korea.

The other near-obligatory question was about the prospects of Korean reunification and the end of North Korea's Kim dynasty. The professor replied that he didn't think it would happen through force, but that it would happen peacefully. If you peruse the world of English-language blogs dedicated to North Korea (One Free Korea, North Korean Economy Watch and DailyNK are among the best), you'll eventually come to realize that much of the discourse about North Korea is guesswork.

The most important prediction is when the North Korean government will fall. A variety of academics, politicians, military officials and other relevant personnel, both Western and Asian, will have their predictions about the North Korean government's imminent demise printed. Some predict it will happen this year, next year, in the next three years, the next five years, and so on. Few diminish their own importance by predicting this to happen more than five years from now.

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Talib discusses black swans, highly improbable events that defy inductive reasoning. "All swans are white" used to be a staple of medieval logic until they found black ones. Experts are particularly bad at predicting black swans according to Talib, notably in fields such as economics or politics. Recessions and important historical events come as complete shocks to those who should have seen them coming.

The historical black swan most relevant to North Korean prognostication is the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was a secretive state whose collapse by and large took most experts by surprise. The demise of the current North Korean will not catch anyone by surprise, but that's only due to the broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day phenomenon. We have been predicting that North Korea would go under for years now, from the famine to the unrest after the famines to the prominence of markets to the revaluation of currency to the current succession issues.

Many supposed experts miss the signs of a coming collapse because they're attached to a particular form of black swan. Some predict that the North Korean government will fall in the most romantic way, through a popular revolt. Others predict generals or factions fighting each other, still others guess that a weakened government might just give up in the way the Soviet Union simply let itself dissolve. Everyone has a theory and in looking for information to prove their own theory, they miss other clues.

Though many groups, particularly DailyNK, do excellent work in obtaining information from North Korea at a variety of levels and in a variety of locations, the near-absence of information makes it virtually impossible to analyze the situation. There are so many unknowns that any scenario or analysis is simply a scenario at best, or a notch above fan fiction at worst.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Don't hate the player, hate the game

Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail looks at Luis Suarez of the Uruguayan soccer team, who helped his team advance to the semi-finals at the World Cup by cheating intentionally. Playing Ghana in extra time, Suarez stuck his hand out to stop a shot that was a certain goal. For the offense, he received a red card and a suspension from the next match. Ghana received a penalty kick that went off the crossbar. The game went to penalty kicks and Uruguay won.

Brunt pointed out the ludicrous situation we have here. A player cheated, won the game for his team and was lauded by his country as a hero. Moreover, in the event that Uruguay had beaten the Netherlands earlier this morning, he would have been back to play in the final. This hardly seems to be the fitting reward for a cheater. More troubling was that FIFA had the option to impose a stiffer penalty on Suarez, but declined.

However, Suarez didn't really commit a moral failure like doping or assaulting another player. His actions were simply not in keeping with the spirit of the game, roughly speaking, but the spirit of the game isn't exactly the same with wanting to win at any costs. If this had been a game between 22 friends or amateurs, Suarez's act would be despicable, but not in the quarterfinal of the biggest sporting event in the world.

In football, for example, defensive backs will simply tackle receivers that they know are going to catch a pass and score a sure touchdown. It's better, logically, to take the penalty, even if it's a 50-yard penalty that results in the football equivalent of a penalty shot. That, like Suarez's actions, is shrewd calculus more than a lack of sportsmanship. Shrewd calculus is, again, at odds with sportsmanship, a quaint Victorian idea that is more chicken soup for the soul than especially relevant or central to sport.

In university, for example, many classes had late penalties of two percent per day. If we were exceptionally lucky, it was two percent per business day for a paper due on Friday. Rather than stay up all night just to hand in a paper that was going to get a B, it made sense given the constraints and the structure of the activity to simply go to bed, wake up early with a clear head and calmly take the extra time to write a better paper. It might not be in keeping with the original spirit of essay-writing, but it certainly was the smart thing to do from every perspective save the one that says anything other than blind selflessness is bad for you.

What Suarez did was to work within the rules of the game to find a way to win. Uruguay didn't win on an unseen handball or a phantom goal. It won on a unique play at a unique juncture in the game. At most other points in the game, Suarez's actions would have given Ghana a penalty shot and an 11-10 advantage, which I want to say is worth at least 0.9 goals. Caveat: I'm not sure if stopping a goal with your hand carries the same punishment in all cases. Second caveat: I presume more people don't do this because they don't want to give up an 11-10 disadvantage.

This makes him a smart player who does something cerebral that helps his team win the game, but not quite a hero in the way that he has been celebrated. Of course, the emotions in this game are much higher, and he did quite literally save the game, so it's understandable. A win is a win, but while Uruguay's win was perfectly legitimate in that was within the rules, it doesn't mean Suarez deserves a commendation for what was not a breathtaking piece of athleticism.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Cheonggyecheon Museum and instant noodles and Coke from the '60s

If you believe the Korean government, Korea existed for thousands of years as a prosperous kingdom of people with funny hats for every occasion until it became a prosperous modern country. That's why most descriptions of Korean history point you to a palace, a folk village, or some other point in the distant, centuries-old past. What I've always found interesting is what could be termed pre-modern Korea to the developed, modern Korea of today, the period from maybe 1960-1990.

In the not-so-distant past, wooden shacks were built along the Cheonggyecheon, the Han River and other waterways of the city. The garbage from these shacks, among other things, choked and polluted Seoul. One of the most interesting things about this past is how quickly it was forgotten. The slums were rapidly removed and, naturally, no one preserved it nor wanted any part of it.

But, along the Cheonggyecheon in eastern Seoul, you can find a replica of a '70s riverfront slum, complete with a not-so-old-style convenience store. What's remarkable is the extent to which it is stocked with reasonably contemporary products. Sure, some of the toys indicate that they're from the '90s, and some bottles of alcohol suspiciously indicate the decade they're from, but you can find instant noodles in ancient packaging that says they cost between 5 and 30 cents. Other prices indicate the now-defunct jeon, which today is worth a tenth of a penny.

Across the street is the Cheonggyecheon Museum, which until August has an exhibition of leaflets from the Korean War. In a sign of maturity, these are both North and South Korean propaganda leaflets. The South Korean leaflets point to the overwhelming might of the UN and US forces, urging North Korean soldiers to simply give up. They also urge civilians to not give quarter to North Korean soldiers ("just say your house is too small") and to harvest their rice so the communists can't carry it away.

North Korean propaganda targets American soldiers, telling them that they're fighting a useless war for corporations and leaders, not for themselves. Pleasant Christmas greetings from the Korean People's Army and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army remind soldiers of what they're missing at home. Others teach American soldiers how to surrender in Chinese.

There's a great deal of Chinese propaganda at the museum, reflecting the sometimes-obscured prominence of the Chinese in the war. Both South Koreans as well as the Chinese used Chinese propaganda, dealing with both local and international concerns (Stalin, Hitler and other Europeans are featured). The Chinese is not translated into Korean, and the Korean isn't translated into English, so brush up on your Hangul and your Hanja before you go.

Together, the leaflets and the noodles indicate the paucity of contemporary materials from much of Korean history. Similar to pre-literary history where no one thought writing things down might be important, it seems no one in Korea considered that the country would be rich enough to one day have the luxury of considering its history. Pictures from that era, if they exist, are remarkably rare and of low quality. Even today, to some extent, the recent past is something of a source of shame rather than curiosity or novelty.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Quitting the Internet: liberating or being left behind?

Every now and then someone decides that living with the Internet, some form of it like Facebook, or a cell phone is the path to some form of relaxation or putative enlightenment. They'll post that message on the Internet with some sort of satisfaction, usually indicating that they're above puerile pursuits such as the Internet or mobile telephony.

These putative purists then point to the purity of other forms of communication, which are really just older versions of the same technology. For example, you might take a sabbatical from Facebook and demand instead that everyone who wants to talk to you emails you. Or, you get rid of the Internet altogether and demand that everyone calls you. Or, you get rid of your cell phone and get a landline, insisting that everyone who wants to talk to you must call your landline.

It's interesting that Facebook and instant messaging have turned email and phone calls into more "pure" forms of conversation. A real purist would eschew email and phone conversations in favour of face-to-face meetings (that we have to specify this sort of meeting is, however, probably indicative of a problem). Or, worse yet, they might demand that friends, well-wishers and acquaintances post letters, a well-written letter being something of a lost art.

Those who stop watching TV probably still watch the products of TV online and if they don't, I doubt that they've resorted to radio dramas and books. If they've resorted to books, why enjoy the sterile, lifeless mass-produced books that have come in vogue over the last half millennium? Why not partake of that great tradition of the human experience, the hand-copied and hand-produced book? For centuries, this was the only way we could ever read a book. Visiting a library with a notebook and fountain pen to copy out the works of Homer or Seneca is a time-honoured tradition that leaves in dust the mere 80-year tradition of watching TV.

For those who have some sort of unhealthy attachment to technology (you might tweet about a firing squad execution), maybe it makes sense to take a dramatic step and refrain from using electronics for a weekend, or a week or two. But for most of the rest of us, unless it simply doesn't interest you, to force yourself away from technology is really not much better than tweeting your whereabouts via Foursquare every hour. It is basically screaming, "look at me! I'm different than you and I'm following a trend that you don't follow yet!"

Our relationship with modernity is bizarre. We tend to embrace it without much questioning for the most part, until it comes to communication. Cars, airplanes and MP3 players don't cause many emotional issues, but we feel a guilt, real or otherwise, for using Facebook. Like many other forms of anxiety, this is probably the product of how we think others see us rather than how others actually see us. There are many things we don't do only for the reason of how it would like if someone were watching.