Sunday, December 25, 2011

I feel nauseous

There are three reasons why I feel nauseous right now. First, I am watching football in the condensed format that NFL Game Pass offers, turning each 3.5-hour bloated monstrosity of a football game, complete with cell phone ads, half-time interviews and repeated low-resolution replays of someone's knee touching the ground into a neat 40-minute package. However, it moves faster than what I'm used to and cuts out replays and explanations that I'd like to see. Most of all, I think I just saw about a dozen swings of momentum, points and possession in the span of three minutes in the Giants-Jets game.

This is what it looks like:

1. With 11 minutes to go, down 20-7, the Jets go for it on 4th-and-1. The pass is incomplete, but the Giants are guilty of pass interference. We already have two swings, as the Giants go from having possession to giving the Jets 27 yards.

2. Two plays later, the Jets score a touchdown, but Plaxico Burress is called for pass interference, putting them at 2nd-and-17.

3. On the repeat of the second down, Mark Sanchez fumbles, but the call is overturned.

4. The Jets manage to drive down the field and get to the Giants' 1, but Sanchez inexplicably fumbles the snap, which is recovered in the endzone, but by the Giants.

5. Eli Manning throws an interception on the first play of the drive, an odd passed that is tipped.

6. The Jets take over at the Giants' 11, the third huge break they've just caught, so naturally they proceed to shoot themselves in the foot with a holding call, pushing them back to the 21. On the next play, the ball comes out of Sanchez's hand and as there's no whistle, the Jets recover it back at the 38. However, the Jets successfully challenge and it's ruled an incomplete pass.

7. On a 3rd-and-12 play, Sanchez runs for 11 yards, but the Giants are called for defensive holding, resulting in a first down. Sanchez runs for a touchdown on the next play.

This was truly as repulsive, shoddy and nauseating a segment of football as I have ever seen. Comically, it was all for nought at the end.

To update my recent posts, the Chargers were blown out, effectively ending their playoff hopes. Tim Tebow was 13 of 13 with a touchdown and 4 interceptions, further indication that even the modest statistics he has accumulated are the result of cautious passing. In a less controlled environment where risks are required and the sample size is larger than six games, he seems to be struggling mightily with little to suggest improvement as a conventional passer in the future.

Who goes to jail in Korea?

The striking thing about the case of Jeong Bong-ju, a former politician and current host of the wildly popular podcast Naggomsu, is not that he was found guilty or that he was convicted of violating a nebulous law, but that he's actually going to jail. Jeong was convicted this week of spreading false rumours in connection with a scandal that erupted four years ago when current president Lee Myung-bak was a candidate, and sentenced to a year in prison. To put it in American terms, this is a bit like John Hodgman or Wyatt Cenac going to jail for what they said on the Daily Show.

You see, nobody goes to jail in South Korea. You'd have to do something really stupid, over and beyond the obvious things that land you in jail, like steal millions of dollars, rape disabled children put under your charge, order the wholesale massacre of civilians, or intentionally burn down a national landmark. You'd have to do something really, really bad like spread false rumours. Let's do a quick rundown over some of the awful things you can do here that don't earn you any time behind bars, as well as some of the awful things you can do to earn a sentence as harsh as Jeong's.

Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics - convicted of tax evasion for which the prosecution requested a seven-year sentence, given a three-year suspended sentence, which in turn became a pardon by the president, all so that Lee could help promote Korea's bid for the 2018 Olympics (the reason for the pardon is not a joke)

Kim, administrator at the Inhwa School for disabled students - sentenced to a year in jail, identical to Jeong, for the crime of raping six students between the ages of 7-20

Kim, principal at the same school - convicted of the same crime, received a suspended sentence

Chun Doo-hwan, former president - while effectively ruling the country as a general, hundreds of protesters were killed, along with many others over his eight-year dictatorship; for this, Chun received a death sentence that was commuted to, you guessed it, about a year in prison

These are just some of the famous cases, but let's go through the news to find what else you can get away with in this country:

A man received three years for beating his son to death

A man received a two-year suspended sentence for running a gambling website

An actor received a four-year suspended sentence for raping a 17-year-old girl

Six bus drivers received suspended sentences for sexually abusing a disabled, underaged passenger

Two employees of a bank received suspended sentences for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank

As you might be starting to figure out, it takes a very determined man to go to jail, or in this case, a man who displeased the president. I don't doubt that Jeong broke the law, but aside from the politicization of this case that led to his unusually harsh sentence, there's also the fact that there are so many laws in this country that are very vaguely worded. I bet it is impossible to find one person in this country who is not guilty of something. To give one example, that is personally relevant, I display my favourite, from the Korea Immigration Service:

"Foreigners are granted rights to any activities granted by their visa, and may stay as long as their given period of stay. They are not, however, allowed to participate in any political activities except when specifically allowed by law."

The official Korean, for any sticklers out there:

"외국인은 체류자격과 체류기간의 범위 내에서 체류할 수 있으며, 법률이 정하는 경우를 제외하고는 정치활동을 할 수 없습니다."

As I wrote in a question to Ask a Korean, himself no slouch with the law:

"I find that baffling. To me, it seems that it's intended to keep out troublemakers of some sort, especially the sort of professional protesters you get at the G20. My guess, however, would be that the regulation predates the G20.

Leaving aside whether there's any law that makes note of political activities in which a non-citizen may engage, except voting in some elections, doesn't this mean I could be deported for attending a "Dokdo is ours" rally? Supporting comfort women? Tuition fee protests? Writing an op-ed piece? Blogging?"

The response, which I hope he doesn't mind my posting here, seems to confirm the opacity of the law: "I think you just identified a potential law review article. It's an interesting question, but it will take some significant research to answer."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Why is Chinese so hard? Or, do you know how to spell the word 'sneeze'?

David Moser from the University of Michigan has an excellent write-up that humourously but forcefully relieved me of my notion that Chinese was at all an easy language, particularly when we're discussing high-level or written proficiency. If you have even the slighest interest in China, languages or even learning anything, I promise that you'll enjoy reading what Moser wrote.

Whenever we discuss the complexities of English or Korean in the staff room, I always bring up Chinese as an easy language to learn for what, I suppose, are superficial reasons: verbs have no tenses, words are shorter, there is no honourific speech that Korean has, none of the weird superfluous words that English has, and it's easier to build simple sentences than it is with Korean or even English. Consider that if you can say "how are you?" in Chinese (ni hao ma), you've learned three important words (you, good, question indicator).

I wouldn't even consider myself a Chinese speaker, though I can have basic conversations, and manage to shop, eat and travel with some of the basic vocabulary you might pick up from introductory Chinese lessons in a variety of media. I also have an uncanny ability to read place names and signs with rules on them. Considering that I've studied Chinese using phrasebooks, subway announcements and the odd website, I think I'm doing alright. My strongest asset might not be the fact that I can say 我是加拿大人 ("I am Canadian"), but that I've never failed to be understood when I say it (that I might say it in response to "do you want fries with that?" is another story).

I think I've considered Chinese to be easy because I've managed, through more of a desire to speak basic Chinese than I ever had for Korean, to speak a few dozen well-rehearsed sentences. It might also be true that I've been enjoying the benefits afforded by low expectations (any Chinese I learn while traveling is really a bonus) and high practicality (you will never find an English-speaking hotel clerk in, say, rural Qinghai province). As well, it seems to be easier to learn a lot of Chinese in a short period of time, whereas I can't even explain how to say "how are you?" in Korean without giving a short speech about the culture and the language.

However, Moser makes it clear that beyond this basic proficiency, the road is absurdly hard. Coincidentally, the day I found this (about a month or two ago), I was explaining to a co-worker that you only need to know about 2,000 Chinese characters to be able to read a newspaper, adding that many characters are made by combining other characters, so that while 永 (forever) and 水 (water) are different characters, as are 王 (king), 玉 (jade), and 国 (country), learning the latter three is about as hard as learning the words hysteric, hysterical, and hysterically.

To this, the response is:

This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones.4 But what such accounts don't tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words "up" and "tight" doesn't mean you know the word "uptight".)


A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline "JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS" is not going to get very far if they don't know the words "jacuzzi" or "phlebitis".

The bottom falls out when you move on to writing Chinese, which is something I never do and likely never will, with the possible exception of writing addresses, as I did when traveling to Xining in China's Qinghai province. It hadn't struck me that I had no way of writing the address of the hostel where I was going, but I was lucky because I: 1) was sitting next to a Norwegian in a town of 50,000 people located at 12,000 feet and 800 km from the nearest city 2) found out that this Norwegian had come to China to study Chinese and had become reasonable at copying characters from a screen.

I regularly bother Korean friends to explain some ordinary Korean word that winds up written in Chinese in a newspaper, which probably has the effect of transporting them to their high school days, hardly a pleasant experience. If it's hard enough for them to remember the meaning of the character, it'd be impossible for them to write it, and they're hardly alone.

Considering that nothing about a word you know tells you how to write it, Moser says that "I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on."

Whatever you might think of English's shortcomings, the situation we have is not so bad that "a well-educated native English speaker [is] totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"". To elaborate:

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn't remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"??

Whenever the topic of learning Korean emerges on the Internet among Westerners, an opinion often expressed is that Korean is a useless language, and that if there is an East Asian language worth learning, it is Chinese, or possibly Japanese. We rate the utility of learning Chinese to be quite high due to China's increasing geopolitical and economic significance, plain evidence of which is that cell phone stores in my neighbourhood frequently employ Chinese students to sell phones to other Chinese students.

This sort of viewpoint looks at language-learning as something that can only pay off with money, preferably lots of it and in exchange for employment. With the exception of people who have formally studied a language over a number of years, typically as a major at a university, very few people will ever make money from a language they learned. Nobody who spends their time half-heartedly studying Chinese on their own while living in Korea and not studying Korean is ever going to make a dime from their Chinese ability.

Learning another language does offer immense benefits that are probably greater than those of learning just anything, partly because of its portability and its interconnectivity. You could probably do more with, say, intermediate-level Chinese language ability than you could with a knowledge of Chinese history, not to mention the fact learning the former entails a great deal of the latter, while the latter typically does not entail the former.

In my case, I've tried to pick up Chinese words and phrases wherever I could all because I thought Chinese sounded impossibly hard with a large number of harsh consonant sounds that sound almost exactly the same. I don't imagine ever getting to the point where the difficulties of Chinese that Moser describes would ever really affect me. I would still tell anyone reading this that learning basic Chinese, at least, is far, far easier than imagined and being able to do nothing but distinguish small, medium and large as a Westerner (小, 中, 大)will give you a disproportionately high degree of satisfaction.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Here come the Chargers, again

As far as football teams go, the San Diego Chargers are a slacker's team. They play on the west coast after all the other teams, in a city that is essentially at room temperature year-round. They're a bit like Homer Simpson doing his taxes on the day they're due, driving to the tax office to arrive just as it closes, and launching his envelope from the doorway, watching it bounce around before finally landing in the bin, albeit the one for audits.

This is a topic I love to write about. Two years ago, I predicted that the 2-3 Chargers would win the division over the 6-0 Broncos, which they did. Last year, I made the same prediction, but the Chargers came up short against the Chiefs.

Now, the stage is set again. In an act of what may or may not constitute cheering against "my team", I'm rooting for the Chargers to overtake the Broncos for the AFC West title. Or, failing that, I'd be satisfied with a wild card spot. Just a few weeks ago, the Chargers were 4-7 while the Broncos were a heartwarming story-in-the-making at a slightly-better 6-5. Now the gap has been closed to 8-6 and 7-7, and while the 7-7 Raiders are in between the Broncos and Chargers, I have every reason to believe that one of the league's most talented teams can do this again.

Their record over the years:

2007 - 5-5 start, 11-5 finish, went to the AFC championship game
2008 - 4-8 start, 8-8 finish, went to the AFC divisional round
2009 - 2-3 start, 13-3 finish, went to the divisional round
2010 - 2-5 start, 9-7 finish, just missed the playoffs
2011 - 4-7 start, but I like their odds

This is a team that shows just how unpredictable and sometimes how meaningless the regular season can be, if you consider that an 8-8 team can go to the second round of the playoffs, or that a team that starts 5-5 can play for a chance to make the Super Bowl. In another setting, I believe that this is a team that could have won two Super Bowls in the last decade, but instead we have the peculiar phenomenon of miraculously fast finishes.

In fact, even I wrote this team off just a month ago, weepily noting that their window of opportunity has probably closed. I certainly wouldn't be surprised if a team that's made its name shooting itself in the foot managed to do so again and missed the playoffs, but right now I'm rooting for the Chargers to spare us the hagiograhpies of Tim Tebow in the playoffs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book #13: The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka

It took about four months of reading it and sixteen months from the time I bought it, but I have finally finished the complete works of Kafka. I thought it would be a lot better than it was, but I had to admit that Kafka's writing, in greater exposure, tends to be either riveting or impenetrable. Kafka's strengths is a jarring prose with the tone of dull bureaucratic pomp, often using run-on sentences or paragraphs. However, when the premise is dull, as is the case with some of the stories, the result is excruciating.

Nevertheless, it was my first time reading the Metamorphosis, which is perhaps Kafka's most famous work, though I've been partial to The Trial, if only for my familiarity with consular pomp over my travels. Many of the short stories amount to little more than a paragraph, while others appear not quite complete, though given Kafka's style, there's not much lost in reading an unfinished story.

Broadly speaking, the stories might be divided into ones with a political theme or setting, and those in a more natural setting. I enjoyed most of the ones that had a political component, such as In the Penal Colony, The Warden of the Tomb, and A Hunger Artist. Others were set in nature or discussed the ordinary lives of ordinary people in alarming detail, though my not enjoying them is probably a matter of personal preferences.

A few of the stories that Kafka wrote are written from the perspective of an animal. I was so struck by the transformation in The Metamorphosis that I didn't realize it was all written from the perspective of an insect. It is, of course, along with A Report to an Academy and Investigations of a Dog.

When I struggled to finish some of the stories, I did consider just what it is I like about Kafka's writing. I suppose it's easy when the writing is masterful and the idea is novel, as is the case with The Metamorphosis, but I struggled to put my finger on what it is that I find so appealing about the other works. At least some of my fondness for Kafka is for his excoriation of minor officialdom, the sort of which insists on rules for the sake of rules, as well as for the power that comes from enforcing those rules.

A Kafkan story today might well be about a mundane, absurd event in our lives where minor, unimportant people exert a great deal of influence in our lives. A perfect example might be the airport, where the insignificant, unimportant nonsense of our lives is elevated to life-or-death consequences, in part, as a giant make-work program for the individuals, agencies and companies that enjoy a stake in the elevation. I'm not sure how much I'd like Kafka if I hadn't traveled and produced reams of redundant paperwork for the privilege of doing so, though I imagine that I would regardless.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jesus Christ's superstar

Finally, the Broncos are winning and I've come to begrudgingly admire Tim Tebow, but still, something doesn't feel right. Sure, they've won six in a row to climb to 8-5 from a 2-5 hole, but I'm not that impressed, at least not with Tim Tebow. It was about fifteen years ago that I remember seeing, to pick one example, an athletic quarterback win game after game. Even as a child, I intuited that he really wasn't that good, and I know it now with Tebow.

In this week's miraculous Tebow comeback, he not only kicked field goals of 59 and 51 yards at the end of regulation and in overtime respectively, but he also managed to strip the ball from the Bears and recover the fumble. On top of all that, he threw the ball forty times and managed to complete more than half of those passes.

There are three things people can say about Tebow: one is not true, one is true, and one is intellectually lazy. The first says that because he can run, regular measures of a quarterback's value don't apply to him, and that detractors are merely jealous old dinosaurs who don't understand how the game has changed. This is simply not true.

Others say that it doesn't matter what he does or doesn't do, as long as the Broncos keep winning, which is intellectually lazy. Others will recognize that Tebow has played very well in certain situations due to a combination of skill, luck and athleticism.

Overall, Tebow completes less than half his passes and has thrown more than twenty passes in a game just once during this streak. He does have 11 touchdowns against two interceptions this year, but that's a function of how conservatively he's throwing. The best quarterbacks in the league average more than eight yards per attempt, meaning that their teams will gain nine yards for every time they drop back. Good quarterbacks will still average more than seven. Tebow is at 6.9 yards per dropback, and he's not making that up by running, because he averages about 5 yards per run.

Essentially, this is also a team that's playing well above its head, riding a defense and an offense both ranked around 20th in the league to an 8-5 record. You can't simply say that the stats don't tell the true story, because they do. Tebow has gotten help from his teammates, as we saw this weekend, and the hype that preceded him into the league has covered up his deficiencies. I would be surprised if this team doesn't make it into the playoffs, but this is obviously not one of the stronger teams in the league.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Taking the Metropolitician Challenge

On the recent EBS experiment which purportedly shows that Koreans are more likely to help those with white skin than those with darker-skin, Metro agrees wholeheartedly with the obvious conclusion and writes:

I propose more experiments!

How about a handsome, tall, black man and lithe, attractive Korean woman walk as a couple through the #1 subway line, from head to tail, on hidden camera? Watch the fun -- and verbal and perhaps even physical assaults -- ensue!

Or the same couple just walk through the Shinchon CGV as an obvious couple and watch all the people behind them snicker and point, as I did just a couple years ago? It was fucking ridiculous. Really? A couple at the movie theater?

Maybe we should have a black man in a suit try to get a cab next to his white buddy looking 90's-era Seattle grunge? Let's place bets! (I'm betting on Whitey, boys!)

Or sit an Indian man (or me!) on a crowded city bus and watch if the empty seat next to him is ever taken -- with a timer! First one who loses the bet that Koreans will choose to stand for an hour rather than sit to a dirty curry-eater buys lunch!

Oh, the fun we could have, EBS.

I'm game. Call me.

I can't dispute Michael's experiences, but I think that the discrimination he seems to believe (and if he doesn't believe this, I stand corrected) is dominant is more likely to be widespread, at least when we're talking about individual people in a relatively mundane everyday setting. The more you try to do, of course, the harder it gets, both as the stakes get higher or you deal with institutions over individuals.

I'd like to think that I count as something close to an Indian man (all four of my grandparents were born in British India), and I can't say I've ever had the privilege of an empty seat next to me when the bus is packed. Men, women, young and old usually have no problem sitting next to me on the bus or on the subway.

A few times, I've noticed that people sitting next to me will leap at the chance to go sit next to another stranger, which I concluded as discomfort with the way I look, where I'm from or even the fact that I'm a man. However, I remember that Metro once said something along the lines of "what do you call a nigger who went to Harvard? A nigger!"

Even back in Toronto, high school and the comments sections of online newspaper articles have taught me that the city with the motto "Diversity our Strength" nevertheless managed to have an immigrant-despising id. I've been told in Canada that I was the "good kind" of brown guy because I spoke better English than the angry white guy who hated Sikh immigrants, but when I take the 37A going to Islington, you don't necessarily know that. Here, too, I'd be considered the "good immigrant" for learning to speak Korean, but the drunkards on line 1 don't know whether I speak Korean and make twice what they do, or whether I came here last week from Nepal and live in a one-room with six others.

I would never consider my experiences here to prove anything, but in three years, I wouldn't say that I've had any significant or memorable instances of being treated negatively because of my skin colour. There have been cases here and there. Sure, if a Korean is going to approach a visibly foreign person to chat, they'll probably choose the white person before me. If you're going to choose the visible face of your institution for promotional purposes, you're probably not going to choose mine if you can help it.

Have I been called "monkey teacher"? Yes. Have kids told me I smell bad? Yes. Have I heard kids being Indian or Filipino as an insult in my classroom? Hundreds of times. I once polled a class of grade 6 students and while almost none wanted a Filipino or an Indian classmate, almost all would have loved an American classmate. They quantified it on the basis of language and wealth, which I suppose is true to an extent, but I think the wealthiest Indian would probably still be ranked below the poorest white American in their books.

As for what the video or what my experiences prove is debatable. I do regularly roll my eyes when I see the trope repeated that somebody with dark skin wouldn't get the time of day here. That I've been here for three years without a memorable incident and Michael is closing in on twenty years in Korea is evidence that it's not true.

If nothing else, I can tell you that much of what's said online about race in Korea is simply not true. Claims along the lines of "Koreans will choose to stand for an hour rather than sit to a dirty curry-eater" express indignation with many cringe-inducing practices relating to race and appearance, and we might even believe them, but I can tell you that thousands of people have sat next to me on Seoul's buses and subways, and I've seen hundreds of dark-skinned people on public transportation with honest-to-god Koreans sitting right next to them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Has running hit the wall or is it going strong?

Recently, I have seen a pair of contrasting posts about the state of the sport. Broadcaster Toni Reavis argues that, ironically, even though it is "going faster than ever, the sport of distance racing has hit its own wall". To wit, he points out the dwindling competitive fields at B-level road races in America, which are starting to move towards paying just a single headlining elite athlete to run, the slow death of World Cross, and the fact that many white runners are dropping out of the sport at its highest levels. Lukas Verzbicas' much-publicized move from triathlon to running is an example he notes of an athlete leaving the sport for another one.

Reavis might appear to be complaining about the fact that the dominance by a bunch of nameless Africans is killing the sport, but he's not. In a star-studded comment thread, Reavis writes that he does not want to "eliminate the East Africans. Instead let’s incorporate them into a larger competitive model. The question is, how and what?" While locals who could give interviews and didn't have ephemeral careers would be better for the sport, running is more than capable of doing this with things like the man-versus-woman competition at the Los Angeles Marathon. Anything is better than the current system of big city marathons with a dozen East African runners wearing the exact same clothing.

Peter Vigneron responds to Reavis by saying that the only way in which the sport is in trouble is financially:

But Reavis sees competitive running as a commodity. Or he must, because that is the only metric by which it is not wildly successful. Otherwise, things are humming along nicely: international competitive running has never been more competitive, American competitive distance running has never been more competitive, and more people are running and entering races in the United States than ever before.

I agree that running, in many ways, is doing really well, but the sport is slowly dying. It may well be that the sport is in the midst of a long, drawn-out downsizing from the popularity it enjoyed in the early-to-mid twentieth-century, and that eventually it will stabilize. However, it's clear that the sport could be doing a lot more to market itself because the results would be better: more money would mean more TV coverage, more and better competitions, and an elite circuit in places like Canada, America or the UK that's not necessarily tied to the performances of the absolute best in the world. Consider Japan, where it pays to be a 2:10 marathoner because of the value that talent has on domestic corporate teams.

I doubt there's much interest in this, though, because a great deal of the people who care about running are involved in it. It would be like asking high school and college football players to help save the NFL. Fans who watch the NFL might be inclined, but if everyone who watched the NFL was also a football player themselves, they might not be as fascinated by simply watching someone else play football. Running is not only participatory, but it fulfills a public health function, and the existence or absence of elite, professional distance running is irrelevant.

What is likely is that running will remain a niche sport to be enjoyed by those who competed seriously and those amateurs who have an interest in it. We will watch it on TV when the Olympics happen, and the rest of the time we'll settle for online feeds. Whether this starts to constrict the sport in ways beyond the elimination of 10,000-metre races remains to be seen, but running's participatory base and attractive financial incentives for East Africans will likely see it through the next generation.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sohn Kee-chung and the Sohn Kee-chung Marathon

I can't say that I've ever run a race and seen Hitler on a big screen the size of my apartment, but there's a first time for everything, I suppose. Today I ran a 10k at the Sohn Kee-chung Marathon, named after the Korean runner who won the 1936 Olympic Marathon. Much as Jesse Owens is celebrated in part for his accomplishments at the Berlin Olympics, Sohn became a national hero after bowing his head at the medal ceremony to protest Japan's colonization of Korea. Sohn competed as a Japanese national under a Japanese name (Sohn Kitei).

The Dong-a Ilbo continued the protest by airbrushing the Japanese flag from Sohn's shirt at the medal ceremony, quite possibly the last independent thought from that venerable journalistic institution. This earned them a nine-month publication ban and caused eight people to be arrested. Sohn himself had a long career in sport as a coach and administrator, so the story does have a happy ending.

I love Sohn's story for a few reasons. The first is the obvious political significance, but Sohn is also a personification of one of my favourite things about running, namely that someone can go from obscurity and an even more obscure place to victory in a matter of minutes, or perhaps hours in this case. Sohn was able to do it coming from a poor, backwards corner of the world while running 2:29, but that it can happen today for people running 2:05 is a lesson in both sport and running.

Second, Sohn's enduring popularity speaks to the immense popularity that the marathon enjoys in Japan and Korea. We know that Japan cares about the marathon more than any country in the world, to the point that 284,000 largely domestic runners applied for 35,500 spots in the Tokyo Marathon. Compare that with about 140,000 applicants for the 47,000 spots in the New York Marathon, and similar numbers for the London Marathon. Korea is able to put together three world-class races in three weekends, with large fields trailing behind.

As for the race and Hitler, today's race started and finished at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul. The 10k ran out of the river and went west along the river, which meant it ran into the wind for 5k and then with it for the second half. After a stinker of a race last week at a race where I normally do very well, I thought I was still tired from the Chuncheon Marathon. While I ran everyday this week, I ran no more than 20 minutes at one time. I was fresher, and the crisp weather (just above zero?) helped.

I had a much better rhythm this time than last time, which is what I use to pace instead of what my watch tells me. My best this year is 40:54 and I was hoping to just beat that instead of getting a sub-40. I was slow at 5k in 20:46, but I had lots of energy and knew I'd get to run with the wind. I ran the next two kilometres relaxed (4:05, 4:05) before pushing hard at 7k (3:55, 4:00, 3:54). The second 5k was exactly 20:00 and the final time was 40:46. That was probably the best I've felt in a race all year. I'll take one last shot at a sub-40 this year in four weeks, but I'm really looking towards the spring now.

As for Hitler, a documentary on Sohn's life was playing on the screen in the stadium as runners finished. When I finished, I looked up and there was a scene of Hitler waving to the crowd at the Berlin Olympics. Much of the footage was quite interesting as the nexus of Korean nationalism, Japanese imperialism and Nazi Germany at the 1936 Olympics is not a topic that's been given a thorough treatment, at least in English.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What does the Korean government really think of the KORUS FTA?

Although a majority of Koreans support the KORUS FTA, the minority in opposition is very fierce in its opposition. Going by what I see on Twitter, I was actually surprised to learn that a clear majority is in favour of it, as I'd imagined it to be precisely the opposite. Nevertheless, to help bolster its image and to help reduce the opposition, the government has gone on an online charm offensive using Twitter and comics like the one below to make its case.

I was disgusted by this comic, which is crude and demagogic. It's the card that the government, which is being accused of selling out the country to foreign interests, has to play, however. Accused of being traitors, the government is assuring opponents of the FTA that rather than selling out Korea to American corporations, it is paving the way for a victory over America.

It's titled "Stop the FTA?". For some reason, when I save it and upload it to Blogger, it comes out in a lower resolution, so I had to link to the image from the government's website, which might eventually disappear. For posterity's sake, the illegible but stand-alone version is here.

The comic, set in the future after the ratification of the FTA, starts at the secret headquarters of a anti-Korean organization that not only hates Korea, but also Hallyu.

One villain asks the other how his spy mission went. He gushes that "Korea is like heaven!" He says that "the people were happy and full of life", before lamely launching into the government's talking points.

"These days, Korea's large and small businesses are selling more and cooperating well. Through the elimination of tariffs, exports have surpassed $140 million. Businesses are doing well and there are plenty of jobs. About 350,000 jobs have been created."

As the boss' face grows angrier and angrier, the henchman continues:

"The economy is growing at a rate of 5.66% and the people can't stop smiling. Foreign investment is up and the economic system is more advanced."

"Social spending is up to $32 billion and the standard of social welfare has improved."

The boss pounds his fists on the desk and shouts, "the KORUS FTA was that big of an opportunity for development?" The henchman stammers, "I guess so."

The boss grabs him and shouts, "were there any side-effects?"

"Farmers and fishermen were hit hard, but the government was prepared for it with subsidies, so there were almost no problems."

"My stomach hurts!" the boss groans. "I can't take it that Korea is doing so well. Let's go to Plan B."

The two get in the "Anti-Korean Time Machine" to go back in time and disrupt the KORUS FTA negotiations.

However, they end up back in the Joseon dynasty, where soldiers stare at the befuddled villains.

In the meantime, the comic concludes that "Koreans continued to live happily amidst abundance."

The villains, meanwhile, end up in some sort of space-time warp. "I'm jealous," sniffs the boss. "Can't we just move to Korea?" asks the henchman.

On the government website, there's only one comment on this comic. It says, "looks like the work of an elementary school student."

The comic is shockingly childish in its adversarial point-of-view and its claim that some vast anti-Korean conspiracy of foreign devils wants to see this country fail, starting first with the FTA.

I can't imagine the White House releasing anything near this slimy and it not being front-page news here. For comparison, when the New York Times wrote about plastic surgery in Korea a couple of weeks ago, it was front-page news on Daum.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is this the first victory for Occupy Wall Street?

Last week, labour activist Kim Jin-suk's 309-day sit-in on top of a crane at a Hanjin Heavy Industries near Busan came to an end (sappy Hankyoreh article, another piece by the Los Angeles Times). For almost a year, Kim had been the darling of the South Korean political left, turning the dismissal of workers at the factory into a hot topic on the Internet, thanks in part to heavy promotion by the actress Kim Yeo-jin.

Finally, an agreement was reached between the company and its workers that called for the dismissed workers to be rehired within a year. In a hardly surprising move, police have issued a warrant for her arrest. One of the ironies about this country is that although it is not exactly famous as a place where laws are obeyed to the letter, there are too many of them to obey.

The victory at Hanjin's plant in Gimhae is the culmination of an occupation that began this January and ended successfully. Its demands might have been overreaching and flat out unreasonable, I don't know whether they were or not, but it was a case of citizens triumphing over corporations. Rather than merely raising awareness, the post hoc justification for just about anything that people want to do in North America, I feel as though even the most baseless protests in Korea tend to have a demand.

The Occupy Wall Street protests might have achieved something somewhere, I'm sure, and the Hanjin sit-in was hardly the result of Occupy Wall Street, as Korean labour protests are ongoing and just as dramatic as this one. It's unclear, though, that Occupy Wall Street will do much more than bring the issues of economic inequality to the table, to be debated with varying degrees of honesty. I don't also know that Korean-style demands are necessary or beneficial for either the movement or society as a whole, but Kim's protest would have gone nowhere without a clear and firm demand.

That, along with the support of frustrated 20-somethings on Twitter who can't find a job and feel entitled to one, provided support for this occupation in a way that wouldn't be possible in other societies. Their sentiments, much like the Wall Street-inspired protests, are not without their merits, though both can give the impression of having a kernel of truth surrounded by the tasty white fluff we call popcorn.

South Korea would never be confused as a workers' paradise, but its highly-unionized, protectionist economy is not as backwards as it might seem at first. The looming FTA with America would open up some sectors of the economy to American products, which will undoubtedly mean lost jobs in some sectors although jobs will be gained in others.

I don't claim to know much about the FTA, which has naturally been protested as though it would bring about the apocalypse. While it's plain as day that doing business in Korea for foreign companies can be absurd, no matter what the latest "ease of doing business" rankings might spit out, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

A part of me thinks that the tariffs Korea puts on imports helps Koreans live better by protecting domestic companies. It is, essentially, a form of welfare that helps prop up inefficient companies and industries, but I don't see why it's a crime for a government to, in a limited capacity, support these businesses through arriers. I'm more than welcome to being proven wrong, but I don't think Korean protectionism is without its merits.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Watching the Patriots lose is still the best play in all of sport

For almost a decade now, I've been watching the Chargers lose and hoping that the Patriots lose. For a long time, the Chargers lost and the Patriots won. Now, the Patriots are losing, but so are the Chargers. It used to be that the Chargers were a phenomenally talented team that just couldn't get over the hump in the playoffs. Now they're a phenomenally talented team that can't get over the hump in any single game. That's how you have the best defense and the best offense in the league, as they did last year, but finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

This year, it's the 6th-best offense in the league and the 7th-best defense (both based on yards), and a middling 4-4 record to show for it, not to mention three straight losses. Last week, of course, was the snap debacle, the first time I've seen anything like it. This week, the Chargers made a game of it against the Packers after being down 45-24 in the fourth quarter, actually getting two chances to tie the game and getting as close as midfield.

Still, it's as frustrating as it ever was to watch the Chargers, who probably should have won a Super Bowl by now. After letting Marty Schottenheimer go all those years ago, Norv Turner's teams have had some amazing feats, which mostly centre around taking a supremely talented team, giving it a 1-4 record, and then seeing what it can do. Ladainian Tomlinson may have missed his chance for a ring, certainly his chance to do it as a star rather than a role player, but the Chargers' window probably isn't quite closed yet. But it will close, and I have a bad feeling that it will likely not include a Super Bowl.

On the other side of the United States, there were the Patriots playing the Giants in what was one of the worst-played games I've seen. Really, it belonged with last week's clinic on how to screw up a football game, because it featured so many dropped or bobbled snaps, dropped kicks and general incompetence, that I often thought I was watching replays.

As the Patriots dynasty fades, it's important for those of us who despise this team to remember that Super Bowl championships don't come from your record in a 16-game season, but how and who you play in three or four playoff games. Still, at 5-3, with consecutive years of home playoff losses that really weren't all that close, I'm starting to breathe easier and easier. The hurricane of fawning adulation, which I feel is controlled by Peter King, is already starting to centre on Aaron Rodgers, though I feel like it could change.

Both the Patriots-Giants and Packers-Chargers games were exciting, as was the Ravens-Steelers game, where I thought the Ravens were going to cruise to an easy win with a 16-6 lead, but had to overcome a Steelers comeback to win 23-20. That last drive led by Joe Flacco might have been the strongest moment for the Ravens offense in 11 years, and it could make them a more legitimate playoff threat.

As amazing of a game as it was, what was mystifying was this comment that Peter King featured in his weekly column from somebody he calls a friend, and what he unflinchingly called his Text Message of the Week:

"I want to die. This feeling feels like death. Nothing else can describe this. The pain is that bad.''
-- Pittsburgh Phil, Phil Gennaro, a friend of mine and a 41-year-old claims adjuster from Monroeville, east of Pittsburgh, leaving Heinz Field early this morning. He went on to text that today "will be miserable. I will have to deal with angry people, all because of this game.''

It's disturbing that a gainfully employed adult could feel this way about a football game. It's one thing to take sports seriously, even too seriously, and another to say this. For a city to have its mood change so drastically after a loss, as Gennaro claims, is almost equally disturbing. It's enough to make me think about no longer watching sports.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Left, right and Naggomsu in South Korea

Sonia wrote here that, "If I were to vote in South Korea, I’d vote conservative. Liberals here scare me." I'm personally not a big fan of voting, which is not something you should admit often because the prevailing orthodoxy is for everyone to vote regardless of their opinions or beliefs. At any rate, I share Sonia's distaste for the South Korean left, though I don't know that Na Gyungwon is better than Park Wonsoon (it's like comparing Cheez Whiz to Snuggies).

In my mind, the merits of Korea's right and left can be distilled to the faceoff you might see at a protest. On the one hand, riot police make Seoul feel like central Beijing, deem protests illegal on whims and have often been accused of brutality. On the other hand, the people you see at protests believe(d?) that American beef, the beef that hundreds of millions of Americans eat every day, could kill them at any second. They attack police and generally spare no excess or hyperbole.

These same people, if you were to vote for them in the next election, are currently holding up the KORUS FTA with threats of violence. If the GNP, which has a majority in the Assembly, tries to use that majority to pass a bill that opposition parties initiated, the opposition parties will retaliate with violence in the Assembly. It's not the case that the GNP hasn't been involved in violence, or that the GNP hasn't tried to investigate a novelist who dared to bring the plight of sexually abused children to the mainstream. Clearly, both parties are not without fault.

So, enter the darling of Korean politics these days, its very own equivalent of the Daily Show, 나는꼼수다 (I am a Weasel). It got coverage in the New York Times, finally, bringing attention to something that would have never otherwise gotten attention in the English-language press.

That 나꼼수 is a podcast rather than a TV show tells you something. If the Daily Show was a podcast because it was too controversial to make fun of politicians on TV, you would have a sense of where things stand in politics here. Not too long ago, a Twitter account with a username that translated to "fuck Lee Myung-bak" (@2mb18noma) was banned by the Korea Communications Commission, though the ban was eventually overturned.

It's very easy to feel hatred for the paternalistic, condescending conservative establishment, which brings you the crappy news you see here, here and here. The quality of news in English is so atrocious, two parts PR for one part news, that I don't think it can be considered legitimate journalism, and I cringe whenever I see anyone citing news from an English-language news source in Korea. However, the Korean-language news is not much better.

From an editorial written in the Joongang Ilbo about 나꼼수, Kim Jin-gook wrote that the podcast "blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction, commentary and comedy", and argued that the traditional media iss fairer. This leads me to wonder if Kim has ever actually read his own paper.

Some of the high-quality journalism you can find on the front page of the Joongang Ilbo:

The top story is some guy's online petition for the release of Park Chu-young
Two women explain how to get a Korean boyfriend
Woman takes pictures of herself everyday for 5 years
Baseball player Lee Seung-yeob's wife "as pretty as ever"
Indian students have a Korean speech contest in New Delhi

Now for the English edition:

Shinee to hold concert in London
K-pop to land in South America
Star chefs get a taste of Korea in Jeonju
An unpaid advertisement from Amore Pacific

Yes, Mr. Kim, it's awful to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, commentary and comedy.

To be honest, neither Naggomsu nor the politcal left are a silver bullet for the problems of a conservative establishment, as this quote from the New York Times article shows:

For their latest recording, the team invited Kim Yong-ok, a philosopher who called Mr. Lee “a tragedy for our nation” and South Korea “an effective colony of the United States.” The show replayed an audio clip in which the philosopher said he was “not convinced even 0.0001 percent” when the government announced last year that the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack.

On the Internet, no paranoid fantasy is spared by anti-FTA activists. I can't say that I have a particularly strong opinion about the FTA, but I don't like to see someone lie at the top of their lungs. These banners at Daehanmun in front of Deoksugung are an example:

The banner on the top, from the Democratic Labor Party, says that they oppose the Grand National Party forcing through the FTA, rich words considering that: 1) the GNP has a majority 2) about 58% of people support the FTA 3) the DLP will use violence to stop the bill.

The one on the bottom claims that the FTA will lead people to their deaths.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

What's in a poppy?

At the Canadian embassy yesterday, I paid 500 Korean won and picked up a poppy. The first thing I noticed was that I'm still abysmal at putting one on and keeping it there, though the poppy I have seems to have made it almost twenty-four hours now without incident. Wearing a poppy is the sort of serious cultural tradition, a convention or orthodoxy in the sense of being what everyone else does, that made me slightly uncomfortable as a child, no matter what the situation was.

In elementary school, there was an assembly every November 11 for Remembrance Day and teachers handed out the red poppies for us to wear. There was a time, I felt, when schools had veterans attend ceremonies, though that seemed to have stopped by the time I got to high school for reasons I don't understand. Wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day was the one day a year in elementary school, and even to an extent in middle school, that I felt I was in someone else's house.

It might be Canada's greatest asset that somebody who has lived there for even a few years can feel as though they belong, not necessarily because there's nothing to which to belong, but that Canadians make others feel welcome and accepted, almost to a fault. With 300,000 people moving to Canada every year (the equivalent of 3 milion new Americans each year), it might be a reflex that's necessary for helping society function.

The Korean experience, if due to nothing but appearance, is very different. That said, it took the presence of thousands and millions before me to make my presence seem ordinary. Korea may well get to that point one day, but it's certainly not there yet. I'm not sure what the Korean equivalent of the poppy would be, but it might be that an immigrant to Korea could sing the national anthem and feel as though it meant something, though I don't know how anyone, Korean or otherwise, feels about the national anthem.

What gave the poppy almost an exclusionary air to me, hardly a negative one, was that it was a reminder of Canada's British heritage. I could have seen myself as Canadian, but bringing in a history that I didn't really share (my great-grandfather did serve in World War I) made things different from the usual fare in the classroom. That British heritage is something I think we should be proud of, but it is also not entirely ours. My grandparents and great-grandparents never wore jeans, but I do. Similarly, the current retrograde movement by the federal government towards a monarchist stance is baffling: why express pride in your country by obsessing over the queen of another country?

On and around Remembrance Day, there is no shortage of people serving up tributes to soldiers, some of them thoughtful and deserved, others verging on melodramatic and the product of emotional insecurities. The lesson today from the deaths of 67,000 Canadians in World War I, representing almost one out of every 100 Canadians, ought not just to be the usual lines about remembering their sacrifices, but also that of a country punching well above its weight.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bad football really isn't that bad

David Fleming of EPSN's Page 2, perhaps the most irreverent and therefore the best way to approach sports, took it upon himself after last week's 6-3 Seahawks-Browns game to find the ten worst football games of the last ten years. Fleming didn't count routs in his analysis because those are technically games where somebody plays well, and in a sense I suppose he's right, but from my perspective as a more-or-less dispassionate fan without a particular favourite team, I'd rather watch two crappy teams play a close game. A rout like the Saints' 62-7 win over the Colts last week is simply awful to watch.

I watched most of five football games today by skipping through commercials, kicks of any sort and other undesirable fluff. In the Colts-Titans game, were up 20-0 in the first half, which is when I switched to another game, and went on to win 27-10. I remembered the Bills were playing in Toronto. As I watched the game, the Bills kept making plays, it was great, but when I skipped ahead to the third quarter, the early 13-0 lead had become 20-0, so I stopped watching. The Bills won 23-0.

Then I tried the Jaguars and Texans, hoping that this otherwise unassuming game might have been interesting, but when I tried to watch just the fourth quarter, it was 21-7. I turned it off immediately. The Jaguars did get as close as 21-14, but the Texans put it out of reach with a field goal. I gave about a half hour to the Cowboys-Eagles game, but as dazzling as the Eagles looked, it was a double-digit lead before long and when I skipped to make sure it stayed that way, I saw the score that made it 34-0. That final held up as a 34-7 rout.

As I write this, my fifth game of the day, the Lions-Broncos game, has just become 17-3 for the Lions. Skipping ahead a bit, I saw that it became 38-3 midway through the third quarter on a deep pass to Calvin Johnson. With two minutes left, it's 45-10. I give up. I'll have to wait to watch the Patriots-Steelers game in its entirety, which the Internet has given rumblings (Facebook comments about the game I didn't read, pictures on websites that I immediately closed) of having been interesting.

By contrast, I saw three football games last week: the Jets-Chargers, the Broncos-Dolphins and the Jaguars-Ravens. These Jets and Chargers game was presumably well-played for the first half, but I saw the last twenty minutes (game time) and I was appalled by what I saw, particularly at the end of the game. Still, it was reasonably entertaining to watch as the Jets came back from a 21-10 deficit thanks to the Chargers' miscues. Rivers threw two interceptions that resulted in ten Jets points. This was entertaining.

What was not entertaining was something that I feel like I see far too much, as losing teams stand around doing nothing as the clock runs inside two minutes. The mismanagement of the clock inside two minutes was so egregious that even normally reserved commentators, the sort of vexing people who remind you of an indifferent parent as your brother pummels you, noted the incompetence.

Then we switched over to the Broncos-Dolphins game, where the Dolphins had extended their lead to 15-0 with seven minutes to go. The Broncos didn't score a touchdown until 2:44 to go, then recovered an onside kick before scoring on another goofy-looking Tebow pass. In overtime, it took three possessions that looked as though they might lead to an unsightly 15-15 draw before finally there was a Dolphins turnover that the Broncos used for an 18-15 win.

Even the 12-7 Jaguars game, where the Ravens didn't score until late in the fourth quarter, was more watchable than today's games. They scored with 2:02 left, then recovered a tantalizing onside kick that went about 9.5 yards and bounced backwards, before holding the Jaguars to a 19-second possession. The Ravens had a chance to drive for the winning touchdown from their 20 with 1:43 left, but threw an interception on the second play of the drive. It was ugly, but it was far more watchable than the crap that aired today.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What does Yueyue's death tell us about China?

Two weeks ago in China's Guangdong province, two-year-old Wang Yue (nicknamed Yueyue) was run over by a car, ignored by passersby and later died in hospital. Thanks to the presence of security cameras pointed at the street, the hit-and-run and the subsequent indifference of eighteen people to the plight of a bleeding two-year-old was captured and seen by the world.

This isn't quite a case of China-bashing, because reaction within China has been as critical as the reaction outside of China, but both Chinese and non-Chinese seem to be treating this as proving, among other things, that China or the Chinese have no soul because they sold it to get rich. For years, people have felt that China's meteoric rise economically was coming at the expense of its people's well-being (as though hundreds of people being lifted out of poverty isn't well-being). Now, they seemingly have their proof.

But, as is so often the case, an event in China tells us what we think of China instead of telling us something about China. We would never think of India as the world's ninth-largest economy, but China is the world's second-largest economy, its second superpower and future ruler. All sorts of expectations are levied on China, when talking about daily life rather than its military or diplomatic capabilities, that would never be expected in other countries with per-capita incomes of 7,000.

It's likely that in other countries, this wouldn't have happened, but even if this had been an anomaly by Chinese standards, this would have confirmed our gut feeling that the Chinese can't be trusted. All it takes, of course, is one example, and if the example had come from CCTV in Thailand, Syria, Ecuador or Slovakia, it probably would not have had the same impact.

Much was made of the absence of Good Samaritan Laws in China, which meant that passersby would have opened themselves up to legal risk had they touched Yueyue, but the reason no one stopped to help her was more likely indifference rather than fear of a lawsuit. We have all seen instances of people in need that get no help from those around them. It happens in Canada, it happens in America, it happens here in Korea and it happens around the world for a number of reasons.

The social issues in China are immense, particularly in Guangdong province where much of your worldly possessions, especially the sort you value, are made. There are 150 million migrant workers in China, representing about one out of every eight Chinese people, who travel from villages to southern cities like Foshan, where Yueyue lived. The issues raised by this movement of people are complicated and difficult, both for the towns they leave and the cities where they congregate.

It's entirely possible, yes, that a city made up of a floating population of people who work too much don't care too much about each other, but what if the same thing happened in Los Angeles or Tokyo or London? When the Chinese state media spun some nonsense about the perils of democracy and declining economies, would it not be equally nonsensical?

The death of Yueyue clearly doesn't prove anything about China, nor does it give us any justifiable reason to look into China's soul beyond the question of whether the poor and vulnerable are treated well, which is a question each country should ask itself. Far too often in China, the answer is no, moreso than it is in the wealthy country where you are reading this, but that doesn't make Yueyue's death any more or less a single, horrific instance of human indifference.

Monday, October 24, 2011

2011 Chuncheon Marathon

I ended up with seven predictions for my marathon, five on this blog, one from Twitter and one emailed by my loyal friend and sometimes editor The Seadog. Most people were optimistic and thought I'd run between 3:29 and 3:38, but The Seadog knew better. Getting into the race, I thought that about a 3:25 would have been a perfect day, and 3:30 a very good day.

I started conservatively and let the pace fall where it did, which was 26:30 at 5k. I found my legs at that point and picked up the pace to 51:11 (24:41 5k), which was right where I wanted to be. I was 90 seconds behind on a 3:30 goal (25-minute 5ks) and I thought taking 10-12 seconds off every 5k was the way to do it. I hit 15k in 75:35, so I was doing really well.

Unfortunately, time spent looking for and going to a bathroom knocked me off that rhythm, and I didn't hit 20k until 1:47, halfway in 1:52. I was back on pace to hit 25k in 2:12, but the pace wasn't nearly as relaxed as it should have been. With a margin of error at around zero, all it took were the hills at 27k to finish me off. I reached 30k in 2:42 and that was that. I wasn't too concerned with a second-rate time becoming a third-rate time, and the course was still beautiful (the last 8-10k are not breathtaking like the first 30-32)

It was really tough from 32k to 36k because the pain in my quads kept me from jogging, even. I was able to get back on a relaxed albeit slow pace, which meant passing about a thousand of the thousands of people who had been passing me for an hour now. I finished in 4:04, which means that the Seadog wins the prediction contest with the 3:42 (slowest of all predictions) for never believing in me, and rightfully so.

The Seadog wrote, quite prophetically:

"I think you'll have a strong first half, but halfway through you'll start regretting not filling your pockets with Gu and Sport Beans. You'll try to power through, but ultimately, your electrolyte balance will be thrown off just enough to cause you to waver (at 31K)."

Chuncheon has usually gotten better reviews than the Seoul International Marathon as the best race in Korea. I can agree with that, having run it. The course is very beautiful. The race is one loop around the North Han River, with half of it along a narrow country road, the river on one side and high colourful cliffs on the other. The big hill leading to the dam at 27-28k is tough, but the view of the river and the hills around Chuncheon is breathtaking. It is, of course, very well-organized and doesn't quite give off the impression of being a race for 20,000 people in a small city.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I'm in half-decent shape again, so...

...let's play another game of "predict my marathon time".

I can't remember if anybody has ever won something from this on account of my DNF a few years ago at Boston, but I was apparently offering an autographed 8.5 x 10, so perhaps it's best that you didn't. This time around, I'll offer something far more desirable, a package of dried, buttered squid (seriously, it's good). If you don't live in Korea, you should know that dried squid is a common addition to movie theatre combos, as the image search shows.

Anyway, I'm running the Chuncheon Marathon this Sunday. It's not something that I've planned my fall around, actually, it was just a race I wanted to run. My real goal for the fall is to run a 39-minute 10k in November, this is just a way to run some extra miles that didn't really work out so well.

At any rate, I've run four races this summer and fall, none of them spectacular:

August 18 - 24:52 6k
September 3 - 44:xx 10k (a very hot, sunny day where I tried to stay upright)
September 25 - 29:22 7k
October 15 - 40:54 10k

I've been running about 50-60 km a week, which obviously isn't a lot, and yet it's the most I've run for a period of more than a month in a few years. Of course, I've said that before and then spent a month or two not running at all, but here we are. The longest runs I've had in the last two months have been about 4-5 runs of 18-20k, which took about 1:45.

I do feel like my fitness is on the upswing, but predicting how a marathon will go is like predicting a football will bounce: it's hard to say, but you probably won't like the outcome.

I think 3:30 would be a good run and anything under 3:20 would be fantastic. The course is somewhat hilly, though still fast. I wouldn't be surprised if my time ballooned to 3:40 because though I run a lot of hills, I haven't done a hilly run of more than two hours since December. Based on tempos of up to 11k, I figure I'd run about 1:32 for a half marathon.

Anyway, comment below with a prediction for a chance to win some dried squid.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Korean gets turned away at sauna by another Korean

By now, you have likely heard the story of Gu Su-jin, a Korean of Uzbek origin who was refused service at a sauna in Busan. If you haven't, a Korean-language link is here with an English translation here.

Note, however, that this woman is not a foreign resident, but rather a Korean citizen. The headline in the Korean-language article is a quote from the owner of the sauna who perceived her as not being Korean, but she is a citizen. This is not a case of a foreign resident being treated badly, this is a case of one Korean treating another Korean badly.

The lazy conclusion to reach from this would be that Koreans are all a bunch of racist bastards who are so stupid as to think that you can get HIV from being in the water with somebody who has it. As an aside, before you catch aspersions on the intelligence of an entire country of people, make sure that you don't live in a country whose people have trouble finding it on a map or where a substantial minority doesn't subscribe to some other ludicrous belief.

This is one single incident pointing to an issue which is more significant than the discussions I've seen so far on English-language blogs. In ten years, about twenty to thirty percent of all children born in this country will be of a mixed-race background. As it stands, about fifteen percent of all marriages in this country are between a Korean and a non-Korean. It's very much possible that the Korea of 2040 or 2050, when the children of 2020 come to age, will be one where a substantial minority of the population is mixed-race.

This is an issue which I have discussed here and here previously. How this issue will be resolved, one way or the other, is of the utmost importance. You might say that the government has been caught flat-footed on this issue, though I don't know if it's the case.

Right now, it seems that multicultural families (다문화 가정) and "marriage immigrants" (결혼 이민자) are all the rage right now as the target of charitable endeavours. Along with this, many have used other well-publicized incidents of racism in Korea to call for a law against racism in this country as none exists. Put another way, you're well within your rights to refuse service to someone because of the colour of their skin and to even tell them that. Note that this goes both ways, so a business can be set up for non-Koreans exclusively, to the extent that it's a viable market.

However, as my friend Rob has noted, what this country needs are not so much laws as much as it needs people to start following existing laws. All the laws in the world, it's worth noting, are no substitute for widespread racial tolerance. A law against racism would go a long way, but that would do all the good of making it legal for women to smoke: just because it's legal doesn't mean that it doesn't carry a social stigma which negates the legality.

In the grand scheme of things, saunas are not that important. Gu, the woman refused entrance to the sauna, decided to make a stand here because she has a 7-year-old son. How will that boy do when he goes to school? Is he going to graduate from high school? Will he go to university? Will he be able to find work? The educational and employment outcomes of mixed-race Koreans are utterly, shockingly dismal. If twenty percent of Korean adults in 2045 are going to be mixed-race, they better be educated and able to find employment. If not, the consequences will be devastating.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

A Legend of the Fall: Seoraksan

I've loved fall for a long time, as I wrote in 2008 and even in 2003. I've had football, playoff baseball (albeit not in the last few years) and running to enjoy this season, but living in Korea adds one more dimension. Coming from Canada, at least, I feel like fall is long, mild and very pleasant here. Of course, I enjoy (this is not sarcasm) the harsher weather we get in Canada, such as impromptu flurries or weather below-freezing in October, which isn't to be found here.

I went hiking twice this weekend, to Seoraksan on the east coast and to Bukhansan in northern Seoul. Seoraksan (~1700m) is about a 20km hike that takes 10-12 hours, which I did last year from midnight to noon and really wasn't eager to repeat. Instead, we settled for a short and simple hike to Ulsan Bawi, a massive wall of rocks near the base of Seoraksan. Seoraksan is a great place to go in the fall for the colourful leaves and its intricate, jagged peaks, and I'd only ever been in the summer or the late fall.

The top of Ulsan Bawi is only 800m high and it's about a 4-hour roundtrip from the city of Sokcho. We lucked out and picked a hotel suited to the Ulsan Bawi course than a course that goes to the top. Alternatively, if you want to go to the top, don't stay in Sokcho. If you do go this month, you'll be in time for spectacular views of colourful leaves all over Seoraksan from Ulsan Bawi.

From the park entrance, it's about an hour to the bottom of Ulsan Bawi. From here, you can see much of the higher peaks of Seoraksan as well as the East Sea. From here, you climb a nerve-wracking stairway suspended in the air half the way, before negotiating a rocky, winding course to the top of Ulsan Bawi. Looking north from there, you should be able to see the sea as well as Geumgangsan in North Korea, though on this day it was cloudy (and very crowded) to the north.

To the south, the peak of Seoraksan is visible above the clouds.

Ulsan Bawi is a good course if you want to see the beauty of Seoraksan but don't want to do all the work getting to the top. The views of the top are better than the views from the top in my opinion, though I don't think I've ever been at the top in something resembling clear weather, so this opinion doesn't count for much. It's not a very hard hike, but there's enough thrill climbing the staircase, at least for those scared of heights like me, that you'll see both adults and small children (some under 5) at the top.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Patriots lose to the Bills, Colts lose again; is this the end of an era?

During the Bills-Patriots game on Sunday, Marv Albert mentioned that the Bills hadn't beaten the Patriots since the first game of the 2003 season. The Patriots had a string of 15 straight wins over the Bills, which is partly why the Bills never win more than 7 or 8 in a season and the Patriots never win less than 10 or so, and why the game felt like such a tough one for the Bills without me knowing why.

I remember that Bills game in 2003, they won big after Lawyer Milloy had been cut by the Patriots, went to the Bills and gave a scandalous interview alleging that none of the Patriots believed in their coach. For some reason, everyone picked up on this and it was all anyone talked about.

New England had won a Super Bowl in 2001, but they had missed the playoffs in 2002, and now this. Of course, they went something like 14-1 the rest of the year, won the Super Bowl and won it again the next year. For the Bills, it was a speck of significance on the way to an ignominious decade stretching back to when the team benched Doug Flutie for Rob Johnson, which I probably attach immense significance to as a short man myself (Johnson is 6'4, Flutie about 5'9).

Fifteen straight wins over the Bills later, the Patriots have two Super Bowls, a 16-0 season and eight years of being a perennially feared team in the NFL. Of course, they haven't won a Super Bowl since I was in high school, and the playoff disappointments for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are now numerous enough to be routine whereas once they seemed stunning.

This loss to the Bills is, in some ways, probably more significant than the playoff loss to the Colts in 2006 after a 21-3 lead, the loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl or recent losses to the Ravens and Jets in the playoffs. It was a 21-0 blown lead over a team that had been a sure thing for the Patriots, with four interceptions from Tom Brady to boot.

Seven hours after the Patriots lost, the Colts lost 23-20 to the Steelers to go to 0-3, a stunning yet not stunning turn of events for a team that has had 11 10-win seasons and 11 playoff appearances out of the last 12 years, the last 9 being consecutive.

It's safe to say that the Colts will be making the playoffs or threatening for a Super Bowl any time soon, though the Patriots could possible make a run this year, next year or the year after. It's likely, though, that neither Tom Brady or Peyton Manning will ever win a Super Bowl again, and that we're likely to see a new generation of teams and players dominate after a decade dominated by these two teams and quarterbacks.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

This is about the only reason that Korean unification might be possible

People often ask me where I learned Korean and I mumble something about overhearing students and storefront signs. That is a big part of it, but the subway is another big part of it. There are lots of signs on trains and in stations, you see them repeatedly, and there's often nothing else to do but to translate them using the dictionary in your cell phone.

Of course, a normal person ignores all the gibberish, but I'm someone who thrives on marketing Korean. Most people who have learned to speak Korean well come from either an academic background or a social background. I, unfortunately, have neither. I can neither read a textbook, nor can I watch a drama or understand slang. I can, however, quote marketing campaigns from a few years ago.

Anyway, I once translated this sign and almost vomited.

About two years ago, the Korean government began a campaign to get people to walk on the right. This ad from the subway reads: "Walking on the right! Walking on the right side is beautiful." Translated more literally, it reads "you who walk on the right are beautiful". I used to think about that every time I saw it for about a year: why does walking on the right make you beautiful?

Today I saw two North Korean propaganda posters. One similarity between the two Koreas is the over-the-top government advertising, what you'd call propaganda in the North. While it's not propaganda in the South (anymore), government advertising is often over-the-top syrupy to the point of absurdity, as we saw above.

This North Korean propaganda poster, charitably translated, says "Let's turn Pyongyang, the capital of revolution, into a global city".

What's that? A Korean capital city wants to be known globally? Well, let's go back to last year, when these two ads were all over Seoul.

This ad was seen around last November's G20 summit in Seoul. It boasts, or maybe promises, that "the world is taking notice of South Korea".

This one, which I actually liked for its depictions of historical Seoul, says "Welcome to Seoul, the city the world wants to go and see".

The smaller text reads: "The city that captivates the world with its endless enjoyment.
The city that the world wants to invest and live in.
The city where dynamic tourism is producing economic vigour and employment.
The world comes to our Seoul to learn about it.
Now welcome the guests with your smile."

Here's another North Korean propaganda poster of late:

The site that reported on these posters translates this one as “Let us all go for harvesting!”, but that's not entirely accurate because it leaves out the last word in the slogan. It's probably better translated as "Let's all go to the battle of the fall harvest".

This one promotes the highly controversial Four Rivers Project. It says, "Smile big, rivers of Korea!" There was one with a stronger message, one as upbeat as the criticisms of the project are dire and depressing, that I saw on a bus yesterday but I can't find it.

It's true, of course, that languages don't translate well, but I don't think I've ever been in a city that promotes itself so much as Seoul. Nor is it the case that floral, dramatic language is going to get anyone to take you seriously. All it does, I feel, erode trust and prevent people from taking the government seriously when they should do so, as we saw after the sinking of the Cheonan last year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Those wagons are circled again

I just had the chance to finish watching the Bills' 38-35 win over the Raiders thanks to the NFL Game Pass, which lets me watch NFL games live or whenever I want, for $270 for an entire season. Split three-ways, it's a fantastic deal. I'm able to watch a football game whenever I want, up to four at a time on the same screen, and since a game that's not live is shown without commercials, most games take about two hours.

I'm not a Bills fan per se, though they're the closest NFL team to Toronto. I like seeing them do well, but then, I don't really have a favourite team. I used to be a Broncos fan but then they started to suck after John Elway retired, and after that I've really enjoyed watching Peyton Manning play. There are lots of teams I enjoy doing well, but none I like enough to not root for their opponent when the game is about to become a rout.

At any rate, two things are impressive already about the Bills. First, they have scored 79 points this season, which is nine more than they scored in their last 6 games last season. This is a team that, for almost a decade now, has had one of the worst offenses in the league. The last time that the Bills ranked better than 25th in the NFL in yards gained was 2002, and they've ranked 30th four times in the last eight years.

This leads to the second key difference, which is that it was excruciating to watch Bills games, and the team under Dick Jauron never seemed like it tried very hard. It's one thing to watch a team lose if the games are close in some way, but the Bills lost five games last year by 24 points or more. It's hard to imagine a Dick Jauron team (yes, I know Chan Gailey was the coach last year) coming back from a 21-3 deficit.

This game simply was fantastic. The Bills had the ball five times in the second half and scored a touchdown every single time. The first three were unanswered scores which erased a 21-3 halftime lead for the Raiders with 14 minutes left in the game. The Raiders made it 28-24 with 9 minutes to left, the Bills retook the lead themselves 31-28 with 5 minutes to go, then the Raiders took just one minute to make it 35-31 with 3 minutes to go.

The ensuing Bills drive was dramatic, with a fourth-down conversion before ending up at the Raiders' 7 with 18 seconds left. It was 4th-and-1 and the Bills had no timeouts. A running back coming out of the backfield drew the linebacker out of the middle, and other receivers crossed to the left side of the field. This led David Nelson wide open in the centre of the field, on the goal line of all places, on the biggest play of the game.

With just 14 seconds left, the Raiders were actually able to get three plays off. The first, a 24-yard completion to the 44. If the receiver had gone down immediately instead of running a few more yards, the clock might have stopped with eight seconds instead of six. The Raiders tried to squeeze in one more play, but it was rushed and the pass was incomplete. With eight seconds and a timeout, even a quick strike over the middle might have worked. A 20-yard pass would have taken the ball to the 36, setting up a 54-yard field goal for a man who kicked a 63-yard field goal last week.

Even so, Campbell got off a hail mary pass that made it to the end zone and could have been a touchdown if it had been a foot to the right or a foot to the left. It was intercepted by a Bills defender sandwiched between two Raiders receivers. That's the kind of absurdly exciting game this was.

With the Patriots and Jets in their division, it's acceptable if the Bills don't make it to the playoffs, but if the games can be exciting, it's certainly a good halfway point between the doldrums of the past decade and the glory years of the early '90s.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book #12: Gorgias

This post should really be about two books, Les Miserables and Gorgias, but as much as I enjoyed reading Les Miserables, I have to admit that I don't really have much to say about it. I would probably end up gushing with praise for Victor Hugo's writing style, which appeals to me due to its focus on history and architecture, as I already did in this post.

Instead, let me talk about the Gorgias, which is a Platonic dialogue. This was an assigned reading in my second-year course on ancient Greek philosophy way back in 2005. My textbook included maybe a third of this dialogue, and as interesting as I thought it was, I didn't even get around to finishing that third.

In recent weeks, however, in the spirit of getting around to doing things, I started and finished this dialogue. This is probably the first time I have read any philosophy since the spring of 2008, which is disappointing in itself and also relevant to the lessons of the dialogue.

At first, I hated philosophy. The one course in philosophy I took in high school was an annoying mishmash of general knowledge with no real focus but lots of cliquish references to movies I had never seen and never would. I took a class in philosophy to round out my schedule in my first year of university and expected to hate it, but it was provocative and plain-spoken enough to instantly become preferable to political science, where I was learning gobbledygook terms like "operationalizing democracy".

To be fair, of course, over four years philosophy would teach me terms and ideas like pros hen equivocity, Tarski's truth quorum, the science of being qua being, the two meanings of the word 'is', how many stones make up a pile of stones and so on. Nevertheless, in retrospect, much of the appeal of philosophy for myself, as for others, lay in its counter-cultural appeal, in an obsession with meaning as our better-earning peers learned how to come up with weasel words.

Then I graduated and decided I was either going to become a teacher or a journalist. Either career path, it seemed, would make good use of philosophy: you surely can't write the truth without knowing what it was for something to be true and, similarly, you can't help someone learn without knowing what it was to know something.

Reality, of course, is very different. I didn't even realize how much my major differed from my ordinary, daily life until someone, with that "oh, wouldn't it be nice to learn some philosophy?" mindset, asked me to summarize the study of ethics in about fifteen minutes. As I laid it out, about a year and a half ago, I thought to myself that, as they say, you really don't need to know any of this after you graduate.

That thought went nowhere until a few months ago when I sat next to a man on the subway who was reading Plato's Cratylus. I went out to buy the Cratylus but ended up settling for the Gorgias.

At any rate, the Gorgias is very entertaining if you're an English teacher in Korea, no matter where you're from. Much of the early portion of the text discusses the role and the importance of rhetoricians, highly-paid instructors who taught others how to speak well. Socrates questions the value of rhetoricians as well as the knowledge they supposedly impart.

Classical Athens, then, is not all that different from modern Seoul in this respect. There might not be rhetoricians in the Athenian sense here, but there's a lot of money to be made by teachers and students in learning the sort of useless skills that Socrates dismissed as knacks. A knack, he says, is to knowledge what a pastry chef is to medicine: pleasing and flattering, sure, but ultimately useless.

Consider how this statement from almost three millennia ago reflect the present-day hagwon business in Seoul:

"Well, in my opinion, Gorgias, it doesn't involve expertise; all you need is a mind which is good at guessing, some courage and a natural talent for interacting with people. The general term I use to refer to it is 'flattery'..."

What makes the Gorgias so interesting to me is Socrates' claim that a tyrant is invariably powerless and unhappy. After he had said that rhetoric was a useless knack, Polus pointed to the immense political power enjoyed by those who excel at rhetoric. Socrates responds by saying that "orators and tyrants have the very least power of any in our cities".

His reasoning here might appear convuluted, but it is simple:

1) Everyone wants what's good
2) A tyrant might kill someone or confiscate their property, but this is not the good
3) Therefore, a tyrant can't get what he want and is both powerless and unhappy

This is another example of the ancient Greek view of happiness differing from our view of happiness. We view happiness as an emotional state, often in the short-term, but happiness to Plato was long-term well-being, perhaps better expressed by living well than by enjoying immediate emotional satisfaction. A person could be said by the Greeks to be happy while sleeping or performing some mundane task in a way that we wouldn't.

Reading this and subsequent discussions on whether it is better to be wronged than to wrong someone, I questioned, as Plato often did, the usefulness of philosophy in everyday life. Plato turned philosophy into almost a religious conviction, turning his nose at the possibility of rhetoric to one day save his life, declaring:

"No, my friend, you'd better consider the possiblity that excellence and goodness do not consists merely in the preservation of life. Perhaps the mark of a real man is that he isn't worried about how long he lives and isn't attached to life."

In the years since I graduated from university, I can say that while I use the skills I learned from philosophy, I seldom think about the material, and I suspect that I'm not alone. If there is one conclusion that I've reached in the last three years, it's that hectoring unsuspecting people in the agora in the way of Socrates is unproductive to modern life.

It's commonly said, as a cliche, that "you can't legislate morality". This, of course, is a very modern view of morality that, as my favourite professor joked, assumes ethics is about money and morality is about sex. We can and do legislate morality, such as when we punish murder and theft.

At the same time, many political controversies could be avoided if people recognized the difference between morality and the law. While, say, it would be ideal if everyone studied philosophy or excercised, it would be foolhardy to mandate this by law.

As for morality, the word itself has taken on a bad name and largely seems to come up when one group of people would like to restrict the lives of another group of people. Taken as a Latin equivalent of the Greek ethics, which today unfortunately applies in the negative to someone who embezzles money, it has a broader sense of how to live.

This sort of true ethics or morality is useful, indispensable really, even as job markets get tougher for those who do something in university besides outright vocational training. It seems foolish to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars on learning how to get a job, but not even thinking about how to live, unless you value your job more than you value your life.