Sunday, July 31, 2011


That email sent before I was finished. The last sentence was going to be that the successes and motivations of the party can't purely ad ascribed to evil or to pure luck.

At any rate, speaking of evil, I'm off to check out the newly opened National Museum of China.

Let me also testify that although the sky is blue here, the air is vile. I almost threw up while running a couple of miles in Qianmen this morning. That might be just this area since I didn't have this problem anywhere else, but then I've over had this problem anywhere else in the world.

What if the Party is right?

It's more or less an accepted belief that while the Chinese communist party is an adept economic manager, it has not done much for ordinary people, nor does it do much for the people outside of helping them live comfortable lives.

However, I've noticed several cases where an authoritarian government can do a better job of serving the people than one which is democratic. China can be contrasted with its giant neighbour India, which has more poverty and more social ills despite being a democracy.

The sort of heavy-handed security apparatus the state has constructed in conjunction with the army and the Party allows it not just to keep riffraff away from party headquarters, but also to restrict harmful or dangerous behaviour.

To wit:

1. I saw a police officer wrestle with a man on a motorcycle who was trying to cross a busy street on red light. It seems that the police or security officials in a democracy don't feel as empowered as their Chinese counterparts. This would explain why buses and even police cars in South Korea will go through a red light if there's no one in their way.

2. From the standpoint of the traveler, the tours of sites around Beijing such as the Great Wall have been standardized and regulated by the state. While shady outfits no doubt exist, they have become a little harder to find.

3. It's actually very hard to cross the street in Beijing now given the way that thigh-high white fences all over the city tunnel pedestrians to crosswalks.

4. Similarly, an army of middle- aged women patrol underground passages and subway platforms for all sorts behaviour. While much of it is nonsense, it makes getting on a train that much easier.

On a far larger scale, it's conceivable that the only thing keeping this country together and functional is a very strong state. Much of the standardizations that the PRC gas undertaken in its history no doubt trample on many, but the linguistic unity in Mandarin, for example, is probably more beneficial than a Europe-sized country of people who can't understand each other.

I think it's undeniable that all of East Asia's developed states got there by some form of benign dictatorship. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and of course China all got there thanks in part to strongmen. Compare that to a democracy like Mongolia which is still struggling to develop.

Ideally, we would have a free state with development. But if you had to choose one, it's probably better to rich than to vote in poverty. None of this excuses the Chinese Communist Party's murderous excesses, its rampant narcissism (seen in massive exhibits all over Beijing commemorating its 90th anniversary), or its strong

Red China, white knuckles

I was walking through a subway station tonight when I saw an ad for the Harry Potter movie (out August 4th here) next to an ad commemorating the Chinese Communist Party's 90th anniversary. The station was in an area with a lot of that crappy architecture from the '80s and '90s, the time when China opened up and everyone thought it would become a Western-style democracy in a matter of time. As the last few years have shown, certainly the time since the Olympics, China's grip has tightened rather than relaxed.
Before the Olympics, I think, all subway stations introduced x-ray scanners for all bags. This was widened to all bus and train stations in the country; I've taken buses in towns without running water or shower which had a scanner at the bus terminal. These also exist at underpasses allowing entrance to Tiananmen Square. Somewhere in the time I was gone, the Public Security Bureau decided to build a permanent structure in the square, so now you can cross the street into Tiananmen Square without having to go overseas.
Alongside all of that, Beijing has matured nicely to the point where it reminds me of Taipei, even far superior in many ways. That is, of course, because I spent the day in the Wangfujing shopping district and the ponds and willows of Beihai Park. Government and military buildings occupy much of the space, but there is no shortage of newly-minted middle class Chinese tourists taking it all in. I would say, in fact, that tourism in Beijing is now almost entirely a Chinese phenomenon than a foreign phenomenon.
This is hardly surprising, though I think it's clear that the opposite was true not too long ago. The Chinese will be the world's largest group of tourists in not too long, and it figures that they would conquer Beijing along the way. What this means, hopefully, for the rest of us is that there will be a slow but steady decline in the sort of menu scams (teahouse, art gallery, rickshaw ride even?) you can expect in this city. I'm sadly on nerve whenever someone tries to speak to me in English because I can see where it's headed.
While China ascends to being a middle-income country by global standards, I would dare to say that the poor here are as poorly off as the poor in just about any city in the world. If you wander the much-romanticized hutongs, the tiny homes in alleyways have gotten standardized bathrooms, which is a plus but still puts them as a block of ancient houses sharing a public bathroom. If you see the homeless sleeping on concrete blocks on the sidewalks or the beggars walking through subway trains, I'm reminded of Pakistani beggars or the literal heaps of homeless men and boys I saw sleeping on each other in Kathmandu.
I started to write a post on my phone about just why it is I ended up in China when so many others in Korea, Korean or not, end up in warmer, beach-based locales. The draw is not some kitschy clash of old or new, nor is it some cliche about a rising dragon. Rather, I came here maybe for some of the same reasons that pull an additional 700,000 Chinese to Beijing each year, along with a sense of gawking at how this poorly understood one-fifth of humanity lives.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pakistan, the gift that keeps on giving

If you can read this, that means I am writing from Beijing. The fine people at the Dalian airport took great interest in my well-stamped passport, which has no record of me before this year, and shows me as born in Pakistan, but traveling on a Canadian passport while living in Korea even though my (new) passport has no Korean visa.
The people at China Southern weren't much better. If you find yourself considering this airline, let me stop you: walking is cheaper and more comfortable.
Anyway, I'm in Beijing where the sky is blue and the sun is shining. I have a longer post that I wrote by hand, which will wait until I'm not standing in a hotel lobby.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Books #8 and #9: The Histories of Herodotus, Inside the Kingdom

I'm mostly proud to have finished The Histories of Herodotus, which I think was more interesting for its treatment of history than the histories contained in it. Herodotus is cited as the first person to have written history and, as such, his treatment of it is unfamiliar to us because he was doing something no one had done before. For the most part, Herodotus wrote an interesting series of tales about the Greek-Persian conflict, even if that conflict can be hard to follow for modern readers thanks to the many comical sidebars in the book.

While I enjoyed reading Herodotus, chiefly for the cruelty and excesses with which politics and power were exercised in antiquity, I can't say that I have a lot to say about it, certainly not a week after I finished it.

The more interesting book was Robert Lacey's Inside the Kingdom, a retelling of the recent history of Saudi Arabia. I have to say that I've held a grudge against Saudi Arabia as one of the most vile states in the world for reasons like this. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were also Saudi, though that one was less the result of active government policy. I bought the book expecting a well-researched albeit heavily critical look at the kingdom. While the book is critical, it by no means overlooks the successes and the commendable actions of the country and its rulers.

Reading the brief history of how modern Saudi Arabia came to be, as an alliance between strict Wahabbi Muslims and the House of Saud, I was struck by the megalomaniacal tendencies of the name of the country. This might be the only country in the world named after those who rule it.

Lacey explains that Saudi Arabia has, simply put, been a partnership between mosque and state. The House of Saud has ruled with the support of Islam clerics. After the discovery of oil (the British Iraqi Petroleum Company "doubted there was much oil in Arabia"), the country became wealthy and, if not necessarily liberal, then at least modern in a way that made conservatives uncomfortable.

In Lacey's narrative, this culminated in the armed uprising where the Masjid al-Haram (also known in English as the Grand Mosque) was held hostage by extremists who thought the House of Saud had lost its way. In its aftermath, the Saudi government responded with concessions to clerics, whose violent, xenophobic rhetoric found an outlet in the Afghan-Soviet War. At its conclusion, the violence made its way home to Saudi Arabia as well as Yemen and Tanzania among other places.

These attacks, of course, culminated in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. Not too many Saudis and Muslims in general might have been moved by this and, let's be honest, why should they be? How moved are you by the deaths of three thousand people who don't share your way of life? For the Saudis, the real moment of truth came when Al Qaeda began to act in Saudi Arabia, making it clear that the terrorists were after the Saudi state as much or more as they were after America.

This caused Saudi Arabia to change course culturally, much as it had been changing course economically under King Abdullah. One of the interesting things about the book is the way it portrays most Saudi kings in a favourable light. While they by no means have absolute power, sharing it with dozens of princes as well as the clergy, reform has been absurdly slow in Saudi Arabia by the standards of virtually any other country.

Nevertheless, reform came in Saudi Arabia under Abdullah after 9/11. Religious extremism was combated and many of the financial excesses of the endless royal family and its equally endless entourage were curtailed, as was corruption. Saudi Arabia began to rank reasonably well on some metrics as a place to do business, though these metrics are obviously questionable.

Abdullah's reforms have been in the area of:
- openness, urging journalists to write articles critiquing how the government conducts itself
- democracy, Abdullah set a goal of achieving a full adult democracy in 20 years
- education, Abdullah wants to open a world-class university in Saudi Arabia
- women's rights, Abdullah moved women's education away from religious authorities and put it under the jurisdiction of the ministry of education after the deaths of 15 female students in Mecca
- civil rights, it's promised that someday the country might move away from its current model of allowing the police to hold anyone without charges for up to six months, though I wouldn't hold my breath

While Saudi Arabia is still a place where women can't drive or attend university without a man's permission, where men or women can't voice any dissent without the risk of ending up in jail, and where being anything other than Muslim is punishable by death, the reality of life in the kingdom is more nuanced than we might imagine.

I read the book because it's about a topic that I know superficially but have not read about in detail for a number of years, and much has changed since I did so. For many Muslims who feel that Islam is the simple answer to all social problems, though I feel they say that more to proselytize than actually believing it, the reality of governing a Muslim country is extremely complex.

It's one thing to appeal to religion for having all the answers, it's another to try and run a modern, economically competitive state in the twenty-first century using Islam. A good first, step, however, would be to jettison literalism and trying to live exactly as the Prophet Muhammad did. I can still remember Muslim students at the University of Toronto who wore Arab-style robes and grew long beards, but also availed themselves of the benefits of Goretex jackets and Nike running shoes, luxuries the Prophet himself likely never had.

Shia intellectual Tawfiq Al-seif explains the challenge when interviewed by Lacey in the book: "there is a verse in the Koran that says in order to be strong in war against your enemies you have to prepare 'swords and horses'. Well, if you take that literally nowadays and go into battle with swords and horses you will find yourself hopelessly weak against your enemies. So here is a case where everyone would agree that you have to reinterpret what the Prophet said... What the pious Muslim--Sunni or Shia--should be asking himself today is not what the Prophet did then, but what he would do now if he were confronted by the realities of modern life."

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why I live here, parts two and three

I wrote last year about why I live here. These pictures give some more reasons.

This is the under-construction Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. This will put the exclamation mark on the transformation of Dongdaemun from a gritty market district to a shiny Myeongdong-style shopping district, albeit all night and with a higher intensity. The grittier elements, of course, remain.

When I take the bus home at night from Jongno, I go by here sometimes. I'm struck at how blindingly bright the lights are.

This is an Uzbek restaurant at Dongdaemun, found next to a dog soup restaurant in a gritty alley. Samarkand is fast becoming one of my favourite restaurants in Seoul.

Yes, Starbucks is everywhere, but this Starbucks incorporates nineteenth-century architecture and sits directly across from Deoksugung.

A blurry shot of a seafood market next to World Cup stadium coming alive at 6 in the morning on a Sunday.

Whether you hate it or simply dislike it, the Jongno Tower certainly gives you something to look at. However, this site used to be one of the first department stores in Seoul, a much better building to look at.

The other reason I live here is the simplicity and convenience of life here, one of them being the possibility of living here without a car, not to mention the ease of walking to work and walking to a dozen restaurants or cafes. Toronto, on the other hand, just took the time to take bike lanes off of Jarvis Avenue because it increased travel times for drivers by four minutes, thereby keeping residents from eating dinner with their families. I'll keep using one of the fourteen subway lines and hundreds of bus routes here, thank you very much.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A visit to the Seoul Museum of History

I visited the Seoul Museum of History a few weeks ago. It's strange that it took so long considering that it's just down the street from the Gwanghwamun intersection and it's marked by a big streetcar in front.

The site used to be the lost palace of Gyeonghuigung, demolished by the Japanese during their occupation. By the time Korea got around to restoring its palaces, decades of urban development around it had made restoration impossible, similar to the much smaller version of Deoksugung we find today.

I was actually drawn by the now-finished exhibit of portraits of Moscow over various historical periods.

The Museum of History is free to visit, as this sign says, though recent news reports have suggested it's free because it also functions as a public relations vehicle for redevelopment projects in Seoul.

This North Korean propaganda flyer from the Korean War warns South Korean soldiers of their fate: "if you fight for (President) Syngman Rhee, this will be your reward!" It depicts a well-off Rhee with his Italian wife and their dog.

This 1965 newspaper front page headlined "Heading to Seoul without a plan" helps to explain how the population of Seoul went from 2 million to 10 million from 1950 to about 1985.

These are public toilets on the Cheonggyecheon, maybe.

The underpass underneath the Gwanghwamun intersection is under construction in this picture. Note the now-demolished residence of the Japanese governor general in the background where Gwanghwamun now stands.

Bus tickets from the 1970s elicit shocks and laughter today. Sadly, they're still a reality in Toronto.

This poster explains that phone lines can get crowded just like roads. Koreans make longer phone calls on average than Americans or Japanese, it says, urging Koreans to make shorter phone calls.

The sticker(?) on the right says "a happy family is a planned family". Fifty years ago, Korea had a birth rate of 6 children per women. Thanks to family planning, that number is now 1.3 children per women, one of the lowest numbers in the world. We should be careful to make predictions about the future based on current trends.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Namsan Hot Summer Half Marathon

I ran this race two years ago. I woke up late, missed the start by 20 minutes and begged the organizers to let me run. They were gracious enough to let me do so, though at the time I didn't know that the race is on a public path that's open to all. The race was in pouring rain, everything I owned was soaked afterwards, and I jogged the race in about 1:50 (probably more than that, though I don't remember).

I've run the course (a 3k stretch of road) many, many times since then, albeit never more than twice at a time. To repeat it six times and change is a very subtly tortuous course. There is no one killer hill on the course, but then, there is almost no flat ground either, and altogether there are about probably about 30-40 hills of various sizes over the course of 21 kilometres.

Running the course hard, however, was an ordeal. I thought I was in shape for about a 1:30-1:32 and so I could run the course 5 minutes slower. In reality, I haven't run for more than an hour since March and so the course chewed me up as the race wore on. Having not run a half in a long time, I made a big push at 9k and felt great, though I was struggling by about 14k.

I kept more or less the same effort the whole time, so while I didn't fall apart, I steadily got slower, finishing in 1:46. Judging by the fact that I finished 27th out of 273 men, maybe the course is more like 10 minutes slower at my pace, though obviously different courses have different effects on different people having different sorts of days, so attempts at equivalency are quite moot.

While the course is repetitive and indicative of sociopathic tendencies, it's easy to love because it doesn't seem that challenging if you only run it once, kind of like that old saltine cracker challenge. If you run and you live in Seoul, you really should try this race.

I set four goals this summer: a 5k, two 10k races and this half. While the 5k (19:00) was a win, the 10k (49:34) I ran last weekend was a loss, and this half is a tie. The rubber match is another 10k in two weeks, where a sub-40 is a must.

남산 위에 저 소나무

From the first time I went there, I've loved Namsan as well as the neighbourhood around it. Namsan is technically a mountain in Seoul, though it's only about 250 metres tall. There are actually a few buildings in Seoul that are taller.

The first time I went there, all I saw and heard was torrential rain and leafy green trees, which reminded me quite a bit of the path that circles Hong Kong's Victoria Peak, but quieter. Of course, in retrospect, most of Victoria Peak is far more remote than Namsan, but I didn't know that at the time.

As time went on, Namsan has become one of my favourite parts of Seoul and a place that I try and visit regularly. Most people, I think, unfortunately know Namsan as nothing but a small mountain with a tower at the top, which is just as well, because it keeps the rest of the area relatively quiet.

Namsan has a fantastic loop for running, about 7.5 km if you start at the top by the tower, run east towards the national theatre building and then follow the green path until its end. From there, follow the road left past the library and go up where you see the buses coming down. This is, of course, only a suggestion, as Namsan has a variety of paths and a variety of layers.

As interesting as Namsan itself is the neighbourhood. To the north is Myeongdong, to the south is Itaewon, to the west is Seoul station and to the east is a quiet, unassuming collection of neighbourhoods that would be a great place to live. Roads climbing up to Namsan can be absurdly steep, but steeper still are the endless staircases that can turn the climb up into a heart-stopping workout for the people I see staggering up to the top drenched in sweat.

The neighbourhood to the south of Namsan, taking up the space between Itaewon, is especially interesting. It's by no means a wealthy neighbourhood even though it occupies fantastic real estate with amazing views of the city as well as proximity to Namsan. It's just a winding, messy neighbourhood with stores that have tarps for roofs and restaurants where the backdoor hasn't been used in so long that it's rendered useless by the grass that has grown there.

Above all, Namsan gives a sense of being in the middle of nowhere in the core of the city, something that's exceptional for a city like Seoul. Yes, there are other places like this in Seoul, but none so middle-class this close to the centre. Much of the slopes of Namsan have mercifully been spared by the homogenizing touch of developers, and hopefully it continues.

For a taste of the best of Namsan, literally, go to the Yongsan library opposite the much larger and grander Namsan library. The spartan Yongsan library has its fifth floor on level with the Namsan ring road and its first floor on level with the neighbourhood below. From the first floor, walk across the street and get something to eat at this tiny restaurant, followed by coffee and/or waffles down the street at the Good News Cafe.

If it's late enough, the library and its elevator will be closed, so haul yourself up the stairs adjacent to the library to get back to the bus stop (buses run to and from Myeongdong, Itaewon and Seoul station). While you wait, admire the view of Seoul and the noticeably cooler weather on Namsan. Or, if you'd like, challenge yourself to make it out of the maze of streets, no prizes given to those who live in the area.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Banking CAN be this uncomfortable

One of the worst parts of living in Korea is the banking. I won't make myself angry by getting into it, but here's a comparison of how online banking works with IBK, the Korean bank I use, and RBC, my Canadian bank. For what it's worth, all screenshots are from a transaction to pay a credit card bill.

Banking with RBC is a four-part step, though I guess I omitted the first step. From the main page, click 'sign in' and then the three steps that follow are shown below.

I won't claim to remember much about how the process works, but bills you register with your bank show up on the quick payment menu. The whole thing can be done in less than a minute.

By contrast, Korean banking is unwiedly and inconvenient. It only works with Internet Explorer, the pages are heavy and take a long time to load, and about a half-dozen Active X controls are required just to use the website, along with a third-party program used just for logging in.

Step 1 is the third-party program with its own password for logging in. Note that my Taiwanese laptop with Korean-language support can't decipher anything in the program.

After logging in, step 2 lets you chose a "quick transfer", the fantastic South Korean feature that lets you transfer money to another account in a method that we call personal checks.

Step 3 is the actual transfer screen itself. Granted, much of the space asks for banking information of the account you're paying, but it asks for my PIN, my online transfer password, all of which are different from the password I use to log into my online banking.

But wait! That's not all!

Step 4 is insane. When I signed up for online banking in-person (fun fact: I signed up for RBC online banking from an Internet cafe in Istanbul), I was given what's called a secret card. My co-workers have nicknamed it a nuclear football. As the picture in step 4 shows, I have to enter a combination of numbers from it in order to complete the transaction.

In step 5, finally, I have to review my transaction using the third-party program and re-enter the original password for logging into the website. Note that I can't read any of the information.

Finally, if you can manage all this, you still might find, as I did, that your bank card doesn't work outside of Korea and that you have to ask for special dispensation from your bank just to bank online from outside of Korea. The whole process reeks of this parody of the iPod, Microsoft's human ear edition of the product.

Much of the security in Korea is in the name of crime prevention. I had to bank using my passport instead of my ID card at my local branch because it had been targeted by some nebulous Chinese criminals. Many ATMs require you to confirm that you haven't come to complete a transaction that resembles a phishing scam. The block of Internet banking outside of Korea, too, is in the name of preventing foreign criminals from negotiating the thirty or so levels of security already in place to access your account.

Like with terrorism, it's worth it to take a step back and consider just how small of a risk is being targeted with how great of an effort. To stave off this low-probability event, we expend an absurd amount of time, energy and resources. Frequently changing passwords, for examples, costs the American economy something in the order of tens of billions of dollars each year.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

SBS and the USFK curfew in Itaewon

The only time I turn on my TV is in the morning before I go to work, partly because the morning show has a clock in the corner and partly so I can watch the news. I find the SBS morning show, like all morning shows around the world, to be generally sensationalist with the occasional piece of interesting journalism. Last week was an interesting feature on motels that officially do not permit minors but in practice have no way of stopping them (many are automatic).

Today's program, however, was incredibly egregious. The offender was a short story about the lifting of a curfew on American soldiers in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul. I don't follow this closely, but a long-standing curfew on American soldiers in Itaewon was lifted last July.

As a result, crime committed by US soldiers (presumably in Itaewon?) is up 15% since last January when the curfew was still in effect. Of course, it's not clear how that compares to the overall crime rate, or whether that justifies telling adults what they can and can not do in a free country. I accept that asking for thoughtful analysis from the TV news is not a fruitful endeavour. Note that the curfew was instituted after 9/11 under the umbrella of general security paranoia.

This post is not, however, a commentary on the character of American soldiers, the people responsible for keeping this country safe. It is also not a commentary on the right of Koreans to discuss crime or undesirable behaviour by foreign nationals in their country. It is, however, a commentary on how that debate is conducted or, more specifically, how that debate is guided and framed by SBS.

What was offensive about the report, however, were the images that follow:

This is our heroine bravely standing in front of some tall black men, ready at a moment's notice to violate the honour of pure 조선 처녀. I'm sure it's a coincidence that SBS wound up doing a report about crime in front of a group of black men.

Then come the interviews of ordinary people. They asked this woman what she thinks: "it's scary. There are a lot of foreigners."

Then they asked her giggly friend what she thought, while the first woman took pictures of her friend being interviewed, giving us a hint of how seriously they take this issue. She says, "the soldiers can get around at night, so there are more problems with law and order. It's scarier now to come here at night."

Finally, they interview an anonymous employee of a club, who says "Itaewon also has a lot of drugs. I've seen a lot and it's spreading to Korean kids as well."

Now, does this prove that every single Korean is a racist? No. Does this prove that Koreans are a fuzzy-headed lot averse to critical thinking unlike us Westerners who, like Prometheus, gave Koreans the gift of rationality and processed sugar? Absolutely not.

What this does show is the corrosive effect of conventionalism. This is hardly a problem unique to Seoul or Korea. Itaewon's perception preceded it, and SBS just wanted to do a simple, frightening story about large, dark-skinned people. I'm sure that SBS interviewed a few people who didn't give them what they wanted, which was young, thin women saying that Itaewon is "scary". The club employee said "Itaewon also has a lot of drugs", which probably means that another place was mentioned, but it was better to edit that out.

It's also not true that the media is obsessed with foreign crime. While stories about "rising" foreign crime practically write themselves and find a welcoming audience in a rapidly changing society, news about foreign crime is comparatively rare, and news about all crime is sensationalistic. There was a longer story in the same show about purse snatchings and how to prevent them.

That said, it's important, I think, for someone to watch this and say "wow, I can't believe you just said that on TV." The next time SBS would like to film you eating kim chi with chopsticks while wearing a hanbok, remember that they're a bunch of smarmy, ratings-driven assholes to whom the truth is really just incidental.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Book #7: Where Men Win Glory

Jon Krakauer is an excellent writer. Before I left for Nepal last summer, I spent a Saturday night reading various accounts of disastrous Himalayan expeditions, Krakauer's account of the 1996 Everest disaster published in Outside magazine being chief among them. Krakauer is an excellent writer, one of my favourites, as much for his writing style as his choice of topics.

Krakauer's account of the death of former NFL star Pat Tillman is well-written. I found much of it to be rather obsequious in a way that is uncharacteristic of Krakauer. It's sort of reminiscent of why small, overpriced portions at restaurants where prices are expressed in single digits without dollar signs cause rich people to go berserk in a way that stale McNuggets simply wouldn't.

If an 18-year-old soldier gets into a drunken brawl, it's because he's stupid, but when Tillman does it, it's an expression of his masculinity, commitment to a moral code and unwillingness to shrink down from a challenge.

The most important part of this story is not that Tillman died, or how he died, but that almost from the moment he enlisted, he was used by the American government as a public relations tool. About a half dozen people, retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal being one, seem obviously guilty of criminal activity in deliberately covering up the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, although no one was punished in a meaningful way.

Krakauer is most famous for Into Thin Air, the story of a disastrous spring season on Mount Everest, and Into the Wild, another story about a man who thought he could do more than he was capable of doing. Where Men Win Glory is similar. Tillman's wife Marie describes how, two years into his three-year commitment to the military, Tillman was aggressively pursued by several NFL teams.

"[A]t that point in time he probably would have loved to have gone back and played football... But we never really discussed it it because it just wasn't going to happen. There was no way he was going to bail out of the Army halfway through."

Krakauer further observes that "[a]s much as Pat hated being in the military and forcing Marie to endure all that his enlistment entailed, breaking the commitment he'd made to the Rangers would have violated principles he considered inviolable."

It's only in hindsight that Tillman's insistence on completing his three-year commitment seems to have been a mistake, but throughout the book Tillman is lauded for sticking rigidly to principles and rules of his own making.

Both in running and in the combination of hiking-slash-traveling that has become one of my favourite past-times, we all know people with a bizarre obsession for sticking to self-imposed rules. Some people have to run everyday, others have to run everyday at a certain speed or feel like a failure, and others have to run a certain number of kilometres per week in order to feel like they're training. If you're not a runner, you'd be amazed at how many runners feel like a week of 51 miles is a success, but one of 47 miles is a failure.

In his analysis of why it was that so many experienced climbers died on Mount Everest, Krakauer pointed to one key cause: pointless rigidity. Many climbers sacrificed safety at the final push to the summit because, to them, it was absurd to have come this far without reaching the top. Those climbers who stuck to a pre-determined time in the afternoon for turning around, regardless of whether or not they had summited, tended to make it out alive. Those who insisted on summiting no matter what the cost, paid the price.

It is obviously not true that there is nothing to be gained from the sort of determination that Tillman displayed throughout his life. As a professional athlete and as a soldier, rigid determination gets you very far. Flexibility keeps you from working out on days when you don't feel like it, rigidity and determination takes you from being someone who was 5'5, 120 lbs, judged by your high school coach as someone not suited to football, to being a professional.

Obviously, the line between pigheadedness and determination is a fine one. I can't remember if there is something like this in Aristotle's virtues, but Aristotle presents us with an excellent method for divining this line. Virtue, as defined by Aristotle, is the mean between excess and deficiency. Someone who insists on running everyday, even on a broken leg, isn't doing themselves any favours, but neither is someone who doesn't run if it's hot, cold, rainy, windy, or snowy.

On first examination, Tillman seems to have an excess of determination, but Aristotle also judges the standard of virtue to be virtuous people. If we consider Tillman alongside other excellent people, be they soldiers or football players, he certainly compare favourably.

Nevertheless, Krakauer either portrays Tillman unfavourably or ascribes to him virtues that don't exist by lauding his stubbornness as something to emulate. Tillman is constantly portrayed as someone hemmed in by rules of his own making for no other reason than they were rules of his own making. It's one thing for me to eat a dozen donuts if I feel that it's healthy for me. It's another to force a dozen donuts down my throat just because I once said that I would do it.

The other notable aspect of the book is Krakauer's account of Tillman's death itself. What makes his death such a catastrophic mistake is that he was fired at by his unit from as close as 120 feet, "the distance from home plate to second base". Tillman died when he stood up from behind a rock to indicate that he was American, not Taliban. The soldier who shot him tesified that "I identified two sets of arms straight up. The arms did not indicate any signs of a cease-fire."

When asked to explain "why would you fire on two sets of arms if they were straight up in the air?", he replied "this was a third world country, and they don't have hand and arm signals like we do."

Of Tillman's last moments, Krakauer writes, "it's impossible to know what was going through his mind. ...Although Pat probably couldn't make out Alders's features in the twilight, he would have known who it was from Alders's compact stature and the fact that he was holding a SAW. Shortly after Alders brought the weapon to his shoulder, Pat would have seen a flash from the gun's stubby barrel. Concurrent with the muzzle flash, three .223-caliber bullets pierced the right side of his forehead, just below the rim of his helmet, killing him instantly."