Monday, August 13, 2012

The London Olympics show the meaninglessness of fast times

The marathon, over the past five years, has seen a sea change in the quality of times. The 5k, starting this year, also seems to have come back to life after some lean years. The fastest time since 2006 was recorded this year by Dejene Gebremeskel, and that race in Paris featured five of the twenty fastest times ever run. A similar resurgence was seen in the 1500, where breaking 3:30 had become scarce, but Asbel Kiprop's 3:28 was the fastest since 2004, followed closely by Silas Kiplagat and Nixon Chipseba. In the marathon, meanwhile, Kenya and Ethiopia entered five 2:04 runners between them, with the sixth a few seconds short of breaking 2:05 himself.

However, the winning time in the 5,000 was the slowest in decades, the 10,000 was the slowest in a decade, while the marathon was comparatively fast, albeit somewhat slow for the state of the event today, even if it did include a 14:11 surge. In every single event, runners who had achieved success in paced races not only failed, but they failed miserably. In the past, successful runners were those who could win in paced races as well as championship races, but I'm having a hard time thinking of a championship event where the runners with the fastest times of the year fared as poorly as they did.

The 800 was the lone exception, but that's because David Rudisha is not only fitter and faster than anyone else running the event, he is also capable of front-running, leading the entire way. In the 1500, the winner ran the seventh-fastest time of the year. In the 5,000, the winner ran the eleventh-fastest time. In the 10,000, while Farah did not run a 10,000 this year, the runners with the fastest times this year went DNF, 12th, 4th, 3rd and 8th. In the 1500, the fastest runners of the year went 12th, 7th, 11th and 9th.

The last two days of the Olympics gave ample evidence of the inability of runners with fast seed times to perform in championship races. In the 5,000, the fastest times of the year belonged to Gebremeskel, Hagos Gebrhiwet, and Yenew Alamirew of Ethiopia, as well as Isiah Koech and Thomas Longosiwa of Kenya, all of whom ran under 12:50 about a month before the 5,000-metre final. Despite this, and knowing that Mo Farah had the best kick in the field, having outkicked Gebremeskel in the 5,000 at Daegu last year, they essentially did nothing for the first half of the race.

There were so many laps over 70 second that just about everyone presumably warmed up faster than they ran the first 3k of the race. Considering that Farah held off Gebremeskel by about 3 metres, not to mention the fact that he himself said he was tired in the heats, if the Ethiopians had even gone after five laps instead of six, the outcome would have been very different. Clearly, the fitness was there after the heats were run in 13:15 and 13:25, the former being a record, but in the race, nobody either had the courage or the presence of mind to make the pace.

For the Ethiopians, who have been very successful in distance races over the last 20 years, the marathon was an absolute disaster. Most notable in missing from the team was Tsegaye Kebede, who not only won bronze at Beijing, but, excluding his debut at Amsterdam in 2007, has run ten marathons in the last five years and never done worse than third place. Those ten marathons included third at Beijing, third at the Berlin world championships, wins at Paris (2008), Fukuoka (2008-2009) and London (2010), as well as third-place finishes at New York last fall and at London this spring. I can't think of a surer bet in a fast, unpaced marathon than Kebede, except maybe Abel Kirui, though the latter's resume is not quite as long as Kebede.

Also left off the team was Gebre Gebremariam, who won New York in 2010, ran third in Boston 2011 and then was fourth at New York last year. Finishing 14th at Boston this spring, however, probably kept him off the team. Gebremariam ended up running the 10,000 and did as well as he has ever done in a decade's worth of championship track finals, finishing 8th. He was 4th in the Athens 5k and 6th in the 10k at Osaka, but other than that, he has often finished outside the top 10.

Instead, Ethiopia chose the runners who had run fastest this year: Ayele Abshero, Dino Sefer and Getu Feleke. Neither of them finished the race, hardly surprising when you consider that Sefer's coach actually begged the Ethiopian federation to not select him for the Olympics, such was his lack of maturity in the event, having done nothing in his 2:04 personal best but follow the steady pace of others on a cool, flat course devoid of turns, changes in pace or even many other competitors. If there was a worse way to choose a more ill-suited team for the marathon, I can't think of it and the Ethiopian federation was equally stumped, it seems.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gelana's victory continues Olympic medal streak for Japanese-trained marathoners

On the surface, Tiki Gelana's 2:23 Olympic record in the women's marathon Sunday represented another failure by Japanese marathoners, so much so that it prompted an editorial (English translation here courtesy of Brett Larner) blaming the "lazy, self-indulgent training" of Japanese marathoners as the problem. However, what Gelana did was to continue the streak, now at 24 years and 7 Olympics, of at least one Japanese-trained man or woman winning an Olympic medal, as well as a streak of 4 Olympics where one marathon champion trained in Japan. Note that this isn't a matter of a runner simply having a training base in Japan.

The list includes Kenyan Douglas Wakiihuri in 1988 (silver), Japanese Koichi Morishita and Yuki Arimori in 1992 (both won silver), Arimori and Kenyan Eric Wainana in 1996 (both won bronze), Naoko Takahashi and Wainana in 2000 (Takahashi won gold, Wainana improved to silver), 2004 gold medalist Mizuko Noguchi and 2008 gold medalist Samuel Wanjiru. There are three Kenyan men who have won a medal in the Olympic marathon and they have all trained in Japan. Conversely, for all its stupefying success in big city marathons, Kenya has never produced an male Olympic medalist who didn't train in Japan.

The Olympic marathon is stunningly unpredictable. It might be the only discipline in track, if not all of sport, where a world record-holder has medaled once in the last half century and not in the last 30 years for men, while a female world record-holder has won two medals in the last 30 years. For those quibbling at home, I'm counting medals by current and former world record-holders at the time of the Olympics, but not future world record-holders, so Carlos Lopes doesn't count as his record came the year after his victory at the 1984 Olympics.

It is against this backdrop of near-certain failure that Japanese-trained athletes have been so consistent, as loosely as the term might apply to the Olympic marathon, earning 10 out of 45 medals awarded over this stretch. Compare that to 8 medals by Kenyan athletes and 5 by Ethiopian athletes, and it's clear that Japan is doing something right when it comes to the marathon in taking otherwise unremarkable athletes like Wakiihuri, Arimori and Wainana, ones who would never rate a mention as the best of all-time or even an era, and turning them into Olympic medalists.

To the extent that there is a knack for succeeding in a championship marathon that will likely be run in hot weather, which is basically like success at rolling the dice, Japan has cornered the market. I can't personally speak for the degree of involvement Japan had in the success of each of these athletes, though I suspect that, like anything else in the sport, there really is no secret. For the Kenyan athletes, structured training while avoiding over-racing and Kenya's rainy season, which can often wash out roads and make training impossible, are significant. For both Kenyan and Japanese athletes, the single-minded focus on the marathon that is the hallmark of the Japanese system (find another country where the national record in the marathon is 2:06:16, but the 1500 record is just 3:37) has long been paying dividends, alongside training in hot, humid weather.

Japan has extended its streak in producing at least one marathon medalist from each Olympic medalist, but it has the chance to add another medalist this Sunday. It's unlikely that a Japanese man will medal, with the only possible candidate being Arata Fujiwara, whose chances, I think, are bolstered by the fact that both Kenya and Ethiopia seem to have chosen their teams in the most amateurish way possible, based almost entirely on time, on what is not a very fast course. On the other hand, it's just as likely that having six men who have all run faster than 2:05:04 will produce a replica of the Beijing race.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Men's 1500: Makhloufi's kick doesn't prove he's dirty, or what really happened

If you were told that a runner with a 3:32 personal best, who had made four previous Olympic Games or World Championships but only made one final, had won a silver medal in the men's 1500, you would probably think he was doping, right? Those are the credentials of Leo Manzano. On the other hand, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria won the race with a 3:30 personal best, himself having previously failed to make it out of the semifinals in Berlin or Daegu. Immediately, LetsRun exploded with confident predictions that Manzano would soon win gold, just as Asbel Kiprop had won gold after Bahraini Rashid Ramzi was disqualified after the Beijing Olympics. Of course, it's no coincidence that American Matt Centrowitz would win bronze if Makhloufi was disqualified.

Makhloufi was seen as suspicious online, but also on the BBC. For those watching who don't normally follow track, the suspicion seemed outrageous. The suspicion, as far as I can tell, comes from: 1) Makhloufi's performance in the semifinal, where he ran a 3:33 with a 1:49 last 800, 52-second last lap and a sub-39 last 300, 2) the similarity of Makhloufi's emergence to that of Rashid Ramzi in 2005, right down to the fast heat, the dominating kick in the final and, of course, being an Algerian to Ramzi's Moroccon origins and 3) the way that Makhloufi was able to win despite easing up on the final straight.

I can not say for sure that Makhloufi is clean, of course, and I admit that I thought Ramzi was clean, but I see no more reason for Makhloufi or even Ramzi to be dirty than Galen Rupp or Ryan Hall, two runners who were also-rans at major competitions before jumping to the next level all of a sudden. Makhloufi is a great deal different from Ramzi in that he's only 24 years old, has been running internationally for a few years and ran World Cross Country as a junior in 2007. He ran a 3:30 earlier this year in Monaco.

The similarities to Ramzi are purely racial when you consider that the performance by Norwegian Henrik Ingebrigtsen was probably the biggest jump made by anybody in the final. Ingebrigtsen actually ran a personal best (and a national record) in the final, finishing fifth. The idea of a runner "coming out of nowhere" is also nonsense. Every runner comes out of nowhere to LetsRun unless he is American, English-speaking or a famous East African. When Ibrahim Jeilan won gold in the men's 10,000 at last year's World Championships, not only did LetsRun collectively consider him to be a nobody, but even Mo Farah admitted that he had no idea who Jeilan was, even though Jeilan had run 27:02 a five years before that race.

As for the kick that was too fast to have been clean, Makhloufi split a 12.6 from 1200 to 1300, and we all know that anybody who drops a 12.x 100 into a 1500 has to be doped to the gills. He then accelerated to run a 12.5 on the final turn before easing up to a 14.3 on the final straightaway, a final 300 of 39.4. It was the 200 segment from 1200 to 1400 that cemented Makhloufi's reputation in the mind of LetsRun posters. If not that, then it was how hard he was breathing after the race, a favourite of amateur doping analysts, who use their experience on the European circuit to know how hard an athlete should be breathing after a world-class 1500.

For comparison, Asbel Kiprop ran a 51-second last lap to win the World Championships at Daegu last year and Yusuf Saad Kamel ran a 38-point 300 to win at Berlin in 2009. The real story in this race is actually the complete failure of the top-seeded runners to do anything. Look at the year's best times, and compare them to the results of the final.

Fastest times in 2012

1. Asbel Kiprop 3:28.88
2. Silas Kiplagat 3:29.63
3. Nixon Chipseba 3:29.77
4. Ayanleh Souleiman 3:30.31
5. Nick Willis 3:30.35
6. Amine Laalou 3:30.54
7. Taoufek Makhloufi 3:30.80
8. Bethwell Birgen 3:31.00
9. Mekonnen Gebremedhin 3:31.45

Six of the nine fastest 1500 runners this year ran in the final. Of the six who ran, Makhloufi ranked fifth for personal bests. The slowest times belonged to the Americans and the Norwegian, which LetsRun would take as a sign of dodging the doping control at major European meets. Manzano, who finished second, had the tenth-fastest personal best out of the 12 runners in the final. We could take that as a sign that this was an unpredictable race. With the first three laps run in 2:54 (3:38 1500 pace), the field had effectively handed the race to the fastest 800-metre runner in the bunch.

Normally, this would be Olympic and World champion Asbel Kiprop, who owned the fastest 800 time in the field alongside the fastest 1500 time, but Kiprop was clearly injured, lagging behind the whole field for much of the race and finishing last in 3:43. The only other runner in the field who had ever broken 1:44 was Makhloufi. He had ran 1:43.88 to Kiprop's 1:43.15. Kiprop is definitely the superior talent, but Makhloufi had a rare opportunity in a slow pace and a favourite who had been knocked out of contention.

When Makhloufi kicked, Gebremedhin of Ethiopia and Kiplagat went with him. They paid the price for it, as Iguider passed them both to move into on the final straight. Manzano made a huge move on the final straight, passing Gebremedhin and Kiplagat, but also Iguider, putting a huge gap on all three on his way to winning bronze. If Makhloufi made it look too easy by making everyone else look bush league, the same can be said of Manzano, an even bigger nobody on paper than Makhloufi.

The finishing order was almost inverted, as I could have believed Kiprop winning ahead of Chipseba, with Bilal Mansoor Ali taking bronze and Nick Willis finishing fourth. I don't think anyone would have been surprised by Manzano finishing eleventh and Makhloufi in twelfth. What happened today was similar to the men's 10,000 in that the Kenyan men seemed to move backwards when it counted most, and other big names like Willis, Centrowitz or Iguider either came up empty or moved too late. Those who followed Makhloufi, meanwhile, suffered most, with Kiplagat and Gebremedhin finishing sixth and seventh. I don't know who else followed, as the camera only followed these top three runners.

It may well turn out that Makhloufi tests positive, but for every athlete that the media and fans have accused of being doped, about the only one who has ever tested positive was Rashid Ramzi. He is, in effect, the pancake that stuck to the wall. I don't doubt that there are others, but if we're going to believe LetsRun and, apparently, the BBC, those who take drugs are invariably non-Western, at least when it comes to distance-running.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The only worse tactic would have been to lend roller blades

Going into the men's 10,000, it was clear that, in a turn of events maybe more striking than the eventual finishing order, the Kenyans and Ethiopians weren't going to win anything if they let the race come down to the kick. None of the Kenyans had a fast kick, and the best among them was noted for his complete lack of it. Of the Ethiopians, Kenenisa Bekele's best chance at winning was a fast pace. So, an opening 200 of 30 seconds looked good, but after that, the pace was unimaginably slow, going through 2k in 5:59 (the women opened in 6:11 yesterday).

 At that point, it was still possible for the Africans to make a go of it with a withering pace over the final 5 or 8 kilometres. Instead, there was the odd surge and quicker lap, mostly by perennial nice guy (in that he gives us a race worth watching) Zersenay Tadese, but they continued to plod through, with a 2:47 6th kilometre and a 2:46 9th kilometre. A large pack, maybe with 12 men in contention at the start, but those with the finishing speed were obviously more in contention than those without.

Bekele finished fourth and Tadese sixth in what was the slowest championship 10,000 since the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, which was also the last one where an Ethiopian didn't win. Obviously, there's no guarantee that Bekele the Elder could have won or even earned silver or bronze by setting a faster pace. Considering that Farah and Rupp have run 26:46 and 26:48 of late while Tariku Bekele won the Ethiopian trials at Hengelo, the medals probably went to the most deserving runners and in the right order.

Many of those who missed out on medals trusted in their kick, but runners like Bekele and Tadese simply do not have that luxury. Tadese was never going to beat anybody in any kick of any kind, and a 13:25 second 5k didn't run the legs off of anybody. The Ethiopians, Kenyans and to a lesser extent the Eritreans simply showed up lacking in fitness, tactics, positioning in varying quantities.

Farah and Rupp are on the upside of their careers while much of the field on display today has been running championship distance races at the highest level for a decade. That the medals went to a Briton and an American in what is probably the single most competitive distance race will hopefully have two effects. The first effect should be to put to rest the notion that only East Africans or those with East African genes can compete at the highest levels of the sport, seeing as how Rupp ran a 54-second last lap to finish second, but also, for example, that Derek Clayton ran a 2:08 almost 50 years ago while Dave Moorcroft ran 13:00 30 years ago.

Second, this might help to revive distance running as a global sport. Farah's victory and subsequent celebration in front of a home crowd was a great moment in distance running, the sort that hasn't been seen in a long time. I don't think it's true that a sport dominated by East Africans can't be compelling, just as the 100 being dominated by Americans and Jamaicans doesn't keep people from watching. Others, sadly, do feel that Western athletes need to be winning in order for the sport to be in health. Now that the moment is here, hopefully something comes of it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The torture chambers at Namsan

I love Namsan. It's probably my favourite place in Seoul, as much for the view from the top as the running and the quiet on its sides. I'd heard oblique mentions to torture chambers there in the past, but having read that they were located under Namsan, I took the term literally, imagining them to be under Namsan in the way that the Namsan tunnels go under Namsan. However, the truth is that the KCIA, the forerunner to today's National Intelligence Service, and the Agency for National Security Planning that came between the two, maintained a complex of buildings that are mostly still in existence today. 

This image, which I've borrowed from the good people at the Democracy Road, shows buildings on the north side of Namsan between Namsan and Myeongdong, and their present function. Among them are the studios for the TBS radio station, where I've been a few times, as well as the offices of the Korean Red Cross and, most notably, the Seoul Youth Hostel, which is not only on the site of the former KCIA headquarters, but it's actually the exact same building.

Many well-known activists and dissidents were tortured and died here. This article from May interviews representative Lim Su-kyung about her experiences, along with providing a great deal of information on how these buildings were used and, typical in a country where modern history is something that nobody wants to discuss, the bid by many organizations to have the entire area turned into a memorial park to human rights.

Personally, if I could, I would build a Park Chung-hee Experience Zone (박정희체험관) to compliment the Park Chung-hee Memorial Hall that already exists next to the Seoul World Cup Stadium (here's a news article on the topic, with the headline quoting an old man who asks why the memorial is so small). The Experience Zone could use one of the buildings left behind by the two intelligence agencies, with exhibits on the first-floor and various torture apparatus to help re-create the era that so many older Koreans remember so fondly.

One of the most unfortunate things about Seoul is that, for a city that has been a capital for over 600 years and a city for 2,000 years, there is not much visible history. This is as much a result of colonization and war as it is relentless re-development, to the point that you could tell me this city was built from scratch forty years ago and I would believe you. Korea, as a very image-conscious country with a highly fractious recent history, will probably never highlight Namsan's bloody history for domestic or foreign visitors, leaving both to assume that Namsan is nothing more than a pleasant place with a lot of travel agencies that specialize in Chinese visas on its north side.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book #6: Les Miserables

It wasn't until I finished my abridged version of Les Miserables last year that I realized it didn't mention many of the events I heard as being in the novel, and that therefore I actually hadn't finished the book. I had only finished the first two volumes out of five. So, I went back and bought an unabridged version of the novel, which took several months to read, a time during which it doubled as a pillow during hikes and trips to the beach.

Reading the last three volumes made the novel more meaningful, though I think the first two volumes were better-written. The novel is vast in its scope and its themes. After finishing it, I read the introduction (why read a detailed analysis of a book I've never even read?) and was heartened to see the translator mention that much of the book was superfluous and completely irrelevant to the novel, amounting to so much well-written prose. Victor Hugo's painstakingly detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo is perhaps the best example, as I spent about two hours reading the 50-page retelling while searching in vain for any clue to see how it related to the novel.

As with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, my favourite thing about reading this novel was that it was set in Paris, an old, grimy city. A close second, though, was the interweaving of contemporary French history with the plot. The fourth volume describes the republican June Rebellion of 1832, and I read the scene where the French national guard moved in on the waiting republicans in the last few days, at roughly the same time that Syrian rebels in Aleppo braced for an assault on the city from the Syrian army.

For French republicans the 1832 rebellion was one fight out of many over a period lasting nearly a century, before the monarchy and its various restorations were finally abolished, finally fulfilling the goal of the French Revolution. Though I'm pessimistic about the future growth of democracy as the American and Western share of influence in the world wanes, there has been reason for optimism in the two years since Andrew Sullivan and I wrote our respective posts. Dictatorships have tumbled in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Myanmar, counted as some of the worst dictatorships in the world, with Syria, another such peer, looking more and more likely to join the list.

Closer to where I write this, North Korea and China, stronger dictatorships than any that have fallen so far if not the strongest dictatorships ever, are as strong as ever. There is no chance that China will become a democracy any time soon, and I would be shocked if it happened even in my lifetime. Nevertheless, China's prosperity is allowing its citizens the luxury to demand things like clean air and the freedom to not die in train accidents. This is unlikely to produce democracy or meaningful elections, but it just might make China an increasingly responsive dictatorship, similar to Hong Kong or Singapore.

As for North Korea, I'm unconvinced that it will even cease to exist as a state any time soon, much less become a democracy. While we get excited about even the prospect of insignificant reforms in North Korea, like letting women wear pants, we often term these reforms as being Chinese in nature, which is a good indication of what the best-case scenario is for North Korea, following China's trajectory about thirty years after it happened. If Kim Jong-eun is going to put the economy ahead of the military and some degree of ideology, 2012 will still be to North Korea what 1979 was to China, extending the life of the dictatorship rather than bringing about its end.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Are American athletes at London competing in American-made shoes?

Or, for that matter, are American politicians wearing American-made suits when fulminating about causes that are as unrealistic as they are meaningless and difficult to oppose? Ralph Lauren caved quickly when politicians complained, though complained is putting it mildly considering that some politicians threatened to burn the uniforms, about the company had American uniforms for the opening ceremony at the Olympics made in China. If there's one thing politicians around the world do well, it's meaningless symbolism in the face of an actual crisis, such as taking the irreversible loss of jobs in America's manufacturing sector and responding to it with the demand that Olympic uniforms be produced domestically.

If these outfits ought to be manufactured domestically given that American athletes will be representing their country to the world while wearing them, then surely the suits that American politicians wear (ROK Drop should be advised, though, that US presidents at least wear American-made suits) when representing their people should also be made domestically . It is likely that the politicians complaining about this seldom wear clothing manufactured in America, never use an American-made cell phone and may well not drive an American-made car.

American athletes certainly don't wear American-made shoes when competing at the Olympics, not to mention American-made athletic apparel, and virtually nothing will change this. Whether America should go to the length it has to ensure that a small number of lowly-paid jobs come back to America while raising costs for a variety of products is a larger debate that no one, at least no sensible person, is having, because it makes for an awful solution. Millions of unemployed Americans might go for these jobs in the meantime, but I think America could probably promise its unemployed better than a $10-per-hour job making athletic apparel or goofy Ralph Lauren apparel.

There are developed countries that continue to play major roles in manufacturing, and they are Germany, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, among others. All these countries, much like most, though not all, people who have a good job anywhere, manage to do this by doing something that others can't do. No amount of symbolism and nationalism will ever make it possible for Americans to earn a middle-class wage, the sort that lets them take vacations and own a home, without even a high school diploma in the way that was possible for so long.

The future for American manufacturing is to develop some sort of specialty or skill, the kind that The Atlantic profiled some time ago, where workers with a technical education produce items that low-skilled workers in China or Bangladesh can't make. This is already happening, but the shift from unskilled to skilled manufacturing on a large scale in America is one plausible solution to the biggest problem it faces, that of the inability of those outside the professional class to make a comfortable living. America, in this typically absurd made-for-TV pseudo-crisis at least was able to identify that something is wrong, but didn't even manage to grasp the solution.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Movie review: 연가시 (Yeongasi)

I saw this movie at 11 am yesterday and since I didn't buy the tickets myself, I was surprised afterwards to learn that CGV offers no discounts for watching a movie at 11 am on a Saturday. The movie has an interesting premise though it explores it in some of the strangest ways conceivable, sort of like 28 Days Later meets Erin Brokovich meets Moby Dick, but the whole thing is made interesting because, I think, disaster movies suit Korean cinema quite well.

 In other disaster movies where there is a lethal virus, such as 28 Days Later or Contagion, large, chaotic crowds and draconian government measures are shocking but seem far from the realm of possibilities. In Korea, where large, chaotic crowds are a daily norm as the result of Korea being a tiny, crowded country and draconian government measures are also a daily norm, this aspect of a disaster movie is more believable.

The movie begins with dead, horrifyingly dehydrated bodies appearing in streams and rivers across the country. Gradually, though only about 40 minutes into a 2-hour movie, it is worked out that the deaths are the result of an infection by a massive waterborne worm(?) that dehydrates its victims and causes them to seek out water as a place where the worm can lay its eggs. Most victims die as a result of drowning, though others are found dead surrounded by yellow vomit, dead from causes I didn't quite understand.

Eventually, it's concluded that anybody who has been to the sea, a water park or any other body of water has been exposed to the virus, leading to all bodies of water being declared out of limits. This, along with the quarantine of victims that follows, is less inconceivable in Korea than elsewhere, considering that it is a small country with a strong federal government that can pretty much do whatever it wants. Scenes of chaotic crowds at hospitals, train stations or other public places are also not far-fetched, not because Koreans are necessarily more selfish in case of a disaster, but because this is already the case thanks to its three-day national holidays, mass public gatherings and its protests. The latter two certain go hand-in-hand sometimes, as was the case in 2008.

At any rate, the movie has a very novel idea, to me at least, and I thought another thing it did well was the melodrama. Just about every Korean movie you see will have long, cathartic scenes consisting of nothing but wailing and weeping. This is often as inexplicable as our preoccupation with the hero getting the girl, but here it's not too bad given that when someone you know and love dies suddenly and inexplicably, you probably will cry. Contrast that with the way parents of deceased children are interviewed on Law and Order SVU: they are composed, barely weeping, and so detached that it sounds like they're reading the phone book back to you.

Sadly, aside from these two and maybe a couple of other interesting ideas or high points, the rest of the movie is as cliche and as cheesy as any disaster movie you've ever seen, complete with over-the-top scenes of tragedy and heart-warming inspiration that you will cringe, roll your eyes and laugh at the absurdity of it all. There's the heartless corporation that can allow competitors to make generic copies of the antidote but can't, the courageous whistleblower who doesn't give a damn about the rules, the politician who says "I don't care whether it's legal or not, I care about saving lives" and maybe the cheesiest scene I've ever seen in a movie over the last 20 years, the main character driving a truck through the steel gates of the corporation's headquarters after protesters clear a path for him like the Red Sea parting for Moses.

I would see Yeongasi for nothing but the interesting ideas it has, though they might seem less interesting if you have more than a vague familiarity with Korean cinema, as is the case for me. It's certainly better than the average movie you see in theatres. Even if you don't speak much or any Korean, you'll find much of the movie easy enough to follow, though some of the plot twists and details near the end will be harder to follow. It might be better to be insulated from some of the film's duller moments and saccharine remarks, I suppose, though you'd wind up with an over-inflated sense of its worth similar to myself.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Seven: the number of runners at the men's Olympic Trials 10k and the number of living Prime Ministers

At the Canadian Olympic Trials 10k, seven men and four women ran in two separate 10,000-metre races. There were a total of 11 runners in both races, and if you count all the finishers in the 5,000 and 10,000, you end up with a grand total of 32 runners who ran. The times weren't much to write home about. The winning times in the 5,000 were 14:34 and 16:15, while the winning times in the 10,000 were 30:49 and 35:18. Just three women finished the women's 10,000.

If you look online, you'll find excuses like the difficulty of the Olympic standards, the altitude in Calgary (about 3500 feet), or the slow track, but consider that you would probably get faster distance runners at any well-promoted road race than you did at this particular meet, which is a national championship even if those who finish in the top three do not go on to the Olympics.

At the Kenyan Olympic Trials, held at a higher altitude in Nairobi (about 5400 feet), nine women ran under 33 minutes. Just three men managed to do this in Calgary, and one of them isn't even a citizen. It's not that Canada doesn't have some very good 10,000-metre runners, including Trials winner Mohammed Ahmed, who ran 27:34 earlier this year. It's that the national championships evidently don't mean anything since virtually none of the best runners show up.

The marathon is doing very well and the middle distances are always strong, but while America can have qualifying rounds in the 5k, Canada doesn't even have enough people to run the race to make it look all that different from a workout. There is something clearly wrong here, but the chances are that if anyone even noticed, they would simply shrug and be happy that Cam Levins ran 13:18 and 27:23 this year, but not notice that he was able to win a national championship by running 14:34, a time that might not even win the Ontario high school meet (the IAAF scoring tables list 14:34 as equivalent to an 8:30 3k, this year's winning time was 8:22).

There is something that America is doing right but most of the Western world, Canada included, is doing wrong when it comes to running on the track. True, Canada has a mini-resurgence in the marathon, but we're celebrating times that Canadians ran almost 40 years ago. The runners doing this are aware, and I think they're doubtless capable of faster times, with the runners to follow hopefully capable of still faster times in a few years. That doesn't mask the problem and it doesn't address the problem of how, for the craze surrounding high school times, rankings, championships and trips to the World Youth or World Junior championships, almost nobody seems to run after the age of 22 or 23, at least not with the single-minded devotion needed to compete at the world-class level.

In a month's time, we just might see Cam Levins finish in the top 10 in the men's 10,000, while the marathoners would do well to finish in the top 20 after recording 25th and 33rd-place finishes at Berlin in 2009. However, this won't solve the problems of facing the sport domestically, particularly on the track. I don't know why it is that Americans will show up to run national championships at any distance, though I suspect that money might have something to do with it, along with the chicken-and-egg issue of competition. Nobody shows up because there isn't any competition, and there isn't any competition because nobody shows up.

In that sense, Leslie Sexton, this year's Canadian women's 10,000-metre champion, deserves a heap of applause for, as one message board poster put it, supposedly ducking the competition in the 5,000 to run 25 laps with just three other women. Sexton is one of the few who can put her feet, if not her money, where her mouth is, writing to that same message board critic that she would have no leg to stand on when it came to bemoaning a lack of participation in the sport if she didn't participate herself.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Book #4 and Book #5: The Circuit, Breaking Through

I haven't been reading or writing as much on account of having started a master's degree and these two books are short novels that were actually required reading for my courses, but I found them worthy of a post, so I'll include them in the list. The Circuit and Breaking Through are both novels by Francisco Jimenez, a professor of language and literature at Santa Clara University in California.

They are both autobiographical novels, The Circuit being about Jimenez' early childhood and Breaking Through about his adolescence and early adulthood. They chronicle his family's illegal entry into the United States, their gut-wrenching struggle for survival that was like a post-war re-enactment of The Grapes of Wrath (which I have also read this year, though I missed the parallel until Jimenez himself pointed it out), and their gradual entry into the mainstream of American society.

Jimenez's family intially followed work picking fruit before finally settling in a house, where he and his brother worked as janitors and his father continued picking fruit. Jimenez, who never considered himself a good student, gradually discovers that he is good at it and even does well enough to receive a scholarship to attend university. Where the story stops is when he starts university, and what is left unsaid is that he went on to receive his doctorate from Columbia University.

The story is certainly inspirational when you consider Jimenez's humble origins, though somewhat sad considering that there are many in Jimenez's position who would not be able to either attend or graduate university because they are not living in the United States legally. Having moved across the world twice, I don't condone entering a country illegally, but the inescapable reality is that America will never be able to deport the roughly ten million illegal immigrants currently in its borders. The barriers in place simply ensure the existence of a group of people who live in America, and always will, but will be consigned to a lifetime of living on the margins of society and all that entails.

There are three obvious truths about illegal immigration, and I think that they conflict with each other, four if you count my disdain for any term that seeks to hide the fact that it is illegal. The first, as I've already mentioned, is that those who are already living in America illegally are unlikely to leave, so what is needed is a solution other than making illegal immigration dominate virtually every interaction between the state and the citizen. The only reasonable solution to avoid creating a generation of millions who live outside the reach of the state, hardly a desirable outcome for a number of reasons, is to offer amnesty with certain conditions.

Second, while illegal immigrants inside America should be put on a path towards amnesty, I don't see anything wrong with enforcing America's borders as they exist. It is possible for states to exert more resources in solving this problem than they lose from this problem, and I suspect that many states are doing just so. Efforts to secure the border per se are not in and of themselves problematic or racist, though I think it often comes from nativist or racist motivations. Despite the best efforts to keep illegal immigrants out, the only thing that has shrunk their numbers in the United States has been a downturn in the American economy, which has meant less work and, therefore, less incentive for illegal immigrants.

Finally, illegal immigrants perform an obviously function in American society, one that Americans are simply incapable of performing. It's so plain as day that it shouldn't be debated, but the manual labour on farms and construction sites that many illegal immigrants perform simply could not be done by American workers, and certainly not as well or for the same price. A solution, therefore, would be to offer a larger number of guest worker permits along with an amnesty, but combating illegal immigration is not exactly the job-creation program it's considered by some politicians, such as in Alabama. To the extent that it is a job-creation program, it's maybe the worst job-creation program imaginable.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Are marathons getting too soft? Yes, they are

The Canton Marathon this weekend was the latest race in America to either cancel or offer refunds to runners as a result of expected hot weather. Canton follows Boston, Madison, and Green Bay in doing so, while the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota was in danger of being cancelled due to the weather. The reasoning in Boston, Madison and Green Bay, at least, was that runners in the northeast simply had not had enough chances by April or May to run in weather approaching or exceeding 30 degrees Celsius.

I can't speak for Canton or what the weather there is normally like, and it's hard to blame race directors for what becomes a public health issue or a potentially indefensible lawsuit should a runner fall ill or die during the race. I realize the LetsRun message boards are not a trusted source of legal advice, but the argument presented on the board, that juries would dismiss the idea of an adult running in hot weather having no one to blame but themselves, seems scary enough to scare race directors into the safest alternative.

On the surface, there is simply nothing wrong with running in hot weather. Billions of people around the world live without air conditioning and a good portion of them do physical work that would roughly approximate the effort of somebody running a 4-hour marathon, over a whole day or if not over four hours. Races in Hawaii, Florida, Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere proceed without so much as a blink, in weather that's often far hotter.

Those runners are acclimated to the heat, but years of heat advisories and gobbledygook heat indices have turned people as a whole, and runners especially, already a whiny bunch when it comes to the weather, into wimps. Ask any group of typical runners, fast or slow, about the weather they had for races, and you'll get responses like "too cold", "too hot", "too windy", "no breeze at all" and, my personal favourite even though it's not related to the weather, "too flat".

Simply put, temperatures that are ideal for running a marathon, from zero to fifteen degrees, are said to be too cold, while any temperature over 15 degrees is going to be too hot. Running in a temperature of 15-20 degrees probably makes no difference when running a race up a half marathon, unless you live in Antarctica, and runners generally vastly overestimate how much heat or wind cause them to slow down (hint: it's usually the difference between how fast they wanted to run and how fast they ran).

I generally don't run well in the heat myself, but what do people expect when signing up for a race where the average temperature is about 25 degrees? Many of those who struggle in the heat simply lack the fitness to run in anything other than cool weather, while others lack the ability, for whatever reason, to adjust their effort, perhaps because they only ever run in perfect weather to begin with.

I remember how, on summer days when the high reaches 26 or 28 degrees in Toronto, many runners start their long runs at absurdly early times so as to ever avoid running in temperatures over 20 degrees. There's nothing wrong with that, and you probably have nothing to worry about if you only ever run races in cool fall or spring weather, but these same people founder when Chicago unexpectedly sees 30-degree weather in October. Runners with a wide range of experiences, having done long runs in hot weather, in snow and over hills, will fare much better in unexpected conditions or courses.

We have known for a long time that the sport was getting softer, and there's really nothing wrong with it, except for the decline of competition at the sub-elite level. As races in North America and Europe gradually start to cancel mass participation races because they have tens of thousands of entrants who aren't able to complete a marathon in hot weather that wouldn't be a problem in other parts of the world, this is one problem that is emerging and the trends being set now are likely to either eliminate many May and June marathons, or worse, result in unpredictable cancellations.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Can Kenenisa Bekele win a third straight Olympic title?

It has been nine years since Kenenisa Bekele became the world's best distance runner on the track, beating the man who just might be the greatest runner ever to do it at the 2003 World Championships. In a way, Bekele's accomplishments on the track are almost the equal of Haile Gebrselassie: both have four world titles at 10,000-metre along with two Olympic gold medals. Bekele has five consecutive World Cross Country titles, along with his consecutive Olympic and World Championship doubles, while Gebrselassie has a world indoor title at 1,500 metres to go with multiple world records in the marathon.

If I had to guess, I would guess that Bekele's career on the track will end much like Gebrselassie's, with Bekele remaining good enough to contend but lacking the finishing speed that made him invincible at 10,000 metres for nearly a decade. In Gebrselassie's case, age was the culprit, while Bekele appears to have been undone by injuries. Both, however, have come up against younger rivals who are just faster on the last lap.

Bekele played a big role in getting Gebrselassie off the track, since Gebrselassie simply couldn't compete with his kick. Bekele ran a clumsily-paced 13:00 last week in Oslo, finishing fifth in 13:00. While it's a sign of improvement over his previous 5,000 in that he closed faster, Bekele also finished behind four Ethiopians, including Imane Merga, Tariku Bekele and last year's 5,000 m bronze medallist Dejen Gebremeskel. If Gebremeskel needed to make it clear that his medal from Daegu wasn't a fluke, he did it by beating about a dozen of his countrymen by running a 53-second last lap.

Bekele is no doubt racing himself into shape after a very slow 3,000 to open the year in Doha, and he also ran world-leading time in the 10,000 a week after last year's world championships, but Olympic titles are given out for strength and untouchable finishing speed. The past twenty years of track have given us runners like Paul Tergat, Zersenay Tadese, Sileshi Sihine and even Haile Gebrselassie, who were strong enough to challenge for the win but came up short on the last lap or the last half-lap.

It's possible that Bekele will find the fitness he needs to dominate at what might well be his last Olympics, at least on the track, just as Hicham El Guerrouj managed in 2004. However, his best performance since the 2009 World Championships has been his 26:46 10,000 last year, when he struggled just to win the race. That race was not a substitute for a world title; if the World Championships had been run on that day in Brussels, there's no guarantee that Jeilan, Farah and Merga wouldn't have beaten him anyway.

I will be rooting for Bekele to win a third-straight Olympic title and while his fitness isn't great, I don't think his competition is all that great in the 10,000 outside of Mo Farah. Farah been stellar so far this year, handily beating Bekele in Oregon. However, outside of Farah, the competition isn't so intimidating for Bekele. His brother Tariku will likely be on the team, but Tariku only narrowly beat his brother in Oslo, and I wouldn't count on that result to hold at 10,000 metres in the Olympics. Assuming that the world champion Ibrahim Jeilan is injured and not running, the other Olympic spot appears to be filled by Lelisa Benti.

Kenya held its Olympic trials at the Prefontaine meet in Eugene this month, and the winner was Wilson Kiprop in an unpaced 27:01, though runner-up Moses Masai will probably be a bigger factor. Masai has a personal best of 26:49, a bronze at Berlin and narrowly missed a bronze in Beijing as well. Zersenay Tadese is a perennial threat, and has run a 59:34 half marathon so far this year, along with a fourth-place finish last year. I would be shocked if he won, but he might play the important role of pushing the pace. Galen Rupp, along with Tadese, would be candidates for making the race fast over the final kilometres, which would presumably suit Bekele, since he's unlikely to win in a kick at the bell. 

It appears that while Bekele wouldn't have made the Ethiopian team had they run a no-exceptions, American-style trial at Hengelo or even today, but he might come up with enough fitness to beat Farah, Masai, Kiprop, Rupp and anyone else who might be a factor. I just wouldn't count on it, and I would consider it a mild surprise.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Koreans are people too, middle school student edition

One of the most common charges levied against students from East Asia, both here and in North America, is that they excel at memorization, regurgitation and reproduction, lacking creativity or originality. For the most part, those who say these sort of things likely don't speak an East Asian language and likely can't express their own creativity or originality when speaking an East Asian language with peers and superiors who are native speakers.

That's not to say that the charge is without truth. A great deal of the East Asian education system, to make a broad generalization when I can really only speak about Korea, relies on vast stores of memorization, perhaps too much. While memorization is important (you can't really bake a fabulous cake if you don't remember how to use the oven), there is a great deal of time wasted in the Korean education system on impressive feats of memorization, such as memorizing 20 words far above grade-level for students who might benefit from, say, reading and constructing sentences using words below grade-level.

Over the last three months at my middle school (student ages 13-15) I've been impressed by the amount of personality and originality my students squeeze into 45-minute periods of 40 students in one room, all wearing the same uniform while abstaining from things like dyed hair, earrings, or even speaking (in English, anyway). My personal favourite is each student's desk, which is really something of a personal manifesto-slash-whiteboard-slash-diary made with dry-erase black marker.

Some students write nothing but their schedule of classes along with homework and upcoming tests, others make notes from classes, but more common are tributes to musicians, lyrics from songs, and quotes from movies. The more unusual things I've seen are intense slogans ("rock will never die"), murals that cover the entire desk, and what looked like a weight-loss diary. These admittedly are students who, not really by choice, often study more in middle school than I did in university, but they're certainly not without personalities and they're certainly not identical.

I was most impressed by the results of my school's essay contest, where each student had one hour to answer the question, "why is Korea so unhappy and how can this be changed?" I read through about 60 entries from all grades, ranging from the tersely-written ones that simply suggested studying less to ones that were very thought-provoking. Keeping in mind that these are ordinary students from an ordinary neighbourhood who have, with maybe one or two exceptions, never lived or studied overseas, what they said and how they said it was quite impressive, often from students who had never so much as said a word in class that wasn't forced out of them.

The winner of the essay contest wrote:

"I can feel why Koreans including me are so unhappy. First reason is that people force others to live a certain kind of life. There are numerous ways to succeed and people's ways to live are all different. But the problem is that people force someone to live in a same way as they do. For example, many want to go to socalled 'SKY', which are well known universities."

She concluded by saying:

"Many Koreans tend to live a life in a same way as others live and are obsessed with success and money. I think that is the reason why we are so unhappy even though Korea's economy has grown. Therefore, we should do what we love to do, and accept that everyone is different and a standard of success doesn't exist."

Another student wrote:

"I think a class shouldn't be held in a classroom only. Various types of activities should take place in various places. Next, I think test-taking should change. I think grades should depend on how students do in class time, how actively they participate, how well they handled the task given, rather than sitting down and taking tests."

She added:

"I know that this can't be done overnight. It will take a long time before good education takes place. But, as you know, drops of water make the mighty ocean. We should start changing, little by little, for the greater good."

A boy writes:

"According to many surveys, North Europeans' achivement of studies are higher than Korea students, also the happiness too. Can you believe them? They mean the competition can make people tired or disfunctional. How can we solve these problems?

I think we have to act like North Europe countries, but not all same, just some.

Another boy writes:

"'109th happiest country in the world'. This is not the title of such undeveloped nations like Ethiopia or Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, this ithe title of Republic of Korea, one of the richest countries in the world and the members of G20. Then, why Koreans that unhappy? To answer this question, it is needed to overview the society, especially the economic and educational conditions of Korea. In addition, after the overview on these aspects, the answer to the previous question could be summarized in one statement: Koreans are one of the unhappiest people in the world because of the unequal distribution of wealth after the economic recession and the burden of high grades for teenagers and children.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hiking the Baekdudaegan: Sobaeksan

This was my first time hiking on the Baekdudaegan in a while, but it was also one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever had. Sobaeksan is located more or less right in the heart of South Korea, on the border of North Chungcheong and North Gyeongsang provinces. However, I found it kind of inaccessible despite its popularity.

Sobaeksan is located closest to the city of Yeongju in North Gyeongsang province. However, the mountain is about 20-30 km from the city itself and the bus connections from the city are quite poor, with buses running between every 1 and 3 hours, making it easier to go from Yeongju to Seoul than from Yeongju to Sobaeksan. Your options, in the absence of a car, would be to either come early enough the day before to take a local bus to the mountain, or to just show up and take a taxi.

If you're interested in the Sobaeksan portion of the Baekdudaegan, it starts at the Gochiryeong pass in the west and goes to the Jungnyeong pass in the east, a hike of about 26 km. Both are comparatively hard to get to without a car, but Gochiryeong is extremely difficult to access, and there are no accommodations nearby. So, your options would be to either stay as close as possible in Jwaseong-ni and either hire a vehicle (most hotels or pensions there do this) or simply walk the 60-90 minutes to Gochiryeong.

Admittedly, I found it absurd to walk about an extra hour or two just to begin what was already about a 12 to 14-hour hike. So, I started from Yeonhwa village in Jwaseong-ni, about 30-minute taxi ride from Yeongju city, the last third of it on a concrete road that appears to double as a hiking trail, and the last few kilometres on an unpaved gravel road. If you want some quiet solitude, this is the place. While the accommodations were spartan and the taxi ride cost 30,000 won, the trail leading to Sobaeksan was literally in front of the pension.

The hike from Yeonhwa village up to the main ridge is, obviously, not actually part of the Baekdudaegan, but I didn't really care. It's 3 km from Yeonhwa village to the Yeonhwa Samgeori (three-way intersection), and it's a tough 3 km on a narrow, steep dirt trail that tests the muscles in your legs. From there, it's 5 km to Gungmangbong peak (1420 m), a comparatively easier walk that takes 2 hours or so, the same as the 3 km from Yeonhwa village.

From Gungmangbong peak, it's only another 3 km to the Birobong peak (1439 m). You can actually see one peak from the other unless the weather is awful, which wasn't the case at Gungmangbong, but rain, hail and thunder rolled in during the hour it took to walk to Birobong. Fortunately, by the time I got there, it had completely cleared up. Gungmangbong and the kilometre to the east of it are probably the most beautiful parts of the mountain. It's a flat trail at the top with azaleas in bloom, at least this past weekend, and comparatively few people. Contrast that with the rockier, emptier peak of Birobong, which seems to be eternally crowded with hikers (you can see them from Gungmangbong, actually).

The Baekdudaegan trail continues 11 km from Birobong to the Jungnyeong pass, but I was tired from having run a race before. Along with wanting to take a nap on the rocks and really take my time, I decided to follow the rest of the people down to the Samga parking lot from Birobong, a 5-kilometre walk that supposedly takes three hours but I finished in just one thanks to this route being mostly on stairways and concrete roads.

If you just want to get up to the top of Sobaeksan and back down, I guess the course from the Samga parking lot up to Birobong via the Birosa temple would be the shortest and easiest way to do it. It's also, however, very unremarkable, and the first half is really not that different from walking up any uphill road in Seoul. You could try going up from the Choamsa temple, which goes up to Gungmangbong, and then walk over to Birobong, a total of about 9-10 km that would take 4 hours one way. It wouldn't be bad to go down towards Samga-dong once you're tired, about a 6-hour hike in total without breaks.

I'll probably continue doing mountains on the Baekdudaegan, having done about 100 out of 735 km so far, but my next two trips into the mountains look like they'll be the Dinosaur Ridge on Seoraksan and a run along the northern half of the Bukhansan dullegil to finish up the portions I haven't done yet. There are better things to do on mountains than to complete a long line of them.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are novice climbers to blame for deaths on Mount Everest?

It's become a cliche to mock the cliche of novice, unprepared climbers beating a path up Mount Everest, almost as much as copy editors love to work the term 'death zone' into any article about tragedy on the world's tallest mountain. If they could, I'm sure some editors would replace the entire text of articles with the words 'death zone' over and over, a bit like how Homer Simpson once filled in articles with 'screw Flanders, screw Flanders'.

To be sure, it's not exactly true, as the headline of this Globe and Mail article claims, that Shriya Shah-Klorfine had been preparing to climb Mount Everest since childhood. It's more the case that she had a dream of climbing the mountain and, despite being light on experience, she fit in with her more experienced counterparts in mortgaging her house and putting off children to realize her dream.

Still, it takes an experienced climber to point out that the last stage of the climb from camp 4 to the top of Mount Everest, which now begins at midnight, used to begin at dawn. Where climbers now take 16 hours to make it from camp to the top and back, it used to be that you could take 12 hours to go from camp 4 to the top and descend to a far safer altitude of 6,500 meters (camp 4 is at 8,000 metres).

Still, what kills people is not so much their lack of experience as their sheer numbers and their desire to get to the top at any cost. The desire to get to the top at any cost, in a way, might be indicative of inexperience, but as Jon Krakauer pointed out years ago after the deadliest day on Mount Everest in 1996, the single unifying characteristic of those who perished on Everest that day was that they insisted on pursuing the summit into the late afternoon. Those who stuck to a pre-determined time, usually the early afternoon, at which they would turn around tended to survive.

This weekend, however, the mass of 150 climbers seeking to pass through a very narrow bottleneck, the Hillary Step created delays. The delays, combined with the refusal to turn back, depleted the oxygen tanks of people like Shah-Klorfine and led to death from the cold and the lack of oxygen as a windstorm swept in at dusk. Again, it's likely that turning back earlier in the day, when the weather was good and oxygen plentiful, would have saved the lives of the four climbers who died this weekend.

Sadly, when someone says that their goal is to make it to the top at any cost, they probably don't mean it literally. Shriya Shah-Klorfine did make it to the top, but at a cost that was simply too great in time, weather and oxygen. Those who blame her sherpas and the tour organizer for allowing her to continue in the face of imminent danger probably should have said something long ago, when Shah-Klorfine first got serious about her goal of climbing Everest. It's not that she had no business being there, but that she pushed on when it was safer to turn around.

What's truly sad about this is that climbing Mount Everest is probably not a very pleasant experience. Between the cost, the equipment, the weather and the physical toll of the altitude, it's simply numbing. It's true that there are some sights which are exhilarating, such as the view of the Tibetan Plateau, or the lower peaks of the Himalaya, or simply the knowledge that you're on the world's highest point.

However, considering that for a fraction of the time, money and effort you can spend weeks if not months trekking in the Himalaya disconnected from society and surrounded by mountains, I don't know why novice climbers would subject themselves to the risks of Everest: with 210 deaths against 3684 summits, you have a 1-in-20 chance of dying during the climb.

For those who want to make a statement, consider climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Fiji, completing the three-week trek around the 55-kilometre long Annapurna massif of 8,000-metre peaks or if you insist on climbing one of the world's 14 8,000-metre mountains, try Cho Oyu, by far the easiest of the bunch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book #3: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

Like Mao's Great Famine that I read last winter, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom documents a period of Chinese history that is both relatively obscure and unprecedented in the world for its scale. The book, written by Stephen Platt, professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, caught my attention after I read a column by Platt in the New York Times.

Writing to explain why China so feared even the tiniest hint of rebellion, the latest being the Jasmine Revolution. Civil unrest in China can materialize rapidly out of seemingly nowhere, Platt explained, mentioning the Falun Gong offhand but not offering detail. The Falun Gong attracts the wrath of the Chinese state the way it does because of what it did about fifteen years ago. At the time a little-known group, it put thousands of protesters at the door of Zhongnanhai, the compound that effectively albeit very unofficially serves as China's equivalent of the White House.

The relentless torture that Falun Gong followers have faced ever since might seem inexplicable to the outsider, but not to those who know the subject Platt wrote about in the column and in Heavenly Kingdom, the Taiping Civil War. Also known as the Taiping Rebellion, the Taiping Civil War lasted from 1851 to 1864 and remains the deadliest civil war in history with tens of millions killed.

The Taiping Rebellion originated out of nowhere much like the Falun Gong protests that coalesced into the biggest mass protest in China since the Tiananmen Square protests. In Hong Xiquan, a smart man born in 1814 who lacked the brilliance to pass China's civil servant exam, seemingly fell apart starting after his failure. By the 1840s he claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ and rapidly attracted followers to his new religion in what was and remains the impoverished southern province of Guangxi.

By the time the imperial government in Beijing noticed, Hong's followers numbered in the tens of thousands. After routing both local and imperial forces sent to target a group that challenged both the political and religious monopoly of the state (the Chinese emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven and referred to as such), Hong declared the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping.

The Heavenly Kingdom, headquartered in the coastal city of Nanjing that roughly divides China into north and south, had its support south of Nanjing. Hong attracted a great deal of support from foreign missionaries that came into China from the British colony of Hong Kong, who saw the Taiping Kingdom and its religion as a Chinese analog to Christianity. As such, the West was initially very supportive of the Taiping, who were seen as a Christian influence in an otherwise godly state, a sort of nineteenth-century equivalent to the anti-Communist and now anti-Islamist forces that the West supported in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries respectively.

Pratt devotes equal space to the war within China, as well as the complex web of foreign intervention in the war, chiefly led by the British. Though the West initially supported the Taiping state, they later turned against it to protect the status quo, the status quo being the commercial interests the British had in China's port cities, chief of them being Shanghai. At one point, it even seemed possible that Britain would colonize China in the way that it had colonized India, for the benefits to China seemed obvious. In the end, nothing came of it because Britain could not stomach the prospect of administrating both of the Asian giants.

It is monumental to consider that the Qing dynasty, composed of Manchus who lived separately from Han Chinese in the way that Han Chinese typically live separately from Tibetans and Uighurs in Tibet and Xinjiang, needed 13 years to put down a rebellion. It truly is a testament to the weakness and unpopularity of the Qing dynasty, though perhaps more staggering is the fact that the dynasty survived the civil war and did not fall a half century later until 1911.

Platt identified two chief causes of the Qing victory. The first was the intervention of the British in the favour of the Qing, both official and private, in the form of arms, soldiers and mercenaries. The second was the masterful leadership of Zeng Guofan, who assembled a meritocratic army parallel to the imperial army despite having had no military experience whatsoever, having been a Confucian scholar up until that point.

Platt does touch on the effect that the Taiping Civil War had on the Chinese psyche, from the Chinese government's response to protests to the Communist Party's take on the war itself, reviling Zeng as a race traitor. Though this image is gradually being rehabilitated, it is the Taiping who are lionized as a being proto-Communists who rose up against the conservative order. What Platt does not mention, and this is hardly within the scope of the book, is the way that a century of humiliating foreign intervention in the affairs of an extremely proud nation reverberates today.

In virtually every human rights case of any interest in China today, the Cheng Guangcheng escape and exile to America being the latest example, China rejects any and all criticism as interference in its "domestic affairs". Granted, much of this is thin cover for ignoring grievous crimes committed against its people, but there is no doubt a vast well of resentment at foreign meddling in Chinese affairs to protect commercial interests.

This well will increasingly be tapped by all sorts of people. Yang Rui, a host on CCTV International, made references to "foreign trash" in a post on Sina Weibo and referred to expelled Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan as a "foreign bitch". Only slightly more subtle and sophisticated are movies like 1911, a thinly disguised propaganda piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Qing dynasty. The movie stars Jackie Chan but largely consists of one-dimensional characters spouting party-approved tripe in favour of revolution and in opposition to foreign imperialists. It has a whopping 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Suraksan, maybe the scariest hike in Seoul

When I think about the 27 km mountain race I did last weekend as a birthday present to myself, I can set the 20 km I covered in the first eight hours over three mountains on one side and the 5 or so knuckle-whitening minutes I spent at the top of Suraksan, and the latter is tougher.

Suraksan (수락산, not to be confused with the far more famous 설악산) is a mostly unassuming mountain in northeastern Seoul. It's largely unappealing and unremarkable if you come from the west side in Seoul, from Suraksan station on line 7 or Danggogae on line 4. Danggogae, the northern end of line 4, is a pass between Dobongsan on the west and Suraksan on the east. Coming from the east side in Namyangju is quite pleasant, and there's a nice restaurant halfway up that boasts an impressive noraebang.

The course I did cut a wide, somewhat redundant arc across northeastern Seoul, beginning at Uidong, going up toward Dobongsan, continuing north to Sapaesan in Uijeongbu before cutting back southeast towards Suraksan and finishing at Buramsan. This was actually the miniature version of the featured 45-kilometre course that began at 4 am at Bulgwang station in northwestern Seoul, cutting across all of Bukhansan National Park to reach Uidong at its west end, which is where I started at 7 am.

Dobongsan and Sapaesan were tough but pleasant, but by the time I got to Suraksan the sun was high and I was more or less out of the energy I needed to keep moving at the fast hike or slow jog I needed to cover the 27 km within the 10-hour cutoff. I particularly recommend Saepaesan as a nice, pleasant hike that begins a short walk from Hoiryeong station in Uijeongbu, with the option of tacking on Dobongsan as an extra challenge.

I certainly didn't have much energy by the time I got to the top of Suraksan, no small feat itself, as the 4-kilometre hike from the west side took longer than advertised for what is really not a very big mountain (technically, at 640m, it's not a mountain by some definitions). Signs distinguish between Gicha Bawi (기차바위, literally Train Rock) and the summit just beyond, and if you've ever been, you'll know why. Signs offer a detour around it, but I thought it would take longer, so I took my chances.

To get to Gicha Bawi from the usual trail involves two steps. First, you climb a large dome of a rock that's long and steep enough, without any grips, to do some damage to you if you're not particularly strong and not wearing hiking boots. Then, you get to use a rope to haul yourself up what is a tough but relatively insignificant incline. Then, finally, you get to Gicha Bawi itself, a steep cliff that I think has the name it does because the crack in the middle makes it look like a set of train tracks.

Here's the view from the bottom courtesy of this blog, as well as a view from the top courtesy of this blog
This isn't particularly hard, but it is scary considering that if the rope falls out of your hands at any point while it supports your entire wieght, you're guaranteed to be dead. That's really a sharp contrast from what are otherwise tame hikes in Seoul, often more picnics than hikes. In my case, the exertion took away what little energy I had left.

Paired with quads that refused to keep going up, I had to call it a day about 7k and 2 hours away from the finish line, albeit with the top of Buramsan in the middle. I ran 20k on the course plus another 4 getting down on my own, not quite the way I thought it was going to be, but if nothing else, it was the most I've ever hiked in one day.

 I trained on Gwanggyosan in Suwon leading up to this race, my best run being an up-and-down 7k run that climbed to about 450m in about 75 minutes. Gwanggyosan wasn't too hard without hiking shoes, I ran without much of a problem on the dirt trails in my running shoes, but the mountains of northern Seoul are very rocky even if they're not that much bigger, and running is impossible without hiking or trail shoes.

 I was a bit heartened to see that many people failed to finish, maybe a third of everyone who started, from reasons like injury or simply getting lost on a course that wasn't marked at all even though it involved running across Uijeongbu at one point. It was the first time in a while that I've given a race everything I had and come up short, failing to finish even, but I'll definitely do a similar race in the summer or fall.

 If you're interested in mountain or trail races in Korea, the Korea Climbathon Federation organizes very friendly, low-key races. Other trail races can be found around the country, often called 숲달리기 (literally 'forest run'), and are not quite as brutal as this particular one: the winner of the 45 km ran it in a little over 8 hours, while the cutoff was 13 hours. The next race in the Seoul area is a 15k/half marathon at Cheonggyesan on June 10.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

John Searle and the Korean room

Without John Searle, I might have been a completely different person. Searle, as I've written before, appeared in a video in my high school philosophy class. At the time, I remember being amused by his demeanour, perfectly fitting the stereotype of how a philosopher talks and sounds. In time, I would come to admire Searle both for his scholarship, his ability to write and express himself in comparatively plain language, and his attempts to write about the philosophy of the mind to a mass audience.

Admittedly, what I remember most about Searle from that video to this day, even after reading some of his work in university, is the idea of the Chinese room. Put simply, would you consider yourself to be a Chinese speaker if you could manage to give the appearance of intelligibly communicating in Chinese by matching English expressions to their Chinese equivalents using someone else's instructions? Searle thinks not, and holds this as evidence of why the term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron, since the computer gives the appearance of understanding by just following instructions.

I thought about Searle's Chinese room when I watched my middle school students (grades 8-10 in North America) write phone conversations. Trained for years to find and avoid making even the slightest of mistakes, they scoured textbooks, workbooks and notebooks to find phrases, sentences and sometimes even parts of conversations. They then combined what they had found in their books to create what was a comprehensible phone dialogue, though it gave off the impression of creating a paragraph in German by just copying various phrases and sentences from a Lonely Planet phrasebook.

 This was not quite the same as Searle's thought experiment, but just like I wouldn't consider myself a German speaker if I scraped together some sentences in German with only an understanding of what entire groups of words meant in English, I didn't consider my students to have so much as written the dialogues as they generated or produced it. I was satisfied with the process as a step towards both writing on their own someday, as well as learning proper grammar and diction, but I was probably more impressed with their ingenuity.

This sort of semi-productive English is probably how future high school students in Korea will cope with potential changes in the university entrance exam (suneung in Korean). As it stands, English education in Korea chiefly tests your ability to distinguish which one of four or five sentences has a slight grammatical mistake. Exams with high stakes, like the suneung, have fewer errors though they are not immune to them. Exams in more ordinary settings, then, fall into the trap of thinking that English, like Korean, has a standard.

English is sufficiently diverse that what is considered incorrect in North America is a common saying in Europe, and enough people make enough mistakes that grammar, in many cases, is about style and preference rather than correct answers. Testing for grammar against this backdrop seems counterproductive if not pointless. A North American, for example, would probably never say "New York are winning 2-1 against Chicago", and students here who have studied North American English exclusively would mark that as wrong when they become teachers.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A tale of two universities

Over the years, I've put up with a lot from the University of Toronto, including requests from money. It's not exactly the friendliest campus on earth, and it deserves, more than the University of Chicago, the nickname "where fun goes to die". I concede that the fun being dead on the St. George campus helped me learn as much as I did in my four years, but while the university is a great place to learn, it's by no means the best-managed university I've ever seen.

I'm reminded of this every time I use my university email account, where you don't just delete an email, you delete it and then purge it. Deleting an email, then, doesn't really delete it, it just means that you see it in your inbox with a line through it. The student service that lets you sign up for courses, to take another example, is separate from the university email service. Both have separate passwords and the student service, so aptly named ROSI (Repository of Student Information, not a joke), is liable to go down for maintenance overnight, as though university students never make important decisions at 3 am.

I thought all of this was more or less normal, the result of institutional incompetence, until I started studying at Arizona State University. Arizona State is a good school, but it enjoys neither U of T's reputation nor its many advantages, namely money. Arizona State is responsible for 72,000 students with an endowment of about $500 million. By contrast, the University of Toronto must deal with 45,000 students using $1.5 billion dollars, or three times as much money to deal with a little over half as many students. That's more money than many small countries, or or large and impoverished ones. In fact, I believe U of T has more money than North Korea.

Arizona State offers students an email account that's a Gmail app, meaning that using your Arizona State email is just like using Gmail. In fact, it's easy to link your university email to another email address in case you never check the former. Signing up for courses, paying tuition or accessing any other university service is like using any other website rather than the arcane system U of T continues to use. Granted, if ROSI has improved in the last four years, I'll gladly stand corrected.

You could argue, maybe, that U of T has devoted its attention to attracting the world's best professors and experts to give students access to the very best in each field. That is true to an extent, I'm sure, though those experts have almost no incentive to care about how undergraduates do, a bit like paying elementary school school teachers for making their staff room extra cozy.

Another idea might be that U of T is too aloof to bother with such trivialities, because a functioning, twenty-first century interface, twelve years into said century, for its online services is really just a step or two above taking out ads on buses and in Gmail the way that many lesser universities do. ASU does have banner ads on Gmail and elsewhere on the Internet, though I don't know how much of that is due to my many visits to their website.

The most likely answer is that the University of Toronto simply doesn't care. They care enough to plan an elaborate gobbledygook of events, mixers in Dubai and film screenings at Innis College, for students and alumni that make those in charge feel good, but don't do much for the 99% of students who will never attend any of these events. You already knew this and so did I, but I didn't realize how different it could be until just now.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Did Athletics Canada's tough standards help create Canada's marathoning resurgence?

When Rob Watson ran 2:13 at Rotterdam last weekend and missed the Canadian Olympic standard, it was obviously disappointing to him, but it put the exclamation point on Canada's marathoning resurgence. Canada is by no means a powerhouse just yet, but the first step towards becoming competitive internationally is to become competitive with the past, the past being a 2:09 national record that is decades old.

In 2007, exactly three Canadians ran faster than 2:20, with the fastest marathon being Danny Kassap's 2:17. The next year, Jon Brown ran 2:12, Kassap and Dylan Wykes both ran 2:15, and domestically a handful of Canadians ran between 2:16 and 2:18, itself a remarkable accomplishment considering how rare performances of even this calibre had become.

The next year was technically a step back, as no one ran faster then Reid Coolsaet's 2:16, matched by Andrew Smith, with Dylan Wykes running 2:18. The most important part of the revival was the decision to move to the marathon by Coolseat because the standard was so low. The soft 2:18 standard, instead of the tougher 2:11 that is usually in effect, enticed Coolsaet to run a marathon off of sub-optimal training.

Similar to how America once sent anybody who could break 2:18 to major championships, this did have the effect of bringing people into marathoning, but it's possible that without the tough 2:11 standard, Canada might just have a bunch of people running around 2:14 or 2:15. Instead, Coolsaet ran 2:11 the next year, with Wykes and Eric Gillis both running 2:12.

Then, last year, Coolsaet ran 2:10, Gillis ran 2:11, Wykes ran 2:12, Matt Loiselle and Watson ran 2:16, and Rejean Chiasson ran 2:17. This meant five people had run faster than 2:17 where almost nobody had done that for years in the past. Coolseat, Gillis and Wykes taking multiple cracks at the supposedly too tough standard has transformed marathoning in Canada. All this happened while the man who might well be Canada's most talented marathoner, Simon Bairu, has failed to finish a marathon.

If it was my decision to make, I would send anybody who could run under the standards of the event. I have to admit, though, that forcing people to chase a very tough standard has paid off nicely years down the road. On the other hand, Coolsaet and the others who went to Berlin in 2009 would never have gotten that chance if not for the opportunity offered by the low-hanging fruit of the 2:18 standard.

The next group of Canadian marathoners ought to look at sub-2:10 as the standard to chase for the 2016 Olympics, and to pray for a hot day. We've seen many times how a smart runner in even 2:07 shape can get a medal in adverse conditions, assuming that he prepared for the conditions and raced accordingly.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The NFL and The Hunger Games

Andrew Sullivan has been likening the NFL to Big Tobacco, an enterprise that millions enjoy but appears to be unhealthy, even lethal, to participants. The analogy is not a perfect one, but if you watch The Hunger Games, we can see that the analogy both holds some water while not necessarily proving the NFL to be a lethal enterprise.

Two years ago, I read Peter Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk, in which Mlodinow demonstrates how we have far less control over life than we think we do, but also how we misunderstand statistics. The relevant example from the book is the lottery. Mldinow refers to state lotteries in America, but this would be true in many places: the lottery effectively kills one person while rewarding another with a large cash prize. The number of extra car trips generated by the purchase of state lottery tickets means that one person will die as a result.

In The Hunger Games, too, there is a weeks-long sporting event that completely rivets society for its duration while killing 23 people for their entertainment. The NFL doesn't quite kill people with such immediacy, but I think it's not absurd to say that 23 (if not more) out of the 2,000 or so players involved in professional football will die an early death. Technically, the Hunger Games kills people every year, while there probably aren't 2,000 new NFL players every year, so the Hunger Games are more lethal on balance, but you already knew that to begin with.

While it's true that the NFL can be seen as people killed for the entertainment of others, it's really not without precedent or equivalent. Even if we leave out the fact that the NFL enriches its participants tremendously, paying them wages over a career that it would take the average person decades if not a lifetime to earn, we have the example of lottery tickets, where one person's riches all but entails the death of another.

Concern for the health of the players and the athletes we profess to admire is necessary, and I think fans should be cognizant of how dangerous the game has become. Still, in the quest to make football safer, our voice is weak if it is even existent in the first place, far overshadowed by that the of the medical profession, the league, the players and their union.

While the concern is incumbent on our part, it is not true that we should feel guilty for watching the game. It'll be a long time before somebody can convince me that I should feel guilt for the seven hours I spent one Sunday afternoon and evening watching the Patriots, Ravens, Giants and 49ers play for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, particularly since everyone involved is a grown adult.

So, the NFL is not quite The Hunger Games, but not without its own lethal aspects that require our attention. As for the movie, it is worth watching as a sports fan for the way it parodies, quite skillfully, the hype machine of gobbledygook that accompanies virtually any significant sporting event around the world, or even the idea of sport as a spectator event itself.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Is the problem with multiculturalism or is it with immigration policy?

People who comment on newspaper articles, to focus on them once again, seem to be universally opposed to multiculturalism. I don't know how you define the word, to be honest, and neither are the people who oppose it, though I suspect that their opposition is informed less by what multiculturalism actually is and more by their opposition to decades of being told to support multiculturalism lest they be branded a racist.

Much was made of Europe's admission that multiculturalism has failed, with Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy all saying so over the past year and change. Before we pronounce it dead, let's talk about what exactly has failed. Has immigration failed or has having multiple cultures in one state failed? It's easy to say why multiculturalism has failed in Germany, especially if the experience of Turks is any guide.

Millions of Turks were brought over as guest workers but, by and large, denied citizenship. People who tenuously kept one foot in Turkey and one in Germany were never going to fully become German by learning the language, culture or taking any steps to build a permanent future in Germany. Living precariously, they turned Turkish enclaves in Germany into a retrograde version of Germany, becoming more conservative than Turks in Turkey.

So what exactly failed in Germany? The failure is one of immigration policy than the inability of people from different backgrounds to coexist. Many of the problems that result from bungled immigration or domestic policy become ascribed to multiculturalism. For example, why is it that so many people who immigrate to Canada from India are truck drivers or factory workers? Is it that they are uneducated morons? Canada, on one hand, excels at letting people enter the country in large numbers, but simultaneously consigns them to low-paying employment by rendering their home-country education and experience essentially worthless.

Multiculturalism is a failure to the extent that you define it. Is multiculturalism a failure when nobody respects the queen anymore? Is it a failure when we take the Lord's Prayer out of schools? Is it a failure when kids of immigrants end up doing drugs and unemployed? Deciding what counts as a failure or a success is not that simple.

You will often find that the Chinese-born doctors and Indian-born lawyers we embrace as the successes of Canadian multiculturalism are the sons and daughters of factory workers and maids, who in turn sponsored their own elderly parents, the parents in question having never worked a day in Canada or learned a word of English. If being who doesn't make a lot of money is a failure, then isn't much of the country itself a failure? If multiculturalism in America is a failure because Mexicans are poor, then is white America a failure because it makes less than Asian America?

I will concede that much of what is said about multiculturalism is nonsense. Toronto's motto, diversity our strength, has always struck me as bizarre. Toronto is remarkable for taking people from around the world and integrating them into the city, but somehow I suspect that if the city was 50% Punjabi-speaking Sikh and 50% Cantonese-speaking from Guangdong, many would find it just as diverse as ever. Diversity, so often, is just another word for not white.

At any rate, what is not a problem of neither immigration nor multiculturalism are the small emotional problems of the old guard, things like pressing 1 to speak in English in a country with no official language, or the resentment at seeing old people in turbans because it represents an erosion of tradition.

So much of what we consider tradition, whether it's in Pakistan, Canada or Korea, is arbitrarily determined. My mother always tells me to speak more Urdu so that I can teach it to my children, but I suspect that hers is the only generation in my family to ever speak Urdu at home. Korea, somewhere along the line, decided that dressing up like a person from 200 years ago, but no more and no less, was traditional. In the West, many of our traditions, from the way people talk in movies set 100 or 1,000 years in the past to our weddings to our holidays, date to the nineteenth century.

Somewhere along the line, we jettisoned the traditions we had to get the traditions we have now. Many of our traditions are great, but others are just things that we've done for a long time and parting with them makes people uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Personally, I have no problem with an area landmark being razed for a Sikh temple, when that landmark itself displaced a far duller landmark from a century ago, and so on.

Canada is about to change its immigration policy to one that centres on employers instead of the government. It's hard to predict both what the final system will look like and how well it will work, but it's likely to be superior to the old system of awarding points for degrees and experience that nobody cared about.

The government, which, let's face it, finds its core support in an older and whiter Canada, also took shots at its bogeymen: women wearing niqabs and people who don't believe in "Canadian – read broadly, western liberal democratic – values". That's all well and good, but like the gong show that is airport security, the immigration or citizenship process is not the time to educate people about values. Of course, immigration minister Jason Kenney knows that, he's trying to impress the people who are already here.