Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to fix the biggest problem we have in Canada and America

I've felt for a long time, though I'm not sure if I've said it here, that the biggest problem facing Canada, and especially America, is the increasing inability of people without professional degrees or even any sort of post-secondary education at all, to earn a middle-class living.

While it has become quite fashionable to declare that economies in the West are moribund, or that there are no more jobs, the reality is that those with university degrees, particularly those with degrees that are essentially vocational training, are living as well as ever. Those without, however, are living worse than they have in a long time. As Don Peck wrote when looking at America's middle class in September's Atlantic:

America’s classes are separating and changing. A tiny elite continues to float up and away from everyone else. Below it, suspended, sits what might be thought of as the professional middle class—unexceptional college graduates for whom the arrow of fortune points mostly sideways, and an upper tier of college graduates and postgraduates for whom it points progressively upward, but not spectacularly so. The professional middle class has grown anxious since the crash, and not without reason. Yet these anxieties should not distract us from a second, more important, cleavage in American society—the one between college graduates and everyone else.

If you live and work in the professional communities of Boston or Seattle or Washington, D.C., it is easy to forget that nationwide, even among people ages 25 to 34, college graduates make up only about 30 percent of the population. And it is easy to forget that a family income of $113,000 in 2009 would have put you in the 80th income percentile nationally. The true center of American society has always been its nonprofessionals—high-school graduates who didn’t go on to get a bachelor’s degree make up 58 percent of the adult population. And as manufacturing jobs and semiskilled office positions disappear, much of this vast, nonprofessional middle class is drifting downward.

In Saturday's Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente asks the question, "have we become a caste society?" Wente is somewhat out-of-touch, though it often appears to be intentional. This time, for example, she wrote that being part of the richest one percent "doesn’t take all that much money. A family income of $196,000 will do it."

However, Wente is spot on with the thrust of the article, which is that:

Today, the top 20 per cent and the bottom 20 per cent seldom cross paths (except at Tim Hortons). They raise their kids in different ways, send them to different schools, eat different kinds of food, choose different forms of exercise and recreation, take different kinds of vacations. The top 20 per cent include virtually all of the people who run our governments, manage our businesses and set our social policies. But fewer and fewer of them know anybody in the bottom 20 per cent, or have much idea of how they think and live.

She is also correct in saying that: "The trouble is, solutions are hard to come by. Raising taxes on the rich might be a good thing, but it won’t narrow the gap. So what will? Some people want massive investment in early childhood education for disadvantaged kids. Some want massive job-creation programs, or a massive increase in training for the unskilled. Such solutions would need vast amounts of public money, but maybe they’d be worth it."

The likely solution, which is really not a grand solution at all, but probably the only sensible one, comes from Adam Davidson in this month's Atlantic. Davidson looked at how a factory in South Carolina could manage to stay in business against the seemingly inevitable outflow of manufacturing jobs overseas, especially to China. He found that the jobs that stay are jobs in what is, essentially, skilled manufacturing. A great number of these skilled jobs can be found in Germany, Taiwan, and, yes, here in South Korea.

Davidson concludes that there really is no solution besides education and, more importantly, fixing all the other problems that cause people to be unemployed.

"It’s hard to imagine what set of circumstances would reverse recent trends and bring large numbers of jobs for unskilled laborers back to the U.S. Our efforts might be more fruitfully focused on getting Maddie the education she needs for a better shot at a decent living in the years to come. Subsidized job-training programs tend to be fairly popular among Democrats and Republicans, and certainly benefit some people. But these programs suffer from all the ills in our education system; opportunities go, disproportionately, to those who already have initiative, intelligence, and—not least—family support


To solve all the problems that keep people from acquiring skills would require tackling the toughest issues our country faces: a broken educational system, teen pregnancy, drug use, racial discrimination, a fractured political culture.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Aristotle and the agony of defeat

The video below is cheesy and dramatic, of course, but I found it illuminating. The very act of letting your emotions rise and fall on the performances of a sports team is cheesy and dramatic to begin with, so let's check that part of our brain at the door.

TV only shows the winners: winning quarterback and coaches are interviewed, as are those who make plays for the winning team. After conference championships and the Super Bowl, we see the winning teams celebrating, but we never see the losing team sitting around dejected, filing into the locker room and going home. We almost never see dejected fans sitting in the stands, which makes this commercial a fresh image, to me at least.

This weekend, of course, was full of tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, though certainly not the way the term is conventionally used. Aristotle wrote that tragedy is about the reversal of fortunes, when a great person suffers a misfortune. Certainly, Billy Cundiff's field goal is one such reversal of fortune, made more acute by the fact that a 32-yard field goal has about a 90% chance of success.

Kyle Williams had a more dramatic reversal of fortune. It's one thing to miss a field goal, but it's another to fumble a punt, still another to do it twice in the same game, and it's even more crushing to do so in a playoff game. Williams, sadly, received death threats on Twitter, perplexing considering that these are people who willingly spent time watching him on TV and then, like an deranged puppy, turned on their master.

If you are a fan of the 49ers and Ravens, my high-minded appeal to Aristotle and literary philosophy might not do much to salve your wounds, but that's exactly the point. Defeat is every bit a part of sports as victory, but one that seldom gets attention, except perhaps in the cities and countries where it happens. Sports is obsessed with winning and winners, but dramatic, agonizing defeat is every bit the spectacle that is victory, in some ways moreso.

I split this week's games to move my record to 6-4. As much as I hate the Patriots, and as well as I think the Giants are wearing, I think the Patriots are simply more likely to win. I would not be surprised in any way if the Giants won, but this game is just as likely to be a three-touchdown victory for either team (okay, moreso for the Patriots) as it is a tense, close game.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Remember defense? It's back, in football form!

Just two weeks after Gregg Easterbrook pointed out that the two best teams in each conference had the two worst defense in the league (Packers 32nd, Patriots 31st), defense made a comeback in big way, reminding us that while defense might not necessarily win championships, it can certainly win games.

The Ravens and the 49ers are two of the best defenses in the league and while the Giants have had a so-so year, it's hard to miss that their defense played a huge role in defeating the Packers. The Ravens won with just 228 yards of offense and three points in the last three quarters, though they have long been the perfect example of why strong offenses with mediocre defenses go farther than strong defenses with mediocre offenses. In the last 13 seasons, the Ravens have ranked outside the top 10 in fewest yards allowed just once (2002), and have ranked third or better eight times.

In that time, however, they've watched as the rival Patriots and Steelers have won a combined five Super Bowls. This probably has something to do with the fact that the Ravens haven't ranked in the top 10 for yards gained since 1997, back when their high-flying ways led one football writer to teach me the term 'oxymoron', as in "Biggest oxymoron in fooball: Baltimore Ravens defense." Of course, if you look through the rankings for most yards gained, you'd be amazed at which offenses rank highly and which don't.

Nevertheless, this just might be the Ravens year, though this week's performance makes it hard to see how they'd get past the Patriots next week. The Broncos were a cream puff to be sure, with an emphasis on puff, but a team like the Ravens is usually good enough to lose to the Patriots by a touchdown. Their drubbing of the Patriots in the playoffs two years ago will give them confidence, but the game will probably be determined by whether the Ravens have the presence of mind, and the talent, to cover the Patriots' tight ends.

The Patriots are getting healthier and better on defense, though a lot of their supposed rejuvenation was the result of playing Tim Tebow, who clearly showed that he's not anyone's long-term answer at quarterback. Quarterbacks who are likely to be elite at the professional level don't look that bad, they look shaky like Cam Newton has seemed shaky. Of course, Tebow, like so many other quarterbacks (Vince Young is 30-19 as a starter) who made careers out of someone in the front office believing in them despite a lack of talent, will be back next year and will certainly play a few more years before a consensus finally develops that he was useless.

The Giants-49ers game, too, is the result of great defense, sort of. While the Giants' defensive performance was lauded for humbling the 15-1 Packers, let's not forget that they scored 37 points. That's one more than the 49ers, who have one of the best defenses in the league, but needed (and got) 36 points to beat the Saints. The Giants pose a lot of problems for any team when playing well, due to their strong front four and cornerbacks who can play man coverage, but when they're bad, they're atrocious. The 49ers have been more consistent on offense as well as on defense, and they're also playing at home.

I pick the 49ers and the Patriots to meet in the Super Bowl. I was 2-2 last week, giving me a playoff record of 5-3. That looks good, until you consider that picking home teams alone would get you to 7-1, which admittedly is as good as home teams have had it in 20 years.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If this is failure, more of us ought to fail

About a year ago, I wrote about how sources outside Japan describing a country in decline clash jarringly with the reality of life in the country. Writing about this myth is becoming more prevalent, in part because Americans are fearful of a "lost decade" of minimal economic growth of their own, and partly because people with knowledge of the situation are eager to tell the truth. I find the story interesting because it shows that it's possible for us to live well and prove it in ways that aren't growth in GDP.

The reason is very simple: what if life is just good? Expecting the good life and happiness to come from growth, and to refer to the absence of growth as decline or stagnation, is to hold that life isn't all that great right now. Naturally, we want the economy to grow since populations almost invariably grow, but if you were living well five years ago, you're probably living well right now if everything has stayed the same, and in Japan it has stayed the same at the very least.

Eamonn Fingleton moved to Tokyo a quarter century ago, but anyone who spends even an hour in central Tokyo or Osaka could figure out that Japan isn't exactly a country you need to pity. Fingleton in fact goes on to write: "In the fullness of time, it is likely that this era will be viewed as an outstanding success story."

Life in Japan is not only great, but it has improved since before the stock market crash of the early '90s. However, Fingleton asks, "how do you express this in G.D.P. terms?" He gives countless examples, of which the most interesting are:

- From 1989 to 2009, despite a worsening diet, Japan's life expectancy improved by 4.2 years.

- Of the 50 cities in the world with the fastest Internet, 38 are in Japan. The fastest Internet service in the world is apparently in Daegu.

- Tokyo has 16 fancy restaurants according to the Michelin Guide compared to 10 for Paris.

- Cell phones, infrastructure, and fashion also show Japan doing as well as anywhere else in the world.

- Even the idea of Japan's stagnant growth is not entirely true. Japan's GDP per capita grew at just 1 percent annually in the last two decades, but then, America grew at about 1.4%.

All this points to the limitations of GDP as an indicator of well-being. It's a good indicator, to be sure, as any American could have told you when the economy was shrinking, but there's a lot more to living well than just money. What that actually entails can often be nebulous, but thinking about the answer is a good start in and of itself.

Japan is not without its problems. It has a horrendously inefficient political system that in many ways does not deserve to be called a democracy, but then, we could say that about America, Korea and many if not most other democracies. It is something of a odd-man out when considering technology, with a great deal of triplicate paperwork and stamping going on. None of this, of course, even mentions the favourite by-the-numbers issue of outsiders, the low birth rate.

All in all, if you were going to choose to live in a developed country, you could do far worse than Japan. It's clean, the streets are safe, the landscape is beautiful, and the cities are exciting and vibrant. Going to Japan would certainly disabuse anyone from writing the sort of depressing article I see constantly in the press, so I wonder if many of the people who write about Japan in English have ever actually been there. For those who live there, well, anybody can sound depressed about the place where they live.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Well, that was obvious

All four home teams won in the playoffs this week, which makes it one of the easiest calls in sports. I picked three home teams to win, choosing the Texans, Saints and Giants, but I just couldn't see the 8-8 Broncos beating the 12-4 Steelers. In the event, of course, the Broncos played probably their best game of the season. Combined with the injuries the Steelers had not just to Ben Roethlisberger, but also Rasheed Mendenhall, Brent Kiesel and Casey Hampton, the Broncos could have turned the game into a rout.

Up 20-6, the Broncos threw an obvious lateral and recovered by the Steelers at the Bronco's 18 or so. However, an official ruled it a incompletion and blew the whistle as the ball came out, meaning that only the incompletion could be challenged. That, along with two field goals the Broncos kicked from inside the Steelers' ten-yard line, meant that the Broncos had the chance to score as many 21 points. The Steelers, meanwhile went on to close the gap to 20-13 when it could just as easily have been 27-6.

In the end, the game went to overtime, but the score could have been far more lop-sided. The Broncos did a great job on defense, particularly with their pass rush, where they earned five sacks and produced rushed, awkward throws from Ben Roethlisberger (one interception deep in the Steelers' end was undone by an unrelated offside). As for Tebow, who I belittled all year, the Steelers were the one team that couldn't do what three teams in a row had done: dare Tebow to throw the ball and reap the benefits.

This time, the Steelers stunk it up on man coverage, the Broncos receivers had sticky hands all of a sudden, which explains how Tebow completed just five passes in the first half for 185 yards, four in the second half for 51, and one in overtime for 80 yards. Altogether he was 10 of 21 for 316 yards, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another. Completions of 51, 30, 58, 40 and 80 yards shredded Pittsburgh and almost turned the game into a rout, but I don't know that relying on the deep ball is a path to success in the NFL. Granted, lots of teams throw the ball deep, but those teams also have quarterbacks who can complete more than half their passes.

Today, at least, Tebow had the league figured out than the other way around. It likely won't work in the long run considering how successful the Patriots, Bills and Chiefs were in containing Tebow, but it's working at the moment. As much as I'd like this line of attack to work against the Patriots, who had the second-worst defense in the league by about eight yards, I have my reservations. The Broncos are a problematic match-up if they can get pressure on Brady and outrun the Patriot corners, but I think more likely than not, we'll see a game similar to the regular-season match-up just a few weeks ago.

My other picks are the Packers, Saints and Ravens. I was 3-1 this week.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

First-round NFL playoff predictions

I had planned some sort of elaborate scheme involving which team's colours my two-month-old nephew preferred, much like the time I used a 500-yen coin to do the same, but we're out of time and he's sleeping. Instead, I'll share my crappy record at predicting playoff games in recent years while lamenting once again that, once upon a time when I was 11 years old, I predicted all but one game correctly in the NFL playoffs. The only one I got wrong? When the Giants blew a 9-point lead at home with less than 2 minutes to go.

I was 4-7 two years ago and 5-6 last year. This year, I will be better than random chance. For this week, I predict, without explanation, the Texans, Saints, Giants and Steelers.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Are independent bookstores really that important?

When I read that Toronto's oldest independent bookstore was set to close, my first reaction was that it was also the world's biggest bookstore, or maybe one of those places in the Annex. I was wrong, of course, because the answer is The Bookmark on Bloor West in the Kingsway, which has been open for 47 years. My second reaction was to remember Slate's recent look at independent bookstore, where Farhad Manjoo wrote:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine.


It’s not just that bookstores are difficult to use. They’re economically inefficient, too. Rent, utilities, and a brigade of book-reading workers aren’t cheap, so the only way for bookstores to stay afloat is to sell items at a huge markup...At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

In response, Will Doig at Salon dismissed Manjoo's argument as "so paint-by-numbers counterintuitive that it almost reads as a parody of a Slate piece":

Manjoo’s argument that bookstores don’t really foster a local literary culture wildly misses the point. They foster a local culture, period. Bookstores provide a space to meet friends, cruise for a date, and hide out when you have nothing to do on a Saturday night. They provide a small slice of intellectual development in a retail landscape that’s otherwise dominated by denim, cupcakes and facial moisturizer. And they do so without asking much in return — just that we come in frequently, browse all we want, and occasionally buy a book at retail price. If people mythologize bookstores, that’s the reason. Rather than look for reasons why they shouldn’t be celebrated, you could just as easily ask why, even in the age of Amazon, they still are.

I enjoyed Majoo's takedown of independent bookstores, but I can't agree. While I'm not in love with independent bookstores, I never buy books online either. I'm aware that prices are cheaper online, but I buy books in person, either on impulse at the airport, or after thumbing through a few at a bookstore. I tend to shop at chain bookstores, which is all you get in Korea with the exception of a few tiny places that sell old, used or specialty (eg English-language, Christianity) books.

What bothers me about Doig's repsonse at Salon is that the functions he and others ascribe to bookstores likely only apply, for them, to independent bookstores. They might romanticize the third space of an independent bookstore where you can sit around doing nothing or to meet someone for coffee, but I suspect that the Starbucks or the chairs at a Chapters probably wouldn't meet with the same enthusiasm. There are other reasons, of course, but many people are uncomfortable with large businesses due to aesthetics.

Personally, I don't care. I used to go to an independent coffee shop in my neighbourhood in Seoul, but then I remembered how good Starbucks coffee is and now I go there (cue the part where someone says that Starbucks coffee isn't 'real coffee' and that real coffee can only be found in some obscure place like...). I regularly go to bookstores in Seoul, usually the Kyobo Books location at Gwanghwamun. I pass about four bookstores on the way, all of which are chains, but I prefer Kyobo because it has the largest selection and also because I like its location next to Gwanghwamun.

Kyobo Books isn't just a chain, it's owned in turn by a large insurance company of the same name. It has a selection of English-language books on philosophy that's easily bigger than the selection you'll see in any Western store. I find, though, that like any English-language bookstore in Korea, it has a heavy tilt towards books about business or economics, as well as best-selling paperback novels.

At any rate, you could easily spend an entire evening at Kyobo, as I certainly have, many times. You could start with dinner in its food court, then get a coffee and walk through the bookstore. At some point you can just get a book and start reading, or just sit down, either on the floor or on a chair, to talk. You'll probably find, like any other public space in Seoul, that it's hard to find a seat. Nevertheless, Kyobo certainly fulfills most of the functions fulfilled by any of the bookstore, except that it lacks indie cred.

Of course, indie cred is mercifully meaningless in Korea, so Kyobo also has a website, which lets you order books from the website to be picked up in the bookstore an hour later. You could technically do the same from the bookstore: find a book you like, use your phone or a computer in the electronics section to order it online, and then wait an hour to pick up your book with a discount.

I have been to many independent bookstores in Toronto and, with the exception of the used-book stores on Yonge Street, I found them uncomfortable and not very useful. Books are hard to find, they're expensive and the community aspect works best if you're very liberal and a certain kind of liberal at that. The problem ultimately is that, with the exceptions of the largest ones like Kyobo or preferably Amazon, only carry what people want to buy.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Beijing censorship update

Facebook, of course, does not work, neither do Twitter or Blogger, at least not the websites. Google works, as do sensitive searches (Tiananmen Square protests, Dalai Lama), but their results won't load. Doing so appears to have caused Google search to crash entirely. The New York Times website loads.

I'm going to go before I get arrested.

Slow times at Beijing International

Because I was bored, I threw away my dignity and allowed my passport to be scanned in exchange for free wireless access at the Beijing airport. Hence, I can complain, albeit with some hypocrisy for my complicity in the process, about the Kafkan process of transferring in airport that was neither designed to accept international passengers, nor does it want them. The experience, as I learned in Shanghai almost a year ago to the day, varies widely, and it varied this time as well, but it's ad hoc, bizarre and annoying.

For example, the arrival card that I needed in Shanghai but not in Beijing (naturally, I was given one on the plane in Beijing, but not Shanghai), allows "visit", "visiting friends or relatives", and "sightseeing/in leisure" as a purpose of visit. Also included are "return home", "settle down" and "others", which I hope make more sense in Chinese than they do in English. However, transferring is not an option, so it makes sense that they've waived this requirement.

The airport itself, which seems grotesquely oversized despite what anyone might tell you, since I've always breezed through when not transferring, has gotten more formal. There are still the crappy "duty free" shops selling items you might find at a chain convenience store anywhere else in the outside world (China being no exception), but the restaurants seem to be getting better. I see a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut where I didn't see one last year, and the number of extortionist cafes selling $5 instant coffee seems to have gone down.

Still, it's more or less a case of buying new furniture for the deck of the Titanic. China is increasingly becoming an attractive destination to transfer, going from invisible to relatively common, but you really do give up your dignity when you come through this airport. I still think it's preferable to going through Narita, which says something about how unpleasant that airport is, but the shopping options are limited and overpriced, the food is awful, costs between two and five times what it does elsewhere, and it's remarkably hard to find something in this airport that was designed for human consumption. China must truly be pulling out all the stops in prices to get people to come here, though to be fair, you might have to look at its competitors.

For a flight going from Seoul to Toronto or vice versa, the three most common layovers in my experience have been Beijing, Tokyo and Vancouver. I hate transferring in Canada, America or Japan it's like going through the entire paranoid security theatre process again. Yes, that's right, Canada, America and Japan are out-paranoid-ing the Chinese Communist Party. When you have a stopover in, say, Minneapolis, you have to go through US customs, collect your checked luggage, check it, and then go through security one more time so that they can dig up the empty bottle of water you bought after your previous liquid bogeyman check. Beijing, on the other hand, does have liquid bogeyman check for transferring passengers, but spares them the ordeal of collecting their luggage just to re-check it.

As for the city itself, the fog, smog, pollution or whatever you want to call is thick today. The city was invisible until a comparatively low altitude, and it didn't just become visible, but it was a blurry mess once the plane went under the clouds. When the Asiana flight landed, the trees at the other end of the runway (1-3 km?) weren't entirely visible. Data from the US embassy here puts the air quality index at 163, which is in the "unhealthy" range of 150-200 according to the EPA, and is far beyond the 0-50 range that is considered good, though it's hardly at the "crazy bad" levels that have generated so much controversy.

What I've always found remarkable for this airport, perhaps unique in any airport I've been to, is the gap between the building and the people. Granted, there are bad airports in nice places, but I think there are few airports that are as spotless as this one, with employees that are as coarse. You will seldom find anybody who speaks even broken English, and you will know this because they will say "okay, yes, okay" midway through a question like "do you have any--". Employees match a North American airport for their causal approach to their job which, in essence, amounts to being a public menace of sort, one that has probably wasted enough money and person hours to be considered a terrorist unto themselves.

I think anyone who has ever been here will know that the best people are the ones who don't speak English, whether you're in the airport or outside of it. I've been openly hostile to anybody who tries to start a conversation in English, and I know that I'm not the only one. One common point between them is that they seek to part you with your money, whether it's through a rickshaw ride or tea ceremony near Tiananmen Square or a $5 bottle of water at the airport. Naturally, there are far better opportunities for anyone who speaks conversational English than to be a cashier selling $90 t-shirts from a no-name brand at a "duty free", which is why we get the people that we do at the airport. More than other cities, then, Beijing is one that should only be experienced far, far from the airport.

"This is the governor, what is your name?"

Sometimes, I think that at least some politicians are paid off by comedians to act like complete morons and be recorded as doing so. The latest case of this is the governor of Gyeonggi province, Kim Mun-su, who took it upon himself to see how cancer patients were transferred in his province by directly calling 119 (Korea's equivalent of 911). The conversation, which unfortunately is not subtitled but is hilarious if you can understand even a little Korean (도지사 means governor). The call went something like this:

Operator: "Hello?"
Kim: "Yes, this is the governor, Kim Mun-su."
Kim: "Hello? Hello? Hello?"
Operator: "Yes, go ahead."
Kim: "This is is governor Kim Mun-su, who am I speaking to?"
Kim: "Hello? Hello?"
Operator: "Yes, what is the reason for your call?"
Kim: "This is the governor, what is your name?"
Operator: "Sir, what is the reason for your call?"

Finally, Kim snaps, quite rudely, I thought, "I asked you for your name, why didn't you answer?" and "I said I was the governor, didn't you hear that?" To this, the operator asks Kim for his emergency, pointing out that he hasn't exactly called the operator on his cell phone. Kim, obtuse and arrogant, says in banmal, "no, the governor called and asked you for your name, you're not going to answer?" The operator asks again for the emergency and Kim responds with another moronic grunt, asks for the operator's name once more, before the operator hangs up.

Incredibly, Kim calls back at around 2:00 in the clip and repeats the same line of inquiry: "Yeah, this is the governor, is this the same person I spoke to earlier?" The guy gives his name, but asks for Kim's emergency, to which he responds, of course, that he is the governor. The operator says, "right, I understand," and Kim finally just hangs up.

Amazingly, Kim's delusional power trip didn't end at this. After Kim complained to the fire department, both operators (actual firefighters rather than operators) were transferred. When this became public, the fury was enough to shut down the provincial government's website. Eventually the transfer was reversed and Kim made a visit to the fire station in question.

Both officers apologized to the governor both for prematurely judging the governor's call to be a prank call and for ignoring the regulation that states that they are required to give their name when answering a call. Of course, the law also states that prank calls to 119 are punishable by a fine of 2 million won (about $2,000), but we already know that the law doesn't apply to powerful people.

Netizens naturally had a field day with Kim and made countless parodies of this phone call. My favourite is this one that mixes Kim with a clip of the recently-jailed Jeong Bong-ju swearing at the person on the other end.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Catching the first sunrise of the new year in Jeongdongjin

Ever since Andy first mentioned it, I've always wanted to take the train over the Taebaek mountain range in Gangwon-do, especially in the winter. As well, I often walk through the lonely lobby of the Cheongnyangni train station and notice the sparse crowds lined up to take an infrequent train to destinations you have never heard of. The problem, of course, is that as nice as the train is, there's not a whole lot to do in Gangneung after the summer. Gangwon-do, of course, is a great place to hike, but I wasn't quite in the mood for a death hike through feet of snow on deserted mountains.

Enter Jeongdongjin: isolated, beautiful, accessible. Ever since it was featured in a scene in a drama over fifteen years ago, it has acquired a cult following. The name Jeongdongjin (正东津) itself is rather interesting: it was named as the farthest point due east (正东) of Gwanghwamun, though subsequent study has shown that it's actually due east of Dobongsan. Whatever the case, Jeongdongjin makes for a stunning location.

The train station at Jeongdongjin is on the trip from Seoul, which technically runs on parts of three lines (the Jungang, Taebaek and Yeongdong lines) and follows a meandering, indirect route to Seoul. Jeongdongjin is the second-last stop, and it makes for a dramatic introduction. You could, in fact, never leave the station and still go away impressed. The train stops about 10-20 metres from the station, with a narrow beach and barbed wire being all that separate the platform and its stadium seating from the sea.

However, Jeongdongjin has evolved in the way of all tourist spots, particularly ones with cult followings that attract an impossibly large number of tourists for a single shot. Hotels in Jeongdongjin and nearby Gangneung are sold out on New Year's Eve despite charging extortionate rates, and all trains going to Gangneung on December 30 or 31 are sold out about a week in advance. There is no shortage of hotels in the area, culminating in the Suncruise resort, a hideous monument to tastelessness that sends chills down my spine every time I look at it, and doubly so at night.

I ended up staying in Gangneung on New Year's Eve and took a train to Jeongdongjin in the morning. Barring a second Korean War, you will never see this many people pack a train departing from Gangwon-do at 6 am on a Sunday. Judging from the crowds and the traffic jams I saw, such as a 30-minute wait to have breakfast at a non-descript, randomly chosen restaurant at 6:30 am, I would guess that between 10,000 and 30,000 people came to Jeongdongjin to see the sunrise.

The sunrise itself was a bit disappointing. Those expecting to see a brilliant orange disk in the sky were sorely disappointed. Most of the crowds were gone before anything resembling the sun was visible in the sky. To give you an idea of how quickly the crowd disappeared after the sunrise of 7:40 am, there was a traffic jam as far as the eye could see by 8 am. By lunchtime, there was nobody left but locals and the piles of garbage left behind by tourist.

I got to spend an extra day in Jeongdongjin, having dinner as snow blew in and leaving by walking in 4-5 inches of fresh snow. As fantastic of a place as Jeongdongjin is, I wouldn't consider it attractive or even tolerable on New Year's Eve or the morning of New Year's Day. For me, the real highlight of the trip was the time I spent on its deserted two-lane main strip by the beach, smelling the wood fires and the train ride back home.

The trip from Gangneung to Cheongyangni takes six hours, compared to three hours or less by bus. Note that while train delays are rare and never more than ten or twenty minutes, the bus can easily be delayed by an hour or more. The train costs about 20,000 against 14,000 or so for the bus, but the train is definitely worth it, especially in the winter. It slowly travels down the sea coast from Gangneung to Donghae, past furious waves, barbed wire and empty beaches. I spotted a group of women on one beach being approached by a group of soldiers, having somehow negotiated the cliffs and the barbed wire on this beach in the middle of nowhere.

After Donghae, the train runs inland and creaks through the mountains of Gangwon-do, which here were snow-covered. Gangwon-do is probably Korea's poorest area, neither a good place to farm nor fortunate enough to receive the patronage of successive dictators that has transformed places like Pohang or Gumi. However, it is likely Korea's most beautiful, though I haven't spent much time on Jeju. The current trend towards opening up eastern Gyeonggi province and western Gangwon-do, the more mountainous part of the province, will probably make life better there, though it will make it the place little worse to look at.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Book #14: Mao's Great Famine

I finished this book about a week ago, but writing about it had to wait until the new year. Reading 14 books this year puts me two above last year's two, though I thought that I had done a much better job of reading this year. Clearly, I was wrong. Nevertheless, things are clearly moving in the right direction, as the 'books' tag has become one of the more popular topics on this blog.

Mao's Great Famine is writen by Frank Dikotter, a professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and professor of modern Chinese history at the University of London's School of Oriental and African studies. On the latter point, I'll concede that I had never heard of it before 2011 and thought it to be a rather racist-sounding degree mill at the time, when in fact it is one of the finest places to study in the world.

Dikotter places the blame directly on the actions undertaken by the Chinese government, which would be utterly comical if they hadn't produced quite possibly the single worst event in history. The book begins with a description of the political background that led China to undertake the Great Leap Forward. In the late 1950s, the USSR claimed that it would surpass the economy of the United States in fifteen years. By 1975, the per capita GDP of the US was $7500 against $3000 for the USSR.

Much of the impetus for the Great Leap Forward, Dikotter explains, is that Mao was ever-conscious, if not downright obsessed to the exclusion of reality, with his status in history. Eager to jockey for leadership of the communist world, he proclaimed that while the USSR surpassed America, China would surpass Great Britain. Judging Soviet socialism to be impure, he declared that China could do better and that it would progress from socialism to communism almost instantly. For those keeping score at home, Chinese GDP per capita stood at $92 in 1960 and progressed to $175 by 1975. In that same period, the British numbers went from $1382 to $4204.

The sort of political culture that Mao was creating domestically took what was essentially a delusional claim and bolstered it to the point that Mao's claim of surpassing Great Britain in fifteen years was ceaselessly revised down. Politicians who did not want to appear as anything less than enthusiastic declared Mao's ideas to not only be possible, but as likely, followed by imminent and inevitable. China would overtake Britain in a few years, they said, then Russia, and would pass even America within 20 years.

To do this, Mao claimed it was necessary to "unleash the masses". The idea that China's greatest resource was its large population is not entirely untrue, and it has played a part in making China a wealthier country today, though there's more to it than simply having hundreds millions of people willing to do work (why do factories locate in China but not India or Nigeria?). However, Mao held in their limitless potential and was hostile to expertise and intellect.

If what had transpired so far was delusional thinking of the highest order, what would transpire was horrifying on a scale that defies imagination and description. The masses were mobilized along military lines. The country was divided into communes. Possessions, from furniture and food to even sewing needles, were confiscated for a variety of purpose. Houses were demolished so that they could be used for fuel, fertilizer or to create metal in horrendously ill-conceived backyard furnaces.

With farms turned into communes that no one and everyone owned simultaneously, and with many of the farmers sent to work in urban factories, farming suffered. Compounding matters was the fact that the state promoted supposedly innovative farming techniques which produced crop failure after crop failure. This alone might not have produced catastrophe still, if China had not exported grain in this time. The exports, too, like the delusionally cheerful projections of parity with the United Kingdom, were ceaselessly revised up as local politicians lied about how much food they had actually produced.

The last component of the famine was the authoritarian state that the Communist Party produced, which gave out food in exchange for work, and only in exchange for work. Those who were sick, hurt, could not work as much as others, or completed even the slighest infraction were given less food, creating a vicious cycle that almost invariably ended with death. About eighty percent of those who starved to death had had food withheld for one reason or another.

In the end, Dikotter and other historians are left to compile a death toll. While records from the era are hard to come by and even harder to access, par for the course when dealing with a secretive dictatorship in what was then a country as poor as any other in the world, some counties kept detailed records. Rather than compile a a list of all those who died, an impossible task, it is easier to access provincial and local archives to consider the issue of excess deaths.

Most historians had put the death toll at between ten and forty million, hardly a paltry sum, but Dikotter uses evidence from party researchers to arrive at a minimum death toll of 45 million. This ranks not just Mao, but the Communist Party that continues to rule China and continues to be fiercely protective of its past, as guilty of the worst atrocity in history. This truth is worth bearing in mind when we start making equivalencies in international politics: if America has to answer for ceaseless interference in the affairs of foreign countries, and if China can be smug in noting that it hasn't baselessly invaded countries in the way of the Iraq war, America can politely note that it didn't cold-heartedly kill one out of every ten people in its own borders.