Friday, August 29, 2014

What the women's 4 x 400 at the European Championships and Flotrack's cross country previews teach us about track

I post videos of races on Facebook from time to time, and most get a handful of responses from other fans of track, even though people who have never run, say, 20 km without stopping probably make up the minority of my Facebook friends. That even people who participate in a sport, in the form of organized competitions no less, have no interest in it as a spectator sport means it is incredibly unpopular. There are kids who enjoy playing football who might not be able to name every single team in the NFL or a single lineman or defensive back, but they'll probably be able to name five famous players and their teams.

If you find ten runners at the start line of a marathon and ask them to name a famous runner, they'll probably start with Usain Bolt and maybe add Kara Goucher or Galen Rupp if they're American, Joanie Samuelson, Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers if they're older. I doubt most could make it to ten without struggling, and I don't think a majority could name ten Olympic medalists. This isn't really a problem of slow runners, since I know many fast runners (however you want to define it for non-professionals) who couldn't tell you what a world-class time is for any event except for the mile or the marathon.

The more I run, the more I'm convinced that the problem is one of track, not necessarily that of runners. A certain amount of change and a certain amount of unsavoury marketing is necessary to make a sport something that people want to watch. Gear and complexity, for example, is popular, while simplicity isn't. This partly explains the popularity of triathlon, especially as a spectator sport, and also why obstacle-type races are more popular than doing the exact same thing on without military-grade GPS on a rubberized track. Track, in comparison, comes across as football without the equipment, without the helmets, and without the jargon. Eleven people in t-shirts and shorts playing football is almost inherently more boring.

What track can offer, though, is competition. Lots of it. I have no idea how good the European 4 x 400 teams are in a global sense, though I'm aware of the UK and Russia generally being strong, but it doesn't matter when you watch this video. Neither did it matter to the casual runners and the non-runners on my Facebook feed who watched it and enjoyed it, making it different from most other videos of posted of unknown runners beating each other. The exact same last lap, but in Nike singlets instead of national colours, with individuals instead of a relay, wouldn't be nearly as interesting. They would be athletic accomplishments in a vacuum, like watching Peyton Manning throw a football if you didn't know it was Peyton Manning and he wasn't throwing it to anybody.

Watching accomplishments in a vacuum, though, is what track asks of even the semi-serious fan. A 3:27 1500 is indistinguishable from a 3:34 1500. The level of knowledge required to distinguish the two is probably like the level of knowledge required to distinguish a quarterback passer rating of 82 from a rating of 92, or a yards-per-carry average of 4.6 from 3.6. Any serious fan would know the difference, but sports don't survive on serious fans, they survive on casual and semi-serious fans, even non-serious fans who can tolerate watching the sport for a few hours. Fans who like watching the game because it's fun. Their enjoyment doesn't hinge on whether a quarterback threw for 302 yards or 287 (serious track fans, the sort who don't need distances to accompany times, will often be disappointed at a 13:05 but impressed by a 12:58 in a professional race).

Flotrack gets it. Although I don't get it at all, their countdown rankings of NCAA cross country is exactly the sort of thing we need. It's incomprehensible to someone who doesn't really know the teams and the athletes, just as NCAA basketball previews are incomprehensible to me, but by creating a story where teams aren't just teams, but they take on personalities and characteristics, they're creating a product for fans to watch. A few race promoters get it at major marathons, such as Boston and New York, where even casual runners will watch because the course is interesting, even though the times are comparatively slow and the very best runners might not even show up.

What's sad, though, is that it falls on Flotrack or on fans who take a great moment and capture it on Youtube to create the sports's stories. The organizing bodies are next to useless, with the IAAF's dreary website boldly daring even the serious fan to try and take an interest in the sport. Most accounts of the sport, with some exceptions, simply tell you what happened. It would be like a recap of the first Patriots-Giants Super Bowl simply noting that the Giants beat the Patriots to win the Super Bowl and explaining the events of the game, giving barely any attention what was at stake for the Patriots or how improbable the Giants' victory was. That sort of ineptitude, applied to what is basically the NFL Combine, is why the very fact that track has any fans at all is in spite of the sport.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Will North American car culture be remembered as a relic of the late twentieth century?

A Danish tourist to Ottawa wrote a letter to the Ottawa Citizen lamenting Canada's car culture, which in many ways served as her last impression of Canada more than its sights, culture and natural beauty through its representatives in parking garages, strip malls and drive-thrus. The country seems built on the principle that people were secondary to cars, with a few exceptions here and there.

What they probably noticed is that Canada is almost always meant to be experienced through the car. Car culture is maybe the worst thing about Canada. It's a country built around cars, with exceptions like the parts of Toronto that are within a few kilometres of subway stations. It's dehumanizing, hideous, unhealthy, and bad for the environment. When I visit my parents in Brampton, I notice that just about the only people who walk in Brampton, not counting children or people exercising themselves or their dogs, are poor. The only reason this sticks out is that no one walks in Brampton. Many malls and big box centres are only meant to be driven into. To walk there means to walk through a series of parking lots at your own risk.

Even where it's possible to not walk, there is just about no occasion or situation in Canada where you feel weird for driving, the way hapless tourists and the conspicuously wealthy might feel when driving a car through the alleys of Seoul's Myeongdong on a busy evening, roughly as hopeless as driving a car through the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day.

Even in the rare situation where something happens that makes it hard or impossible to drive, such as road closures due to events, festivals or construction, there is no shortage of angry drivers incredulous at the fact that something could impede the automobile, so used are they to its dominance and so dependent are they on it for getting around.

People defended Canadian car culture by pointing to its weather, size, low population density and the distance between its cities, not realizing that the reason people do things like drive 90 minutes from an exurb to downtown Toronto is that we think it's normal to drive that much, and we enable it. People left comments like "I drive from Barrie to Toronto every day, there's no way I could cycle that" or "Walking is not an option with our winters", but the point is not to walk everywhere, it's to walk somewhere or to take the bus somewhere, instead of driving everywhere. Even if people want to drive everywhere, we don't need to organize our cities around driving.

Canada doesn't have the population density of Europe or East Asia so it won't have the same sort of public transportation system in these places (buses in Seoul don't have schedules because they just come every 7-10 minutes, they just tell you when the next one will arrive), but that doesn't mean Canada doesn't have to try, or that Canada has to build cities around the automobile.

The concept of a city built around the automobile is rooted in the urban planning of the second half of the twentieth century. I'm hopeful, though, that the urban planning of the twenty-first century might be able to reverse this trend. Car ownership for young people in both Canada America is down. Fewer people want to own cars and live in the suburbs. More want to have access to a car instead of owning a car, as the popularity of Zipcars and now Uber shows. They want to live somewhere interesting, not a neighbourhood or a city that's designed for you to stay in your house, get in and out of a strip mall as quickly as possible, and then get away from that neighbourhood or city as fast as possible on a highway.

This is due in part to changes in culture (you can talk to someone online or with a smartphone instead of, say, 20-30 years ago, having to go to their house) and in part due to cheapness necessitated by the economy, a cheapness that could be as habit-forming for my generation as it was for the generation that grew up during the Great Depression.

I don't doubt that subdivisions and big box centres continue to be built or that people in my age cohort continue to want those things, but they want them less than they have in the past. Maybe, by the time we reach middle-age, we will be able to look back on the depressing era of the subdivision, the suburb and the car-oriented city as one of those bad ideas of the twentieth century that tried to replace something natural and organic with something artificial and man-made, a list that would include things like artificial turf, watching TV on a schedule (it's entertainment, not TV, that's natural), plastic bags, and the forty-hour work week.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Watching A Most Wanted Man at the Seoul Cinema

I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman's last movie, A Most Wanted Man, at the Seoul Cinema on Friday night. I thought I had been to the Seoul Cinema (서울극장) before, but I realized that I hadn't, mostly because there are about a half dozen other theatres within a mile of it. The Seoul Cinema, located at Jongno-3-ga station, was built in 1964 as the Century Theatre and changed to its present name in 1978. When I got there, I couldn't believe that I'd never been there before, but I realized that I'd been confusing it with the older Daehan Cinema at Chungmuro, which was built in 1955. Admittedly, the two do look somewhat similar in that they look jarringly dissimilar from the major cinema chains.

If you broadly look at A Most Wanted Man as a spy movie set in Germany, you'll remember that the Jason Bourne franchise is also a spy movie set in Germany, at least in part, and you'll realize that A Most Wanted Man manages to be much better without a fraction of the action and the information overload. If anything, this movie thrives in the absence of information, loud noises and action. In retrospect, the perpetual panic and long-winded stories of the Bourne franchise now seem like a bad story told by someone who's obviously lying.

For its minimalism and ability to create importance through quiet and the absence of information rather than overwhelming information, A Most Wanted Man fits Seoul Cinema as well as the Bourne supremacy fits any chain theatre with its massive lobbies, crowds, trailers with loud explosions on perpetual loop (there was a time around last summer or fall that theatres in Korea played this 20-second beer commercial featuring Psy and the tune from Garden of Eden every minute or so), shiny interior and staff with machine-like efficiency.

The Seoul Cinema has none of it. The entrance is in an alley off of the main street, with small crowds even on a Friday night, a concessions stand that takes forever to deal with customers, gives you something other than what you ordered and has popcorn servings that probably haven't changed since 1978, this last fact being probably a good thing for everyone involved. There didn't seem to be anyone checking tickets in the basement theatre I went to, which wasn't all that well laid-out or marked. I almost stumbled on a step in the theatre, which has no lighting at the doors.

A Most Wanted Man ends somewhat abruptly and in silence. There's no Matt Damon on a Greek beach, no predictable, almost-expected plot twist that serves as a sort-of-happy-ending, no bridge to a sequel. The movie ends suddenly like a football game in overtime that's won by the visiting team, and the home crowd processes the loss while walking out. This is perhaps where the Seoul Cinema best suits this movie.

Most movie theatres in Korea have a very predictable location. If you can think of a mid-sized Korean city, there's a good chance that there's a train and/or subway station bearing its name. There's also a good chance that there's a movie theatre between six or nine floors above that station, with a department store or mall in between. This is true, for example, of Suwon, Uijeongbu, Bucheon, and Guri, as well as (Dong) Incheon, Daegu, as well as major train stations in Seoul with the exception of Seoul Station, such as Yongsan, Youngdeungpo and Cheongnyangni.

The Seoul Cinema, by contrast, is right on the street. There's no long corridor to take you back to the lobby and no shopping mall or department escalators. You walk out the way you came, go up the stairs and you're on the street within a minute. Within another minute, before I could really process what I had just seen, I was at Jongno-3-ga station.

Both the cinema and the movie are not without their weaknesses. First, A Most Wanted Man relies on the spy movie cliche of oblique references to both a previous job and an incident that happened there with the name of the city, such as "I thought they'd have fired you after what happened in Ouagadougou" or "you didn't forgive him for Bydgoszcz, did you?". I concede that actual spies might well talk this way, but somehow I doubt it.

Second, everyone in the movie, with a few exceptions, is somehow either an American or a German who sounds like one. The English ability of Europeans is superb, but at the very least, the tremendous privilege of the English language makes it reasonably credible, i.e. not ridiculous, for Germans, to speak not a single word of their own language, Turks to speak a few, and Arabs to speak lots, since speaking Arabic is how you convey that something or someone is suspicious.

Finally, Hoffman's job in this movie is an extra-legal position just a step above the murky, made-up world of Treadstone or CTU. It's not enough to be a normal spy, you have to be a spy among spies, apparently, otherwise the movie apparently falls apart.

As for the Seoul Cinema, its problems are mostly problems of service and design, the latter probably due to the fact that they simply don't get enough people in there for the confusing, counter-intuitive layout and lack of signage to be an issue. The interior is a little bit run down, to be honest, though I found the seats, at least where I sat, to have an impressive amount of leg room. On the whole, the experience is more human and less mechanistic than it is at chains, but it comes at the cost of comfort, convenience, as well as money. The selection of movies and times, as well as the discounts, rewards and free tickets at Lotte and CGV make it hard to turn them down.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Arrest of Canadian couple on meaningless charges in China is a test for Stephen Harper

Canadians Kevin Garratt and Julia Dawn Garratt were arrested in Dandong, China earlier this week on charges of espionage, specifically "stealing state secrets about China’s military and national defence research". Dandong is on the other side of the Yalu River from North Korea and the Garratts have been fairly open about both their faith and about their desire to both help North Koreans, so it's reasonable to assume that they're guilty of something after 30 years in China, though it's hard to see how coffee shop owners in what is a Chinese backwater could be guilty of anything else.

The Garratts look destined for the Chinese legal system. About the only nice thing you can say about the Chinese legal system is that it's quick, astonishingly quick even. You could maybe also tack on the charge of punishments being severe, though that probably only applies as vengeance in the case of a powerful person convicted of a crime. Although the Garratts are officially detained, detention can last for up to 37 days before a formal arrest is made and to be detained sounds the same as being arrested in a free country. To be charged is to be convicted, with only 825 of the 1.16 million people charged last year being acquitted in a Chinese courtroom, a conviction rate of 99.93%.

Trials, even for important people facing serious charges, last a day or two, are conducted in secrecy and don't offer things like a chance to view the evidence against you, to recant confessions obtained under duress, or for the accused to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses.

Espionage is one of many vague charges that exist in China as political weapons for the Communist Party. The analysis in the National Post article I linked above is fairly accurate. China is, as cliche as it sounds, bolstering its own state at the expense of outsiders. The Garratt's out-of-nowhere arrest is comparable for the equally sudden, arbitrary investigation into Microsoft over anti-trust practices that was recently begun in China. Also around the same time was the announcement that Ilham Tohti, an Uyghur professor who was a modest critic of the Chinese state, was being charged with separatism, one of many anti-state crimes punishable by death in China.

I raise Tohti's case not because it's related to the Chinese state targeting foreigners, but because it shows the sort of charges that exist and are regularly laid in China, without much of a basis, because the state has no one to respond to. China is remarkably good, unlike other countries that open their mouth and create controversy, at simply not answering questions, or providing amazingly empty non-answers that sound like answers. It is amazingly opaque.

My brother once asked me if China has ever explained why websites such as YouTube and Twitter are blocked. I replied that to my knowledge it hasn't, but I remembered an exchange between a foreign reporter and a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson in 2009 where the spokesperson was directly asked, twice, whether YouTube was blocked in China and responded with an astonishing blizzard of legalese, referencing six US federal laws but being unable to answer this simple question.

In other such instances, the spokesperson has referred the reporter to the "relevant authorities" (this bureaucratism is so popular that it spawned a Twitter account parodying the Chinese government, which was met with the highest praise, a sharp denunciation from the People's Daily), who of course would never deign to answer phone calls from a foreign reporter, thus accomplishing the twin functions of allowing the foreign ministry to seem as though it answered the question of the foreign reporter while absolutely refusing to answer the question in any way whatsoever. That China loves the word 'relevant' and uses it at every chance is clear. Look at the statement released by the Chinese embassy on the initial accusations of spying.

 As a number of reports have noted, to be an openly Christian foreigner in Dandong, a city that directly borders North Korea, is to be watched. China watches everything and anything that could be remotely considered suspicious. Activists and dissidents are, of course, routinely watched and either prevented from traveling somewhere or sometimes forced to travel somewhere on what is roughly the equivalent of giving a Washington activist a free trip to Hawaii in advance of a session of Congress opening up. Even run-of-the-mill Jehovah's Witnesses are watched in Beijing.

The opaque, authoritarian attributes of the state, combined with its increasing boldness in resisting international norms and international pressure means that China can consider bizarre actions like arresting a pair of probable missionaries on grave charges of espionage, when the more probable outcome for proselytism is deportation, as a direct response to being publicly embarrassed by the Canadian government for hacking into the computers of the National Research Council, the latest in a long string of such accusations by foreign organizations.

The sad news for the Garratts is that there's no guarantee China will back down from the serious charges in this case. A somewhat analogous case is that of Stern Hu, an executive from Australian mining company Rio Tinto. After Rio Tinto rejected a bid by a Chinese firm to double its stake in the company, Hu and a few other Chinese employees of the company were charged with bribery and corporate espionage. Hu, an Australian citizen, received ten years in prison after a closed trial. China previously executed a mentally ill British man for drug smuggling in 2009.

Being a foreigner is no protection from being given a full tour of the Chinese legal and penal system and, as the National Post mentions, power (and being a Westerner is a sort of power in China) is no protection whatsoever when an example needs to be made. If anything, it's a liability, as evidenced by the recent arrest of former Politburo member and security cheaf Zhou Yongkang, as well as the life sentence given to the highly-popular politician Bo Xilai. In a country as corrupt as China (Beijing is probably ten times as poor as Washington but probably has more Audi A6's), the public trial and humiliation of powerful figures serves to create at least the impression of impartial justice.

Finally, this is red meat for Conservatives. The Conservative government over the past decade has made it a point to delineate Canadian, Western values as a distinct group of ideas that are worth defending against those who apparently don't believe in either those values or the sort of things that they represent. The Conservative government has given a more prominent role to the monarchy. It is a strong supporter of Israel. It strongly supported Ukraine against Russia. It's not that I necessarily disagree with these things, but in many ways, the Harper government has a traditionalist world view that embraces religion, democracy, free markets and makes a distinction between those who don't embrace these things.

It was no surprise that Harper took a long time to visit China, received a public rebuke from premier Wen Jiabao for not having visited sooner, and served one right back at Wen for not visiting himself. This is a great chance for Harper, who has wanted a strong military and taken a strong stance against things he didn't like, to try and somehow get the Garratts home. What's more likely to succeed, though, is a softer, or at least quieter approach that allows the Chinese government room to reduce the charges without embarrassment. The likely outcome here is a prison sentence of some length, but a show of strength by the Canadian government will need to be met by one by the Chinese government, which is likely what produced the initial charges.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Reflecting on Nicholas Nassim Taleb's Antifragile and applying it to living, running and medicine

I enjoyed Taleb's Black Swan, about which I wrote here. I learned more from Antifragile, which was more technical and diverse in its scope, though I found much more to disagree with than I did while reading The Black Swan. Antifragility is defined by Taleb as the direct opposite of fragile, which is something that breaks down under stress. Given that the exact opposite of something is not its absence, Taleb distinguishes between fragility, robustness and antifragility. Fragility means to break down under stress, robustness is to remain unchanged by stress, and antfragility, therefore, is to thrive under stress.

Anyone who has experienced both sleeping for 12 hours and then wanting to do nothing, as well as working out in the morning before work and having a tremendous amount of energy all day, will understand that humans are antifragile. We thrive under stress, which is, of course, not the stress of pressure, anxiety or discomfort, the "stressed out" stress, but the sort of stress where we do something, such as use our muscles, go eight hours without food or endure less than optimal temperatures for a few hours.

Taleb applies antifragility and fragility to countless situations throughout the book. The book, which is reasonably well-organized, is so laden with so many different kinds of examples that it can seem, in a way, to be a 400-page book that simply gives one or two examples of things that are antifragile or fragile on every single page. Many of the lessons are instructive, such as the idea that large, centralized polities are fragile while smaller, decentralized ones are antifragile. Still, after reading this post or even the book, if you don't immediately get how all these things are connected to the idea that some things are improved by stress while others are destroyed by it, you've noticed the fact that this book is very far-reaching.

He points out Switzerland as a country that is a great example of being antifragile, minimizing risk by decentralizing power towards its cantons. A good example of the opposite is the area that today makes up Lebanon and Syria, which for centuries had been left in a state of messy uncertainty, which suited the area just fine. European attempts to turn the region into two centralized modern states has ruined the long-standing prosperity of the region.

Problems with the book, though, are the fact that although Taleb has two master's degrees and a PhD and is an academic, he constantly and repeatedly takes potshots at economists and academics throughout the book. Instead, he frequently points to intuitive, less intellectual ways of solving problems. There is value in this. Running is a classic example of a something where results have improved marginally, especially in the West (where it can be argued that it has instead gone backwards), even as academics have rushed to study the most minute aspects of the sport. Athletes backed by years of science are routinely demolished by novices.

Taleb probably takes it too far. An instructive example is that of a game theory expert who tried teaching a Middle Eastern vendor how to bargain, to which the vendor reportedly replied "we have done this for generations", what makes you think you can improve on this? The expert was embarrassed by the response and gave up. I don't know what that is supposed to prove. Taleb repeatedly extols the wisdom of the ancients, but often, is the case here, appears to be doing so to mock his peers.

In doing so, Taleb writes a very feel-good book, often making it a feel-good book for himself where he gets to describe how wealthy, cultured, smart and privileged he is. At one point, Taleb informs the reader that he is writing using a "seasoned fountain pen" and immediately declares that "I do not fuss over the state of my pens. Many of them are old enough to cross decades...Nor do I obsess over small variations in paper. I prefer to use Clairefontaine paper." I enjoy Taleb's work, but that was a remarkably pompous sentence for someone who makes a living out of demolishing pompous thinking.

In the last quarter or so of the book, Taleb outlines his beliefs on food and health, declaring that he doesn't drink anything that hasn't existed for a thousand years and has not therefore passed the test of time (what if Coca Cola makes it another 900 years?), nor does he eat fruits that didn't exist in his ancestral homeland. These heuristics make a point, but they also help to create a pretentious image. Someone who doesn't eat a particular food for reasons such as these gets to feel superior to others, just as someone who doesn't own a TV or use Facebook will not be shy about letting you know (I am guilty of the former).

Still, there is a great deal to learn in this book and apply in many domains. First, the idea of redundancy, common in nature, perhaps the most common example of this is the fact that we have two kidneys but can live with one, is a great way to live. However, Taleb writes, "human design tends to be spare and inversely redundant", having savings is redundancy but having debt is fragility. Redundancy is not just defensive or "wussy", but can have tremendous benefits. If you view an increase in fitness as "the additional capacity to withstand an extra stressor" at some point in the future, fitness is basically redundancy or insurance.

Second, the applications of antifragility to running are obvious, though Taleb's views on fitness are to lift as much as possible in a short amount of time and mix in long, slow walks. That stress and rest leads to fitness is commonly understood in running, but if life is seen as an analogy for running, the concept becomes clearer. Taleb makes it clear that stress, such as being scared senseless, needs to be followed by an appropriate period of rest, such as relaxing while listening to soothing music. The constant mid-level stress experienced by someone with a boring job requiring long hours and a long commute are not conducive to antifragility, but it leads to fragility. Similarly, running hard all the time without rest, be it running hard in easy runs or running too many races, isn't going to lead to optimal outcomes.

The final application, which Taleb touches on constantly, is to medicine. Taleb cites research showing that all the medical advances of the post-war era have had less of an impact than a decline in smoking. Going to the doctor is about as useful as punting in football, it seems. Between diseases acquired from being at a hospital, malpractice and needless procedures undertaken because no one feels important or helpful by telling someone to do nothing, medicine is incredibly harmful.

The heuristic Taleb proposes for medicine is that medical intervention should only be resorted to when the benefit is large and exceeds the potential harm. While I can agree with Taleb about the potential harm done by simply being in a hospital and receiving unnecessary treatment, his argument for viewing medicine in economic terms ("decision making based on payoffs, not knowledge"), combined with his endless disdain for economics and economists, makes medical decision-making based on payoffs a choice I wouldn't want to make.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What's it like being a hagwon student?

I recently went through the process of acquiring a Korean driver's license. I learned how to drive in Canada but after missing my initial road test for scheduling reasons, I never bothered re-scheduling. Years later, to facilitate renting a car for hiking trips and out-of-town races, I decided to get a license. The process for getting a Korean license is well-documented even in English, so I won't get into it. Most Westerners who get one already knew how to drive, so they never took lessons from a driving school, which I did. I can't speak authoritatively about driving in Korea, but I learned a fair bit about how the hagwon industry works from the two weeks I spent as a hagwon student.

The hagwon industry in Korea exists to produce results, which is what students-slash-consumers want. It's not that people are ignorant of the fact that studying English at a hagwon does not make them competent at English as it's used outside of academic or test-based situations, they just don't care. Studying English to be able to appreciate literature and engage in idiomatic conversation requires time and money that they don't have. Their goal is something else, whether it's admission to a university, employment, promotion or personal satisfaction on other lines.

I can't speak for all driving hagwons, though people I spoke to told me that mine was hardly atypical, but I was taught how to become a licensed driver, not how to drive, and there is a difference, as I learned. Like English hagwons or weight loss clinics that promise a great deal in a short amount of time, Korean driving hagwons are similar. Never mind an American who already knows how to drive and just needs to get a license, someone who has never driven and knows nothing about cars can become licensed to drive a car, bus or even a truck in less than 24 hours.

Most of the schools I found online allow students to complete the safety education, written and skills test (starting a car, turning the wipers on and off, and so on) in one day and then immediately begin the mandatory six hours of road instruction. The six hours can be split into four hours on one day and two hours on the next, with the road test taken at the hagwon immediately after finishing practice. You could, in theory, show up one afternoon knowing nothing and have a license in your hand before noon the next day.

All practice is done on one of four possible driving courses that could show up on the exam. Even public test centres give out maps of the four possible test centres. In my case, I simply drove the courses over and over in three two-hour sessions, and I don't think this is at all atypical. Information that I thought was pointless was important because it was something that needed to be remembered and performed in the exact same way on the test. For example, I didn't learn to parallel park, I learned to parallel park in the exact same spot where the test would happen by counting alternating yellow-and-black blocks on the curb. Needless to say, I park very slowly anywhere else, but I parked with complete confidence in the hagwon.

Instructors told students to memorize the courses because all they would hear would be instructions from a GPS, telling them to turn right, left or make a U-turn in 300, 200, and 100 metres. There was no need to memorize the courses, at least not actively, because I remember every single one of them more than a month later, having driven each one about five times. They were also quite simple, with three courses consisting of nothing more than a couple of U-turns that made a loop, and the fourth one having no U-turns but a loop made by three immediate right turns.

In the end, I passed, despite a few mistakes. I was happy to have paid 300,000 won and gotten my license nine days after first showing up at the hagwon, which is the point. Hagwons take skills, such as English, driving, or computer programming and teach them in ways that are easy to remember and produce measurable results, such as jobs or test scores. The customer generally wins by getting what they want in a short amount of time for a relatively cheap price. The schools are in second place, struggling to balance the customers' demands of speed, efficacy and cheapness while having no shortage of competing schools. The teachers have it hardest, because they are tasked with taking people of vastly different abilities and making sure that they succeed in the promised amount of time (six hours of practice on the roads, in this case).

That hagwons teach to the test and cut corners was something I knew, but seeing it from the perspective of a student, I understand why. Like any other business in a competitive industry, they sell a product and are highly specialized in how they do it. Seeing how it got me what I wanted, I was happy with the result, though I'm cognizant of the deficiencies in my ability and I'm also cognizant of the fact that these weaknesses are result of my own choices. The only way to create positive change in the system would be to change the incentives people have for attending hagwons. In this case, a harder, less predictable test would produce more teaching instead of test practice, but it would harm consumers, particularly those who struggle to pay for lessons in the first place (be they driving or math), and impact the ability of the weakest in society to achieve their goals.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Rip van Winkle experience in Toronto

While I said in my last post that nothing ever seems to change in Toronto, some things have changed, while I've forgotten how to do many others. The result, I joked, is that I feel like Rip Van Winkle, unable to recognize the city and the society where I'm from, in part due to decays in my own memory. I just don't remember how so many things in Canada work any more. This is not a post, though, about reverse culture shock, about feeling out of place in Canada because I've spent so much time in Korea. What made my experience embarrassing for me was that while I felt completely at home, I just didn't know where I'd put anything.

Parenthetically, f you're curious as to what things about Canada or Western culture do seem unfamiliar and unusual to me, they are:

- the casual approach to dressing, particularly for work, as well as talking and interacting with strangers, particularly customers
- strangers talking to me, something I used to do myself and enjoyed a great deal, now makes me feel uncomfortable, though I'd noticed this on the US army base in Seoul
- words you can say and topics you can discuss on TV, The Big Bang Theory is an example of a show that could not be aired on any of the three big networks in Korea

The first thing that made me realize just how long I'd been gone from Canada was the 505 streetcar in Toronto. I was going to a friend's house at Dundas and Pape and got on the Dundas streetcar at Dundas station. When the streetcar made a left turn onto Broadview, I realized that the 505 had never gone to Dundas and Pape, and tried in vain to remember the streetcar that did go east on Dundas past Broadview.

More pathetic than this were shopping trips. I went to a grocery store, a chain whose name I can't remember ever since they renamed Dominion, A&P and even Price Chopper, and went to weigh and price some fruit I'd bought. When I didn't see it, I asked an employee where the scale was. He politely told me that they didn't exist anymore, something I should have known since they don't exist in Korea either, at least not where I shop.

Still more pathetic were my regular trips to Tim Hortons. I struggled to buy a dozen donuts and always handed over my card to the cashier who handed it back to me, where I swiped it instead of inserting it into the machine. I always double-counted my change warily, forgetting that the penny had been eliminated. I forgot the names of donuts and couldn't remember how to order a bagel. I couldn't remember the names of GO train stations and forgot how to get to the airport on my way out of the country.

What embarrassed me about the whole thing was the impression it gave off. If I'd spoken with an accent, I'd have had more latitude, and if I'd acted more uncertain when buying donuts, I could have passed for an American. In the absence of neither, and being in a suburban area, I thought I came across as someone recently released from prison.

A long time ago, when I was new to Canada from Pakistan, someone once told me that if I didn't speak Urdu, eat Pakistani food and generally act more Pakistani than I was, that I wouldn't be Pakistani and I wouldn't be Canadian. "You'll be nothing," he told me. Of course, I ended up becoming more or less Canadian, to the point that people were surprised to learn after just five years in Canada that not only was I not born in Canada, I had only lived there for five years.

I became more or less Canadian and I still consider myself Canadian, but I'm also cognizant of the fact that 2014 marked my 28th birthday and sixth year in Korea, which means that I can be described alternatively as a Canadian or someone who lived in Canada for 14 years, just half my life. I don't know how Canadian others would consider me, something I felt acutely aware of when I went to get a police background check. The only valid Canadian identification I have left are my passport, my certificate of citizenship (something I wouldn't have if I had been born in Canada) with a 9-year-old picture and my social insurance number.

I would never say that I'm "richer for the experience" or that I've done something others can only dream of, partly because it's insulting to others in a general sense and partly because a great deal of Canadians wouldn't be drawn to living in Toronto, never mind Seoul and Lahore. I am glad to have seen this much of the world and to be sort-of-but-not-entirely comfortable in three distinct cultures, countries and languages. I also know that the same qualities that let me fit into life in Canada and then Korea will allow me to fit into life in Canada again, though I'll probably always retain a blind spot created by my time outside of the country, as well as the things I've never done for cultural reasons (to this day, I've never been to a wedding that wasn't a Pakistani or Korean-style wedding).

Friday, August 01, 2014

Toronto the Unchanging

I had already started writing this post before reading this piece by Chris Selley, focused on the Union-Pearson rail link, on why it is that nothing ever seems to get done in Toronto, but I enjoyed Selley's piece more than you'll enjoy this post. Selley also makes my post somewhat timely.

When I was in Toronto a couple of weeks ago for the first time in a year, I was struck by the fact that so many things from those days in high school existed in the exact same way they had, more than a decade later. Islington station had the exact same shops, as did the Union Station concourse, the Yonge Street strip had pretty much the exact same shops and restaurants, the streets east of Yonge looked more or less the same. I could visit most of the restaurants I enjoyed in university, which looked exactly the same. I even recognized some of the homeless people I used to see while running around U of T.

It's not that I expect Toronto to reinvent itself as a city in the six years since I stopped living there, but I get the feeling, as much now as I did then, that Toronto is on the cusp of a great renewal that could start and finish at any given moment. Toronto is a really a city built during and for the post-war era, with a planning, infrastructure and public transit system better suited to a city of about a million people centred on Bloor Street instead of a city of 2.5 million centred on Eglinton (if not further north).

Toronto was worn out by the time I discovered it as a high school student in 2002, just before starting this blog, with ancient buses plying potholed streets, a haunting waterfront riddled with such chill-inducing structures as the Hearn generating station, the Canada Malting silos, and the mercury-polluted site of Tent City, ancient public housing projects at Regent Park and a perennial budget crisis. The perpetual financial crisis may continue, while progress has been made in several other areas, the waterfront being maybe the most notable and visible example.

That Toronto doesn't change isn't exactly a bad thing, nor is it necessarily notable that restaurants have existed in the same place for a decade or two. Unless, of course, you live in Seoul, where I remember being jarred out of my broken-escalator-in-a-subway-station-will-be-fixed-in-six-months doldrums by a pharmacy that became a functioning Dunkin' Donuts in the span of just over a week. Every neighbourhood where I've lived in Seoul has been transformed during my time year with the exception of one, which was basically carved out of nothingness (actually, I have no idea what existed there before, probably a much poorer neighbourhood) about a decade ago.

I also have no idea how long it should necessarily take before you don't recognize a neighbourhood. The answer is probably not five or six years, unless you live in Korea, China or some fast-changing, trend-driven neighbourhood. I suppose a maturing market that isn't rapidly developing wouldn't have as much change as one that is rapidly growing, Beijing and Shanghai being great examples of this, with apocryphal stories of businesses or even piles of dirt being transformed into other businesses in the span of a day. The sort of stability that Toronto has, where you don't have to wonder from year to year whether a given restaurant is still in business, is something of a blessing.

Something of a curse, though, is what Selley describes. You simply can't get anything done in Toronto because people can't be bothered. Construction, of which there is no shortage, is impossible to get started on anything and once it begins, it's painfully slow. Waterfront renewal, to the extent that you can more or less call it complete, took an incredibly long time. Maybe it's the result of a population that wants a dozen different things without any inconvenience whatsoever (I used to work on a street in suburban Seoul that consisted of about a kilometre of metal sheeting for 3-4 years while a subway line was built underneath), but projects that would have been discussed, resolved and then completed in Seoul are still under discussion in Toronto.

A classic example might be the issue of transfers. Toronto still uses paper transfers and it would be a minor miracle to expand Presto to the whole city within five years. Seoul used to be an order of magnitude worse than Toronto, with no transfers between buses or the subway system as recently as the turn of the century. The mayor and future president Lee Myung-bak essentially strong-armed the private companies that operated public bus service (can you imagine that in Toronto?) into adopting an electronic fare card system, something that may have well won him the presidency, along with his demolition of a central highway to uncover the ancient, historic stream underneath. What Lee accomplished, for better or for worse, in five years as mayor, would either take a generation or two in Toronto, if it wasn't impossible to begin with.

What that points to is just simply low expectations. Seoul is a city of tremendous scale, one that's much greater than that of Toronto. I always explain it to Canadians as all of Canada living in the Greater Toronto Area. If Seoul could give up a highway in the heart of the city to be replaced with a quaint little stream, Toronto can endure giving up the Gardiner or the present Union Station renovations, as inefficient and chaotic as they may be. Toronto doesn't, however, because expectations are too low. Decades, not years, of apathy and neglect, of the impossibility of improvement due to financial and political impotence have led Torontonians to just make sure that at least the city works for the basics, never mind the great things.