Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Movie review: One For All, All For One (60만번의 트라이)

I saw this movie Saturday afternoon in a tiny theatre at the Apgujeong CGV along with at most two dozen people. All I knew about it was that it was a Japanese movie about a Korean high school's rugby team in Osaka. Seeing that the name of the school was the Osaka Chosun High School made me assume that the school was tied to the North Korean government, as did the ramshackle state of the schoolyard, but I tried to give the school the benefit of the doubt, guessing that maybe it predated independence. Of course, about a half hour into the movie, the students' trip to visit family North Korea settled that issue, although the film doesn't so much as refer to or acknowledge the students' identity as at least nominally identifying with and supporting North Korea. Instead, it skates around the matter, referring merely to "the North".

On the surface, this movie, really a documentary, examined a topic about which I knew very little. I don't claim to fully understand the remarkably complex status of ethnic Koreans in Japan who have either political or legal ties to North Korea, or both. There are North Korean citizens who are effectively stateless in Japan, which does not recognize North Korea. There are pro-North Koreans who have South Korean citizenship, presumably in addition to North Korean citizenship, and there also seem to be people who have no citizenship, having chosen neither Japanese, South Korean nor North Korean citizenship, though it's hard to say just how many belong to any of these groups, particularly the last one. Those who aren't South Korean citizens travel in and out of Japan on re-entry permits that serve as quasi-passports.

What is clear, as Apichai Shipper at Georgetown writes, is that many of these Koreans "come to possess such a complex ethnic imagination of themselves as Japan-born North Koreans with South Korean passports or special documents for stateless persons". The result is a complex "long-distance nationalism" described by Shipper, not unusual in and of itself, but unusual due to the fairly unique relations between North Korea and its neighbours to the south and east.

Superficially, this was a movie that showed the ordinary side of these people, who chose to attend a poorly-funded pro-North Korean school and had a remarkably powerful rugby team, albeit one that wore Underarmour or Mizuno clothing. The students made a number of references to their ethnicity, such as how good it was to go to North Korea and speak to those who were of the same ethnicity (however you'd like to translate "같은 민족") or their surprise at how different South Koreans were even though they were of the same background. Their pride in their ethnicity seemed mostly superficial. Just about every student featured in the documentary was barely coherent in Korean and spoke mostly in Japanese sprinkled with a few words of Korean that had a heavy Japanese accent.

It's hard to deny that these children were more or less the same as their Japanese counterparts, looking, talking and acting just like them. They bore no resentment towards their Japanese peers, at least not on the film, and portrayed themselves (or were portrayed?) as no different from Catholic school students in Ontario or a linguistic or religious minority elsewhere, perhaps Hispanic or Mormon students in the United States.

I don't see, though, how a documentary about the humanity of such students can ignore the sharp contrast between their life outside the classroom and their lives in it. Public pressure has caused political education to be removed from elementary and middle schools but not high schools, and pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have moved from classrooms to just the staff rooms. Scenes of the students' visit to Pyongyang was telling. They're shown eating at an expensive restaurant and at an amusement park, things that would show the North to be merely another country if not for the alarmingly-thin children shown in the background of their photos, not to mention their visits to the Juche Tower in Pyongyang.

I could have walked away from the movie thinking that although it came across as pro-North Korean at times, the bias apparent was simply the result of caring about North Koreans as people. The discussion that followed after the movie with the directors of the movie and one of the students featured in the movie made clear that the movie has a political objective. In the words of Park Sa-yu, one of the directors, the movie was intended, in part, as a way of raising awareness of the supposed plight of the school and to encourage a government, either Japanese or Korean, to fund the school. The governor of Osaka prefecture explains in the film that the South Korean government certainly wouldn't fund the school if it were located in Korea, so the Japanese government certainly won't be providing funding.

Park, who filmed the entire discussion with a small video camera, went onto urge those in the audience to work towards restoring funding towards the school, suggesting methods such as a a weekly protest held in front of the Japanese embassy. The journalist who moderated the discussion found it "regrettable" ("죄송스럽네요") that the South Korean government was unwilling to fund a North Korean goverment school in a third country that would turn around and teach its students to work for the destruction of the South Korean state.

Listening to an audience member who shared her distaste for life in South Korea, her desire to leave it to go live somewhere else, and her admiration for the panel members, I couldn't help but thinking of the many Westerners who blog and Tweet their fantasy of making a sacred migration to "al-dawlah", the territory controlled by ISIS. Both ISIS and the North Korean sympathizers have decided to deal with living in a complicated, competitive society that may or may not be fulfilling by supposedly opting out of it and declaring their support for a simpler but far more competitive society. Like the students in the documentary who can both sympathize with North Korea and yet enjoy rock music, rugby and MP3 players in Japan, the claim of opting out of society is really the claim of opting in by speaking freely and subversively in front of embassies, in movie theatres and online.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Shopping can be this uncomfortable: paying $10 and waiting a week just to avoid Gmarket

I had a peculiar problem. Ever since I broke or lost my decade-old Timex Ironman watch a few years ago, I have been running with a series of cheap watches bought from stalls at Korean road races, and one Pinyin-laden contraption from Nepal, that have broken after 8-10 months and cost significantly more than buying another Timex would have. So, when my latest iteration of the 10,000-won "marathon watch" you can buy at any Korean road race broke after falling out of my backpack, I decided to buy one of the Timex watches I loved so much.

I don't think anyone runs with Timex watches anymore, though I could be wrong. Just about everyone I know runs with a GPS and the price differential is getting to be so small that buying a 30-lap Timex is more a matter of stubborn pride than it is cost, although, like using a smartphone to make a phone call, I suspect that a GPS watch might well be a terrible choice for the basic functions I want.

I found a running store in Seoul that sold one, but for 2-3 times more than what it cost online, so I went to Gmarket. I made a Gmarket account five years ago and if I could ever get into my account, I'm pretty sure I'd find a 30,000-won credit from a purchase I made a long time ago where the item wasn't available, but I couldn't even get into my account. The identity matrix that requires you to provide an ID number, cell phone number or even the new I-PIN system of verification that is backed up by an ID number ended up requiring me to call Gmarket to regain my account.

I thought that I could try making a new account that wouldn't be linked to my ID number and therefore would work, but I got stuck on the part where I had to enter my address. For those who have never entered their address into a Korean website, you can never type in your own address, in the form of "123 Fake Street, Lubbock, Texas", followed by a zip code. It works by selecting the large city or province where you live, then the district and then you can search for a building or apartment complex and select it from a list. Only at that point can you enter the building and apartment number by yourself.

For some reason, this happens in a popup and, for some reason, after completing the process, the popup wouldn't close and enter the details automatically into the address field on the registration form. It was here that I simply gave up. There was simply too much working against me. The registration process, with its jigsaw puzzle of ID numbers, phone numbers, the ID number under which the phone was registered and so on, was only the first step. The process of buying it would be another ordeal marked by a cumbersome bank transfer at the very least. I went to Amazon, logged in, Googled a watch, saw that it shipped to Korea for $10 in 9-12 days, added a book to my order and I had completed

Yes, I realize that this is an anecdote that beats a dead horse. Yes, I realize that Gmarket may work perfectly fine for you, especially if you use it in English or haven't forgotten your login information. Yes, I realize that I could have asked someone else to order it for me. Yes, I realize that I could have tried another website or done any number of things that would make this easier, but this is an anecdote. Yes, I realize that with a little bit of patience, I could have saved $10 and had my watch within a few days.

But online shopping is supposed to be convenient. If I wanted a cumbersome way of saving money, I would just run twenty miles to the outlets in Guro. Online culture in Korea being something like 5-10 years ahead of what it is in the West, free shipping is a given within Korea, usually within 1-3 days, something that Amazon has only recently started doing with Amazon Prime. The sole catch in Korea is the mind-numbing complexity of registration and online transactions, both bank transfers and credit cards.

This is a problem highlighted by the inability of overseas consumers to make purchases from Korean companies, but there's a growing recognition among Koreans everyone from the president to ordinary people who have gone to remarkable lengths just to buy products from overseas, that the existing system in Korea is needlessly complex, counter-productive and not doing what it is designed to do, which is to prevent fraud and protect personal information. Repeated leaks of personal information, the most significant being early this year, has shown that a better system is necessary.

Just as the use of ID numbers online has declined sharply from its peak about 4-5 years ago, despite my pessimism, we have probably seen the peak of Active X and maybe even the peak of terribly-designed websites. Certificates for online transactions will eventually disappear, taking much of the impetus for Active X with them, and the growing reluctance of customers to share personal information online will probably lead to personal verification processes, cumbersome as they are, that rely on cell phones, I-PIN or some variant, or maybe even just emails.

For those who aren't from Canada, the title for this post comes from TD Bank's slogan, "banking can be this comfortable". See my related post from 2011 on just how uncomfortable banking can be.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Will there be a 10,000-metre run at the 2020 Olympics?

The Memorial Van Damme meet in Brussels just took place without a 10,000 for the second straight year. This means that the only world-class men's 10,000 of the year took place in Eugene at the Pre Classic. What that also means is that the men's and women's 10,000 are becoming more and more similar, something that's run either at a championship or as a way of getting the standard to run at a major championship. Races like Ostrava, Hengelo and Brussels, which held races that were aimed at performance for the very best (meet records of 26:20, 26:22 and 26:17, respectively) no longer have the 10,000 presumably because they're too long and don't fit with other events at the meet, meaning that the Pre Classic is maybe the only race left that is neither a championship nor a race set up to hit the standard.

If the World Cross Country Championships could go from a hotly-contested annual event to a biennial afterthought, the 10,000 could easily be removed from the list of championship events if track tries, as it did with this year's relay championships, to become more fan-friendly. Clearly, there are many aspects of track and field that no longer appeal to audiences outside of a niche in some part of the world, such as the 30,000 in Japan, domestic cross country in the United Kingdom and the javelin in Finland. A compact, faster track meet may be the only chance track has to stay relevant, not because long-distance running isn't popular, but because it's no longer appropriate for a track meet.

Although the 10,000 is often portrayed, even by supporters, as a dreary jogfest, t he event is by no means short on drama. If anything, it's the stage on which the greatest distance runners on the world must perform in order to earn their title, with the 5,000 often serving as an after-thought at major championships, even though it's more common overall. The event gave us, among others, Farah, Bekele, Tergat, Gebrselassie, Viren, Mills, Dibaba, Flanagan, Radcliffe, Tulu. It has given us breathtaking finishes won by the smallest of margins, improbable wins by people like Mills, crushing defeats (Radcliffe) and heartbreak (Tergat, later Gebrselassie,). For at least twenty years, the world's greatest distance runner has earned the title by winning the 10,00 (Gebrselassie, then Bekele, then Farah).

Based on the way the sport and the event are going, in five or ten years, the 10,000 will move to the roads and become the 10k, with people remembering a generation from now that once upon a time, there used to be a 10k on the track, not unlike the way the now-defunct one-hour run is recalled. There's nothing wrong with the 10k moving to the road, but even on the road, there's the unspoken reality that the most moneyed part of the sport exists as charity. Big road races attract tens of thousands of participants, their money and sponsors, but slowly, people are finding out that if most ordinary runners couldn't tell Kenenisa Bekele from Bekele Debele or Haile Gebrselassie from Haile Selassie, there's no need to pay appearance fees.

The current structure is kept in place by race directors such as Carey Pinkowski who love the sport and love assembling competitive, world-class fields, but races like the Colour Run and the Spartan Race, as well as their various clones, are finding that you can charge much more than a standard race for delivering an experience instead of a race in the conventional sense. If these races spread, which they will considering the fact that their appeal is larger than a standard race, they are likely to leave the roads wanting a competitive, world-class 10k as much as the track, which is not at all.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The beauty of spectacular, crushing failure

Although there was a game on Thursday, today is really opening day in the NFL. Today marks the first of 20 straight Sundays (Monday mornings for me) with at least six hours of meaningful football, a streak broken only by the Pro Bowl on January 25. I have a fairly bipolar approach to being a football fan. I don't follow football during the off-season, which to me includes the pre-season, and I mostly follow by watching as many games as I can, which can be as many as a dozen games in a week, but nothing else. Sure, I do read Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback and some of the analysis on Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, but I probably rank with the a disinterested stadium security guard for the ratio of games watched to knowledge of what's happening in the league.

Not following football in the off-season means that I never really finished recovering from the emotional shock of seeing the Broncos demolished in the Super Bowl. As much as I try to leave sports where they belong, which is as a fun hobby, the Broncos' Super Bowl defeat was probably one of the three most jarring, most disappointing experiences I have ever experienced in any sport I've watched or played in my life, starting with cricket in Pakistan and continuing through with running and football in Korea.

The first was the Jaguars' upset of the Broncos in the 1996 playoffs, the last game the Broncos would ever play in their orange jerseys and bright blue helmets. It was only my second season of watching any pro sport, but for some reason, I had become tremendously attached to the team and, probably never having seen an upset where the team I rooted for was on the losing side, I was shocked to see how unpredictable sports could be. Of course, it probably took me another five or ten years to realize how unpredictable sports could be, I was probably left with a tremendous feeling of unfairness that somewhat irrationally lingers to this day in the form of a crystal-clear memory of the 1996 season, perhaps even clearer than the 1997 and 1998 seasons where the Broncos won the Super Bowl.

The second jarring experience was the 2008 Boston Marathon, where I showed up in the best shape I have ever been in before or since, along half a dozen friends who went as far as to make t-shirts bearing my likeness, and then got off to an awkward, underwhelming start before finding myself unable to even jog just after the halfway mark. This one stung for three reasons. The first was the obvious, tremendous gap between expectations and reality. The second was the fact that I still don't understand what happened. My best guess was that I had a virus, the symptoms of which became apparent a few days later, but I'll never know. The third reason was that running is, to a great extent, quantifiable and meritocratic. A lot of runners expect it to work something like a vending maching, with inputs in the form of training producing quantifiable outputs in performance, unlike, say, a team sport.

The third was the Super Bowl in February. Although I can't see games on TV here in Korea and most Koreans don't know anything about football, I had mentally awarded a Super Bowl to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the player and team for which I cheer inasmuch as I cheer for anyone or any team. Even though I had dismissed the Broncos in October on the basis that teams with historically strong offenses tend to peter out in the playoffs in the form of the 1998 Vikings as well as the 2007 and 2011 Patriots, their playoff run, Manning's renaissance and the comparative lack of hype awarded to the Seahawks got me to believe. What made the Super Bowl jarring was the totality of the Broncos' destruction. It was like watching Mark Wohlers forget how to pitch, like reading an essay from a student who completely misunderstood the assignment, like coming to a pathetic stop 18 kilometres shy of the Boston Marathon's finish line.

A margin of 7 or 10 points would have been understandable and even the 22-0 halftime score just led me to believe that one tremendous comeback was going to happen, but by the time it was 36-0 in the third quarter, I had to admit that what I had been seeing was not an aberration. The Broncos had basically played the worst game in Super Bowl history, possibly worse than they might have played if they had been paid off by gamblers to lose badly. Again, the wide gap between expectations and reality was so jarring that sports made its way from the place where I normally keep it in my life, as either recreation, entertainment or some combination of both, into the rest of my life. It was really not that different from seeing a favourite character on Law and Order die or leave the show, but I couldn't explain why.

Two weeks ago, while running and promising not to make the same mistake in fall races that I have in the past 2-3 years, I thought of all the losing teams from cities like Toronto and Buffalo have endured, and how, though we often rationalize defeat and failure as setting us up for greater success in the future, it's often the case that we failed on the most significant stage of our lives. Jim Kelly lost four consecutive Super Bowls and never won one. I showed up at the start line of the Boston Marathon and ran easily the worst race of my life. Walter Mondale ran for president and endured a spectacular defeat.

Each of us bounced back in some way, but Jim Kelly never won a Super Bowl, I still don't have the sub-three marathon I thought was the least of my worries that day, and Mondale never became president. It's not that failing at the highest level of a given activity means you suck at that activity, but bouncing back isn't guaranteed and a lot of failure is irredeemable. There's a tremendous lesson to be learned in having failed at something, and it's not that it'll motivate you to succeed in future attempts or that you'll learn why you failed and improve in some way.

The lesson is that failing spectacularly is a chance to learn compassion and empathy, and a chance to reflect on the way you live. Admittedly, there's no guarantee, just as living in a foreign country doesn't guarantee acquiring cultural sensitivity or a foreign language, while those who never leave their hometown can easily acquire both of those, but it's part of the beauty of failure. Someone who has never failed at something, ever, especially if it's not for a lack of taking risks, is prone to the sort of blind spot that the wealthy and successful sometimes have against the poor and less successful (e.g. "I went to college and then did an MBA, why can't you?" or "I've never been overweight, why can't you just lose that weight?").

With the caveat that this doesn't apply to situations where someone's life was necessarily and adversely affected by a failure (though success isn't necessarily harmless either), there's beauty in having gone and failed at something, not because you tried and not because you will necessarily become a better person after examining why you failed, but because you'll learn something. You might not be able to use what you learned for material gain, but you'll learn something. You'll learn that you weren't as good as you thought, that someone else was better than you thought, that life works differently than what you thought and that you have to continue living in spite of your failure.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Reading Jeff Pearlman's biography of the 1990s Cowboys, Boys Will Be Boys

There are a handful of books and TV shows that I've watched because they were promoted on The Daily Show, but I don't think I've ever read a book because it was briefly mentioned in a Daily Show segment. After ESPN journalist Josina Anderson put together a report on Michael Sam's shower habits, Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee lampooned it on the show by, among other things, reading from the portion of Boys Will Be Boys where it discusses Charles Haley's bizarre sexual practices in both the Cowboys and 49ers locker rooms, places he won five Super Bowls in the span of a decade, still the most of any player in history.

I then read this lengthy ESPN profile of Jerry Jones, who, it could it be argued, has spent a quarter-century trying to win a Super Bowl that would allow him to be considered as a man with football acumen instead of one with more money than taste or sense. Having started watching football in 1995, when the Cowboys dynasty peaked, winning its third Super Bowl in four years, I was surprised enough by this profile of things I never really noticed as a 9-year-old to want to know just how it was possible that a team with a heavy Jerry Jones influence managed to win so many Super Bowls.

I read a preview of Boys Will Be Boys, which was a chapter describing the stupendously relaxed, though depraved might be a better word, approach the team took to Super Bowl XXX. I ended up buying the book to read on the Kindle Cloud Reader, which lets you buy books on Amazon and read them on any device, for $10.95. It was the first time I had bought a book that wasn't a paper book and Amazon's website noted that the book had been delivered for free wirelessly, which is a bit like an airline promising that all its flights come with complimentary cabin pressurization and landing gear.

The book was well-written, but either due to Pearlman's shortcomings as a writer or that of an editor who wanted books about this aspect of professional sports to be written in a certain way, often sounds like a hyperbolic NFL Films documentary. All terms are either vaunted, mighty or lowly. There was seldom an ordinary game, with each game either exposing the moral decay within the team, the egos of those involved, or displaying the sheer masculine talent of the players, which could not be overcome by moral weaknesses. The use of hyperbole works when Pearlman is describing both just how bad the Cowboys were in Johnson's first year or just how astonishing the turnaround was in subsequent years, but by the time he refers to a 20-17 regular-season loss to the Eagles in 1995 as the team's worst defeat of the decade, there had been so many earth-shattering humiliations delivered and accepted that it seemed ludicrous.

Pearlman, either because he wants to depict the Cowboys as they were or because he wants his book to have a shocking realism, takes pride in using as many sexually explicit words as possible. He also, probably several dozen times over the course of a roughly 400-page book, refers to women who hung around the Cowboys as being long-legged, large-breasted and scantily-clad. Such deficiencies are minor in a detailed account, aided by the passage of time, of just how staggeringly good and how staggeringly out-of-control the Cowboys of the early 1990s were. In a way, the resemblance to a bad episode of Behind the Music is necessitated by the subject, even if Pearlman doesn't seem to have a fondness for this topic.

The passage of time also makes it clear just how much football has changed since the Cowboys' dynasty, which had more in common with the NFL of the 1970s than the NFL of the 2010s. The significance of Emmitt Smith to the team seems quaint and his 25 rushing touchdowns of 1995 might as well belong to the pre-merger era, even though LaDainian Tomlinson scored 28 just eight years ago. Troy Aikman, considered a star by 1992, started his career with touchdown-interception ratios of 9-18, 11-18 and 11-10. The players' antics come across as relics of a free era, one before removing helmets, excessive celebration or running onto the field in anger were punished by personal fouls, before the league increasingly tried to control its brand, not that today's players are necessarily better-behaved than those of a generation ago.

The ongoing tension between Jones and Johnson, which left both men feeling empty after winning back-to-back Super Bowls just four years after a 1-15 season, along with the sense that the Cowboys fell backwards into winning Super Bowl XXX thanks to tremendous talent and Neil O'Donnell's mistakes is instructive to understand athletic performance. In sports, there's never really a perfect day or moment. Athletes, teams and performances look perfect only in retrospect, but in reality, they were anything but. The Cowboys always had tension between some combination of players, coaches and ownership, as well as between blacks and whites, but dominated the league for four years while living the lifestyles of drug addicts.

This sort of thing is probably more common than not. There's a perception in sports that everything has to go right in order for great things to happen, but that's clearly not the case. Rather than perfect conditions, it may just be that the only thing needed is for nothing to impede talent. Or, it may be that we don't really understand what it takes for athletes to succeed, which is why alcoholic cocaine addicts chronically short on sleep trounced the well-rested, well-prepared albeit neurotic Buffalo Bills by a combined score of 82-30 in consecutive Super Bowls. This may be why a control freak athlete such as Peyton Manning has one Super Bowl while his younger brother, who has fewer hang-ups and far less pressure to succeed, has two.

Looking at other sports, Nolan Ryan's sixth no-hitter came at the age of 43 after an ERA of almost 9 in his previous five starts, and his seventh came a year later at 44 on a night when he didn't think he could go five innings. In running, Sammy Wanjiru ran arguably the greatest marathon in history at the Beijing Olympics after forgetting his racing shoes in Japan. Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon after deciding that the shoes he had were too painful to run in and that running barefoot would be more comfortable.

Boys Will Be Boys makes it seem unbelievable that the Cowboys could perform as well as they did despite the constant distractions, inability to get along and the physical harm they were doing to themselves, but more improbable would be winning the Super Bowl in the absence of all these things. This is not an argument for coaches to find a cocaine dealer for their players, but to consider that a lot of the things they think harm performance are neutral and that a lot of the things they think improve performance really don't matter.

It's improbable, though, considering how hard coaches work, how insecure their jobs are and the tendency of people like coaches, teachers and doctors to believe in the power of doing something as opposed to doing nothing. If coaches needed to work 10 hours a day instead of 18, they wouldn't make as much money, but considering how plainly incompetent Barry Switzer was as a coach and how little it mattered, but also how pointless Jimmy Johnson's micromanaging kindergarten-like discipline of the Cowboys mattered, owners should at least think about it.

An odd little coincidence that happened while I was reading this book is that Michael Sam signed with the Dallas Cowboys. He's easily one of the most normal people to be signed by the Cowboys, though it's unlikely that he'll win many big games as a Cowboy as long as Jerry Jones is the general manager. The Cowboys have lost seven of the nine playoff games they've played since winning Super Bowl XXX, a statistic that doesn't reflect the fact that they have, somehow, lost three week 17 games in the last three years when victory would have put them in the playoffs. As the ESPN profile notes, no one would keep their job after consistently failing at it for twenty years, least of all in a field like professional sports, where people are fired just because it gives the perception of solving a problem.