Archive for May, 2008

Driven to conserve

Posted in Korea, Personal, Travel, USA on May 30, 2008 by Elephant Talk

I went on a day trip to Jochiwon yesterday to give a guest lecture at a university. I should get a map and start putting thumb tacks in places I’ve been over the past 15 months. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of the country now, enough to forget all the places I’ve been.

It was a three-hour drive there and another three back. A colleague from my university drove. South Korea is full of toll booths on the highways. As we returned to Busan we went though one. I looked at the charge and it was just under 18,000 won. (about $18 ) I was shocked. Eighteen dollars just to drive. So I asked if Koreans pay taxes for highways. He said no. It seems that the highway system, as far as I can tell, is a pay as you go kind of thing. The price depends on the distance you travel.

I thought about this and about whether it would work in America. It sounds to me like it would be a good idea. Rather than everyone paying a small share in taxes to the government to build and maintain roads, only those who use it pay for it. This makes sense to me from two angles: First, you’re directly paying for a service that you are actually using when you use it.

Second, and more interesting to me, is the incentives aspect. If you have to pay for the trip, you’re more likely to take one together and thereby reduce traffic and pollution. You’re also more likely to find some alternate forms of transportation, such as a bus or train.

I would guess that most Americans would hate the idea. I wonder how many other countries do this, and whether it works.

By the way, for Americans freaking out about the price of gas: It costs about $8 a gallon in Korea. You’re still way under what the rest of the world has to pay.

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Indiana Jones: Laughably bad

Posted in Film & TV on May 26, 2008 by Elephant Talk

I just got back from seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Good lord, what a load of crap that was. It was so bad in fact that I’ll have to really think hard to find something good to say about it. Let’s see…

…still thinking, give me a minute…

Ah! It was very expensive.

That’s all I’ve got. Five minutes into it, I turned to my friend and said “Are they serious?” There were so many things bad about this movie. The first that comes to mind is Spielberg’s consistent failure as a director: dialogue. He can’t get actors to speak with any conviction or emotion. He can’t do it. He can’t make them funny, he can’t make them serious, he can’t decide if they’re funny or serious… Take away the beginning and end scenes of Saving Private Ryan and you’ve got a dumb war movie with bad dialogue.

The script… oh, god the script… and the plot… (muffled puke)… I can’t even begin. And the characters had no connection to each other. There was no reason to care what any of these people were doing. Harrison Ford was invisible, an old man wearing a costume.

Perhaps most shocking is how aesthetically bad it was. The set designs were atrocious. I kept waiting to see some scaffolding or a boom pole in the shot. Making matters worse was that everything was flooded with what must have been a hundred different lighting rigs. The whole thing looked artificial, constructed, cold and then they blasted everything in white light. And everything was LOUD. At one point Ford stops Shia LeBeouf from taking a step forward and you hear WWHOOOSSSCHUNK! as his forearm hits his chest. I can’t forget to mention the skull itself — a silly piece of plastic stuffed with Saran Wrap.

Okay, the Amazon car chase was kinda fun, but that’s because everyone finally shut up and stopped talking.

If it was meant to be campy, okay, I could give myself over to that. But I think they were actually trying to make a good movie. At least, I think?

View from the balcony

Posted in Expat life, Korea, Music, Personal on May 25, 2008 by Elephant Talk

This is my favorite place in Korea — my balcony. Especially on late Sunday mornings.

My Sundays usually begin by boiling up some water for the French press, putting in a load of laundry, then sitting in my plush orange chair in my pajama bottoms. I’ll dial up some mellow tunes on the iPod, drink coffee, and noodle on my laptop or read a book.

I like watching the world move below me: cars race by, ajumas with Darth Vader visors push strollers, delivery men zip along sidewalks in high-pitched scooters, urban children bound around like forest deer.

It’s been a low-key weekend. I kind of blew all my energy Friday night. My band played a stellar show at the best club in Busan and we followed it up with a ritual sam-gyup-sal party. Saturday it rained all day, so I stayed inside and watched animated movies and started working on a guest lecture I’m giving at a university this coming Thursday. I got some text messages to go out, but I wasn’t up for it. After the electric events of the past week — a friend visited from the States — I’m enjoying the solitude.

We’re heading toward the end of the semester. Every semester is its own clearly distinct chapter. There is a beginning, a middle, and then, inevitably, a bittersweet end. It’s mostly a bitter thing because it means friends are leaving. In this case, two good friends and two bandmates. I said it before and I’ll probably say it every six months for as long as I’m here: Friends become good friends very quickly and then, too often, they’re gone just like that.

So while I’m sad at the change, and by the fact that the band as it is will end in a month, I know new adventures will begin when I come back from America in August.

In appreciation: Iron & Wine

Posted in Images, Music, Personal, Sound on May 23, 2008 by Elephant Talk

It’s Friday, time for a little music appreciation…

The whole idea of a “favorite band” is kind of silly. I like far too many styles of music to have one, although if forced I could probably narrow it down to two. But my deep admiration and enjoyment of Iron & Wine has gone on long enough, so it’s time to push that number to three.

Iron & Wine is actually one guy named Sam Beam (joined occasionally by his sister on harmony vocals) so it makes pronouns challenging. I think what I find so impressive is how he’s able to craft songs that have a consistency of emotion, but wrapped in always changing production styles. His career is still fairly new, and I get the sense that he’s in the middle of something that will eventually be considered extraordinary.

There are only three Iron & Wine albums, plus a handful of EPs. The first album The Creek Drank The Cradle was produced and recorded solely by Sam. The style was very distinct: acoustic instruments such as guitars, banjos and slide, and a very close-miked whispering vocal. It was a lo-fi affair, with an intimate quality. But at the same time, there was something deep and spooky going on in the lyrics and mood.

Here’s one of my favorite songs, “Faded From the Winter”:

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The good, the bad, the weird

Posted in Film & TV, Korea on May 22, 2008 by Elephant Talk

I want to see this…

Mad about bulgogi

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Korea, News, Politics, USA on May 21, 2008 by Elephant Talk

I wasn’t going to weigh in on this mad cow issue between Korea and the US, mostly because I don’t know enough about it. But I had a conversation about it recently, and it made me think a little differently about, not just beef, but Korean-American relations.

A little background, as much as I understand it anyway: About a month ago South Korea relaxed its barriers on the importation of US beef. Around the same time, some Korean doctor or academic released a study that determined that Koreans are more susceptible to mad cow disease because of their “unique” genetic makeup. Well, people went apeshit. There were massive protests. It became the new reason for Koreans to be angry at Americans (as if they need one).

The United States government response, with media in tow, is falling back on United States logic and common sense. This mostly involves reassurances that the beef is safe, that mad cow is extremely rare, and that steps will be taken to ensure that there are no problems. Foreigners here cite the bird flu epidemic in Korea and therefore call the anger over safety issues hypocritical.

I met a really smart girl this weekend and I asked her about this issue. She put it to me this way: It has nothing to do with beef. What Americans don’t understand is that anytime something like this happens, it’s yet another example of how Koreans aren’t in control of their own destiny. They feel as if the United States is continually strong-arming them into doing something in the US interest and not in the interest of Koreans. US beef will not help their lives, it’s strictly an issue of economics. The politicians go along with it because they know that they’re under the protection of the US militarily and economically, at least in part.

So to her it feels like another manifestation of US colonization. Koreans want to live their own lives and make their own decisions. But the politicians always seem to fall back on US decisions. So people get angry. It’s not about beef, it’s about self-respect and self-determination.

Now… yes, Koreans are nationalistic and ethnocentric. But this argument made sense to me, and it helped explain a lot. The Unites States is always seeing things through its own often arrogant code of logic and common sense. It’s reflected in politics, in economics, in the media, and in public opinion. If a good argument is made, the action is justified. It’s Occam’s razor in action: disregard nuance and you can make tangible policy. You simply need to make the other side to see things more clearly.

This, incidentally, is also why the United States is failing to stifle terrorism. It’s a mistake to believe that if everyone could simply come around to our view of things, they would see the benefits. There are many places in the world that do not have the same worldview. And these people are not stupid.

Sorry, I’ve jumped into something I know very little about. But I had to get that out of my system, because it goes directly to the heart of a lot of the inter-cultural problems I experience here.

Nok-cha: Boseong and Yeosu

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Images, Korea, Outdoors, Personal, Travel on May 13, 2008 by Elephant Talk

Yesterday was Buddha’s Birthday. There are certain events that I mark as personal anniversaries as I go through my second year here. This is one. A year ago today I was fairly well assimilated and beginning to feel quite at home in my new world. Last year, I went with a few friends to Beomosa, the great temple in the hills north of Busan. It rained late in the day, chasing us down the hill toward PNU, where we finally found refuge in Kebapistan, a nice Turkish restaurant.

One year later, I’ve become a little more adventurous. I went with five other friends on a four-hour bus ride to the southwestern tip of Korea, where we stayed two nights. We saw two areas of interest – Boseong, famous for its green tea plantations, and Yeosu, a great city on the coast.

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