Thursday, 22 November 2007

You must never do a tango with an Inuit

In England I remember Christmas time usually starts around the beginning of November, with glittery accessories and monstrous 'Santa Claus and his happy raindeer' tableaux appearing in shopping centres, shortly followed by a media outcry about how commercial Christmas is these days (no doubt accompanied by a free CD of the latest mass-produced noise pollution certain to be Christmas number one this year).

Unfortunately Christmas fever seems to exist in Seoul too. I am currently in a comfortable modern cafe near Jin's parent's house, where it has become my habit to visit when in need of internet access. The food is good, the seats are comfortable, and the place bubbles with the soothing sounds of quiet conversation. So why -- oh god, why -- did they decide this week to start playing a single CD of "cheery festive songs" on a 50 minute loop in the background??? I used to quite like "I wish it could be Christmas everyday", but after you've heard it for the fifth time in a single day you start to realise why that wish isn't such a good idea. And if you don't know the song referred to in the title I suggest you find it and try to listen to it -- more ear- and mind- wretching than Britney Spears in her pre-crazy days. Just thank god He only had one son...

Wednesday, 21 November 2007


Do you ever feel like you're a piece of a jigsaw which doesn't really fit anywhere? Further, do you ever suspect that the cosmic jigsaw player isn't too bright, and his/her reaction to a badly fitting piece is to bash it angrily with his/her fist?

I did on Monday night. On Tuesday I was meant to be giving a presentation at the Korean National Institute for the Mathematical Sciences. Not my first contact with the Korean Scientific network by any means, but my first real chance to show off what I can do. However, I rather foolishly underestimated the amount of time it would take to make a new presentation -- reasoning that since most of the material would just come from my thesis it wouldn't be a huge challenge. It was clear by Monday morning that I still had much work to do. Still, I thought, a good focussed slog that day would crack it no problem. Something went wrong...

A couple of months ago I had an interesting discussion (with Michael) about the comparison between conceptual time (how much time seems to have passed) and time as measured by a clock or other external device. The jist (I hope) was that the label of regularity we apply to time as measured by external instruments is justified *only* by comparison to our conceptual time. Thus it is false to say that our intuative measurement of time is only as good as its agreement with external instruments, rather it is the other way round. From this point of view the clocks in Korea (and the Earth's rotation, and all the other supposedly `regular' phenomena I encountered that day) were way out. The period from when I started work at 10am and finished at 10pm can't have been more than a couple of hours. I got nothing done. To add insult to injury I started to get a headache in the afternoon (probably a combination of stress and having been hunched unmoving over my laptop) and by the late evening it had transformed into a body wetching, mind bending symphony of... not pain really, there was some pain, sure, my head ached and my stomach grumbled, but much worse was the disorientation. When I looked away from the computer screen I could barely tell whether my eyes were focussed or not, and trying to take a break felt like trying to let go of a rope holding me suspended over an abyss. The whole world was melting. It's scary what the mind can do to itself if overstressed. It was this (rather than lack of presentation) which eventually forced me to cancel the presentation (and Jin's and my outing to Daejeon).

Fortunately my contact at NIMS was very understanding and has rescheduled the presentation for Monday. This time I will finish the presentation in a relaxed manner, with regular breaks for mind-earthing activities and regular exercise -- so far so good. The cosmic jigsaw player's attention seems to have been drawn elsewhere for the time being.

Saturday is Jin's mother's birthday. I am going to knit her a pair of wrist warmers, since she has been struggling with painful and stiff hands brought on by the cold, and because it is more feasible than the alternative present of lots of money. I have noticed that when she goes shopping she has a wonderful way of looking at things presented to her by shop assistants -- suggesting the thought `am I really going to demean myself by purchacing this inferior garment?', even if she really wants it and it's a good deal. I'm sure it maximises her discount but I hope she doesn't use it on Saturday :P.

Monday, 12 November 2007


The title sums up this post well: it's cold, and I have a cold. In fact the minimum temperature at the moment (about 5C) is probably warm compared to the UK (or Finland), and perhaps I need to remind myself it is the middle of November. However, if my first complaint is somewhat unjustified my second is doubly justified. You see, my first Korean cold is much worse than your typical English cold (possibly a consequence of being in a new environment meaning that the cold viruses are sufficiently different to be more of a shock to my immune system -- if any doctory type people reading this want to confirm or deny my suspicion please do so). One possible explanation is that I actually have SARS and am just really tough. Anyway, on Friday morning I was surprisingly tired after an hour of table-tennis, which usually just serves as a nice appetite builder for lunch. It turned out that this unusual fatigue wasn't just because Jin had beaten me, and by the evening I had the tell-tale tickling throat and nose. That night I was slowly transformed into a disorientated zombie, with aching body and so much pressure behind my eyeballs I thought my head would explode. I spent the weekend mostly bed-ridden. Two consequences of this were that I had my first experience of Korean medicine (which seems based upon the principle that if the medicine is repulsive enough the patient will do everything in his power to recover and thus avoid having to take any more), and I read "Life of Pi" from cover to cover (which if you haven't read it is absolutely brilliant). Today I am feeling partially recovered and managed to venture out to a cafe with internet access, from where I now write.

Anyway, some other things have happened since my last post, so I won't spend any more time telling you what a cold is like. Last weekend Jin's younger sister moved out of her parents house. Apparently there had been some family friction before we arrived, and after we arrived she had been forced to share a room with Jin (there being only two rooms available, and an unmarried man and women sharing a room being totally unthinkable) which provided the impetus for her to find a place of her own. Still, it looks like things worked out alright, her new single-roomed apartment we helped to clean was small but in a reasonable condition, and after it had been furnished with bed, tables, cupboards and the like it started to look quite homely. I hope she will be happy there.

On the same day, Jin and I were walking back to her sister's flat after going out for some lunch when we were barked at by an old man passing us in the street. The exact noise is difficult to describe but it was clearly a sign of contempt. I was walking in my usual day-dream and so it took me a few seconds to even realise it had happened, but Jin was rather shocked and responded with a rapid and doubtlessly offensive string of Korean. It's not clear whether he was unhappy because I was foriegn or just because we were holding hands (public display of affection is still shocking to the older generation in Korea, in fact when Jin and I arrived we decided we'd have to be much more discreet than in the UK, a policy which lasted less than a week...), but whatever the case it was rather unpleasent. Fortunately though it's the first time something like that has happened and on the whole people have responded to seeing Jin and I together with interest rather than hostility.

More tomorrow...

Friday, 2 November 2007

It is an outrage!

For the last two days I have been unable to access my blog. Today I found out the shocking truth... It has been blocked by Korean ISPs because of the upcoming Presidential elections! This disgraceful disregard for free speech will not stand! The people of Korea must not be denied the chance to read my important thoughts!!

Actually it's rather more serious than that, it seems that all blog addresses on blogspot ( have been blocked. I guess the idea is to stop South Korean bloggers from making politically sensitive statements. Isn't it shocking? Imagine the control that government officials can exercise over public opinion if they have this sort of power. Ugh, politics is sickening...
Fortunately I found a way around it using some clever proxy-server thingamugigs, so now I feel there are a few things I ought to tell the world:
  • GNP party candidate Lee Myung-bak eats babies for breakfast
  • candidate Lee In-je has more illegitimate children than I've had cups of tea
  • Kwon Young-ghil is actually an alien planning to enslave the human race
  • Moon Guk-hyeon is a really great guy and would make an excellent president. Vote for him.

All of which may or may not be true... but surely if the electorate are trusted to elect the president they must also be trusted to assess for themselves the value of opinions or allegations expressed by others (on blogs for example), without interference from the governing body.

[Update: Umm, actually it looks like I can access the blog now. So probably it wasn't an evil government action after all... oops, slightly embarrassed now... sorry Korean Government people! Still it was very weird. I found a help forum about the problem and it effected other South Korean users in the same way as me, and only happened to South Korean users... Maybe it was interference by Kwon Young-ghil and his alien friends then...]


On Tuesday night Jin and I accidentally found ourselves at dinner with a Director General of the Ministry of National Defense, a Director of the Oil and Gas Development Division of the Ministry of Commerce, the Chairman of the Korea Research Council of Fundamental Science and Technology, and several other high-flying officials. The connection -- they were all graduates of Sussex University, where Jin did her MA. What we didn't realise was that this particular reunion was meant to be reserved for powerful old men (and one woman). Fortunately they didn't kick us out and so we were able to sit in the fancy restaurant and listen to their lofty conversations (in Korean, but I was given occasional translation by Jin). Here are some of the opinions expressed -- that renewable energy was a waste of time (the Oil and Gas guy liked this one), that NGOs were usually troublemakers who needed reining in, that national interest should always be the deciding factor in any decisions, that democracy had gone to far, etc, etc. Deary deary me. Any comments? Ant?

Even more damning was the fact that not one of them offered me a job. Fortunately though things are looking up for Jin and I on the job front. Jin has been looking for some part-time English teaching work until her University work starts next academic year (which is March in the Korean educational system), and has had two definite offers (although she rejected one because the pay was low), and several other possibilities. For my part I went to see the Chairman of Mathematics at Korea University on Wednesday, and he said he could offer me some part-time lecturing (up to 12 hours / week) starting next March, provided that (i) I could get a work permit for it, and (ii) his department agreed (which he was pretty confident about). Of course I'd like to find something more than that, and preferably a research post, but still it's a start...

[Amusing anecdote to end this post will appear later...]

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Mark and Jin's Travels II

Ok, just a quick post to finish the story of our travels. I've created a photo-album on picasa, so I'll just fill in the gaps to make the pictures make sense.

The previous post left us at the 5.18 National Cemetery last Sunday morning. From there we drove slowly down to Naju, a large town to the south where we spent Sunday night. On Monday morning we visited an old Confucian academy and a few other sights of interest about the town, then we set off south for the Buddhist temple of Daeheungsa. We arrived there in the early evening and got permission from the monks to stay the night there. After a walk around the temple surroundings in the morning we set off for another smaller temple further to the south. Jin had her second go at driving the car along the quiet country roads -- she was so excited! Fortunately the car survived it too.

By Tuesday evening we had reached the southern coast of Korea. I wanted to visit a beach so we set off along the coast to find one -- unfortunately the southern coastline is mostly rocky and sharply sloped, and the beach we did visit the next morning was rather disappointing. We made up for it however with a bathe in the public bath-house (a popular activity in Korea), which featured both sea-water and green-tea filled hot baths (the latter owning to us being near Boseong, renowned for its tea plantations). I was sceptical of the murky water of the green-tea bath, and so decided to give it a miss, for which I was sharply scolded by Jin.

In the afternoon we had a look round some of the tea-plantations of Boseong, before driving back to Gwangju to return the hire car. By now Jin was pretty confident with the car and we shared the driving back. On Thursday morning we took a 4 hour bus journey to Gyeongju in the southeast. Gyeongju is the ancient capital of the Shilla Kingdom (c. 50 BCE -- 900 CE) so there are many historic artifacts to see roundabouts. In fact there was far too much to fit into the two days that remained to us, so we'll have to go back again sometime.

We got back to Seoul on Saturday night. It's a shame it wasn't longer, and we crammed so much in I was a bit tired on the return. Still it was a very scenic and memorable trip, we enjoyed it a lot, and it was nice to escape the eyes of Jin's parents for a few days too.