Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2010

Snowpocalypse 2010: The Trip South

Live blogging the journey from New York to North Carolina.

12:47AM: Home! Train finally pulled in around 11:45PM. Lots of people got on the train, presumably to head down to Florida. They've got a long night ahead of them.

10:47: Somewhere in mid-North Carolina. Train's been blowing its whistle pretty much non-stop the last hour or so. My speculation is that it's to scare animals off the tracks, but since the only things moving slower than the train are the African tree sloth, I think we should be okay.

10:30: We got stuck behind a very slow-moving freight train for awhile, so it pushed us another hour and a half back. Looks like we're now scheduled to arrive about three hours after initially scheduled. What's crazy, though, is that they don't make any announcements about expected arrivals - I have to find everything out myself via internet. Good thing I have a data plan. The lack of customer service is somewhat mind-boggling.

7:52: Traveling is always fun for …

Blizzards and Trains

Due to the "Winter Blizzard of 2010", which the media is making seem like the friggin' apocalypse, my flights were canceled and I bought a train ticket from New York to North Carolina since flights are sold out till Friday. Ten hour ride tomorrow, for $185 (more expensive than my nice one hour JetBlue flight). Our rail service is embarrassing. I am ashamed of our public transportation.

In any case, I may attempt to live blog the wondrous journey down the northeast corridor, assuming I can tether my 3G. Although I feel like they won't allow any technology newer than 1900 onto the train. One can only hope.

Decision Analysis and Airport Transportation

I flew out of Seoul the other day, and had an interesting lesson in decision analysis and making tradeoffs with respect to airport transportation. The options for getting to the airport from Gangnam are the following:

1) Taxi. Never done it. Pros: Door-to-door. Cons: At the mercy of Seoul traffic (especially bad since I had to travel during rush hour to the airport), and rather expensive.
2) Taxi to Coex, then direct airport bus from City Air Terminal. Pros: Direct bus is a known quantity and cheap (15000). Cons: Taxi still has to fight rush hour traffic in a busy area.
3) Subway to Coex, then direct airport bus. Pros: Both are known quantities and cheap. Cons: Need to lug stuff down into subway and then all the way through Coex to the City Air Terminal.
4) Airport Limousine Bus from nearby stop. Pros: Cheapest option. Cons: Need to wait outside for the bus.
5) Subway the whole way. Never done this, but I think it takes forever and has a bunch of transfers.

Usually I do option 2 or 3,…

Faking It

I find it fascinating to observe how people fake speaking foreign languages. I've been guilty of it myself for sure.

The simplest form of faking it is the "nod and smile". When I used to live in Japan, I learned very quickly that Japanese people have a tendency to respond affirmatively to English even if they didn't understand it at all. They'd simply nod and smile, which makes for a polite conversation, but no actual understanding or resolution of the problem at hand. I picked up this annoying habit when I was there, and would do the same when I spoke Japanese, just nodding and smiling rather than questioning people and making them repeat themselves (this is one of the reasons my Japanese really sucks).

The next level of faking languages is to learn a few key phrases/words and string them together in different combinations. Good words are "like", "hate", "this", "that", "man", "woman", your nationality,…

The Sound of Languages

People tell me that my pronunciation is good in foreign languages (except for Spanish, since I'm incapable of rolling my r's - if anyone can teach me how to do it, I will consider naming my first-born after you). But I want to clear up a common misconception - this is not due to any natural "talent" with languages. I'm extremely conscious of every sound that comes out of my mouth, and I strive for accuracy in my pronunciation. It takes effort. Constant effort =P.

Which got me thinking - I wonder if studying music when you're little is correlated with improved foreign language pronunciation. I played guitar for a couple years when I was little, and I was fairly perfectionist with respect to the music. Sometimes for assignments I had to tape record (yes, cassette tapes) myself playing some piece, and it would take me forever to capture a good enough version that I was satisfied with. Of course, little did I know that professional musicians do hundreds of takes …

Fun with Physical Therapy

I'd like to say I have a healthy distrust of the medical industry. I try to read between the lines when doctors talk to me, and I like to research myself to understand what's going on. Anyway, a few months ago I tweaked my shoulder pretty bad in the gym. Then I played golf, which didn't help. I decided to give physical therapy a try, figuring that it couldn't hurt.

Well, it hurt. After the first session of physical therapy, my shoulder felt stiffer and worse for the next couple days. After the next session, it felt even worse. All we were doing in the early sessions was ultrasound, which some people believe doesn't do anything, while others believe it stimulates the tissue to heal itself. It certainly does something, because in my experience, I got a painful dull ache in my shoulder during the ultrasound, and I asked the physical therapist to stop. That dull ache carried on in my shoulder for days, and my range of mobility (without pain) got worse and worse.

I cont…

Initial Thoughts of Language School

Went through my first week of Korean classes. I placed into a much higher level than anticipated, which was a nice surprise. Frankly, I was terrified when I heard my placement, but when I got to the class, it turned out to not be as bad as anticipated. Here are some random thoughts from the first week.


My vocabulary sucks. There are many very simple words that anyone who has been in the country a year or so should probably know. I know none of them. The first embarrassing incident was minutes into the first class, when the teacher asked who was a first-time student at the school (first time: 처음). I understood the equivalent of "Who is a <blank> student at this school?" I was proud I understood that much, but didn't want to take a gamble that <blank> was "unpaid tuition" or something, so I kept my hand down. Other things that everyone knew but I was clueless about: simple everyday verbs, body parts, and the Korean name for Girls Generation.
My listenin…

Back to School

Today I return to school, just a few years after I was last a student ;). I figured since I'm living in Korea, I might as well learn some Korean, so I signed up for classes at a local university known for good language programs.

Last Saturday morning, I went to the university on two hours sleep and a mocha for a placement test. There's only one test for all the levels, and it gets progressively harder as you go through it. You know that recurring nightmare where you show up for the final exam, and it's for a completely different topic than you thought it was going to be, or you accidentally forgot to go to class the entire semester? I learned on Saturday that it wasn't a nightmare at all, but actually a training run for this test. Imagine taking an exam where you can't read any of the instructions. And you can only understand a smattering of words on the page. That was this test.

In actuality, it was kinda fun, and was a pretty good exercise in time management and …

Selective Memories

I recently read the New Yorker's piece on procrastination, and what resonated the most was the amazing complexity of Indian bureaucracy that prevented George Akerlof from even attempting to mail a package of clothes back to his friend in the States. My life over the past month has been an endless string of dealing with such bureaucracies and inefficiencies in Korea, and I can fully sympathize with Akerlof just giving up and not even trying. Bureaucracies in foreign countries are really complicated to deal with, even for seemingly simple things. And what I've noticed more and more is that almost everyone I talk to has an extremely selective memory about how to accomplish tasks. Most people like to say, "Oh, it's easy, you just go to so-and-so and it's done."

Oh really?

I remember back in middle school science class (or was it elementary school? or was it repeated in an intro math or cs class in university? hmm....) having an assignment to write instructions fo…

American Nexus One in Korea

Yes, it's possible to use an American-purchased Nexus One in Korea. But it ain't easy. All you need is:

A long-stay visa. You're on your own for this one.An Alien Registration Card. The only way to get one of these is to get some sort of long-stay visa.A Korean-issued credit card. Get this after you get the Alien Registration Card. Since you have no credit rating in Korea, you will also need to open a Korean bank account as collateral. You can do this with a passport when you arrive, or with your Alien Registration Card later on.A Korean citizen. Not for keeps - you can return them after signing up your phone.A Nexus One.
Then simply go to the KT Service Center and have your Korean friend tell them you want to register your American-bought Nexus One on KT's network. Two hours later, they'll sell you a sim card for 5500 KRW (about $5), charge like a $30 registration fee, and you're good to go. Better than spending $600 for a new one.
The main point of this is that …

Install AppEngine Python SDK on Ubuntu 10.10

AppEngine is still stuck on python2.5, but recent Ubuntu distros don't even have the python2.5 package available anymore, which makes getting AppEngine up and running a bit cumbersome. There is a third-party package available, but I like knowing the contents of what I'm installing. Here are the steps to install python2.5 on Ubuntu 10.10 without overwriting the existing python installation. This worked for me, but no guarantees it will work on your system. It's a good idea to try it first in a virtual machine to make sure it'll work. You can install VMWare Player for free from http://www.vmware.com.

This is mostly based on http://code.google.com/p/googleappengine/issues/detail?id=757#c51, but fixes some problems in that post.

1. Install some necessary libraries:

> sudo apt-get install libssl-dev           
> sudo apt-get install libjpeg62-dev        
> sudo apt-get install libfreetype6-dev     
> sudo apt-get install libsqlite3-dev       
2. Install the latest o…

Communicating With Non-Native Speakers

It doesn't take much traveling around the world to learn that most people are really bad at communicating with people who don't speak their language. No rocket science there, but it's interesting to see how people's abilities to communicate differ.

First, a broad stereotype - men are much worse than women, and old people are much worse than younger people. Adding these up, older men are the worst, although older women tend to be pretty bad too.

You might ask, "But if you don't speak their language, then how could you possibly communicate?" Well, people who are good communicators follow a number of patterns.

First, they understand how to modulate the speed of their speech. This might sound dumb, but most people are really bad at this. You ask them to please speak slower, and they'll say the first 2-5 syllables slowly, and then revert back to full speed ahead.

Second, they understand that not knowing a word sometimes really just means not knowing a word…

Address Systems are Broken in Korea and Japan

Japanese and Korean people like to contest my assertion that the address system is broken in their countries. "It's not broken, it's just different", they'll say. And of course they don't have any problems with it, since they're fluent in their respective languages.

BOOM. There it is. If you need to be fluent in the friggin' native language in order to get from one place to another, something's wrong with the addressing system.

For background, Korea and Japan both have a strange system whereby street numbers don't mean a damn thing. Okay, they mean something - they're the order that houses/buildings went up on the street. That's super useful, perhaps if you're a street historian.

As a result, most conversations over addresses go something like this:

Person 1: Hey, can you meet us at X? It's right by Yeoksam Station.
Person 2: Sure. How do I get there?
Person 1: Just go to the station, go to Exit 7, walk diagonally across the st…

My Lame Superpower

If I had to choose a lame superpower, it would likely be the ability to displace inefficient walkers. Like, a simple Darth Vader hand motion to just push them to the side of the road. Clearly this is just a limited form of telekinesis, and the real thing is way better, but that's why it's a lame superpower and not a full-fledged superpower.

Which brings me back to inefficient walkers. Man, I really hate these people. Bear in mind that I have absolutely nothing against slow walkers. I personally enjoy walking slowly, taking in the scenery, digesting lunch, chatting with a friend, whatever. But I am always conscious to not impede the progress of everyone else.

Here are some warning signs that you're an inefficient walker:

* You dart into an opening between people, and then slow down 50%.

* You are holding hands with people on both sides, and the road or path you are walking on is less than 500 meters wide.

* You enter a moving walkway that moves slower than grandma manages w…

The Foreigner Nod

It's not ground-breaking to report that Korea is an extremely homogeneous society. Very often I'll be the only foreigner on the subway, and people, especially old people, will just sit and flat-out stare at me. Every now and then an old person will try to talk to me as if I'm a representative of the entire ex-Korea world, and recently in Incheon, I had a long (albeit one-sided) conversation with a really drunk old Korean guy about what I presume to be the Korean War. He kept quoting MacArthur in broken English, but I didn't recognize the quote (am I a bad American?), so I just politely smiled and nodded as his wife tried to get him to stop talking, stop drinking soju, and eat some food.

In any case, the closed and homogeneous nature of the society here has engendered what I like to call the "foreigner nod". You know in Fight Club how everyone who's in a local Fight Club nods knowingly at Edward Norton? Same exact thing, except here the club is being a non…

Fix Default Search in Chrome to Use google.com Rather Than Localized Google

I set up a new computer recently, and after installing Chrome, I was incredibly frustrated that searching from the address bar went to google.co.kr rather than google.com, presumably because of IP-geolocation. Took awhile to figure out how to fix it, but here's what you do:

1. Click the wrench, go to Preferences.
2. In "Basics", "Default search", click "Manage".
3. Add a new entry:

Name: Google.com
Keyword: google
URL: http://www.google.com/search?q=%s

Name and keyword can be whatever, the important part is the URL. Then set this as the default, and you're good to go. If you want, you can copy all the other URL params and stick those in the URL too, but it's not critical.

This is also explained here, but it's kinda annoying that it involves this manual tweaking that most people won't know how to do.

Honorific Rudeness

The Korean language is filled with honorifics, meaning there are different ways of addressing people according to rank and seniority. Additionally, like the other main Asian languages, there's a word for "foreigner" that you hear over and over again. In Korean, it's 외국인 ("oegugin", sounds like "way-goo-geen" with hard g's). It's impossible to go anywhere in Korea and not hear this word. Just like the word "foreigner" in English, it can be used in different ways. It's often a non-malicious way of talking about Westerners, since it's slightly shorter than 외국사람. But it can also have the negative connotation of calling someone a foreigner, an outsider.

On an unrelated note, Koreans often address each other by title, like "Teacher", and they add 님 ("nim") to the end as an honorific (e.g., 선생님, or Teacher).

Which brings me back to my story. I went to a coffee shop the other day, and as I'm paying, I coul…

The iPhone May Save Korea (from Internet Explorer)

Korea's technology infrastructure far outshines the US, but one area where Korea is stuck in a tech quagmire is browser support. The whole freaking country is stuck on IE, many on IE6. It's not that people love Microsoft. The problem (I think) is that many Korean sites require "Real Name Verification", and back in the day, Microsoft made an ActiveX control that took care of it. As a result, every new website used that control, and all web development centered on IE.

Nowadays, many, many sites only work on IE, which is incredibly annoying. Case in point - I got my internet hooked up a few days ago, and they needed IE in order to set up my ISP username/password. They assured me that once it's set up, I'll be able to use it in any browser, but I'm not holding my breath (thank god for my virtual machine).

But all hope is not lost. Despite its numerous flaws, especially the fact that it doesn't work as a phone, the iPhone is slowly helping to change the la…

Passion and Intellectualism

I recently read The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, by William Deresiewicz, and was struck by how perfectly he captures the thoughts that have grown louder and louder in my head over the past year or so. One of his main premises is that elite education is not designed to produce visionary, independent thinkers, but instead is a system designed to reward people who know how to play the system. It pulls people away from their passions and pushes them instead towards those fields and endeavors that society deems as "successful". It engineers apathetic mediocrity.

As a simple example, when I was in college, it was considered a fine and admirable result to end up with a job at Oracle. I look back on that now and shake my head in disbelief. No offense to Oracle, which has built a quite sizable business, but here I was at the institution that helped invent the friggin' internet, and they were encouraging computer science students to work on billing systems at Oracle. Seriou…

Yep, I'm Unemployed (and we're still in a credit crisis)

My first time I really felt unemployed was two days after my last official day at Google. I went over to Stanford Federal Credit Union to open an account, because I found out that they have a Visa card with no foreign exchange fees (unlike most American credit cards, which charge 2.5-3% on top of the crappy exchange rates they offer). I opened a Savings Account, and then applied for the credit card. The loan officer told me I couldn't get it, cause I have no income. I told them I could show them proof of assets, or even deposit money as collateral in a secured account, but she said no, ain't getting no loan (she actually used the word ain't). The very nice associate helping me said she'd submit the application anyway, and we'd see.

A couple days later, I get an email from SFCU saying the same thing the loan officer had said. We had a back-and-forth exchange which basically amounted to me trying to give them my money, and them saying no. I even suggested that I assu…

Open Letter to Bank of America

Dear Bank of America,

For the last four years, I have been your loyal customer and graciously lent you my capital. However, after yesterday's events, I'm strongly considering finding another bank, because I am incredibly disappointed with how you have treated me as a customer.

Issue: I am outside the United States, and needed to wire money to a foreign bank account.

This is a quite common banking transaction, and one that could reasonably be expected to be supported by the namesake bank of the United States. But alas, if only things were so easy.

First problem: Upon attempting to initiate the wire transfer, I was told I needed to sign up for SafePass. I'm all for two-factor authentication, and clicked to sign up, only to discover that Bank of America believes that only Americans own cellphones, and only a 10-digit American cellphone could be used as a SafePass device.

No problem, I thought, I can use my Google Voice number, which I've set up to email me upon receipt of…

Decline of Productive Interfaces

I own an iPad. It's a pretty device, and it's great for consumption. Browsing the web, watching videos, even reading email - all fun experiences with the iPad. But anything involving typing frustrates me to no end. I hate the fact that the iPad (and on a broader note, touchscreen typing interfaces with no tactile feedback) downgraded me from an extremely fast touch typist to a shitty hunt-and-peck typist. I'm actually faster on my Nexus One than my iPad, because the iPad is too big to use thumbs, but too small to get both hands on like a real keyboard (at least if you have lats), so I end up basically just using my middle fingers.
In the iPad's defense, I don't think it was ever meant to be a productive device. You don't see the people on the billboards reclining with one knee up, typing the next great economics manifesto on their iPads. You see them consuming. Possibly about to raise a finger for a solitary tap, maybe to see another video, or read another email…

Devices from the Future

Cell phones in Korea are pretty awesome. They've invented some sort of futuristic device that is attached to many phones. I'm not sure if I can describe it in my primitive language, but it appears to be a telescoping metal protrusion that extends out of the top of the phone. From observing the future people using the device, it appears to be correlated with watching streaming tv in the subway (yes, in a metal box, underground), so I'm guessing that it is related to improving reception and receiving transmissions. But I could be wrong.
However, I can't get over this nagging feeling that this is a technology that once died but was serendipitously rediscovered. Probably just a technological deja vu, though.

New Beginnings

So I quit my job and am moving to Korea.
Yep, that's right. Google was a great experience, and it was difficult to leave the Gmail team after spending the last four and a half years working on a product used by millions of people every day. But I decided I needed a change. Life had become too comfortable, and I felt like something important was missing. Every day I heard that voice nagging, the one telling me to go for it, to start a company, to do something big, to "free fall into chaos" and willingly enter a life of unpredictability. It was time. So I spent a month working feverishly to finish up the most important unfinished projects at work, and then gave my notice.
I immediately felt lighter. I knew it was the right decision.
I consolidated my belongings, which were strewn among a number of friends' houses in the Bay, put a bunch into storage, threw a ton of stuff out, donated over 100 pounds of clothes and shoes, sold both my cars, packed up my stuff, and hopped o…

Make a Resolution to Workout Harder

If you want a simple tip to make your 2010 workouts more effective than those of 2009, here it is in two words: workout harder.
I'm always amazed at the average intensity I see when I go to the gym. A typical observed weightlifting workout involves 8-10 reps at too low a weight, followed by 4-5 minutes of sitting around (waiting for your heart rate to drop from 100 to 80?), repeat, move on to another exercise, etc. Yes, it's better to be in the gym doing something than nothing, but these workouts aren't really doing much for you.
When I started working out seriously back in July or so, I made circuit workouts a regular part of my routine. I choose two exercises that work different muscle groups (for example, pull-ups and lunges), and do supersets (do one set of one exercise, then move immediately to the next) with one minute rests in between. I work out hard enough that my heart is really pumping by the end of each superset. The one minute rest is just enough to bring my he…