Sunday, October 31, 2010

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-Korean. It's the strangest thing. I'll see a businessman, or an army guy, or a random European backpacker, and they'll all give me the foreigner nod. I don't know when or how this started, and I don't know what the appropriate response is, other than to nod back. I hope I'm not secretly assenting to anything by nodding.

In other news, I've started selling some really nice soap if anyone's interested. Best stuff around.

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.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

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 could have sworn I heard one of the girls behind the counter say to the other one "외국인님 있어요", which is a strange combination of "foreigner" and the honorific. Like I said, I don't speak Korean, but it would probably be equivalent to calling someone "Mr. Foreigner" in America. I laughed, and then she looked away embarrassed, because foreigners aren't supposed to understand Korean. Heh.

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 landscape of browser compatibility in Korea. Like the rest of the world, Koreans find the iPhone sexy. This is starting to bleed over into laptops, too. I see a lot of MacBooks in coffee shops nowadays, compared to approximately zero when I first visited Korea three years ago. Big websites are starting to take notice, and developing sites that actually work on more than one browser. Sexy iPhone --> Increase in Cross-Browser Compatible Websites. There's something you won't ever see in an Apple ad.

So I guess here's where I should say thanks, Steve. Your brilliant marketing of the iPhone is helping to cut the ball and chain of IE6 from Korea. God knows it's long overdue.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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. Seriously?

But of course this mode of thinking goes back way earlier than college. I remember when I was little, I loved to write. I thought I was going to be a novelist. I have a 30 page handwritten fantasy short story in a box at my parents' house that I once wrote for an assignment, I think in sixth grade. There was some arbitrary word limit on the assignment, but I just kept going until the story was done. I loved it.

I especially enjoyed writing poems. That same box probably has a few dozen poems that I wrote during elementary school. The wordplay fascinated me. The rhythm of the verses, the clever rhyming, the ability to put words together in a way that no one else had ever before put them together. At that age, no one told me it was a dumb idea to write poems because it had no future.

Then somewhere along the way, I stopped writing for fun. Between loads of AP classes, and my time-consuming extracurriculars, there just wasn't any time for it. But beyond that, there was an implicit and condescending supposition that writing was a waste of time. I wasn't considering majoring in English, but it was clear that exploring the field of writing would just be a distraction from more important things.

Why? What's so bad about writing? Based on the average GRE Verbal scores of Master's students at Stanford, half of our new generation of leaders are practically illiterate. Wouldn't it be good to develop such a unique skill?

I didn't give it up altogether. As an undergrad, I wrote a fictional short story as a final project for one of my General Education Requirements (the professor read the first paragraph and gave me a B). Then later at Google, I rather enjoyed writing blog posts for new features - it was an outlet for sorely needed creativity that never failed to bring a smile to my face.

A similar thing happened with drawing. I used to love art. My middle school was fortunate enough to have an art department, and I absolutely reveled in the different assignments we had. I sketched for fun. I watched Bob Ross painting happy little trees, and locked myself away in the basement for a couple hours to paint my own landscapes. And then I stopped.

Why? Because art was another thing that would "lead nowhere". Because the farther along you advance in our higher education system, the stronger and more adamantly the fear of failure is inculcated into your mind.

I'm happy that the spirit of independent creativity inside of me never died. Whether it be a blessing or a curse, if there's something that my mind wants to do, it runs it as a background process repeatedly. Not for days or weeks, but for years and years. When I finally started listening to what my mind was telling me all along, I started to feel like a kid again. I read purely for the sake of reading. I started exploring a hundred different ideas which were lying dormant in my thoughts for years. I began to teach myself piano, because at one time I loved music, and the world of music exercises a completely different part of the brain than that of engineering.

The more I listened to myself, the freer I felt. Then one day, I swallowed the red pill and took a leap of faith.

You owe it to yourself to remember what it was like to be a wide-eyed child. You owe it to yourself to find what you're passionate about. You owe it to yourself to do what makes you happy. It's your life. Never too late to start making the most of it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

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 assumed SFCU would encourage innovation and entrepreneurship (it's Stanford Federal Credit Union, in Silicon Valley, for chrissakes), to which they replied that I needed two years of income statements from my new company. Excellent. To add insult to injury, the CD rates dropped 0.5% that day, so all I left with was a savings account with a $5 balance after paying $50 for the privilege of joining their credit union.

Fast forward 1.5 weeks. I walk into a bank in Korea and open an account with a passport. I ask about CD rates, and they tell me they're "really low - only about 2.5%. And the longest term is 12 months". I ask about credit cards, and the associate says sure, all I need to do is deposit the credit limit in a secured account which will earn 3% interest (higher than any CD in America), and I'm good to go. I ask what the fees for all these accounts are. She laughs and says, "Oh, there aren't any fees for accounts in Korea. It's different from America."

That's for sure.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

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 an SMS. But that number wouldn't "take" - I consistently got an error when trying to send the initial authorization code.

So I got my brother online, and told him I was signing up his cellphone. Same problem.

I spoke to a customer support representative, who explained that since I was outside the United States, I couldn't sign up for SafePass. So I asked to have a physical cryptocard overnighted to me, since that is the other SafePass option. I was told that cryptocards cannot be sent overseas. The rep explained that "apparently we've hit a roadblock", but I was offered no alternatives.

So I got clever. I changed my password, called up my brother in the States, gave him my login credentials, and had him try to sign up for SafePass for me. No dice. The system is just plain broken.

I got another rep on the line, and asked for SafePass to be removed. I was told that it couldn't, because despite the fact that it doesn't actually work, it is there for my security. I laughed a little on the inside at the thought that the inability to perform critical banking transactions is indeed one way to achieve solid security.

I finally succeeded in wiring my money by transferring it to my mom's account, and having her drive over to a physical branch and talk to a manager. This seems prophetic - the only way to do banking with Bank of America seems to be to move my money out of your bank.

Please consider that we're your customers, and we willingly give you money for your business. You are also the face of American banking. Incidentally, that face requires clicking "Calculate exchange rate" when you're trying to wire dollars to dollars (at least it calculates it as 1.0, after a 10 second delay).

I expect more. Please don't let me down.

Sincerely,
Darren

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

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.

But I wish I could be productive with it. I wish I could write on it. I wish I could create with it. But there's no cause for concern - all I see is an opportunity for improvement in this space. There's plenty of room for future innovation in the tablet market, and the iPad is just the beginning. Bring it on.

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.