Tuesday, December 28, 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 people-watching and eavesdropping. On my last train, the guy behind me was talking to the dude next to him about a trip to China he made awhile ago. He made the quite ridiculous claim that "Chinese food sucks in China", and backed it up with his experience of "ordering all the normal stuff, like orange chicken, but there were bones and shit sticking out of it". Holy shit. Bones! In chicken! I thought they were invertebrates, to be honest. Like a good American, he finished the conversation by stating how he "probably gained 20 pounds while I was there since all I ate was McDonald's". Nice.

7:30: Approaching Richmond in 5 minutes. EDGE connection barely strong enough, but coming through in patches. One of the nice things about train travel is that you can actually go for a decent walk. I walked eight or so cars to the cafe car, only to find a line at least an hour long, so I walked back, but only made it about five cars until I came to a door that wouldn't open. A moment of temporary panic, since I imagined the cars splitting apart to go to different destinations with me stuck in the wrong section. A few minutes later, a guy from the other side tried to come through, and found it stuck from his side too. Eventually we were able to pull it open - turns out it was just stuck since it's a crappy old train.

5:19: Took two hours to transfer trains and get moving again. What a paragon of inefficiency. Who knows how long the whole journey will take now. At least the second train has a bit more space than the first one.

3:03: About to transfer trains at DC. I'm hoping for a wild west transfer where we jump from the top of one train to another.

2:57: Fuck you, Amtrak. Just found out that these tickets are usually $83. I hope you go bankrupt and a real train company replaces you.

2:52: I'm no locomotive engineer, but here's a tip for future railroad builders of America. If the tracks aren't straight, you can't go fast. It's simple. Build them in a straight line. And ... go.

2:45: Baltimore. Woo. No snow on the ground anymore. Also, no people in this station. Strangely eerie.

2:32: Just got a cold Sam Adams from the "dining car". Zipping through Delaware. Traveling by train has its benefits: More room for coach seats. No security lines. Nice views. We just passed some icy lakes that were reasonably pretty. I'd voluntarily do this trip if it was 3-5 hrs and cost $50. 10 hours and $185 just doesn't cut it.

1:52: (somewhere near Wilmington, Delaware) During the time we waited at Philadelphia, two or three Shinkansen would have left the station for their destination. Whereas the bullet train comes every 10-15 minutes, the Silver Star runs once a day (or possibly twice on some days). America, fuck yeah!

12:57PM: Approaching Philadelphia. Sounds like the train is sold out from Philly onward. Turns out we have to change trains in DC, because we're technically not on the Silver Star yet, we're just on a train that's taking us to the Silver Star.

11:59AM: Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We've reached cruising altitude of 10ft above sea level, and are currently speeding along at a ground speed of approximately 45mph. You may think that we're experiencing some light turbulence, but that's just the old rail lines. Don't worry about keeping your seat belts fastened, because there are no seat belts on trains. If you missed your holiday groping from the TSA, please ask the train attendants for an ex post facto security check. Enjoy your flight!

11:52AM: We're moving! Should be in Raleigh in no time. ;)

11:41AM: Sitting on the train in Penn Station, 39 minutes after scheduled departure time. Already spent two and a quarter hours on a 1:20 LIRR into Penn Station. Apparently a tractor trailer got stuck on the tracks, leading to the delays. Someone rhetorically asked how a truck could get stuck on the train tracks. I suggested that the driver had lowered it for looks and performance. He laughed. New Yorkers appreciate humor even in bad situations.

I've been up for six hours already, and am still just in NYC. On the bright side, I was able to find a nice egg and cheese on sesame bagel sandwich for breakfast at Penn Station. Nowhere has better bagels than New York. Nowhere. Be especially wary of places that have "New York" in the name, but are not geographically located in New York. Those tricksters don't know how to make a good bagel.

There's something calming about old train stations. But I can't get over the fact that the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) was built in 1964. That's nearing fifty years, and we're still stuck with century-old train technology that moves at a snail's pace. How does Sarah Palin reconcile this with "American exceptionalism"?

Also, my feet are finally warm and dry again from pushing my friend's car out of the driveway this morning. Tennis shoes and snow drifts don't go well together.

Monday, December 27, 2010

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.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

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, depending on how much luggage I have. But this time I decided to try the Airport Limousine Bus, cause there's a stop about a five minute walk from my place.

I get to the stop, and the sign says the bus comes every 10-20 minutes. Not bad, I think to myself, despite the approximately freezing temperature outside. 5 minutes pass. No bus. 10 minutes. No bus. 20 minutes. No bus. After 30 minutes, 50% more than the maximum interval between busses, still no bus (although I saw two going the other direction), I decided to cut my losses, head to the subway, and go for option 3. Probably an hour wasted, but I'd at least make it to the airport in time.

Of course, when I get about 50 feet away from the bus stop, the bus comes. I try to flag him down, but Seoul bus drivers are friggin' maniacs, and he blew by me and didn't even pause at the bus stop. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

Anyway, while I was standing on the nice warm subway, I considered what had happened. Assuming "10-20 minutes" means a bus comes an average every 15 minutes, then the expected wait time should be 7.5 minutes. Which means I stood out in the cold for four times the expected wait time, or three times the expected wait time if "10-20 minutes" actually means "every 20 minutes". Considering that the airport limousine bus had a bunch of stops before heading to the airport, it probably would have taken like 15-20 minutes more than the airport bus from Coex. Walk to the subway is 5 minutes, then subway to Coex about 7 minutes, then another 7 minutes to get to the City Air Terminal. And the City Air Terminal busses are every half hour, giving an expected wait time of 15 minutes. So the "subway plus City Air Terminal" option has an expected wait time of about 5+7+7+15=34 minutes, and only five of that is out in the cold. Meanwhile, the airport limousine bus has the 5 minutes in the cold to walk to the stop, 7.5-10 minutes expected wait time in the cold, with a "worst-case" wait time of 20 minutes, which I exceeded by 10 minutes anyway. Plus an extra 15-20 minutes on the bus compared to the CAT bus. So the total amount of time for the two options is about the same, except one option has a lot of standing out in the cold, and the other has a bunch of lugging around luggage.

Point of the story is that I waited too long for the bus, and I should have gone with the known quantity from the outset.

Friday, December 17, 2010

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, etc. The first time I came to Korea, my thoughtful friends taught me the Korean words for "like", "hate", "Korean" (person), "Japanese", and "American", and were quite entertained as I proceeded to have the same conversation with everyone about whether they liked or hated the different nationalities.

The level above this involves learning actually useful question words, along with a few declarative phrases. This guy I know in Korea has this down-pat, and actually convinces most people that he speaks and understands Korean, but I'm pretty sure he only knows about 20 words. So, like the Rock, he relies on exaggerated facial expressions, and is clever enough that if anyone asks him for details in Korean, he just responds with another question, a more exaggerated facial expression, or ignores it completely. It's fascinating, because I think people actually think he speaks Korean.

Of course actually learning the language is better than faking it. Yesterday on the subway some Korean guys were talking about me (not sure what they said), and I got them really flustered by telling them that although I'm a 백인 (somewhat derogatory word for white person), I could speak Korean, to which one of them said, "shit, he really can speak Korean". Hah. Watch out, people. I'm onto you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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 and split their songs up into segments, later cobbling them back together into a finished product.

Anyway, I grew up with a perfectionist's ear for sound and rhythm. For example, it annoys the hell out of me how large groups of people (e.g., at a stadium) cannot clap in beat to music, and always end up ahead of the beat. The fact that they're not on beat bothers me at an almost visceral level. Another example was watching Michael Jackson's This Is It. There's a scene where they're rehearsing the opening of "The Way You Make Me Feel", and the guy playing keyboard is trying to rush through the opening at a rhythm that doesn't make sense (Michael tells him that he needs to let one of the pauses "simmer"). The way the other guy wanted it just sounded "off". Michael got it. I got it. I wish I was there to back Michael up. I felt frustrated for MJ trying to explain to the guy why it sounded better his way, but it just did. It made more sense.

Now, with languages, I try to pay attention to not just the sounds of the words, but the overall pitch progression of the sentence, and the rhythm that the words are strung together. I love the rhythm and pitch variations of Korean. It's very sing-songy. It's not a tonal language, but it just sounds weird if you speak it with the wrong pitch.

I hear a lot of people speaking with pretty poor accents, and it makes me wonder what their musical background is. Some people actually can't hear the differences between sounds. My favorite example is how Americans not hailing from the Northeast are completely incapable of distinguishing between the vowel sounds in the words "Mary", "merry", and "marry" (they're all different, people!). Is this an ability that can be learned later in life after your primary auditory neural development is done? For that matter, how does your auditory system continue to develop later in life? Can you train yourself to hear sounds that you didn't grow up hearing? I don't know the answers, but my guesses are yes, your auditory system continues to develop later in life, it's just more difficult. Yes, you can train yourself to hear sounds that you didn't grow up hearing. And yes, having a musical background (i.e., a good "ear") has a direct effect on pronunciation of foreign languages.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

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 continued doing physical therapy for about two weeks, and then since I quit my job, I stopped. Moved to Korea and my shoulder was still quite messed up, which meant I couldn't lift weights or workout. Maybe five weeks after I started physical therapy, I was really annoyed that my shoulder wasn't getting better (rest didn't help, theraband exercises didn't help), so I decided unilaterally on a different approach to healing my shoulder - I'd stop resting and start working out again.

Yes, that's right. Physical therapy and rest weren't helping, so I decided to try very light weight-lifting in order to fix my shoulder. The theory was that some scar tissue had built up in the joint from the earlier inflammation, and light exercises might break up that scar tissue and improve circulation enough to help the shoulder.

Within five days my shoulder felt twice as good. Range of motion improved, dull ache was gone. It still didn't feel good by any means, but was definitely on the upswing.

I continued adding weight and doing more exercises, carefully, while continuing to do theraband exercises for the rotator cuff. Now, about 4-6 weeks later, I can lift reasonable amounts of weight without pain, can do pushups again without pain, and am generally pretty happy with how things are going. Certain overhead exercises still hurt (there's still some sort of impingement), but my range of motion is pretty good, and probably better than most people's natural range of motion. I plan to keep working out and slowly improving the shoulder.

The point of this story is not that ultrasound is evil. In my one data point, it seemed directly to hurt, but it may in fact help in other cases. Nor is the point that physical therapy doesn't work. I've seen physical therapists do amazing things with people. The point is that it's worthwhile to listen carefully to what your body is telling you, and even when the medical establishment fails you, your body is often times smart enough to fix itself.

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 listening is also pretty bad. I think this just takes time. I can understand slow speech (sometimes), but full-speed speech is tough for me.
  • Irregular verbs are my nemesis. I never learned how to conjugate properly.
  • My teacher speaks almost completely in the most formal type of grammar. I hate it. I don't want to use the "습니다" form with anyone. It's not very practical for real life situations. I make a conscious note to answer in the "요" form, which is the standard politeness form, even if it's considered slightly rude to answer a superior's formal conjugation with a less formal one. I don't care - it's my money and I want to get good at the more useful parts of the language.
  • The first day of class, I didn't understand like half of the explanations given during the lesson, because they were meta expressions about the language. After a week, I can understand about 90% of the explanations.
  • We do a bunch of drills where we have to talk to other students. I was reading a book about language learning, and it made a fine point - if you're talking to other students, you're probably hearing a lot of incorrect usage of the language, and no one's there to correct you. Some studies have even shown people's language abilities decrease after courses that focus on talking with other students, because you simply reinforce each other's mistakes. Two things I do to mitigate this: 1) Try to correct other students' mistakes in my mind while they're speaking (if I know the mistake), and 2) Try to speak with the teacher during the dialogues.
  • We often have to read Korean from the slides. The teacher directs the reading at a pace that is approximately 25% of normal pace. This is another thing that drives me crazy - why practice speaking at a rate that's not normal? So I just try to speak as fast as I can, which means I usually finish before everyone else. I would rather they force us to speak faster than we're comfortable with.


Anyway, language learning after childhood is basically hacking your brain. I need to figure out the optimal way to accomplish it. Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

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 test taking. I've taken enough standardized tests that I was able to guess what to do on most of the sections. Then when I got to the reading comprehension, I didn't understand enough to make any sense of it beyond a pure guess, and I was burning through valuable time, so I just skipped it and went to the essay section, at which point I realized I had never written more than sentence fragments in Korean. Ah well. The first essay was pretty much, "Introduce yourself. Talk about your family, job, hobbies, etc." The second I think had something to do with Hyundai building a computer, and you were supposed to write a screenplay about it, but I'm pretty sure I misunderstood, so I just left that one blank. My Korean's more at the level of, "I'm cold - can I have some more kimchi?", rather than writing intelligent screenplays about Korean computers (Yeah, I most likely misunderstood the thrust of that question =P). Will find out in a couple hours what level I placed into. I'm hoping it's not the lowest level, but I'm not holding my breath.

I still don't know exactly what I'm doing here, but learning Korean certainly can't hurt. Might be time to revive the Triple Lindy as well. Welcome back to school!