Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stuff I'm reading, mid-April edition

Tax day is over, as is my Korean adventure, so I'm catching up on stuff that flew by on the Internet...

  • Agreement to Digitise 82,000 Manuscripts in the Vatican Apostolic Library
    “With this project, the Library consolidates one of its many relationships with institutions in various regions of the world, in the light of its overall policy, its aims and its objectives”, explained Archbishop Brugues. “It does so through is manuscripts, which are a sign of the universality of culture: the manuscripts which will be digitally archived range from pre-Columbian America to the Chinese and Japanese Far East, encompassing all the cultures and languages that have inspired European culture. The humanistic mission that characterises the Library opens it to all that is human, including mankind's various 'cultural peripheries'; and with this humanistic spirit it seeks to conserve and make available the immense treasure of humanity that has been entrusted to it. For this reason, the Library will digitise it and make it available on the web”.
  • EU study finds honey bees death rates are lower than feared
    The study found that overall prevalence of the bee diseases American foulbrood was low in all the monitored EU member states, ranging from zero to 11.6 percent.
  • Why UPS Trucks Don't Turn Left
    UPS engineers found that left-hand turns were a major drag on efficiency. Turning against traffic resulted in long waits in left-hand turn lanes that wasted time and fuel, and it also led to a disproportionate number of accidents. By mapping out routes that involved "a series of right-hand loops," UPS improved profits and safety while touting their catchy, environmentally friendly policy. As of 2012, the right turn rule combined with other improvements -- for the wow factor, UPS doesn't separate them out -- saved around 10 million gallons of gas and reduced emissions by the equivalent of taking 5,300 cars of the road for a year.
  • David Foster Wallace: Five Common Word Usage Mistakes
    2. And is a conjunction; so is so. Except in dialogue between particular kinds of characters, you never need both conjunctions. “He needed to eat, and so he bought food” is incorrect. In 95% of cases like this, what you want to do is cut the and.
  • Thirty five years later, Proposition 13 continues to re-make California: How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained)
    Here is a very long explainer. Sorry, this isn’t a shorter post or that I didn’t break it into 20 pieces. If you’re wondering why people are protesting you, how we got to this housing crisis, why rent control exists or why tech is even shifting to San Francisco in the first place, this is meant to provide some common points of understanding.

    This is a complex problem, and I’m not going to distill it into young, rich tech douchebags-versus-helpless old ladies facing eviction. There are many other places where you can read that story.

    It does us all no justice.

  • 15 Great Films That You Never Hear About on r/movies
  • Security of Things: An Implementers’ Guide to Cyber-Security for Internet of Things Devices and Beyond
    This white paper outlines a set of practical and pragmatic security considerations for organisations designing, developing and, testing Internet of Things (IoT) devices and solutions. The purpose of this white paper is to provide practical advice for consideration as part of the product development lifecycle.

    While IoT products by their very nature encompass many forms of traditional embedded devices and supporting systems, we felt that distilling our knowledge and experience in the specific context of IoT would be useful. A lot of the concepts in this paper could easily be applied to many other related areas of software and hardware product development.

  • "This Is Not a Barbie Doll. This Is an Actual Human Being."
    Not so long ago, images of a young girl washed over the Internet. She was impossibly blonde and impossibly shaped, and surely it was all a masterly work of Photoshop. Right? Michael Idov travels to meet with Eastern Bloc Barbie herself and discovers that her world is far more bizarre and twisted than anything in the photos.
  • Let's audit Truecrypt!
    In case you haven't noticed, there's a shortage of high-quality and usable encryption software out there. Truecrypt is an enormous deviation from this trend. It's nice, it's pretty, it's remarkably usable. My non-technical lawyer friends have been known to use it from time to time, and that's the best 'usable security' complement you can give a piece of software.

    But the better answer is: because Truecrypt is important! Lots of people use it to store very sensitive information. That includes corporate secrets and private personal information. Bruce Schneier is even using it to store information on his personal air-gapped super-laptop, after he reviews leaked NSA documents. We should be sweating bullets about the security of a piece of software like this.

  • The Invention of the AeroPress
    Among coffee aficionados, the AeroPress is a revelation. A small, $30 plastic device that resembles a plunger makes what many consider to be the best cup of coffee in the world. Proponents of the device claim that drinks made with the AeroPress are more delicious than those made with thousand-dollar machines. Perhaps best of all, the AeroPress seems to magically clean itself during the extraction process.

    There’s really nothing bad to say about the device other than the fact that it’s a funny-looking plastic thingy. Then again, its inventor, Stanford professor Alan Adler, is a world renowned inventor of funny-looking plastic thingies; while Adler’s Palo Alto based company Aerobie is best known today for its coffee makers, the firm rose to prominence in the 1980s for its world-record-setting flying discs.

    This is the story of how Adler and Aerobie dispelled the notion of industry-specific limitations and found immense success in two disparate industries: toys and coffee.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Korea: reflections

It appears that this is my tenth post about my trip to Korea; I suspect it will be my last.

Ten posts for a ten day trip: that seems about right, somehow.

Korea was certainly the most exotic location I've ever visited, but in many ways what's most apparent about Korea is how modern and efficient it is:

  • The trains all run on time; the signs and announcements are all in four languages (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese).
  • The airport is spacious and well-organized; I've rarely had such an easy time traveling. I noticed that Incheon Airport has been voted Best Airport In The World for ten consecutive years; I'm not surprised.
  • The cars and trucks and buses are all modern and well-maintained; the streets are all in good repair.

Korea is an amazing place. Whether it is cars, computers, televisions, smartphones, refrigerators, railroad locomotives, ocean-going freighters, or almost anything else, Korean companies are world leaders, and possibly among the first brands you think of.

Korean children are all learning both Korean and English, and many are also learning Chinese as well. Korean universities are churning out graduates. Korea has become a world leader in fields as wide-spread as plastic surgery, pop music, and chip design.

Korean food is delightful. Korean culture is old and fascinating. Many Korean customs and traditions emphasize things like respect, consideration, and cooperation.

Korea certainly has challenges, most notably the reunification question, but also they must overcome a certain xenophobia and defensiveness.

Yet, having come so very far in just the last few decades, you'd have to say that the future of Korea is looking quite bright indeed.

I really enjoyed having the opportunity to visit and learn about Korea; if you ever get a similar opportunity, take it!

Markets in Korea

One of the most fascinating parts of my trip to Korea was visiting the various markets.

As I'm (slowly) coming to understand, in Seoul, a market is any place where two streets come together.

Or, as the old joke goes:

Q: When are two sailboats in a race?
A: When they can see each other

At any rate, it seemed as though almost any place we went in Seoul, we were at a market, or maybe it is better to say that the markets are everywhere:

  • On the streets
  • At the bus stops
  • In the subway stations
  • In parks, plazas, parking garages, museums, office buildings

Often, it was hard to tell where the markets began and ended. Our hotel was in a highrise tower, and occupied all the floors beginning with the fifth floor. Below us was a shopping mall ("Times Square"), and you could take the hotel elevator down to the basement and be in the mall. In fact, you could start at one end of the mall (where E-Mart was), walk through the main atrium and mall area, continue through the basement of the hotel, walk through an enormous underground shopping area, continue walking through stores until you found yourself on the subway tracks. And there were even shops right on the subway platform.

The markets in Korea never close. In fact, we heard that the peak time for shopping at some of the more popular malls was at about 1:30 AM on Saturday morning, when people got off work on Friday evening, changed out of their work gear, and headed off to the mall to "shop til you drop." I found myself up and about one Sunday morning at 6:30 AM, and I walked next door from the hotel to see a large produce market with dozens of open-air stands. Even though the temperature was hovering near freezing, the vendors were tending shop, cleaning and preparing produce for display, evaluating the day's goods.

Space is at a premium everywhere in Seoul, and so the markets are packed in every which way. Market stalls tend to look like this:

or this:

Of all the markets we went to, some of them were particularly interesting.

One of the first markets we visited was Yeungdeungpo Traditional Market, one of the great traditional markets of Seoul.

It stretches out for many blocks and is a covered but open air warren of stalls of every sort of vendor. It's interesting to see how the stalls are arranged: a fruit vendor will be next door to a hat seller which is next to a shop with dried herbs, followed by a butcher shop, and then a store selling smartphone cases and headsets. You can find anything in Yeungdeungpo Market, from used power sanders to new rice cookers to bow ties and shoelaces to traditional medicine.

I had read my guidebook and had some idea of what to expect but it was still overwhelming and a few parts just as shocking as the book had warned.

Another absolutely fascinating market (in fact, one of the highlights of my trip) was Noryangjin Fish Market on the banks of the Han River.

Those who know tell me that Tokyo 's fish market is the best on earth, but this was certainly the best fish market I've ever seen.

From the outside it's just a giant concrete warehouse, but when you are inside it is staggering.

You have to understand that each of those overhead lights in the picture above is hanging over an individual seafood store that each look something like this:

There are many types of fish of course (many of which were unfamiliar to me), but also:

  • shellfish
  • urchins
  • rays
  • shrimp
  • octopus
  • cuttlefish
  • cucumbers
  • snails
  • shark
and so much, much more.

And everything could not be more fresh. At one point I watched a man negotiating for the best pufferfish.

When you make your selection you can go upstairs to the restaurant level to have your purchase prepared and served immediately (or take it home if you prefer, in handy clear plastic baggies perfect for carrying on the subway :) ).

I could have stayed for hours but there was so much more to do.

Another market area we visited on our trip was the neighborhood stretching along the newly-restored Cheonggyecheon Stream down to the famous Dongdaemun Market area.

First we visited a strange old electronics market in Cheongyecheon, full of vendors of every sort of electronics gear and componentry, then walked along the restored riverbank to Dongdaemun Gate.

An interesting market in this area is Doota, which occupies the first 10 floors of the Doosan Tower.

Doota is particularly unusual because of how it is arranged. Where most market places in Seoul seem to be arbitrarily arranged, with a vendor selling socks in between one selling plumbing fixtures and another selling toner cartridges, Doota is carefully arranged to give the feeling that it is a single department store, with each floor following the overall pattern:

  • Third floor: handbags, luggage, and shoes
  • Fourth floor: men's wear
  • Fifth floor: jewelry and cosmetics
etc. If you didn't pay close attention, you might think you were in Macy's, or Bloomingdale's, but in fact each individual stall on each floor was a separate and independently operated store, without any walls or doors to divide them.

There are more than a thousand separate stores in Doota alone; the handy guidebook and pamphlet that you pick up at the front entrances outlines it all, and also contains several pages at the back with printed translations of useful shopping phrases:

  • Do you have any other colors?
  • Can you please wrap this for me?
  • Do you have a smaller size?
Each phrase is displayed in English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, perfect for pointing at while you try to make yourself understood to the shopkeeper (including response phrases for the shopkeeper to point at in return with their answer).

One market which we didn't make it to, unfortunately, is the world-famous Gyeongdong Traditional Asian Medicine Market. I was hoping to visit, but we just didn't have time. I'm sure I would have been fascinated, but perhaps it's just as well that I didn't make it here, as this is said to be the most exotic of all the markets in Seoul and it might have been just a bit too much for my companions and I, no matter how prepared I was.

If you ever get a chance to go to Seoul, make sure you set aside some time to visit the markets.

Friday, April 18, 2014

My Korean souvenir

On one of our "off" days, we happened to be going from someplace to somewhere else, and we found ourselves walking along a concrete walkway. As I recall, it was a pedestrian overpass which led from the Noryangjin Fish Market to the Noryangjin Subway Station, and passed over some railroad tracks in between.

As I said, it was just a walkway, sort of like the one you find between the Coliseum BART Station and the Oakland/Alameda County "O.com" Stadium.

Except that, as we rounded a corner in this particular walkway, there was a man sitting quietly in the corner, sitting on a milk carton, with an umbrella to protect him from the sun.

My friend Stephen paused, and got my attention, and said, "I know what this man does! For a fee, he will hand-carve you an inkpad-stamp, with any sort of custom design on it, for you to have as a souvenir."

Well, I was intrigued, and after a bit of this and that, I picked out a handsome blank wooden stamp, and my friend Guenjun quickly drew some Hangul characters on a piece of paper for the man to carve.

He placed the blank stamp into a simple wooden jig on his table, lined up the paper, selected one of his carving tools, and went to work.

In barely a minute or two he had carefully carved the stamp.

Here's what it produces:

브 라 이 언

Now, you probably don't know any Hangul (and I'm only just beginning to learn it), so I'll Romanize that for you:

Beu ra i eon

Since it was somewhat elaborated for effect, you might take a second to realize that it actually spells:

Bryan

Now, beyond the simple beauty of the design and the skill to hand-carve it, you ought to think about a few other things:

  • In his head, the craftsman has to invert the figure/ground relationship, so that he actually carves away the spaces between the letters, leaving the letters themselves as the raised surface to take the ink.
  • Moreover, since he was looking directly at the face of the stamp, but Guenjun wrote the letters directly on the paper, the craftsman has to perform a mirror image translation, so that when the stamp is impressed, the letters come out as they were intended to be, left-to-right.

I sat as he carved, and watched in fascination.

So, print your name, then think about what you'd have to carve away from a blank piece of wood so that you got the mirror-image inverted representation of those letters on an inkpad stamp.

Myself, I've got the stamp at my desk now.

And, whenever anybody comes by to "shoot some ideas by me," or "get my reaction to something they're thinking about," I can (pause for effect), then give them the honest-to-goodness

브 라 이 언
stamp of approval.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Visiting the War Memorial of Korea

I rose bright and early for my last day in Seoul. Our bus to the airport didn't leave until noon, so, after a nice breakfast, I thought I'd try a bit of an adventure on my own.

I went to Yeongdeungpo Station but I picked the wrong track and managed to end up on the track for the express train.

Which only runs every 15 minutes.

And only goes as far as Yongsan.

So at Yongsan I finally got on the correct train to Seoul Station, then transferred to the 4 line and got off at Samgakji station.

The War Memorial of Korea is right at the station, a quick five minute walk.

NOTE: The Korean War National Museum is something completely different, in Springfield Illinois. My visit was to the War Memorial. Don't be fooled while surfing the net.

The museum sits on an immense area of land, across the street from the Ministry of Defense.

An enormous plaza in front of the museum has several world famous sculptures which were quite interesting. Best known is "The Brothers", while a newer sculpture is the Tower of Korean War, erected for the 60th anniversary of the war.

Inside, the museum is vast. It has four full floors in two main wings, with many exhibit rooms. I could easily have spent 8 hours in the museum, but as I had barely 45 minutes to spare, I raced through trying to see as much as I could.

The Combat Experience room looked fascinating, but no time, no time.

Although the main focus of the museum is the 1950 war, the museum actually covers all the wars through the ages and the exhibits about the older wars are as fascinating as the modern ones. For example, an entire pavilion is dedicated to the great Admiral Yi Sun-sin.

The museum was full of school groups, even at 10 AM on a Saturday morning, all big eyes and excitement to see all the sights.

The most dramatic room in the museum is the Memorial Hall, which is deeply moving. It is truly one of the most beautiful memorials I have ever seen and worth the trip by itself.

Out back are acres and acres of planes, tanks, jeeps, boats, howitzers, etc., all covered with hundreds and hundreds of children investigating every last nook and cranny.

If you can't make it to the museum, well, you could always take the virtual tour.

Although I didn't spend anywhere near enough time at the museum, I'm still glad I went, and would gladly visit again, if I ever get the chance.

Visiting Korea: Mt Namsan

I think that, of all the places I visited in Seoul, Mt. Namsan was among my favorites.

Mt. Namsan has a perfect location: it is almost in the middle of Seoul, smack dab between Itaewon and downtown.

From the top of Mt. Namsan, you can (on a clear day) see everything that there is to see. Unfortunately, ours was not a clear day, but still.

We took the train to Myeongdong and then took the cable car up Mt Namsan.

The views from the top were great and we admired the "love locks," a local tradition. I've seen these elsewhere, but apparently they are a particular favorite at Mt. Namsan.

The top of the mountain is a park all its own, with space for concerts, cultural exhibitions, and a cafe, as well as the observation tower and its famous restaurant.

We didn't go up N Seoul Tower as the visibility was not so good (which means I unfortunately can't tell you anything about whether the restrooms are as astonishing as they are alleged to be).

Instead we took the gorgeous hiking path back down the mountain and stopped at Namsangol Hanok village. Here the government has made a sort of park by moving several authentic Korean buildings here and restoring them and arranging the setting.

We took a break to eat lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Chungmuro. I must say it will be very hard to eat Asian food in California now that I have been to Seoul.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Korean Adventure: Suwon

During my visit to Seoul we happened to spend a fair amount of time in Suwon.

Each morning, we leave the hotel at 7:30 for a short walk to Yeongdeungpo train station, where we catch the 8:00 am express train south. By 8:30 we are in Suwon.

Suwon is a suburb of Seoul, if you can say that a city of 1.2 million people counts as a suburb of another.

One of the big highlights of my trip to Seoul occurred in Suwon: our hosts took us to a very traditional Korean restaurant for dinner. All total there were 15 of us ; we sat on cushions on the floor at a long low table as course after course was brought to the table. I lost count somewhere around course 20. Much of the food was food I had eaten before, like Bulgogi and Galbi while some was extremely exotic such as Nakji Bokkeum and Hongeohoe.

One afternoon, we decided to take the opportunity to see a bit more of Suwon.

We took a cab to Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO world heritage site. This part of the walled city dates back to the late 1700' s and has been well preserved. You could spend hours walking along the city walls, visiting the guardhouses and gates and vieewing the beautiful buildings.

The fortress walls are massive and it was fun to pretend we were Korean crossbowmen defending the city from Manchurian warriors.

We were getting hungry though, so we walked into central Suwon, a bustling area full of market shops and busy streets. My colleague called his friend, who suggested a popular local family restaurant just two blocks away. We had to ask a couple of passersby for directions as it was down a side street but soon we were there.

"Chicken and beer?" said my friend and "yes! " we said so in we went.

This dinner was a very local experience. Sitting at a plain table, we soon each had a stein of local Korean lager and the plates of chicken started arriving. Indeed, this dinner was as advertised : chicken and beer.

The plates of deep fried chicken were straight from the fryer in the front window and were hot and tasty and easy to wash down with the beer. There was every sort of piece, for nothing goes to waste except the bones to be tossed in a small bucket in the middle of the table (and I'm sure those weren't wasted either)

Full and tired, we headed back to Seoul and the hotel. Just before we got there, we took a detour to walk down a side street, which we knew already was "the special street," the sort of street you could see in Amsterdam or Bangkok if you desired (or so I am told) . Even knowing what it would be ahead of time, it was still rather a shock to these sheltered eyes, all the more so for the fact that it was just 100 yards from the hotel and mall entrances, if you knew where to go.