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Archive for May, 2009

Exchange rate watch

1 GBP = 2010.8367 KRW
1 GBP = 1.141 EUR
1 GBP = 1.5936 USD

2,300,000 KRW = 1143.0745 GBP

Bonus Exchange Rate

1 GBP = 72.9084 Bhutanese ngultrum

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

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Brass Eye, episode 1: ‘Animals’.

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I stopped shaving a few short weeks ago and grew a full beard. Last Tuesday I took a razor to this new growth and shaped it into the facial hair style known as friendly sideburns. I have a strip of beard running from my ears all the way down my jaw but stopping short of the chin. At that point it turns upward and joins my moustache. I also have an imperial. Other notable friendly sideburns wearers include writer Kim Newman and rock gods Lemmy and – most importantly – James Hetfield.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the word ‘sideburns’ is a corruption of ‘burnsides’ – for Ambrose Burnside, an American Civil War general.

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Or, in English, Sean’s Korean Diary, which is the name of a new blog I recently set up. I haven’t posted on it much – nor have I worked all that hard on learning Korean, but it’s better than nothing. About a year ago I added a Korean Vocabulary page to this blog, but then deleted it as I hadn’t used it. Well, that lexicon now has a home and a little substance.

My next task, assigned by my language exchange partner, Ji-hyeon, is to write some instructions for something. I am considering writing how to make a cup of tea (what else, really?), but I can see myself relying almost entirely on Google Translate. My next language exchange session is in a couple of weeks – plenty of time to forget everything I learnt last week.

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Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Good Ida

This video from BBC News shows the famous 47 million-year-old lemur-monkey thing (the technical term is Darwinius masillae) called Ida. It gives you a good idea of the fossil’s size, as well as showing it in some detail. The really surprising thing is that it was discovered 20 years or so ago, but has only just been unveiled because it was in private hands. Whether or not she (the fossil) is important in evolutionary theory, she’s certainly a wonderful remnant of a creature.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Sc…“, posted with vodpod

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Exchange rate watch

1 GBP = 1937.3162 KRW
1 GBP = 1.1353 EUR
1 GBP = 1.5477 USD

2,300,000 KRW = 1187.2094 GBP

Bonus Exchange Rate

1 GBP = 348.2433 Icelandic kronur (singular: krona) ISK

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

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I, Robot smallI, Robot is, of course, one of the most famous science fiction works – so it was high time I read it, I suppose. It isn’t a novel, and it isn’t quite a short story collection; it’s a series of short stories written between 1941 and 1950 linked by recurring protagonists and by an overlaid first person narrative. This narrative (presented in italics) concerns a reporter interviewing an elderly version of one key protagonist about her life and important episodes in the history of robots.

The over-narrative isn’t really that interesting and could be done without, but it doesn’t really hurt, either. The stories themselves are very fine examples of sf: they’re quite well written, they’re readable, they describe conceivable technological developments and – most importantly – they’re deeply concerned with the moral implications of this technology, both for humans and for the robots themselves.

The first story is a little mawkish – it’s about a girl whose parents deprive her of her nanny robot because they’re afraid of their neighbours’ opinions (for most of this hypothetical future history, robots are outlawed on Earth (but not in space) because of the political sensitivity of using these potentially human-replacing beings). Many of the later stories revolve around the robopsychologist Susan Calvin, who is the subject of the interview conducted outside the stories. The other main actors are two argumentative troubleshooters, Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan.

In most of the stories, the protagonists must use the logic of the (now legendary) Three Laws of Robotics to solve some sort of problem with the behaviour of robots (or, in one case, a person who may or not be human):

1 – A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.

2 – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3 – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Handbook of Robotics,
56th Edition, 2058 A.D.

In ‘Reason’, Powell and Donovan try to persuade the robot Cutie (QT-1 – designed to supervise the operation of solar station that beams energy to Earth) that they are not inferior beings, that there is such a place as Earth, that the robot and the station were created by humans. Cutie, having no direct evidence of any of this, refuses to believe it and sets himself up as the high priest dedicated to the appeasement of the ‘Master’ – the beam director.

In ‘Little Lost Robot’, Calvin must design a trap to find a robot that was told – in very strong terms – to get lost. The obedient robot then hid himself in a batch of identical robots. He must be found because, in order to assist in dangerous research, his Laws have been weakened. (One of the amusing things about reading old sf is the outdatedness of facts and fgures. In ‘Little Lost Robot’, Calvin suggests destroying all sixty-three robots; this is rejected because each one costs the fantastic sum of $30,000. In 2052, the global population is 3.3 billion. Everyone smokes.)

In ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (a title I really like), Calvin has to advise on the apparent mistakes of supposedly infallible Machines – robot brains that are used to co-ordinate the world’s economy. The conclusion of this story is that the Machines have the First Law firmly in mind; by deliberately making ‘mistakes’ they discredit anti-robot leaders and industrialists – all for the good of the human race.

One of the great things about I, Robot is that despite the failures in predicting inflation and population trends it still seems very contemporary. This, I think, is because of the vitality of the moral picture it presents. With advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, the world of I, Robot is getting closer every year. Questions about the role, value and danger of such manmade beings can only get more important.

The writing of the stories may not be the best, nor is the characterisation terribly deep or challenging, but they are by no means bad, and the stories are all entertaining. One thing I quite liked was that the robots all possess ‘positronic brains’ – it gives me a little warm glow that the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation used one for Data’s brain.

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freakonomicsFreakonomics is written by an economist and a journalist, and reads like a work of sociology. The reason for this is that the economist in question – Steven Levitt – has little interest in the stereotypical domain of the economist – stock and shares, fiscal and monetary policy (whatever they are exactly). Instead, Levitt’s interest is in applying the analytical tools of economics to more down to earth topics. So, this book asks a number of seemingly random or nonsensical questions and then tries to find the answers in the available data. The questions in question include (but are not limited to), ‘How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?’ (because they both control information in their own interests) and ‘Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?’ (because, apart from the kingpins, drug dealing is a really shitty, low-paid, high-risk job).

The result is a fascinating, very readable series of essays on a number of important topics – how experts serve their own interests, how one’s name affects one’ life chances, and, most controversially, how the legalisation of abortion in America led to a drop in crime a generation later. The essays usually begin with a fairly random introduction, which then sets the scene for the main topic. All conclusions the authors make are based on what the statistics show or don’t show.

A lot of these conclusions seem blindingly obvious, but aren’t widely recognised because they go against conventional wisdom. The introduction admits that, as a narrative, it doesn’t work because of its disjointed nature, but I would say that slaying the dragon of conventional wisdom is the main theme of this book. For instance, conventional wisdom might suggest that policing initiatives in the 1990s helped curbed soaring crime in the US; comparing crime figures, state against state and period against period, shows that such initiatives had little impact. Instead, the authors assert that the legalisation of abortion meant that a lot of low-income, low-education single mothers simply didn’t have children who were statistically the most likely to take up a life of crime.

As already noted, the book is rather disjointed – and I think the chapters could have been ordered differently. The last chapter, which is about what given names say about people’s prospects in life, is relatively trivial, and therefore a weak finale, compared the earlier chapters. Nevertheless, even with all the extra material in the edition I read – newspaper columns, blog posts and the original article by Dubner that led to the book – I found it a pretty captivating read and I wanted to see the authors cover further topics.

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Work

Jason – one of the Korean teachers at our hagwon and also the owner’s brother and therefore my point of contact for non-teaching work stuff – took me into the small office a couple of days ago to talk to me. There were two things he wanted to communicate, one important, one not so important, but also kind of important.

Firstly, the hagwon has offered to renew my contract with a raise of ₩100,000 (about £50 or so (to ₩2.4 million); in fact, my last two ‘Exchange rate watch’ posts have shown that between February and May my salary has gone up by around £75, just by virtue of the strengthening won). I said I would accept.

I have a feeling I should be working at finding a better job somewhere else – somewhere close to Habiba would be very nice – but, basically, I’m just too lazy. But also, I feel comfortable (by and large – see below) with my work, my colleagues and my neighbourhood. There’s also my taekwondo: I like my master a lot, even though some classes can be a bit dull (entailing, for instance, lots of running and some basic exercises). I’m due to have a test for brown belt soon, by the way.

The other thing that Jason mentioned was that Sharon (the owner – in fact, technically not the owner (her husband is), because of something to do with her citizenship (she grew up in Canada … or something)) … where was I? Sharon wants me to be more active in class, more … fun.

I feel that a) this isn’t important because it’s not going to endanger my job (which is to talk English for a while at the students because their parents want them out of the house at an academy because that’s where everyone else’s child is); but b) it’s also a fair comment – at least in relation to some of my classes.

I feel that the atmosphere of a class depends almost entirely on the students. If the students are all bored – they all come into class knowing it’s going to be boring – then it’s a boring class: the work is boring, any conversation I try to make is boring, games are boring, I’m boring.

For this reason, it’s actually quite nice to have the odd student in each class who is very extravert and potentially disruptive – someone you can make jokes with, someone who can enliven his or her classmates. (Of course, it’s a real pain in the arse when there are too many such characters in one class.)

My PL3 class is the main class that Jason’s advice brings to mind. (These are young students – PL denotes Preparatory for eLementary (or so I understand).) It’s a small class – only five students now – so it should be very manageable, but it’s invariably pretty tedious for all concerned.

I’m not the kind of person who manufacture a clownish persona, but I think I ought to be able to do more to make the two lessons I take with this class (Phonics (which is, to be fair, really easy and dull) and Novel (The Little Red Hen at the moment)). Another potential strategy – and one I find appealing – would be to rush through the work (which isn’t difficult) and play games for the bulk of the class. But the two girls in the class would rather doodle than play games. Perhaps I could experiment again with taking my laptop into class and showing videos.

I spoke to Jason again yesterday and he told me that I will be paid both my bonus month’s salary and my deposit of ₩600,000 next month, bringing my total pay to the better part of ₩5 million. Also, I can expect to be sent to Japan for a couple days to get a new (or a renewed) visa. 나이스! (Nice-uh!)

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