Archive for February, 2010

Wrestling with life

And still there is no resolution to my visa worries. My company needs to be registered to employ foreigners, which requires the boss’s signature or something – and he’s in Canada at the moment. Hopefully, that’ll all get sorted next week – I’m not terribly optimistic, however; I’ll believe it when I see it.

Last weekend was Seollal – lunar New Year, and one of two major holidays in Korea (the other being Chuseok, or ‘Korean Thanksgiving’). It was also Valentine’s Day.

I bought Habiba a couple of pairs of earrings. She put my feeble efforts to shame and made me a card with a pop-up flower inside; and she made a batch of chocolates for us both. On Sunday the fourtheenth, I was hoping to make up my side of the Valentine’s Day deal by taking Habiba to a nice restaurant I’d been to once before.

Before that, however, we had an appointment to go and watch ssireum – Korean wrestling. Ssireum is similar to sumo – it takes place in a big sandy ring and is a contest to remain on your feet and in the ring. The difference is that in addition to their tight shorts the wrestlers wear a length of cloth that is tied around their waist and, in a separate loop, around one thigh. Holding on to this belt arrangement is a major part of the contest, each athlete using the other’s belt to try and throw them.

Ssireum used to be very popular, apparently, but these days the only competitions of any note to take place are the ones at Seollal and Chuseok. The matches we saw were part of the lighter weight division – the heavyweights fought the following day. Many of the wrestlers were in their thirties, muscular guys, but with a bit of middle aged flab. The younger wrestlers had movie star bodies.

The stadium was a fairly long subway ride away and we went with some of Habiba’s colleagues and their friends. We got there as the opening ceremony was in progress – it basically consisted of a few singers doing the kind of song that older Koreans seem to like – old-fashioned and cheesy.

The competition was between sixteen wrestlers. The first round of matches was over surprisingly quickly. I watched the first one, which lasted for about a minute. Then I decided to video the second; this one lasted less than two seconds. As these first matches were all only one bout each, it was game over for that particular loser (at least until Chuseok).

The second round was more involved – matches were the best of three. The final was the best of five and was won in straight bouts by one of the younger competitors. After the final, the winner was presented with a cheque for 20,000,000 won (about £10,500), given a long blue robe and paraded around the floor on a huge wooden chair.

After that, the third and fourth place playoff took place – people were starting to leave by then. Then there was a raffle, we hung around to see if we might win one of the 30 bicycles or other things, but no.

One highlight of the event was that for a few seconds Habiba and I were on the big screen in one corner, and therefore live on national TV. Once we noticed ourselves we just sat there continuing to applaud and looking up and to our right smiling. Later on I got a text from a colleague saying she and her boyfriend had seen us. When Habiba went back to work, one of her kids had seen her.

After that, instead of going for a romantic dinner for two, we tagged along with the others and had galbitang – meat soup.

A good day, but not the most successful Valentine’s Day ever.

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In many ways this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while. The main character, Luke Rhinehart (the book is written under this pseudonym), is a therapist in New York. Having become bored with his unremarkable middle-class life, he suddenly decides to run his life according the dictates of dice. After an evening of gaming, he notices a card that is propped up on a die. Unable to see the die itself he decides that if the die is showing a one, he will go downstairs to his friend and colleague’s apartment and rape his wife. When revealed, it’s a one.

The subsequent scene isn’t a rape – his friend’s wife is fairly easily coaxed into sex. Flushed with this success, Rhinehart decides to give over more and more of his decisions to a die or a pair of dice. He draws up a list of possible actions and then rolls to see what he will do. At first, these are pretty minor decisions – what he’s going to do tomorrow, what he’s going to wear. Later he decides more and more with his dice – he rolls to see what goals he will have over the next year, he rolls to see what personality he will have for the day, he rolls for major life-changing decisions. The book itself, he writes is the result of a die roll telling him to write his autobiography.

The philosophy the character develops to support his new way of life is particularly interesting. Basically, he maintains that in the past, in a pre-industrial, pre-technological society, life was very simple: there were very few real choices a person could make. In today’s society (actually, the book was written around 1970), however, the world has become multifacted, fractured into so many choices and is falsified by so much doublespeak that it has become mentally ill: society has a multiple personality disorder, society is psychotic. The only way to survive in such disunified society, he says, is to abandon the unified personality, to become random.

The rush of intoxicating this lifestyles give the narrator and the other characters who take to it is actually quite believable. There also seems to be a sound psychological basis to it: the options one gives the dice are not ones one would never under any curcumstance, but ones that may only ever exist as daydreams or repressed urges. By acting out an unusual die roll, the diceman or -woman is give vent to a minority personality that may never otherwise see the light of day.

While I think the book has some very serious import, it is also a comedy. Naturally, lots of ridiculous things happen. In the first instance of diceliving, Luke goes down to his neighbour and says, I’ve come to rape you. Rhinehart tells of a man who suffered from terrible death anxiety. He cured it by using dice. Each morning he would roll the dice. If he rolled double one, he would play Russian roulette with his revolver. Each morning, therefore, he had a one in 216 chance of killing himself. This activity freed him from his constant worries about dying. Rhinehart concludes the anecdote by saying the man will be sorely missed.

The main character remains grounded by keeping in contact with his wife, colleagues and friends – most of whom adopt dicelife to some degree. He becomes a guru, opens a chain of dicelife therapy centres. His colleagues fret over his seeming descent into madness and, needless to say, he gets into a lot of trouble.

One weak point of the book is that it often seems cheesily pornographic. You get the impression that Luke simply gave over his life to the dice in order to get more sex, and that the author wrote it in order to include lots sex scenes. As a man, I wasn’t particularly offended by this, but, along with the fact that its gender politics is forty years old, I don’t think women would be much impressed by the novel. Which is a shame, because there’s a very interesting idea and story here.

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Grammar Girl, Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, Who Versus Whom.

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I thought that on Friday I would finally get my visa status sorted out. The situation currently is that I’ve been staying in the country and working for my new employer with my old visa, the one sponsored by my previous employer.

I should have got this sorted long before now, but my employer told me that I need to get a new visa – which necessitated getting a new criminal background check, getting it notarised and apostilled, getting a health check and leaving the country to actually get the visa. Apart from the last part, I’ve done all of that – at my own expense.

Then it turned out that I needn’t have done any of that and all I needed to do was to transfer my visa sponsor to my new place. I went to Immigration the week before last and they told me I needed a letter of release from my previous employer. I haven’t actually worked there for a while so my colleagues were on the phone to them a lot trying to get them to get this letter of release together, along with a fictional date so we wouldn’t get into any trouble.

They finally did this and I took it to Immigration on Friday only to be told that it wasn’t a letter of release, it was a letter of end of employment. In other words, it said that I’d finished working there, but it didn’t give me permission to work elsewhere. Furthermore, Immigration had no record of Ginius Academy, the place that took over my original workplace, English Castle Academy – so, even if I had a correct letter of release from Ginus, it would mean anything because Immigration has me down as working for E-Castle, which no longer even exists.

It seems that the people at Ginius, having taken over E-Castle, didn’t bother to make it official with Immigration. The woman I spoke to told me to get Ginius to fill in some form or other, and ideally get someone from Ginius to come to Immigration with me the next time. As a parting shot she wanted to see the date on my contract – 1st February – and said I might have to pay a penalty for starting work before getting my visa sponsorship transfered.

I was pretty angry and a little depressed by the morning’s revelations. When I got back to work after a deliberately too-long lunch break my colleague Andrew made more phone calls and told me the best thing we could do now is to apply for a new visa and when I leave the country, hand in my Alien Card and tell Immigration at the airport that my job is finished and my visa should be cancelled. (This would be instead of the sensible thing, which would be to have Ginius pull their finger out and submit the relevant documentation. I have a feeling that their own documentation – contracts between Ginius and E-Castle – either don’t exist anymore or never existed.)

Hopefully, it shouldn’t be too much longer before this is all sorted out and I don’t have to worry about being fined or deported anymore. And, with a following wind, I might get a couple of days off work and a free trip to Japan.

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Andy Warhol.

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Busy bees

In the past couple of weeks Habiba and I have been keeping ourselves busy at weekends.

We went to see an exhibition of Inca remains and artefacts at the National Museum. The Inca certainly liked their gold. There were some mummified remains – a couple of adults, a child and a dog. Also lots of phalluses. The highlight for me was, while looking at some the Nasca period displays, being able to say to Habiba, That must have been when they did all the car racing. A moment later, part of her died inside.

We also went skiing with my friend Ji-hyeon. As we floundered around getting like a pair of stupid foreigners getting passes, skis, outfits and changing, I think Ji-hyeon was getting annoyed that she couldn’t get out on the slopes. The situation didn’t improve when we found that Habiba’s ski boots were causing her some pain. Ji-hyeon went off and did her own thing and eventually, we got Habiba’s footwear sorted – she left the lower leg part open – and we started to have some fun. Waiting 45 minutes to get on the ski lifts was decidedly not fun, however. Still, it was a nice day out (to a place with the decidedly silly name Vivaldi Park (incorporating Ski World and Ocean World)).

Last weekend we went to Seoul Museum of Art and had a wander round the Andy Warhol exhibition. It was OK – a bunch of Andy Warhol stuff everyone’s seen on TV or in other media, plus a few other and some badly translated information signs – and lots and lots of people.

Habiba has been producing some delicious foodstuffs – humus and dips – with a view to selling them at some point in the future. I’ve been working on my roleplaying game system in fits and starts. At work, we’ve been trying to get my visa status sorted out and it finally looks like tomorrow it will be. Habiba’s been suffering from eczema a little, but she’s been dealing with it admirably – and now it looks like it’s on the wane. I’ve got my guitar up and running again, this time with a somewhat kludged strap (the guitar’s balance is appalling).

Yesterday I spent some time working on an idea for a novel I had recently. It’s a little cheesy, but could be a strong concept. Needs much more work.

And life continues. Busy, busy, busy. Damn life.

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A final word on Thailand

The week after coming back from Thailand was hard. It was one of those times when you need a holiday to recover from the holiday you’ve just had. It would’ve been great to’ve had more time there. If we travel again in the region I’d definitely like to see Angkor Wat.

Anyway. There was one little story from when we went to Chatuchak Market that I forgot to relate – and it was one of my favourite incidents from Thailand.

I like coins, and have a modest collection (in fact, because I simply enjoy collecting I have a few collections of coins; in addition to just collecting different foreign coins I also collect Korean 10 won coins (worth about half a penny) and old design 10, 50 and 100 won coins (the oldest of which is a 1966 10 won piece)). So, while I was in Thailand, I tried to get hold of a bunch different Thai coins. 1, 2, 5 and 10 baht pieces were very common (usually with one of two portraits of the king on one side) (£1 is about 55 baht). I knew that there were sub-baht denominations, but everything seemed to be priced in whole bahts.

While in Chatuchak Market Habiba and I needed to go to the bathroom. The various public toilets in the market – and remember, the place is huge – have an entry fee: I can’t recall the exact prices, but it was no more than 7 baht if you needed paper (less if not).

I went in, did my thing (I didn’t need paper) and came out. I could see Habiba just inside the doorway to the ladies’, still waiting for a cubicle. As she takes her time even if she doesn’t need to queue, I knew I had a bit of a wait ahead of me. I took advantage of the seating provided, presumably for just this eventuality.

But before I sat down I also noticed some small brazen coins on the attendants’ desk. After thinking it over for a minute, I decided I wouldn’t have a better chance to get some of these small demonination coins, so I asked (with hand gestures demonstrating the concepts of ‘half’and ‘small’) if I could change 1 baht for two half-baht coins (Wikipedia informs me that the baht is divided into 100 satang). They seemed very happy to oblige me.

Feeling good about the transaction, I sat down to examine the booty and resume my wait. A moment later one of the attendants came up to me with a clutch of tiny coins and gave them to me. I thanked them with enthusiasm (relatively speaking – you know me). The person (I can’t remember if they were male or female) had given me another two 50 satang and four 25 satang coins. I didn’t have any more change so I didn’t offer to give them 2 baht in return – and they didn’t seem to expect it.

That little episode made my day. (A day that was later unmade by China, but we won’t speak of that.)

Here is a selection of Thai coins, and a pound coin for comparison.

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Hair today, gone tomorrow

While Charlie was staying with us between stages of her post-Korea travels, she said that she wanted to go and get a haircut. She and Habiba suggested that I should go with her and get one too. I said I would if Habiba ‘went to Brazil’. Well, she said OK and so I ended up going to Myeongdong with her and Charlie to a fancy hairdressing salon.

I’ve had long hair for a long time – since I was about seventeen, I think – and that’s about sixteen years. There are many reasons – laziness, fear of getting a haircut (this needs some explanation. My grandmother once gave me a haircut, and she clipped my ear with the scissors – with the handle end, I’m sure – I wasn’t injured. But it hurt me and upset me a lot. I was traumatised by it for a while. Also, as a teenager I was scared of pretty much everything; I used to have mini panic attacks getting on a bus. So going to a barber’s was something I could very much do without), love of Metallica, the fact that long hair looks great, it has positive associations – music, naturalness, masculinity, rebellion – and short hair has negative connotations – boringness, conventionality, and a certain degree of effeminacy (maybe that just comes from living in Korea, where young men are more feminine than your average western woman).

But I’m not against a change of image every now and then, so, yes, I sat in the chair and let a woman cut it all away stage by stage. Habiba watched and took photos with Charlie’s camera (Charlie hasn’t given us the photos yet, and she’s travelling, so don’t hold out much hope of seeing them any time soon). We laughed about it. It was certainly a bizarre experience.

Habiba was made up by the whole thing. I enjoyed the novelty of it and I certainly looked good (but I looked good with long hair, too). A couple of days after I had the haircut I had a full shave – long hair, goatee and sideburns, all gone. I looked like a different person.

Over the following days everyone I met that knew commented on it – how could they not? And, of course, all the comments were positive – from the typical, ‘Oh – handsome guy!’ of the Koreans to the rather more imaginitive comments of Eric from roleplaying – he said he could imagine me in a porno, or something – and Ksan – who said she wanted to rape me (she said it in front of Habiba, I should add).

Things I’ve noticed about having shorter hair are the feel of the wind in it – I was quite sensitive to the ruffling sensation for a while. It takes up a lot less time in the morning – I only have to towel my hair the once and combing it is obviously a much simpler matter. After a month of it now, I still, when I put on a top or coat, reflexively flip my right hand at the back of my neck to pull my hair out of my clothing. But it’s no longer necessary.

Obviously, being told I’m good-looking is pleasing to my ego, but it also irritates me – and continues to irritate me as people keep harping on about it. I don’t mean to sound negative – I’ve enjoyed the experience, and, yes, I look good with short hair – but I can’t quite accept that it’s me. Still, it gives me an opportunity to experiment with different styles. I think I’m going to go really short for a while – that’s a hairstyle I admire. But in the long term I’m glad that hair grows.

Hair today, gone tomorrow, but back again in a couple of years. (Yes, that pun was so bad it needed repeating.)

Oh yes, and Habiba lived up to her end of the bargain. Mmm – nice.

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Yet another book that I’ve had in my possession for a few years, City of Golden Shadow is the first in the four-volume series, Otherland. The story is science fiction, although it has strong fantasy overtones. It’s set at some point in the future, mid to late 21st century, maybe in a similar world to William Gibson’s classic and seminal Neuromancer. Like Gibson’s works it concerns innovations in the cyber world and the interaction between that and the real world.

The main characters are: Renie Sulaweyo, a South African woman whose brother is trapped in a coma-like state after having visited a dodgy on-line club, and who embarks on a dangerous quest to find out what happened to him; Orlando, an American teenage boy suffering a debilitating illness who plays an immensely successly on-line character in a World of Warcraft-like game – a character that suffers an unfair fate; and Paul Jonas, a Briton who is trapped in a constantly changing fantasy world with no idea of where he is or even who he is.

They are all caught up in a global plot by a cabal of super-wealthy megalomaniacs – a plot which has something to do with virtual reality and children.

It’s good stuff. The writing is pretty solid – occasionally a little weak and never really reaching to spectacular literary heights, but perfectly readable. The main characters – and the minor ones – are all well drawn and engaging. The exception to this, in some ways, is !Xabbu, a Bushman whose culture is dying and is a student of Renie’s (she teaches VR at Durban Polytechnic). He is always calm, efficient and sensible – he oozes understated nobility. I find this kind of characterisation rather patronising; nevertheless, I still like !Xabbu – politics aside, he’s a good character (not a viewpoint one, by the way).

There are lots of admirable things about this book: the fact that the heroine is a black South African (and who comes from a troubled home – her mother is dead, her father is a drunkard and her young brother spends too much time exploring the nether reaches of cyberspace); while the bulk of the other characters are American, there are also a couple of Brits, a Frenchwoman and an Australian – a nicely global spread (Tad Williams used to live in England, so his British characters are that much more believable); the book is also a rather clever pastiche of a number speculative fiction-related sub-genres: there are sections set in the Orlando’s game world; other parts call to mind Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories set on Mars.

In the debit column, aside from the aforementioned prosaic prose, the whole VR thing is a) very 90s and b) not quite believable. Using handsets to alter cyber-reality, Lawnmower Man-like VR suits, the descriptions of avatars, the strictly ordered diversity of the on-line world and its exclusively visual nature – ten or fifteen years after this series was written, these aspects don’t ring true. However, it’s no deal-breaker – as always, there’s an element of suspending disbelief – and this is nowhere more true than in old science fiction.

I enjoyed City of Golden Shadow a lot, more and more the more I read it, in fact. Today I bought volumes two (River of Blue Fire) and three (Mountain of Black Glass) of Otherland from What the Book? Looking forward to reading them.

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Like many of the books I read, I’d had this one for a while. Something had put me off reading it – beyond the usual lack of time and competing demands from other potential reads. But I took it with me to Thailand where I was hoping it would be a good holiday read. My hopes were dashed.

Duncton Wood could have been great. In a quote on the cover, Magnus Magnusson describes it as a cross between Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings (although I’m not sure what Magnus Magnusson’s expertise vis á vis literary criticism was). It’s a tale of moles. Intelligent moles. Mole who live in a network of burrows, who fight and mate just like real moles, but do it in the context a whole (or should that be ‘hole’?) mole-ish society. The story sounds promising, if a total cliché – the old ways are dying out, the council of elders has been taken over by thugs and it’s up to one or two or three innocent misfits to save the mole-ish world.

I had lots of problems with this book – so much so that I couldn’t go on reading it beyond about 300 pages, (I even tried speed reading to get it over with). It’s not quite as bad as Dan Brown, but at least The Da Vinci Code was a quick read.

Firstly, the plot is utterly corny. Secondly, the conceit of intelligent moles just doesn’t work. The moles fight to the death, they tend to mate just like animals, with brutal disregard for feelings. These things aren’t presented in a negative way – they’re just natural parts of life – but at the same time they take place within a very sentimental story. I’m sure it could have been made to work, but it just didn’t.

Thirdly, the writing isn’t very good. It takes far too long to go anywhere – I’m sure it could have been trimmed down to two thirds of its length. And it’s ridden with lazy, amateurish writing – telling and not showing, assuming the reader’s sympathies and not earning them. It feels like Horwood wanted to write a 19th century romantic saga, but realised it wouldn’t be very good and so tried this instead.

Fourthly, the characterisation is shoddy in places. The main female character, Rebecca, has a monster for a father – Mandrake is a foreigner who arrived one day, killed everyone he saw and assumed control of the council of elders. He beats Rebecca and tries to restrict her independence – all for no particular reason I can see other than it serves the story Horwood wanted to tell (Mandrake’s backstory, I must admit, is one of the highlights of the book and works quite well). Meanwhile, Rebecca keeps on loving him like a happy little daddy’s girl.

Fifthly, I don’t care for the book’s agenda, which is, basically, that everything was better in the past and that if we just stick to tradition and religion everything will be OK – not doing so is the road to ruin. Patronising bollocks.

I think I’ve said enough.

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