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Archive for September, 2010

Card Sharks is the thirteenth book in the Wild Cards series and the first in ‘new cycle’ of three books.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Card virus was a disease genetically engineered by an alien race genetically identical to humans and tested on Earth in 1948. Its effects are to kill horribly the vast majority of its victims, to turn to mutants – ‘jokers’ – the majority of the rest, and, for the remaining minority of a minority, to bestow superpowers – these are the ‘aces’. The Wild Cards books are gritty, alternate history superhero stories, and, for the most part, quite entertaining. The series is the brainchild of George R R Martin (although he didn’t contribute, writing-wise, to this book) and some of his writing and roleplaying friends. Numerous authors have been involved in the project over the years.

Card Sharks wasn’t one of the most entertaining books in the sequence. The format of the books generally varies – the first book was a set of short stories detailing various episodes in the world of the Wild Card virus, others have been true collaborative, ‘mosaic’ novels, a couple have been written by single authors. This one takes the most common form: one longer, unified narrative broken up by shorter episodes penned by different writers. The difference here is that each of the episodes is a first person narrative of things that have happened in the past. The book is set in the early nineties and the stories within the story go back as far as the fifties.

The book works well enough as a prelude to things to come later in the three-book sequence, but the heavy reliance on these backward-looking stories robs the book of emotive and narrative force. In other words, everything the reader learns has already happened, is history.

The story running through the book, appropriately named ‘The Ashes of Memory’, sees a young female fire investigator looking into the deaths of hundreds of jokers in an arson attack on a church, by following leads and interviewing various jokers and aces, she learns far more than she bargained for about the background to the attack.

Basically, it appears to be the latest incident in a conspiracy that has lasted for forty years or more. The problem is that, with the reader (this reader, at any rate) having already read twelve books about the fall-out of that fateful day in 1948, it strains belief that this conspiracy is only now coming to light, that those who have witnessed it in action are only now speaking out, that the conspiracy is only now taking action to kill Wild Card victims on a large scale.

The episodes narrated by the investigators interviewees are generally interesting and readable. There’s an alternate history version of the early stages of the space race, a tale of a centaur doctor unknowingly being used to infect poor jokers in Kenya with AIDS, an private investigator and ace being hired by Orson Welles to look after Marylin Monroe and prevent the film they’re working on from being sabotaged.

This latter story provides the book’s highlight – the detective and Monroe have a relationship – she seems to have sex with any man she meets. Then Monroe betrays him to save her own life. And, because this is an alternate history universe, Marylin didn’t necessarily die like she did in reality.

Card Sharks was a bit of a disappointment, but that hasn’t been uncommon with the first books in Wild Cards‘s internal trilogies. It certainly won’t stop me reading on.

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I think the last time I tried to read 18th century literature was when I did (or was supposed to do) Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders at university. I found that book hard going, and nowhere near finished it. Gulliver’s Travels is a much more accessible and engaging book.

In it, Lemuel Gulliver, inveterate traveller (he keeps leaving his wife and family to go on hazardous voyages half-way around the world) journeys separately to four previously unknown civilisations: Lilliput, where all the inhabitants are a few inches tall, Brobdingnag, where the people are sixty feet tall, Laputa, where the men (not so much the women) are obsessed with science and philosophy, and the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent and noble horses.

The book was intended as a satire on society at the time and people in general. So, for instance, in Lilliput, human pettiness is highlighted: official Lilliputian doctrine states that eggs should be broken at the narrow end; the contrary ‘Big Endian’ practice is punishable by death. In Laputa (or one of the associated islands – I forget), scientists are paid to work on such projects as reconstituting food from excrement. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver offers to show the king the secret of gunpowder; when he explains what can be achieved with the black powder – muskets that fire lethal bullets, explosions that tear men to pieces etc – the king is horrified, just as a young child would be; Gulliver, however, can’t believe why the king would pass up a chance to gain dominance over neighbouring lands.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is populated not only with the sentient horses, but with the reprehensible Yahoos, creatures that are physiologically identical to humans, but without civilisation or anything but the basest rudiments of intelligence. Over the course of his stay in this land, Gulliver comes to despise and fear the Yahoos – probably more than the Houyhnhnms do – even though the only difference between him and them is his upbringing. Consequently, when he is forced to return home, he sees his fellow humans as similarly base and disgusting. After some years back home he is able to spend time with his wife in the same room, but not for very long and certainly not while she is eating.

The portrayal of human imperfection is probably not as amusing or as cutting as it was in Swift’s time, but it still works. Some of the ideas are pretty funny – and also thought-provoking. Is it right that humans should take pride in our military might? Or pleasure in our lumpy, blotchy flesh?

As a work of fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t work as a story – because it isn’t a story: it’s four stories. And even then, none of these four have much in the way of plot other than Gulliver arriving, learning about the culture and leaving. For me, fantasy is the use of story to explore issues about power and morality. In this book, though, this exploration happens more through the agency of setting. World-building is a vital part of any fantasy book and Swift’s – predating by a long time any of the early modern fantasies like William Morris’s novels (let alone Tolkien) – is pretty solid; except from a scientific standpoint, the various lands visited all make sense (kind of) and support the satirical purpose of the book (although how the Houyhnhnms hold things between their hoof and pastern is rather far-fetched). It’s also refreshing to read a fantasy that doesn’t focus on the stock, quasi-Medieval Europe of many, many novels.

Gulliver’s Travels seems to be seen as a children’s book, but, while there’s a lot in here that would certainly amuse children, the political content of the stories would go way over most children’s heads. The grammar, too, while not at all that difficult an adult to get to grips with, would prove heavy going for younger readers; it’s full of long sentences broken up with colons and semi-colons. I think the orginal text would prove to trying and dry for most children. And then there’s the scene where Gulliver becomes a plaything of some Brobdingnagian maids-in-waiting who naked in front of him; at one point he is sat on one of the girls’ nipples.

All in all, a surprisingly entertaining book – or maybe not that surprising when you take into account that it’s been in print for nearly three hundred years.

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It was a socially busy weekend.

On Friday night, Habiba and I went out with Mike, his sister Michelle, Eric and later Demond and Jairius – meeting the latter or the first time. The occasion was Michelle’s last night in the country having visited for a couple of weeks with the intention of finding work here; Seoul turned out not to be for her. We did a little drinking in Hongdae, then went to a noraebang – the big fancy one (whatever it’s called). We were singing for two and a half hours. It had been nearly ten by the time we met up after eating dinner at home and we ended up leaving Hongdae at about four in the morning; it was nearly five by the time we got to bed.

That was the latest either had been out for a long time. We didn’t actually do much drinking, either (I had one cocktail – at a redesigned BricxX – a ‘Naked Canadian’, and one beer), so there were no hangover problems.

On Saturday night, Demond had a leaving dinner and drinks – again at Hongdae. Demond is off to China to teachere for six months before coming back to go to university in Seoul. Habiba and I met him along with Eric, Buzz and a bunch of other people at an Indian restaurant called Agra. Beeb and I shared a tasty chicken vindaloo and a mediocre vegetable curry. Later, we walked to the small park that is a feature of many nights out in Hongdae.

The park is a strange place. It’s mostly paved, with one small area cordoned off by trees and bushes. It’s pretty dirty – it has to put up with hundreds of drunk Koreans and foreigners every night. It has some strange characters – like the makgeolli seller who joyfully gave everyone in our group a free paper cup of the white alcoholic drink beloved of middle-aged Korean hikers – even though we were all like, ‘No, I’m OK, thanks, no … oh, um, OK, then.’

It has a nice atmosphere, though. Especially on Saturday. There were a number of people – maybe twenty – drumming in the secluded side area. The noise made by the djembe drums was impressive and hypnotic. Demond joined in. We listened for maybe an hour. Shortly before, in the main part of the park, Habiba and a couple of the other women our group – including Mary, a South African we met paragliding last year (and who I completely didn’t remember) – danced to accompaniment by Demond and a Korean drummer.

On Sunday, we met Ksan for the first time in a few months, along with her boyfriend Jun-hong. Ksan was studying in Britain – in Durham, to be precise. And also travelling all over the place. Habiba and I went with them to an Uzbek restaurant near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. The meal was very good – we had borscht and shish kebabs (the first lamb I’ve eaten in a very long time – Koreans don’t eat it) and sesame bread, among other things.

Then we went to a couple of exhibitions at the still unfinished History and Culture Park. Firstly – and accidentally, as Jun-hong led us to the wrong place in the pouring rain – a retrospective of world magazines from the last fifty years. Secondly, an exhibition of Korean posters of the last hundred years. Both displays were moderately interesting.

Which reminds me – the previous weekend, we went, with Jessica and June, to an exhibition of work by pop artist Keith Haring. That was a much more fulfilling experience, although waiting to watch the 15-minute documentary with terrible sound wasn’t much fun.

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Inspecting gadgets

This is an interesting article on money-saving, environmentally friendly gadgets I read on Yahoo! recently.

One of said gadgets is a staple-free stapler that works by cutting and folding the sheets as you press down. The description of this item includes the fact that if every office worker in Britain saved one staple per day, in one year, 72 tonnes of metal would be saved. This sounds incredible (in the literal sense), but if you ‘do the math’, it’s actually true.

If a staple weighs about 32 milligrams, and there are 10 million UK office workers, each working 225 days a year, then 32 x 10,000,000 x 225 = 72,000,000,000 mg. Knock off three zeroes to turn it into grammes, then three more to make kilograms, and three more to make tonnes.

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I resigned from my job the week before last. My last day is scheduled to be Monday the 25th of October.

About time, too. I haven’t been happy there for some time. One of the things that attracted me to coming to Korea in the first place back in 2006 was the hours. Before Korea, I’d worked in offices doing administration work, and even with flexible working hours – getting out of bed and to the office on time was a hell of a struggle. Plus, sitting in front of a desk all day when you haven’t had enough sleep is one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done.

A normal hagwon job sees you working something like 2pm to 9pm and on your feet talking to your students much of the time – it requires more energy, but is somehow less tiring.

My current job is not a normal hagwon job. While I’ve made a good fist of getting up at 7:30 to 8 every morning, I can’t go on with it any more. Especially since my non-teaching workload has dropped off to practically zero the past couple of weeks. Even when I did have other work to do – mostly proofreading – it proved utterly infuriating. While the women who work on the Contents team writing the workbooks my company sells speak good English, their written English leaves a lot to be desired.

Their work is full of basic mistakes like using ‘the’ in front of proper nouns, or missing articles where they’re required (for example ‘The Sean bought cup of tea.’) – errors that one would expect of an elementary school student. Even more enraging is when they pick out a vocabulary word and give it the wrong definition (such as where the vocabulary word is ‘bright’, the example sentence is ‘John was a very bright boy’ and the definition is ‘having a strong light or colour’). And then there are those instances when I just don’t understand what they’re trying to say.

The one thing I like about my job is the teaching. I have very small classes – I also have a lot of control over the curriculum. Although we’re supposed to do a certain number of books per term, effectively, if I want to spend two months on one book because that way I know the students will be reading it all and getting the most out of it (and I’ll be able to read the whole thing, too), I pretty much can.

My colleague Andrew, the Korean guy whose role is to manage the Learning Center as well as teach, has also not been enjoying his job, so, while I don’t think there’s any real problem between us, we end up not communicating much with each other.

I’d be happy to continue working part-time just teaching, but our bosses don’t want that. Partly, I believe, because of Korean business culture of screwing every last bit of usefulness out of every single employee; partly because the management don’t really believe in the Learning Center and would happily close it. Which is probably what’s going to happen when I leave.

My plan is to find a few private classes to keep my finances in the black and, once my E-2 visa expires to leave the country briefly and come back on a tourist visa. If my employer doesn’t say anything to Immigration, then I’ll need to do this a couple of time before Habiba and I are ready to say goodbye to Korea – according to our current plans, anyway. This is not strictly by the book, but not an uncommon practice.

I’ve been trying to up my writing game over recent months and there is a work-shaped ceiling beyond which I can’t reach at the moment. Although I still find writing extremely hard work, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I want to write about, about what I want to achieve. Recently, I’ve written more than I’ve ever done before; I’ve rewritten more than I’ve ever done before. Although, naturally, I am inclined to give myself as easy a life as possible, what I’m proposing is not that I exchange my current job for a life of loafing, but that I exchange it for another job – writing. Once I leave Korea for good, I may not have another opportunity to dedicate myself whole-heartedly to my vocation – until I actually start to get paid for it.

I only wonder why I didn’t resign before now – or why I even took this job in the first place. Money, I suppose.

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Several weeks ago I started having some pain in my right shoulder. It didn’t seem to have been caused by anything. It’s been coming and going to various degrees since then; one of the worst times was on a weekend hiking trip a few weeks ago when I didn’t have much alternative but aggravate it by wearing my backpack.

Shortly after that trip I went to see a doctor about it. The doctor very painfully probed and squeezed my shoulder with his strong fingers. Then he used a couple styluses with needles in the tips, pressing them a short distance apart on various parts of my shoulder and upper arm. When I asked him what he was doing he replied with difficulty (and some help from one of the other clinic staff members) that it was something to do with an electrical current. He said I’d torn a ligament and prescribed me some pills.

In the short term, the treatment reduced the pain, but it came back.

A couple of weeks ago I went to an orthopaedic hospital near where I work. Again, English was a problem, and I couldn’t communicate much more than the fact that I’d had this shoulder pain for a couple of months. I had a series of X-rays, was diagnosed with a sprain and then was prescribed five days of pills (Korean doctors always prescribe handfuls of pills) and physiotherapy.

Habiba has been doing physiotherapy for some time. Her regime consists of lots of physical exercises – stretching, weights and so on. My physiotherapy involves lying on my back doing nothing for 40 minutes. The last four weekdays I went to one particular clinic at the hospital which consists of about ten beds separated into individual booths. I lie for 20 minutes with an electric blanket thing heating my shoulder. Then I have some ultrasound – a nurse daubs the top of my shoulder with jelly and rubs the ultrasound device on the muscle there. Then I have fifteen minutes of electrotherapy. About three little paddles are placed under my shoulder and send pulses of electricity into my muscles, causing them to tense up.

I finished my five-day course of medication and my shoulder is better than it was, but there’s still a tiny bit of discomfort there. I consciously and subconsciously avoid doing things that agravate it – like putting my right hand up behind my back to clean or scratch it, opening doors with my left hand, trying not to carry my computer around too much, doing push-ups.

So far my shoulder hasn’t been a problem, but I’m a little worried that it might get worse again. I suppose I’ll have to continue to avoid aggravating it.

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