The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Back in the Amazon Associates program

The Illinois Supreme Court recently overturned the "Amazon tax" that caused the online retailer to drop all of their Illinois affiliates (like me) a couple years ago.

Well, they brought the program back to Illinois, so The Daily Parker is once again an Amazon Associate.

All that means is, when I link to books or content—like, for example, the Deadwood Blu-Ray box set—the link will include an ID that lets me take a piece of your purchase.

This is the only way that I monetize the blog. Note, for example, the complete absence of ads. So, if you enjoy the blog, and you occasionally buy stuff from Amazon, check here to see if I've linked to it, and if so, click through. That's it. That's as commercial as I'll get.

Thanks for your continued support.

Worst travel recovery ever

Wow, do I hate eastbound overnight flights.

Wednesday I felt totally fine. I got up normally, went through a normal day, and felt pleased with myself for conquering jet lag. After picking up Parker, I went to Duke of Perth for a nice cheeseburger (I never eat American food while abroad if I can help it), had an Old Chub, and got home by 9:30.

At this point, my body decided that since it was only noon (in Korea), there was no crashing need to go to bed. So it kept me up for another seven hours. I finally drifted off to sleep around 4:30.

Yesterday, therefore, was a disaster. Last night I slept from 9:30 or so until 7 this morning, and right now I want to crawl back into bed for about three days. Also, I feel chilly, which I hope has to do with the weather (it's -8°C outside) and not with some pathogen trying to get a beachhead in my respiratory system.

Note to self: no more short trips to Asia. Or, at the very least, plan to return during the long weekend, not leave for the long weekend.

Once again, American flight 90 looks like the best thing on their schedule. Next time I go overseas I'm doing that, and avoiding the overnight.

And then this happened

I'm back in Chicago, trying to determine what day it is (Wednesday, I think). Tuesday was very long—39 hours for me, if you go by the book—but the only way it makes sense to me is to think of it as two separate days. For instance, I think I started trying to get some sleep somewhere just east of Japan somewhere around 9pm local time, which would be 30 hours ago. Then I woke up somewhere just east of Sacramento about 24 hours ago. The evening and the morning of the first day, sort of.

All right, so I had two Tuesdays. On the first Tuesday of this week, I walked around Neodaemun Market, then back up to Cheonggyecheon, where, a propos of nothing, this happened:

There might have been some reason for it but no one I asked could tell me. OK, then.

Also a propos of nothing, this was my $6.80 lunch on Monday:

I tried all of it, except the pink liquid that smelled evil, and I've decided I'm not a big fan of kimchi.

I should get gradually more coherent as the week goes on.

That was the trip that was

Oh, so this is the world's greatest airport. All right, I can go to aviation heaven now, and shop on the way.

Don't get me wrong: less than 10 minutes after I checked in, I was through security and immigration. Kind of like at O'Hare the day I left, it turns out, but Incheon extends that efficiency to everyone, not just those of us who have gotten our Pre-Check clearances.

And I do appreciate the "best shopping chance" advertised on the train, in the check-in area, on the escalators, and in the loo. Yes, because who doesn't like buying luxury goods while waiting for a flight?

And I'm totally down with thinking DFW and O'Hare are not the best airports in the world. In fact, I'll go so far as to put DFW in a category that includes Atlanta, JFK, Newark, and Dulles. If you've flown to any of those five airports you know what I'm talking about.

Maybe I'm just tired and feeling negative about things. Maybe I should remember that I'm about to go a third the way around the world in half a day, taking a trip that 50 years ago required stops in Alaska and Japan and took three days.

So, I've got about 15 hours before I land in Dallas, and with a little help from some frisky yeast I expect to sleep for at least 5 of them. I've got this month's Atlantic, the Economist's "World in 2014" survey (both on paper), and a full Kindle* that includes Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and today's entire New York Times. Plus I'm still about 8 episodes behind on This American Life.

I'm still processing Seoul. I have a couple of conclusions, which I'll hazard here even though they make me look uncultured. First, after trying a lot of it, I don't like Korean food. I don't know why. I like Japanese food; I like a lot of Chinese food; Thai; Indian—Indian!—and lots of others. Bulgolgi is OK, and so is galbi, I guess. But I just didn't fall in love with Korean street food. And they have crap sushi, I'm sorry to report.

Second, there's something exciting and new about young East Asian cities like Seoul. I can feel the determination, the drive, the shabu shabu. But it's not my thing. I mean, London is my favorite place to be in the world, and I really loved Tokyo, so it's not like I'm all about rocking a hammock for a week or anything. But Seoul doesn't know how to chill. Even their relaxation is intense, like it's work. It's not a good fit.

It's not you, Seoul; it's me.

Like I said, I'm still processing. I may not come to any considered conclusions for a while. Just the same, I feel no need ever to come back to Seoul.

* I have an Asus tablet running Android, not a proper Kindle, but Amazon decided that they're about the content and not the device and made a pretty good Android reader.

War Memorial of Korea

After going to the Korean history museum on Sunday, I went over to the War Memorial. This isn't entirely a memorial to the Korean War, though about half the building is devoted to it. The basement has artifacts and busts commemorating two millennia of wars on the peninsula.

Outside the memorial building is an assortment of weapons from World War II onwards, including OH MY GOD THAT IS A B-52:

A B-52 that children can climb on, apparently:

They also have a Nike missile next to a SCUD, which was disconcerting. (Not nearly as disconcerting as discovering that I live 2 km from a 1950s-era Nike battery. Yes: we had nuclear bombs in Belmont Harbor.)

I've threatened promised to talk more about the Korean War's influence on Seoul, and I will, possibly even this afternoon. At the moment, I'm about to check out of the hotel and spend my last couple of hours exploring the city. Plus, I found a sushi place. I can't leave East Asia without getting sushi!

More reflections on Seoul as a living city

Now that I've slept on it, I see it's possible I was a wee cranky yesterday. After a good night's sleep, for instance, I realize I don't hate my Windows phone (but it does annoy me frequently).

But also upon waking up I read Andrew Sullivan's reflections on visiting London he published a few hours ago. He wrote:

Beneath the packed busy streets, there’s a quiet, low-level order that can become so familiar you lose sight of it. On the tube, for example, despite being crammed in like a container of skinny McDonald’s fries, people actually wait for passengers to get off the train before getting on (with some helpful corralling from conductors). On the escalators, people reliably stand on the right, while the left lane is for striders. Parks are ubiquitous, and convey a constant sense of the English countryside in the densest of urban neighborhoods. Buildings, from domestic architecture (I was constantly struck by simple Georgian beauty or Edwardian elegance) to commercial buildings (some of the new structures are breathtakingly good), are not obviously disposable or purely utilitarian. The exceptions are those constructed when post-war austerity met architectural isms – but mercifully those are slowly being demolished. The resulting affect is a constant struggle for a livable city, as well as a workable one. Maybe that is what has made London perhaps the premier global city. The whole world can find a home here and increasingly does, from the newest Polish immigrant and Brazilian dreamer to the Russian oligarch and the American banker.

Perhaps London has honed these habits so relentlessly because it has no serious British competitor. London is it. So people have made the best of it – over twenty centuries of communal living. The level of politeness you see had to be learned through the centuries, as the least disagreeable way of getting along in such close crammed quarters, and passed along to successive generations. It simply makes life easier en masse, even if it can be inconvenient in anyone case for the individual.

Seoul, with only about 20 years in its present form, has a long, long way to go. Chicago (100 years) and New York (200 years) are still young and brash to Europeans, but mature and settled to most middle-class Asians.

I also had a chance to talk with a few expatriates last night, including Mike and Tyler, who own Rocky Mountain Tavern in Itaewon. Mike moved here 6 years ago from St. John's, Newfoundland; Tyler came over in 2002 from Whitehorse, Y.T. After making some obligatory jokes about coming to Seoul for the weather, we talked a bit about living and working in Seoul.

I'm still thinking about a lot of what they told me, but essentially they confirmed that Seoul is still all business, and hasn't really found its center. (Me: "It feels a lot like Cleveland." Tyler: "Yeah, I can totally see that.") They also pointed out that the first week of December doesn't really show the city at its best, and that I should return in March or October when it's not too hot or too cold.

So, still processing. I've got a 12-hour flight to Dallas this evening on which to ponder it. Before then, I'll have some more photos from Sunday, and I'll have explored Incheon International Airport to find out why it's called the best airport in the world.

The "headwaters" of Cheonggyecheon, the stream covered by a highway for 40 years before being rebuilt in 2005.

Bing Maps on Windows 8 #fail

I have an HTC Windows 8X phone. I work for a Microsoft Partner, so this seemed like a good idea at the time. After nearly a year, I can report that I am tired of this phone and want to go back to Android.

The one thing my phone does well is manage two Microsoft Exchange accounts. And it does Skydrive all right too. Those are Microsoft products, so Windows should handle them.

I find the touch-screen waaay too sensitive. It can't determine what letter I want more than half the time, and its auto-correct suggestions hardly ever make sense.

Bing, however, sucks ass, compared with Google. And there's no way to change the hyper-sensitive search button on the phone, which fires up Bing every time my thumb goes near the search icon. Sometimes when I'm trying to take a photo, or do something else that involves the phone not switching applications.

Bing Maps is even worse. I won't spend too much time on a rant when I could just show you.

Let me preface this by saying Seoul's WiFi situation is amazing. I have free WiFi nearly everywhere I go. Which is how I was able to run the following comparison.

Exhibit A, where the Bing Maps application thought I was this afternoon:

(Click for full-size image.)

Exhibit B, where Google Maps thought I was at the same moment:

Google wins.

Note that the Bing Maps application on my phone failed to produce a usable map; Bing Maps itself has the data. Here's what the Bing Maps website shows inside a browser window:

Attention, Microsoft: Having a nicely detailed map on my laptop does not help me when I'm in the middle of Gangnam. That's really exactly the moment that I want a good map.

Oh, and to add insult, Google Maps doesn't really work that well on the IE11 mobile browser. As in, it won't search unless you really make sure you touch exactly the right pixel on the screen.

My next phone? I'm going back to Android.

Getting in touch with the Seoul of things

(I promise, no more "Seoul" puns. Promise. Really. Swear.)

Yesterday I started my shpatziring at the Seoul Museum of History. Now, if you know about my love maps, you can imagine what happened when I walked into this room:

That is a 1:1500 scale model of the city. Every. Freaking. Building. With an electronic system that put a spotlight and a little CCTV camera on whatever point of interest you wanted to see.

(Aside: Would it have killed them to do the electronic interface in multiple languages? Sheesh. Every other public interface I've seen has English, Japanese, and Chinese translations. But not the super high-tech electronic touch-screen that controlled the lights on this model.)

After spending about half an hour poring over the model, I went through the rest of the museum's main collection. (Fortunately most of the descriptions were in English, and it turns out I could have picked up a translation earpiece that works off bar codes next to the exhibits.) I believe I now understand one of the chief reasons I haven't really connected to Seoul.

Throughout the museum, I got two big themes: first, until the 1970s, southern Korea was poorer than northern Korea. Second, Koreans hate their own history. I'll have more on the second part later today or tomorrow, other than to say it informs their architecture and urban planning hugely.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 15th August 1948. Had Korea reunified three years after V-J Day as the Allies originally planned, sparing the North the some of the worst economic and social mismanagement the world has ever seen, it's possible Seoul would be a sleepy capital city like Ottawa, with Pyongyang as the principal economic hub. Instead, North Korea invaded the South in 1950, and after this bloody civil war, millions of people poured into the city from all over the peninsula. Seoul went from 1.5 million people in 1949 to 10 million people in 1990. (Since 1990, its population has hovered around 11 million, which I'll get back to.)

The only major city in the U.S. to grow that fast in that period was Las Vegas, which had just 24,000 people in 1950 and 478,000 in 1990. And you know what? I don't connect with Las Vegas much, either.

See, Seoul had to build enough infrastructure and housing for its 8½ million new residents in just a couple of decades. Unfortunately for Seoul's architecture, those decades included the modernist-brutalist 1960s and 1970s, when evil fascist inhuman controversial figures like Le Corbusier stalked the halls of urban planning commissions. And Seoul had no Jane Jacobs.

You can see, if you look closely at that model, or if you even scope the Google Earth images of the city, what happened next. The history museum documents how the city government razed entire neighborhoods of traditional houses (like these) and replaced them with cheap high-rises. The Gangam district across the river popped up out of a swamp in 10 years' time.

Result: A sprawling city comprising almost entirely brutalist buildings from the 1970s and 1980s, with the occasional 21st-century structure thrown in. In fairness, it's not all bad; the Jonggak Tower, for example, is kind of cool:

Jonggak Tower, Seoul

Chicago also had a period of rapid growth, followed by massive urban renewal: from 1830 to 1870, Chicago's population grew two orders of magnitude, from 4,500 to 490,000. Then in 1871 most of the city burned to the ground, clearing all the shanties and wooden structures out. When we rebuilt, we did it with a pretty logical plan. And when we expanded six fold in six decades (1870 to 1930), we did so with essentially no geographic barriers in three directions and during a period in architecture when things were unavoidably human-scale. (Don't forget, though: Chicago built the first steel-framed skyscraper in 1884, and also built its share of ghastly, vertical Corbusian slums in the 1950s.)

In sum, Seoul's architecture makes me want to stay in my hotel room.* The city feels, it pains me to say, a little soulless.

There's a little glimmer of hope: the city's stability since the 1990s. Thanks to family planning programs and social pressure, the Korean population is more stable than it was before then, and Seoul's infrastructure has had time to catch up with its needs. People still prefer to live in cheap high-rises, but with a couple more decades of stability, the city might start sanding off its brutalist edges.

Look at Chicago again as an example. After a century of wild growth, Chicago's population stabilized around 3 million, declining a little in the 1980s but picking up again since 2000. Instead of building as fast as we can, we've spent about 60 years revising: tear down the crap we hate, preserve the stuff we like. Chicago has a large contingent of people like me, who will spend a lot to live in neighborhoods with hundred-year-old trees flanking hundred-year-old three-flats, and whose ideas about affordable housing don't amount to "round them up and stuff them in."

Seoul isn't there yet. They might never be; it's entirely possible that ten million Koreans really do like Corbusian modernism, and I'm postulating a difference of quality rather than a difference of taste.

There's a lot of great stuff in Seoul. It's a ridiculously easy place to live, it seems, as it's the most convenient and efficient city I've ever seen. (Sorry, Tokyo.) It's just not a place I'd want to live.

- 30 -

* A room, by the way, that overlooks the Seosemon Overpass, a structure similar to the part of Western Avenue that flies over Belmont in Chicago. The history museum specifically called out this 1968 structure as a model for the rest of Seoul. They liked the model so much they built dozens of raised highways right atop other highways, buildings, railroads, and even rivers, and then started removing them in the 1990s when the soul-crushing lack of walking spaces finally got to them. And so little do urban planners here think about history that only 50 years after covering up Cheonggye Stream, they rebuilt it from scratch because they couldn't find it again. Here's Cheonggyecheon today:

Riverview Park, DMZ Edition

Saturday's tour of Panmunjeom was surreal enough. But even before we got to the Joint Security Area, we stopped at Peace Land:

The clash of civilisations was never better dramatised than at Peace Land, in Imjingak, on the 38th Parallel. Here, the starving people of the world's nastiest dictatorship can look across the border at capitalism quite literally putting on a funfair. For the Southerners, of course, the North Koreans are the principal attraction.

Right alongside the Pirate Ship, the Wriggly Worm and all the other fantasy rides run the perfectly real electrified fences and watchtowers of the border. The organisers of the theme park provide special viewing platforms and free telescopes for visitors. A key attraction is a bombed-out steam locomotive, still standing on its original tracks in front of a blown-up railway bridge across the River Imjin marking the frontier.

In fact, this bombed-out locomotive:

And that blown-up railway bridge:

See that barbed wire? Understand, that's not part of the theme park. Those are a real, live, deadly anti-personnel defenses that the theme park incorporated into its exhibits.

This theme park, to say the least, confused me. So I asked our tour guide why they have a fun fair within sniper distance of North Korea. She said that when relations with North Korea improved in the 1990s and early 2000s, people would meet their North Korean families nearby, so they'd bring their children to Imjingak for a few days. So, in the midst of this reminder that the Korean War has never really ended, they built a bunch of rides the kids can enjoy.

This is one more piece of data in figuring out Seoul. Yesterday I got a lot more, which I'll lay out in a few minutes.

I hate organized tours, unless there's no other way

Yesterday I spent four minutes in North Korea. Proof:

That's inside the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) conference building, within the Joint Security Area near the village of Panmunjom. The line of microphones on the desk follows the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) dividing North and South Korea. To my left is South Korea; to my right is North Korea.

You have to take an organized tour to get to the JSA. Because, let's review: (a) it's an active war zone; (b) it's a diplomatic base with heavy military presence; and (c) you don't want to get kidnapped by the DPRK. (The tour I took cost $78 and included a delicious bulgogi lunch at a roadhouse outside Puja.)

Here's the first up-close-and-personal view of North Korea you get:

The blue building to the left is the MAC Conference Center from the photo above. The blue building to the right is another ROK-administered structure. Running between them, on the ground, you can see a raised concrete curb about 10cm tall. That is the MDL—the border with North Korea. Assuming you could get past the armed U.S. Army guys I decided not to photograph, and get past the ROK officer in the center, and the two beefy MPs on either side, you could make that border in just a few steps from where I was standing. Then you'd have a really difficult time getting back over it, and a harder time, whether or not they let you back in South Korea, staying out of jail on one side or the other.

It's surreal. The border is an abstract concept but two enormous armies make connect the abstraction to reality. A bunch of tourists, half of them Japanese, took an ordinary tour bus to a United Nations military base a few hundred meters from a hostile country, got a slide show about axe murders and not gesturing to or speaking with North Koreans, then got on a U.N. bus and drove—slowly—past mine fields, tank defenses, and rice paddies. (About 700 people live just outside the JSA, within the DMZ.)

Here's another chilling place, the Bridge of No Return:

Yeah, don't cross that bridge. You won't come back. Seriously.

Today I'm heading over to the Korean History Museum and possibly the War Memorial. I've been thinking a lot about Seoul and my reactions to the city. At first approximation, modern Seoul is defined by a war that hasn't ended.