Wednesday, October 27, 2004

I'm ready to get out of here.

Well, after almost 8 months in Korea (I got here March 3, 2004) I'm finally getting out of here! I've been packing my stuff up this week and will taking a flight from Seoul to Jakarta on Saturday morning.

It's really amazing how much stuff a person can accumulate over such a short time. I have bought a computer monitor and speakers (I brought my computer from the US without monitor or speakers), various movies, books etc. The stuff just kind of piles up. Thankfully Trisha took the lion's share of the stuff I wanted to keep, and I have a relatively light load (thanks Trisha!). She has been telling me mostly good things about Indonesia and it will be great to be with her again.

Seoul has been especially boring the last few days, all of the expats on the project are gone now except for me. I am the only English speaker left, which means I don't get to talk much. I don't want to buy a lot of groceries since I'm leaving and so I have been getting to go food for home a lot. It's wierd, but Koreans think you are a freak if you show up at a restarurant to eat alone, they just don't do it. On top of the solo meals and lack of conversation my super fast PC decided to take a dump on me and I lost the hard drive. Thankfully I keep my important documents on my laptop, but I couldn't play any of my cool games (crap!). It took me a couple of nights to rebuild the machine, but I pretty much have it sorted out and I just need to reinstall tons of software to get all back to normal.

It has finally sunk in with the client that, yes I am ACTUALLY leaving and won't be here to hold their hand. They are a little nervous I think, and they have been asking lots of questions etc. before I go, so I've been pretty busy. I expect the work to get even more intense in Indonesia, but I will keep posting here as much as possible.

I will probably write a final thoughts on Korea post soon, and I will be jazzed about posting about new experiences in Indonesia.

Monday, October 18, 2004

North Korea and Terrorism

After reading this article I must say the author makes one excellent point.

South Korea will pose a difficult operating environment for Islamic terrorist
groups, given the ethnic homogeneity of the country, as well as the strong
domestic security capability honed by decades of combating North Korean
infiltration and terrorist activity.


The other day when I was taking Trisha to the airport I noticed how tight security was and I noticed how used to it the South Koreans are. The Koreans are quite adept at mixing high profile security, with passive security. Let's face it, the North has provided a more credible (and closer) terrorist threat than some hillbillies from the Middle-East or Indonesia ever could.

During my time in Korea I have noticed how serious they are about security. The National Assembly building (the seat of government) is continuously guarded by at least a 100~200 person mix of soldiers and police, and this is just the visible portion. The area around the Youngsan military base (home of the U.S. 2nd Inf division) is constantly patrolled by high profile guards. There are massive amounts of passive security measures (fences, walls, etc.) around all major military and industrial sites. The Koreans have had 50 years to build this up.

However, the ethnic homogeneity in the quote above is probably the Koreans' strongest defense. Unlike the U.S., the Koreans do not have any qualms about racial profiling. While one can argue about the detriments of racial profiling, I am not going to discuss them here. If you are of Middle Eastern decent, male and young, expect to be questioned, searched, and generally scrutinized very carefully. The simple fact is that old red headed women from Scotland have not been flying airplanes into buildings or blowing up disco techs in Bali, and the Koreans simply do have the limitless resources of the U.S. to search everyone "equally". The lack of different races in Korea gives them a huge leg up in this department. They have to be smart about it, and they are.

The level of infrastructure security goes beyond anything we could hope for in the U.S. Every river has gaurd posts, and gates to close to prevent passage. The entire coast is manned with bunkers and search lights. The entire city of Seoul is filled with extraordinarily large subway stations built unessacirly deap so that they can double as bomb shelters. Even the capital building in Seoul is postioned on an island on the Han river in order to make it more defensible.

South Korea has also had their equivalent to the Patriot Act on their law books for decades. Their security act gives the government here extraordinary search and seizure powers to combat terrorism (be it from North Korea or Syria). Contrary to what many have said about the Patriot Act in the U.S., South Korea has not descended into a Naziesque police state but has instead emerged from a post-war military government to functional democracy. Their sensibly strong security measures have provided the stability they have needed to prosper instead of hiding under the bed in fear.

Though the U.S. could never (and probably should never) fortify itself to the level that the South Koreans have, we can take heart that the country providing the 3rd largest military contingent in Iraq more prepared to combat terrorism that the U.S. or the U.K. are, or will likely ever be.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Trisha: Blazing a trail to Indonesia

Well this last Saturday Trisha left for Indonesia. As the military folks say, she has escaped the ROK (Republic of Korea). I'll be joining her in about 3 weeks.

It's amazing how much stuff you accumulate while living somewhere even for a few months. Trisha checked 3 huge suitcases and 2 boxes full of stuff. She was flying Korean Air and we found out that their baggage system works a little differently than in the States. In the States you normally can check 2 bags for free and pay for each additional bag. Korean Air doesn't care about number of bags, they care about weight (which is really a more logical system). She was able to check 20kg for free and had to pay 13,000 won for each additional kilo. Well, she wasn't exactly packing light and her grand total turned out to be 103kg. So we were on the hook for 83kg. That works out 1,079,000 won or about 938 USD. Apparently the ticket agent felt bad (maybe it was my rugged good looks), but she gave us a bit of a discount and only charged us for 70kg (only about $791). Yikes. Oh well, thankfully someone else picks up the tab.

The disturbing part of the whole luggage transaction was that when Trisha went to put it on her Amex it was declined and reported as stolen. This rattled Trisha a little, not a good way to start out a trip to a place like Indonesia. I put the bill on my Amex, but we'll have to look into the card issue.

We'll be living and working in a area called Lippo Karawaci (this site is only partially English) which is about 30k outside of Jakarta. We'll be setup in a very secure setting and won't ever have to go into the city unless we want to. We'll have a driver when we need one which I don't think will be very often, and the recent terror troubles have been far away from where we will be. I'm not too worried about it. The crazy cab drivers in Seoul scare me far more.

I haven't been able to talk with Trisha yet so I don't know how it's going for her. She left me a voice mail on Sunday and apparently she has a cell phone number there (I gave her my tri-band GSM phone to use there), but every time I try to call I get some crappy "All circuits are busy" message. Crap! So hopefully I'll be able to post some more detailed Indonesia stuff from her soon. I'm cautiously optimistic about life over there.

It was sad to say goodbye to her (I keep telling myself it's only for 3 weeks), but she was happy to leave and move onto new things. It sure will be quiet at the casa for a while.

UPDATE: Right as I was about to publish this I got a message from Trisha! She had given me the wrong cell phone number. Crap! Any way, she say it's great there. No problems getting there, the living arragements are superb. That's a big weight off of my shoulders. She said life there looks like it's going to be much easier than here in Korea. I'll write about the details when I get there.

Namdaemun Market

So last weekend Trisha wanted to visit Namdaemun market in central Seoul. This market is a simple open air market that is full of thousands of tiny shops that sell virtually everything.

From imported American brand foods like this.


To this, with a bit more local flair.


That right, fresh octopus (click the pictures for a bigger view). The Koreans love it, this isn't some wholesale market. Housewives come here and buy this for dinner. "Oh honey this is our last tentacle can you run to the store and get some more" Of course there is the obligatory squid and dried fish for sale.

There is also quite a market for imported American goods. It's mostly things like peanuts, Quaker Oats, assorted Cereal and booze. You can even get deodorant here, you can't even get that at the major retail stores in Seoul (they should advertise that more to attract foreigners). There is also some basic over the counter drugs that you see back home, Advil, Pepto, etc. (probably not 100% legal here but who cares). I REALLY wish I would have known about this place when I first got to Korea, it makes life a lot easier when you can get a few familiar things. At least in Australia I could find the same products under a different name, here no such luck. Either it's imported American stuff or "What the hell is this" Korean stuff. I hope Indonesia will be a little more consumer friendly.

The Koreans love to specialize in stores. The shops are tiny and there are thousands of them in this market so specialization is essential for survival. You will see a store that sells nothing but Kimchi spice right next to a store that sell nothing but tape. That right, tape. All kinds of tape, Duct tape, welding tape (if you know what that is), colored tape you name it. If you ever need tape in Seoul I know the place. Honestly, I don't know how some of these smaller shops (like tape guy) stay in business. There is never anyone there. There were also a lot of people selling U.S. army gear. Like the Army/Navy stores back in the States. Unlike the Army/Navy stores though, I think most of this stuff REALLY does come from the Military since it has the normal "NOT FOR COMMERCIAL SALE" label on it. I have a feeling a lot of the military stuff "fell of the back of the truck" if you know what I mean. Not that it matters, the Koreans can't read the label and don't care anyway.

As we were getting ready to leave, one last thing struck me. Here is this place with thousands of little shops full of clothes on very narrow alleys, a lot of the shop owners have little camp stoves for cooking their lunch. Now I'm no fire marshal but I know I bad idea when I see it. If this place ever caught on fire there would be literally tons of fuel (clothes/old buildings) to burn and no way that a fire truck could ever get down the narrow alleys. That’s what you get with 700 hundred year old cities I guess.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Been Busy

Work has been busy the last couple of days and my girlfriend is getting ready to head to Indonesia tomorrow (and I've been fooling with my new PC of course) so I haven't had a chance to post all of the things I want to. I'll get everything updated this weekend though.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Finally finished my PC

This is the geeky post I promised about my new computer.

I've been trying to upgrade my home PC for awhile, but I hate negotiating with the Korean sellers of computer stuff. There are no stores like CompUSA or Best Buy in Korea. All of the electronics stores are these tiny little shops. Most of the shops are part of a larger warehouse type store that sell there products on their own and pay a percentage to the building owner. The two largest places are Technomart and YongSan electronics market. They always quote you some outrageous price (usually about 30% too high) and then you are expected to haggle back and forth. What a waste of time!

Since I didn't want to deal with all of the haggling/non-English speaking Korean computer shops I decided to order everything off Pricewatch.com. This site is the absolute cheapest place to buy computer components anywhere. The only problem is that few, if any, of the vendors on Pricewatch will ship overseas. So I had to time the ordering with my next trip home (I fly back to Texas for a visit every couple of months). I planned to ship the stuff to my father's house and pick it up, no problem. Perfect plans never seem to go perfectly. One day before I get home to the U.S. one of the vendors I ordered from 2 weeks prior said the motherboard was backordered and they didn't know when they would get it (why the hell didn't they tell me that when I placed the order). So now I was stuck, I only had a few days in the U.S. and I didn't have time to order the motherboard again. I decided to go to Fry's and just try and buy one. I bought a motherboard on the way to my friend's house one afternoon and didn't give it a second thought. The CPU and video card I ordered arrived just fine.

Once again, my perfect plan didn't go perfectly. Stupid me did not inspect the motherboard very closely when I bought and I just assumed that my genius self would never buy the wrong motherboard. Well I did. Not only did I get back to Korea with a motherboard that wouldn't fit my new CPU but the type I needed is not even available in Korea yet. Apparently Korea is a little behind the times when it comes to personal computers. My CPU is one of AMD's new 64 bit Athlon 3800 chips that uses a socket 939 motherboard (told you this would be geeky). I accidently purchased a socket 754 motherboard (it's the generation right before 939, it's close but not quite right). I spent days looking around Seoul for ANY socket 939 motherboard and as of the writing of this post a socket 939 board cannot be found anywhere in Seoul.

So I'm sitting here with $1000 dollars worth of AMD 6800 chip and a Geforce 6800 256MB video card and no motherboard to use them with. I couldn't stand it! So I head over to eBay on the net and start shopping for the motherboard I want, the ASUS AV8 deluxe. I found a guy in Canada that would be willing to ship overseas, thought the board was going to be $150US plus $50US in shipping. Not to mention the $150 I had already spent on the board that is useless to me! I bit the bullet and bought the motherboard, a week later it shows up but I had to pay 50,000 won (about $50US) in taxes just to pick it up at a post office all the way across Seoul (another $10 in cabs). So overall I have $400 tied up in a motherboard that should have been only $150. Even after that, finding a CPU fan (which I also forgot to buy in the U.S.) took me forever to find in Korea. Oh well, it was my own damn fault.

Anyway, I'm happy to say it all works now. My computer has got to be one of the fastest in Korea. It only took me a friggin month from start to finish and a round trip to the U.S. from Korea.

Here is the break down of the specs.

Monitor - 19" Samsung LCD monitor.
CPU - AMD 64 3800
Video Card - GeForce 6800 GT
Motherboard - ASUS AV8 deluxe
Memory - 1Gig. of PC3200 DDR
Hard Drive - 2 SeaGate serial ATA 80G drives in a Raid-0 config.
Etc. - DVD burner, CD Burner, and standard DVD drive (3 drives total).

I have been playing every game I can get my hands. Doom3, FarCry, HL2, (beta), Lock-On you name it and this machine is running everything maxed out on graphics at great speed. I know it'll be obsolete in 6 months but for now, it's the bees knees!

UPDATE: I just wanted to add that the reason I build my own computer is purely financial reasons. I don't particullary enjoy battleing with assembling the thing, but an equivalent machine on the retail market would cost anywhere from 3-4000 dollars. The best sight to look at high end retail machines is www.alienware.com. If I were ever to buy a prebuilt PC it would be from those guys.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Korean Thanksgiving

So I haven't made an update for a few days. I've been slacking off due to the Korean Thanksgiving holiday. They call it Chuseok (pronounced "Chew-Suck" thanks Shawn for the prounciation tip) and we had 5 days off.

This is their biggest holiday of the year (Chinese new year would be number 2) and everyone leaves Seoul to head out to the country. The city was actually very peaceful during the days off and you could travel across the city without hitting the 24 hour traffic jam. It's also funny that they give each other little gifts like this.

Click on it for a bigger picture. Yes, it's Spam and Tuna, what a thoughtful gift!

Trisha and I mostly took the time to relax at home and visit some of the parks around Seoul. We visited the Han River park (this is the main river through Seoul) and just walked around and people watched (I took some pictures but the camera was acting goofy and didn't save them). Korean people love to be outside and simply sit and enjoy life, they will sit under a bridge in a parking lot, anywhere. I think this mostly comes from the fact that almost all of the people in Seoul live in teeny tiny apartments in these huge apartment blocks that have a Soviet era feel to them. They are concrete, pre-fab slab slided looking boxes with thousands of people living in each one. Everyone was out sitting on blankets having a picnic. For the most part the adults were sitting in family groups drinking Soju (a cheep Korean vodka) and the kids were running around playing. There was something very charming about the scene. Since there is virtually no crime in Seoul parents don't worry about their kids very much. By late afternoon many people had drank a little too much Soju and there was a lot of alcohol powered singing and dancing (Korea doesn't have much in the way of laws about public consumption of booze).

The next day we rented a tandem bike and headed out for Olympic park (this is where the Seou Olympics were held back in '88), it's about a 40k round trip. There is a great bike trail that meanders along the river with lots of little snack shops and parks along the way. We did some more people watching but I can't help but feel that people were watching us. Many Koreans still seem fascinated by foriegners (there aren't many around) and they simply stare at you as you pass by (our running joke is "yeah, they let us out of our cage today"). I lost count of how many people on roller blades or bikes almost crashed staring at us. They especially stare at Trisha since there are even fewer foriegn women around than men. The little kids always look at us and shout "Way-gook" (forienger) and point. A few of the braver children will try and talk with us since they think it's silly and fun to practice some of the English they all learn in school. The funniest part was Trisha just had to go to the bathroom during our trip and was forced to use one of these "NO WAY" toilets. Now her trip to Korea is complete.

The last day we went to Yeoido park; not much to say about it really. There were a few nice ponds, more people watching, more people staring at us etc.

Other than the parks we didn't do much, we drank, we relaxed, we watched "The Bridges at Toko-Ri", and yadda yadda yadda.... (Bridges is an old movie that takes place during the Korean war, pretty cheesy but it does have some good flying scenes with old Navy F8Fs).

We also went to the Benihanas in Apgujeong. It's pretty much the same as back home except of course they serve Kimchi, the portions are smaller, and it's more expensive.

Here is our chef.

I also finally finished building my new computer!! That's a different post though. The geeky-ness on that post will be at 9.9


Friday, September 24, 2004

North Korea

I have this strange fascination with North Korea. It's like a train wreck and I just can't look away. I feel like I need to know everything I can about it.

This North Korean subway guide book is too funny. It's too bad Americans can't visit.

People in North Korea have to wear a "dear leader" pin over there heart and 1912 (the year their dear leader was born) is considered year 1 on their calendar, and I thought Las Vegas defied all logic, N. Korea is 10 times worse.

North Korea has been in the news a lot lately due to their pursuit of Nuclear weapons. The South Koreans are pretty dismissive of the North (much more so than the Japanese or Americans are). They treat North Korea like a loud dog in the neighbor's back yard, after enough time you just kind of tune the noise out.

Is North Korea developing nuclear weapons? Probably. Would they ever use them? Probably not. Like the U.S.S.R. before them, the North knows that if they nuked anyone they would, in effect, be nuking themselves. No matter what else happened the North Korean leadership would not survive the conflict, and like all ruthless police states, the leadership is concerned with its own survival above all else. For now, the North Korean government has something to lose and they won't try anything stupid. The dangerous point will be when they realize that the ride is over and their system is getting ready collapse in on itself. They won't be able to count on the Chinese or Russians to bail them out this time (the Chinese saved their bacon in the 50's) and who knows what crazy thing they might do. Hopefully the collapse will come in the form of a relatively peaceful coup (like Russia did) and saner leadership takes over. If that doesn't happen, well, I'm glad I'll be in Indonesia soon and out of the line of fire.

This is another good link about North Korea.

Update: I didn't even mention the fact that Japan and the U.S. are concerned that N. Korea is getting ready to test another ballistic missile like they did back in 1998 when they sailed one over Japan. At least back during the cold war the Russians understood the rules of the game, they would have never tried anything so foolish. Stuff like this makes the North look all the more desperate and dangerous. Maybe the South Koreans are a little too dismissive of all this saber rattling.